You are never too old to learn to ski

Learning to Fall. Written by Ashley Pettit

I was never relaxed when I was skiing, but I was in the moment, in control, always thinking about my next turn, planting my poles, and my body position. I was always thinking, trying to keep my rhythm, to keep the timing;  pole plant, stand up, fall, smooth turn, bend the knees, hold the line, feel the speed, the rush, ok, where is my next turn? Pole pant, stand up, fall, smooth turn, hold the line, keep the knees slightly bent, hold the speed, and repeat. When you have the rhythm going and it’s all connected and smooth and flowing, it feels incredible. My pole plant was like a conductor’s baton, controlling the rhythm and tempo of the music. BOOM, pole plant, turn, and hold; BOOM, pole plant, turn and hold. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, to the rhythm all the way down the piste. 3 short turns to line up my run, look down the piste, BOOM BOOM BOOM. 3 Long smooth powerful turns, BOOM, carve, hold the line and the speed. BOOM, carve, hold the line, lean into it, BOOM, carve, hold the line and lean harder. Repeat and Smile from ear to ear.

Ok, ok, let’s back it up, let’s go back to the start, before this, when there was A LOT of FALLING, lots and lots of falling, A LOT of FRUSTRATION and A LOT MORE FALLING. Plus lots of time spent going up and down the beginner slopes. Yep and lots and LOTS of swearing. I swore inside my helmet a lot.

When you are learning to ski (or board) you have to accept a few things about falling. 1. You are going to fall over, A LOT. And this is an important part of your progress. 2. You have to embrace the “Fall”. That moment you place your skis down the mountain onto the steeper slopes. You have to commit to the drop or commit to the “fall”. The initial “fall” is a rush to the senses. At the start “the fall” was all tension and concentration. When I improved and had confidence “the fall” was rush of exhilaration, excitement, and joy.

This winter was my first time on skis. It was my first time to see real snow. It was my first time to see such large mountains covered in snow. It was my first time I’d spent any time in subzero temperatures. It was my first time on a chairlift. (And I will deny that I fell off a four-man chairlift). It was also my first time enjoying the pleasure of Apres Ski.

It was a season of many Firsts for me.

As a 40 something adult, I’ve arrived late to skiing. Mostly due to where I lived and I’d always had other sporting passions to keep me occupied in the winter months. I have been an avid cyclist for most of my life.

I knew I would enjoy skiing, I just had to get past that awkward and frustrating part of learning something new. The first few days and weeks I didn’t actually enjoy skiing. I got no pleasure from going out and spending most of the time on my ass. But I knew if I persisted and just got past this awkward stage, I would enjoy and embrace skiing like all my friends had.

I had to learn how to do everything from scratch. It may sound basic, but I had to learn things like, how to carry my skis, how to put on my boots, how to walk in the boots, what to wear when the temperature dropped. What type of lens did I want in the goggles? How to catch the chairlift, how do I get off the lift? Do I wear my socks over or under my thermal tights?

During the season, ‘Youtube’ became a great resource for me. I watched heaps of beginner videos on skiing. I searched “how to get up when you fall?”, “how to put on your ski boots?”, “how to turn?”, “how to parallel turn?”,  “how to pivot?”, “how to ski on bumps?”, “how to edge my skis?”. Any “How to ?” clip I could find, I would watch and practice on the slopes.

I also spent a lot of time watching the instructors too. If I was to model myself on anyone, a ski instructor would be a good place to start. I watched their style. Most of them were super stylish and have an awe about them, a swagger and ease on the slopes. Some of the instructors are real athletes. When I was on the chairlifts I would lean over and just watch the instructors. I would try and find the red suites they all wore. I also watched how they placed their poles. 

I have to confess at the start of my learning process, I hated my poles. I had no idea what to do with them, and they became a nuisance when I was progressing on the beginner slope and getting ready to move up to the blue slopes. My first instructor took my poles away from me at the start. I was like a young child learning to ski, they don’t use poles at all. I didn’t use them for weeks.

