DCSki Columnist Otto Matheke: Your First Time
By Otto Matheke, DCSki Columnist

Skiing, that is. Maybe you have always wanted to try, maybe your friends already ski and they want you to join in. Perhaps worst of all, your spouse or significant other already skis and thinks it would just be so much fun if you came along too. It could be that the idea fills you with dread. Maybe you’re just mildly terrified. If you are something of an athelete already, maybe the need for speed gives you a keen sense of anticipation.

If you are uncertain, don’t ask me for advice. I am hooked - a stone cold skiing junkie. If it has a chairlift, I’ll ski on it. Brutal wind chill, a pleasant 35 degree downpour - it doesn’t matter. Ski season is too short not to ski. In short, I think skiing is the most fun you can have. Period. So, from my somewhat twisted perspective, if you are even thinking about trying - GO!

All well and good, you say - but, what do I expect? How much does it cost? What should I wear? What about equipment? Should I take a lesson? My friends say lessons are a waste of time and money - are they right? How long does it take to learn? Will I end up in the lodge with my leg in a cast like the Fresh Prince from Bel Air? Should I take a day trip to a local place or learn on a ski vacation?

I’ll get hurt!

Let’s deal with the leg in a cast thing first. People do get hurt skiing - they also get hurt changing lightbulbs, jogging, and rollerblading behind Porsches with a towrope. I have personally taught hundreds of people to ski for the first time and haven’t seen a single one get hurt skiing. The point is that you are less likely to get hurt skiing than that episode of the Brady Bunch would lead you to believe. Statistically, skiing is pretty safe and if you exercise a little common sense once you learn, you are likely to have an injury-free skiing career.

I can’t do it!

If you think you can’t learn to ski because you are too old, too fat, too thin, too much of a klutz, or are a little bit of a fraidy cat, none of those are really valid excuses. Trust me because I have taught people past fifty, too thin, too fat, too klutzy and basic fraidy cats to ski. I have seen them all. Sometimes it wasn’t easy, but they learned. This is not because your uncle Otto is such a great teacher, either - it is because it really is not that hard to learn to ski. If you can walk, you can ski. If you skate, rollerblade, cycle, or are an equestrian, you are already halfway there, because the skills you develop in these sports are easily transferred to skiing.

So, put the impossibility thing out of your head, it is possible if you want to try.


Now that we have slain the “I can’t” dragon, the next question may be where to go. Almost all destination resorts have awfully good ski schools and offer multi-day lesson packages for long weekends or for 4- or 5-day ski weeks. There are definite pluses to this approach; you will get concentrated instruction, stay in a group of similarly situated new skiers and will have an excellent opportunity to develop really solid basic skills. Of course, the downsides are fairly obvious, you could simply find that you can’t stand skiing, your programmed time separates you from your traveling companions, or your group could just be horrendous. And there is that old problem of money - ski vacations are not neccessarily cheap. (Ever see an outlet mall bus tour at a ski resort?)

If you decide to go local, that is not a bad choice either. You have invested a day in the project. The cost, while still high, does not include airfare. If you don’t like it, you drive home. As for the quality of the instruction, you will probably get as good a beginner lesson (as in never, ever skied before) as you will get anywhere. Local mountains teach a lot of beginners. Because repeat business is crucial for their survival, they make it a point to do this right. Part of this is trying to give new skiers a good value while still making the essential offerings to the profit gods. Liberty offers a first time skier package that includes an eight hour lift ticket, a lesson with a learn to ski guarantee and ski, boot and pole rental for $61.00 on weekends and holidays . Whitetail offers virtually the same thing for $49 on weekends or $39 weekdays and evenings. Liberty also gives new skiers who take their lesson a coupon allowing them to purchase the entire package for a second visit for $25 (even though you have to spend the $25 while still at the mountain - it is a deal.)

Fashion tips

It’s not ice fishing - so if you are going to go skiing, don’t bundle up like you would to get a good night’s sleep in a meat locker. From an instructor’s perspective, I have seen far more people who are completely overdressed for the temperature and conditions than I have seen underdressed. Skiing is not a stationary activity. You will be getting a little bit of a workout, you will sweat and if you are bundled up like the Michelen man, you will get real hot and sweaty.

The trick to avoinding this phenomenon is to layer. Start with a t-shirt or long underwear, throw on a turtleneck and, if the temperature is going to be below 30, put on a fleece or thin sweater on top of that. Bring a decent jacket, a hat and some gloves, and except for your bottom half, you are on your way. As for your bottom half, if you can’t borrow or buy a pair of water resistant ski pants, use something else that will stay dry if you put your rear end down in the snow. Jeans and sweatpants simply won’t do, they get wet and stay wet. On even a moderately cold day, that wet rear end will get cold. Last but not least, socks. Do NOT wear two pairs of thick socks like your great uncle Sven used to check his trap lines in the Yukon. Wear one pair of medium weight absorbent socks - in a pinch, plain old athletic socks will work. Ski boots are pretty warm, more socks will just make it harder to learn and give you a bad case of sweaty feet.

