Skiing in the Swiss Alps 101: Tips from two novices

March 28, 2011
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Sorry for the late post, but Lindsey and I went to ski school in the Swiss Alps on our last day in Murren, then promptly left the next day for Montreux and got very busy working on new stories and searching the city for free wi-fi.  However, we still wanted to share our experience with ski school in the Swiss Alps, so better late than never.

During our time in the Swiss Alps, we were covering a story on skiing alternatives in the region being that neither one of us has ever skied before.  We learned that 25% of people who come to the region don’t ski, so we were definitely in the minority.  After conquering the First Flyer zip line and tobogganing down the Eiger Run, we decided that maybe we could give skiing a try.  We were in the Swiss Alps after all, and it’s kind of a once in a lifetime type of experience.  Taking the advice of our advisor, Dr. Bissell, we decided to book a ski school lesson instead of setting out on the mountain on our own.  It was good that we did because we learned a good many lessons that we can now share with you.

Here are some tips for beginner skiers in the Swiss Alps (or anywhere else you’d care to learn how to ski):

1. Book a ski school lesson: Group or private, if you have never put on a pair of snow skis before, we would not recommend just going out on your own, especially in the Swiss Alps.  There are many rental shops and ski schools, so just find one with a good price and book at least a day in advance.  The place we went to offered private lessons charging a flat rate for the first person and an additional fee for every person after that up to five.  It makes it far less expensive than it seems initially when you recruit more people to come with you.  Most places will also offer a percentage off on rentals if you do both with them.

2. If you have the option to rent near where you’re skiing, do it: After a little snafu with renting our equipment in the town where we were staying, we were reassured we could get ski gear on the mountain where we were having our lesson.  We were not overly excited about this at first, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  If you have never dealt with ski gear before, it is heavy and lugging it from the rental shop on the mountain to beginner’s park and back was more than enough for us.

3. Ski boots are not comfortable. End of story: I’m not sure what we were expecting, but there are no words to explain the amount of awkward and uncomfortable that is a ski boot.  You’ll get over it once you’re on the slopes moving around and focusing on other things (or you’ll lose all feeling in your feet); but until the point you’re on the slopes, just embrace the awkwardness.  I don’t mean to scare anyone away from skiing; it’s just something I was not prepared for.  Also, if you have a little extra time, I would recommend practicing walking around in the boots.  Sounds silly because we learned to walk when we’re babies, but this is walking on another level.  Mini tip within the tip: thick socks aren’t necessary because ski boots are padded, and they will just constrict your feet more (our ski instructor told us that one).

4. Make sure everything fits well and the boots click into the skis with no problems when you’re in the rental shop: Learn from my mistake, if your boots feel a little too tight in the shop, they will feel a lot too tight after being on your feet for a few hours.  You do not want to have to go back to the shop (if you’re even near it), or have your day of skiing fun ruined because your feet are killing you.  Ski boots have weird sizing, so beyond us being in Europe, I had no clue what size I needed.  My suggestion would be whatever shoe size you wear, add at least a half size when telling the rental people.  Also, don’t feel bad about asking for multiple boot sizes to make sure they fit right.  I felt like I was being a pain, but it’s much better than being in pain (intense amounts of pain to be exact).  They should make you try on the skis in the shop, but it’s good to make sure they are both sized correctly before leaving.  I didn’t and I ended up with one ski boot that fit into my ski and one that didn’t.  Not a difficult fix, but not knowing a lot about skis, it took me a frustrating amount of time to figure out what was wrong.

5. Layers will save you: We checked the weather before we left the hotel that morning, and the forecast said it would be sunny and around 32 all day.  32 sounds cold; however, up on the mountain in the sun, 32 can be surprisingly hot.  I didn’t even wear as heavy of a jacket as I had worn on previous days, and I threw it to the side within the first 15 minutes.  This probably only works if you’re not going down runs or if you brought along a backpack to stash your jacket in, but layers were definitely key to not burning up during our lesson.  Another tip within the tip: it is not a good idea to take off your gloves no matter how hot you get.  I cut my finger on something because I wasn’t wearing mine because it was hot, and it’s a little embarrassing having to go to the SOS station where they deal with legitimate injuries to ask for some antibacterial spray and a bandage.

6. Be patient: The Swiss Alps is full of ridiculously good skiers that make it look easier than breathing.  Skiing is not overly difficult, but it does take practice and practice takes patience.  There is no shame in spending all day in the beginner’s park (and it’s free because you don’t need a lift ticket).  We did and we had a lot of fun, plus there’s a magic carpet to bring you back up to the top of the baby hills after you go down.  You’re in the Alps regardless of where you choose to ski, and people tend to get hurt when they get impatient and try runs that are beyond their ability.

7. Falling isn’t really that bad: If you’re new to skiing, or even if you’ve been skiing for awhile; there’s a good chance you will fall at some point during the day.  Falling for a beginner seems scary until you do it, and then you discover that it’s really not a big deal.  If you feel yourself going, just don’t tense up and make sure there are no people, trees, etc around for you to run into and potentially injure yourself.  After that, (if you can figure out how to stand back up with your skis still on, I’d applaud you because I sure couldn’t) pick yourself back up, brush off the snow, and get right back to skiing.

8. Be prepared for being sore at the end of the day and even the day after: Skiing is a workout and forces you to use muscles you probably didn’t know existed.  Being novices, we were not aware of how much strength and endurance it takes to be out on the slopes for even half the day.  Needless to say, it’s best to not over exert yourself on day one and be sure to have some pain killers or icyhot available for any sore muscles.  You will feel very accomplished though, or at least we did, for getting through it.

Those are all the tips we have for any novice skiers looking to learn to ski in the Alps or anywhere else come next ski season.  Most everyone on our trip had the opportunity to ski, if they wanted to, and most were on the inexperienced side.  If anyone else has tips they’d like to throw in from their experiences on the mountain, please feel free to do so.