Posted On Sep 21, 2016
One of the best ways to beat the winter blues? Jumping into the snow with both feet—especially if they’re attached to a snowboard or a pair of skis.
I learned how to ski when I was 14 years old. I recall bitterly cold winds and frozen fingers that could barely grip my poles. I remember thinking my skis weren’t “cool” enough and feeling self-conscious of my rented gear. Almost all of my memories from that one winter on the slopes are so powerfully negative that they kept me away from the slopes for 24 years.
But you know how the old song goes: Climb every mountain! So I decided to hit a snowy one in Vermont in an effort to make new snow memories (and for at least five other excellent reasons). I signed myself up for an eight-week women’s snowboarding clinic at Smugglers’ Notch Resort (also known simply as “Smuggs”) in Jeffersonville, Vermont, last January. To say that I was nervous would be an understatement; I couldn’t sleep the night before my first lesson, and I packed and re-packed my gear three times before I felt adequately prepared.
Complicating, yet also complementing, this decision was the fact that my two kids, then ages four and six, were getting their first experience with snowy sports—and I didn’t want them to start out with an avalanche of bad impressions like I did so many years before.
As it so happens, this reasoning brings lots of women out to the mountain, says Julie Silverman, coordinator of Women’s Programs at Smuggs, which started three years ago when resort officials realized that the moms getting their kids into lessons were left without a program of their own.
“Women’s-only clinics remove the ego-driven, competitive, push beyond the max attitude that can rear its ugly head in co-ed clinics,” Silverman says. “Most women respond better to supportive, collaborative learning environments where they are guided by a trusted female coach—a role model—who helps to build confidence, expand their personal comfort zone, and develop skills to take control of new challenges and fears as they arise.”
You caught that, right? “As” they arise. Not “if.” Because, boy-oh-boy, is it scary to strap your feet onto a snowboard or skis and head down a mountain. It’s scary to actively override your highly developed, though likely hyperactive, danger sensor. And it’s scary to feel vulnerable; to realize how little you know about something, at this age, and to admit that you need help. Doing all of these things, though, will make you a stronger person—emotionally and physically. It’s wonderfully unavoidable.
Professional ski instructor Heidi Ettlinger is going on her fourteenth year without a summer. During the northern hemisphere’s colder months, she coaches at Heavenly Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe, California. When the snow melts there, she dashes down under to Australia to coach skiing at Mount Hotham.
That’s because, for Ettlinger, there is nothing more invigorating or life-affirming than plummeting down a powdery slope. And her frosty passion is fueled by the fact that it’s very unlikely she will reach a moment where the excitement of learning—even with experience and accolades—will ever stop. “Because the mountain environment is constantly changing, you’re constantly wanting to get better,” she explains.
Jon Schriner, D.O., a fellow with the American College of Sports Medicine in practice at the Michigan Center for Athletic Medicine, advises that it’s important to “get lessons with a professional ski instructor, preferably an individual lesson versus group,” when you’re starting out. Ettlinger concurs: “Lessons plus fitness equals good technique,” which helps skiers get better, faster, and “ultimately have more fun on the slopes.”
One of the secrets to success with the sport isn’t about fancy footwork, though; it revolves around your core. “In skiing, your upper body twists one way, your lower body twists the other, and that’s how you perform turns,” says Schriner. For stability in these turns, core strength is key.
This, of course, is something you can prepare for far in advance. Jennifer Simpson, who, like Ettlinger, is a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America Alpine Team, and who coaches at Aspen/Snowmass, says that “for basic skiing, if your workout involves some strength, mobility, and cardio, you’ve got a good foundation.”
But it’s not all about the body; as I learned, your brain is a big part of slope success, too. “One of the biggest things we’re coaching is mental tactics—getting people to trust and believe in themselves so that they can do the things that the mountain asks of them,” she says.
One of the best ways to work on this is to try anything new during non-ski months. “Even if it’s a different class in the gym. Enjoy the fact that you will feel different and move differently than you have before,” Simpson says. “If there’s a moment where you get frustrated, do your best to embrace it because that’s where the learning happens.”
By facing my many fears and getting up after I fell (over and over again), I reached a proficiency level of which I am proud.
But the big bonus had less to with advances I made on my board than what it felt like to seize a new, exciting opportunity (and tackle an old, frozen prejudice). As Silverman says, “It’s a chance to be a kid again.”
What’s in Your Pack?
Professional ski instructor Heidi Ettlinger’s top five tips for preparing for a day of dominating the slopes:
Fuel Up First Thing: Eat as if you were preparing for a day hike or other outdoor activity. “Plenty of carbs and protein for sustainable energy,” she says. Think egg and bacon sandwich, oatmeal with berries or fruit, or whole grain pancakes with pure maple syrup.
Layer on the Warmth: Try an inner layer of long underwear, a middle layer of fleece or a sweater, an outer layer combo of wind and water-resistant jacket and pants, and a single pair of socks that are ski specific—long enough to cushion your lower leg and foot and keep you warm and comfortable.
Avoid the Mid-day Slope-Slump: Keep your energy up with easy-to-digest carbs and a bit of protein, too, like a hearty bowl of chili and a whole-grain bread roll. And don’t forget the snacks! “I always carry some kind of power bar in my pocket.”
Heap on the Hydro-Power: When you’re not hydrating you are dehydrating, says Ettlinger. “Because of the dry winter air, along with indoor heating, you may find yourself needing to hydrate more often, especially to ward off feeling sluggish in the morning.
Don’t Deprive Your Digits: “Personally I love my Hestra three-finger mittens for dexterity and warmth,” says Ettlinger, “and I always wear a neck warmer for protection from wind, blowing snow, and the sun.”