Thursday, January 5, 2012

Finding hope at the end of your rope. What I learned in Whistler, BC

Please excuse spelling and formatting issues, I'm using a new platform to blog off of my iPad, and it's a bit kludge for me still. Thank you!

This blog post is dedicated to my step grandfather, who died tonight. He was an amazing man, full of fortitude, hard work, will and strength. All of my love goes tonight to my family in Israel, and here, who loved him well and truly.

So it's been a while since my last post, holy moly Christmas season in the ski industry is a crazy thing. This season started off a little bit differently for me, because this year I get to do my favorite job, work as a trainer! Its wild to think of, all that has happened in the last six years, from learning that I loved to teach skiing, to learning who I am, to moving to Aspen, to settling in with my kids.
My first clinic group at Snowmass. What a great day!
(My first official clinic group at Snowmass. What a wonderful day!)

There have been so many ups and downs along the way, for everyone, friends with big triumphs and with big scares. We've lost friends to avalanche and cancer, and we have friends who are fighting through both, through injury, through surgery, though family issues, and with the support of family.
(That is really in my neck. And im grateful, because i feel better. But healing takes a long time. And there are a lot of people who are healing.)

I always thought for me that there wouldn't be anything that could shake me from my path. I knew that if I could train, and focus and get strong and get my equipment sorted and my alignment done, that I'd get as far as my body and the time I have would allow me, and we'd see wherever that ended up being. 

I knew that I could put my head down, I felt that I had found my career, and I felt that I would walk along my path, which would include injuries and recoveries, gain and loss, just like everyone else. I look around me at the extraordinary people who have made this their life's work, and I am inspired.
(My amazing, beautiful, inspiring and loving kiddos on Christmas morning. This year, I took three days off during Christmas. It was bliss!)

These people don't just teach skiing. They help connect people to the natural environment and, sometimes just for a moment, free them, connect them, wake them, teach them to laugh and play and see their families in a way that sometimes they can't during "normal" life.

These are people who get up at six and don't see their kids before school, go in to work to tune skis, theirs and their clients, who make sure they are well fortified for the morning because part of our job is to suppress our needs (to some extent) to the service of our clients. They eat when and how the clients do, when the clients are hungry. They ski hard all day, not just four days or eight days, but fourty days in a row. They are strong, fit, injured, recovering. They are intelligent, teachers, givers, they are passionate about their own lifestyle and about the importance of sharing the power of that life with the people who come to ski with them.

They ski no matter the snow conditions, day in and day out. Snowing, raining, wind storms, rocks, thin cover and of course, those glorious and few powder days when they are teaching on the magic carpet rather than sampling the goods themselves. This is a hard working profession full of people who give their utmost for an incredible guest experience. This is my winter family, these are my friends, mentors, the people I look to. These are professionals.

It's not that their job is so tough. It's that they do what needs to be done to be excellent for their guests. To give their guests, in the few days that they have managed to break free, as much freedom as possible. Freedom in their minds to learn, freedom from learning to play. They give themselves in order to make space for the guest to light on fire. And that takes dedication, glad dedication. Authentic happiness to give what they have to give.

In the last three weeks of doing what I love, playing with people on the snow, whether thats training instructors or working with my clients or brainstorming with folks on how to make a bigger difference, a bigger impact, I have also noticed how much pain I am in.

Im 40. I didn't really think that was going to be an issue, and maybe if I hadn't just had major spinal surgery, it wouldn't be. But in the last three weeks I have noticed... My feet really hurt. My neck and shoulders really hurt. It's hard to sleep while I'm getting stronger. Did I already pass that point? Is this a younger persons game? We went out in knee deep monkey snot the other day, and while it was fun to ski in, the foremost thought in my mind was the pain I'd be I if I fell. And I did. Not a bad fall, just a topple, but the fresh plate on my spine made its presence known, along with a message to the rest of me: falling has different consequences now. I do not come up laughing, even though I want to.
(it's never worth it to freeze your feet. But you can give a lot without putting yourself at risk. Finding the balance is what makes it incredible. The journey there takes some humility.)

Part of this job is having the fortitude to give the guest their best experience. That means you finish eating before they do, you are ready before they are, you can stay out longer and perform at your best all day no matter that it's cold, or firm, or bumpy, or rocky. Soaked to the bone or freezing your cheeks, body tired from picking kids up all day long as they fall over and over and over again. And still the will to make their day better with a cocoa and a hug and some words of encouragement in spite of the creeping numbness that you feel in your toes.

