Alpine skiing! Or rather, downhill—I think that more accurately describes what is done on Kuutsemägi. Otherwise it would be called downmountain skiing. Just outside the ski capital of Estonia, a tiny village of two thousand called Otepää, the peak of this hill is two hundred seventeen meters. (According to the Estonian entry on the Wiki, it “might even be two hundred eighteen”. Wow!) However, the surrounding land is up to a hundred meters, so really it’s just a barely distinguishable blip on the horizon. But it’s there, it’s fun, it is possible to ski for half a minute straight if you’re very slow, and I respect Jamaica for even having a bobsledding team. Estonia’s a cross-country country, after all.
Nice modern roads will safely take you most of the way. The very end, however, is full of potholes that even through the thick snow and ice would make a Land Cruiser wince. The elite of Estonia come here, and they can’t fix the road? Kuutsemägi pretty much has a monopoly in their field, so I guess that explains it. In summer they have a tennis camp, for high-altitude training.
The parking lot was almost full, a sea of station wagons—Estonia’s pickup truck. The ticket office is at the bottom of the hill, where you drive in. Nice and quick, but the sign says farners have to pay in cash, and the owners misspelled that famous credit card on the sign—what’s it called? Oh, right. Mastrcard. I had to visit the booth twice because by the time I discovered the lift ticket wasn’t a sticker, I realized they’d also forgotten to give me a ticket wicket.
I borrowed a complete ski outfit from my partner-in-law (Mrs. Mingus’s sister’s partner), and when I tried it on at their home, it fit fine. In the rental lodge, however, I put the suspender straps on for the first time and they just seemed a bit short. I couldn’t go skiing looking like Steve Urkel. They were very difficult to adjust, and it took time. But the place was a zoo, and stinky too! I got a few dirty looks from people envying my seat.
To the slopes! You have to scan your lift ticket and glide through a turnstile before getting on the T-bars. A short minute and a half later and you’re at the top. I couldn’t help but overhear some guy blabbing on the public announcement system. Really loud, just going on and on about something, but I couldn’t understand him. He was very interested in hearing what he had to say. Very enthusiastic.
The last time I went downhill skiing was twelve years ago. It came back to me immediately, but just to be safe I went down the easy slope first. And there he was—the emcee from the speakers, standing in the middle of the slope, skiers desperately trying not to ram him. As I went by, he was saying something about how to stick your ticket in the scanner. “If the light turns green, go through.” Glad to know that. “If it’s red, something is wrong. Try again.” You think? “If it’s red when you scan it again, your ticket is locked for fifteen minutes.” What? Most people pay by the hour here for their right to ski. You lose a quarter of an hour for their problem?
Whoosh! And back in line again. People kept cutting in front of me, and standing on my skis from behind. My Estonian friend and I remarked that the same number of people in line would take up twice as much space in the West. People kept butting because I wasn’t standing on anyone’s skis. I had to be rude to get on the T-bar. And the snowboarders think they have their own line. They’re probably right of course—their wood is bigger.
“There’s not much of a line right now, good time for lunch,” MC Snow told me halfway up the hill. A few more times and I took his advice. On the way back down (the restaurant—Kuutse Tõnise Trahter—is on that same first slope) he was talking to the people on the slope outside the building. “Let’s give the skiers more room. If you’re not skiing, would you be so kind and move back to the edge of the slope,” he pleaded, all the while standing in the middle of the slope. And this guy just wouldn’t shut up. I didn’t hear him breathe once.
After taking my equipment off, I did the robot walk (walking in ski boots) and looked for a rack to leave my skis and poles on. Not a single one. I did find a sign, however, that instructed me not to leave my stuff unattended. So I clumsily went inside, wondering how I would carry skis and food. As it turns out, it wasn’t a problem. The lady emptying the trash rudely told me I couldn’t enter with skis. At a ski lodge. Where you can’t leave your skis anywhere. But I listened to her (don’t piss off the trash lady, is what I’ve always heard) and took a chance by depositing everything outside against the wall.
Back inside, quite the line. Damned emcee let the snow cat out of the lunch bag about there being no line. Fortunately, the line moves quickly, because they don’t actually cook anything in Kuutse Tõnise Trahter. Well, they do, but it’s made in bulk, cafeteria style. Fried Russian ravioli, fried pork, fried chicken filet (what’s a chicken filet?), French fries, and so on. No English, and that’s not a problem for me—I’m just warning anyone who might travel from France to go skiing on Kuutsemägi. I figured the pelmeenid (the ravioli stuff) and fries would be hearty enough for a day on the slopes. I could cough up the grease the next day while I writhed in pain from my numerous Charlie horses.
