Editor's note: This is a First Person story, one in an occasional series by readers and Star Tribune staff members.

Coming from a Minnesota family, we were predestined to spend time on the hills of winter snow. The hills started out rather small though, the first being in my own backyard of Roseville. For Christmas in 1967, my parents gave my sister Katherine and me some wooden downhill skis that simply attached to whatever snow boots we wore. We skied down the gentle slope between our house and a neighbor’s that was a short 3-foot drop.

Dreams of bigger hills soon followed.

It became a family tradition to go to Lutsen Mountains every December. It’s hard to say if I really enjoyed the subzero temperatures of the Arrowhead region. The bitter cold of Lake Superior took home in my bones as the snow saturated my snow gear. I was always checking my cheeks for signs of frost bite. No matter how many socks I wore in my boots, the feelings in my toes stopped within 11 minutes.

Before graduating to the steeper hills of Lutsen’s, my dad took me to a place I called the Ski Haus in St. Paul to be outfitted with real boots and skis with legitimate bindings. In the early 1960s, your height was measured and the number doubled to choose the appropriate length of ski. Who were we to challenge this proven Nordic custom? If the Scandinavians could ski the Alps with those floorboards, I could ski Lutsen with mine.

I couldn’t have been more proud of my new red-stringed Nordica lace-ups, although they felt like wearing concrete blocks. There was no give in the stride. I felt like Frankenstein lumbering through the ski lodge to the cafeteria line for a bite to eat. This was my favorite line at Lutsen — not the tow rope line, nor any line to come, but the cafeteria line. When I ran out of spare change, I eventually went outside to gather my skis and head to the tow ropes. I didn’t like those ropes because they were always moving. You had to ‘grab your moment’ to make it to the top just to ski downhill. And there was no letting go of the rope, for fear of being stranded mid-hill and sliding down backward.

Cindy, my older sister, was a far more-advanced skier, a daredevil who skied the black diamond runs. During our Lutsen trip in 1969, she persuaded me to accompany her to the top of a run named Hari-Kari, an almost-vertical drop that donned slalom flags for racers. (I think this is the hill they bragged of having twice the vertical drop of any in the area.) It was impossible to recognize any skier on the mountain from the height. It was like trying to identify rock climbers at Yosemite. Why I said yes to my sister that day mystifies me, except to possibly show off my new skis, boots and jacket to the downhill racing crowd. The only way to the top of Hari-Kari was on the T-bar with her. Having a serious fear of heights made this decision one of my worst.

So we started up the mountain, in an almost ­vertical climb. Of course the higher we ascended, the more petrified I got. I just wanted to sit down, which you never do on a T-bar. The motor stopped halfway up the mountain. There was no more pull upward to offset the gravity that was weighing against me. I panicked, and then Cindy panicked when I sat down on the T-bar, caving to the lack of momentum. We fell backward, skied backward and crashed backward. My worst nightmare unfolded as I slid into the couple behind us. For several minutes, we were all a bunch of entangled skis searching for solid ground.

I heard my sister scream for me to “grab any empty bar if you can.” With no other choice, I stood up and planned my move, without ever looking downhill. I grabbed the next available bar and wrapped my arms around it for dear life as it pulled me up to the peak.

It was a blur as to where my sister was in this whole mess. When I finally made it to the top, she was standing there with a look on her face I couldn’t identify. “I’m headed down, see you later,” she said, and she disappeared down the face of Hari-Kari.

Whizzing by me were ski racers flipping through the flags. At the peak of this hill, there was an immediate drop that left no time to plan your next maneuver; you just had to know how to let yourself free fall downhill. I was terrified. “You just wait, Cindy. I’ll meet up with you later,” I thought. I edged my way over to the other side of the run to consider my choices. I could close my eyes and just go for it; I could slowly traverse back and forth across the face of the hill; or I could sidestep my way down the icy incline.

I carried down my skis.

After an hour and a half, I hit the bottom of Hari-Kari. If I’d known about Frank ­Sinatra at that age, I might have sung “I did it my way” all the way down to the much-safer cafeteria line.

 

Susan Lambert grew up in Roseville and spent her youth in the beauty of the Minnesota outdoors. While she currently lives in Rocky River, Ohio, she still spends summers in Minnesota’s Northwest Angle.

About First Person series: If you’d like to share your tale of an outdoors activity, submit a story of 600-700 words for consideration to outdoorsweekend@startribune.com. Include your name, address and phone number. Related photos will be considered, too.