Ski Lessons: How to Break Your Leg Like a Champion

I was great at sports as a boy. Or, would have been if I’d had more athletic ability. Some athletic ability.

Case in point: grade 7 ski lessons.

In February of 1974, our school packed all of us onto a bus headed for Calgary’s winter sports mecca, Canada Olympic Park. This is the very venue that hosted many of the now-legendary athletes at the 1988 Winter Olympics, including ski jumping great Matti Nykänen, the perhaps more famous but certainly less talented Eddie the Eagle, and of course the beloved Jamaican bobsled team. (Full disclosure: in 1974, it had not yet become Canada Olympic Park, but was still in its pre-epic incarnation, which is to say a bunny hill named Paskapoo. I generally do not mention this when I tell this story.)

It was Day 1 but I was no raw rookie, having taken the beginner course in grade 6. Back then they had taught us critical skills such as how to put on our equipment, how to fall (I was good at that), how to get up again (not as good), and how to do other stuff like snowplow and turn and stop. On the last day we had even skied all the way down the bunny run. From the very top!

So naturally I was feeling pretty good about myself as I clomped away from the lodge to meet my group at the bottom of the hill. As a seasoned professional, I was ready for anything. Heck, I had even put on my boots all by myself. No challenge would be too great.

Then my instructor showed up. He was a tall, blond skier dude, coolness oozing from every pore (I can only assume this as his pores were well concealed beneath his ultra chic ski jacket). The girls swooned. The guys shifted subtly in order to emulate his suave-but-I-neither-know-nor-care posture. When he spoke, we all knew that we would gladly go wherever he asked us to go, even at the cost of our very lives.

“Dudes,” he began, of course (think Crush from Finding Nemo), “let’s go!”

Everyone followed, naturally. By all appearances no one was even slightly concerned that our destination appeared to be the chairlift. This was alarming for two reasons: One, riding the ski lift is hands down the most difficult skill for a young skier to master. I mean the sitting part is easy enough, but the mounting and dismounting bits? Not so much. Part of the problem is how simple it looks. When you fail—and there is no subtle way to fall either onto or off of a chairlift—you look like a complete idiot. And no middle schooler likes to look like an idiot.

The second and perhaps greater concern was where the ski-lift terminated. For if you wanted to go part way up the hill, the tow rope was for you, but the chair lift? It only stopped in one place—the top of the hill.

I wondered whether he was aware that, in our beginners’ class, we had only actually summited once, on our final day, one full year ago? I mean, surely he would take us through a little bit of review first; falling, snowplowing, turning (getting on and off the lift!).  Just for the sake of those who may have forgotten, you understand. Those who might, say, be feeling a little terrified.

Since no one seemed to be willing to broach the topic (or even notice?) I decided to be the one to step up and enquire (for the sake of the group). But cooly. Like I didn’t really care.

“So,” I began casually as we came perilously close to the front of the lift line, “uh . . .  Mr. Dude, sir . . . where are we . . .  like . . .  going? Dude.”

“To the top, bro!”

Well, there. It had been said aloud. Now everyone would realize the imminent danger, come to their senses and demand a thorough review of last year’s lesson (whoa, was I a teacher in the making, or what?). But of course, no one objected. Because if they had, I wouldn’t be writing this, would I? There’s absolutely no fun in a story about a thoroughly successful ski lesson, sans bodily harm or public humiliation.

So, in spite of a few more low-key, lighthearted and wholly ineffectual attempts on my part to redirect our cool-but-clueless leader, up the hill we went. Oh well, I thought. Perhaps he’ll run through the basics at the top of the hill.

He did not. Unless, “See you at the bottom, dudes!” counts.

I watched, mouth agape, as one by one my comrades joyfully followed him to their certain deaths. Were they out of their minds? So smitten by the aura of Skier-boy that they could not see the obvious and inevitably fatal outcome? Some of them even seemed almost enthusiastic—like they actually wanted to ski down that hill (many years later I recognized this for what it was, namely a confidence born of competence; no wonder it seemed odd to me at the time!).

Eventually—and I remember this moment oh so clearly—it was just me left alone at the top of the hill. In that moment I experienced 6 of the 7 stages of grief: disbelief, denial, bargaining (frantic last-minute negotiations with the Almighty), guilt, anger and depression; acceptance eluded me.

