Mortification with a K
When I graduated college in the late eighties, I moved to Germany for my first job. I lived in Munich, a city so close to the Alps that on a clear day you could see the mountains peering over the city’s shoulders, beckoning residents to come play in the snow. It soon dawned on me that if I wanted to assimilate in my new home, the prodigious beer drinking and strudel eating wasn’t going to be enough. I needed to learn a winter sport.
As with most decisions I made in my early twenties, it finally came down to a guy. This one was named Viktor, with a K. He was half German and half American, which was ideal because I could throw American idioms into conversation without him interrupting me for a little game I learned to call “Germans Explain Vy English Ist Zo Stupid.”“Vy did you say you would ‘see you later’? You’re not going to see him later, he is a toll taker. You should say goodbye! Vut ver you sinking’?
Viktor also had a cool job. He worked for Burton Snowboards, and his role was to show up at various Alpine ski resorts on his board every weekend and drum up interest in the then-embryonic sport. He’d confidently swish around, flashing his Paul Newman-blue eyes, and cha-ching, Burton made another sale in Bavaria. On our second or third date Viktor said, “Why don’t we go snowboarding together sometime?”
You know what would have been a good answer? “Because I don’t know how.” Instead, peering into those blue eyes, I said, “I’d love to!”
Operation “Learn to Snowboard Before Viktor With A K Calls Again” got serious the following weekend. I talked my friends Kristin and Dieter into coming to a bunny slope in the Alpine foothills for a lesson with me. The slope had the approximate slope of the German chocolate bars of which I grew so fond, which is to say, zero. Even so, I was terrified.
An unsettling thing you notice, if you come to skiing or snowboarding later in life, is the way the earth hurtles past you at rapid speeds, while the cold makes your eyes water so much that you can’t see anyway. It might not have been so bad if I’d had better balance, but there was a reason I flamed out of gymnastics at age ten. Even riding the rope tow was a challenge, requiring so much concentration to grip the thick knotted rope between my thighs and balance on top of my board as I travelled uphill, that I’d be covered in sweat each of the few times I managed to make it to the crest of the tiny mound. It felt like a cross between an early Thigh Master prototype and the worst pony ride ever.
That weekend, and on the few weekends I returned for more lessons, I mostly fell. My low point came when I was on the ground, wiped out yet again, and a tiny German child swooshed up to me, on diminutive skis, no poles, and said, “Does that hurt?” It sounds even more humiliating in German: "tut das weh?"
Still, even after a weekend on the slopes when I learned the German word for “contusion,” I thought I was ready. Next time Viktor mentioned a Sunday snowboarding gig, I said, “Great. What time will you pick me up?”
That Sunday morning car ride from Munich to the Zugspitze, the highest peak in Germany, remains encased in golden memory. There I was, wearing brand new ski clothes that cost me a month’s salary—an investment, but I was certain I’d get a lot of use out of them. The white snow against the blue sky echoed the colors of the Bavarian state flag, my super cool German/American boy toy was at the wheel, and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation was in the tape deck: I had never been better accessorized.
We got to the ski lodge, grabbed our boards, and headed toward the tow lines. When it was my turn, I grabbed at the dangling rope, pushed the knot between my knees and gripped with my thighs while I carefully balanced on the board. The tug of the rope began to pull me uphill.
And then Viktor jumped onto the rope with me.
It urns out that what I should have been preparing for all those weekends was not being on a snowboard in front of Viktor with a K. I would never make it that far.
It was the first time double teaming a rope tow that did me in.
Viktor was so cool and balanced, he seemed to be attached to the rope using only surface adhesion. He had one arm looped around my lower back, and was using his other hand to hold a cigarette, which only made him look sexier.
But me? Unaccustomed to the two-to-a rope trick, I began to bobble, my weight jerking side to side. I knew from the bunny slope that the bobble only ended one way, and that was with my ass in the snow. Still, I would not go down easily. I lunged with both arms for Viktor’s neck, which caused my back foot to slip off the board and anchor itself firmly into the deep snow. That meant that while Viktor and the rope tow would move forward, I only had five foot eight inches of slack before I stopped.
My foot thus moored, I began to slide down Viktor in a way that I like to think he would have found pleasurable, had we both been naked. Face to face. Face to chest. Face to crotch. Face to thigh. And finally, face to calf, me clinging to Victor’s left leg from an almost horizontal position in the snow. I looked up into his face from the ground, my eyes pleading for help.
And it was at this moment that Viktor with a K’s work ethic kicked in. His job was to make snowboarding look cool, and by god, he was going to do his job.
He looked down at me, removed the cigarette from his lips, and gave his left ski boot a mighty shake, freeing himself from my desperate grip. Then Viktor looked uphill, the perfect profile of a binational god of winter sport ascending to the peak of the Zugspitze.
As for me, I remained mired in a divot that would later cause the entire rope tow to shut down for thirty minutes of repair work by an operator who cursed at me in Bavarian slang.
The bad news was that Viktor and I still had to drive home together that afternoon, and not even Janet Jackson – Miss Jackson if you’re nasty- could make it better.
But the good news is that when my non-snowboarding husband and I moved to the Bay Area sixteen years ago and everyone started talking about how great the snow is in Lake Tahoe, I just needed to think of Viktor and the rope tow burns to stop me from pretending to care.