From snowboarding to downhill skiing to cross country skiing, winter sports are challenging for first timers but quickly picked up with enough practice. Each requires specific equipment, certain types of clothing and comes with a culture all its own. But they are also a tremendous amount of fun and a great way to keep in shape. While kids pick up the sports quickly, there is no reason that an adult of any age cannot learn and enjoy themselves.
Good physical fitness helps for learning to ski or snowboard, and flexibility is key. “If you walk for exercise that really helps. You want a good range of motion in your torso and a decent sense of balance,” says Vikki Fairbank GET Supervisor Jiminy Peak. “Skateboarding, ice skating, and surfing all require skills that help first timers pick up skiing. Even yoga is a good foundation since it fosters flexibility.”
Clothing is important for skiers as you will be skiing in cold temperatures but expending a lot of energy, thus producing a fair amount of sweat. The key is to dress in layers. Fairbank suggests “Dress in layers with one pair of non-cotton socks, an outer layer such as ski pants and a winter jacket and a pair of gloves or mittens (insulated and waterproof preferred, not knit), a turtleneck with a vest or fleece jacket and long underwear under your outer layer. Stay away from scarves and use a neck warmer if you need additional layering in the neck area.” Make sure outer layers are waterproof and wear fabrics which dry quickly and avoid cotton.
What to Expect
Expect to be hot and cold, sometimes at the same time. Peel off a layer if you get too warm.
You will get tired, so pace yourself. You may also be sore from falling down, especially if there is an icy top over the snow. Falling down is a natural part of learning to ski or snowboard, so don’t be afraid to fall. If you’re lucky the snow will be soft.
You will need a few days to pick up downhill skiing while cross country is somewhat easier to get the hang of. Fairbank suggests that you, “Take at least the first lesson, rest, get some water and then go out and practice what we’ve taught you (that same day). At our resort we encourage the beginner to practice. Come in the next day for a second lesson. Make sure you take the opportunity to warm up your muscles before your lesson.” Whistler Blackcomb, sites of alpine skiing for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, recommends three days to get the hang of skiing. Ski School Program Manager Richard Potter says, “Our programs at Whistler are generally packaged in 3 day ‘Learn To’ lesson packages. In this time most first time skiers and riders can learn the skills needed to ride our easiest runs or the Green runs. In this time all the necessary skills are learned from basic turning and stopping to riding lifts and how to use the whole slope and navigate around the mountain.” Cross country is a bit easier – after an hour lesson, you should be ready for the easiest trails, though again, expect to fall down a lot.
Practice is the important part of the sport. Potter emphasizes that “the ski and snowboard pros are trained in techniques to build skills and develop confidence while progressing in a step by step fashion which allows each individual to learn at their own pace.” Even later when you know the basics, Potter says “you are always learning or working on something.”
Skiing, either downhill or cross-country is an equipment heavy sport. Rentals will include skis, boots and helmets; the latter ar not required but highly recommended.
Snow is very reflective so sunglasses, preferably plastic, are recommended. Goggles are useful if there is snow or other precipitation.
Wristguards are recommended for snowboarders.tt
At Jiminy Peak, beginners in the GET Program (Guaranteed Easy Turn) learn without poles. This allows instructors to show you proper form. Fairbank says, “Not using poles forces you to find the right balance on your skis.” Poles are necessary for turns on steeper runs but beginners can use them improperly as a crutch to stop or get up after falling.
Rules and Etiquette
With so many people skiing or snowboarding, there are some rules of thumb to follow:
The person on the hill has the right of way. Watch for people coming down before stepping on or returning to a trail.
Snowboarders and skiers share the same trails so be familiar with both types of sports
If you fall, make sure your equipment is not left in the way of others. Someone may come around a corner or down a bend and run right into it.
Follow the Alpine Responsibility Code (see right)
High profile ski accidents, such as the death of actress Natasha Richardson, have given skiing a dangerous reputation. Potter believes, “Skiing and riding are no more dangerous than any other sport. A certain amount of preparation is needed physically and mentally, learn the proper technique and the rules of the road and skiing is a very safe activity for the whole family.” Surprisingly, wearing a helmet is still just “recommended” on the slopes but it is an extremely good idea to wear one.
When to Go
Ski runs are the busiest on the weekend. Many parks offer twilight skiing and night skiing, which can be less congested and cheaper.
Many people buy a day pass for resorts and that can lead to busy lunch times, which will cut into your skiing time. Try to eat at off hours so you’ll be on the slopes while others are on line getting lunch.
Weather can be a factor, especially if it warms up and gets icy. If there has been some warming, take it slow. Cross country is best learned when the snow is softer and powdery. Potter cautions that, “Things can change very quickly and the weather at the bottom of the mountain will be quite different from that at the top. Check out the forecast for the day and prepare with appropriate gloves, goggles, sunglasses and clothing.”
Vikki Fairbank, GET Supervisor, Jiminy Peak, The Berkshires, Massachusetts
Jiminy Peak is the largest ski and snowboard resort in southern New England. The GET program teaches first-timers how to downhill ski without the use of poles and includes rentals, lesson and a day lift pass. Through a partnership with Burton, they also offer a Burton Learn to Ride snowboarding school.
Richard Potter, Ski School Program Manager, WhistlerBlackcomb, British Columbia, Canada
Whistler Blackcomb, formed by the merger of two resorts in 1997, is the largest ski resort in North America, covering over 8,000 acres. Whistler, B.C. will be the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics