Are We Going Under the Rope, or Just Gaming the System?

by Emily Kemme

Shoveling snow, with my feet!


My quadriceps ache from lifting two feet of fresh snow, Steamboat Springs’ celebrated Champagne Powder, as we take turns breaking trail. Even snow reputed to be light as air weighs something when you have to move it aside.

You never know what sort of a winter you’re going to get in Colorado. It could be dry as a bone, as this winter has; then there are years where the ski areas trumpet their snowfall in hundreds of inches. Last year Steamboat saw cumulative snowfall of over 300 inches, with a 100-inch base. This year, an embarrassingly scant twenty-two on the base.

And then, the EPIC storm hit. At least, that’s how the ski area billed it, and they rightly could. The twenty-seven inch snowfall in 24 hours was a record, after all. We certainly intended to go play in it. There is nothing as satisfying as champagne powder. Light and fluffy, yet full of water, it glistens and sparkles, teasing, beckoning. It won’t hurt if you fall in it; other than eating a mouthful of wet snow, the ground is so far beneath your feet you swiftly come to realize you’re floating on air. Skiing on clouds.

Inching our way up, we could see a hint of trail. If you subscribe to the Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb theory, follow your own trail back; hopefully, you won’t get lost.

Dr. K has had knee troubles for years, and we’ve segued to snowshoeing, which may seem tame to the downhillers, but provides enough exercise to make me happy. As we snailed upwards on the steep incline, no more than a few feet a minute, shoveling snow with our splayed-plastic webbed shoes, I glanced across the ravine, past Fish Creek Falls, to watch the ski lifts threading their way along the ridge of Storm Peak, ferrying skiers up and over to find fresh powder of their own in narrow chutes, forested with pine trees. Skiing is an exercise of a different nature, different muscles burn as you balance on the narrow boards, treading frozen water, skimming its surface.

I was separated from the skiers, the schussing downhill exhilaration not part of my day, in greater measure than the deep cleft of ravine. It’s a choice we sometimes make:  companionship, or pursuit of thrills. I missed the challenge of balancing, edging around a tight mogul, carving my turn so as not to blast through the next, keeping to a line, as they say. Skiing is the ultimate mind game; miss a turn, you lose. Your performance is downgraded to less than expert, and on a narrow run, there’s no place to turn to correct your mistake. In a way, when you cross that invisible line, you’ve crossed a boundary, creating a point of no return.

A few years back while skiing, our kids, Harrison and Isabelle, crossed a boundary of their own. I can’t say it was inadvertent; they’re both smart kids, and as teens, enjoy pushing the envelope set by adults.

You know that rope, the one that edges every ski area. It’s usually accompanied by a sign, something that reads, “Egress may be difficult. The ski area is not responsible for rescue. Going out of bounds may be costly.” Or some such rot, as Harrison explained to me much later. No matter that the sign was ornamented by a glaring skull-and-crossbones. Okay, it’s possible I’m making some of this up, but you get my gist?

Teenagers being what they are, under the rope they went. They are, after all, virtually indestructible.

Skiing out of bounds is fine, if you’re not caught, and your ski ticket isn’t yanked by the resort authorities, which ticket was most likely paid for by your older and a little bit wiser parents. And yet, there is the chance you may have to deal with a much scarier situation than having to explain why you are on the wrong side of the rope to the Ski Patrol, those amazingly awesome people whom you’d love to emulate, as they swoosh down the slopes, white cross on ski jacket, effortlessly hauling down some poor slob who ate it on a green run and doesn’t even have a great story to tell as to how he broke his collar bone on the first day out. It would have been better if they’d pulled your ticket, slapped your wrist, and reminded you to behave. Or else.

Instead, Harrison and Isabelle grew up. Very quickly.

As the light dimmed that afternoon, as does winter’s sun, and they attempted to ski down increasingly steeper terrain, they realized they’d goofed. The rocks and scanty snow, outlined in the coldest of blue shadows, were the first clue; when Isabelle ended a turn inches from the edge of a cliff, with a good, steep drop below, they panicked. Maybe going under the rope wasn’t such a hot idea.

You never know where the trail may lead.

People go under the rope all the time.

It can be as minor an infraction as failing to replace the toilet paper on the spindle if it’s empty, and yet, some people can’t even be bothered with that.

Toeing the line means different things to everybody. For Quentin Rowan, who wrote under the nom de plume Q.R. Markham, it was perfectly fine to cut-and-paste from James Bond continuation novelist John Gardner, Robert Ludlum and snippets from prose master Graham Greene, as he “created” his story Assassin of Secrets, published by Little, Brown last fall. After determining that most of the spy novel was assembled, scrapbook method, by Rowan in his Brooklyn apartment, the publisher withdrew all 6,500 copies of the book from the market. Critics revile him as no writer, and yet, there is a touch of whimsey in the acknowledgment that Rowan may have cobbled together an entirely new literary genre in the sense of clip art. Rowan admitted it might have been easier to just write the book instead.

