A view of the Rocky Mountains from the top of a ski run at Eldora Mountain Resort in Colorado

So You Want to Learn to Ski?

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A view of the Rocky Mountains from the top of a ski run at Eldora Mountain Resort in Colorado
The View from the top of La Belle Dame at Eldora in Colorado

As has been the case with so many others, I moved to Colorado in part for the skiing. I love it, it’s long been one of my favorite sports, but it’s expensive as Hell and not getting cheaper. I’m a PSIA certified ski instructor because I love the sport and enjoy teaching, but also because it’s how I get a ski pass. For most of my life, I’ve been unable to ski due to the expense, and I’m done with that.

In my opinion, the giant white elephant in the room of the ski industry is increasing lift ticket costs, especially for single day passes. Most of us can’t afford to front the cost of a multi-resort pass (e.g. Ikon or Epic) and many people who are new to the sport and aren’t sure if they like it yet are justifiably not yet willing to pay that much. Since the situation is not likely to change anytime soon, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the topic. I will say that if you have a friend who has a multi-resort season pass, you might be able to buy a discounted “buddy ticket” if you ski with that person. Check out Liftopia, too. They don’t have discounts for every resort, but they might have what you want.

So, here you are. You want to try skiing, but it’s expensive, traffic to get to the ski area is terrible and the place is distant, and what’s up with the gear?

A view of the gondola at Keystone ski resort from the base.
Looking up at the Gondola from the base at Keystone – ski areas can get very crowded.

Where do I go?

Obviously, it depends very much on where you live and how much you are willing or able to spend. However, if you are new, also consider going to a place with a lot of beginner terrain. If you look up the terrain map on a resort’s website, you’ll find that the runs are organized by color – green for beginner, blue for intermediate, and black (and sometimes double or triple black) for advanced. These ratings do not necessarily transfer between resorts. In other words, a black diamond run in Indiana is not necessarily the same difficulty as a black diamond run in Colorado. At a minimum, the Colorado run is highly likely to be much longer, but also more difficult in other ways.

The author on skis with her friend Sukhinder at Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia.
Skiing with my friend Sukhinder at Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia – the first place I ever skied. Do as I say, not as I do – wear a helmet. Photo credit: Yad Deol

What do I wear?

Synthetics or wool, never cotton, and definitely not jeans. Snow pants over top of long underwear are best, along with a winter coat and a balaclava that fits under a helmet and/or a neck gaiter. If you don’t have a helmet, rent one. Most resorts offer that service. On top, you’ll want a synthetic base layer with a fleece over it. Also, you want only one pair of synthetic or wool socks and you don’t want them to be very thick. Ski boots fit tightly and bulky socks interfere. Bring gloves.

If it’s spring or if conditions are uncharacteristically warm, you’ll want to be able to shed layers. Either store your things in your vehicle (presuming you drove) or rent a locker. If it’s an especially cold day, consider keeping some chemical hand warmers in your pockets in case you need them. Also, if you are fair skinned, sunblock is essential. The sun will reflect off of the snow and you will burn badly.

A ski helmet and goggles with a water bottle and snack.
Wear a helmet and pack water and snacks.

What about gear?

Basic ski gear consists of ski boots, skis with bindings, poles, and a helmet with goggles. The fit of the ski boots is incredibly important. They should fit firmly, but without pain. Your toes should not be jammed against the front of the boot, and your heel should not move around. You definitely want to have someone help fit you properly.

The bindings will be adjusted by the rental tech to fit the sole length of your boots and will be tightened according to your ski ability. If you are a newer skier, they will be set to a lower DIN number than they would for an advanced skier. This is so the ski will release in the event of a fall to prevent injury.

The length of the ski is dictated by your height and ability, but generally they will come to around your chin when stood on end, particularly if you are a new skier. Adult skiers are often provided with poles, but don’t be surprised if your instructor takes them away if you take a lesson. Often new skiers focus too strongly on the poles instead of using their lower body to stop and turn. Children are often not provided poles when they are learning. In general, they are a distraction when you are new, but can be useful to help take your skis off and get up after a fall.

