Sarah Bennett and her skis. (Photo: Lee Slater)
Sarah Bennett and her skis. (Photo: Lee Slater)

SocietyJune 21, 2020

On the piste: My lurching, bruising, exhilarating quest to learn to ski

Sarah Bennett and her skis. (Photo: Lee Slater)
Sarah Bennett and her skis. (Photo: Lee Slater)

Taking up skiing when you’re nearly 50? It ain’t pretty, but it’s possible.

For someone who spent their 20s and 30s drinking booze and smoking fags, my 40s have proven positively restorative. I’ve gotten fitter and stronger – and probably more boring – by kicking almost all my vices to the kerb and in favour of sensible diet and exercise. In a quest for absolute immortality, I’ve taken up what may prove my greatest physical challenge yet: skiing.

I’ve dabbled in skiing a bit over the last 30 years. A day here, a day there, mostly on my arse, frozen nose and fingers, crippled feet, often in whiteout conditions, stone cold sober to boot. It’s been hard to see the appeal.

Enter Patrick and Janine, the perfect friends to share your mid-life crisis with. He, a strapping ex-ski mountaineer who makes an excellent negroni. She, generous, hilarious, and always up for dancing in the lounge. Before they had children and moved to Queenstown – for the snow – they’d skied all over the show both at home and abroad. They made it sound sooooo much fun.

My husband Lee was always keen to pick it up again, having spent childhood holidays skiing in Europe. My teenage years were much less recreational, unless you count smoking round the back of the bike sheds and sipping Pink Chardon through a straw. I could never have dreamed that one day I’d join the ski set. 

First, the basics. The building block for the beginner is to own your own boots, as rental boots are inclined to crush every wonky toe and bulging bunion. (Consider yourself warned.)

I head to Brown’s Ski Shop in Queenstown where Haggis – reputedly the best boot-guy in town – tells me I have outstanding arches for a woman my age. Clearly, I am born for this.

With orthotic boots in the bag, we’re on to the next major investment: a pair of last-season ex-demo skis. They’re purple and within budget. I’m told they’re possibly too advanced for my skill level, but I’m also told that you “ski to the ski”. I take this as a positive.

Goggles, helmet and poles also sorted, I’m ready for wardrobe and make-up. There’s a pretty hefty price tag on the leopard-print onesie, so I settle on my 25-year-old tramping jacket and trews. A fashion tragic in saggy blue Gortex, I’m ready for the runway.

Determined not to waste time as a rank amateur, I study Ski the New Way (1967) by Franz Kramer, pioneer of the Austrian technique that produced “so many champions as to furnish incontestable proof that this skiing technique requires less energy and is safer and more successful than any other”. You had me at “less energy”, my dear Franz.

From the soft, creamy, vintage pages I learn such fundamentals as vorlage, wedeln and the schuss. The bottom line seems to be to not cross your skis. Too easy!

A copy of Ski the New Way by Franz Kramer. (Photo: Supplied)

(Allow me to clarify that by the start of last season I had already mastered the snowplough, aka the pizza wedge.)

Pan to Coronet Peak, the chairlift to be precise: challenging but perfectly doable if you can read signs and follow instructions. Safely stowed, I’m ready for a swig from the hip flask passed to me by Patrick. Don’t mind if I do. Prost!

At the top of the run, my erstwhile pro insists on a safety briefing. A herbal cigarette is produced. I am reminded not to cross my skis or crash into anyone at high speed.

We’re off, and it’s messy. I’m all arms and legs. Sliding, scissoring, splitting, akimbo. The slope is stupidly steep, treacherous, impossible. I lurch to and fro, butchering turns with all the strength I can muster. It’s committing. I plumb for courage. Hurtling off-piste is a horrific prospect.

Crashing happens, often. In my worst, my ski tips dig into a slush pile, jettisoning me forwards into a dramatic commando-roll with a face-plant to finish. You know you’re out of your comfort zone when your legs are behind your head.

But what goes up must come down. And by hokey if I don’t manage to get down more or less in one piece every time, down to the ski base where my friends wait, usually having a wine. They are unruffled, relaxed. I’m wide-eyed, adrenalised and actually quite stuffed. Feels fair for me to have a beer or two.

The author, Sarah Bennett, on the chairlift. (Photo: Supplied)

My technique improves as the days go by. The snow is starting to feel familiar. Its density, texture, the terrain. Crisp, quick and sometimes icy in the morning; softer and slower in the arvo. I’m getting my eye in, shifting some body weight around. I start breathing deeper and find some flow.

Occasionally I find the edges of the skis and carve through the snow like a hot knife through butter. More straight down than side to side. Speed is my friend. It is terrifying, exhilarating, and addictive. As well as expending less energy (!), I’m getting more time to soak up the surroundings. Stark white ridges against the deep blue sky. Rocky outcrops. Faraway views down to valleys and plains.

A feller told me years ago that skiing was much more than a sport: it was about being up the mountains in the snow. He was right. Now that I’ve got the hang of it I can appreciate just how remarkable this environment really is. It’s beautiful. Inspiring. Epic. I feel very alive. 

In the evenings, there is après ski at home. After slathering myself in gallons of liniment, it’s time to review our daily stats via the ski field app. I may be the dodgiest skier, but I’m doing the same number of runs as everyone else. Clearly I deserve a cocktail or two.

Later, in the privacy of my bedroom, I view ski tutorials on YouTube and browse for onesies. I’m hooked.

Lee and I wring every last day out of our season passes, heading back to Wellington late September as the snow melts. At the back of my mind, always, is that the Southern Alps’ snows are disappearing at an alarming rate. We commit to next year’s season pass. For me and the snow, there’s no time to wait.

The writer paid for her own season pass but wishes to acknowledge the support of NZSki, and that of Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, for providing complimentary ski passes in the past. Thanks also to Visit Ruapehu & Destination Queenstown for previous favours.

Keep going!