There are two types of expert skier: those who ski on the trails and those who ski off them. You could argue whether the latter are the more skilled, but there's no doubt that they are the more extreme. When I was growing up in New York City, family vacations to the resorts in New England consisted of sticking to the mountain trails. Venturing "off piste," or skiing backcountry, which is so popular now, was not something that ever occurred to us to do.
I've since become one of those skiers who ride the back side of the mountain, where the double black diamond trails are often unmarked and it's "proceed at your own risk." I graduated from tackling the tamer mountains in the East to skiing in the Rockies, picking up skills and savvy from resident pros along the way. My safety net is that I always go with a guide or locals who know the mountain, the conditions, where to ski, and where not to. Or at least it was until recently.
I was vacationing a couple of winters ago in Crested Butte, Colorado, with family who still prefer to ski the groomed intermediate slopes. I figured I had skied the back bowls here enough to be able to find a manageable path down by myself. So I grabbed onto the no-frills T-bar that takes you there — if this rickety "lift" doesn't intimidate you, there are signs next to it that read "Extreme Terrain, No Easy Route Down." As the manicured trails faded away behind me, I knew there was no turning back. At the top, I skied over to one of the ridges that access numerous trails and bowls, all ungroomed and varying in difficulty. I passed one trail after another, thinking, No...too steep, No...too rocky, No...too little snow cover, until I got to the end and realized I was out of options. I had to ski the only trail left. So down I went, thinking, This isn't so bad, when the already-sketchy snow turned into big rocks and a cliff.
I stood there at the edge of the 15-foot drop-off calmly realizing, I'm screwed. There was seemingly no exit strategy but to launch myself off this ledge into what I could see was a snowy mix of rocks and trees below. (I later learned that this trail is aptly known as Cesspool.) It was too treacherous to walk down and too tough to hike back up, especially given the altitude. My plan was to wait a little bit, guessing that someone would have to pass by and I could get their advice on what to do.
Moments later I heard the sounds of other skiers and looked up to see a couple of college kids, a guy and his girlfriend, on telemark skis coming my way. On seeing me, they stopped. I smiled and said, by way of explanation, "This trail is a little above my level."
"Well, you're skiing it," the guy replied in a stoner-dude tone. "It's your level now."
I had to chuckle because he was right. This was my level now. Maybe like Dorothy in Oz, I'd had the goods all along, and his words just made it click. I wouldn't be on this trail if I didn't have confidence in my abilities. No matter how many times I had skied here before, I finally felt I had advanced to being a true backcountry skier with the skills and guts to take on uncharted territory.
What I didn't know was the best way down, and with that, the mountain dude pointed out the line for me to take. I skied to the bottom, feeling great about what I had just accomplished, bragging rights and body parts intact.
So often in life, we're held back by the fear of what we can't do rather than freed by the confidence in what we can do. Sometimes we get in over our head, but when we really get into trouble is when we panic, let fear take over and lose that confidence. I'm not advocating doing something stupid or unnecessarily dangerous. But pushing yourself to try challenges that might be a little scary — that's how you make the next level your level.
It took a wise young ski bum to make me realize that, and now his words have become my mantra. Even though I had never run more than eight miles before, I signed up for a marathon. Running my first 10-miler was a breakthrough, then came a 12-mile workout, then a half-marathon and so on. As my training distances got longer, I looked at doing 10 miles as a short run. And when I crossed the finish line on race day, the marathon, a feat that once seemed unfathomable to me, was my level now.
The mantra has helped me rise to the occasion not just in sports but in life. I had spent my career working in magazine publishing but had toyed for years with the idea of forging out on my own. Not too long ago I finally took the leap to launch an online sports-and-style journal. As a creative director all those years in print, I was the one who gave a magazine its look and feel. By going solo, I am now also responsible for all the additional moving parts that were once the jobs of others, like assigning and editing text, plus I've had to master all the new digital complexities. It's a little like going out on that ledge all over again — half scary, half thrilling.
Strangely enough, my new job has also got me playing the role of the fearless reporter. My latest assignments? Learning to fly-fish in Idaho (I'm from New York City, remember) and to kiteboard off Long Island. Some people may say YOLO. I just remind myself IYLN: It's your level now.
Claudia Lebenthal is the editor and founder of styleofsport.com
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2014.