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Pizza and French Fries – Tales of a Self-Taught Skier

Can you teach yourself to ski? Well, presumably the first person to ski taught themselves so that’s a pedantic “yes”. Everybody can get down a hill thanks to a strange thing called gravity. HOW you get down it might be a problem.

When I first moved to Europe I met plenty of people who had grown up near ski destinations and were consequently as slick on skis as they were their own two feet. I hadn’t grown up doing it, but had always wanted to try. For a first timer, lessons are the sensible option: “minimum pain and maximum economy”, a friend told me. “Anyway, why would you ski? You have a snowboarder’s personality*.” (*I still don’t have a clue what that’s supposed to mean, but after a few google searches I have discovered that ‘snowboarders vs skiers’ threads are good laboratory settings for watching human tribalism at work.) 

Like most students, I reserved little sense for my financial decisions. I contemplated all the horrible implications of the phrase “maximum economy”, then opted for a few days in a hostel in a quieter corner of Switzerland, determined to hit the slopes with nothing more than a night’s worth of YouTube tutorials burned to the backs of my eyelids. 

“People can learn anything anything through YouTube these days,” I texted my family in our Whatsapp group chat*. (*It turned out that ‘Switzerland’ had autocorrected to ‘Swaziland’ in the text I sent just as my flight had taken off. Upon landing my phone exploded with texts demanding to know why I had chosen to spend the half term break in a tiny landlocked country in southern Africa.) “Seriously, there’s quantum physics, winged eyeliner and DIY slime. Why not skiing?” 

“Would you fling yourself into open heart surgery with no experience?” Came Dad’s dry disapproval. 

I gave my reply some serious consideration. 

“I mean, I’d strongly suggest teaching yourself to ski before moving onto open heart surgery.”

My first day of self-taught skiing was a beautiful one. Clear skies and a fresh chucking of snow – guarantors of a good day for actually proficient skiers. 

I woke up early to head out before the crowds, enjoying the exquisite solitude of untouched slopes unravelling beneath the cable car. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of mountains in the morning; a lick of sun on a snow-capped summit and the promise of the day ahead. Everything looked so calm and peaceful. Ahhh, a nice blank canvas for my chaos. 

I stamped my feet into the skis, making sure to manoeuvre my way to the ski lifts with as little grace as possible. Of course, the second I got off the ski lift I immediately fell flat on my face. Of course, I slid straight onto a red slope (advanced) instead of a blue slope (beginner). In my defence it totally looked like a blue from where I was standing and there was no obvious sign to indicate otherwise – it was probably tucked away in some discreet corner in order to generate free comedy out of amateurs like myself. 

It started with hardly any gradient. My ego happily cruised along to the beat of my internal chanting: ‘pizza to slow down, french fries to go fast’. 

Suddenly, it all dropped away. PANIC. PIZZA. PIZZA. PIZZA!!!!!!!!!!! 

Pizza couldn’t save me now. I went down the slope like a pinball, spraying gear in every direction. Visions of my life whizzed past. Christ, whoever let me have that hair cut in Year 5 should serve jail time.  

Feet in. Head in. Feet in. Head in. Goggles off. Gloves gone. Poles flying. At some point I thought an abrupt sideways turn was a good idea. It was not, and I wiped out spectacularly. 

A minute later I emerged from the snow like a soggy burrito coming through the stargate. Thank god the area was still empty at this point and no skiers had been sucked into my calamitous ten metre radius. I dragged myself to safety on the side of the still-terrifyingly-steep slope and collapsed in a dazed heap, morale evaporating from my body. At some point I became vaguely aware of the flash emergence of some tiny children, bombing down the slope at supersonic speed. I envied their low centre of gravity and limited perception of their own mortality. (Kids have plastic bones, slap a helmet on and they’re practically invincible.) 

Possibly owing to the fact that I looked like I needed medical attention, two snowboarders pulled up beside me.

“Hey, you all good?” The woman popped her goggles off and smiled with friendly concern. I eyeballed her with the hopeful delirium of an addict who just spotted a peanut butter and crack sandwich. Perhaps I could sit on her back and ride her down the slope like a sled? 