I started to wonder if maybe this year I was pushing too hard too soon after having my neck screwed back together. Fully fused, I've put the he'd work in to be released to ski, to fall, to work. But I'm not back to full strength yet. It takes about a year, I'm 15 weeks in.

My next client and good friend Peter had called and asked me how I would feel about skiing in Whistler this year, just for a change. Hed been there once before and wanted to see how the terrain would feel now tht he was a more accomishe skier. It had been twenty days of skiing with wonderful folks before him. I am so grateful for the wonderful people i get to work with, the things i learn from all different perspectives, religeons, beliefs, corners of the world, its amazing.

But i was tired. While im getting stronger, i find myself longing for a day off rather than loving the feeling of pushing through the grind. I used to thrive on the idea of pushing through to the 49th straight day. There are many many people in the locker room that go 100 days straight in boots, teaching and giving the whole time who are older and wiser than I am. But I've never been to Whistler, I love to travel, the idea of going in my coat and meeting other instructors, managers, industry folks was alluring. The idea of Peter having a measurable, quantitative difference between how he could ski before and what he could do now was exciting. I wanted to be there to see it happen.

We put it together. Ski Co did an amazing job communicating with Whistler and getting me supported to come up here on very short notice, and here we are. And it's raining in the village and snowing cement mid mountain and the top is light and fluffy and lovely. It's a new mountain, with new adventures and new friends.
(Bye bye winter family, hello new adventure)

Skiing a huge, unfamiliar mountain in low visibility in variable snow conditions, so far from ice to sush to monkey snot to powder has been exciting, fun, and... You guessed it, painful.

Part of me thought, you know, this is the best training right now, skiing through all this weird snow, In a weird uniform, where other people are looking, (because it's weird to see an unfamiliar uniform on your mountain). And I'm proud to represent Ski Co. Im so proud to work for Aspen, and to tell people on the chair, when they ask me, "Whats Aspen like?", all about our charming mining town and it's four amazing ski hills.

The Whistler crew has been incredibly welcoming, helpful, professional and wonderful. Donna Kerr, the head of the kids program, had the unfortunate good fortune of being our accidental first contact while she was wrangling 1600 kids into lessons at 9:30 in the morning. She could not have been more gracious, accommodating, calm, and friendly. It was December 29. It was madness.

Forthe next four days, she helped us find a ski tuner to help fix a bad tune, checked in that we were having a good time and finding our way around, and directed me to a reliable boot fitter, Brian at Top Shelf, because I had developed a hot spot that had turned into an angry purple bruise.

(proud to ski in my coat and represent Aspen. Glad for the pressure, it's good training, mindful of making Ski Co proud while having a good time.)

So three days ago, I was missing my kids, and my feet hurt and I was stoked to be making friends and learning a new mountain and a new town. I was excited to see another operation, to make friends in the industry, to see Blane from Gravity Logic, to just experience skiing in a way that I haven't very much, but am really excited to do, from the perspective of a traveling pro.

I was excited to be working with my client, and watching his skiing improve like crazy. I was proud of his fortitude in difficult weather, and I want to want to get after it! But there was this nagging... Maybe I am too hurt this year? Maybe I wasnt 40 until this surgery, but after it, perhaps I am. Maybe I should face reality ad see if they need some help at a desk job. Maybe it's time.

Finally, I went in to see Brian at Top Shelf Bootfitting. 
(Brian from Top Shelf in Whistler checking the fit for Peter in a pair of new shoes.)

Brian willingly and skillfully helped me out, blowing out the hot spot. And Peter ended up deciding to take the plunge and to get his boots done propperly. Which is one of the most important things you can do to help your skiing out, and one of the hardest things to educate our clients on.

While Peter was going through the Bootfitting process, Brian and I started talking about this pain I've had in my feet for the last 18 years, which is getting worse. It feels exactly like a super tight rope is being pulled under my foot, forcing a toe down. And it feels like there is a very sharp knife pressing against that tight rope, just beginning to sever individual strands as the rope pulls tighter and tighter.
(Exploring the possibilities of our limits, expectations and abilities. We are so much more than we think we are.)

I've asked everyone about this, bootfitters, and foot guys and gurus and yogis, and everyone told me something different, most of which was, "sounds like you need to crack your toe".

The pain came back on this trip, out of seemingly nowhere, and it was almost the final straw. How in the world can I work hard enough to keep training my feet up if it hurts to stand still let alone steer?