A helmet may not be required, but you absolutely should wear one. It’s a safely issue of course, but they keep you warm and you’ll look more professional. Goggles basically serve as sunglasses and/or a wind block. They are more essential than most people realize. You’ll probably have to buy a pair as most resorts don’t rent them. It’ll be more affordable to do this before you go to the mountain.

Take note that if you rent your gear off mountain, say from an independent rental shop, the tech shop that is at the ski area may not be able to adjust it for you. For that reason, it’s often better to rent from the ski area if you are going to rent. Additionally, I’ve personally found that lots of gear rented off mountain badly needs waxed. That’s not always true, but it has been often enough to notice.

A view of the Andes Mountains from the top of a ski run known as Shake at Valle Nevado in Chile.
Never underestimate the beauty of a bluebird day at a ski area. This is a view of the Andes from the top of Shake run at Valle Nevado in Chile.

So now what?

  1. Should I take a lesson? – In short, yes. I know it seems biased because I am an instructor, but I’ve seen so much struggle from people who try to teach themselves or who try to have a friend teach them. Friends mean well, but tend to forget how difficult it can be when you are new. Having a significant other try to teach you is a great way to end an relationship. I’m not going to say that it never works, but the odds are not in your favor. At least consider a lesson.
  2. How do I get there? – It’s the nature of skiing that resorts tend to be in remote areas, so most people drive. Obviously it depends where you are, but some resorts offer special parking or other benefits if you carpool. I recommend checking out the website of your intended destination. At least one mountain in Colorado is accessible via city bus (Eldora – full disclosure: I work there). Also, there are ski buses that will take you to some resorts off of I70. Services vary depending on where you are coming from (e.g. DIA vs. somewhere else in town), but it’s worth looking into. If you are going to Winter Park, the ski train may also be an option. This is all for Colorado. If you are in a different state, you’ll need to do some research on your own.
  3. What about food? – It’s expensive to eat and drink at a ski area. Period. As with amusement parks, you are a captive audience and are treated as such. Some are worse than others (I’m looking at you Vail Resorts), but they are pretty much all more expensive than is ok. Some places have microwaves available (at Eldora it’s in the West Wing) and some don’t. I like to pack a day pack with a camelback of water, food, and a couple of cans of beer for apres ski. If you do wear a pack, be very careful that it does not get caught on the lift when you ride.
Black Mountain Lodge at Arapahoe Basin ski area in Colorado.
Arapahoe Basin is a beautiful place.

Finally…

There are a few things that ski noobies tend to not know that are useful.

  1. How are moguls made? – Moguls are what happens naturally when snow falls and people ski on it. The runs that don’t have moguls are that way because they have been groomed. If a run has moguls, it’s because the run has not been groomed, allowing them to stay for the enjoyment of advanced skiers. Try not to ski or ride over the tops of them and this will flatten them out. Take a lesson!
  2. What’s powder and where do I find it? – Powder is a type of snow. Specifically, it’s fresh snow (preferably deep and light). It’s a lot of fun to ski and if you come up to the mountain on a powder day, you’ll likely find the traffic and lift lines to prove it. People are unlikely to share the location of their powder stashes with you unless they are a good friend (and even then, “No friends on a powder day” is a thing). You should know that the technique for skiing powder is different from the technique for skiing groomers (i.e. packed, flat snow), so if you’ve not done it, consider a well-timed powder day lesson.
  3. Learn the responsibility code. It’s pretty common sense, but not everyone knows it. Be safe and courteous and don’t be a jerk. Normal shit. Also, in Colorado it’s actually the law. Check it out.

 

Skiing is one of my favorite things to do in the world and I want everyone to love it, so prepare, plan ahead, and have a great time.

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