Winter's deluge of cold and snow isn't much fun for driving, but it is a wonder for winter sports in Wisconsin.
Coupled with January's Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, during which hills across the state offer special packages for beginners, there's no better time to take that first snowplow journey down a bunny hill.
I got my first taste of downhill skiing during an icy weekend trip to the U.P. nearly a decade ago. But life — years as a cash-strapped college student, fears of careening wildly into objects animate or otherwise, apprehension about being the oldest in a beginner class — prevented me from getting back on the slopes until recently, when I made my way to Lake Geneva's Grand Geneva Resort & Spa for a lesson on The Mountain Top.
There are a handful of hills within day-trip distance of Milwaukee, but few cater to those just getting their ski legs like The Mountain Top.
"We train our instructors to have patience and we know they're beginners, and again their safety is number one," said Dan Spencer, the ski resort's technical director who is charged with training the hill's 75 instructors. Spencer, 71, has been skiing and teaching off and on at The Mountain Top for more than 45 years.
As Spencer led me out to the hill, it was easy to see why it's perfect for beginners.
Snow-globe snow fell gently on two bunny hills flanked by magic carpets — conveyor belts that make for an easier trip up the short hill. Groups of students swooshed and scraped around a large learning area between the hills as instructors in bright yellow jackets provided patient directions.
Most lessons start with the basics: the parts of the ski, how to put them on and take them off, simple movements. We breezed through the basics and practiced some turning, wedges and transferring weight to the edge of the ski — vital for mastering picture-perfect parallel turns.
After a few quick runs on the smaller bunny hill with a buildup of skills — snowplow stopping, lazy parallel turns and eventually the nice, parallel stop — we migrated to the bigger bunny hill.
Things were going a lot better than I had expected — no falls, no smashing into trees or running over 7-year-olds. And I wasn't the only adult getting instruction. A few others were part of bigger group lessons, while some families tackled the bunny hill together.
Cheryl Uppling, the resort's ski school director, said The Mountain Top allows families to book a private family instructor if all kids are over the age of 7. "It's the whole family experience that we want them to get," she said.
Feeling confident in my Lindsey Vonn-like domination of the bunny hill, it was time to take on the big boy and the dreaded chairlift.
Lucky for me and other beginners, the chairlift at The Mountain Top can be slowed down for newbies to hop on. The operator slowed the lift while Spencer provided some support as I awkwardly shuffled into place. A few painless seconds later and an empty chair swept us up the hill.
Getting off was even easier than getting on (tips up!) and soon we were standing at the top of a mellow green run, the easiest rated ski run. A few other beginners dotted the hill, but we mostly had it to ourselves.
For more advanced skiers, I can see why The Mountain Top may not be appealing. But it was perfect for me. No expert skiers zooming in and out while I skidded into turns, and the hill is full of manageable runs — 10 blue or green routes — for someone just getting started.
"Follow me," Spencer said as we took off. He carved big, beautiful turns as I did my best to follow, focusing on keeping my skis parallel and leaning forward while shifting my weight from one ski to the other.
Our next time up required no slowing of the chairlift, and another nice run left me feeling confident. In less than an hour, I had gone from nervously teetering around the bottom of the bunny hill to making at least passable parallel turns down the hill.
Feeling good about my fall-free morning, I later learned my skis were probably mostly to thank for that.
"Part of it is the equipment these days," Uppling said, noting that shape and rocker skis make it easier for beginners to learn. "We're trying to introduce as many people as we can to the beginner experience, and with the technology being what it is, there's very few people that can't do it."
But a tool is only as good as its handler, and I was in good hands with Spencer.
With decades of experience and a kind, friendly demeanor that would put even the most nervous novice at ease, he made learning safe, easy and fun.
And while I don't think I'll be tackling any double black diamonds anytime soon, my reintroduction to downhill skiing has me praying for lots and lots of snow this winter.
When to go: The hill is open Monday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
How much it will set you back: One-hour beginner group lessons at The Mountain Top are $25 per person and are offered daily. Private lessons are $60 per hour.
Preregistration is required; call (262) 245-7516.
Rentals are $34 for adults and $25 for children. Helmets are an additional $10.
Getting there: The Mountain Top at the Grand Geneva is at 7036 Grand Geneva Way, Lake Geneva, about an hour southwest of Milwaukee via I-43 and Highway 12.
More information: For more on skiing at the Mountain Top, see grandgenevaski.com or call (262) 245-7516.
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