Kenneth Burns: The slopes are calling, but am I listening?

Feb. 08, 2014 @ 11:23 PM

I’ve got skiing on the brain. Can you blame me?

There are good reports out of Ober Gatlinburg, where the skiing started earlier than usual this season.

And, of course, the Winter Olympics are underway. I’m an Olympics nut, and I enjoy watching all the winter events, from figure skating to curling to skeleton – which, it turns out, doesn’t involve a real skeleton, except that everyone involved presumably has a skeleton. As does most everybody watching at home.

I also enjoy the newer, rowdier events, like snowboarding, even though I am distracted by snowboarding announcers. They sound like the surfer Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Just once I’d like to hear legendary football announcer Keith Jackson on a halfpipe broadcast. “The double McTwist 1260! Woah nellie!”

But for me, the premiere Winter Olympics event is still downhill skiing. Those athletes look majestic as they speed down the mountain.

Remarkably, there were no downhill skiing events in the first Winter Olympics, in 1924. There was curling, however, and curling enthusiasts can feel good about that.

When I watch downhill skiing in the Olympics, I think about my own experiences on the slopes. I’ll never forget my first time out there.

It was at Ober Gatlinburg in 1984. I was 13.

My church youth group in Nashville had journeyed to Sevier County for a ski getaway. I had never skied before.

I declined the recommended lessons. That was a mistake.

It was a stunning winter day. The sun beamed down, and the snow glittered. I attached the rented planks of semi-rigid material to my feet, settled onto a lift chair and made my way up.

Then I stood on top of the mountain.

I remembered something someone said about the snowplow position. That’s where you moderate your speed by forming a V with your skies. I figured that for starters, I would snowplow down the hill and explore nuances later.

So down I went.

At top speed.

The snowplow plan didn’t work out. I should have practiced on a beginner slope first.

It was an exhilarating trip. I went faster and faster. I flailed my arms in every direction.

Later in my skiing career, much later, I learned how to gently schuss down a ski slope. It’s a pleasant way to pass the time.

There was no gentle schussing on this run.

As I neared the bottom, I realized I was going to need to stop, somehow. Later in my skiing career, much later, I learned how to stop short by kicking my skis to one side. It’s a graceful move that produces an appealing splash of snow.

There were no graceful moves on this run.

At the very last moment, I did what I had to do. I stopped by throwing myself to the ground.

I wound up in a heap in front of an older gentleman. He looked at me. Then he turned to his friend and said, with contempt: “Hot doggers.”

My skiing continued into high school, and college. It was a fun way to spend time with friends.

I returned to Ober Gatlinburg, and I visited other hills within driving distance of Nashville, like Paoli Peaks in Indiana. Gradually my form improved.

I spent a small fortune on ski equipment – skis, boots, poles, clothes. Lip balm. No helmet, though.

I made a couple of ski trips to Colorado. They were wonderful. Smaller hills like Ober have their pleasures, but you can’t beat the Rockies. Skiing on bigger mountains means you spend a lot less time waiting for the lift.

Then I gradually lost interest. For a few reasons.

One is that skiing is an expensive hobby. Also, it’s inconvenient. It almost always involves travel.

And I’m more risk-averse than I was in my 20s. These days, when I think about skiing, I think about the sport’s famous casualties. Sonny Bono. Michael Kennedy. Just a few weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel broke her pelvis in a ski accident.

On my last ski trip, 15 years ago, my friend hit her head on a lift and probably suffered a concussion. It took her a long time to recover.

Still, when I watch the Olympics, I am reminded that skiing can be glorious fun.

I’ll probably hit the slopes again, one day.

I will wear a helmet.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send e-mail to