How I Beat My Fear Of Skiing
I was a late starter. I first tried snow sports in my late thirties; knees creaking, mortality recognized. A group of friends were going snowboarding and they promised they’d teach me how to snowboard once we got there. “It’s easy!”, they said. “It’ll be a laugh”, they said.
I spent three sore lonely days falling on my butt, pulling unknown muscles when finally, predictably, I had the crash that I’d been hoping to avoid. In a moment of rare courage and experimentation, I let the board run down the slope at speed. At the turn, my snowboard snagged on a snow ridge at quite a pace and flipped me backwards (colloquially known as “catching a back edge”) down the slope. I flew. My helmet-protected head whiplashed into the compacted snow with a crunching thud. Baby bluebirds circled. I remember feeling very alone for a moment. I’d had enough. My snowboard and I would be breaking up. The day afterwards, I woke up drenched in fever, tried to sit up in bed and couldn’t. Cough, cough, ouch! Concussion, apparently. I was out of action for two days. On the final day, feeling much better, a friend of a friend, a veteran skier, agreed to take me out on skis instead of the snowboard.
The first scary thing about learning to ski is that you are advised to lean forwards when facing down the slope. The instinct is to do the opposite but there is a logic to it. You can’t really fall forwards on skis. Your boots are bolted into them. You can take off at speeds you’re not equipped to handle though and that’s a problem for beginners. Speed without control is scary and dangerous. I’ve seen people out of control on the slopes. It can happen.
My ski-buddy was a lovely guy but he wasn’t an official instructor and he skipped some vital baby steps. Once we’d established that I could move and snowplough (apply the brakes, badly), we were straight onto some intermediate slopes which he assured me were beginner-friendly. Actually, I was already stuck on the on-ramp to the slope.
To my left was a steep drop. Ahead of me a gentler slope but to my anxious newbie eyes, still a blank canvas upon which to mangle myself horribly. The passage was narrow for a new kid and I hadn’t yet learned to turn sharply. I could see that I wouldn’t have the room to make a long sweeping beginner’s turn, the only turn I knew. He, apparently, thought that if I wished for it hard enough, I would magically acquire said skills and turn before disappearing over the cliff edge never to be seen again.
The two skis strapped to my feet felt as awkward as they looked – great big, heavy, long, unbalanced, flipper things. He skied stylishly backwards encouraging me down but I couldn’t force my left leg to turn the big stubborn paddle. I willed it but my muscles refused. Panic mounted as I accelerated helplessly towards the point of no return.
In an act of determined self-preservation, I lifted and swung my left ski across my right ski and forced my collapse into a twisted heap of sticks and blades, just a few feet from the edge. That was it. I totally lost my nerve. My body shook with adrenaline. My legs went to jelly and all of my heart went out of me. I watched enviously as five-year-olds zipped past me with Olympic flare and I accepted my failure, muttering something to myself about this being a young person’s game. I cut myself some slack. I had taken quite a knock a few days earlier.
When I got home to England, my resignation bugged me. I saw the potential.
On a cold clear day, at the top of the winter Alps, the air freezes and water crystals swirl and sparkle like rainbow glitter in the sunshine. The miles of snowy mountain range visible in every direction is a visual wonderland that calls for exploration.
I wanted a slice of that. I thought it must be amazing to be a competent enough skier to see all those mountain views. The skiing areas in the Alps are vast. I wasn’t really after thrills and speed. If I learned to ski, I decided, I would take the gentle slopes and enjoy the scenery.
The next year, I booked skiing lessons at a dry slope in the UK a few months before returning to the Alps. I approached it as if I was starting from scratch.
It’s more difficult to learn to ski on a dry slope. Snow is soft, silky and compliant. Dry slopes are made from wet spiky nylon brushes. It’s jerky. This is good though. If you can ski on a dry slope, it’s going to feel easier when you hit the real thing.
Our first lesson opened at an elevation of about ten feet. After instruction, I turned my skis downwards, panicked as I started to move and literally ran down the slope with my skis on, arms, legs and skis everywhere. It was quite a feat. When I reached the bottom and turned to the instructor, she was bent over double, laughing.
Still chuckling, she said, “You’re not supposed to run down it! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that before!” There was admiration in her tone and I was laughing with her. I made a champion pose for my fellow recruits and joined the back of the queue.
After watching the others ace it, and with a little reassurance from the instructor, I pointed both skis downward, leaned forwards and hung on for dear life. It was just a few seconds of slide before the bottom brought me to a safe stop. Again! Again! I wasn’t in control of the foot planks yet but that was the first time I ever pointed them straight downhill. You take off at speed. You have to trust something that you can’t hold onto. It’s a thrilling sensation. Just lean forwards and the skis hold you up. Cool!
