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Travel Tips

What Not To Do As A First Time Skier

Colleen Clark took to the slopes in Utah after a decade hiatus. Three falls, four hot tubs and countless hot toddies later, she’s ready to hand down ten tips for new skiers

I’m sprawled out with a facefull of snow, limbs akimbo like some drawn-and-quartered alpine roadkill. I will myself to sit up and take stock. No blood. No breaks. A few tears of mortification. My skis were equally embarrassed by the tumble, fleeing the scene and skidding to a stop on the other side of the slope. On cue, a 92-year-old grandma and a five-year-old hot dogger swish gracefully by, forming a perfect taunting zigzag down what now feels like an impossible drop.

Welcome to Day Four of my Utah ski adventure. It’s my first time on the slopes in more than a decade and my very first tackling the West’s big, bad mountains. Thanks to daily lessons, I rose from the slow and steady greens of Park City Mountain Resort to the dramatic blues of Canyons and the classic cinematic curves of Alta to end up here on the ridge of a windswept black diamond at Solitude. I’m battered, I’m bruised, but I’m in love.

However, even a teacher with the patience of a saint and the skills of Lindsey Vonn couldn’t keep me from tumbling headlong down the well-worn trail of rookie ski mistakes. But I made these mistakes so that you don’t have to. I sacrificed my body and my pride so that you can know what not to do on your first date with the bunny hill. I went up to the mountain to receive these, the ten ski commandments.

THOU SHALT NOT GO IT ALONE
Think lessons sound too expensive? So is getting airlifted to the ER. The right instructor gives you the building block skills, the safety background and the confidence to progress quickly through the basics of skiing. Swallow your pride at sharing the rope tow with toddlers and you’ll quickly be tackling your first chair lift.

THOU SHALT NOT LEARN FROM THY BOYFRIEND, GIRLFRIEND, PARTNER OR ANYONE THOU MIGHT BE ATTRACTED TO
Your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/hottie mountain crush might jump out of helicopters, brave avalanches and soar off cliffs in search of gnar pow (eye roll). That might make them a great skier. But it doesn’t necessarily make them a great teacher. No matter how skilled or patient your partner, it’s easier to call upon the unbiased attentions of a licensed instructor. That way you can enthusiastically dork your way through pizza and French fries (aka snow plow and parallel stances), let your hair get sweaty and your nose runny and tumble gracelessly down your first big runs. Then you can rendezvous later in the hot tub to recap your big, bad mountain adventures, no tears, hurt feelings or injured limbs to fight over.

THOU SHALT NOT OVERTHINK THINGS
Learning to ski is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. When I learned as a child, I rocketed down the hill, no fear. Conquering the slopes as an adult means quieting the terrified voice in your head shrieking “YOU’RE GOING TO DIE.” A good instructor quells that fear by breaking down a run, helping you strategize your turns and giving you the skills to feel in control. You’re going to fall. You’re going to survive it. And at some point you’re going to find yourself in the zone. Mind clear, air crisp, turn melting into turn.

THOU SHALT NOT OVER-DO THE APRES
The only thing better than skiing is what happens afterwards. Happy hour hot toddies, beers in the hot tub, fireside whiskey sipping. What you might not account for? Altitude. Traveling from a low to a high altitude destination can give you mountain sickness, making you dizzy, lightheaded, nauseous and/or clumsy until you acclimatize. So though altitude doesn’t make you drunker faster (a common misconception), you often feel drunker since you’re battling booze and a sickness that happens to have boozy symptoms. Take it easy on the sauce for your first two days. After that it’s open (bottle) season.

THOU SHALT NOT LET VANITY TRUMP SAFETY
Check out the lift line. The badass locals heading up to tackle those double black diamonds? Wearing helmets. Every last one of them. That’s because it’s an incontrovertible truth that helmets save lives. Save your Nordic-chic hats for the après scene and save your life by strapping on a helmet. They come standard with any ski rental package.

THOU SHALT NOT BLOW THY BANK ACCOUNT ON GEAR
You don’t need an entirely new wardrobe to learn how to ski. The musts? Wool, silk or synthetic moisture-wicking layers (avoid cotton, which holds in moisture, making you feel colder), low to medium cushion socks (heavy ones bunch up and can cause blisters), a waterproof jacket and pants, good gloves and goggles (they’re warmer than sunglasses). Generally it’s not worth investing in your own skis and boots for your first time. But if you’re planning on skiing regularly, it’s better to buy yourself boots and not skis. The fit of boots is more important, they’re easy to carry on the plane (whereas skis must be checked) and you can just rent the newest skis each year instead of reinvesting.

THOU SHALT NOT PISS OFF OTHER SKIERS
Sure you’re overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. You want to stop, take it all in, take a selfie. But block a trail or stop where you’re not visible from above and you’re putting other skiers’ lives in danger. Learn the rules of the slopes: Always stay in control and be able to stop to avoid people. Anyone ahead of you has the right of way. Look uphill before merging onto a trail. Move to the side quickly after exiting a lift.

THOU SHALT NOT GET LOST
The surest way to get into trouble skiing is to get lost. No beginner wants to find themselves on the wrong trail, facing 30-foot drops and fields of moguls. Stay alert, pay attention to signs, carry a map and always be sure to ask for directions.

THOU SHALT NOT FORGET THY SUNSCREEN
You’re often at a higher risk of sunburn on the slopes than in the tropics. The sun hits you from two directions—directly and then reflected up off the snow. The atmosphere at higher altitudes is also thinner, offering you less protection from UV rays. UV radiation may be 35 to 45% more intense at 9,000 feet than at sea level. Wear goggles to protect your eyes and use an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen on all exposed areas.

THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THY LAST RUN
Just one more run, you say. We don’t blame you, it gets addictive. But that last run is nearly always the one you wipe out on. If you’re noticing your legs getting quivery, it’s time to head inside. A good guideline for planning your first ski trip? Go for five days. Ski for three, take the fourth off to rest/explore the area, and then ski again on the fifth. No matter how in shape you are, you’ll be using your muscles in new ways. At some point, your legs give out and no amount of willpower will convince them to work. That’s what landed me stuck in what felt like an endless series of sloppy turns, shaky muscles and painful tumbles on my fourth day. Just as I felt like I was hitting my stride skill- and confidence-wise, my legs needed a break. Take your fourth day off, hit the slopes refreshed on the next one and you might be able to go out with a black diamond bang.