Since moving to London in my early 20s, and then going on to work in advertising, a common question I got asked was if I was skiing that year and where. People would talk about where they had spent the season working in chalets in their gap years, and where the best snow was. I had never skied in my life. Growing up in South Africa with our climate and in my socio economic braket, it wasn't the done thing. If my parents could afford a holiday, it meant driving down to the coast and spending a week at the beach. I knew only one person who had skied and her parents were well off and they had travelled to Europe to do it. I remember fingering her mothers fur coat and matching fur hat (very James bond) and thinking that if there was a heaven, this was it. Skiing in Europe felt like a glamorous distant dream to me - totally other worldly.
When I met my now husband (in my late 20s in London), I was invited along for my first ever ski holiday. We went with a bunch of friends of varying abilities, got a chalet in France, and I had a couple of lessons. While I went into the experience with an open mind and a good attitude, at night everyone would tell tales of daring, near death experiences, and things that really scared them. Things like encountering ice, getting on or off chair lifts, falling off of chair lifts, button lifts etcetera. It had never occurred to me to be afraid of any of these things, but maybe I should be? I was too young and new to the experience to appreciate that this kind of big upping and scare mongering is a part of the group holiday ski experience. Listening to all of these things on this and a couple of subsequent trips, along with a few falls during my lessons, I began to worry and somewhere along the line I became afraid and developed a massive mental block.
Now, if you think about it, putting yourself into exceedingly discomforting and restrictive ski boots and then locking yourself into skis and pointing yourself down a steep icy mountain is indeed contrary to what we instinctively think of as sane life preserving behavior as humans. It's right to have every fibre of your being tell you that fighting gravity in this way is a very bad idea. Against that, watching people in their 70s gracefully glide down ski slopes at a fair clip with the wind in their silvery hair makes you think that maybe, just maybe, there may be a knack to it that even you could learn - because if elderly people can do it, it can't be all that bad and life threatening right?
I have been on, including my current vacation, eight ski holidays. Most people would be proficient by this point, but for me, it hasn't quite happened. Today, for the first time, I did a red run. To give you some idea the system goes something like this (although it varies from country to country): Green (beginner) Blue (intermediate) Red (experienced) Black (advanced) Off piste (lunatics). This holiday I asked my instructor, an enviably handsome and athletic Swede by the name of Kenta, when in hells name I was going to get the hang of this: "I mean, eight ski holidays, for gods sakes? When will it fall into place and when will I stop being terrified?"
"Well," he drawls in his Swede/American laid back handsome ski instructor accent, "You've gotta just keep skiing. The more you do it, the more you get used to it. And the stuff that you find tough today, you do without thinking tomorrow. And before long none of it feels particularly terrifying any more."
I listen to all of this, and for a moment there is a glimmer of hope: 'Yes!' I think to myself 'I'm going to get this. By the end of this holiday I will confidently be doing blacks - no problem. It's all in my head.' And then I remember how stubborn I am, and if I decide that I am terrified and something is tough, then goddammit, I am going to be terrified and it's going to be tough an no one is going to convince me otherwise.
My children did a bit of skiing on the nursery slope and short beginners run last year, and this year, after only 4 mornings of skiing, are on reds and blacks already. This resort, Verbier in Switzerland, doesn't have green slopes and is not known as a beginner-friendly resort, so acceleration is unavoidable. But they have no fear, and no fear of falling especially, and unquestioningly have faith in their teachers and follow them down anything. This morning I found myself out at the same time as my children, and my daughter (excited at the idea of us skiing together) called out: "Come on Mum!" and then proceeded to point her little skiis down the mountain. Within minutes she was out of sight, while my son, not listening to his teacher, was gunning it down at top speed right in the direction of the edge of the mountain with his instructor flying after him. I stood staring down the slope my daughter had just effortlessly skied down, with a look of abject horror on my face. My legs were aching (skiing is incredibly physically demanding - more so when you are a beginner), hating every minute and wondering why the hell I had signed up for this nonsense, yet again. For the first time since having them, I envied my children. Or more specifically, I envied them their fearlessness.
The key (as I've been told by countless instructors and experienced skiers) is to learn to let go and allow yourself to pick up speed. The speed, pointing your ski's down into the fall line (facing down the mountain) is what makes your turns easier and the whole business more effortless, safer? and a lot less hell on the legs. And yet getting over that mental block of not only the acceleration but the fact that you are pointing down something steep and icy is incredibly difficult, well, for me at least. Maybe if I have a glass of wine before doing it? At this point I'll try anything.
In the cafes and restaurants that you eat lunch in, there is invariably a video playing on the screens of people doing extreme skiing: parachuting from helicopters down treacherous vertical slopes that are otherwise inaccessible, and then skiing maniacally down them in straight lines. This is supposed to be motivating, but in my case it makes it difficult to swallow my food. It looks utterly terrifying. The videos cut to close ups of ruddy faced handsome men and women high fiving each other after their death defying stunts. These are exciting people. These are glamorous people.These are people that don't just exist, they live! The men are athletic, tanned, and have long hair and easy laughs - they laugh in the face of danger. At night I imagine them wearing turtle necks, drinking whiskey, and having swarms of young women around them in the bars. And if this were the 70s or 80s, they'd light up a cigarettes and a logo for Marlboro would come on the screen.
Years ago on another group ski holiday, seeing my distress, a good friend of my husbands pulled me aside and said to me: "You really don't have to do this to please him you know? If you don't like it, don't feel the need to do it." And he was right of course. Now in my 40s I am well past that point in my life where I feel the need to fit in with or impress my peers, and my husband is happy to take the children on ski holidays even if I don't want to join. So why do I keep trying? Why do I keep putting myself into a situation that I find not only physically uncomfortable but also demanding and frightening? I think at the heart of it it comes down to tenacity and sheer bloody mindedness: I look at all these other people doing it, and doing it well; the children, the families, the elderly people, the inarticulate drunken idiots you see in the bars at night, and I think to myself: If they can do it, why can't I? What makes me different?
So I keep trying, I keep pushing myself. Some days I have great moments, and others terrifying ones where I just want to pack the whole lot in. And in all of this I keep hoping that one day, maybe one day, I might be the one sitting in the bar at night in my polo neck, drinking my whiskey, saying to a wide eyed rookie: Ah yes, the off piste skiing here is awesome. You've gotta come out with us in the helicopter tomorrow,' while exhaling a great plume of Marlboro smoke.