It wasn’t until a ski instructor friend of mine saw me on the beginner slope, and said it was time I  started to use my poles. He also said it was time I progressed to the harder slopes and go up to the Blue runs. But I will come back my obsession with the ski poles and pole planting.

Snow Plowing.

I spent about 3 to 4 frustrating weeks, going up and down, all day, every day, on the beginner slopes. The Colomba piste became my proving ground. I would practice the basics on this slope. I didn’t care that all the 5-year-old children were skiing better than I could. It did frustrate the shit out of me when they would ski past me after I’d crashed for the 3rd time in a row. Or when a group of kids all laughing ski past me, all parallel skiing, while I’m bent over with my hands on my knees trying to turn left. As an adult when you watch kids ski past you, much faster and with more style and confidence, your ego takes a punch to the guts.

I had 3 private lessons during my first 10 days on skiing. The first lesson is really about learning to stop. The snow plow. It’s also about learning to turn. Pushing on the left leg to turn right and pushing on the right to turn left. Oh, and not to learn backwards, and try to look ahead and not at my skis.  I think this is a key point in learning to ski. I spent the first few days going up and down the Colomba with my hands on my knees.

The second lesson I was a little better, but I was having trouble turning left.  So, my instructor, she took all the runs going to left. She made me lift each ski off the snow, I would lift the inside ski off the ground. I soon figured out why she made me practice this. I started to place more pressure on my outside ski as I was turning and I would take the pressure off my inside leg. 

The third lesson I was turning left better and I had started to parallel turn. Well, in a straight line my skis were more parallel, and I had some resemblance of parallel turn. The lifting the inside ski helped. Well, you don’t actually lift the inside turning ski, but you place less weight on it.

Then I was shown how to stop quickly while parallel turning. From this point, the enjoyment level went up, so to did the progress and the speed. I started to make turns easier, I was kind of parallel skiing, I was more upright and I was leaning forward more, I also figured out where the turning point on the ski was. I figured out that everything was easier once I started to lean forward.

I was always watching what different instructors were doing, even what they were wearing. Trying to get little tips from them. I would try to model what they were doing. One little trick I learned from my instructor Cedric was the way he would sit on his ski poles on the chairlifts, leaving his hands free. He would slide his two poles under his leg and sit on them, ensuring they wouldn’t fall and freeing up his hands. I would do this for the rest of the season.

At the bottom of the Colomba run, there are 3 different ways to get back to the lift. Each is a little more difficult or steeper. With my confidence growing, I set myself a goal. The goal, I knew if I could ski down the steepest section at the bottom of this run, I could progress to the harder slopes, the Blue runs. Approaching this little section, my own little mental test, I balked a few times and took the easy route. Finally, I stood on the edge of the drop, put my ski tips over the edge and committed to the drop. I committed to the FALL. 

5 or 6 staggered ZigZag or Z shaped turns I made it to the bottom and I was giving myself high fives and punching the air. I was stoked. I knew if I could become comfortable on this little steep section, I could do the Blue runs. 

There was a drag lift right next to this section. The ones where you place the seat between your legs and it pulls you up the slope. The instructors would take the children up and down here. So each afternoon I would simply go up and down this section to practice and gain confidence. I would spend 30 min a day here, just going up and down. Gaining confidence in the increasing speed and confidence that I could control my stopping. I fell a few times, each time I would try to examine what I had done to fall. What shouldn’t I do again?

Then it was time to take the big lift to the top of the mountains.

That moment when it all comes together.

On my first Blue run, I didn’t make it down the first part of the run without falling. At one point I crashed and my skis unclipped. It took me about 10min to get my boots back into the bindings. I eventually made it down and then did all over again, including falling several times.

I didn’t care that it took me so long to put my skis back on, I treated it as a learning experience. I treated every fall as a learning experience. I’d have to know how to put my skis back on in steeper and more challenging conditions in the future. Putting my skis across the fall line, how to step into the skis without falling over. All the basics.

My turns were like a giant Z shape, not very smooth. I was kind of stopping and turning. But it was a start. I would stick with this slope for a few weeks to come.

