FORT RUCKER, Ala. (November 28, 2017) - Several years ago I was stationed at Buckley Air National Guard Base in Denver, Colorado. I'd never snow skied, but after my first initiation-by-fire trip, I was feeling pretty comfortable and actually considered myself a somewhat fearless skier. I would go hard and fast until I hit something or just fell down. Ski equipment would scatter from where I fell to where I slid to a stop - meaning I spent a lot of my time crawling back up the mountain for my gear.

This skiing style was somewhat modeled after my good buddy, Jim. He was a Special Operations weapons sergeant and fearless in nearly everything, including skiing. We often went "tree bashing," where we turned off a cleared ski run and cut through the trees to the next run. The space between the runs was usually a couple hundred yards wide, and skiing through the trees made for a limited view. Reaction time was minimal and if you didn't react quickly enough, you bashed into a tree. The snow in the wooded areas wasn't packed like the normal runs, and the loose powder was sometimes deeper than I was tall. Trying to get back up on skis in that snow was a lot like swimming.

One day a group of us hit slopes for some fun and spent all of our time trying to outdo one another. The day had started out pretty warm, but it was getting colder. I'd worn ski bibs and been hot all day. Jim had worn polypropylene bottoms with jeans over them and a jacket. He'd probably been more comfortable, but things were about to change.

It was getting late, so Jim and I went up for one last run. We looked at a map and picked which runs to take, including some that would be good for tree bashing. However, we made a wrong turn on the way down and went one run further to the right than we'd intended. We wound up about a half-mile from our intended run. To make matters worse, once we turned into the trees we got separated. Although we were still in voice range of each other, we should have come out of the trees sooner.

I then noticed that Jim - by far the better skier - was starting to fall behind. I yelled to see where he was, and he told me to go to the edge of the trees and wait for him there. I didn't make it far before I heard Jim say he was having a hard time skiing. Now, Jim is the type of guy who won't complain unless he's dying, so when he said he was having a hard time moving his legs, I was a little concerned.

I began skiing uphill in loose powder to find Jim. He was standing on a stump, stripping off his wet pants. I didn't realize that jeans, which aren't waterproof, would be useless in loose powder. That hadn't been a problem earlier because he rarely fell. When he did, it was on packed snow that didn't stick to him. I got really concerned when I saw that Jim was having a hard time balancing on the stump. He had begun to shake and his legs were turning blue. The sun was going down fast, and it was significantly colder in the shade and getting worse by the minute. We didn't even know where we were. We just knew we had to keep going and get out of the trees before dark.

I stripped down and handed my bibs to Jim. He gave me his wet pants, which had begun to freeze and also were a couple sizes too big. As soon as Jim warmed a little, we made a break for the bottom. I was amazed at how fast the wet pants cooled me off. It seemed like I was instantly cold and shaking all over. Skiing was more difficult wearing the wet jeans too. I didn't have enough hands to negotiate the trees and keep the pants up at the same time, so I let them slide to my ankles. I now had an added incentive not to fall in the loose powder with just my polypropylene between my skin and the snow!

Luckily, we were only about 400 hundred yards from the tree line. It wasn't long before we emerged from the trees and found our group, who'd been looking for us. They'd been loaded and ready to go, but as time went by without the sight of either Jim or I, they began to worry. We were thoroughly chastised before we got into the van, stripped off our wet clothes and finally warmed up.

Jim's legs were blue for half the trip back to Denver. He had minor burns down the outside of his thighs from the cold, but no serious injuries. I was fine after I warmed up. It was a memorable day and I think it scared both Jim and me. Jim, true to his character, still skis in jeans. I, however, learned my lesson. I'll always ski in waterproof clothing. It's better to always prepare for the worst!

FYI - Skiing and Snowboarding Tips from the National Ski Areas Association

Before hitting the slopes

• Get in shape. Don't try to ski yourself into shape. You'll enjoy skiing more if you're physically fit.

• Obtain proper equipment. Be sure to have your ski or snowboard bindings adjusted correctly at a local ski shop. You can rent good ski or snowboarding equipment at resorts.

• When buying skiwear, look for fabric that is water and wind-resistant. Look for wind flaps to shield zippers, snug cuffs at wrists and ankles, collars that can be snuggled up to the chin and drawstrings that can be adjusted for comfort and keep wind out. Be sure to buy quality clothing and products.

• Dress in layers. Layering allows you to accommodate your body's constantly changing temperature. For example, dress in polypropylene underwear (top and bottoms), which feels good next to the skin, dries quickly, absorbs sweat and keeps you warm. Wear a turtleneck, sweater and jacket.

• Be prepared. Mother Nature has a mind of her own. Bring a headband or hat with you to the slopes, 60 percent of heat-loss is through the head. Wear gloves or mittens (mittens are usually better for those susceptible to cold hands).

• Wear sun protection. The sun reflects off the snow and is stronger than you think, even on cloudy days!

• Always wear eye protection. Have sunglasses and goggles with you. Skiing and snowboarding are a lot more fun when you can see.

While on the slopes:

• Take a lesson. Like anything, you'll improve the most when you receive some guidance. The best way to become a good skier or snowboarder is to take a lesson from a qualified instructor.

• The key to successful skiing/snowboarding is control. To have it, you must be aware of your technique, the terrain and the skiers/snowboarders around you. Be aware of the snow conditions and how they can change. As conditions turn firm, the skiing gets hard and fast. Begin a run slowly.

• Skiing and snowboarding require a mental and physical presence.

• If you find yourself on a slope that exceeds your ability level, always leave your skis/snowboard on and side step down the slope.

• The all-important warm-up run prepares you mentally and physically for the day ahead.

• Drink plenty of water. Be careful not to become dehydrated.

• Curb alcohol consumption. Skiing and snowboarding do not mix well with alcohol or drugs.

• Know your limits. Learn to ski and snowboard smoothly-and in control. Stop before you become fatigued and, most of all have fun.

• If you're tired, stop skiing. In this day and age of multi-passenger gondolas and high-speed chairlifts, you can get a lot more time on the slopes compared to the days of the past when guests were limited to fixed grip chairlifts.

Your responsibility code:

Skiing can be enjoyed in many ways. At ski areas you may see people using alpine, snowboard, telemark, cross country and other specialized ski equipment, such as that used by disabled or other skiers. Regardless of how you decide to enjoy the slopes, always show courtesy to others and be aware that there are elements of risk in skiing that common sense and personal awareness can help reduce. Observe the code listed below and share with other skiers the responsibility for a great skiing experience.

1. Always stay in control.

2. People ahead of you have the right of way.

3. Stop in a safe place for you and others.

4. Whenever starting downhill or merging, look uphill and yield.

5. Use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.

6. Observe signs and warnings, and keep off closed trails.

7. Know how to use the lifts safely.

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