If you’re a first time beginner contemplating your first ski trip what should you expect? What will happen? What will it be like? What should you do to make the most of it? BASI instructor Julian Griffiths offers some helpful tips for first time skiers and boarders.
Ski myths debunked
"I'm afraid of heights. I won't like skiing."
During your first ski holiday it's unlikely that you will be on any slope steeper than the average golfing green; in fact a lot of beginner slopes in the Alps are just that in the summer. If you notice the gradient the chance is that you've been taken to the wrong slope, and probably by your friends not your instructor. Skis need only a slight slope to get moving, their bases are specially made and waxed to glide easily over the snow.
"I don't like the sound of the chairlifts or T-bars"
The first lift you'll use will be in the beginners' area. Sometime this is an easy chairlift but normally it is a simple rope tow, drag lift (also known as a t-bar), button lift (sometimes called a "poma") or a moving carpet. All of these lifts run slowly along the ground over a gentle slope and are easy to mount and dismount. So don't worry about falling off. Button lifts (a small button that goes between the legs and is attached by a metal pole to a moving wire overhead) are the easiest. Don't be tempted to sit down or hang from it when you catch hold of the pole - it just pulls you along horizontally.
T-bars are similar but designed to take two skiers together. On these the most common mistake is to lean away from your T-bar partner: this makes it very uncomfortable and difficult to maintain balance. The solution is to lean in towards each other and let your skis run. Again, don't sit down when you get on, just stand still and let the bar carry you forward.
Trying to get off T-bars and chairlifts too soon is a common fault so make sure you're really at the top - there is usually a sign to tell you when to dismount, and the ground normally flattens out as well.
"It'll be cold"
The European Alps are at the same longitude as Bordeaux and not far from the Mediterranean so, while there might be snow on the ground, bad weather is unusual. In the Alps a common weather pattern is a couple of days of snowfall followed by a long clear spell, often with warm sunshine. Most people turn up for their first lesson over-dressed and end up striping off - and even experienced skiers often spend more time overheated than chilled. However, in case severe weather does sweep in, you should always have warm clothing to hand - wearing layers is the best approach - through you can be almost certain that in the Alps it won't last for a whole week.
Although many larger, multi-resort areas have expensive lift passes to cover the whole of their terrain, you won't need one as a beginner. Before buying a lift pass take advice from your ski school, they'll know the areas you're likely to access and can suggest which one to buy. Later on, if you're ready to explore further, you can normally buy an upgrade to your existing pass on a day-by-day basis.
Rent, don't buy, on your first ski trip. Most shops now rent out new skis every ski season, so standards are high. Take time and care fitting boots. Watch that you can flex your ankle slightly and that they hold your foot firmly. Boots should not be painful; if they are, take them back and swap them for another pair. At first walking in ski boots is difficult, but it's surprising how quickly you'll adjust. Although boots can be partially undone to "help" with walking, it's better to leave them done up; as walking any distance in loose boots often starts blisters. If the pavements in the ski resort are icy you can purchase clip-on spikes to give boots some extra grip.
Skis should be no longer than chin height. Don't rent equipment intended for experts; its stiffness (and the fact that it only starts to work properly at high speeds on steep slopes) won't help. A softer ski and boot will not only be much easier to learn in but enable you progress faster, too. Tell the hire shop what experience, if any, you have and they will advise accordingly.
If you feel the part in good-looking, stylish ski clothes it will help your confidence. However, at this stage, just a good-quality breathable ski suit, together with a fleece, will suffice - and you don't need to spend a fortune. If you would like to indulge in some high-quality gear concentrate on sunglasses, gloves, sun-cream and lip balm. Buy shatterproof sunglasses with quality lenses and gloves that are pliable yet warm. Choose a top-quality sun cream and lip balm - after all, a burnt face and swollen and cracked lips won't help your chances in the après-ski bar! At high altitude factor 30+ sun cream is advisable, as the sun's rays are stronger, there is less dirt and pollution in the air to scatter their effect and the snow reflects them under your eyebrows and behind your ears. Don't underestimate the sun's effect. Carry your lotions with you and re-apply a couple of times a day. A "bum" bag, or even a small rucksack, can be a good idea to hold all the paraphernalia that invariably accumulates when you ski
Ski lessons are a must. A good ski school will offer group lessons as well as private tuition. Private instruction, though relatively expensive, offers the beginner undivided individual attention and quicker progression and, if within budget, is a worthwhile investment. On the other hand, group lessons can be great fun and are a lot more affordable: you'll meet other people, share a novel experience and have something to talk about during après-ski sessions. As most ski resorts now offer a wide choice of ski schools group sizes can be a reliable guide to establishing which is the best. Ski schools that have several levels running simultaneously also make it possible to move between groups if you pick the sport up quickly.
Your First Day
The first day should not be taken as an example of a good day's skiing. You may have to walk up the hill for a few meters and take very short runs until you have the simple skills necessary to ride the lift. Usually you'll start on the flat, to get used to the sensation of wearing skies, then progress to a gentle incline with a run out. An average person can expect to be skiing nursery slopes, or even a gentle beginner's run, by day three.
A good instructor will not push you too hard on the first or second day and you really need to stay on the nursery slope to enjoy the learning experience and build confidence: don't rush to get up the mountain.
Your First Week
By the end of your first week you can expect to have completed your first blue run - but to help make this happen choose a ski resort suitable for beginners, one that has a lot of green runs and a reputation for good ski schools. Your first ski trip should be the start of a life-long passion that will keep you fit, take you to many interesting places where you will make new friends and enjoy holidays with old ones. Remember to tip your instructor at the end of a set of lessons; they often love their work - but it's not very well paid.
A Word of Warning
Most people lose their confidence and technique on about day three of ski school. It's not the instructors fault but often your friends. Resist the temptation on day three to accept an invitation to ski with their mates. Your friends will reassure you, "it'll be ok we'll ski an easy slope" This slope is only easy to them! Not to you, they might have been skiing for a number of years but to most beginners who befall this fate, the slope is never easy.
Boredom soon kicks in - even if they first choose an easy slope - and they'll want to push you. What to do? Exactly as your instructor tells you. Ask him/her which slopes you can ski on in your free time. This advice will be based on experience, and whilst your mates may seem like experts, they're not and teacher knows best. Skiing is a social sport so ski with your friends, but listen for alarm bells such as, "look this slope is ok but how about we have a go down here", "It's not that steep" and the big one "You'll be ok". Confidence on skis is built slowly and lost quickly. So take good advice from local instructors and stick to it.
A Last Word
Skiing is an amazingly addictive sport, it can take you across the world, and you'll meet many new friends and have some of the most memorable days of your life. Take lessons at every level as it is always possible to improve and there is always another harder piste to tackle.
Skiing offers something for the whole family, and can be enjoyed into old age. Get the first trip right and you'll probably be skiing for the rest of your life.
Julian is a BASI trainer and owner of European Snowsport a ski school based in Verbier, Switzerland.