Advice on safety, clothing and attitude for beginners of all ages
By Katherine Nettles
Back in the late 1990s, my dad brought his wife to Crested Butte to introduce her to skiing. He had raised my brother and me to be as crazy about skiing as he was, so he probably considered himself a successful ambassador to the sport. Despite my stepmother’s initial protestations that Koreans don’t ski (we pointed out the many Koreans with successful Olympic downhill careers), he had convinced her to try it out.
In an uncharacteristic splurge, my dad even spent the money to get her a private lesson. He was really committed to making this experience take, after all. Turns out though, my stepmom was too intimidated by the snow, the cold, the gear, her fear of heights, and in general, the unknown. Without ever getting on a chairlift, she explained to the instructor that the boots were a terrible fit, that at least in her case, Koreans who grew up in Florida did not ski, and they ended up spending the entire lesson chatting away inside over coffee. After that my dad’s trips to Crested Butte during winter months did not include my stepmom (she went back to the beach), and I think he still holds a grudge against that instructor for charging him a few hundred dollars for his wife to drink coffee.
Whether you are a long-time local or a visitor from near or far, the time comes for most of us when we need to introduce a friend, relative, or lover to our fair ski slopes. It may be that they tried it a time or two back in high school (20 years ago), or as a child (20 years ago), or it may be that they are truly never-evers. Of course, bringing in the experts is always a good call and it is probably rare that an instructor will allow a student to completely give up. But there are other factors involved besides dropping someone off at ski school, not to mention that some people don’t want to spend a lot of money on formal lessons. Introducing people to the sport of snow sliding can actually start long before the person sets foot on the hill.
David “Mac” McGuire, long-time CBMR ski instructor for both children and adults, shares some tips for how to set someone up for success.
McGuire grew up in Leadville, Colo., with his mom an instructor at Ski Cooper and his dad a ski patroller at the former Meadow Mountain Resort of Minturn, so skiing is in McGuire’s blood. He moved to the valley in 1997 to attend Western State College, and began his ski instructor career that year as a part-time gig while in school. Thirty-eight years later, he is still here and teaching.
McGuire’s first advice is to avoid overdressing, contrary to many people’s instincts. He says as beginners, people aren’t going to get whisked to the top of the mountain with high winds and exposure, and they are more likely to be down lower, right near a base area. And they will be exerting themselves physically, so many end up overheating. He recommends layering clothes so it’s easy to adjust—but not to layer socks, which cuts off circulation and makes boots fit poorly.
“One of the initial questions we ask people is how many pairs of socks they are wearing. And then the first thing we have to do is sit down, take your boots off, and take off all the extra socks,” he says. The biggest investments he recommends on clothing and gear are a good pair of gloves and a good pair of boots, since when it comes to getting cold, “extremities always go first.”
Along those lines, he encourages people to really listen to boot fitters at a rental shop. “People will feel the tightness of a boot, and be uncomfortable with squeezing in” he says, and make the mistake of going up a size to feel roomier, only to begin sliding around in them later and have to go back for the right fit they needed in the first place. The lesson: Listen to the experts.
Next, he says, “A lot of people don’t come with eye protection,” which includes both goggles and sunglasses, depending on the conditions. “Or sunscreen.”
This might all be obvious to a seasoned local or repeat visitor, but maybe it isn’t to someone who has never heard it before. Thin gloves without water resistance are a fast way to convince someone they do not want anything more to do with snow, even after their first run.
Once someone is outfitted, McGuire’s advice is for people to keep an open mind. “I think the biggest thing with first-time skiers is that many of them come loaded with ideas of what they are going to learn, which may not be accurate. It’s best if people don’t have that pre-loaded stuff in their heads, and it’s important that they don’t listen too much to what other people tell them about how to do it who aren’t instructors,” says McGuire.
He can attest to the number of people who have their overall impression of skiing or snowboarding ruined by a bad first experience. People sometimes tell their friend or partner that they will teach them the first day. “That’s always a disaster,” he says. “People develop defensive habits from that, and have to unlearn the things that they picked up. It’s damaging.”
I’ve been guilty myself of taking a less experienced friend out on more challenging terrain in hopes of helping them improve. And it has backfired. People can be left scared of the steeps, the bumps, the ice or powder or whatever condition it is to which they are exposed and unprepared. McGuire emphasizes that those “lessons” are best left to the experts. “Being that this is an extreme sport, it’s very important that people take a lesson from trained professionals.”
Keeping an open mind can also mean being mentally prepared for a new challenge. Mountains and snow are character building, if one is ready for them. It isn’t a matter of comfort, exactly. Being a little cold, a little afraid, and a little uncomfortable about learning something new is normal, and some people handle it better than others.
Maybe assess the type of person you are introducing. Are they adventurous? Do they prefer reading a good book over exercising? It’s important to meet them where they are, not asking them to meet you where you are. “We focus on showing you a good time, showing you how to enjoy it at the level you want, not at the level that someone else wants,” says McGuire. “The beauty of skiing is that it is an individual sport.”
For that matter, McGuire says, many people get ahead of themselves and worry about aspects of skiing that aren’t relevant to them yet, such as their fear of heights. McGuire points out that no one starts off by getting on a lift without first building up their skills and getting prepared.
“A lot of people are fearful in anticipation of riding the lift, when that can be the easiest part of the day. You get to sit, relax [pull down the safety bar], enjoy the views and talk with people.”
Last, don’t overdo it. Maybe a person who isn’t stoked on the outdoors shouldn’t be signed up for five days in a row of full-day skiing. But maybe a couple half days can give them a solid foundation of learning something new, pushing themselves, and not being traumatized. McGuire says his strategy with newcomers is to identify their daily interests and motivations and relate them to skiing. Even a kid who plays video games for sport can give him workable material. “If nothing else, even walking gives people a baseline,” he says. “Our entire goal is to help you learn how to enjoy the environment and have fun learning how to ski as efficiently and quickly as possible. Learning to ski is about defeating the human mind. Because most of the problems people have learning come from them listening to their human nature…”
If that doesn’t sound like something your child or friend or partner will appreciate hearing from you, trust me. It sounds much better coming from an instructor. And I may still get my stepmom signed up for another go.