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It's almost that time of year again: ski season, when hardened powder hounds go misty-eyed at the thought of alpine adventure, when heavy snowfalls mysteriously coincide with mass sick days, when "après" is no longer just something you tell people you do at church.
And that's for the initiated. For those who have never been to the snow, it's also an exciting time, but it's the mystery of it all that will have you wound up. Some elements of that first ever trip to Perisher, or Thredbo, or Queenstown, or Mount Hutt, will be fairly predictable. Some, however, will come as a surprise.
You might think that's obvious, but plenty of first-timers still underestimate just how cold it can be when you're outside all day in the wintry elements. There are three ways to fight off the chill: the first is to wear plenty of layers of clothing, and keep your head covered; the second is to just get out there and ski or snowboard to get warm; the third is a cheeky shot of schnapps.
It's not that hard
The difference between a first-time snowboarder and an instructor? About four days. OK, that's a bit glib, but the old joke has a basis in reality. Snowboarding is the kind of sport that you can pick up in the space of a week – although to get really, really good can take a lifetime. Skiing is similarly easy if you really set your mind to it. All it takes is balance, concentration, and patience.
There are gum trees and wombats
First-time visitors to the snow are probably picturing those postcard northern hemisphere ski resorts with their dense rows of pine trees and aspens, so it can come as a surprise to roll up to an Australian mountain and find eucalypt forests. You can even spot the odd wombat by the side of the ski slope if you're lucky. Over in New Zealand, meanwhile, it's a treeless, high-alpine environment, which is great for lovers of off-piste action.
There's as much to do off the snow as on it
So you're planning a ski trip. Great. But skiing isn't the half of it. There's so much to do away from the slopes in most ski areas that sometimes you'll forget the reason you came. Picture somewhere like Queenstown, NZ: you've got jet-boating on the river, mountain-biking, bungy-jumping, onsen hot pools, shopping, dining, bar-hopping … It's worth leaving a few days free to fit all of this extra stuff in.
Après-ski is the best thing ever
"Après ski": it sounds so fancy, so sophisticated and debonair. Which makes it a little surprising to find that the reality of après ski is not quite so high-brow. It is, however, a lot of fun. Essentially après is a group of skiers and snowboarders who get together after a big day on the snow and drink cold beer, dance to cheesy pop tunes, and tell everyone about how amazing they are. Australians do it well. Kiwis do it well. But it's the Austrians who've really got this stuff figured out.
It's not all big, fancy resorts
It's easy to plan a trip to one of the large, well-known resorts when you're first starting out. However, even in Australia and New Zealand you can find charming little mountains that are great for first-timers (and experts who know where to go). Falls Creek, Mount Buller and Selwyn Snowfields all fit the bill in Australia, while across the ditch you can ski at even smaller places such as Ohau, which was once a mountain for ski club members only, but has now been extended into a commercial resort – albeit a little one.
Little kids are fearless
Whoosh! What was that? That tiny flash of fluorescent colour that just zipped past? It was inevitably a small child, probably less than 10 years old, who's been skiing for all of two days and who just screamed past you at 100 miles an hour. And there goes another one, and another one, and another one. When kids are learning to ski they have absolutely no fear, which can result in some speedy dashes downhill.
T-bars are your enemy
You don't know this yet, but T-bars are definitely your enemy. Proper chair-lifts also have their dangers, mostly in the dismount stage, where tangled skis and awkwardly placed snowboards lead to inevitable pile-ups; however, it's the T-bars that will really get you. One little slip and all of a sudden you're being dragged up the mountain on your back, with the T-bar pole wedged into your jacket pocket, and a whole lot of people laughing at you from the slopes next door. It happens to the best of us.
You can get sunburnt, easily
It's winter, right? And it's a snowy wonderland. So you could be forgiven for assuming that you can leave the sunscreen at home. Don't do it. A combination of high altitude and reflection from the snow means the sun at ski resorts is more powerful than ever. Plenty of rookie skiers have ended up with pretty ridiculous goggle tans.