Once you have picked your spot, you have to manage the logistics of getting to the mountain, getting through the rental shop, and getting out on the snow. As in all things, a little planning goes a long way. Before you go, call the mountain and find out when their beginner lessons start. You want to shoot for getting out of the rental shop on ready to ski, just before your lesson begins. This means arriving at the mountain at least 45 minutes before your lesson starts and probably a solid hour or more on weekends. This is why: 1.) Park car, 2.) Walk from car to ticket window or ski school desk or both, 3.) Buy ticket(s), 4.) Go to lodge and rent locker or basket, 5.) Go to rental shop, fill out rental forms, 6.) Turn in rental forms and rental ticket or voucher, 7.) Get boots, try on boots, perhaps get a different size boot, 8.) Get rental skis, including rental technician setting bindings to your height, weight, etc. 9.) Get poles, and 10.) Find ski school meeting place.

Lesson or no lesson?

ARE YOU NUTS??? Ok, I got that off my chest. Your friends or significant other or spouse may tell you not to take a lesson as it is a waste of time, money, etc. and you don’t really need to get one to learn how to ski. In fact, they will be happy to teach you. Unless your companion is, or was a ski instructor, ski racer or race coach, this is a profoundly stupid thing to do. Teaching skiing is not neurosurgery, but just because your friend can ski, doesn’t mean that he or she knows how to teach it or, most importantly, how beginners learn. Also, if this student teacher relationship also happens to be a dating relationship, cohabitiation relationship or marital relatiionship, be forewarned that there may be faster ways to have a messy breakup, but we can’t mention them on a family web page.

The equipment stuff

Even though your cousin Floyd has some ski equipment leaning up against his exercise bike in the back of his garage, it make more sense to rent equipment for your first time on skis. If you decided to try skydiving, would you use his parachute? For those who are absolutely sure that they are going to like skiing and keep pursuing it, buying equipment is an option. It is, however, a really expensive option (unless you are buying for kids). If you shop carefully, you will get equipment that is right for you. There is a lot to be said for your own good fitting boots and skis that you can just carry from your car.

Renting equipment is probably your best option as beginner skier. If you are skiing for the first time, the equipment rental is likely to be included in a package price. The boots and skis that you get will be well suited to first time skiers.

If you rent, be sure not to rush through the rental shop. Why? Because here you will get your boots and your boots are very, very important. The vast majority of rental boots are what is known as rear entry boots. This is because they have solid front half and a hinge point below your ankle that allows the rear of the boot to open backwards so you can slide your foot in. A buckle on the outside of the boot pulls a cable assembly across the back of the boot so the front and back half close snugly around your ankle. Rental shops use these boots because they fit just about everybody and accomodate a huge variety of foot shapes. When you try your rental boots on, pull your socks up so they are wrinkle free and be sure to pull or roll your pant cuff up so it is not in the boot when it shuts. Fasten the boot and stand up and bend your ankles forward to seat your heel in the rear of the boot. In the perfect world, your boot should give you just enough room to wiggle your toes and should be comfortably snug all over.

In the real world, you should still be able to wiggle your toes and have the boot fit firmly around your ankle if nowhere else. If you have time, wear the boot for a few minutes. If your foot is swimming in it and moves around a lot in the boot, get a smaller one. If the boot is uncomfortably narrow, squeezes your instep too much or does not allow you to wiggle your toes, get a bigger one. Try not to rush through this step. The most important thing is to end up with a boot that is comfortable but snug, particularly around the ankle.

Get your skis and poles and head out to the snow. Poles are not really necessary, and really get in the way with kids about 9 and under. Your skis will probably be handed to you stuck together bottom against bottom (they have brakes on them that also latch them together - when you put the ski on, the brakes retract). Grab them with one hand just under the toepiece for the binding and carry your poles together in the other hand. Until you get used to walking in boots, take small steps. Don’t shuffle, but don’t take giant steps either. Carry your skis and your boots to the ski school meeting place. If you like, you can put your skis on when you get there, but your lesson is likely to begin with your wearing just one ski.

What to expect in your first lesson

Beginner lessons generally consist of three phases. The first part is made up of some simple exercises to introduce the basic movement patterns that go into skiing, getting acquainted with having boots and skis on your feet, and some methods for getting around. The next phase involves some actual skiing on a very gentle slope. The objective here is to get the student used to sliding down the hill while maintaining balance, learning how to turn and most importantly, learning how to control speed by turning. The final phase, which occurs after you have learned to ski straight and turn, and to control your speed and direction, involves learning how to use a lift and to ski on beginner terrain.

Congratulations - You can ski!

After your lesson is over, take a break and get something to drink and warm up if you need to. I get dehydrated pretty quickly when I ski, and a lot of other skiers do, too. So quench your thirst and relax a bit and then go back out and have fun.

A few words about kids…

Once they get a good start, kids learn to ski amazingly fast. How they learn to ski and when is the right time to start could easily be the subject of another article altogether. Apochryphal tales of children learning soon after they can walk abound, but most kids are not ready until they are older. I’ll stick my neck out here and say that five or six years old is about when children can learn, but as every child is different, when they are ready really depends on the kid. A lot of effort has gone, and continues to go, into teaching children and some really excellent children’s programs exist - including those that mix instruction with playcare/daycare so mom and dad can catch a few runs on their own. Take advantage of them.

About Otto Matheke

Otto Matheke is a PSIA certified Level II instructor at Ski Liberty, where he has been teaching since 1993. A graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, Otto also works as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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