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The cry sounded down the hill and across the valley.


But there was no answer. The Leopold in question was gone -- rigid, unsteady, determined not to fall and headed toward the bottom of the hill faster than any of us would have liked.

The we included me, I assume Leopold, and Monique, our ski instructor at Quebec's Mont-Sainte-Anne Park, about 30 miles east of Quebec City. Monique, a serious woman in her 40s, had seen her share of beginning skiers. Leopold, an even more serious man in his 60s, had seen his share of downhill championships.

Retirement seemed to me an odd time to take up skiing, but then I don't live in an area where winter settles in for half a year. Leopold made it safely to the bottom but had the good sense not to look up for congratulatory waves.

We rejoined him at the bottom and made another ascent together. We were already an hour into our first lesson, having gone through the fundamentals down at the base. Now we were attempting, I thought suicidally, to go down the hill in a slalom without poles. Before I came out of my first cautious turn, Leopold was already careening down the hill.

The previous afternoon I had taken a shuttle from Quebec to Mont-Sainte-Anne. The complex seemed typical of its kind -- a modern collection of shops, restaurants and hotels spread at the base and continually passed by speeding skiers. I walked to the far end and jumped into a cable car.

When I reached the top, it was already dusk. The scenery was exquisite: Fluffy pine trees frosted white, floodlighted snow packing the slopes between the pines.

The mountain served as a sharp division of time. In the east, it was already night, and the lights of houses shone along the St. Lawrence River. But when I turned 30 degrees to the west, I was rewarded with a seemingly endless sunset of the sharpest shades of purple and vermilion.

My meditation was interrupted by nighttime skiers. I watched with envy as they set out -- under unnaturally white lights beneath a pitch black sky, and in incredible stillness -- with a wiggle and swoosh. Such easy confidence. But, I noted, not one of them stopped to admire my sunset.

I stayed in the nearby Chalets Montmorency, which offers rooms in buildings resembling Swiss chalets. In the morning, an old school bus makes a stop in the parking lot to pick up skiers. I caught it about 8 and made my way through the complex process of getting outfitted. Skis and poles were picked up first -- a mistake, I soon decided, as I handled them with all the finesse of Woody Allen.

But this was nothing compared to the boots. I was handed two shiny objects that resembled miniature fire hydrants and asked to put my feet inside. My first steps nearly brought me to the ground.

Because I was wearing a sheepskin coat and a Russian fur hat, more streamlined attire was suggested. I rushed (which is to say, clomped out of control) over to the clothing shop. A cheerful young man found me a waist-length jacket and a bright knit cap.

Then I stumbled across the snow to the lesson, nearly getting run over by tall, Olympic specimens whizzing by on skis.

Monique, like most of the park's instructors, gave lessons in French and English. (If you remember any of your French from high school, you can opt for the first and get two lessons -- language and skiing -- in one.) She had been skiing since childhood, and it showed in her movements.

Her instruction was clear and sensible, making sure we had one point down before moving on to the next. And she was pretty much unflappable, except for those times when Leopold, inevitably, would start to slide slowly away from our group.

After the lesson I went to the canteen -- from which I could look out at other struggling beginners -- for soup and a hot dog.

Because of its proximity to Quebec City, Mont-Sainte-Anne is something of a commuter resort, catering to people who come out for the day, as well as those who might drive over after work for an evening run.

I saw people from other provinces, as well as some U.S. Army personnel skiing in jungle green camouflage. But the majority of skiers head home at night, leaving the apres-ski activities pretty much to your imagination.

The Chateau Mont-Sainte-Anne, at the base of the mountain, does offer, along with a couple of restaurants, a late-night disco.

I regret to say, however, that I did not visit it. Instead, I went back to my chalet -- rather, my room in the chalet -- and went to bed. With visions of Leopold slaloming in my head.

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