Learning to ski in Slovakia
By: Ed Vanstone
Normally, zigzagging backwards down the slope without poles is a sure sign you’ve really begun to master skiing. For me, however, it’s just a wonky prelude to the inevitable: yet another in an increasingly epic series of on-piste pratfalls. My sharp turns are down to panicked lurching. And my poles, quite sensibly, have been forcibly taken from me lest I garrote someone’s eye. I can almost hear the Benny Hill soundtrack as I do the necessary and crumple to the ground.
Strangely, despite having never skied before in my life, I had started the morning feeling confident. It’s only as I begin to pick up speed, windmilling cartoonishly and scattering bemused locals, that i figure out the reason for this misplaced bravado. By getting kitted out in the vast array of necessary gear – thermal underlayers, fleece, salopettes, hat, ski jacket, ski socks, ski boots, ski goggles, ski gloves – I have tricked myself into believing I can ski. I look the part and so, my simple brain figures, I must be the part.
Yet professional attire does not a professional skier make. As the considerable chunk of snow swilling through my gums attests.
The expense of all that ski gear is one of the main reasons why, until now, I haven’t ever attempted to zip down a mountain strapped to planks of wood. But with the number of times I’ve been asked on a trip by adept mates nudging double figures, and a mildly encouraging stint trying to learn to snowboard in two hours, I figure it’s time to give it a try.
And so I’ve come to Strbske Pleso, Slovakia – a small High Tatras resort named after a tiny village named after a large glacial lake. It’s a great place to learn to ski for several reasons: there’s over seven kilometres of beginner and intermediate level slopes; the country is notorious for having the most beautiful women in Europe; and, perhaps most importantly of all, the cost of everything from ski passes to après ski pints is infinitely cheaper than the equivalent in almost any other resort on the continent. (The beers come in at under a Euro a pint in many local bars, and a tasty garlic soup on the slopes costs just two.)What’s more, scores of circus cannon-like snow machines, standing sentry piste-side, virtually ensure good ski conditions from December to April – even when the weather has a warmer blip. Sadly, it’s not as if I can blame my ineptitude on slushy snow. It’s not the conditions. It’s not the equipment. It’s me.
Erik Sevcik, a preternaturally patient ski instructor, is by my side an instant after I hit the floor. “What happened?” he asks, as I dust down and rip off my skis. Good question. There are, no doubt, several ways I could phrase my answer to appear slightly less of a chump, but none are immediately forthcoming. “Lost my balance,” I say.
In fact, my balance is fine; it’s my muscles that are the issue. They seem frustratingly reluctant to manoeuvre my legs into the positions necessary to perform that most essential of skills: braking. I spend an eternity with Erik beseeching me to “snow plough!” (form a V with the fronts of the skis almost touching), with varying degrees of urgency, until my speed increases to a point where it’s best I hit the floor before I hit something else.
Annoyingly, nobody else on the slope goes in for my particular brand of comedy wipe-outs. The swarms of tiny kids wheeling around appear to have come slaloming out of the womb – though towards the end of the morning a miniscule girl judders to the floor and comes up wailing, her face clotted with powder. Which cheers me up for a bit.
But after two hours of abject failure even one of my fellow rookies almost getting decapitated by an impatient snowboarder isn’t enough to raise my spirits. I spend the last 20 minutes of the session staring out at the ethereal, mist-wreathed landscape of the High Tatras – hoping I’m better at looking enigmatic than I am at remaining upright.
On the second day, everything is different. I don’t know why – muscle memory is my best guess – but from the start I’m unrecognisable as the dangerous idiot of the day before. I fall over once early on, but that’s the lot for the day. Snow ploughing seems instinctive: my legs automatically assume the right position and dig in to brake hard. Soon, I’m not bothering to slow down very much at all, practising quicker and quicker turns, and I’ve even stopped my drunken stumbling every time I twang off the button lift.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still terrible. But I’ve gone from absolutely detesting skiing to absolutely loving it after just a single night’s sleep. With a pleasing dollop of cliché, my skis no longer feel like clunky enemies but rather an (occasionally rebellious) extension of my body. Erik, of course, must be credited for forcing me to repeatedly contort my legs into positions they’ve never before attempted. It didn’t pay off on morning one, but by the end of morning two I have to be prised away from my skis – and not, this time, because they’re twisted awkwardly below the mangled husk of my body.
So, my advice to anyone dithering over whether to take up skiing a tad late is simple: go for it. Just be prepared to hate it – and yourself – for at least the first few hours. And persevere even when it seems you’re forever doomed to embarrassed flailing. Believe me, progress comes as quickly as the floor to your face.