“Do you smoke?” Ali MacGrain asks in his Scottish brogue.
We’re standing on skis, I somewhat unsteadily, in bright morning sunlight on a lower flank of Northstar California Resort. MacGrain teaches skiing here, and though his accent doesn’t fit my template of a Sierra Nevada ski guru, at the age of 35 he’s already taught for 39 winters, migrating between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. He’s certified as a Level III instructor, the highest possible, by both the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the New Zealand Snowsports Instructors’ Alliance, and these days he mostly teaches and tests other instructors.
So if he thinks a smoke is what my skiing needs, I’m not going to question it. For all I know, Scotland is the sort of place where cigarettes are a vital part of alpine sports pedagogy. I grew up in glacier-flattened Indiana and was 13 when my family moved to New Hampshire. I tried skiing a couple of times and then quickly took up snowboarding, which had two advantages: It was less embarrassing to be bad at—lots of people were trying it out at the time—and it had a shorter learning curve.
After a few winters, I was able to gracelessly make my way down most of the mountains within a few hours of our house. My college girlfriend had grown up skiing all over the Rocky Mountains; at her high school in Santa Fe, N.M., everyone was bused to the local ski basin once a week when there was snow. We started spending Christmases with her parents, more regularly after we got married, and would hit the slopes for a day or two each visit.