Alpine Skiing: A Sport For The Bold

Downhill skiing requires a combination of athleticism, leisure, privilege, and the devil-may-care attitude that allows participants to enjoy the thrill of, essentially, falling down a steep snow-covered mountain, over and over again. It’s not a sport for the faint at heart. No wonder it’s a plot point in so many James Bond movies, where we see our secret-agent hero zigzagging down the world’s most dangerous slopes as evil spies take shots at him from above.

Alpine skiing is pure adrenaline, in contrast to the long-haul shuffling of the sport from which it developed, cross-country skiing. Alpine skiing is, historically, a version of cross-country skiing in which the plateau experience – those miles and miles of plain, mostly flat crossing – are edited out, and the extremes – the long, dangerous downhills – are left in. It became possible only when major mountain skiing resorts began to add ski lifts, which allow skiers to be towed back to the top of long downhills which would be near-impossible (and even dangerous) to climb more than once. (After all, even if you’re in good enough shape to climb a high mountain on your skis more than once a day, the resulting fatigue and exhaustion will render you unable to exert the control necessary on the downhill. Injury, even death, may result.) The resulting sport was pure thrill: like having the Boston Marathon reduced to the drama and pathos of Heartbreak Hill, or a Tour de France that consists only of those ninety-mile-an-hour downhill bursts.

But that doesn’t mean downhill skiing isn’t a hard sport – after all, it isn’t just gravity doing all the work. The skier must remain in control of both the speed and direction of the descent at all times – otherwise the speed that makes the sport so much fun becomes frightening and potentially lethal. And you need quality equipment to keep you safe on the descent; for beginners, the best bet is probably to rent skis and other necessities from the resort where you’re taking your trip. (You can always buy your own later.) All of this may make downhill skiing intimidating for newcomers, but most resorts have staff on hand to help you learn the ropes. (To plan your ski trip, your auto-insurance company may offer advice, and travel magazines and websites should come in handy as well.)

Before you go, here’s a preview of some essential lessons you’ll be learning. The most basic skill to learn in downhill skiing is the control of the speed and angle of your descent and the most basic method of control is the snowplow: pointing the tips of your skis inward so that the tails are outward. Your skis should form a V with the inside point in front of you. Doing this reduces speed, and allows you to keep from reaching a dangerous level of momentum. But you need to practice this stance before you get going on a steep downhill; it can take some learning to be able to snowplow without stumbling over your own inturned feet.

Knowing how to turn can also save your life. After all, you don’t want to crash into a rock! To turn left, assume the snowplow position, but with the angle reduced: your skis should not form a dramatic V shape but should be subtly inclined toward each other. Now shift your weight onto your righthand ski to move to the left; do the same with your lefthand ski in order to move to the right. The degree to which you shift your weight determines how sharply you turn.

Most resorts will have multiple “runs” (downhills graded according to, well, their grade: the steepness of descent) for beginners, intermediate skiers, and experts. Resorts in the West often have many runs in each category, while Midwestern resorts in places likes Illinois and rural Minnesota (states that offer some of the most consistent snowy weather in the country) will often have fewer runs. But expert skiers point out that sometimes it’s better to spend your first ski trip practicing over and over on the same beginner and intermediate runs; your muscles will learn the required movements better, your coordination will develop, and on your next ski trip, you’ll be readier to face the challenges of intermediate and eventually expert runs. After all, skiing, like piano playing or ice skating, depends on having the basics absolutely down cold – if you’ll excuse a pun.

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