Kay Manning, a romance “writer” recently uncovered by astute authors who determined that her military-themed short story had been plagiarized, paragraphs rephrased verbatim with only names changed, has had her parachute cut. Even worse than discovering that she’d committed cut-and-paste, readers said if she was going to copy someone else’s writing, she could have found a better written story than the trash she made available, for free, on the internet. I guess if you’re going to steal someone’s words, make sure they’re worthwhile loot.

Don’t get me wrong; even Shakespeare’s plots and stories were garnered from Greek mythology, or as was the case of King Lear, were sourced from The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, by Raphael Holinshed, or a brief gander at contemporary plays, books and essays. As Joseph Campbell explained in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, plot similarities are one matter, since all grains of human mythology funnel into a “universal monomyth”; originality of language is quite another thing.

It’s a fun game, but no stand in for the real Scrabble.

But then, there is Words with Friends, that ever-so-addictive cousin to Scrabble. It’s like the board game, and yet, it’s not. In case you’re not familiar with this new app available for the iPhone, WWF is a word game where you can challenge friends to click tiles. Except that words aren’t necessarily all that important. If anything, I’d call it a “letter” game; throw out a grouping of letter tiles and see if the master computer allows them to stick. Who knows? I’d never realized that “qi”, “xu,” or “staw” were recognized by Merriam-Webster Unabridged. I know that “stum” seriously confuses my spellchecker on the WordPress blog program, which is certain I’m trying to “stun” it with language. Back in the old days we’d have to demonstrate our knowledge of an idiom, and actually define a word, before laying down the tiles and tallying up points. I confess, I’m terrible at the computer version of the game, and try to play words I might actually be able to understand. If anyone out there is in need of an easy win, challenge me to a game on your iPhone.

I suppose, at bottom, going under the rope is a gray area. Similar to plagiarism, which “remains a murky offense, ‘best understood not as a sharply defined operation, like beheading, but as a whole range of activities, more like cooking. . .”, when I play Words with Friends, it is less philology, more philandering with words, playing, teasing, taunting friends via our remote communication methods we rely upon so much.

Harrison and Isabelle lost their skis and poles that winter’s day a few years ago, and gained greater awareness of why boundaries exist. They had to come to terms with a much more harrowing experience than the mere loss of property. There’s a difference between being miserly and miserable, misery of cold hands and feet, ski equipment jettisoned off a cliff to make it easier to scale your way down, and acceptance of the fact that your sister came close to falling off a cliff, simply because they decided to duck under a rope.

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Kathy March 5, 2012 - 1:56 pm

Great article!

Lynne Hugo March 5, 2012 - 9:45 am

Sounds very scary for the teens…I’m wondering how scary it was for you! Did you know they might go under the rope? And were you scared out of your mind when they weren’t at the bottom where you’d expected them to be…or at the condo? I admit that for me, both “going under the rope” and plagerism are pretty clear, much like texting while driving (not a gray area): don’t do it! But possibly that’s just me!

Emily Kemme March 5, 2012 - 1:53 pm

Funny you should ask that! We’d skied with them the previous day, they’d looked at that exact sign/rope with longing, and we said, “no way!” The next day, we opted to snowshoe, and, believing that since the kids knew the ski area inside and out, we figured they’d be safe. They’d been texting to keep in touch, up ’til then. We were having a late lunch with friends when I received a phone call from Harrison, telling me, “I just want you to know we’re ok.” My response was, “I never thought you weren’t. . ..” I became scared, after the fact, just thinking about the whole experience.

I agree with you about the rest. There are many societal taboos which aren’t codified by statute or understood to be prohibited by common law interpretation; we have a moral compass which prevents us from breaking them. The further away from teenage-dom we get, the better that compass functions, I think. Except, I admit to occasionally playing a Words with Friends word that I don’t know the definition. I’m working on that, though.

Monica March 4, 2012 - 7:33 pm

Pushing the button in any situation Is tricky. The simplest is finding words for scrabble which we all find from experimentation, the second is downright plagiarism which is unlawful and then the third is most serious for human life is going through a barrier either a snow block, road block or anther type of block. The second two are extremly serious. I relate to all three consequences. Your blogs certainly make people think about issues.

Michelle March 3, 2012 - 9:35 am

Skiing off a cliff regardless still has to be better than possibly having your sister pulled of one by your German shepherd puppy in North Carolina. Cliffs and misbehaved puppies do not mix. Just made me think of that very scary moment from years ago.

Karen C. March 2, 2012 - 5:21 pm

Emily, I enjoy your writing but am puzzled as to how Harrison lost his skis & poles & how bro & sis made it back after their misadventure.

Emily Kemme March 2, 2012 - 5:23 pm

Harrison and Isabelle decided to take off their skis/poles and hike down the cliff, rather than skiing it. It seemed safer. Basically, they scooted down on their rear ends! They ended up in the Fish Creek recreational trails parking lot, and were picked up by a nice woman about 4pm that afternoon, who gave them a ride back to the condo. But, it put them off skiing for a bit.


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