These Mitts Climbed Mount Mansfield

March 6th, 2014  Posted at   Writing

These Mitts Climbed Mount Mansfield

By Leslie Bamford

Remember in the 50s and 60s, when people went on vacation and put bumper stickers on their cars and vans?  Often they said something like “This car climbed Mount Washington” or “This van visited Ausable Canyon”.  I remember wishing I had a sticker like that, until I finally put one on my car and could never get it off when it no longer seemed trendy to announce to the world that my car had climbed Toll Road on the mountain at Stowe, Vermont.  Still the message lingers in my head, and I find it going round and round today as I prepare to retire my Kombi Gortex ski mitts.  Not sure what their retirement destination is yet, but not to the Goodwill or the garbage, as I just can’t bring myself to discard them.  They are old now, not sure how old in mitten years, but old enough to have lost their youthful insulation as I discovered at the dog park the other day, when frostbite nearly set into both my thumbs in the freezing temperatures while my new dog, Merlin, roared around happily with a huge Bull Mastiff, oblivious to the fact that his mistress was about to need a visit to Emerg if he didn’t do just that – emerge from the park and return to the warmth of the car.

I am trying to remember when I bought my ski mitts, but being at the age of forgetfulness, I can’t recall exactly. I can estimate that it was in the mid-80s, when I took up skiing again after the divorce from my non-skiing first husband came through.  I was determined to make up for lost time on the slopes – seventeen years of prime skiing time lost, to be exact, due to my philosophy that in a good marriage, couples do things together.  We did, but it didn’t work anyway.  So I headed back to the slopes, complete with new skis, new boots and new clothes.  The mitts came along at the same time.  Making them at least 28 years old now.  I guess they can be forgiven for not keeping me warm like they used to do.

I equate the wearing of the Kombi mitts with the pure joy of skiing.  They went with me on many amazing trips and adventures.  So I am going to make a sign and tie it to them, saying “These Mitts Climbed Mount Mansfield”, “These Mitts Skied Whistler”, “These Mitts Went to Jay Peak” and “These Mitts Survived 7th Heaven at Blackcomb”.  I am going to hang them up in on the laundry room wall, so I see them every week when I do laundry, so I don’t forget.  It is too easy to forget the good times, in this age of living in the moment – which is all well and good, but we are the sum of our experiences, after all, and they need to be honoured.

Learning new skills has always been hard for me.  I am a slow starter, and nervous when I don’t know how to do something, which gets in the way of my natural ability. If you picture a group of kids on a dock lined up to jump into an inviting lake, I’ll be the last one into the water.  I may be the last one out of the water later, but getting in is a challenge for me.  I am the product of an anxious mother who worried about everything and an uneasy childhood with two volatile parents. Was I born nervous about new things, or is this a learned response? I can’t answer that question. I just have to live with the fact that learning new skills never comes easily for me.

Skiing was no exception. In fact, learning to ski as a teenager was literally a mountain to climb. My nerves got the best of me, at first.  I fell off every type of ski lift known to man.  Once I got past that stage, I was badly injured in a ski accident and required knee surgery for torn ligaments at the age of 17.  I was scared of heights, scared of falling, scared of going too fast, scared of being cold. Exactly why did I go skiing? There was a part of me that was drawn to it despite all my fear.  It was glamorous. It was trendy.  I lived in Quebec.  Everyone loves skiing in Quebec. My older sister skied and I always wanted to do what she did.  And there were boys. You could meet them on a chairlift (if you didn’t fall off and humiliate yourself) and sometimes get to know a cute one, and even go on a date.  And so I persevered.  Got past my awkwardness.  Mastered the poma lift, the rope tow, the t-bar, the chairlift. Went to the Laurentians, to Mont Tremblant and Stowe, Vermont. Took lessons.  Got past the snowplow, learned to do the Stem Christie. I was proud of myself, but more importantly, I fell in love with the thrill of skiing down a hill in the bright winter sun, over crisp snow, hurtling downward but always staying in control, well, almost always.  Skiing was a numinous experience, at least on a nice day. It gave me a sense of freedom from the normal pull of gravity, it made me feel light, and sleek, and graceful, like an otter might feel diving into the water.  In fact it was the closest thing to the freedom of diving into a pool that I had ever felt, something else I really like to do. Skiing was also a daunting experience in bad weather, and I skied in plenty of it, as all skiers do.  I am not sure what kind of mitts I wore in the 60s, learning to ski, but I know they weren’t Gortex or well insulated, as I frequently was nearly frost-bitten.

When I was single again in the mid-eighties and decided to take back to the slopes, I took to the local ski area here in town. My new mitts didn’t bring me luck on my first day back on the hills in years.  I was blindsided by a huge teenage boy who must have weighed 225 pounds. I never saw him coming, and he was really flying. Our heads connected (no helmets in those days), and I fell in a heap, skis off, poles off, hat off.  I was disoriented, and nauseous.  Now I realize I had a concussion, but at the time, I just kept skiing.  The wooziness wore off later.  The humongous bruises on my leg took longer.