The obvious next question is how do I stop?
The first braking technique we learn is called the snowplough. You point the tips of your skis together and push the inside edge of each ski into the snow to make a V-plough shape. This creates a fairly decent brake. The next few passes down the slope were with the active snowplough. Aha! Yes. Better. Now I could descend with some speed control.
Next, we begin a little higher up the slope at a slightly steeper gradient and it’s here that I learn that the snowplough has limitations. It works… until it doesn’t. At a certain speed and gradient, stopping with the snowplough becomes less reliable and when your brakes are failing, it’s unnerving.
The solution to this problem is to go in a direction where you don’t gain speed so quickly, not straight down but diagonally across the slope. Skiing across the slope reduces the gradient and speed. Apply the snowplough liberally and you’re doing well; almost a pro. Until you have to turn.
The instruction for turning is to slightly lift your upper ski (right if you are moving left to right and left if you are moving right to left) and turn it or push it around to point down the hill (without crossing your supporting ski) and keep turning until it is facing back across the slope. You need to then transfer your weight onto that turning ski and bring the other (now non-weight-bearing) ski around to match it. If you can hold the snowplough position while this is happening, you can edge your way through a controlled arc and ski back across the slope. Rinse and repeat. Congratulations. You are now skiing!
Some people do it straight away. The rest of us take a while to get it.
The problem is, that as a novice, the moment that you transfer your weight onto the other (bottom) ski, it takes off in whatever direction it is facing, usually straight down, as you are at most only halfway through the turn. We have to bring the other ski round too. It is an act of courage to trust this moment. For a second, mid-turn, your skis will face directly downhill and you will start taking off at speed.
The correct action is to commit to the transfer of weight from your upper ski to your lower ski, as you turn, and dig the inside edge of the lower ski into the hill. It grips the snow and forms a little ledge underneath your lower weight-bearing ski that holds you up and slows you slightly while you adjust your angle to complete the turn and bring your second ski into line.
It feels like falling for a moment before control is established. If you can hold your nerve, your ski will cut into the snow and you will be able to halt your rapid descent and complete the turn with a sense of control.
Skiing is not intuitive. You must face forwards and commit to the turn, facing firmly downhill for a moment. Until the mind has learned otherwise, it believes that this move is inviting death or disfigurement, and thus, fear comes easily.
For me, and probably for many, that was also the hook. There was a risk to it. Every turn involved that moment of loss of control but with practice, I came to trust that it was okay to allow myself to fall forwards onto that turning ski. In fact, the harder I leaned into the fall, the quicker the ski gripped the snow and offered control.
Once I had this understanding in place, it became an increasing pleasure to relax into each turn and enjoy the sensation of falling onto that out-of-control ski and feeling it right itself. It’s a similar thrill to riding a rollercoaster - nearly dying but not really.
Eventually, you acclimatise to a little more speed and the whole movement becomes more fluid. You can now forget about awkwardly turning your outside ski in. With the confident shifting of weight from one ski to the other on each turn, you soon find that the skis will turn themselves on the slope in a long sweeping arc. Pump the right leg to go left and the left to go right. Lean appropriately.
It’s a similar principle to rowing. You push the land away from you on one side and a turn in the opposite direction is the result. Skiing then becomes a weight-pumping action from one ski to the other on each turn. Master this and you soon have sharp defined turns, the ability to stop quickly and all the freedom you need to traverse the intermediate slopes of the mountain playgrounds. Winner!
You’re not quite there yet though. Your skiing friends suggest taking a route that includes a red (more advanced) slope – a challenge for beginners. Standing for the first time at the steepest part of one of these slopes is like looking into the belly of the beast. For a newbie, it is shockingly severe. You must, again, step into the unknown. You drop in and hope for the best, scraping your way down diagonally as you struggle to get a grip on the supporting ski.
You hear and feel the ski scraping the ice as you drop. You dig in harder, almost desperately. Eventually, your ski finds support and you are relieved. You look up the hill. You’ve descended twenty feet already. You look down, and there are another eighty feet to go on this steep section. You realise that you are already a quarter way down it. Perhaps I can do this? But first, I still have to turn.
The gradient is now so severe that the moment you transfer your weight to the turning ski, you will be taking a fast trip straight down this hill. The doubt, the fear, is not knowing whether you will be able to establish control before your skis have you moving at breakneck speed. The danger is real. Control is definitely not assured.
Finding the gumption to trust the process at this gradient is not only challenging. In my case, it was paralysing. If you’ve ever had that moment of jumping from a height into water, you’ll know the feeling. You might make a few “nearly” jumps before you finally do it. You feel your body seize and refuse to jump. On a steep slope, as a new kid, making a sheer turn is the same.