I edged closer to the brink until the tips of my skis poked out over the lip of the (bunny hill) precipice. I don’t know how long I remained there wrestling with my preteen angst, remembering my childhood with fondness, wondering whether it would be best to die of starvation and exposure alone on a mountain’s summit, or to end it all in one last blaze of glory that would be recounted for years by my soon-to-be-former peers (remember that doofus Pawlak, they would begin . . . ). Neither option sounded particularly appealing, but I eventually came to the realization that the only way I was ever going to get down the hill with any measure of dignity at all would be to ski down (imagine that!). So I planted my poles and pushed off.

Several things occurred in quick succession. One, given that my skis were fully parallel and pointed directly at the bottom of the hill, I began to accelerate at an astonishing rate. Two, I panicked. And three, I forgot absolutely everything I had ever been taught about skiing. Finally, having accomplished all of this, I simply repeated steps one through three.

This had alarming results. Even on a bunny hill, parallel skiing straight down the slope will create significant speed. I compare the experience to that of an astronaut upon take-off: vibrations jarring every bone in my body as they work their way up from my legs to my teeth, G-forces thrusting my already rattled internal organs to the rearmost part of my bodily cavities, and my cheeks peeled back so that my teeth and eyeballs were left alone to lead the way into the great unknown.

I recall a few of the impressions that flitted through my mind at the time. It occurred to me that I ought to stop, or perhaps turn at least. But I was fairly certain that I would be unable to execute either maneuver at this (or any) velocity. At the same time I was also quite aware that if I carried on without altering course in some manner, it would not end well. So then it became a question of whether to attempt something bold, and immediately crash painfully, or to simply continue with the status quo and crash painfully later. In the moment, option number two seemed the least offensive.

I also recollect screaming, “Hellllp!” at the top of my lungs. No joke; about a third of the way down the hill, I actually did this! And in spite of the utter sincerity of my desperate cry, I also recall a certain sense of whimsy. I hollered because I was genuinely afraid, but also a little bit because it I was aware that a person careening down a ski hill out of control calling loudly for help seemed cartoonishly funny. I am actually quite proud of my twelve-year-old self for this.

Well, all good things must come to an end. Not long after my brush with comedy—and after having inadvertently invited everyone within earshot to watch what was about to happen—I hit a mogul. Yes, hit. Body rigid, knees locked; at high speed and right angles, hit.

What happened then would perhaps best be described as an explosion. Boom! Instant elevation, all four limbs immediately and fully extended, equipment (poles and skis) forcefully jettisoned into the atmosphere. Houston, we have lift off.

I then had one of those everything-moving-in-slow-motion-moments. It was like passing into the eye of the storm; gliding weightless through the air, vaguely aware that this was not a normal experience, but more curious than afraid. Hmmm. I wonder what landing will feel like?

My question was answered soon thereafter, and I was surprised by the result. One would expect to meet the earth with a thud, but this was not the case. What I had failed to take into account was that Paskapoo was, as was its general tendency, very icy that day. I touched down, and like an aircraft on a slippery runway, slid. And slid. And slid some more. Again, I recall, in the moment, wondering when it might end and what it might be like when it did. I was a very curious child (curious in this case meaning both eager to know or learn and strange or unusual).

When the dust (or rather, snow) settled, I found myself looking up at a grey winter sky. Soon, two heads appeared within my view, one on either side. Pretty teenage girls. Perfect.

“Are you okay?” one asked.

I considered her question. Are you freaking kidding me! I thought. Did you see what just happened? I hit a frickin mogul at 537 miles an hour, was tossed high into the air and slammed down like a rag doll onto a sheet of sheer ice, and you’re asking me if I’m okay?

I said none of this aloud. My response was rather more concise. “No.”

“No?” She wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. “Um . . .  we’ll, um. . .  go get someone . . .  I guess?”

Help arrived before long. Tall, tan, buff and heroic, Captain Ski-patrol swooshed dramatically to a stop, dropped to one knee, and just as ridiculously as the aforementioned pretty girls, inquired as to my condition. My answer was apparently inconsequential, as within seconds he had come up with a diagnosis: I was fine.

Helping me up, he noted astutely that I was not putting any weight on my left leg. He encouraged me to do so, but I declined. “Come on, just give it a try,” he urged.

“Nope,” I replied. I was a lad of few words.

“Just a little. It’ll be okay.”

“No, it’s broken,” I stated matter of factly.

He was unconvinced. To be fair, I was calm, not in any apparent pain, and my leg looked perfectly fine. But I knew that it was not. It didn’t hurt, but it just kind of felt weird, like it wasn’t properly attached or something.

