… The daring young man who should never be on skis.
There are things that, I am convinced, if one does not adopt and perfect in childhood, one will never really be able to do. Learning a new language, perfecting your tricycle turns, falling out of trees – these are all best done before one graduates permanently from nappies. To this extensive list, I can, with great reluctance, add skiing. Being from a tropical country, any winter sport has always had a strange unearthly aura about it; any activity involving frozen water that did not involve the inside of a fridge was, I always felt, carried out by humans of a different species. This is not to say that there wasn’t a certain strange allure about skiing and skating; they looked so effortless and graceful, so wonderfully chic and poised. These people were gliding along in a little magical world of wonder, where the laws of physics themselves were suspended.
Allow me to let you into a little secret: it’s not like that. At least, if you’re starting in your thirties, as opposed to in infancy, as observed above. In my experience, it’s a wonderful way to be utterly outclassed by people a tenth of your age and a fifth of your height. (Incidentally, the same applies to trying to learn a new language in your thirties). I can’t remember the last time I was so utterly terrified of a physical experience – actually, I do; it was jumping off a 25 foot cliff into the sea, but this was at least as bad – the whole knee-weakening, stomach-churning, buttock-clenching first descent was tougher than nearly anything I’ve done, and I know that the majority of that is down to my age. I have further to fall, I’m more aware of the potential damage that might be caused by a wipeout, and my prefrontal cortex is as developed as it’s ever going to be, inhibiting my appetite for risk.
So strapping two bits of plastic to my feet and allowing gravity to yank me down a mountain just didn’t seem like a good idea, but I was intrigued enough to try. Getting into the boots for the first time was an interesting experience in itself – you clomp around the store in a vaguely zombie-like attitude, trying not to fall over and make an ass of yourself. Then, of course, you fall over and make an ass of yourself. Then they give you skis, and you attempt to put them on your shoulder the wrong way round, causing much mirth among bystanders, including your nearest and dearest, who are officially there in a supporting role but wisely decide to enjoy the show instead. Having turned them into the approved position, you clomp your way to the lift and your first meeting with the ski instructor.
Enter Christian. This being the French-speaking region of Switzerland, we’d specifically asked for an instructor who could parler anglais, and he came up to us with a huge beam and asked my female companion if she was Annouk the Student. He was only slightly crestfallen to learn that no, she was a very skilled skier, and that he’d be teaching me instead, though I could see the disappointment write large on his face for a moment. A Swiss-German from somewhere near Zurich, he spends his year teaching indoors and outdoors, and (as I learned later) helping his brother with the family farm over the summer. After watching me flail about in a vain attempt to cover the fifteen feet from the lift to the edge of the slope itself, he wisely decided to take me away to an almost flat region with next to no one there, for a little philosophy and physics.
“Skiing, she is like riding a bicyclette. You lean… ja? You lean and you turrrrrrrn. You lean ze other vay, and your turrrrrrrn ze other vay. Ja? But forst we learn to go forrrrvarrrrds, and to brake.”
Shuffle, shuffle. Flail. Creep forwards (excuse me, forrrrvarrrrds). Dig heels in as demonstrated.
“No, no! You must sit. Like so. Sit and push… and you brake. Ja?”
More shuffling, more flailing. Unstoppable acceleration towards to the edge of the extremely steep path that leads down the mountain.
“Nonono! Brake! Brake! SIT! SIT!”
Thankfully, he was ahead of me, and by turning around and braking himself, he stopped me before I sailed over the edge and into tomorrow’s local newspaper headlines. This process repeated itself multiple times over the next hour or so, and I think he was genuinely mystified by the way in which I was utterly helpless on skis. The whole concept of a grown adult who has never – no, really, literally never ever – been on skis was a foreign and alien one, and I started to feel guilty about how I shamelessly used him as a stopping post. There was, however, no real option. The choice was between clutching onto him for dear life, in a sort of I-love-you-don’t-ever-leave-me-my-darling close clinch, with my face in his armpit or wedged into his beard, or else landing hard on some soft portion of my anatomy and free-falling to the bottom of the valley.
When you’re used to surfaces that are solid underfoot, there is just no way to cope with the sudden and total lack of friction on skis – everything you’ve learnt is counter-intuitive. To stop yourself sailing away into the abyss, you have to lean your torso down the mountain. Logically, this makes sense, because then your knees go into the mountain and your skis go on their edge, helping you stay in place. Try telling that to your reptile brain, though, which insists on screaming “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA WE’RE GOING TO DIE!!!” every time you attempt this. To turn right, Christian taught me to push away with my left hand, which shifts the skis minutely and gets you swivelling. You also look supremely silly, as I discovered in photographs afterwards – you resemble nothing more than someone who thinks there is a travelling glass door in front of him at all times. It’s all a question of tiny shifts, which change the balance of your weight and send you in different directions. Of course, Christian had his own unique take on it.
“Depression on the left ski!”, he said to me, vehemently. “Depression! Increase depression!”. I did wonder why the left ski was being singled out for depression, while the bally right one got away with being cheerful all the time, but that confusion was soon sorted out.
So, this door. Is it marked “Push” or “Pull”?
I think the original plan had been to take me whizzing up and down the slopes within the first hour or so, but this plan had to be rapidly changed. I’ll say this for Christian – his enthusiasm never flagged, no matter how much I fell over and failed to stop and couldn’t change direction. He was brilliant.
After a bit more bicyclette and depression training, we bravely took to the actual slope itself, skiing in tandem with my skis inside his. This was the moment for Christian to unleash his commentary once more.
“Open wider the behind! I need you to open wider the behind!!”
This taught me that it’s possible to have a giggling fit while enduring a descent of terror, but I tried very hard to not reveal that I was laughing, because I’d have to explain it to him. There he was, trying so hard to teach me, and all I could do was try to contain the slightly hysterical laughing welling up from inside.
I did, however, feel a bit disillusioned when nothing seemed to click. Perhaps I was expecting something akin to that moment of illumination on a bicycle (I beg your pardon, a bicyclette) when suddenly you realise that you don’t actually need the training wheels and your dad hasn’t been holding the back of your bike for some time. (Of course, what happens at that moment of triumphant glee is that you forget to focus on what you’re doing and promptly veer into the ditch, keeling over at the last minute.) I never had that, though. I improved, very slowly – I mastered the baby slopes and the lifts, and learnt a lot about what’s called fabric braking; i.e. using your arm, leg, back, hip, or any other convenient portion of your anatomy to stop you cartwheeling away into oblivion. Somewhere on the fourth day, I had a tiny insight into the fun aspect of this – a brief flicker of gleeful “Whoa… this is great!”, as opposed to the hard slog, but that was rapidly curtailed when I went down a slope I’d done several times before, twisted my leg around and collapsed in a heap on the snow, my right knee completely out of commission. An ignoble end, but a great adventure. And I did get to ride off the mountain in triumph, in a snowmobile. A month of hobbling around on crutches was annoying, but I’m looking forward to doing this again. I still have one working knee, you see, and I want to see what Christian will say next.