I grew up in a family of seven and have skied since nursery school. "It's very safe!" is a line I learned early on, as a response to friends and neighbors who flew south for winter vacations or otherwise managed to avoid the cable bindings and blue ice of '60s-era Eastern skiing. I was correct, of course, except for a frostbitten toe here (thank you, Tremblant) or a twisted ankle there (apparently if you're too short to dismount a chairlift, you're not supposed to leap).
Then came my own family, several decades later. Our tale begins on Christmas Day in 1999. I had deposited our youngest son, Nathaniel, at Winter Park's daycare center. Instead of taking my equipment down the steps alongside the bunny slope—a sign did recommend that approach, after all—I figured I'd just shoot down the tiny hill (vertical drop: about 40 feet), through the opening in the snow fence marked by two flags, and then cruise to the adult area. Small problem: Those were indeed flags, but that was no opening in the fence; early-morning light cast on a blue mesh fence can play tricks with shadows. (Memo to ski areas: Most snow fences are orange for a reason.) Consequently, I skied into a fence I had no idea was there. Even at a relatively slow speed, I hit the ground hard enough to suffer a concussion.
No big deal, except for some lacerations to my nose and mouth, along with a fat upper lip that somehow managed to extend all the way over my lower lip for a week. While my wife Audrey and oldest son, Joshua, accompanied me to the first-aid center and watched the kind nurses pack my head in ice, I discovered that my 7-year-old had learned his skiing priorities well. Joshua gave me a few hugs, asked me how I was feeling, and then remarked to Audrey what a glorious day it was outside. "Mom," he said matter-of-factly. "There's nothing more we can do for him. Let's go skiing." And off they went.
Fast-forward to the winter of 2001-02. On the last run of our last day at Gore Mountain, N.Y., Audrey brought Nathaniel up the beginner's chair for his first time on the main mountain. He'd been in ski school all week, and this was a big moment. On the Bear Cub run, 60 yards from the base lodge—where Joshua and I, in the comfort of our lounge chairs, watched—Audrey and Nathaniel collided and went down in a heap. Nathaniel got up and started skiing again; Audrey got up and fell down. And stayed down. Why? Josh and I wondered, though we figured she was just enjoying Nathaniel's success.
When Nathaniel reached us, he told us Mom was really mad and needed help. Before we could reach her, a ski patrolman skied up to us with the news she had "done something to her knee." Others patrollers brought her on a sled to the first-aid center, where well-meaning staff concluded she probably had "hurt her hamstring." (Memo to first-aid folks: The hamstring isn't below the knee.) We consulted by phone with our own physicians, loaded her into the SUV, and drove home. Sure enough, she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament—a classic ski injury. She went through the textbook Five Stages of an ACL injury: blaming herself, blaming her son, blaming the binding, blaming the mountain and, finally, blaming me. Audrey underwent ACL reconstruction in the fall of 2002. Her surgeon was actually the same guy who repaired the Achilles tendon of quarterback Vinny Testaverde. He does nice work.
On Christmas Day, 2002—maybe the good Lord isn't a skier—we all went up to Windham Mountain in the Catskills. Audrey couldn't ski, but was happy to read in the lodge and worry about the rest of us. There was a ferocious blizzard that day, and Joshua and I quit early. Nathaniel, now 5, continued with his day-long group lesson. But by 3:20, when classes seemed to have long left the mountain, we got worried. I went to the ski school desk to see if everyone was in. "Are you Nathaniel Kaplan's father?" an instructor asked. Uh-oh.
We arrived in the emergency-room area to finnd Nathaniel on an examining table, screaming. The orthopedic surgeon, who was on-call on the mountain on holidays, came and did an examination. Much calmer now, Nathaniel asked: "Is it my ACL?" We all needed the laugh. "Is he in med school?" asked the doctor. I pointed to Audrey's braced knee.
It wasn't Nathaniel's ACL, but his tibia. Nathaniel's leg had broken as he slowed down in the deep snow near the lower, flatter part of the mountain. As his leg wedged out and the snow quickly stopped him, there simply wasn't enough force from his leg to pop the binding, which was at its lowest setting. His leg torqued and the bone broke in a spiral.
On the crawling drive back to the hotel through the blizzard, Nathaniel was the model of calm. Tylenol inside him, an apple juice in hand, and the novelty of a warm cast on his leg, he wanted to know, "When will I be able to ski again?"
I'm pleased to report that Nathaniel's leg is absolutely fine. I'm also pleased to report that Audrey is on the mend and throwing fewer interceptions than Vinny. The winter awaits us—but not, we trust, the emergency room.
Nathaniel had it exactly right, when his first cast-bound inclination was to get up and get out on the slopes. I skied two days after my concussion, lip malformations notwithstanding, and have been avoiding snow fences ever since. I can't say that injuries have increased our enjoyment of the sport, but to our surprise, they haven't much deterred us. Such is the lure of powder, a day in the sun and time spent with family. Audrey remains reluctant, knowing that the only thing worse than ACL reconstruction is two ACL reconstructions. But she also knows that some of our best times have been on the slopes.
It's the unscathed family member, Joshua, who's worried a bit. He figures he may now be a marked man. Maybe we'll play it safe and limit him to the five days a week he currently spends in Peewee hockey. It's a very safe sport, you know.