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Letters from Whistler – Part 1

Henry Beard and Roy McKie in their “Skiing: a snowslider’s dictionary” (2002) define skiing as the art of catching cold and going broke while heading nowhere at great personal risk. They could be right.

I found this irreverent albeit entertaining and informative pocket dictionary by the bedside shortly before we set off for Canada. It has to be Su, for I won’t spend money or time on such reading material. Su told me she first learnt to ski about a decade ago and would like me to share the joy of skiing. How could I refuse such an offer or challenge? I recall that she had taken me to learn scuba diving, but a kind instructor grounded me on grounds that the situation was not conducive and instead I learnt snorkeling on a crash course. I might meet another instructor as kind, I thought.

So we arrived at Whistler one Saturday afternoon and checked in a hotel. The next day we bought a helmet, a pair of goggles and a pair of gloves before going to the rental shop where we were fitted for ski boots, skis and poles. Su had signed us both for three consecutive days of ski lessons which would last from about 10am to 3pm each day with a lunch break, but she had booked nine nights for the hotel, with a further six nights four days after the first nine.

On the first day of school, we got up early and made breakfast. Su warned that it would be very cold out there so that we must load the body with sufficient fuel. We did have a fair amount of food before we began to suit up. The boot, which Beard and McKie define as a pain in the ass that fits on the foot, is heavy and tends to inhibit the movements of the wearer and takes a rather long time to put on. I learnt later they cost on average CAN$800 a pair, while one of my younger coaches who came from UK bought a semi-custom made pair for over one thousand British Pounds. Then there are the ski pants, ski jackets, goggles, helmets and gloves, not to mention the skis and poles, so that one looks like and feels like an astronaut after putting everything on. I allowed myself 30 minutes this first day for the process; and by the time I finished, I was exhausted and worst, I wanted to go to the washroom.

The walk to the trainers’ tents was a short distance from our hotel, but it seemed forever in the outfit. We were given a very warm reception. They checked our experience and put us on the appropriate classes. After Su went away for her senior class, the temptation to desert was so strong I nearly fell sick had it not been for the rather festive and happy environ: there were people milling around, men and women in very colourful ski wears and children – lots of them – in extremely cute and even more colourful outfits; there were people in T-shirts (they had probably just landed from some tropical cities) and others in full gears; there was a man in a superman rubber suit; and so on. In Whistler, children can learn to ski at the age of three, and there is a company called Whistler Kids which specializes in organizing classes for kids. Some kids probably know how to ski before they can walk straight. Then of course there were the coaches – or ski professionals – in their green ski jackets congregating under the tents waiting for their next students or victims.

I was asked to follow the coach into the gondola which is a rather small and enclosed cabin similar to the cable cars at standard amusement parks and which takes us to the mountain in a few minutes. Jim is over 70 and has been on the job for over 25 years. He was an engineer from Manchester and took up skiing at 40 because that was one of the sports that the whole family could enjoy together.

The hard work began as soon as we were out of the gondola and onto the snow. There were four in the class, all first timers, or so they declared. Jim taught us how to put on the skis, move our feet and so on, beginning on flat snow. Then he moved us to a very gentle slope where we learned how to walk sideways in our skis without slipping downhill, which was what happened to me. After an hour, it became clear that I was behind the other three students, so that Jim had to put me on special attention. He took me up a slope via what is affectionately known as the magic carpet which is in fact a conveyor belt moving skiers up to higher grounds so that they can slide downwards. He asked me to give him my poles which he used to guide my forward movement, giving me stern warnings to keep my arms straight or risk having both of us injured. I had a couple of falls, and Jim helped me get up and back into my skis, but it seemed that we were getting nowhere or not very far. Finally, lunchtime came, and it was such a relief. I was looking for Su when Jim told me that there were other restaurants, including one at the very top of the mountain called Round House.

During lunch, Jim negotiated for a helper who was to give me one-on-one instructions and guidance, which hopefully would help me learn better. Andrew probably meant well and tried very hard. He gave me very specific instructions which he asked me to follow. When I failed to copy what he did, he said he couldn’t understand why I could not follow. I had more falls, some rather bad ones, which bruised my backside, but not my ego as a friend suggested on Facebook that I had. At 3pm sharp, Andrew’s alarm watch went; and I could see he was more relieved than I. He promptly put us both in a gondola downhill and that was the last I saw of him. End of Day One.

Sarah was my coach on Day Two in the beginning, and she had just come back from Japan the evening before. She told us that her specialty was training kids and that at one time she had some 15 kids in a class. Very politely, she asked me whether I would mind being grouped with three other first timers – for logistical reasons. I showed understanding, and was presently put into the routines I had the first day. The difference was that Sarah appears to believe in positive reinforcement and would use very encouraging and complimentary phrases to describe the very little I could achieve. Half way through the morning Marlene appeared. This lady is a year my junior. She told me she picked up skiing late in her career and hence was able to understand the challenges I was facing. She volunteered to teach me one-on-one. The learning landscape began to change; and suddenly I found myself sweating less and being able to move on my skis without too many falls. The rest of the day was rather pleasant and indeed the hours went rather quickly.

I was met by Marlene at the tents on Day Three who took me through another pleasant day with two more students and during which I was able to make turns and stops as required, well almost. Jim saw me at a distance and shouted words of approval. I even met Su during the day. She had been thoroughly enjoying herself throughout and was very pleased with her progress. She even took a few pictures of me in action. The day ended with me following Marlene down a slope on skis to the downloading area to board the gondola, meaning that I did not have to carry the skis on foot the first time. Marlene told me that I had graduated to Level Two by then.

Talk to you later in Part 2.

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