For most people, Mach 1 signifies the speed of sound. For my brother and me, Mach 1, is a short, steep ski run in Breckenridge, Colorado that throughout our childhood, stood for all that is terrifying and glorious about skiing.
We first heard about Mach 1 through our father, a doctor who volunteered on the local ski patrol as a way to get free ski passes for the family. One day, while my brother and I were still young enough to be perfecting our snowplow, my dad picked us up from the ski school and explained that the flight for life helicopter that had landed and left earlier was transporting a woman to Denver for emergency surgery. The woman had fallen down on Mach 1, tumbling from the top of the “nearly vertical” slope all the way to the bottom, breaking her neck in the process.
Naturally this tale inspired an obsession with Mach 1, and a vow to ski it ourselves as soon as possible. For me, that day came when I was nine years old. I still remember that first effort. I inched my way down the slope, not quite approaching Mach 1 in my velocity. I made it to the bottom (mostly by sliding down on my body part of the same name) without breaking any bones. This was an accomplishment, to be sure, as well as a brush with death. I probably would not have skied it again, were it not for my older brother, who, as an older brother, was never afraid of anything except maybe asking KK Harvey to dance.
So it went, every trip to Breckenridge included at least one hair-raising descent of Mach 1. Gradually, my fear of the slope subsided, even if my ability to ski down it with any panache did not improve. Even my brother struggled with the moguls of Mach 1. He could do two or three turns at once, but his effort was always interrupted with an awkward careening to one side or the other as gravity, choppy snow, or a patch of ice conspired to interrupt his “line.” To get down Mach 1 without stopping or falling seemed an inhuman feat.
Enter the “Banana Guy.” So named for the busy, repeating banana logo on his otherwise black snowsuit, the Banana Guy came into our lives one day in the mid 80s, as my brother and I were midway down Mach 1. From the top of the slope, the Banana Guy called out wildly to look out below, and then launched himself downward, hurtling through space with a controlled abandon. Gliding between the bumps like water would flow between rocks, he made his way to the bottom in about 30 seconds. Not quite breaking the sound barrier, but in our eyes, the Banana Guy’s achievement was no less impressive than Chuck Yeager’s. In those 30 seconds, he fundamentally changed what we thought was possible.
We never saw him again. But as we grew up, the Banana Guy continued to exert his influence. Our memory of his performance was the gold standard against which we always measured ourselves, always coming up short. The Banana Guy came to symbolize a sort of unattainable perfection that made me wonder if he ever really existed. I wondered what his performance really would have looked like if we could have captured it on video, and watched over and over again on YouTube.
Surely the digital, replayed reality would turn out to be disappointing somehow. The Banana Guy was probably some sunburned 20 something pothead who didn’t return his girlfriend’s phone calls. There was no way he was actually as good as we thought he was. And who ever heard of a snow suit adorned with bananas? Fleur de lis, maybe? Yes, that made more sense.
I proffered this theory to my now 43 year-old-brother. He scoffed and practically accused me of heresy. “The Banana Guy was not wearing Fleur de lis.” End of story. I learned not to question the legend again.
This week, while on vacation in Breckenridge with my family, I found myself confronting Mach 1 again. Looking back there really was no way to avoid it. The snow conditions were good enough that this run (whose steep, southern facing slope has a hard time holding on to snow in the spring) was still open. My kids were in ski lessons and my husband (who values the integrity of his skeleton too much to ski moguls) was on a conference call so I was free to ski wherever I wanted. And most importantly, I was wearing new “demo” rental skis that the guy at the ski shop had recommended because they were good for “women.” “Yeah, women like them because they are really easy to ski on,” he had said. “You don’t have to work very much with these.”
The die was cast with that comment. I didn’t have time to respond properly in the ski shop because I was too busy engaging in those womanly duties of getting my kids outfitted with ski boots etc., while protecting them from the shop’s jumpy pet dog, and remarking to myself, My those young men behind the counter could use a good bath and a few fewer hits of marijuana.
But Wednesday morning, the little girl who used to bristle at the pancake house because there never was any “Girls’n’berry” syrup, was now a 40 year old lady in a puffy coat wearing ample amounts of sunscreen and ridiculous floral printed skis which I swear to you had a giant decal of a girl wearing a tanktop without a bra.
In short, I had something to prove. I was going to take on Mach 1 by God! (and by God, I assure you I am not referring to the Banana Guy.)
As I stood at the top of the slope I remembered. It begins with a precipitous drop. Not quite a cliff but more of a bulge that feels “practically vertical” as my dad described it. It is enough to get a girl’s blood pumping, even if she is wearing skis that do all the work for her.
While I can’t say that I would have impressed anybody with my skills, I did make my way down the slope pretty well and without injury. I was buoyed enough by this first effort to ski Mach 1 again and again. Each time getting a little better I thought.
By noon my time was up and I had to get back to pick up my kids. (Corporate law not traveling at the speed of sound, my husband was still on the conference call, I assumed, debating the same point that was being made at 9 am.)
As I coasted down the groomed runs below Mach 1 to the base, I admitted that the woman skis weren’t so bad after all. By this point there was enough snow caked on their embarrassing decorative features that I almost liked them.
Then I came across a father taking a video of his young girls snowplowing in zig zags ahead of me. I cruised ahead, keeping to the side of the slope, not wanting to overtake the frame of their home video but still thinking, I am going to show these girls how it’s DONE. Not the Banana Guy, to be sure, but on this gentle slope with no moguls, I was feeling pretty expert.
I passed the girls with a graceful swish. Then I caught an edge and fell. I skidded headfirst down the mountain for about 20 yards and lost one of my skis in the process. Unfazed, the girls skied around me and my errant ski, while their dad followed up behind them. He picked up my ski, whose decoration was now visible in all its floral, bra-less voluptuousness, and handed it to me. He had stopped videotaping at this point.
I thanked him, and tried to apologize for interfering with this video. I expected him to be amused. He was was not.
As he skied off I wondered, Maybe he thought I almost ran into one of his girls? Maybe he didn’t understand my apology? Maybe he was stunned by the sight of grown woman wearing soft porn on her skis?
In any event, I take refuge in knowing that he will probably delete the video and those kids have probably already forgotten about their encounter with me. And given how sore I am from my efforts I will be taking a break from Mach 1 for a while. But make no mistake, “Face Plant Lady on Girlie Skis” shall return! I believe Banana Guy is still out there, too.