I still wasn’t really using my poles, they were just really hanging by my side, that would come after I took another lesson with an instructor.

I progressed to the Blue runs in February and during this time the weather wasn’t really nice. There were not many blue sunny days. In fact, I don’t think there were any. It was mostly cloudy, fog, snow, and rain. But I didn’t care. The worse the weather, the fewer people would be on the slopes.

I was always first on the lift chasing the freshly groomed piste. It is also the best time of day, as there is usually no one on the piste. I could usually get an hour on the slopes on my own or with very few people. I didn’t care about the weather, I only cared about improving. If I could not see because of the low clouds, I used the time to practice my technique. If I had to go slow to see, I would try to make sure my turns were smooth and S-shaped. I would practice on steeper sections and practice just traversing or sliding and edging across the slopes. I would practice my pole plants. Time on the skis was better than sitting indoors.

If I went out in the afternoon when the slopes were all chopped up and lumpy, I would use this time to practice skiing and turning in these difficult conditions. If I could ski and turn and remain in control, and in balance in these conditions, I knew it would help me to be a better skier.

With my skiing improving, I thought it was time I figured out how to use my poles. I knew there was a better use for them than simply whacking away tourist in the chairlift lines.

So it was then I started to search Youtube clips on “how to pole plant?”, “how to use your poles to initiate your turns?”. I would watch the instructors and other skiers pole planting. It was hard to find people who looked like they had a good pole plant. Most people I observed on the slopes had really useless pole plants and what looked like weird techniques with funny wrist and arm flicks. I would just watch the ski instructors from then on. I would try and find the instructors who had a nice rhythm and style; who were connected and it all looked smooth and flowing.  

I also took a lesson with Max, my first instructor, to show me how and WHY I needed to pole plant. I have to admit, when I was learning to ski at the start, I didn’t understand why you needed the poles. I didn’t like to use them. The first thing he said to me, and something that made a huge difference to me, he said get shorter poles. I immediately felt and saw the difference. The shorter pole made me reach out in front more and therefore it made me lean forward down the mountain more. It made turning easier. Max taught me to place my pole in front of me and down the slope and to ski around the poles. 

The practice had started to pay off, one day when I was alone on the piste, I put together my first clean run at speed. I remember pushing against the boots, leaning hard into the skis, and as I had the piste to myself, I was taking nice wide turns, I used the entire width of the piste. It was a sensation I had not felt before, sheer joy. Under my helmet and goggles and neck buff covering my face, I was smiling from ear to ear. I was giving myself some high fives again. I felt really pumped and quickly headed to the lift to try and do it all again before the 10 o’clock rush came. This was the day I started to really enjoy and love skiing.

During February and March, I had a few moments like this. I would then set myself little challenges to push myself and to test my progress. For example above the Fema restaurant, there is a steep little section, you can either take this run or go around to the easy sections back to the lift.

Just like the bottom section of the Colomba, I balked a few time before I took the drop, and committed to the Fall. A few times I would stand on the edge just looking down at how steep it was, and then I would ski around to the left or right down the easier section.

Again I knew if I wanted to ski other parts of the resort and progress to more difficult runs, I would have to take the fall, I would have to take the drop and commit to going down. Some of the ski instructors who I know would see me out on the slopes, and they would usually tell me to relax. I couldn’t relax. I usually skied with an aggressive or attacking mindset. I would attack the piste. Even when I was feeling in the zone and knew my lines were smooth and linked and fast. I was never relaxed, but I was in the moment, in control, always thinking about my next turn, planting my poles, my body position. I was always thinking, trying to keep my rhythm, to keep the timing. Pole plant, stand up, fall, smooth turn, bend the knees, hold the line, feel the speed, the rush, ok, where is my next turn? Pole pant, stand up, fall, smooth turn, hold the line, keep the knees slightly bent, hold the speed, and repeat. When you have the rhythm going and it’s all connected and smooth and flowing, it feels incredible. My pole plant was like a conductor’s baton, controlling the rhythm and tempo of the music. BOOM, pole plant, turn, and hold; BOOM, pole plant, turn and hold. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, to the rhythm all the way down the piste.

