A beginner's guide to downhill skiing

An essential introduction for novices to the sport

The things they never tell novice skiers

My first skiing lesson was given in Italian. “Spigola! Spigola!” hissed Paola urgently as I slid backwards, slowly at first but then with growing speed. “Ma che cazzo vuol dire ‘spigola’?” I wailed helplessly. My legs parted, my feet slid from under me, and I fell face down in the snow. Paola sighed audibly. My introduction to the world of winter sports had begun.


Modern downhill skiing was invented in 1643, by a Swiss named Erasmus Phlogiston. Member of a small but enthusiastic sect of Reformed Jansenist Masochists, Phlogiston was unimpressed by the possibilities for self-harm offered by such relatively tame pursuits as nailing your own feet to the floor, or drinking ground glass milkshakes. After thinking over the matter for some time, he finally announced to his black-coated co-religionaries that he had found a solution. “It seems to me,” he announced with a touch of pride, “that if we attached long pieces of wood to our feet, and hurled ourselves down steep, snowy mountain slopes, we could really do ourselves some serious damage.” The brethren fell silent, considering the possibilities. “Cold.” remarked one musingly. “Wet too.” approved another. “Dangerous.” they all concluded with satisfaction. Phlogiston was borne shoulder high to the village blacksmith, who nailed his feet to two lengths of timber. Thus equipped, he managed to slide briefly and erratically over the snow-covered surface of an adjacent field before plunging into the ravine at the far end, never to be seen again. The success of the sport was assured.

Modern skiing has improved considerably on Phlogiston's original crude design. A distant cousin of Phlogiston's is credited with being the first to realise that skiing could be made not merely uncomfortable and dangerous, but expensive as well. From the obscure pastime of a suicidal sect, skiing became a sport, and from a sport, it became an industry.


As a novice skier, you will be immediately struck by the large quantities of equipment you are required to have. Aside from your skis, the most unfamiliar items are likely to be the ski boots. Modern ski boots are made of high-impact plastic and closely resemble the kind of devices used by the Inquisition to convince recalcitrant pagans of the advantages of Christianity. The rule with ski boots is that tight is good, which is another way of saying pain is good. If your boot doesn't hurt when you put it on, this is a sign that it's too loose. If it's too loose, you won't be able to control the skis. Moreover, the first time you catch the tip of your ski in an ice marmot hole you will be hurled out of your boots and land barefoot and dazed in the snow some distance away. Therefore, tight is good.

As a beginner, you won't have any idea how to put on your ski boots. Luckily, ski equipment rental shops all have a grinning youth with a ponytail whose job it is to ensure that you get into your boots. He will tighten obscure straps and buckles and invite you to bend your knees and tell him if your toes are touching the end of the boot or not. By now, you will have lost all sensation in your feet (to say nothing of blood supply). Naturally, you have no idea where your toes are. They might be in Brazil for all you know. Say something noncommittal, and he will tighten some more straps and then eventually grunt something you can't quite hear as a sign that the boots are now fitted to his satisfaction. This is your cue to hobble over towards the ski section to pick up your skis.

Modern skis are made of trendy materials like fibreglass and composite laminated carbon fibre. They are brightly colored, and the name of the model is painted on the forward section. Skis are always called something dynamic and brash like “Excess Testosterone 2000” or “White Death What Fun!”. Try to remember the name, because it will help you recognise your skis when you need to find them again at the ski lodge, or in the depths of a smallish pine forest.

Despite being made of entirely non-metallic materials, the tips of your skis are magnetized with opposite polarities. The trick of magnetizing carbon fibre is a jealously-guarded secret known only to the ski manufacturers. The magnetic attraction between the tips of your skis ensures that they will be drawn inexorably towards each other and will eventually cross over while you are skiing. This is generally agreed to be a bad thing, as it restricts your ability to maneuver and typically indicates that some time in the next five seconds you are going to fall flat on your face and dig a trench in the ski slope with your nose. A large part of your initial expenditure of energy as a novice skier will therefore be devoted to trying to keep your skis uncrossed. You should remember this, and resist the temptation to waste energy on non-essential activities such as screaming in fear, wailing or weeping hysterically.

Initially, you will hate your skis. After the first few clumsy steps and the inevitable backwards slide into the plastic orange netting that lies in wait for beginners on most ski slopes, this initial hatred will harden into a visceral loathing. You should remember, however, that the skis only want the same thing that you do – to go home. Home for skis is usually downhill and they will try to take the shortest route to get there, taking you with them. Do not blame your skis: they are only doing what comes naturally. It wasn't their idea that you should fasten your feet into heavy plastic boots and then lock yourself to them.

