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Is It Too Late? Learning To Ski In Mid-Life

My maternal instinct for self-preservation prevented me from being able to hurl myself forwards and downwards

October 13, 2014 | By:

Winter is on its way. So, post winter-Olympics, could this be the year you finally learn how to ski? At 55, Charlotte Metcalf tried to, on a long (very long) weekend

Skiing at 50-620 Corbis

She did it! (Kind of…) Photo from Corbis

“What are you doing? Are you crazy?” yelled Max, as I careened into him for the second time.

He stood over me, hands on hips, as I lay stranded in the snow, skis akimbo. “You think this is a joke?” he asked, furious, mistaking my smiling apology for snickering disrespect.

I was in the French Alps learning to ski, this was my second day on the slopes, and it was all a local ski club’s fault. 

Inspired by the way cycling took off after the Olympics – and hoping for a similar ‘Sochi effect’ – the ski club had launched a Beginner membership, saying that they are “passionate about helping people of all ages to get involved in skiing or snowboarding.”  

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Encouraged by the ‘all ages’ clause, and thinking that if I didn’t try it now I never would, I decided to try it out.

If you’ve never skied, you’re going to need all sorts of gear. Especially if, like me, your warm clothes are limited to a one puffa coat. TJ Maxx sells ski clothes at only a fraction over what you’d pay to hire them (assuming you’re sure you’ll ski again).

Some ski stores hire out everything you need and will deliver and collect around Britain. A skiing jacket and goggles are essential.

So between ski hires and loans from friends, I gathered jacket, salopettes, snow boots – though Uggs would just about do – goggles, gloves, thick socks, wraparound sunglasses, a hat and thermal underwear.

Skis, boots and helmets are best hired at the resort (budget about $15 a day) and you’ll need to shell out for a ski-pass (another $30 or so for a day).

I had never put a pair of ski boots on my feet, so it was with trepidation that I joined a group of six for a lesson with Max. (Lessons are cheaper if you’re in a small group as opposed to one-on-one.)

Lessons with a Frenchman. Zut alors!

We began in the village, Arc 1950, by learning how to brake with the ‘snow-plough’ technique. From there we traveled the ‘Magic Carpet,’ a conveyor belt that you stand on to reach the top of the nursery slope. So far, so good.

It was on day two, when confronted with a steep Alpine drop, that I balked.

My maternal instinct for self-preservation prevented me from being able to hurl myself forwards and downwards, as Max was exhorting me to do.

“Don’t stand there all hunched. You’re so tense,” he shouted, cruelly imitating my posture. “You need speed. Just go! Go! GO!”

By the end of that morning, it was snowing hard, we were shrouded in a dismal gray fog and Max had both sworn at me and offered to give me my money back (though he later apologized for both).

By now, four members of our original party had gone ahead. They were bored of waiting for me and Caroline – another, considerably younger, beginner – to keep up.

Three of the others had skied before and the third had picked it up immediately. Caroline and I had carried on struggling, but we were cold, stiff and demoralized, with bruised shins and calves where the unfamiliar ski boots dug in. Caroline was pluckier than I was, but she was also taken aback by Max’s temperament.

It’s not that the French are worse ski teachers than Brits or Americans. It’s just that they believe in a tough, zero tolerance approach. And much is lost in translation.

On my third and final day, with no remaining dignity to lose, I explained to Max that it was a particularly British characteristic to smile in the face of adversity and did not in any way imply that I was mocking him, or not trying.

He looked surprised and pleased to have this explained and became instantly solicitous, holding my hand, skiing backwards ahead of me, praising rather than berating me.

As I skied down my final slope, I almost enjoyed it – though most of the pleasure came from knowing I never had to do this again.

Off-piste at Les Arcs

Arc 1950 nestles in the heart of Paradiski, a high-altitude area in the Haute-Savoie. It was built to resemble a traditional Alpine village, 50 meters below its bigger sister, Arc 2000, and is now celebrating its tenth birthday.

It’s small enough to walk or ski everywhere and is affordable and friendly, making it an ideal destination for people with families.

Aside from skiing, there was plenty to enjoy at Les Arcs. I drank glüwein in a traditional yurt, hiked to an igloo village to see an exhibition of ice sculpture and traveled to the peak of Aiguille Rouge to marvel at the views right across the Tarentaise Valley.

There is a spa, but it’s overcrowded and expensive and the one place in the resort where they tend to be snooty, not allowing you a towel unless you are having an expensive treatment. I soothed my stiff muscles by hiring a much more reasonably-priced masseuse from Massage Me.

The French Alps are spectacular, and the skiing conditions are clearly superb – if you can ski.

Being swung up towards the dazzling white peaks in a ski chair, it was impossible not to feel exhilarated by the beauty and majesty of the mountains. I had at least experienced them, even if I had failed to conquer them on skis.

On my return home my cousin told me: “I was taught by a Brit in his seventies with endless patience. What you need is a nice, calm Austrian instructor. Everyone knows the French are ultra tough.”  

Well, I wish I’d known. And all I can say is: if you’re an ageing beginner like me, give the French Alps a miss until you’ve really mastered the snow-plough.