In my mind, I’m screaming at the leg to turn but I’m so filled with adrenaline that my body is in survival mode and from a choice of fight, flight or freeze, it goes with freeze. It would be comical if its failure to respond weren’t so critical to my continued existence.
Turn! Turn, or we’re going to die or turn and we’re going to die are the options my brain sees. Neither is acceptable. Literal paralysis is the result. This impossible choice causes a mental short-circuit. I can almost hear the “bfffzzztt” sound as my brain chips fry themselves and my leg, once again, refuses to submit to my will.
Panic sets in as I realise that I’m stuck. I can’t go up and I can’t go down and I don’t want to be here. I have bitten off more than I could chew.
Looking down, I wonder if I’d stop tumbling if I fell now. My failed leg has ensured that there is no room to make a turn. I'm at the edge of the piste. I do have options. I could remove my skis and walk to safety. I could scrape down sideways dropping height but not skiing. This also feels like a challenging option at this gradient. Or… I could face the fear. I know that if I lose my courage now, I might never return.
It’s not easy. I stand there, leaning on my poles, my fragile foothold feeling tenuous. The leg muscles are burning. I’m panting and trembling, catching my breath, stilling my mind. I look up the slope. I look down the slope. Neither is comforting in any way. I am saturated with adrenaline. I tolerate it. I carefully back up, re-tracing my ski tracks a few feet to free a turning space. I stop, breathe deeply and gather my courage – zen style. Fatigue and fear are zapping my strength. I am aware that I’ll need to do something quickly.
I visualise what is going to happen. Yes, I will lose control. I may be able to regain it. I don’t know yet but I do know that it’s got to be now. Before I lose my nerve. Go!
I point my left ski straight down the hill and commit, pushing my weight forwards. It’s a mad scramble to dig that ski in and get my hold on the hill. I’m scraping down and already flying diagonally across the slope with my right ski somewhere in the air.
It’s a fail. I go down. I’m fine. It’s a reassuringly painless landing on one side; far less catastrophic than I’d imagined.
I’ve fallen in the middle of the slope now and I quickly pick myself up and go again, and this time, as I hit the turning point, I am decisive, definite. I commit to the turn and my ski grips. It’s faster than I’d like but I recognise now that it’s the momentum that is providing the stability. The next turn is here already. I commit again.
I still scrape down, my ski failing to find a reliable hold but it’s feeling safer. I can tolerate the momentary scraping and wobble as my skis lock to the mountainside. I'm less afraid of falling. I learn that it’s easier when I attack the turn, and it “clicks”. I feel myself shift in a single moment from fearful to excited. I’m a child on a bike without stabilisers. I’m doing it!
As the next turn approaches, I am no longer defensive. I realise that I want the challenge. Bring it on. I lean forwards more confidently into each turn. Now, each turn is an opportunity to practice, to triumph, to celebrate, and in the time that it took to traverse a single hill, my brain made some serious adjustments. It did a one-eighty. Fear became thrills.
I am soon at the foot of this snowy beast and my ski buddy (for whom this slope was a piece of cake) is high-fiving me. She suggests that we do it again. My heart jumps. My triumph is suddenly muted, replaced by fear. Again?!
Then, we go right back to the top and do it again, twice.
Two years later, I am skiing alone. I am still a novice skier. There is a long gentle beginner’s run that leads back to ski central through a wonderful forest. Along the way, there is an entrance to a particularly steep red (advanced) slope (shouldn’t that be a black?) that is an alternative route back to the town. It’s not long and winding like the scenic route. It’s straight down from point A to point B. I had a look at it yesterday as I passed by and decided pretty quickly to swerve it. For the whole week.
Now, I look again. The slope is empty. That’s worrying. A few people swoosh by but nobody tackles it. I don’t blame them.
I’m thinking about it though. My inner voice has words for me.
Why would you do that to yourself, John? Come on, let’s just take the forest route back. There’s a reason all these people are giving this slope a miss. You know what they say… that it’s always the last run when you’re tired, that things go wrong. You’re on your own and there’s nobody on that slope. And, it’s not going to be fun. Even if you do it, you’ll fight the hill all the way down and be full of adrenaline at the bottom, shaky and weak. Give it a miss, eh?
For a moment, I capitulate. The scenic route does sound much nicer.
I feel a familiar spirit rise in me. One of my favourites. He knows how to live and his presence emboldens me. He is Courage.
“Hello, old friend. Shall we do this?”
“Yes”, he says, with a cheeky grin.
I plot my course and drop in. I attack that hill with gusto, not scraping down but skiing hard. My legs are burning and my lungs pumping. The fear is gone. I am exhilarated. I am glad. I am truly alive.
John Crawford - March 2023 - www.youcanfixyouranxiety.com