In addition to boots and skis, clothing is of considerable importance. Real skiers wear expensive baggy waterproof coveralls in bright colors. Wearing anything else – such as jeans and your warmest jacket – sends one of two possible messages. One is that you are some kind of superhuman who is impervious to the cold and wet and never intends to fall in the snow. The other is that you have been forced to go skiing at gunpoint and are too cheap to invest in the proper equipment. Most observers, seeing you slide helplessly downhill into the pines leaving a trail of gloves and ski poles behind you, should have little difficulty deciding which is the case.


The ski slopes themselves possess almost as many pieces of bizarre and specialised equipment as skiers. Snow cannons, snowmobiles and caterpillar snow tractors are all exciting hard objects that you can ski into and hurt yourself. Pride of place, however, is taken by the many novel means of getting you to the top of the slope so that you can fall down it.

My own favourite is the gondola, largely because it offers you almost no way to do anything wrong. You walk in, sit down, and enjoy the ride. Unless, of course, you are afraid of heights, in which case the experience of being buffeted by the winds in a fragile glass-walled bucket eighty metres above a one in eight slope is not likely to be one you will enjoy. On the other hand, if you're afraid of heights, you shouldn't be skiing in the first place. A ski slope is a kind of theme park designed around most of humanity's more basic phobias – heights, high speeds, lack of any stable footing, and outrageously overpriced restaurants. It's also a perfect place to develop new phobias: skiing can probably make you afraid of snow.

Despite appearances, both gondolas and their larger cousin the cable car are actually very safe. Their only natural predator is the low-flying US Marine Corps EA-6B Growler aircraft.

Next down from the gondola is the chairlift. The chairlift sweeps round in a curve and catches you behind the knees while you're still trying to put your ski pass back in your pocket and extract the end of your ski pole from the attendant's nose. It then carries you twenty metres into the air before coming to an abrupt stop, leaving you swaying sickeningly above a ravine. You should take advantage of this natural pause to bring down the safety bar and get your skis tangled in the footrest. When you arrive at the far end, you simply reverse the maneuver, drop both ski poles, catch the tips of your skis in the offramp and sprawl full-length in the snow. Fold your arms under your body and pull your chin into your chest to allow skiers in subsequent chairs to ski smoothly over you as they disembark.

The last form of transport that you may be lucky enough to encounter is the towlift, which is a kind of round seat at the end of a long pole attached to a wire. Unlike the other forms of lift, you remain in contact with the ground at all times, usually with your skis but sometimes with your entire body. To use it, simply sweep the pole between your legs in such a position as to imperil your chances of ever starting a family, settle yourself against the seat, and prepare to resist the towlift's attempts to drop you face down in the snow. Towlifts have a malign rudimentary intelligence that allows them to unerringly determine the best moment to suddenly relax their pull or, conversely, to give a sudden sharp tug that shoots your skis out from under you and sends you hurtling downslope while the tow seat bobs mockingly away uphill at the end of its wire.

Learning to ski

Assuming you actually make it as far as the slopes, you will quickly discover that nothing in your previous experience has prepared you for what you need to do. You need to learn the complex art of skiing and learn it fast if you're to stand any chance of getting home alive. Self-study is out, leaving you with two main options.

The first is to sign up for lessons with a professional instructor. The instructor is a grizzled, tanned veteran of the national Olympic team who can juggle Indian clubs and cook a three-course meal for five while skiing uphill backwards on a single ski. The instructor's purpose is to make everything look effortlessly easy while constantly reminding you to stand up straight and bring your skis parallel. More than anything, the instructor wants you to keep your legs together. More than anything, you want to keep your legs attached to your body. Allow your preferences to take priority.

Alternatively, you can let your friends teach you to ski. Your friends have all been skiing since before they could walk, and have long ago forgotten what it was like not to be able to run slaloms blindfold on an eighty-degree ice slope. They will offer you all kinds of useful advice, usually conflicting, usually two at a time. While one is skiing just in front of you shouting “No, put your left leg behind your right ear.” the other will be perched in the snow at the side of the slope, urging you to straighten your grommets and interpolate your fetlocks. If you happen to be learning in Europe, you have the additional advantage that the obscure technical terms used will be delivered in a language that you probably only half-understand at best: “Mais baisse tes dragonnes et reserre ton forfait, bordel!”

