A fool tries to ski
a grave miscalculation I once made in the Swiss Alps
Boy, do I love being a big dumb idiot. I truly love being a stupid bitch who makes life-ruining decisions on the regular. It is fun, for me.
It’s snowing here in New York, and I’m reminded of one of the worst decisions I ever made. It’s a funny story in retrospect, but it was extremely not funny at the time!!
In the spring semester of 2012, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy. We arrived in January and spent two weeks on an intensive pre-session language course where we learned a semester’s worth of Italian while fighting jet lag, then began our actual semester immediately. By the end of January, we were all ready for a real trip.
My roommates heard that some of our classmates were booking a bus ride to Switzerland to ski in the Alps. It sounded wildly impressive, but also difficult. I’m from Florida and my family never took vacations, so I knew nothing about skiing. I’m also not remotely athletic, so it didn’t seem like something I could pick up easily. “You’ll pick it up,” said my friends. “I’m not even that good,” said my roommate. Everyone was wrong, mostly me.
I’m a very risk-averse person, but I’d told myself that studying abroad was all about taking risks and expanding my horizons. This was the new me, a European Allison who seized opportunities to learn and grow. I could speak Italian and try new foods and ski the Swiss Alps! I was an enviable expat, living a thrilling new life. I bought a bus ticket to the Alps. Like a big stupid idiot.
It started out so lovely! Our hostel was adorable. The ski rentals shop was right next door. We spent Friday walking around town, enjoying the gorgeous scenery, and going ice-skating at a rink we came across. I was handling Switzerland well. And then came Saturday, when we boarded the bus to the slopes.
I think that our fatal mistake went down on the bus. I think that there was a mixup in which stop was ours. The bus-driver spoke Swiss-German but not much English, and I think that’s how we ended up on the advanced slopes of the Swiss Alps.
I was so positive in the beginning. I was ready to learn a new skill. I did not. The slopes were so steep and slick. My friends with skiing experience kindly said that it was difficult for them, too, which might be the case. But they were actually skiing, which was the difference between me and them. I just kept falling. I could not ski.
Obviously I tried. I just kept getting up and skiing a foot or two, then falling. At one point I made it a decent distance, and my friend Melissa snapped a picture of my triumph. It was the last time I’d properly ski all day.
Imagine that you tag along with a group on an eight-hour bus ride from Italy to Switzerland for a day of skiing in the Alps, but once you get to said Alps, you keep falling on your face every time you get up on your skis. Imagine your friends’ concerned faces as you fall over and over. Imagine your skiing instructor’s frustration. Imagine the indignity of Swiss toddlers whizzing past you on their skis, because they’ve been hitting the slopes since they exited the womb, while you, a simple Floridian yokel, keep tipping over into the snow banks. Imagine your friends attempting to ski slowly enough for you to keep up, which is impossible because you can’t ski even at all. And imagine that there is no way out but down.
I was overwhelmed, if that’s not clear. There was no way for me to ski. It wasn’t going to happen. I told my friends to go on without me. My skis eventually broke off my shoes and wouldn’t go back on so I had to walk down the entire slope myself, carrying my skis, crying.
I got to the bottom, shins bloody from hiking in sturdy ski boots that aren’t intended for walking, and I thought that my suffering had come to an end. We’d take the lift up to the restaurant and eat lunch, and then I’d take a lift down to the bus and return to the hostel. Skiing had defeated me, but at least the battle was over. Guess who was wrong again? This idiot!!
We boarded a lift to the top of the next mountain, thinking it would take us to the restaurant. We’d taken a gondola up the first time, which is very different. You’re encased in a gondola. You’re protected. That’s not the case with a ski lift, in which your legs dangle like you’re on a roller coaster. You’re only protected by a little bar in front of you, which I did not expect to pop up as you get to the top. I am terrified of heights, and my nerves were already shot. I started having a panic attack.
The dumb thing about anxiety is that it makes you freak out, and then it makes you feel bad for freaking out. I’d already ruined the day with my incompetence, and now I was ruining it more by having feelings!
