Don’t get me wrong: Heavenly is Heavenly. But it is also my nemesis, my Waterloo – the mountain that may just be trying to shove me a little closer to Heaven, a little faster than I care to go.
This year’s family reunion was held at Lake Tahoe – within easy walking distance of the face of Heavenly. About 30 years ago, I came here with my family – my grandmother, my parents, my husband, my cousins, and my uncle – and was oddly determined to try skiing. The slopes look very different – almost barren – without a thick blanket of snow. My son, riding up the Gondola with me this trip, took one look at all the logs and boulders beneath us and asked how on earth people could ski on these slopes.
On the other side of the summit, there are some smaller slopes. Being a novice who had never had a single ski lesson, I did not know that “Bunny Slope” and “Beginner Slope” were not synonymous. I skipped the bunnies and went straight for beginner. I fell a few times the first run down, but it was like falling onto a mound of pillows – cold, wet pillows, but I got up laughing. My cousin Rudi, six years younger than I, skied backwards, holding my hands. I got a feel for it, and on the second run I was able to do it myself – even made a little half turn at the bottom and took a tiny bow. “Ta-da!”
We took a break. Got some hot chocolate and watched Rudi’s younger brother Fritz ski down the face of Heavenly. It was breathtaking – quite literally. I remember thinking how graceful and effortless it seemed. I was ready for a bit more of a challenge, I thought – and some variety. We looked at one of the nearby slopes – my cousins said something about “Intermediate” but we all decided it didn’t look that much harder than the “Beginner” slope I thought I’d mastered.
By then, the sun had melted a bit of the snow and it had refrozen – making a thin crust of ice. And no matter what that slope looked like, it felt fast. I panicked. I couldn’t stop – at least not using the snowplow stop I’d learned earlier. My right leg was stronger than my left, meaning that as I tried to turn my skis’ front tips inward, I was turning left. Into the trees. The only thing I could think of to do, at that point, was to fall up the mountain. Unfortunately, momentum wasn’t on my side and I did the amateur version of the “agony of defeat” roll. One of my skis didn’t release – didn’t pop off my foot like it was supposed to – and I felt something in my knee pop as I came, at last, to a stop.
If you know me at all, you know I’ll whine like an annoying little ninny over minor stuff, but serious illness or injury is different. “I’m fine,” I gasped. “Well… I don’t think I’ll make it down the rest of this run, and I’m pretty sure I can’t climb back up wearing one ski.” My cousins – against their better judgement – agreed to ski down with my skis, bring them back via the lift, and meet me at its base. I hadn’t gotten all that far, and the climb – through snow that was up over my knees – didn’t seem overly daunting. Of course, I was an idiot. But a determined one. I wisely kept the poles. I needed them both.
The ski patrol tried to assist me several times. I was probably breaking some rule or other, climbing up the mountain I was supposed to be shushing down. “Please, don’t mind me. I just – changed my mind, you know?” I smiled like the Cheshire Cat. All teeth, willing them not to argue. They advised me to stay well off to the side, at least, so as not to get in the way of those who were properly heading down instead of up. “Of course,” I said. Poles, foot, other foot, a lot of inward swearing and the certainty that something wasn’t right… and a lot of really fake smiling that I hoped would reassure the ski patrol that all was well. I’d seen them hauling folks off on stretchers, under brightly colored and humiliating tarps. If I couldn’t make it off under my own steam, I was going to bribe one of them to take me straight down the face on a ski mobile.
Perhaps, in hindsight, that was delusional.
I made it to the foot of the lift, where I collapsed and lay gasping on my back. Again, I had to wave off the nice young men of the ski patrol and a lift operator who didn’t seem to think that was the proper place to lay like a beached whale and catch some rays. I spent a few minutes negotiating with the snow mobile guy, but he brought out a waiver that basically licensed him to kill me, and I was in law school at the time, so naturally I made the mistake of reading every word of it. “Oh, no – no thank you, I think I’ve changed my mind.” He just shook his head.
I was not giving in. No stretcher, no neon tarp of shame for me. No way in hell. My cousins arrived in the nick of time. I stood up, winced, and quickly learned that while I could climb up a mountain through knee deep snow, I could not walk down the equivalent of a curb cut in a parking lot. I let them call the ski patrol. They had the good grace not to say, “Told you so.” We rode the gondola down the face. Several skiers rode with us, giving me looks of great concern. I’ve never felt so short in my life, laying there on the stretcher, under the tarp. But it was good not to be standing up, too.
There’s a little clinic at the base of the mountain – and it is largely unchanged since I was there, nearly 30 years ago:
I ended up signing that stupid release – figuring, by then, no one was in a position to actually kill me – and checked myself out of that clinic against medical advice. We grabbed a cab back to Caesar’s (now the Montbleu) and I swore my poor cousins to absolute secrecy. “None of this ever happened. We had a wonderful time. You are excellent instructors. Do not breathe a word of this little incident…” I can still picture the look of absolute horror on their faces as I told the two teens to keep our little secret from their own father. I still feel guilty for that.