Since I so stubbornly refused to dance for him, Ski-patrol Man was forced to treat me for a broken ankle. First he got out the leg splint. This, in the 1970s, was a great three-sided rectangular wooden box with foam padding inside that would brace my leg for the journey to the hospital. It was also bright yellow, presumably to insure that anyone who had not by now noticed my plight would immediately be alerted to the situation. I was relieved to know that none of my peers would be left out.

Once thus secured, it was time for me to be transported down the hill. This, at least, would be fun. I had on more than one occasion seen the skiing wounded laid upon a sled and towed away behind a snowmobile, afforded the luxury of both motorized transportation and the glorious tribute due a fallen hero. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I observed that my rescuer had neglected to bring along any form of vehicular conveyance.

“Um,” I ventured uneasily, “someone coming with the snowmobile?”

“No, no,” said my gallant friend. “We won’t need that!” He then proceeded to scoop me up in his arms and slalom gracefully down the hill with me held snugly against his manly chest, all my classmates looking on curiously as we glided by them. Looking back on my youth, I would have to count this as one of my least impressive moments (top 5, probably). I’m not sure how, at the age of 12, one ever recovers socially from a situation of this nature. I can only assume that in later years when I asked one of the girls at school to go out with me and she said no, it was because she could not erase this particular picture of me from her mind. Yes, I’m sure now that was the sole reason.

Upon examination at the hospital, X-rays confirmed that I had indeed broken my leg (Ha! Take that, Ski-boy!). I was sentenced to 6 weeks on crutches with a cast from mid-thigh to toes. I missed the hockey playoffs that year which, as my team’s only goalie, was met with great disappointment from my coaches and teammates alike (it meant that someone else would be stuck in net). I like to think that had it not been for that fateful mishap, I would have been the star of the playoffs, leading my team to the championship against all odds (we had not won a single game that year). It would have been talked about for years, I’m sure. “That Robin Pawlak!” they would marvel. “He was some amazing athlete!”

Road Trip: My Near-Death Experience in the Fraser Canyon

When I was 17, a buddy and I set out on a road trip from our hometown of Calgary, Alberta to Vancouver, B.C., a journey which would normally be expected to take 11-12 hours. It would take us considerably longer than that.

This was due to our mode of transportation, which was my 1973 Plymouth Fury. If, like most people, you don’t know what that is, try this: First, imagine you are 17 year old guy. Next, picture the hottest car you have ever seen. Finally, wipe that image completely from your mind, and think of what the opposite of that might look like. That’s the Plymouth Fury. It was sort of like a cruise ship on wheels. My friends and I could play a game of pickup football on the hood alone (we left the trunk for dance parties).

In spite of its lack of aesthetic appeal, it had been a fairly reliable vehicle for me. I had no reason to suspect that it would not be up to the task ahead of it. Well, except for my mother, who reminded me that it was an older car, and would almost certainly break down. She was adamant that we not go. I told her it would be fine. She reminded me that our route would include dangerous mountain passes, not to mention the treacherous Fraser Canyon (this was before the Coquihalla highway) where narrow roads wind around blind turns precariously perched upon sheer precipices. My mother was always fussing about the possibility of bad things happening to her baby. I said that she was being silly, ignored her advice and left.

We broke down in the Fraser Canyon. Fortunately we were able to coax the ailing vehicle to a safe place off to the side of the road that was big enough so that the wounded behemoth did not obstruct traffic. Exiting the vehicle, we lifted the hood on the off-chance that either one of us might have a clue what was wrong. We did not. We left the hood up, the universal signal that says, “Hey! We’re idiots who drove a junker into a remote location only to have it conk out and we have no idea what to do about it.”

Having accomplished that, we took stock of our surroundings. First off, it was 40℃ (back then, we called it 104℉). The sun, all alone in a cloudless sky, blazed down on us mercilessly, reminding us of our isolation. As we stood beside our now-comatose beast of burden, a cliff rose up at our backs. Looking left and right, we saw two lanes that extended only as far as the next blind curve in either direction. No other vehicles. Crossing the highway we came upon a steel guard rail which, upon further inspection, we found to be the only thing between us and a sheer drop that terminated far below with some jagged rocks and a churning Fraser River.

Have you ever had a Fraser Canyon moment? I’ve recently embarked on a journey of sorts; a new phase of life: retirement, and a second career as a writer. It’s been a great ride for the most part, but now, as I’m attempting to get my first novel published, I find myself somewhat stalled in the middle of nowhere. There are a number of options open to me, but none of them currently seem very promising, and it’s difficult to know which way to go.

