There are lots of postings on the internet and newspaper articles about skiing, but most of these seem to be written by people who have never been skiing or are experts writing for experts.
So just for a change, here are my top tips for over 50’s skiing, learned from over 40 years’ practical hard won experience!
When to go
If you have a reasonable amount of flexibility over when and where, it pays to delay booking until you are closer to your point of departure. Travel companies offering packages of flights and chalets will start discounting in order to fill up any vacant slots, and you can get some thumping good bargains if you book a week or so before departure. By delaying you can also chose a destination with good snow conditions. (Check on the snow or one of the many other ski sites for information about skiing conditions. The most important is depth of snow at top and bottom.)
December and January tend to be cheaper, except for Christmas, New Year and Easter which are always heavily booked. Early season skiing is colder and the days are shorter, but that won’t be a problem unless you are a dedicated powder hound and want to ski through to 5.00 p.m. In March the temperature will be higher and the days longer, but you will find the snow starts to get soft and heavy by the end of the afternoon. Slush in the afternoon turns to ice by next morning.
Where to go
French ski centres will be crowded with French children throughout February. Also you will find more kamikaze skiers in French resorts at any time and especially the weekend. Switzerland has a reputation for being expensive, and certainly looks after the well-healed. Prices in the French Three Valleys centres can be exorbitant, particularly Courchevel much favoured by wealthy Russians, but are a lot less in the satellite resorts such as La Tania. You can check out local deals on-line. A week’s catered half-board with a cooked breakfast and wine, AND a free ski pass for under £400 can’t be bad, with full access to the whole Three Valleys area. Night life might be quieter, but you can always make your own. I have had great skiing in Italy and Austria, but haven’t tried Eastern Europe yet.
Before you go
There was a time when it might have been worth buying your own skis. However, taking your skis with you is now an unnecessary and expensive hassle. Much better to hire your skis when you get to the ski centre, but check whether you can book these ahead through companies like skiset or intersport. Both companies have branches in most ski centres and more to the point offer substantial discounts if you book and prepay before you get there. When you get your skis they will check your weight or height. This is to set the point of release for your bindings if you have a crash. I always
ask for them to be set for a slightly lower weight. I would prefer they released early to avoid twisting a knee (again!). You can always have them tightened up later if need be.
Hire shops also offer packages with boots and/or helmets. If you ski regularly it’s worth buying your own boots. If you can, buy in your ski centre – many local shops offer a hire and buy package which allows you to give a pair a thorough test drive before making up your mind.
Health and safety
You should get reasonably fit before you go, not just for skiing, but also lugging suitcases and skis around on icy roads. It’s worth losing a few extra pounds, especially if you put on a bit of weight over Christmas. Winter Sports insurance is essential, very often included as a free extension on retail bank account packages, but you have to make sure you opt in. Helmets are not yet mandatory everywhere, but well worth thinking about. Helmet mounted web-cams if you must, but remember what happened to Michael Schumacher, and he was a good skier.
You need to keep warm. I would not be without my one piece ski suit, bought cheaply some years ago but far warmer than a jacket/trousers combo. Underneath, multiple layers are better than one thick piece of clothing. Gloves obviously, and a beanie or ski cap. 50% of heat loss is from the head.
You can buy all you need from discount clothing suppliers. At time of writing Mountain Warehouse offer a full package from beanie to socks for under £80.00 (men and women). Regular skiers should consider special ski socks with extra padding around the shins and calves. Not cheap but worth the expense. If you ski well you will need more insulation – you ski faster and with less effort.
High factor sun screen is essential at any time. I add a generous supply of sticking plasters, used before the skin breaks to pad any areas where my boots are rubbing. I use prescription sun-glasses, but some people get along ok with standard prescription specs inside goggles. I find they mist up.
Many packages offer transfers from the nearest airports, but you still have to get to the airport. If you are flying out from one of the London airports and live any distance away, it’s well worth checking for deals at airport hotels. They often throw in a week’s parking and a shuttle service to the terminal for free. For a week’s skiing you should be able to get all your needs into a medium size wheeled suitcase, including a decent pair of ski boots, plus a back-pack to carry on. Don’t forget there may not be any porters or trolleys to help out when you get to your ski destination. Stuff goggles and socks inside your boots, along with tubes of sun screen. I once saw someone in the departure lounge dressed in full skiing gear including ski boots. Not to be recommended.
Don’t forget to pack some plastic bin bags. Useful for separating used clothing from clean, and for packing ski boots. I wear light weight water-resistant walking boots on the journey out that are more than adequate for walking around in the snow, and always pack a pair of light weight shoes for indoors.
My experience of ski lessons by French instructors is that they are a waste of time, except for ski kindergartens which are generally run by British companies anyway. Even if you can speak good French you will find that the unvarying ESF method is out of date and inadequate. Ski classes in Italy are more fun, and you will probably learn more.
The best instructors are found in Switzerland, particularly if you can find one that speaks English. I learned more from two lessons from an English instructor in France than from weeks of French ski school – We love to ski is an excellent start for finding a good instructor.
Stop skiing before you feel tired. Most accidents occur:
- Falling down on the first morning when you have forgotten how icy it can be underfoot (broken leg – not mine thank goodness)
- Not pacing yourself over the first day or two when you may not know the runs very well
- Collisions caused by kamikaze or out of control beginners. They generally emerge unscathed. In the worst case double break at the ankle (not mine), damaged ligaments all down one leg (mine).
The most dangerous areas are the low-altitude blue slopes. This is where the over-confident beginners like to build up a bit of speed, and you run the greatest risk from one of these not being able to avoid colliding with you.
I always glance over my shoulder before turning, just to make sure no-one is coming down behind me on a collision course. The rule is that uphill skiers should avoid the lower skier, but that doesn’t help when you are face down with a neck full of snow!
Anywhere else, avoid stopping in the middle of the piste – ski over to the side. And always ensure that you are clearly visible to anyone coming down towards you.
Avoid skiing side by side with another skier – particularly your partner. Inevitably your turns will get out of sync and you will meet in the middle. Very embarrassing.
Finally, don’t hog the slope. We all know how difficult it is to ski through a ski class meandering from one side of the piste to the other. For your own safety try to keep to one side or the middle of the piste. That way any skier coming down from behind will be able to plan a safe route past you.
And when you do fall
It is extremely unlikely you will hurt yourself just by falling over, unless a tree stops you. Also if you are going fast or the slope is steep, simple geometry shows that the angle of impact with the snow is minimal. You will slide but that doesn’t hurt. If you feel yourself going over, don’t try to stop yourself or cushion your fall with a hand. Snow is surprisingly hard and you can easily break a wrist or thumb.
If you fall on a steep slope, roll over if necessary to get your skis downhill and across the slope. This should bring you to a stop – eventually. It’s not difficult to get back onto your feet on a slope, but on more level ground it may be a lot easier to take your skis off first before getting up.
Before putting your skis back on, make sure the bindings are open and clear any snow from heel and toe. Make sure there is no snow packed on the bottom of your ski boot. You can scrape it off with the tip of your ski pole or a nice passer-by may stop and do it for you. Many a fine friendship has started after a tumble!
Skiing is one of the few sports that become easier the better you get, unless of course you are tempted by steep off-piste runs. So the more proficient you are, the less effort it takes to ski well on pistes and the less stress it imposes physically. So even if you are just an average intermediate skier, there is no reason why shouln’t be able to carry on well past normal retiring age.