We ran into their dad, my uncle, in the hotel lobby. I smiled my fake, toothy smile and lied like a rug. Only later did his look of puzzlement make sense to me – when I looked into the mirror and saw huge, black streaks of mascara running down my white-as-a-sheet face. I don’t know what I was thinking. But he played along, let me go to the room.
I ran a bath in the deep, circular tub. I shaved my legs. I sat there willing the pain and swelling to miraculously vanish. I climbed, half fell, out of the tub – and realized I couldn’t stand. Not on the injured leg, anyway. The knee was about three times its normal size and getting bigger. I was in trouble. Still, God forbid I inconvenience anyone or worry them or interrupt their fun in the casino with my stupidity. I decided to sneak off to the ER.
Unfortunately, I realized I didn’t have my proof of insurance, and my credit card just might be close to maxed out.
An intelligent, adult woman might have sought out her husband. Instead, I looked for my Daddy. It made sense – not only was he my Daddy, but he and I worked for the same company, meaning his proof of insurance card had the right information and his credit card probably wasn’t maxed out. As luck would have it, he and my Mom were getting off the elevator on our floor as I hobbled out. I pulled him aside and whispered the plan. “I have to tell your mother,” he insisted. Well, I figured he told her everything and she could keep a secret – as IF she’d actually keep one like this from her son in law. And off we went.
A few hours later, I hobbled back into the hotel with a leg brace, crutches, and a lot of painkillers that barely made a dent in the pain. Turns out, I’d torn my MCL.
The happy news is, it got us better seating for the Beach Boys concert and it got me wheeled in backstage, past the line at the door.
The sad news is, I barely remember anything else about that trip. About ten years later, I reached into the pocket of my jacket and pulled out a handful of cash I hadn’t even had the fun of spending in the casino, at the time.
I told my son I was looking forward to hiking the mountain, to show him where all this happened. And then…
I broke my ankle over Memorial Day weekend. I left Lake Tahoe, nearly 30 years ago, in a leg brace – and flew back week before last in an inflatable air walker. And spent the week staring at that damned mountain. Which was kind of funny. I remembered thinking I’d probably never ski again, because next time, it might be my neck instead of just my knee that popped. Maybe it was the universe’s way of saving me from falling off a trail at Heavenly and killing myself through extreme klutziness. I also realized, gazing up the mountainside, that we weren’t likely to hike up there, anyway. That might’ve been an overly ambitious notion, even without a broken ankle.
Here’s the view from one side of the rental house. You can see the face – and the lift. We were able to ride the Gondola at Heavenly Villages later in the week, but this one wasn’t running.
From the larger of two decks, the view of Lake Tahoe. I remember it looking…smaller, from the mountain top.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? We actually had a wonderful time. We have two tournaments at our family reunions: “Iran Chef” and Backgammon. Although we did not take home the trophy for Backgammon, we did finally win the silver spatula for J.J.’s amazing paella – both a vegetarian version and one full of shrimp, clams, mussels, chicken, and pork:
I wish I had pictures of all the other awesome dishes that we enjoyed during the week – grilled ribs and chicken, Mexican fajita tacos with homemade fixin’s, veggie bowls and mojitos, and Thai curry – red and green. Ironically, there wasn’t a Persian dish in the lot! We ate out at a little German restaurant down the street the last night, to save on leftovers and clean-up Friday morning.
I love mountains and mountain lakes. Living in the flat, tropical coastal region of Texas, views like this one, above Emerald Bay, with tiny Fanette Island in the distance, are a novelty. And the weather was gorgeous – we had almost daily showers from Heavenly, with marble-sized hail, but it only kept the sunny mornings and clear evenings cool and comfortable.
The next two images were shot from the same spot – while sitting at a picnic table on Baldwin Beach:
I realize that’s probably just a tiny patch of slowly melting snow up there, but I like to think it’s the world’s smallest glacier. Then we have this gorgeous view:
And it was here that I realized I’m not yet ready to be that old woman, smiling and nodding from the picnic table while the kids splash and play and kayak and frolic like unicorns, playing silly games in the water. I wanted to go parasailing. Or swimming. I wanted to ditch the air boot. I will drink my milk every day if it means not breaking another bone or tearing ligaments, ever.
But still, it was a lot of fun. My son and I seized the last chance to ride the Gondola up the mountain before the storms set in – a hailstorm that hit just minutes after we returned to the base and met up with everyone for lunch!
And then, of course, there was this gate crasher – and his slightly larger friend – who liked to hang out on our street corner in the mornings or right after afternoon showers, and to stalk the runners and hikers in the neighborhood. He seemed affable, though I didn’t have an urge to run up and hug him, or anything:
I was a little sad to leave – it really is Heavenly – but a lot happy to be home again, too. I’m looking forward to seeing where we’ll choose to go for next year’s adventures!
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