Ok, so you want to learn to ski? First, read the small print:

You can't learn to ski from a writeup: for one, you'll look pretty stupid trying to log on to e2 up in the freezing cold with your gloves on. So when you fall over, break your neck and end up dead, there is no point suing the pants off anyone — 'cos you're already dead. In other words, this guide is provided as is with not even the implied warranty — nay, with the explicit non-warranty — of fitness for a purpose. Own risk... no liability... don't be an idiot... Oh, if you must disregard this, at least make sure I am not in the vicinity when you defy the laws of self-fulfilling prophecies.

With that in mind, this is how I teach people to do alpine (or downhill) skiing. Rather than teach yourself, get someone to teach you. You will get ripped off if you go to a ski school, but at least you won't kill anyone. Alternatively, if you already know how to ski, you could do worse than follow this plan if you want to teach someone else (to avoid their getting ripped off at the ski school).

As a geek, I firmly believe that the joy of zooming down the mountain side is greatly augmented by the enlightenment of knowing the theory behind every subconscious movement. I also am convinced that I learn better when I force new subject matter through a high level of consciousness before allowing my instincts to take over. I also hate watching people who didn't learn how to ski properly.

You mean you're going to do the theoretical introduction thing, don't you?

Not quite. We'll start off nice and simple, do it instinctively and then set the theory loose. First, pick a ski slope. You need a slight incline which has a longish flat at the bottom. Put the skis on, pretend your feet are used to the boots and get rid of the poles. Try walking around a bit on the flat; do some sliding, notice that you can lean very far forwards without falling over. Try leaning sideways... woops! Now get up. This is important: leaning forward will not cause you to fall over.

Now, we are going to walk up the slope a bit, ten or twenty metres should be plenty. Here comes the first tricky part: skis slide; gravity likes them to slide downhill. In order to go against the laws of nature, you will need to press on the edges of the skis in some way. You will also soon discover that only two positions allow you to neither fall over nor move: skis perpendicular to the fall line and skis in a v-shape with you facing upwards. Make sure the skis are on the edges: if you have the ski flat against the snow, you will slide. By this time, you may have fallen over a couple of times. Don't worry: mastery of the skills of falling without hurting and getting up without falling over the other side is essential. Remember at all times that only two positions will prevent you from falling over and from moving. When you get up, it is vital that you end up in one of them.

Err... I've reached as far up as I want to go... Now what?

Just put your hands on your knees, point both your skis down the slope and remain standing until you stop. There are a few key points to remember: all you need to do is stay standing up and lean forward; you also want to be going straight down if possible; you will stop — a lot sooner than you might expect. Oh! and keep your skis parallel and about hip-width apart.

The difficult part of this is actually getting to a position from which you can start: You will most likely have arrived at your chosen point of departure with your skis facing across the slope and you now need to have them facing down before setting off. To do this, start forming a V facing down the slope. Once arrived in this position, gently let your skis come together. In the V (or snowplough) position, your skis are on the edges. Your aim is to slide forward on the flat of the skis. This, being as easy as standing up, is a lot easier than my description might lead you to believe. Just remember to lean forwards.

Do this a few more times. Until you're bored, or at least until you don't scream with fright each time having understood that you will come to a stop at the bottom. Experiment with leaning forwards and backwards. Remember that both your skis and you are supposed to be moving forwards. This is why it is a bad idea to lean back: it means your skis are gliding forward and dragging you behind.

Bend ze knees and follow me...

Do you have some vague memory of being told to bend your knees? Scrap that! Ski boots are not very supple; if you bend your knees, your shins will remain vertical and your bum will move down; you will look like someone sitting on the loo. This will cause a shift in the center of gravity towards the back of the skis which is bad. What you actually do is bend your ankles, thus lowering and bending the knee over the front of your foot. Keep your hips as far forward as possible. Here is some ascii art to illustrate:

      /\    ← Upper body leaning slightly forward.
       /    ← Hips vertically above feet.
    .__\___ ← Knees forward and ankles bent, shins pressing against the front of the boot.    
       ↑ Center of gravity.
      _O_   ← Overcompensation with upper body in a desperate attempt to lean forward.   
        _|  ← Sitting backwards, bum sticking out. 
    .__|___ ← Shins  vertical, pressing against the rear of the boot.
         ↑ Center of gravity. 

You may wonder why I am being so insistent on this. Two reasons: firstly, leaning forwards is the correct position, affording better control of the skis and of the terrain; second, it is now that you need to get this position engrained. If you don't do it right now, you will be at a disadvantage throughout your skiing career. At the beginning of each season of training, world cup skiers go through several days where they relearn the basics of skiing. Among these, a full awareness of body position is of key importance. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for you. I'll say this once more:

Never, ever, lean backwards.

In fact, at each stage of skiing progression, as soon as you feel comfortable doing something, ask your self: Am I in the correct position? For now, the answer is easy: if you can't feel your whole shin leaning against the front of your boot at all times, you are leaning too far back.

How do I stop?

Still alive? Good! So far, we have always been sliding along the flat of the ski. Now we are going to slide across the edge. The dynamics of this are somewhat akin to spreading butter. Go up the slope a small distance again. Place yourself in a stopped snow-plough position with your hands on your knees. Now, you are going to remain in that position (don't forget you should be leaning forward, not back) and let the whole snowplough slip forwards. In order to do this, you must shift your ski slightly of the edges. Otherwise, the skis will go in the direction they are pointing, as opposed to the direction you are facing and your tips will cross.