I decided to get more serious about safety on the slopes after that, so I booked a week of ski lessons in Vermont at Mount Mansfield, and I went alone.  Just me, my gear, and my mitts, with a dash of courage thrown in, as doing something like that alone was a big step for me.  I stayed in a ski lodge on the mountain road, in the oddest little room on the second floor of the wood frame building. My iron single bed with its thin mattress was far from cushy, but it had clean sheets and though the room was tiny, it was cozy.  Besides, what skier stays in her room after a day on the slopes. There was happy hour in the common area, with people to meet.  I had a good time there, and the week of lessons made an amazing shift in my capabilities.  My mitts and I turned a corner, so to speak, on the last day of lessons when, by some happy twist of fate, I was the only one in the class who showed up, so I got a whole day with my own personal instructor, a young woman who finally realized what I was not doing correctly, and fixed my problem.  Presto, solid intermediate skier by the end of the week.  When my current boyfriend, who was Dutch, came to meet me for the weekend, he was impressed. I was so proud, since impressing a Dutch person doing winter sports was nearly impossible, as he was an expert skier and good at everything. It was a high point in my skiing career. I had made it from an awkward girl falling off lifts to a competent woman skiing difficult trails at Stowe, Vermont.  And my mitts were there for every parallel turn.

When the Dutch boyfriend didn’t last, I packed my mitts and took off for BC, meeting a girlfriend in Whistler for a week of skiing.  My Vermont lessons made this possible. I was able to confidently ski the intermediate hills of both Whistler and Blackcomb, something I had dreamed of doing all my life.  It was a “bucket list” moment, and my mitts kept me warm and toasty the whole time.

The mitts also went with me to Jay Peak one day the next year, again alone, driving down from the Eastern Townships without my skiing girlfriend, who couldn’t go at the last minute.  That day the mitts and I crossed the border, found our way on back roads to entirely new territory, got a ski trail map of a large, new ski area, and hit the slopes without concern for getting lost or getting hurt which would have been complicated being alone – when I think about it now, I am amazed.  Learning to ski had given me confidence as a person. I knew I could negotiate my way there and back again. And I did. I even rode in an aerial tram for the first time, thumbing my nose (in the mitts) to my fear of heights.

In 1989, I met a new man named Bob. He was a solid intermediate skier. What a joy it was to finally have a long-term partner who skied. The mitts and I went happily off with him to Stowe and re-discovered the trails of my youth. We climbed the mountain via chairlifts and cable cars. We skied trails with names like Lord, Tyro, and Gondolier. We even skied down Nosedive, which as you can tell by the name, is no easy feat.  We skied in perfect weather. We skied in freezing weather. We skied in the rain. The mitts came through it all, unscathed, their Gortex properties keeping me warm and dry when the rest of me was a soggy or frozen mess.

The joy of these memories will stay with me for the rest of my life despite my forgetfulness which I now realize may come from my head injury at Chicopee, and have nothing to do with aging. It seems that memories of special times never fade. The mitts will stay with me too. They are symbolic now. They represent feeling the fear and doing it anyway. They represent my ability to push through my nervousness and learn a new skill despite enormous setbacks like knee surgery, frostbite and concussion. I replaced them the other day with new Kombi mitts for my current life as dog walker and dog park visitor. Skiing is over, for Bob and me.  Bad knees caught up with us in our fifties, as often happens to skiers no matter how avid they are.  Now I am onto something else completely new – caretaker of a young dog.  This also poses challenges in terms of courage and includes a big learning curve. I knew nothing about dogs and their needs when we chose a four-month old puppy last February. I very quickly realized that I had a lot to learn and I had better learn it fast, if we wanted to have a happy, well adjusted dog when he grew up. My familiar inner panic came up with this realization, and the cycle began again. It seems that the teenager within me is still frightened, still worried that she can’t make the grade, still suffering over feelings of inadequacy. And so I have had another chance to face down my inner demons, to be strong, to jump off that dock into the lake and swim for the joy of the new experience.  Merlin and I have been doing just that, metaphorically speaking, for 11 months now, and I have discovered another peak experience, this time not involving mountains but meaningful in many different and wonderful ways. Another check mark on my “bucket list.”

And so a new world of mitt wearing is upon me, as I take my dog Merlin out for his second winter of cold visits to the dog park. The other day when my old Kombi mitts really let me down. I knew it was time. Time to turn the page and retire my faithful mitts with all their stories still swirling around in my head. The new Kombis don’t have the same history to them, but hopefully they will keep me warm enough to make the grade as a good dog owner, getting my dog the exercise he needs in almost all kinds of weather. Interesting that Kombi is still in business. Good to see something that lasts, in this day of change and innovation.  Good to realize, as well, that numinous memories are permanently etched in a person’s psyche and whenever I see those mitts for the rest of my life, I will remember the joy of skiing and the courage it took to get there.

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