Growing up I never felt a strong desire to find a large hill, scale it, and then throw myself down the side at a high rate of speed. As a general matter of practice, I considered this a sign of sound judgment and a firm contributor to the fact that I’ve never broken a major bone. So, it was with some trepidation that at the age of 27 I finally decided to find some of the tallest peaks in Europe, only to launch myself down the side of them. To add to the excitement, we added snow to the hill, 5 foot long skis, two poles, and boots that reminded me more of an astronaut’s footwear than something of a terrestrial nature.
When the Tyrol tourism board reached out to me and invited me to ski the Austrian Alps near the small ski town of Obergurgl butterflies erupted in my stomach and my palms began to sweat. I thought to myself – skiing is something that people learn when they’re kids. It’s not just the art of an expensive and complicated sport, it’s the corresponding culture that goes with it. A culture with all sorts of convoluted rules, social protocols and what I’ve always perceived as an aloof arrogance that disdainfully discourages flatlanders who failed to spend their childhood making an annual pilgrimage to steep mountain peaks.
After swallowing deeply I fired off a response e-mail. What the hell, I’d cross my fingers, close my eyes and give it a go. After all, how often do you get to say you learned to ski in the Austrian Alps? I’m glad I did and hope that this post helps convince those of you who –like me – may be latecomers to skiing and ski culture to press forward and give it a go. It’s worth it. It really, really is.
As the trip approached I nervously attempted to research “skiing for beginners” which largely generated the same advice I’d gotten from friends on Facebook: “Pizza and French Fries”. This enigmatic response was repeated over and over, time and time again. Each time it came without any explanation and seemed like completely random babbling. They might as well have been saying, “Dog Moonwalk” or “Penguin Aardvark Buffalo”. It was my first run in with the enigmatic ski culture I dreaded. Eventually I found a similarly enigmatic explanation that said something about the Pizza and French Fries signifying ski positions for beginners. Assuming it must be somewhat important, but still making little/no sense I filed it away next to “Don’t eat the yellow snow”.
The flight to Austria was uneventful. Though excited for the landing at Innsbruck’s famous airport, I arrived just after dark and missed the dramatic descent into the valley that I’m told leaves some nervous travelers clutching their arm rests. The 45 minute drive to Obergurgl was pleasant, if not overly eventful given night had settled over the valley completely. My late night arrival meant that the following morning when I awoke in a comfy bed at the Hotel Josl, and stepped outside I was met by breathtaking views of soaring alpine mountains. The air was surprisingly warm, crisp, clear, and the town was covered in a fresh layer of gorgeous white powder.
I followed someone cryptic directions to the ski rental shop, where I swallowed my pride and admitted I had no clue what I needed and asked them to outfit me properly. The guys there were super helpful and jumped to the task explaining what they were doing and what I should be watching out for/feeling for. Before long I was booted up in a pair of vibrantly colored moonboots, and handed two skis, two ski poles, and perhaps most importantly for me a helmet. Luckily I had a pair of waterproof gloves, but given that I wear glasses I had opted to skip a pair of sleek ski-goggles. I figured short of keeping snow out of my eyes during the inevitable faceplant into the snow, I wasn’t likely to be flying down the hillside at significant enough speed to need eye protection. As I slowly worked on my ski-boot gait, and clunked out of the ski shop I felt I looked the part, even if I still had no idea what I was doing. I was making progress and who knew – perhaps I’d make it through the day with my dignity largely intact.
The mid-March weather was incredible. The temperature was floating between 6 and 10 degrees Celsius and the sun was out. In a rolling ramble of uncoordinated, lanky, awkwardness I balanced my skis, and tried to keep my helmet from falling off my head while occasionally dropping my ski poles and doing the bizarre clip-clop, clunk-amble which passed for a walk while in my ski boots. Though I felt like a Giraffe walking amongst swans, no one else seemed to pay my awkwardness much mind as I made my way to the Obergurgl Ski School to meet with the private instructor the tourism folks had set up for me.
My instructor arrived a few minutes later, a 23 year old guy from Berlin, he’d been skiing for years and was eager to work with me. He quickly showed me how to carry my skis and ski poles over one should and balanced by one hand, so that I could walk more than 15 feet without dropping a pole or ski. This trick restored some semblance of elegance to my stride.
I anticipated spending the two days I had allocated on some sort of flat space, with a winch that would drag me, flailing back and forth, across a flat snow surface. So, it was with some trepidation that before putting my skis on for the first time, we made our way directly to a very long, very gentle slope. After a 5 minute intro to how to get the skis on (and off) we began to practice going straight and how to stop. It was amazing how sliding at two miles an hour left me feeling like I was racing out of control at 60.
Years before I had spent some time picking up rollerblading. At the time I’d mastered a few tricks -the highlight of which was how to skate backwards. Unfortunately, I’d never truly mastered the fine art of stopping. My first two hours on the ski slope left me fairly confident that I’d have a similar challenge while skiing.
That said, I was amazed at how quickly things came together. It quickly became clear that the biggest challenge wasn’t the skiing itself, it was overcoming the mental obstacles that popped up. I quickly learned what I needed to do to make myself turn, to pause, to stop, and to slow down. It was just that once that light sense of panic started to kick in, the adrenaline surge overwhelmed reason and left me trying to respond how I would if I was walking down a hill in hiking boots.
Despite these challenges, the first hour of our session was actually quite easy. I believe I fell down once, if that, and the moments of terror were extremely brief and fairly mild in the grand scheme of things. Until, that is, my guide expressed his satisfaction with how well I was doing and proposed we head to the bunny slope. My face went white. We had already progressed in one hour beyond what I had expected would take me the full two days.
