Have You Got A Thing About Skiing

by John Yates-Smith - Date: 2006-12-07 - Word Count: 1062 Share This!

I'm going to teach my brother-in-law how to ski this winter. He's coming to Val d'Isère, where I happen to live, and my mission for the week is to stop him hating skiing.

Am I a ski instructor? No. But then, he's not my brother-in-law: he's my live-in lover's sister's spouse, my partner-in-law's husband. I'll use the excellent French word, and call him my 'beauf'.

So why does Beauf need my help? Can't he afford a proper ski instructor? Well, his income tax bill alone was equivalent to the combined salaries of Val d'Isere's twenty top ski instructors last year, so yes, I think he's got the dosh. It's just that he's got a thing about skiing. And why is that? Well, probably in part because his wife is both a good skier and a terrifying female, who doesn't suffer falls gladly. And partly because he was himself a top-rate sportsman, and resents being a total beginner again.

His sports were ball games, and his hand-to-eye coordination is amazing. He excelled at rugby (his hand to someone else's eye). And he has convinced himself that skiing is a really difficult, technical business, as tricky as tightrope walking, as manly as ballroom dancing.

So what makes me think I am qualified to sort him out, to get him swooping and whooping down Val d'Isere's endless pistes by the end of the week?

Largely that I am the world's least talented skier. My daughter was pretty tragic: her first turn cost me Euro1000 in lessons. But she is nothing compared with me. I took about seven hundred weeks in ski resorts to become vaguely competent. I have spent more time on the slopes of Val d'Isere than local boy Jean-Claude Killy had when he won three gold medals. I have spent hundreds of hours on chairlifts, watching good skiers, bad skiers and ugly skiers strut their stuff. And all this makes me the perfect person to teach another middle-aged slow learner how to crack skiing in a week.

Ski instructors mostly learned to ski at about two years old, just after they learned to walk. They are very good at teaching people who find it easy to understand terms like projection and rotation and absorption. But they find it harder to help those of us from the uncoordinated end of the gene pool. To appreciate how difficult it is for them, imagine trying to teach someone who has never walked how to do it, just with words. Describe how to stand up from a chair and walk across the room. If they follow your instructions carefully, I bet they'll never get to their feet.

It must be possible to learn to ski from proper ski instruction. You could teach your child to walk by saying 'Now, Damian, stand with your feet together, shift your weight onto your left foot, lift the right, and roll your centre of gravity forward onto the toes of the left foot, while swinging your right leg and left arm forward.' The child would eventually learn to walk. But not until he was about fourteen.

And if the technical terms are a barrier, the equipment is an absolute obstacle course. Skiers love their kit. Vibration absorbers and kevlar poles. Injected inners and Gore-Tex outers. But the only equipment Beauf and I are going to waste any time on is his boots. They don't need to be high-tech. He isn't going to be racing this time around. They just need to be softish and comfortable. If he can't dance in them, we'll take another pair. They must fit relatively snugly. If they're too small, they'll cut off his blood and bruise his big toes. If they're too big, his feet will slide forward, and bruise his big toes. If they hurt, as most do, he'll give up and watch Sky Sports.

There's one rule: if boots feel good in the shop they won't on the slopes. Oh yes, and if you have to do up the bindings more than finger tight, they're too big for you. They might not be too big in length or in width, but they're too high inside. Solution: an extra thin sole under your foot. Don't clamp the boot down: lift your foot up.

He's not going to be allowed poles. Very few people know what poles are for. Even fewer plant them properly. Most people never learn to use their skis, because they are too busy sticking their poles in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think poles are to the skier what a conductor's baton is to his orchestra. But you don't need a baton for your first recorder lesson.

We're going to get him some short skis (maybe 1m50 - it doesn't really matter) with visibly curved edges. I know that if I start boring him with terms like 'carving' and 'parabolic', I'm going to lose him. I'll just put a banana in my pocket. I'll lay the banana on the snow, and he'll know instinctively that if I push it it won't go straight. He'll then eat our technical aid while I put a ski on the snow, on one edge, and push it a few feet. It will leave a curved track. On its other edge, it will curve the other way.

That's all the theory he needs. Skis are meant to turn so you don't fly straight down the mountain and die. Their sides are bent. If both skis are on their right-hand side, they want to curve to the right. If they're on the left-hand side, you can't help but curve to the left.

And then we'll go to the nursery slopes. We'll stand with our arms outstretched like kids playing aeroplanes and slowly slide downhill. Next we'll put our left hand on the outside of our left knee and point to the sky with the right. I guarantee both skis will curve gently to the right. We'll swap hands, and turn smoothly to the left. The trick is pointing to the sky, not the horizon or some pretty instructress.

And that's all there is to skiing, as far as I can see. Turning to the right and turning to the left, not necessarily in that order. The rest is window-dressing.

By the end of the week, we'll be having some real fun, going as fast as we want, totally under control, singing songs from the Sound of Music. That's a promise, Beauf.

Related Tags: holiday, beginner, france, skiing, ski, val, disere

John Yates-Smith is the YS in YSE, Val d'Isere ski chalet specialists

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