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The newbie skier: 'I couldn't stop smiling'

The white mountain slopes swept past underneath me as the boards attached to my feet guided me forward, cutting through the powdery snow.

The cold breeze chopped at my cheeks and I worked my leg muscles to remain standing, descending smoothly and quickly. In my hands, I held two long poles that felt awkward and unnatural.

At Berkshire East Ski Resort in Charlemont, I was racing down one of the 45 trails on the 1,840-foot-high mountain. It was the first time I’d willingly launched myself down a high hill, hoping for the best.

I was learning to ski at the Berkshire East Snowsports School.

I charged forward, avoiding thoughts of skis slipping out of my control, of crashing into trees and smashing my head. It wasn’t as if they weren’t there in my mind, trying to suck the courage out of me.

The night before, I had tossed and turned in my sleep, nervous of my pending adventure.

But when my alarm clock rang at 6 a.m., I took a deep breath. I’d promised myself this would be the year I would learn how to ski. I had to. It was my New Year’s Resolution. And the week before I had just bought a new blue ski coat from Eastern Mountain Sports that I wanted to wear.

At 12:30 p.m., on Jan. 2, I arrived at the Berkshire East Ski School, where I met with Snowsports School Director Christopher Loftus.

After I completed a rental form that included my shoe size and level of experience, Loftus brought me next door to the large rental shop, where a factory line of three workers fitted me for boots, skies and poles. The cost of this ski rental package is $30 for a full day and $20 for the afternoon and night. A helmet costs another $10.

Afterward, we headed back to the snow sports school, where I met Tracy Markland, who would be teaching me.

I felt lucky that I was paired up with Markland. The Vermont native is one of Berkshire East’s original ski instructors, having taught there since 1977, when the mountain first opened.

Markland started skiing with her family growing up. She later raced in college.

When the mountain changed ownership in 1977, the director at the time asked Markland to come teach and help create a ski school.

“I like the smiling faces. I love to ski. I love being outdoors,” Markland said.

Markland was one of 60 instructors at the Berkshire East Snowsports School — eight are snowboard instructors and 52 are ski instructors.

Six instructors are level 3 certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America.

“We have some of the most highly trained ski instructors in the country,” Loftus said. “They form a core group of supervisors that pass their knowledge onto others.

“I often have very successful lessons,” Markland said. “If a person can’t do something, you bring them back to the thing before. If there’s a problem, you take the student back to what they could do well. You just make it work.”

Outside, I followed Markland for my first ski lesson. My boots felt heavy and awkward and I had difficulty holding the skis and the poles up as I tried not to hit someone in the back of the head — an accident I have seen plenty of times in the movies.

Our first stop was Bobcat, a mostly flat area for beginners. Here, I learned the basics.

Markland taught me how to be familiar and comfortable with the chunky equipment on my feet. I learned the correct athletic stance for balancing — knees bent and my body slightly forward in full control.

I couldn’t lean back or the skis would take me for a ride, Markland warned.

On the small sliding hill, I learned the gliding wedge — one of the most important techniques used in skiing. The maneuver requires a skier to place his or her skies in the shape of a pizza slice. This is the key mechanism for stopping. I made sure to memorize that move.

It had already been snowing heavily all day, which I learned made for excellent ski conditions.

“It was perfect snow for skiing,” Markland said.

The only setback to the snow was I needed steeper terrain to move because of its stickiness, a problem Markland solved by bringing me to the opposite side of the lodge, to the beginner trail at Top Notch.

Markland first had me perfect the gliding wedge. In the wedge, I learned that by leaning on one foot, I’d turn in the direction the foot faced.

Before I knew it, I was headed to the ski lift — a great feat in my mind and not one I’d expected to advance to on my first day.

With Markland by my side, I stood on the line marking the correct placement for skiers to await the lift. Looking across my shoulder, I squatted and sat as the lift caught me and carried me into the winter sky. With a safety bar across our chests, I breathed a sigh of relief and watched as I went higher up the trail.

At the count of one, two, three, bananas! Markland and I scooted off the ski lift to where an arrow indicated the jump point and then descended onto the top of Top Notch.

A second later, I was skiing down the mountain, using the wedge to slow my speed and direct my turns. The muscles in my quadriceps strained to slow my body down. And my back muscles were working to keep my balance. It was exhilarating.

For several more times, I went up the ski lift and down the mountain. I couldn’t stop smiling. I had faced my fears and accomplished my resolution.

Two hours later, the sky was dark and the snow was falling fast. I blinked as snowflakes fell in my eyes. I could barely make out the tall beaming lights before me. And my face had turned ruby red from the cold wind blowing against me.

I was at the highest point of Top Notch. After my one-hour lesson at the ski school, I had returned to Berkshire East a few hours later for Thursday night skiing.

It was a personal test to see if I could survive on the steep slippery slopes on my own.

With one breath, I pushed off and down the mountain I went. I was a skier.

Staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan has worked at The Recorder since 2012. She covers Deerfield, Conway, Sunderland and Whately. She can be reached at kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

Beth Reynolds is a photographer and educator. She runs Base Camp Photo Community Center in Greenfield. She can be reached at beth@basecampphoto.com

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