"Can I ask you a question about a ligament?" I asked Brian a few days ago while he was working on Peter. 

"Sure." he said. I explained the problem. 

"That's a neuroma." he said, before I was even done. "I mean, I can't diagnose it, I'm not a doctor, but it sure sounds like one to me. Let's put this huge ball of foam in the middle of your foot bed and see if it fixes it."

Well, it was either that or quit skiing, so what the hell, right? "Ya, I've had patrol bring women in off the hill with this incredible pain and it takes three guys to get her boot off, she can't even stand in it. They always saying something like, it feels like there is broken glass in my boot."

I was quiet. I nodded, I thought, yes, it feels like that almost every time I put a boot on. And that one pair of heels that I can't wear any more.

I put my boot on. It felt like there was a golf ball under my foot. Half an hour later, I couldn't even feel it. And my feet didnt hurt. At all. For the first time in 18 years. They didn't hurt like they had in climbing shoes, in ice skates, in high heels or in ski boots. 
(bliss in the trees in Whistler. Skiing is play and freedom and problem solving and physics and jumping and earth and sky all at once.)

We skied slush in the rain with big grins on our faces like six year old kids. We met up with our new friend Ollie from Araxi, an incredible restaurant in the Whistler Village, and skied that knee deep monkey snot. I was afraid to fall, but happy to ski. Peter was grinning and working and learning, I was struggling to give a good demo and stay on my feet to varying degrees of success, Ollie was whooping it up like any 28 year old from Lion, France would do on a "powder" day and charging at Mach schnell, occasionally bowing up in spectacular fashion, and then waiting for us to catch up with him while he re assembled himself. 

It felt like skiing, there were hints of why I love my job, and how badly I want to be stout enough to handle it. I love to be in the snow all day, I love to be cold and go in for cocoa and then get back out and sit, huddled in the chair while the wind is blowing sideways, knowing that we can find a great, sheltered stash in the trees in which to play. I love to know that Peter is going to giggle and laugh and feel free and improve and be happy. And so will I. I feel like Calvin and Hobbes when I'm out skiing in the trees in bad wether. I feel alive.

(Peter, learning flag air in a tight shot off of Fitz. It's moments like this that show us how much further we might go. It's moments like this that I don't want to miss.)

So how do I reconcile? Creeping into my mind is the fact that while I am proud that I can make changes and improve my skiing is the fact that I seem to have plateaued. And I don't believe in plateaus. I have reached a set of circumstances which are a puzzle the answer to which I have not found the key yet. 

And it's not for a lack of looking. I have an asymmetry in my turn that affects all of my skiing. If I concentrate on the groom, I can fix it. Essentially, on my turn to the right, I have trouble standing early and then strong on my left foot. entering my turn to the left, I am strong on my leg, but enter it torqued up and misaligned.

When I am in terrain, or I have another focus other than that, it comes back. This affects my ability to release the ski. This year, I am working on subtle movements, where am I on the ski can how soft can I be? How easily can I release the edge into the next turn? It's a year of touch. And I was starting to feel that if I can't get through this allignment issue, it's even more unlikely that my feet will get where I'd like them to be in order to participate in the job interview in April.

(a view to put it all in perspective. No hurry to rip down, skiing is as much about seeing, looking and being as it is moving and turning.)

I was at an impasse. What is want? Does it come from a selfish place? Am I being a hammer head? Am I looking at circumstances as they are and not being brave enough to say, you know what, this is too hard. I can't do it. Or I shouldnt. Or was I refusing to breathe out and look with open eyes at another way through?

Today, I woke up wondering how many more times I would pull on ski boots and why. I walked over in a glum mood to Brian's to watch him do Peter's alignment. I was lifted right off the floor with thedebilitating of watching Peters face as Brian described his skiing to him. I remembered with huge fondness the same expression on Alissa's face when the incredibly talented Brent Amsbury told her that to turn left, she probably needed a lot of speed. She looked at him like he had been following her around secretly while she was skiing, and then, the realization came, and she cried.

(the dream is as real as it always was. For all of us, i think. We all have our own mini olympics we want to reach for. How do we find our way through without sacrificing what weve built to get there?)

As Brian looked at Peters alignment and described the movement pattern that we have been trying to change for the last five days, Peters eyes got huge. And then he realized, it's not my will. It's the way my leg is lined up. And we can fix it. There is tis funny moment of joy and devastation that happens at your very first real Bootfitting experience, and I was grateful to be there yet again. 