The lift didn’t take us to the restaurant, by the way. It took us to another slope. We could ski down this one to reach the lift up the restaurant. I tried to ski and I tried to breathe normally. I failed at both attempts, crashing into a pile of snow right past the lift drop-off. I was useless. My friends stood by awkwardly as I sat in the snow, crying like a child. Actual children continued to zip past me with skill and grace. And then a man appeared, a real one and not a hallucination, no matter how much it felt like it at the time.
“Are you injured?” said the kind old Swiss man, crouching down to speak to me as I sat defeated on the ground. His grandchildren and daughter called for him in exasperation, but he waved them off. I was embarrassed to get even more attention. “No, I’m not injured,” I sniffed. “Then why do you cry?” he asked.
At this point, I assumed he was some spirit of the Swiss Alps who had materialized to help me in my time of need. I tried babbling something about my plight, and he stopped me, smiling. “You are not injured. You are alive. You are okay.” It felt overwhelmingly profound. Perhaps this man was actually Jesus.
I stopped crying and old Swiss Jesus helped me up, then skied away with his family. My panic attack had passed. I still couldn’t ski, though.
I was starving and hurt and frustrated and my Burt’s Bees had fallen out of my pocket during one of my many crashes. And my only choice was to walk some more, all the way to the restaurant — down one steep hill and up a steeper one.
I told my friends to go on without me, unable to bear the idea of dragging them with me in my miserable trek, but my friend Courtney volunteered to join me. She was unfailingly positive for some reason. She found the entire thing amusing, which was a blessing. The first hill was too steep to walk down, so we had to slide on our butts, dragging our skis. It was pathetic. Courtney just pointed out the beautiful scenery and suggested we pose for pictures. In some of them, you can barely tell how much I’d been crying.
We slid down, then hiked up. I’m anemic, so by the time we reached the restaurant, I was on the verge of fainting. My vision was blurry and almost entirely gone, blackness closing in from all sides. “Look at this view!” Courtney said, triumphantly. “I think I’m gonna pass out,” I gasped, grabbing her so she could guide me to a bench.
Once inside, I ignored the restaurant’s exorbitant prices and ordered a plate of spaghetti in creamy mushroom sauce. Probably because I was on the verge of death, it was the best thing I’d ever eaten. I felt revitalized. My ordeal was actually almost over, I thought, wrongly, again, like a dumbass.
We could take a sturdy gondola down instead of an upsetting lift, and we took a bus to the train station back into town. Things were going fine. I’d heard that the train ride would be free with a lift ticket, so I asked an employee at the train station to confirm, showing her my ticket. She said yes. We boarded the train. My shins were still bleeding. My entire body was sore. And when the ticket taker asked for my lift ticket, it was nowhere to be found.
I guess it had fallen out at the station. He said I’d need to buy a ticket for 15.50 francs. I only had 5. Courtney found an old lift ticket that someone had left in the pocket of her rented ski coat, but the man wouldn’t accept it. I burst into tears again, eventually crying so hard that the ticket taker took my 5 francs and told me not to worry about the rest.
We arrived in Interlaken and found that the train station was nowhere near the hostel. Our options were walking in our awful, heavy plastic ski boots with skis in our hands or taking the bus. The ticket taker suggested we take a bus — “it’s pretty cheap,” he said — but cheap is different than free, and I still had NO MONEY. Before I could have another panic attack, Courtney determined that there was a free bus we could take. When returning our skis, the rental place wouldn’t give me back my security deposit without my lift ticket, but Courtney produced the crumpled-up one she’d found in her pocket and got me my money back. Perhaps Courtney is actually Jesus, or at the very least an angel.
That night, my friends went to a club and I lay huddled under a blanket in my bunk in the hostel, trying to forget the entire experience but knowing that I never would. In the end, I learned that confidence is a mistake and you should know your limitations. My review of skiing is that it’s bad and you shouldn’t do it. Switzerland is really pretty, though!!
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