Downhill Skiing is Dangerous – So is Life

posted in: Recent, Stage 3, Stage 3: Step 1

Looking down a hill well beyond your skill level is terrifying. Downhill skis are designed to be fast, are long, hard to turn without knowing what to do. Conversely, understanding how to use the edges, distribute your weight, time weight transfers, and position your shoulders, hips, and knees allows you to ski difficult terrain with ease. It is satisfying and exhilarating.  It is a technical sport that requires years of practice to master.



I went skiing for the first time when I was 14. Our family was not a ski family, but my father decided to take us on a ski vacation at Mammoth Mountain. The whole trip was somewhat of a disaster as we were so unprepared. I got to the mountain too late for ski school, so my brother, who had skied once said he would teach me. We ended up on an intermediate slope. In spite of his best non-efforts, I twisted my knee, tore one of the ligaments, and ended up in a long leg cast for eight weeks.

No choice

For those of you who have never skied, being on a slope that is above your skill level is not only frightening, but it can also border on terrifying. Most skiers have experienced this scenario at least once. But any situation in life where you are in above your head elicits a similar response. What makes skiing unique is that you have no choice. You must get down the hill by the end of the day.

You must also make it through life. Consider life as a major ski resort with many choices except one. When you check into the ticket window early every morning, instead of buying a ticket, you are assigned to ride one chairlift. You must ride it regardless of the difficulty of the run or your expertise. No one is going to help you down.

Ski runs

The difficulty of a run is rated by colors. The easiest slope is called the “magic carpet.” You stand with your skis on a moving belt and get off on a hill that is almost flat. Green circles are usually accessed by chairlifts and the runs are smooth and gentle for beginners.  A blue square indicates a somewhat steeper slope for intermediate skiers. Some runs have bumps called moguls. Black diamond runs are steep, usually ungroomed, and often have many moguls. Double black diamond runs are challenging even for high level skiers and dangerous for beginners. There are many warning signs saying, “experts only.”


One problem we all face is that life is full of double black diamond runs. However, it is all relative. Anytime you are on a hill that is beyond your skill level, it is problematic. A beginner skier on an intermediate hill is not having a great time. Consider a beginner skier who has to navigate a double black diamond run. It is truly terrifying.

The core cause of all chronic mental and physical illness is sustained levels of stress. Stress can be defined as threat physiology or flight or fight. This state is necessary in order to keep you alive. The reason why chronic stress is so deadly is that you have no time to rest and regenerate. For example, the reason your heart can function for so long is that it rests between beats.

Dynamic Healing

There are three aspects of staying alive: 1) your input or stresses, 2) the nervous system which processes sensory input, 3) and the output, which is your body’s physiology. It can be in threat or safety. Sustained threat physiology is what creates mental and physical illnesses. It is the balance between your circumstances and coping mechanisms that determines your body’s chemical state. The essence of healing is decreasing your exposure to threat physiology and increasing time in safety. These are acquired skills.

They consist of processing input (stress) so it has less impact on your nervous system, calming the nervous system so as to be less reactive, and directly lowering your threat physiology. All three portals are accessed daily, and it requires repetition to make them automatic. Over time, you will be a “professional at living life.”

On the slopes

Taking this back to the ski resort metaphor, anytime you are in over your head, you will be in threat physiology. Your goal is to increase your skill level to the point where you have less of a chance of being on a hill that is frightening to you. Before you begin, you must have equipment that is safe and comfortable, including  being dressed according to the weather (too hot or too cold is a problem). Skiing requires strength, flexibility, and endurance, so conditioning is also important.

But the next step once your skis are on, is that you must learn to stop, regardless how steep the hill is. Even on a bunny hill, this is critical. On expert terrain, you must be able to set a firm edge. You cannot learn anything until you can stop. My wife endlessly reminds me that the first time I took her skiing, I neglected this detail, and she stopped by running into a building. It was a slow speed, so she wasn’t injured; but she wasn’t that happy.

Why do you ski? Why do you live?

Your desire is to enjoy your experience as much as possible. For example, if you are an intermediate skier on a blue slope, you can feel relaxed, work on skills, let the skis do the work, and have a great time. Isn’t that the reason you are skiing? But what if you are a blue skier on a black run or a green skier on a double black diamond run. It really is terrifying, and one experience will cause people to quit forever. But you have no choice. Life keeps coming at all of us and there is no end to the challenges. What are you going to do? You cannot stay on top of the hill all night. You don’t want to fall down a double black run at a high speed. It happens and people get hurt.



Then consider the scenario of an expert skier on an intermediate run well below his or skill level. Normally, it is an enjoyable experience. But today is 12 degrees, the wind is blowing about 20 mph, it is foggy, hard to see, and extremely icy. The expert skier must go into a defensive survival mode and might be OK. But it isn’t  much fun. What if you are green skier on a double-black diamond run in these conditions? It is beyond terrifying and also life threatening.

Good luck – or is it luck?

You cannot control most of the circumstances in your life, but you can develop skills to deal with them more effectively. Many more days will be enjoyable, and you also possess the confidence to deal with severe adversity. Your body frequently goes into threat physiology because it is protecting you. But you don’t have to stay there.

Few of us are taught the life skills of regulating our physiology (stress) and even fewer are taught to nurture joy. You might say, I don’t want to learn how to ski. I don’t like it. Good luck. You still have to check in at the ticket window and get your assignment for the day. We spend a lot of time learning many different skills but not much attention is spent on learning how to navigate life.