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Learning to Ski

When I broke the news that I would be moving to Switzerland, every friend immediately cracked a joke about Swiss bank accounts. Their second reaction was to say it would be a wonderful chance to ski. Skiing has a great attraction for the British. As there are few opportunities to indulge back home the idea of living close to the Alps seems particularly appealing.

When I arrived here, some three years ago, I had never been skiing. I was determined to give it a go but making the initial step was quite intimidating. In a country whose citizens ski as soon as they walk, it takes a surprising amount of effort to find out exactly what equipment is needed. Making preparations for that first day on the slopes can be daunting. For the record, this is what you need:

  • Ski trousers
  • Lightweight, waterproof jacket
  • Ski goggles
  • Woolly hat or helmet
  • Ski gloves
  • Thick socks
  • Reckless disregard for personal safety

You can hire the rest – boots, skis and ski-poles or a snowboard.

There is no escaping the fact that skiing is an expensive business, even for those who live close enough to go on a day-trip. Borrowing skis or a snowboard may save money but the sizes and settings need to be carefully adjusted, which only an expert can do competently. Hiring is a better option for most people.

I didn’t relish the prospect of driving on those treacherous mountain roads so I boarded a small train that winds its way up above the resort of Villars in the canton of Vaud. The weather was not promising – low cloud and drizzle. It was therefore a wondrous sight when the train broke through the clouds into bright sunlight. There was a spontaneous cheer from the passengers and a scramble for sunglasses. Suddenly the world below was completely hidden below the clouds. All around were spectacular peaks covered in snow and clear blue sky.

I had booked an individual lesson with an instructor and been told to arrive without skis. With my childhood memories of Ski Sunday on BBC Two, I was quite clear that I wanted to ski rather than snowboard. I was later to discover that skiers and snowboarders are two mutually suspicious tribes. Once established in one camp, crossing the great divide is regarded as treachery so make your choice well.

Snowboarding has a younger image and obviously draws comparison with surfing. Legend has it that it only takes two days to learn the basics.

Skiing, on the other hand, is more popular. The great advantage of skiing is that you can use the ski poles to propel yourselves forwards on flat sections. Snowboarders have to disengage one foot and clamber awkwardly until the next downhill section or take the board off completely. If you want to try out other activities later on, such as ski mountaineering, you will need to ski.

For most people skiing is not too difficult to learn but youth, general sporting aptitude and an inexplicable desire to throw yourself down steep mountains are all advantages.

The local ski instructor in Villars was friendly and helpful. He gave me a pair of short skis (only 1 metre long) which are easy to control. Within a few minutes I was actually skiing. It was a wonderful feeling. He flattered me by saying I was doing well for a beginner. We tried out the very gentle nursery slope and some simple exercises. It took a few attempts to use the drag lift properly but after two hours of lessons I was ready to be let loose on the mountain. The instructor told me not to go down the nearby red run on my first day. I agreed, nodding in a mature and responsible fashion. As soon as his back was turned, down I went. Again, and again, and again. I lost a ski at least twice in five tumbles on my way to the bottom of the run. A 60 second run took me 20 minutes.

For most learners the temptation to try too much too soon is overwhelming. One voice in your head screams “aaaggghhhh!” in terror while another says “go on, have a go.”

After a couple of days of practice I thought I was doing rather well. I could manoeuvre myself down some of the reasonable slopes with only one or two panic attacks along the way. On one particular red-rated run I concentrated very hard and descended at express speed. Or so I thought. Half-way down I was passed by a retired gentleman on what appeared to be wooden skis. It may have been my eyes deceiving me but he appeared to take a swig from a flask as he went past.

Unperturbed by this unexpected sight, I continued my rapid descent. I had the old Ski Sunday theme tune in my head as I imagined crossing the finishing line in Chamonix or Wengen. I was ready to raise my arms in triumph when a bright pink blur zoomed past and skidded expertly to a halt ahead of me, deftly taking my place in the queue for the ski lift. It was a girl aged no more than 7. She was entirely dressed in pink, from skis to sunglasses. She pulled a lollipop from her pocket, in the manner of an old soldier relishing a celebratory cigar. There was no sign of any parents or minders. Presumably, after trailing in her wake for a couple of hours, they had taken the sensible decision to adjourn to the bar. I resolved to do likewise.

The episode reduced any risk of over-confidence on my part and motivated me to choose my runs more carefully: from then on I looked for the pistes populated by incompetent Brits rather than local whiz-kids.

The next time I took a map of the pistes with me. They are fine in theory but it’s easy to take a wrong turning. I was navigating my way down via the easy slopes when the path forked into two and I mistakenly took the “courageous” option. As I picked up speed I passed a sign covered in snow. I think it said something like “This way for certain death”.

Afterwards it took me a long time to collect together the various pieces of ski equipment and clothing strewn across the side of the mountain. I was lucky still to be in one piece.

However carefully you choose your route, you will never be safe from the terrors of the slopes, otherwise known as any 14 year-old boy on a snowboard. They delight in picking on traumatised beginners, passing in front and behind so close that they can surely hear your pounding heart. Collisions do sometimes happen but beginners are usually best to concentrate on keeping themselves upright rather than worrying about other people who are easily capable of skirting around them.

One of the reassuring things about skiing in the British-dominated alpine resorts is that no matter how useless you are, there are always plenty of others who are worse. In Chamonix a certain family taking lessons from an impatient ski instructor seemed not to progress beyond the gentlest nursery slope for the whole day. While I was watching, dad was instructed to turn left towards the children’s play area. He put pressure on the wrong foot and managed to turn right down the Slope of Doom instead. As he disappeared from view we heard a shriek. Several minutes later he clambered back up into view carrying one ski and spitting snow out of his mouth. The children thought it was hilarious but poor dad didn’t seem to see the funny side. He probably decided it was time to check out the après-ski.

Just as taking driving lessons from a relative or close friend is sure to result in relationship disaster, so taking ski lessons from family or friends is similarly hazardous. There is, however, one important difference. In a car the teacher depends for survival on the actions of the driver. It is therefore in the teacher’s interests to give sensible instructions, even if they come through gritted teeth. On skis or a snowboard it is a different story. The teacher can glide along at a safe distance, making patronising, helpful comments in response to your wretched mistakes. Provided that the two of you don’t collide, the teacher has little to fear. The teacher can toy with the pupil, exacting as much discomfort as he or she likes, while sympathising just enough to seem sincere.

A paid instructor wants you to enjoy the lesson and come back for more. In contrast, a friend or family member mainly wants you to admire and envy their expertise. If you don’t need crutches when you buy them a drink later on, well, that’s a bonus. You have been warned.

After two winter seasons of skiing I can now make my way down regular pistes on carver skis without too much difficulty, adjusting my speed according to my companions. I’m not yet a ski fanatic but it is great fun. Technically, of course, I have much to learn but I feel ready for a new challenge next season. Maybe it’s time to go off piste?

A little voice in my head says “too much, too soon”. I will ignore it.

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