Australians love skiing
We love a sunburnt country, but if that sunburn happens to include a ridiculous goggle tan, all the better. Australians are bizarrely passionate skiers and snowboarders, given our geographical location, and at pretty much every ski resort in the world you're bound to run into some fellow Antipodean powder hounds. From Whistler to Niseko, Coronet Peak to Chamonix, there will be Australians, and there will be a lot of them.
This stuff is addictive
You mightn't realise it, but this first ski trip is something of a financial gamble. The first holiday won't cost you that much – but getting into skiing is committing yourself to a lifetime of expensive holidays to increasingly far-flung mountains around the world. Skiing and snowboarding is seriously addictive. After that first try, all of your holidays will be built around where to go for your hit of pow.
It's worth getting up early
Not many of us go on holiday with the intention of getting out of bed before we really have to. However, a ski trip is a different beast. You soon find that an early start, even with a pounding hangover, will mean fresh tracks on neatly groomed slopes; it will mean a minimum of lift queues; and it will mean, if you're really lucky, a whole lot of untouched powder all to yourself.
The drive up to the Remarkables is the scariest thing you'll do all day
There are plenty of scary things involved in a day on the snow – your first dismount from a chairlift, your first foray down a black-diamond run, your first look at the bill for lunch – but if you're skiing at the Remarkables near Queenstown, the scariest of them all will probably be the drive up to the resort. Though guard rails have been put in at some spots, it's still one of the more adventurous mountain roads around. Luckily, there's always the shuttle bus.
Falls can hurt
As a first-time skier or snowboarder, you're going to fall over. Often. Most of these little spills will harm nothing more than your pride – especially as, given you're a beginner, you won't be going fast enough to do any real damage. Once you start getting the confidence up, however, and trying to go faster, you'll soon realise that soft, fluffy snow can still hurt. But it's part of the learning process.
Ski-in ski-out is worth it
There are various grades of accommodation available at most ski resorts, from dorm-style bunkhouses in towns that are a good hour's drive from the slopes, to luxury chalets right next to the chairlift. During your skiing career you'll probably sample all of them, and come to the same conclusion we all do: ski-in, ski-out accommodation is amazing. It's worth the extra cost for the pure convenience of clicking off those skis, unclipping the boots, and walking straight into your lounge room.
There's no such thing as bad weather …
… Just the wrong clothes. This is a favourite saying among a lot of Canadians, and they know what they're talking about. Even when there's a blizzard outside, when the wind is howling and the snow is coming in at a 90-degree angle to your face, you can have fun out on the slopes. Just layer up, and take regular hot chocolate breaks.
"No friends on powder days"
How long will it take for you to appreciate this skiing truism? About as long as it takes for a foot of fresh snow to fall on the ground. By that time you'll realise that you don't want to go to work, or that lunch your mates organised, or that shopping trip, or to the pub, or anywhere else. You just want to hit the fresh powder.
Yes, you need lessons. And you need a guide.
No one rolls up to a ski resort, straps on skis or a snowboard and just goes for it. If you're a beginner – and even if you're not – you need lessons. You need someone to tell you how to do this properly. Assign a few hours each morning, at the least, to getting professional training. And once you're getting the hang of it, a mountain guide can be invaluable for showing you the whole resort.
Skiers and snowboarders are extremely tribal
To the outsider it seems like a fairly ridiculous turf war. Skiers don't like snowboarders because they're loud, brash, and disrespectful. Snowboarders don't like skiers because they're uptight traditionalists with no sense of fun. Neither of these things is particularly true, but it's amazing the amount of people who really, really believe it.
It doesn't matter how good you are
This is the greatest thing you'll learn about skiing and snowboarding: it really doesn't matter how good you are. Whether you're ripping the double black diamond runs, or puttering down the bunny slopes, there's still plenty of fun to be had in the great snowy outdoors.
This article brought to you by SkiMax. For an unbeatable snow experience, let the snowboarding and snow skiing specialists at Skimax help you find the package which best suits your needs. As one of Australia's leading skiing holiday specialists, you'll find a great range of information at skimax.com.au or call 1300 136 997 and one of the team will assist you in planning the perfect adventure.