Of course the fries that Krista—the cafeteria woman—gave me were coated in potato seasoning. I liked that stuff the first few hundred times I had it, but it got old after a while. And I understand that Estonians love it with a passion—why else would it be used so much, right?—but it would be a very nice development were a choice available. What’s wrong with just plain old salt?
The Trahter, in my opinion, was the worst of the worst in terms of food. “But I like the food there,” a few friends have disagreed with my description. “Yeah, you’ll like anything if you’re hungry enough, especially after skiing for hours,” is my response. And those pelmeenid and fries were oh so good. Objectively: boring and unhealthy, but still delish! I especially loved the carbonated fizzle reaction in my throat from the Baltic-bottled Coke along with the grease. I wondered what my stomach would do on the black diamond slope a few minutes later.
Although I’m a farner, I could still pay with my Swedish bank-issued chip card.
Outside, my skis were still there. Loud techno was blaring from the speakers, and we couldn’t talk as we put our equipment back on. Then MC Snow must have seen that I was back. He turned the volume down (but not off) and started talking again. “Be boom! sure boom! to test-drive boom! the new boom! Toyota Corolla boom!” he competed with the music. Advertisements? On a ski slope? I scanned the other people to see if anyone stopped skiing to write down the telephone number he kept repeating.
The maps are a bit hard to find, which is odd considering there are only seven slopes. There is one just outside the restaurant, but not where you’d think to look. There’s another one at the top of the hill, but if you’ve made it that far I guess you don’t really need it. I was surprised at how much cross-country skiing was required to get from slope to slope though. The map didn’t show that bit.
It also didn’t show that there was another little food lodge on the top, far away from the beginner slopes. Cash only this time, for Estonians too. No Internet atop the hill? That’s hardly consistent—the ticket scanners must be plugged into something, and Estonia has Kõu, the wireless web modem. Internet anywhere. But they did have hamburgers—if only I’d known! Then I saw one, and had the sneaking suspicion it was not beef, but a chicken filet again. Another kind of chicken filet, not the authentic one in Kuutse Tõnise Trahter.
The black diamond slope on Kuutsemägi—the hardest on the hill—was very short and easy, and I’m not an especially good skier, either. It also had the only Poma lift there. I was mildly put off by the amount of ice chunks, however, so we went back to the easier stuff.
“Only three minutes left until the competition’s over. Hurry up!” MC Snow started talking again. A race? We made it to the line. Basically you just start skiing when he tells you to go, and your time will be announced as you pass.
“What’s your name?” the little boy asked, clipboard in hand.
“How do you spell that?”
“GO!” pushing and shoving and leaning as far forward as my boots would allow, this contest was mine. I flew down the hill like a fire on the mountain, and when I passed MC Snow he didn’t say anything. My friend said it was because I wasn’t fast enough. Not fast enough to even find out how fast I was? Then he continued with his verbal diarrhea, and I realized I needed a jaan.
Inside the Trahter again, I saw a sign inside the stall that read, “Do not throw paper in the toilet.” And there was no trashcan. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what you would have to do in the event of an emergency. Hold the paper in your hand and ask the angry trash lady for help? I took a picture of the sign, but forgot to mute my phone. It made a loud camera sound, and a second later when I walked out of the stall, there was a guy washing his hands, looking at me like I was some sort of perv. I asked him, “Wanna’ see it?” And I pulled out the phone. Okay, no I didn’t say or do that, but I was tempted.
It was dark and we were tired, so we called it quits. On the way to my Estonian pickup truck, I noticed that the children’s slope—with a rope tow—was the only slope not illuminated by the green floodlights. Four-year-olds skiing in the dark with only the white of the snow to show them the way.
But overall it was a great day. The equipment was newish, clean and in very good condition. The slopes were short but fun. No Aspen, but you can’t expect that anyhow, outside of, well, Aspen. The lift tickets were a bit pricy at three hundred kroons for a day pass, considering that there are no chairlifts, but as I said, the owners have a monopoly. I want to go back next weekend, but I think I’ll bring my own lunch. Maybe Kuutse Tõnise Trahter will let me use their microwave?