Fast times at mountain high

Got a post-Winter Olympic urge to take up skiing? Craig Platt finds it can be an exercise in fear and embarrassment.

I'm rocketing towards a fence, out of control. It's only now that I realise that during my first skiing experience I should have been less concerned with falling over, and more concerned with crashing.

Taking my first lessons at Coronet Peak, Queenstown, my main concern was ensuring I was not the first member of the class to fall over. I was sure that I would fall, I just didn't want to be the ice-breaker (no pun intended).

As the fence looms, I panic and try to move my feet and lean away from the fence, but my actions have the opposite effect: I increase speed and fail to change direction in the slightest.

As I brace for impact, I'm thankful that the class is no longer a cohesive group and the other learners aren't watching me from the top of the run. I slam into the mesh fence and all that separates me from the massive drop into the valley below is a few millimetres of wire. Fortunately, such misadventures are expected, so the impact is fairly soft. Unfortunately, my skis appear to have gone straight through the gaps in the wire netting, and I have enormous trouble trying to extricate myself.

I pull one ski out, slowly, then manage to get the other loose, but as soon as I try to turn around and face down the slope, I slide back into the fence and get the skis caught again. Now I wish I'd just fallen over.

Skiing, I'm told, is harder to learn than snowboarding, even if learning to snowboard seems to involve more falling down. (Talk to a snowboarder, however, and they'll tell you it's the other way around.)

I've come to New Zealand's home of extreme sports to learn how to ski; my only previous experience of snow was as a tobogganing 10-year-old at Victoria's Mount St Gwinear.

After a day of rest, I head to the Remarkables for my second attempt and more lessons. The mountain range looms over Queenstown with its jagged, steep peaks facing the winter sun. The peaks are so steep, in fact, that heading there as a beginner skier, I had cause to make a remark of my own: "You've gotta be f---ing kidding!"

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Fortunately, the ski field lies in a bowl on the far side of the mountains, making for a much safer beginner experience.

The beginner slopes are larger and less crowded than at Coronet Peak, which suits me fine, as there's less chance of hitting anyone or anything.

Our morning instructor, an English extreme-sport-type-dude named Henry, asks us to demonstrate what we learnt in our first lesson, which effectively amounts to the "big wedge" (pointing our toes inwards and our heels out to create a triangle shape with our skis) to slow ourselves down, and the ability to turn on the slopes (sort of).

What we need to learn is how to turn at a higher speed on steeper slopes. We take a few runs on one of the milder beginner slopes, before moving up to the steepest part. Before we head off, Henry points to the large snow-making gun to the left of the slope. "Whatever you do, don't hit that," he says with a laugh. We all laugh too, but suddenly I'm pining for the soft netting of Coronet Peak's fence.

I wait for my turn, as several other members of the class glide down the slope, making sharp turns as they go. I take off but on my second attempt to turn right, I find myself going left and over the edge of the slope — straight towards the snow gun. I increase speed and feel as if I'm going at 100 kilometres an hour (in reality, I am most likely going slightly faster than walking speed). Panic sets in and, as turning seems to have failed me, I'm left with only one choice. I fall.

It's not as bad as I'd thought. Falling on to my side in the snow is a bit like dropping on to a thickly carpeted floor: not as comfortable as falling onto a bed, but not a horrible experience. I'm unhurt, apart from my pride. I stop before the snow gun, though one ski catches the post holding up the safety tape surrounding it.

It's the counter-intuitive nature of skiing I most struggle with. Want to change direction? Then do the opposite of what your instinct tells you. To turn right, lean forward and shift your weight on to your left leg. It makes logical sense, when you think about it, but when you're rapidly gaining speed on a slope, you don't think about it.

After four lessons, I'm beginning to feel that skiing is not for me. Or that I'm not for skiing. The cold, hard fact is: I suck.

As the lesson ends, Henry lines us up and puts forward a proposition: "Are you content to keep practising down here, or do you want to go up the chairlift and try a real run?"

Most of the class seem keen, but Henry gives me special attention: "Craig? What do you think?"

I'm not confident but I bite the bullet. "Let's do it," I say, "even if it means coming down the whole way on my arse."

As we head up on the chairlift, I realise I've been missing out by staying on the beginner slopes. The views from higher up the Remarkables are nothing short of spectacular. Now, if I can only get down again.

After a minor incident getting off the chairlift, I'm ready for the Alta Green run, following Henry and the rest of the class. Although it's a green (easy) run, it seems mighty steep compared with the beginner slopes.

We take it nice and slow and something occurs to me … I'm suddenly getting it. Maybe it's because, up here on the real slopes, my fear of embarrassment has been replaced by a fear of death, thereby focusing my mind.

I fall over a couple of times on the way down, but once at the bottom, I'm eager to get on the lift and try again. The lesson is over, so this time I'm on my own. I take it slowly, occasionally stopping to rest and take in the scenery. At the end of this run, I'm beginning to feel confident.

I squeeze in one more day at Coronet Peak before leaving Queenstown, and ditch the lessons in favour of making as many runs as possible. By the end of the day, having not fallen over once, I can finally say it: I can ski. I can't ski well, but I can ski.

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand, Destination Queenstown and NZ Ski.

 

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies direct to Queenstown from Sydney and Melbourne.

Buses to Coronet Peak and the Remarkables leave regularly in the morning from the Queenstown Snow Centre, Station Building, Duke Street. Return trip NZ$10.

Staying there

The Dairy is a cosy, boutique luxury hotel with a distinctive home-style vibe. Rooms from NZ$450 per night twin share. Freshly cooked breakfast and afternoon tea is included. See www.thedairy.co.nz.

The Crowne Plaza offers less personal service, but great views over Lake Wakatipu. Rooms from about NZ$137 per night twin share.

Skiing there

A one-day lift pass at Coronet Peak is NZ$95 for adults, NZ$52 for youth (7-17) and seniors (64-74).

A day lift pass at the Remarkables is NZ$89 for adults, NZ$49 for youth and seniors, students NZ$69.

Children (under 7 at Coronet Peak, under 10 at the Remarkables) ski free, as do "super seniors" over 74 years old.

Ski and snowboard lessons cost $58 for adults for the first lesson and $51 for additional lessons at both resorts.

For more details, visit www.nzski.com

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