On the Slopes, In the White House: Macho, Macho Men

The physical wounds have mostly healed; the psychic wounds are going to take a little longer. I’m talking about my recent annual ski trip out West with a few friends from college. Don’t get me wrong: I had a good time. I’m one of those wimps who prefers bright sunshine to fresh powder, and there were copious amounts of the former and none, whatsoever, of the latter. Which, come to think of it, may be part of the reason my companions put themselves and me so relentlessly in harm’s way.

The problem stemmed from my friends’ and my divergent views about what constitutes a successful ski vacation. For me, it’s about (though not necessarily in this order) enjoying the scenery, getting exercise, working on my tan, keeping my skis together and making it to the bottom of the run without needing a blood transfusion.

For my friends Bruce, Mike and Pedro (and they can correct me if I’m wrong-preferably via e-mail rather than in a letter to the editor), it’s about proving their manhood. If this sounds like sour grapes, it is. Bruce and Mike are better skiers than me. Pedro isn’t, though he’s probably in better shape than me, which isn’t saying much. I don’t know how else to explain his cheerful willingness to follow Bruce over precipices without first checking what’s on the other side. And it’s not as if he doesn’t pay for his spontaneity. Pedro’s typical vacation consists of skiing until he twists or breaks something, and then he departs prematurely. Come to think of it, Bruce and Mike aren’t particularly in touch with their bodies either, at least judging by the amount of body odor they’re comfortable living with-though perhaps I ought to save that thought for a follow-up column.

Our vacations are always a case study in machismo, with Bruce promising to pace himself-a vow shattered, often along with his telemark bindings, by the end of the first run. But this year ,the pace was even more frenetic. I think two factors probably tipped the scales in favor of risk-taking. The first, as I mentioned before, was the dearth of fresh powder: It provoked the boys to take extreme measures in an attempt to find any. The second factor was the presence of Mike, who had never skied with us before.

In addition to the fact that Mike is an excellent athlete, from what I gather, since he sold his family business last year, he has also spent much of the time working out. He and his wife have a personal trainer, he runs several times a week, and he recently took up yoga. Bruce, a computer-software designer who lives in Dublin, is no slouch in the fitness department, either; he currently leads the standings for the Irish Mountain Running Association’s 50-and-over category.

While I don’t think that Bruce and Mike were competing (at least not consciously) for leadership of our pack, Mike’s presence certainly gave Bruce license to go for broke. As I said, there was no fresh powder, which is the main reason to come to Alta in the first place. So Bruce, our guide, spent an excessive and ultimately futile amount of time leading us across 10,000-foot-high traverses and hanging off the sides of cliffs in search of some.

My scariest moment-not to be confused with the run where I scraped half the skin off my left arm during a fall on what the operator of the tram at Snowbird, the resort next-door to Alta (where we also skied), described as “hard snow” (a meteorological phenomenon with which I was previously unfamiliar, apparently not to be mistaken for ice)-came after Bruce led us to the top of a trail that was so steep a parachute would have been more appropriate gear than skis. We found ourselves trapped on this promontory after asking some ski bum we encountered on a previous run what the area, known as the Cirque, was like.

“It’s not too bad once you get past the rocks,” he said. That may as well have been the mantra for our entire vacation, since the lack of snow had exposed geology that hasn’t been seen since the Jurassic. However, he made the rocks sound no greater an obstacle than pebbles strewn across a garden path. As it turned out, they were the size of boulders. In fact, they were boulders.

Bruce and Pedro skied ahead looking for an escape hatch, while Mike made sure his crash helmet fit snugly and I rued the moment I met Bruce in college back in 1972. Some veteran Snowbird skiers came up behind us, pronounced the narrow chute over which we were standing the best way down, and vanished over the rim.

Since there was no going back, I followed them-there was no way they could have been any dumber than my own party-managing to avoid soiling myself on the descent and even making a couple of life-saving turns.

The trip, frankly, threw me into something of an identity crisis. On the one hand, I consoled myself that I had a satisfying career that provided opportunities to prove myself without rising from my desk. On the other hand, I felt woefully out of shape. How much of this was due to the altitude and how much to the breathless pace of our average descent, I can’t say. In any case, I felt like a ball and chain around my friends’ legs everywhere save the hotel bar, where I managed to be mildly amusing. “Speaking just for me, you were not an impediment,” Bruce wrote in response to an apologetic e-mail I sent him after the vacation. “As you saw on the Cirque, you actually can ski down anything once you overcome your appeal to sanity.”

For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz the whole vacation. Or, to be more accurate, Bruce, Mike and Pedro morphed into the President and his Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense.

What both groups had in common was that they were putting my body at risk without my permission, and for what seemed like dumb-ass reasons. They all seemed caught up in the testosterone-charged, competitive, macho momentum of the moment. The line between fun-or, in Bush’s case, waging war-and irresponsibility masquerading as bravery was one I had no desire to cross.

The ironic thing is that after we got home, the tone of Bruce’s e-mails became almost contrite, as if acknowledging that during our vacation he wasn’t himself. Sort of like the drunk at the Christmas party who can’t remember a thing-except that his poison wasn’t Scotch, but snow.

If foreign-policy analysts are searching for an explanation of George W.’s behavior, perhaps they should be looking at the locker rooms and ski slopes of America rather than in the Oval Office or the wood-paneled suites over at State or Defense, though the distinction between the two may be lost on some. Bruce, Mike and Pedro were W., Rummy and the Wolfman-with me playing Colin Powell.

Except that now the Secretary of State seems to have rented a pair of demo skis and is tearing down the mountain trying to catch up. Is there anybody left to say the conditions suck, to say, “I’m heading back to the lodge for a hot tub”?