Turning it over: Passing on the passion of skiing has nothing to do with skis

Passing on the passion of skiing has nothing to do with skis


WORDS • PADDY O’CONNELL | PHOTOS • MIKE THURK


It took us three days to get to the summit, the trip’s final objective. Turning back wasn’t an option. We had to ski. When I looked into the eyes of my ski partner, I was scanning for doubt or fear, but found only assured confidence. I, however, had never been more nervous while wearing ski boots because I was skiing with my ten-year-old nephew Charlie at the top of Buttermilk in Aspen, and he had fewer days on skis than years on Earth. 

“It’s scary how similar you two are,” my sister-in-law and Charlie’s mother, Jules, told me. This is a common remark in my family. From my parents to Charlie’s father, my eldest brother Sean, to the rest of my siblings and extended family, most everyone sees a likeness. We’re large, loud and athletic. We’re sensitive and kind. We love to be the center of attention and will do just about anything to get those around us—friend or stranger—to smile. “Mostly you both just act like big, tall, dumb idiots to make people laugh,” Sean joked. “But behind that is also a lot of intelligence—emotional intelligence—and heart.”

Back home in Chicago, six-ish Thanksgivings ago, my parents fumbled the exchange of a bowl of blueberries and barked blame at one another. Charlie—maybe four-years-old at the time—took both their hands into his and placed them together. Glossy-eyed, he looked at both of his grandparents and told them that it was okay, that everything was going to be alright. I knew then that this kid had more heart than a body can hold, an attribute I figured would be his best piece of gear on the ski hill.

Sean and Jules shipped Charlie out to me in Aspen for a three-day ski trip during his spring break. It was his first solo vacation away from Mom, Dad and his younger brothers, Michael and Danny. “That mountain looks like a giant ice cream sundae,” Charlie spouted, while we drove up the Roaring Fork Valley. Among the many things we share, perhaps stomach-first thinking is at the top of the list. I’m not sure who was more excited on that drive into Aspen. But when Charlie took over as DJ, told me Jurassic 5 sounded old, and turned The Beatles off to play Post Malone, DJ Khaled and a hamster rapping about breakfast burritos, I knew this trip would teach us both a thing or two, not least of which was patience, understanding and the power of positivity.

Sunny and warm, our first day on skis began at Panda Peak, Buttermilk’s bunny slope, where we perfected the bare necessities: clicking in and out of skis; loading and unloading a lift; pizza-French fry-pizza; and how to get up when you fall… and fall again.

Once Charlie felt solid, we loaded the Summit Express lift and went about navigating gradual mid-mountain low-angle groomers. To my surprise, Charlie—without being instructed how or told to do so—broke free from the pizza-French fry technique and linked parallel turns because, he said, “You were doing it, so I figured I should too, Pad.” Charlie smeared long arcs, navigated the Toilet Bowl (his first Colorado blue run—I went bananas), caught his first air when he followed my “I’m gonna show off for my nephew” cut bank lip launch and wiggled his way to the steepest slope we’d encountered to that point, the final pitch on Homestead Road.

We stopped at the top and I told Charlie the plan: I’d slowly ski down to mid-slope, stop, tell him to go ahead, and he’d mimic my turns. I reminded him of technique, how to slow and control speed, and then I dropped in and made measured sweeps while narrating loud enough so Charlie could hear. When I stopped and turned around, I was met with a horrifying scene: Charlie was already skiing, flying downhill, tips pointed slightly inward in a desperate, albeit useless, attempt to slow down, legs bouncing like possessed jackhammers. Charlie’s face… well, let’s just say he was not smiling. From where I stood, I could hear him shouting, “NO, NO, NO, NO, NO… ” which continued as he shot past me. This was skiing’s version of a popped champagne cork, only if something happens to this cork, your older brother is going to murder you.

Charlie’s right ski popped off and he slammed to his chest and slid downhill. His left ski caught its tip and exploded off his boot. He flipped over his head and careened back into the air like a dizzy porpoise breaching the water. One, then two tomahawks later, Charlie came to a stop in the run-out of the slope, picked his head up for a brief second and planted it back into the snow. I could tell he was crying. I skied down, sat next to him and made sure he wasn’t injured. Once he sat up, I put my arm around him and consoled him, and in a few minutes he was calm. “If you ain’t falling, you ain’t trying, dude.” He looked at me, tears still hovering on his cheeks, and smirked. “Well, then I must be trying really hard, man.” He laughed, and so did I. And from that point on, the slope above us was referred to as “NoNo Peak.” 

When Charlie woke up on day two, he let me know that he wanted to warm up on the bunny hill and then try NoNo again, to ski it without falling. And he did. He connected high-speed, symmetrical, crescent-moon turns and victoriously raised both his hands above his head as he glided into the flats below.

“I was super anxious at the top of NoNo and I was thinking, ‘What if I don’t do it, what if I fail?’” Charlie told me. “But I know if I think that, then I’m probably gonna fail. So, I thought of happy thoughts, like SpongeBob dancing, and I pulled it off. And when I got to the bottom, I was so happy because I beat something. I beat the doubt.” As it turns out, my sunglasses are great at blocking UV rays and hiding tears.

Dueling ski pole guitar solos are a perfect way to introduce a newbie to the fun side of skiing.

There was little to no instruction on our last day skiing Aspen, just two dudes braving graupel and biting wind to freeski together. Unseasonable spring conditions or not, Charlie needed no pep talks or pointers, linking fast, clean, confident arcs from the West Summit to the bottom of the West Buttermilk Express. I followed behind, amazed and terrified at both his speed and how well he was skiing. Over cocoa and chicken fingers at lunch, I asked Charlie what he had learned from skiing. Without hesitation, Charlie rallied off a list:

“I love Aspen, and I love skiing. The three most important parts of skiing are smiles, high-fives and snacks. Skiing is not about competing, it’s just about having fun; we don’t conquer or fight the mountain, we dance with it. The smile feeds the heart and the heart feeds the feet, so you have to have a good attitude and a big smile to ski. When you get past that voice that says, ‘no,’ you feel like you can do anything.”

I nodded and cracked a half grin, my eyes becoming hazy. Sunglasses sometimes need to be worn inside. 

At surface level, skiing is merely a smile delivery system, a great way to goof around and giggle outside, just a bunch of grinning folks sliding around on snow. But maybe when we look deeper, skiing has more to do with the heart than it does the feet. It can show us the very best parts of ourselves, and help us work on the worst parts. It can teach us to drop the past, be in our boots and look forward to what’s in front of our tips. And for me, it all started from the first time I felt that energetic, zippy spring from a flexed ski travel through my legs and hit like a thousand-pound Fourth of July rocket in the center of my heart, a neon-electric confetti explosion across my soul.

I’m not sure if Charlie will recall this ski trip as an Uncle Paddy’s Colorado Life Lessons Conference, but I did see him actively push into and through fear, anger, frustration and tears. I do know that he loves to ski now. I’d even say that he’s a mini ski bum-in-training. And I think that’s as good as any place from which to start.

When we clicked out of our skis for the final time, Charlie said, “Pad, when I grow up, I want to move to Colorado to be a ski patroller.”

“Why do you say that, Char?”

“‘Cause you get to help people,” he told me, pausing briefly. And then he said, through a smile that came from somewhere deep within him, “And you get to ski all the time. And that’s awesome.”

I swear I heard a firecracker go boom. 

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