“I’m stuck,” I managed. “First time skiing. Thought it was a blue.” 

“Nah, you can easily get down this!” Said the giant talking sled. “Come on, we’ll help you. Won’t we Phil?” 

Phil, and Sarah, as I later found out she was called, were an incredibly nice English couple who generously devoted the next half hour to coaxing and encouraging me down the rest of the run. After safely delivering me to the blue slopes, I spent the rest of the day practising and getting used to the feeling of skiing. No more disasters, just practice and pizzas. French fries were on tomorrow’s menu.  

The next day I befriended the Lord of the Alps. 

AKA: Stef, a local from a nearby town, who donned his first pair of skis at 2 years old and hadn’t looked back since. Formerly a semi-professional skier and mountain guide in the Swiss army, Stef was the hugely experienced godsend I needed to cement my confidence on the slopes, letting me trail after him on various reds and providing a few sentences worth of valuable feedback. 

There was no deliberate teaching involved on his part, but just by following him and paying attention to how he moved on the slopes I was able to learn and replicate a lot. 

Over the course of just 2 days I had improved vastly, and I was hooked. 

I’ve always loved mountains, snow, and speed. Skiing incorporates all three, so I knew I was bound to love it, but it’s more than just that. Skiing is the closest I’ve ever felt to having superpowers. I had always dreamed of flying, and now I could – on my feet. The whole mountain was a giant playground. The only other time I have ever felt that pure sense of freedom is skydiving – except skiing is even better, with space and time to roam. By the end of those precious first few days of skiing I knew: I wanted to recreate that feeling for as long as possible, whenever I could. I want to develop the ability to weave in and out of trees, to bomb down that steep chute and fly off that lip; to propel my body wherever I want to go. When you ski, and if you ski well, it feels like there is no mechanical separation between you and the slope – you meld into one. 

If the question is “can you teach yourself to ski?” the answer is: most definitely, yes. 

The better question is should you teach yourself to ski? Only you know. 

It’s entirely up to the individual and depends what you want to get out of skiing, how aware you are of what your body is doing and your attitude to learning in general. The truth is some people will just be better skiers than you without having gone through the formality of lessons. Some people who do take lessons only need a few of them to grasp the fundamentals, then progress fast through practice and observation. Others benefit from more regular lessons. If your goal is to become an exceptionally technically proficient skier, able to head off-piste and comfortably send your way down the steepest runs, then yes, you’ll probably want to enlist in professional instruction at some stage. 

My experience with self-taught skiing worked for what I wanted at the time: the pursuit of leisure. Enjoyment and getting around the mountains on a holiday. Apart from the first big stumble I took from accidentally winding up on an advanced slope on day 1, I had no other accidents and found it relatively intuitive to pick up. I taught myself the basics, and, after another couple days of practice and a day of observing and receiving feedback from a friend vastly more experienced than I, could ski comfortably down all the red runs.

The main benefit of starting skiing with lessons is getting the good habits drilled in from the start. If you start with bad habits, they may work on whatever terrain you were at the time but may hold you back later when you want to improve. The other benefit is acquiring the basics to keep yourself and other slope users safe. If you can do the individual practice without being a danger to yourself and others, then, with the advent of Youtube, there are plenty of demonstrations to see. The critical part is whether you’re able to accurately assess how well you’re doing and what exactly you need to improve to perform as intended. That can be an intuition thing as well.  

I developed skiing skills fairly quickly through a combination of observation and individual practice. I think having some athletic ability will contribute – I was a good skater my whole childhood and have relatively good balance, so I expect my mind and body pick up associated movements quickly. At some point I will want to progress and push my boundaries, and at that stage I know I’ll need tuition to help me achieve that. Unfortunately access to frequent ski trips isn’t something I have for now, so I’m not as good as I’d like to be. But one day I hope to keep going with it. 

As for the rest of you – enjoy the ski season. GO SHRED. 

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