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For the not-so-athletic, learning to ski should be gentle

If you want to learn to ski, do it right. This is particularly true if you're nonathletic or, as one beginner I know resignedly smiles, ''klutzy.'' On a press trip earlier this winter I watched this delightful young lady go through a week of ski lessons to little avail. It was the second time around for her, the last occurring also on a press trip two years ago. I felt bad for her because she seemed to start with lots of determination. Of course, she also started with a wee handicap: She didn't like heights or sliding.

Silly for someone like that to try to ski, you say? Well, people take up personal challenges all the time for countless reasons, not the least of which is to be part of the group, and who's to say what's silly and what isn't? The important thing is to give yourself a fighting chance.

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The Alps are fabulous for skiing, but they aren't my top choice for the place to learn to ski for a nonathletic American. On the other hand, some of the more innovative United States ski schools have been experimenting with a learning tool for adults that has proved highly successful with children.

It's called ''the terrain garden,'' and it refers to surfaces variously contoured to produce specific effects. Killington in central Vermont is a pioneer in developing the concept. Never-evers first watch a film to see what will happen to them (''to reduce fear of the unknown''), then are transported in a van above a novice slope where they get the feel of sliding and turning in a series of gently contoured bowls. None of them face down the slope but look across it toward nonthreatening woods. After a couple of hours, the beginners are able to ski slowly down the gentle novice slope to a ''training chairlift,'' where they learn how to ride a lift. From there it's practice and eventually up the mountain - for some, amazingly quickly.

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