Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Back to School

On my last trip, I relied on "muscle memory" to get me safely down, with a rather mixed outcome (injuries and indignities mixed with occasional flashes of competence). This time, nothing was to be left to chance: I signed up for another round of ski school, claiming an "intermediate" skill level.

Cultural differences between Andorran and French ski-schools became apparent pretty rapidly; my instructor (and C's) were fairly ruthless critics. Although the class was full of moderately experienced skiers (moi very definitely the neophyte), it seemed that we couldn't make a single turn to our instructor's satisfaction.

Je fais le "windscreen-wiper turn" - très mal!

Ah, yes. Turns. While we could all descend moderately steep pistes with a fair degree of control, we all seemed to have the same très mal habit - the "windscreen-wiper" turn. Demonstrated in the above picture by myself, this turn involves allowing the skis to slip downhill as a turn is completed - throwing photogenic clouds of powder about, and, crucially, slowing one down.

I thought that I was skiing quite confidently; I was wrong. Although my weight was (just about) forward enough to make parallel turns possible, it wasn't nearly far enough forward to give really good control, or to allow the turn to happen with the minimum of effort. My turns were also unnecessarily defensive - on most pistes, most of the time, I don't need to brake so dramatically; instead, my instructor exhorted me to cut neat "rainbow" turns (sine wave might be a better description). Many pole-planting exercises followed.

You might think that since we could all turn and control our speed after a fashion, further tuition was simply gilding the lily - fancy techniques we would never actually use. Not so; later in the week, after a fairly considerable fall of fresh power snow, Thomas (our acerbic French instructor) took us a short but very instructive distance off-piste. He started us on relatively gentle inclines - broad, virgin powder fields between the marked pistes. One fast, straight run and a dramatic head-planting incident later (marked for a few days by a huge me-shaped snow crater) was enough to convince me of the need for further work on those turns.

Practice payed off; before the day's lesson ended, Thomas told us he had something special for us; turning off a perfectly good piste, we paused in sequence at the lip of a gully, ski tips protruding into thin air. I did the (sort of) sensible thing, and launched immediately, before reason had a chance to consider the possibilities... There followed a second or two of severe misgivings, obliterated an instant later by a flash-flood of exhiliration as my momentum carried me well up the far wall of the gully. Turning easily at the "hang point" was a kind of skiing epiphany - and then gravity kicked in, and I was accelerating again, ricocheting down that beautiful gully, skis hissing through deep, fresh powder; it was like flying.

Pure winter magic.

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