Slippery Slope : In postcards and TV commercials, cross-country skiing is a thing of beauty. Up close, it takes some doing.

free-lance writer

Ah, yes. Solitude. Serenity. Sun-spackled snow. The ground coming up rapidly to meet you.

Cross-country skiing, as seen in postcards and TV commercials for retirement villages, is depicted as a thing of beauty; lone figures or intimate groups cheerily schussing through a sea of pine. The implications are clear: Everyone loves this. Anyone can do this. Even you.

Intrigued and bolstered by these images, you decide to give cross-country skiing a try. Friends have been harping for years about skiing.

Then a series of winter storms dumps several feet of snow in the local mountains. You and the wife call the harpers. They are game. But you have a few questions--namely on how to stay warm. No problem, they say. You'll find yourselves peeling off clothes like newlyweds, they say. This is beginning to sound promising.

Early the next morning you and the others pack up the truck and make the 90-minute drive to Mt. Pinos, a dollop of winter wonderland tucked in the northeast corner of Ventura County.

Your group proceeds directly to the place all ski trips begin for novices--the rental shop. There you make the first pleasant discovery: There is no line.

Skis, boots and poles are $6 for the day. Now you are ready, except for one thing: You don't know what to do.

You look to the man behind the counter. In a slow, obtuse man-of-the-mountain way he sizes you up before saying: "Point 'em up or point 'em down." You assume he means the skis. Then he hands you a pair of skis that stretch from here to eternity. You catch the tips in the doorjamb as you leave the shop.

You drive to the Chuchupate ranger station in the shadow of Frazier Mountain. For the next 20 minutes, you shuffle clothes and equipment. Your wife and friends have warm, dry things that match. You--who have spent your life trying to stay warm and dry--pull a pair of rain pants over your jeans. On go the boots. You clip yourself into the skis. So far, things are going great.

You shuffle onto the trail, which immediately begins to rise. Your skis begin to slide backward and you fall in the same direction. But your skis, still attached to your feet and try to go on ahead. You sit back down. There you stay, rolling around on the trail, six feet of skis slicing through the air in their search for a position that will get you on your feet.

If there is an easy way to stand after falling in skis, you would like to know, since it clearly doesn't involve the use of your legs. You thrash about in the snow until the skis are positioned by your side, then plant the ski poles in the snow and crawl up them. You consider taking the skis off, but you have already discovered that the skis never seem to come off of their own accord. In fact, they cling to you no matter how vicious the fall.

And fall you do. And fall, and fall. You fall sideways. You pitch forward. You fall backward. No matter what position you land in, you are forced to wobble up drunkenly on the ski poles.

But all is not groveling in the snow. In fact, cross-country skiing turns out to be easier than you expected, especially if you stick to well-groomed and fairly level trails. If you can walk, you discover, you can cross-country ski. The only difference is, instead of lifting your feet you shuffle them just like your mother always told you not to do. The snow squeaks beneath you like Styrofoam. Puffy white clouds roll past. You make two forays, breaking for lunch in between. The first is off the groomed trails, through thickets. The snow is dry and soft. You slice through it like a kid carving his initials in wet concrete. You come upon hills too steep to descend. But you have to and proceed to fall your way down them.

After lunch you decide to stick to the main trail. Up, up, up you go. You have learned how to negotiate climbs confidently, if not with expertise. The trail switchbacks up the mountain. It is not steep, but it rises quickly enough so that with each bend you are treated to an increasingly breathtaking panorama.

You go up several miles, then descend. On the way down you mark each bend with a fall. Still you bounce to your feet more quickly now. Halfway down the hill, you move through a canopy of pines. The trail here is level. You schuss along, chatting merrily. With just a bit more practice, you think, you'll look as smooth as those folks in the ad for the retirement village.


There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter. If you want to tell the Novice where to go, please call us at 658-5547. If we use your idea, we'll send you a present. This week's Reluctant Novice is free-lance writer Ken McAlpine.

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