Those of your friends who have no advice to offer for the moment will distribute themselves in such a way as to restrict your room to maneuver as much as possible. One usually takes position just behind you, out of your line of sight but close enough that you can hear the crunch of snow under their skis and see their shadow flick across you as they weave back and forth. In some cases, you may even be able to feel their breath on the back of your neck. The remainder will ski swiftly down in front of you and then stop abruptly in the exact middle of the track to watch admiringly as you hurtle towards them. It is important to understand that there are important pedagogical reasons for this, and it is all being done for your benefit.

Survival techniques

Your friends are all eager for you to learn to ski, but by common agreement they will not teach you the only skiing technique that you really want to learn. This is called the snowplough (“chasse neige”, “spazzaneve”) , and it is a wonderful thing. The snowplough allows you to do what you most deeply and sincerely want to do, which is to say slow down and even – with the assistance of a handy snow fence or a passing mountain hut, come to a complete stop. Once you have mastered the art of the snowplough – spreading your legs and bringing the tips of your skis together to increase your drag as much as possible – you will begin to feel pathetically grateful to it. Suddenly, your skis – which have been trying to kill you since you first put them on – are your friends again. They are actually helping you to stop instead of sweeping you headfirst down the mountain slope to your destruction. I can still recall the feeling of innocent delight that swept over me when I discovered – on my second full day on the slopes – that it was actually possible to control my velocity by some means other than simply falling down and clawing madly at the snow.

Unfortunately, like most things in skiing that are safe or easy, the snowplough is frowned upon by purists. As a keen would-be skier, you are expected to learn it and then leave it behind as soon as possible. The snowplough, with its emphasis on slow speed and control, runs counter to the fundamental goal of skiing, which is to attain terrifyingly high speeds on the most unforgiving of surfaces. Skiers are never happier than when sudden death is only a heartbeat away, and they want nothing to do with any maneuver that actually gives you time to think.

Observation has led me to the conclusion that successful skiing is largely a matter of denying the instincts which billions of years of evolution have carefully instilled in the human animal, beginning with the instinct that says that we are happier on level ground somewhere around sea level. Paradoxically, you will often find – if you live long enough – that the Ski Nazis are actually right and that doing the opposite of what comes naturally makes everything not only safer but easier as well. As a beginner, for example, you will instinctively crouch down and lean as far backwards as possible, in a vain but understandable attempt to reduce by some small amount the distance that you have to fall when the inevitable happens. As luck would have it, this is precisely the position that lowers your wind resistance and your stability, thus increasing your velocity and making it a virtual certainty that sooner or later you will land on your rear with your skis (and most of your limbs as well) pointing in wildly different directions. If you would only learn to stand up straight, as your friends and your instructor keep shouting at you to do, everything would be much simpler and safer. Still, what do you care? By now, naked terror has settled into your soul, and you are functioning at a pre-conscious level. Cower, little animal, cower.


Not all ski slopes are created equal. Your first faltering steps – so to speak – are likely to be taken on the nursery slopes. These – as the name suggests – are mainly populated by small children, plus the occasional timid adult. Children on ski slopes undergo a curious transformation. They spend their first day on the nursery slopes, howling in abject terror as their sadistic parents thrust them out onto the ice again and again. By their second day, however, they have transformed into small helmeted bullets who hurtle downslope at twice the speed of sound, darting and weaving around immobile objects (trees, pylons, precipices) and semi-mobile objects (you). Your legs, parted in a desperate snowplough, offer them an irresistible target and you can expect to have five or six of them go shooting between your knees during the course of an average hour.

Much as you might want to, you cannot remain on the nursery slopes (or better yet, in the bar) indefinitely. Sooner or later, you have to try your luck on a 'real' ski slope. These are color-coded according to their degree of lethality, as follows:

greenbreaking limbs usually requires deliberate effort on your part
bluelimited opportunities for minor injury
redoffers superior possibilities for serious injury
blackcertain death

It is worth remembering, of course, that beginners and experts see each type of slope differently. To a beginner, a blue slope is a terrifying and impassable obstacle; to the kind of people who own their own skis and wear wraparound sunglasses, it's a boringly level and predictable route that might occasionally come in handy as a shortcut between two enticing precipices, but should never be skied for its own merits.


Skiing is different for everyone, and what you get out of it will depend on the kind of person you are, and whether your insurance covers air evacuation and subsequent physiotherapy. The important thing, though, is not to let yourself get discouraged. As soon as the cast comes off, get back out there and try again. Happy trails!