The map told us that Boston Bar (this was before Cheers was on TV) was the nearest town, but that it was very far away. We decided to wait for a passing vehicle; some Good Samaritan who would come by and save the day. Unfortunately, the only things that rolled along over the next half hour were the beads of sweat that poured down our faces, so eventually we came to the conclusion that we would have to set out on foot. We struck out towards (we sincerely hoped) Boston Bar, and agreed to hitchhike if anyone at all came by. I had never hitchhiked before. My mother said it was dangerous, since you never knew who would pick you up. But what did my mother know, anyway?

We trudged along up the highway, every step a marathon in that wretched heat. I’ll never forget the moment when we finally we saw the sun glint upon a distant approaching vehicle. As it drew nearer we could see that it was an old, faded-red Datsun pick up, and that it (joy! rapture!) slowed in response to our eagerly upraised thumbs.

The driver pulled over, stopped and leaned over to open the passenger door. He was somewhere between 60 and 100 years old, a little rough looking, but seemed friendly. We’ll call him Slim. We told Slim that we needed a ride to the nearest town, and he invited us to hop in.

My friend and I looked at each other warily. I’m not going to lie: we were more than a little apprehensive. Of course, being adolescent males we hadn’t discussed our feelings (or allowed ourselves to show any outward signs of anxiety at all—duh!), but let’s face it, we were two kids stranded in the middle of an extremely harsh environment with neither the know-how nor the resources to solve our problem. And now we were about to get into some old dude’s truck so he could take us off into the wilderness, pull out his axe, murder us and hide our bodies. And worst of all, I would die having to admit that my mom was right.   

The truth was, we didn’t have a lot of options. So off we went, three guys shoulder to shoulder in a tiny truck (with a stick shift!), windows rolled down in a fruitless attempt to blow away the oppressive heat (and . . .  er . . .  aroma). Our chauffeur was friendly indeed, and alleviated the awkwardness by asking us the sorts of questions one asks when attempting to initiate conversation with strangers. ‘Where’re ya from?’ ‘What the heck are ya doin way out here?’ ‘What happened to yer car?’ ‘How dumb are you guys?’ etc. We soon realized that, in spite of his appearance, he was not the sort to murder innocent young’uns. Not intentionally, at least.

His driving was what would likely get us killed. Or rather, his conversational prowess. Normally, making eye contact whilst communicating with others is a good thing; it helps establish trust, experts say. I’m going to suggest that the experts have never driven through the Fraser Canyon with Slim.

Slim looked at us whenever he said anything. He said lots. When he finished speaking, he’d take a quick glance at the road, jerk the steering wheel to bring the pickup back into its lane, then look back at us in expectation of a response. We soon recognized the need to speak quickly and keep our answers short.

That was easier said than done, given our level of distraction. We wanted to be polite, but when your vehicle edges ever closer to a cliff as the driver launches into leisurely discourse, it’s difficult to pay attention to what he’s saying. He’s telling you all about his life, and all you can hear above the sound of your pounding heart is your own voice in your head saying, “We’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die!” Then the vehicle veers hard back on course, throwing you against your sweaty seatmate. Recovering, you notice Slim’s expectant glance in your direction and realize with horror that his last utterance must have been a question, and that if you don’t answer it he will not look away. And the tiny truck approaches the death-drop yet again. Essentially, it was like having a casual conversation with a gun to your head.

We survived, obviously. We made it to Boston Bar only to find that, since it was Sunday and the only service station was closed, we’d have to wait until the next day. We ended up sleeping in the car that night. I don’t recall how we got back there, but it obviously wasn’t with Slim, or I would remember (or we wouldn’t have made it).  The next day we called a tow truck, which we couldn’t afford, and got the car repaired, which we also couldn’t afford, and then were off to Vancouver.

Looking back, I can see a number of ways in which this might have ended badly. From the vantage point of middle-aged maturity, I view this experience, along with many others in my life, as an opportunity to learn and grow. In fact, even as a 17 year old, wise beyond my years, I was eager to share my newfound insight with those around me. For upon arrival home, when my mother anxiously inquired as to how everything went, I replied, “Phht! Fine, of course. Mom, you really need to learn to relax.”

Always the good son.



You don’t tug on Superman’s cape

You don’t spit into the wind

You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger

And you don’t hitch a ride with with Slim

— Jim Croce (paraphrased)