If you aren't moving, you can bring your skis together a little bit. Try opening and closing your snowplough in order to find a point of balance where you are moving at constant speed. Now, when you want to stop, just open up the snowplough in a fluid movement, applying pressure on the edges until you are stationary. Try varying between speeding up by having your skis parallel, slowing down by opening the snowplough a bit and stopping by opening the snowplough all the way and moving onto the edges. Do this until you feel safe (or you 'til get bored).

The lady I crashed into suggests I learn to turn...

Ah! yes... Well, up until now, you have always had your weight distributed evenly over both skis. To turn left, open up into a snowplough, and move your hands over onto your right-hand knee. This will suffice to shift your center of gravity slightly to the right, thus putting more weight on your right-hand ski and causing you to turn left. Turning right is left as an exercise to the reader.

Notice that only moving your hands will do nothing. At the same time, your upper body will naturally accompany them slightly, which is what really causes the change of weight and of direction.

I'm sick of walking up each time!

In this case, the ski-lift is just what you need. This is why you will be happy I told you to leave the ski-poles at home for the time being. Beginners' lifts come in many shapes and sizes. Here are some of the possibilities and the suggested technique for each (common to all is keep your skis parallel):

  • Button lift Also known as a drag lift or poma. Step up to it, put the pole between your legs and stand up. Let it drag you. Don't sit down. Just pull it out from between your legs when you reach the top.
  • Rope This is rather primitive but is a great motivation for moving on to real lifts. Grab the rope and hold on for dear life. While you're doing that, I'll walk up, thanks...
  • Walkway This is just like the walkways you get in airport terminals. Just remember to mind your step at the end.
  • Chairlift It is rather rare for a beginners' slope, but just in case: make sure your skis are parallel and facing the same way as everyone else's when you get on. Getting off, don't be too eager to break into a snowplough: give everyone else time to clear off first.

You are now skiing.

All being well, you should now be skiing. Try going down the slope in zig-zags, Ss and other controlled variations. You will find that when going across the slope, your skis have to be parallel in order to pick up any speed. So try this exercise: go across with your skis parallel and hands on your knees. Open up into a snowplough and, once you have slowed down, shift your hands over to the outside knee and turn to face the slope. Continue turning and simultaneously bring your skis parallel and facing across the slope again. Lather, rinse, repeat. When you can do this at a constant speed of your choice throughout the turn, you are ready for the next part. Did you remember to lean forwards?

How do those people ski without snowploughing at all?

Here is where the theory really starts. This is also the point where I no longer have any hope that this writeup will suffice to teach you. So far you have always been balanced over both skis, being on the inside edge of each. Now, when you want to turn left, you will stay on the left edge of both skis and keep the skis parallel.

The mechanics of this are as follows: you start going across the slope with your skis parallel, half sliding, half gliding on the uphill edges. You move onto the flat of the ski, which will cause your skis to turn to face the fall line. Once there, you put pressure on the skis, with your upper body facing outside the turn, allowing your skis to skid round, much like a car whose rear end has lost grip.

Physically, two things need to be accomplished in order for a turn to happen: rotation of the skis and rolling from one set of edges to the other. At the beginning of the turn, this happens by standing up, almost on the tips of your toes, and facing down the slope. This will cause the skis to have slightly less weight on them, allowing gravity to operate and pull you into the fall line. To come out of the fall line, having the body weight almost exclusively on the lower ski will finish the rolling over onto the new upper edges and applying pressure to that ski will complete the rotation.

How is the step between snowplough and parallel achieved?

This is the most challenging exercise, both for the teacher and the learner. In fact, most once-a-year skiers never completely make the transition. Here are the various exercises we do before trying to do a complete parallel turn:

  • Learn to side-slip. Try side-slipping straight down with skis horizontal. Next, sideslipping diagonally forwards and backwards.
  • The frightening part is when you are facing straight down the fall line. You need to be confident you can finish the turn and stop. So find a gentle slope, set off straight down, shift your hands over to the outside leg and move into a side-slip. This is the tail end of a skid turn.
  • Next, you have to learn how to start the turn. Start skiing across the fall line, stand up on tiptoes and face down the hill. Once the skis have started turning, reverse the movement and skid into the same position as before.
  • Last, take a deep breath and combine those two movements. Don't rush things, wait for it and remember to lean forwards at all times.

Cool! What's next?

Hmmm! If you can do all this, at will, on any slope you can already count yourself a good skier. Next, you can grab some ski poles (which should only be used for balance, on steep slopes and for pushing) and try carving, moguls, jumps, powder and lots of other neat stuff. Now, you can go and get a real ski lesson. Make sure you ask for a teacher who knows what he is doing. Technique can always be improved and if, like me, you are a geek of all trades, there is much pleasure to be had from perfection and leaving beautiful tracks in the snow.

Will this really work?

I have given many ski lessons, but have only ever taught one person to ski from scratch. This was my girlfriend last winter. After 5 days, she was well on her way to learning parallel skiing. It should be pointed out that she feels very uncomfortable with sliding sports and yet she only fell over twice and is now well set for learning how to ski properly. These technical steps are those taken when teaching both adults and children. For the daring, there is no reason that you shouldn't feel comfortable and in control after about 5 hours' work.

As for learning to ski from a writeup, I think it should be possible to teach yourself to snowplough at least. Afterwards, the trick is more subtle and learning from someone else is probably the way to go. However, as in all things, it is just a question of putting theory into practice. By all means, grab your laptop, /msg me and become the first person to learn how to ski over the internet. Whenever you can't do something, first check your body position. Without realising it, you are probably not standing up and leaning forwards...

Terrible things happen to people who don't lean forwards...

This is how ski instructors teach people to ski in Switzerland. I am not a qualified ski instructor, but I'm a damn good one all the same.

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