The training hill itself looked like mount Everest to me and was similarly strewn with the mangled corpses of fallen skiers. Well, perhaps not really, but there were more than a few nasty wipeouts to be seen as my fellow students gave the hill their best.
Luckily, as it turned out, there was a small path that wound down the backside and was specifically designed as a transition for folks at my level. Unfortunately for me and my dignity, about 90% of the folks sharing the hill with me were freshly out of diapers on skis shorter than my forearms. The downside was that the tiny tykes were quite often better than I was. The upside was that I didn’t have to worry about an audience of judgmental adults that I was about to sacrifice my dignity in front of, and I also had the petty pleasure of learning at an exponentially faster pace. So, while yes, I was competing with 6 year olds – at least it wasn’t nearly the traumatizing experience I had envisioned.
I survived the first three runs down the beginner route, though I lost control and ended up in a heap on two of the three. Surprisingly crashing wasn’t nearly as bad an experience as I expected. That knowledge helped me push forward, and before long I was less concerned with falling and more concerned with the burning agony in my thighs as I tried to stop myself using the “snow plow” – basically forming the V-shaped blade of a snow plow with my skis to stop myself.
After the third run my guide smiled, patted me on the back and said he was impressed. That I was an incredibly fast learner, didn’t show much fear which was a huge help, and that it was time to graduate to the third and final part of the learning slope.
I was out of my comfort zone. I was also fairly confident I was going to die. Impaled on my skis or in a tangled heap with my maimed and bloodied instructor who I’d run down at speed. But, he seemed confident and hadn’t led me astray. So, off we went. Three minutes later I found myself making a slow zig-zag down the slope hands in the air, or on my knees as I used my body weight to turn. Then, something magical happened. I suddenly learned and “felt” how I could turn back into the mountain to slow and/or stop myself. It makes perfect sense of course. Going down a mountain? Turn into/back up the mountain to decrease your speed or stop. Yet, in the fog of nerves and adrenaline during the first few hours, it had totally escaped me.
Oh, I fell of course, but it was only a handful of times. Usually when I started to get a bit cocky, or was distracted by the natural beauty of my surroundings. The feeling though of gliding across the snow silently, picking up speed, and just…floating. It’s magical, unique and definitely addicting.
As I repeated and mastered the bunny hill over the remainder of our time I excitement and confident grew. I’d been missing out, and the skiing thing? Well, it wasn’t nearly as terrifying or terribly difficult as I had pictured it in my mind. It was physically challenging, but not nearly as extreme as I had envisioned. It was scary and embarrassing to learn – but all new things are, and this was actually far more comfortable than most. In fact, the ski culture I had been so intimated by from the outside was in fact extremely supportive and nurturing.
As the day went on, I enjoyed friendly banter with a number of folks. Many of whom offered compliments and support. For all those years, it quickly became evident that I had pegged skiing all wrong.
…and then the day ended. The following morning, I learned, we wouldn’t be returning to the bunny hill. No, we’d be heading to the blue diamond rout on one of the primary slopes. As my guide broke the news to me, I was shocked. Not only that I’d come so far, so quickly, but also that I’d be facing the long, gradual slopes of the mountain. Slopes filled by experienced skiers, trees, and steep runs that made what I’d done on the bunny hill look like a lazy day lounging in the sun. But, he said I was ready, and if said I was ready – I’d have to get a good night’s sleep, push through my sore muscles, and pray I remembered the day’s lessons.
DAY TWO – The Real Deal
The second day was much the same as the first. The weather was glorious and peaked at 11 degrees Celsius. It quickly became apparently that I was over dressed for the warm weather. Stripping down left me more susceptible to chunks of snow slipping down my shirt and pants during my periodic faceplants, but by and large left me feeling invigorated and more nimble.
The morning started with an introduction to the large ski lifts. I’ve gotta say – getting on, and off, without falling was a proud moment. We even ended up helping some of the other ski instructors who had a small army of munchkins get their kids on, and off the various forms of ski lift. It was fun and helped ease some of the anxiety bunched between my shoulders at the thought of my first few runs down the mountain.
They went well. Over the course of the day we tried a wide variety of different routes down the mountain. For some he had me race down without ski poles. For others, we did exercises straightening, then bending over and forward, both hands on one knee, and then the other to facilitate turns. Yet others were just about goofing off.
It took me a long time to accept the rules of the road, and that I didn’t have to be constantly working to get out of the way of the better skiers as they came down the slope and zipped past us. Eventually, however, I got used to it. Oh, I still got passed periodically by little kids on their snow boards, or skis but it just became part of the fun. I launched myself forward down the hill trying new things, experimenting with speed, and doing my best to stay upright.
It was awesome and by the end of the morning’s session I felt like I had finally begun to move beyond crawling down the hill, and started to actually ski! As I think back on it, I’m still shocked that I was able to transition from the ski-equivalent of a newborn foal to slightly awkward giraffe in so little time. A large part of that was the benefit and aid of having an excellent ski instructor working with me one-on-one. My 10 years in ballroom and salsa also likely helped with my balance and ability to center myself. That said, skiing in general just wasn’t the terrifying beast I had built it up to be. I’m now hooked, and cannot wait to get back out onto the slopes.
As far as the social side of ski and spa culture? Well, for that you’ll have to stay tuned, or reference my post about my introduction to Austrian spas. Needless to say, they too were far, far more enjoyable and much less embarrassing to figure out than I had feared.
Thinking about learning how to ski but feeling as intimidated as I was? Feel free to ask a question and I’ll do my best to weigh in!
A very special thank you to the Tyrol and Obergurgl Tourism board for their invite to learn how to ski. As well as to the Hotel Josl who put me up, and the Obergurgl Ski School which provided accommodation, food, and an absolutely fantastic guide.