Brian graciously offered to look at my alignment at the same time. I hopped up there, wondering. Would he see something that we hadn't played with before? Brent had been working carefully with me for three years, he Found a leg length discrepancy and had done some canting, just half a degree, on my left foot years before. But I hadn't been checked out as my skiing and boots had changed, as my sensitivity and awareness had grown, as my skiing had evolved. I just couldn't get to Salt Lake with all that was going on.
(A little shop work in a very tidy shop.)

Mark Rolphus, a very talented boot guy from Aspen, had been out with me, made me some beautiful foot beds (which Brian pulled out and exclaimed over "oh, this guy clearly knows what he is doing, look at this beautiful metatarsal arch he out in here. Most guys don't know to do this..." but we just hadn't got to alignment yet.

Half a degree went under the left boot. Nothing. A full degree, my hips twisted. Around and around we went. Then, Brian put a half a degree under my right boot, too. Suddenly, I felt very very different. Still. Half a degree, thick on the inside, on both boots. Bingo. Stillness. Strength.

We did the static test. He took them out. He put them back. I could tell over time that my femur had been slightly rotated in, with my knee in a slightly unstable position, and my hips rotating just a twitch to compensate. With both the shims in, both legs felt strong, similar, and my hips were level.
(Peters moment of realization. It wasn't that he didn't have the will, or the understanding. It's that he was physically unable to make the move because his alignment was preventing it. Fix the boots, access your potential. End of story.)

We crossed our fingers and took it out onto the hill. I made three turns off the gondola and wanted to start crying. My left ski was there. Early, strong, not wondering, no concentration, it was just there. The snow got firm as we went down the mountain, Peter singing out to me, I can stand on my left foot! Me singing out to him, I can stand on mine, too!

He could move, he could steer, his fore/aft issues started settling down. Mine did too. I decided to trust it and do a set of short turns. This is the greatest exercise for finding balance issues, all your defaults show up.

Bam. Best short turns I've ever done. On firm snow with piles of wet sloped over it. Lft leg, right leg, whatever, no forward and backwards. Just turning, blissful, even, easy turning. We weren't ripping it up, it wasn't an epic powder day, but we were whooping and hollering and hugging and high fiving anyway. 

And I realized, hey. There is more than one way around this maze. And sometimes, you have to go to a place where you examine deeply your motivation and willingness. Sometimes, it has to hurt a lot before you realize that you need to back up and look again with fresh eyes. I didn't want to quit. But I was telling myself that the path that continued the way I was trying to go was going to force me to quit. And tht would be the worst. To leave what I love because I couldn't find hope. It was not the right path. The right path is seldom easy, but it also doesn't have to be the hardest. 

Tonight, I learned again to pick my head up and look around for another perspective. Today, I skied pain free. My clients know that I need to care take my recovery, and it's up to me to ski at a safe and reasonable pace and to manage not only their risk, but my own. Because that is the professional thing to do. 

(there is a reason we are a winter family. Because we help each other through the confusing times, we hold each other up when we fall, we laugh together, we celebrate together, we live our lives from the heart. Together.)

I discovered, for now, The thing that will let me ski with them until we are folded and creased and leathered from laughing in the weather together for years and years.

I was so grateful to learn again from this path which teaches me so much more than skiing. Thank you, Winter family!




4 comments:

Liat said...

Bwahhhhh!! I'm so happy you're pain-free in your feet!! Made me cry ;)

Kate Howe said...

Me, too! :) thanks, l.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. This post really reminded me that some of the best moments skiing are not charging the hardest lines, but those moments of insight when things click into place and everything is suddenly in "alignment" - body and spirit.

Anyway, having skied through various degrees of mind-numbing foot pain I always like to hear about boot-fitting success stories. If your issues with cold feet persist I would not hesitate to recommend a heat-moldable replacement liner like those made by Intuition. The main point is to give you a truly customized fit that will not pack-out over time, but the material they use retains far more heat than regular foam.

Also, if you ever want a first, second or third opinion on a boot issue head over to epicski (I'm sure that Weems has mentioned it) and post a question in the "Boot Guys" forum. Some of the top fitters in the country regularly answer questions there.

Keep doing what you're doing for us shlubs who mostly only dream about snow.

-Your #1 non-family follower in Israel

Catharine said...

Pain-free Kate makes me happy.