As a “learner” I was conscious of what I did not know and what I had learned, and what I was learning and practicing. So I had to concentrate and to think about everything I was doing. Most of the instructors and people who had been skiing their entire lives didn’t really have to think, they are “unconsciously competent”,  they didn’t have to think about what are doing. They were relaxed. Everything they do feels natural. Like driving a car, after so many years, you don’t really have to think about what you are doing. So for my ski instructor friends, don’t tell me to relax. This won’t happen until I stop thinking and the movement becomes more natural. I am still thinking about everything I am doing, every movement.

I stayed in the Blue zone for a few more weeks, until a friend arrived for the season. He was a snowboarder, and he knew the resort intimately. He knew all the runs and how to get from one chairlift to the other. I was still learning all this. He was expecting me to still be “SNOW PLOWING” but when he saw that I was parallel turning and could connect a few turns. He immediately pushed me to the red runs. We spent the morning going down a few different red runs. I was still zig-zagging my way down the slopes. I wasn’t smooth and I still didn’t have the S-shape, but I was in control, and I had the confidence to make it down, but at my own pace. My friend was great, he waited at every turn to make sure I was ok and gave me encouragement the whole way. I felt pretty good to know that I had impressed him with my progress, as I know he made a few comments to different people that he wasn’t expecting me to be a good skier.

Wanting more

As the season progressed and I progressed to. I wanted to ski more and more. No matter the conditions, unless they were really really bad, I was first in line to catch the lift to the top. I would watch the weather reports and when there was fresh snow I knew the pistes would be great. The first hour was always the best, being first on the groomed piste is awesome.

After my friend showed me around all the different runs, I gained more confidence. Early in the season, I enjoyed the Arcelle run. I also enjoyed the red piste off the Solert. I would prefer to go left, it always had fewer people on it. It was wide enough where you could really get some nice carving turns.

My favorite run was off the Met, not the black but the red. I could do it, but it was too short and always chopped up. I never did it first up when it was freshly groomed. I preferred to go right, down the big red run. I absolutely loved it, nice and fast and wide. The second half of the Met as it comes into the Solert chairlift was great and then you go left down the slope past the chairlift and back to the Fema. This was my favorite run in the resort, I could really hold my speed and carve the shit out of the piste.

There were plenty of days I was flying off the Met, I was smooth, I had nice long and linked turns. I carried lots of speed. I was in the moment. I was looking ahead, thinking of my next turn and my pole plant. BOOM, BOOM BOOM. I think the pole plant became a real focus for me. Max, one of my instructors will probably be laughing at me. He could ski effortlessly and always told me to relax when he saw me on the pistes. But his points about the pole plant stuck with me. The smartass Max, he skied backwards down the Arcelle as he taught me to pole plant. He could ski faster backwards than most people skiing forwards. He would probably do a few backflips just for good measure. But I remember what he told me about planting my poles and skiing around them.

I also skied a lot on the Mont Cenis side of the resort, all the Blue runs are great and I loved the Red joining onto the Ramas. I did this early in the season. There are some really nice sections that are nice and wide, you can get some great turns in.

I didn’t get over to Termignon this season. Everyone told me that the skiing is fantastic and that the views are awesome too. However, as most of the season was overcast and cloudy I didn’t go over there. Next season.

This winter I fell a lot, however as my good friend and instructor kept telling me, “you crash, you learn”. Well, I crashed a lot this winter. A real lot. Sometimes I didn’t know what I did wrong, sometimes I crashed as my legs were tired. I fell over getting on and off chairlifts. I fell over on the beginner slopes even at the end of the season, when I could ski everywhere. I fell over going slow and going fast. He says “you crash, you learn”. And to learn he also said I had to think about why I crashed. What did I do, what did I need to correct?

I crashed and I learnt. I learned that I love skiing and I hope to crash some more next season as I take my skiing to another level and as I learn to ski off-piste, learn to do ski touring and Nordic skiing.

Thanks to Max, Pauline, and Cedric from the ESF ski school in Val Cenis for your lessons. Pauline, I can turn left now.