Fred McConnell, The Guardian, August 06, 2015
My dad tells a story of how he went skiing in Scotland as a university student in the late 70s, wearing yellow fisherman’s garb. He found the experience so uncomfortable and uninteresting that he escaped early to the resort spa. Growing up, I saw skiing as something to be actively avoided.
I eventually went about seven years ago as the guest of my friend’s family. It was luxurious enough, though, to feel like a complete anomaly. We had private lessons and five-star accommodation. After that I remained wary of how the masses – myself included – generally go on ski holidays.
Not feeling confident before the first lesson.
So, having moved to Australia eight months ago, I did not expect to be boarding a bus for a solo skiing trip.
I arrived too late on Wednesday for a lesson and, despite friendly encouragement from Thredbo staff, was not about to hit the slopes without supervision. The very idea seemed slightly insane.
While collecting my hire gear – including, helpfully, jacket and trousers – at Friday Flat, I scanned the scene with a rising sense of trepidation. It was so familiar from films and TV: wide swaths of compacted snow, chairlifts, signs promising hot chocolate, instructors in crisp uniforms shepherding helmeted children and, of course, hordes of exhilarated skiers and snowboarders. Yet every element struck my nervous mind as a cliche designed to intimidate the uninitiated.
Dinner of Asian beef salad at the Corona Bar & Bistro was unappetising (especially at $18) and the hotel lounge too full of braying snowboard bros to be relaxing, even with the open fire. I went to bed early in my cosy, wood-panelled room, almost willing the itch in my throat to metastasise into full-blown tonsillitis. That way I could hide under my blankets come 9.30am when the beginner class was due to begin.
Thursday morning mysteriously brought with it new-found resolve. Perhaps it was the good sleep, or the sausages and scrambled eggs for breakfast, but something told me to embrace the day with a fatalistic vigour. And, weirdly enough, it worked.
Ski lessons at Friday Flat, Thredbo. Photograph: Fred McConnell for the Guardian
Five minutes into being shown the fundamentals by our chirpy instructor, Douglas, I realised with intense relief that I wasn’t a beginner beginner. Not necessarily because of my past trip, but because a) basic skiing is pretty easy and b) being even vaguely sporty really helps. Within half an hour I felt sure on my skis and like I’d become part of the bustling, snowy scene – no longer an observer.
By the end of the two-hour class on the nursery slope, with multiple school groups finally having slid off to throw snowballs at each other elsewhere, I began surreptitiously turning with parallel skis. I felt ready to ignore Douglas’s instructions to squat in the “snow plough” position and maintain a snail’s pace.
After the lesson and a strong $4 coffee at the Friday Flat bistro, I ventured to the faster (than a snail) beginner slopes, following Douglas’s advice on how to progress.
Smoked salmon pizza at Al Fresco Pizzeria. Photograph: Fred McConnell for the Guardian
Hours later, as I de-booted ahead of a well-earned pizza from Al Fresco Pizzeria (perfectly sized and priced at $24 with loads of toppings), I decided that taking more lessons might be a waste of the short time I had left. Instead I wanted to head out alone to make the most of this new-found confidence.
At 8am on Friday I awoke less refreshed thanks to the hubbub of a party that went on nearby into the small hours. But even that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm as I beat the morning rush back to Friday Flat.
Having warmed up on the nursery slope, followed by two more beginner routes, I remembered “breakfast” (a bag of nuts from my cupboard to avoid an extortionately priced muffin) before heading up my first proper chairlift.
Riding Gunbarrel I felt untouchable. My gear was useful, not clumsy or annoying, and the whipping chill across my face enticing rather than a discomfort.
The several hundred metre traverse from the top of Gunbarrel to my first green run felt like a mini ski adventure park. It helped that I was still surrounded by chirping tots, utterly dwarfed by their surroundings yet seemingly fearless.
Later, on the Cruiser chairlift which rises above Gunbarrel to the green-labelled Walkabout and Squatter’s Run, I found myself riding with a kindergartener called Lachlan. Within 10 seconds we were chatting about Minecraft video superstar Stampylonghead. The conversation perfectly reflected the silly amount of fun I was having on modest inclines at increasing speeds – speeds I’d never have thought possible 24 hours earlier.
The view from the Kosciuszko Express chairlift. Photograph: Fred McConnell for the Guardian
Unlike the French resort I went to seven years ago, Thredbo felt conquerable in two days, even while sticking to easy runs. A solid first lesson, combined with approachable staff and clear signs across the mountain, mean a relative beginner can explore without risking a wrong turn into a black run or off a sheer rock face.
There was a generous snow covering and wide variety of terrain even for someone at my level of burgeoning ability. On the Goldilocks scale, it seemed to me to be just right. With another day, I’d have taken another lesson, which in turn would almost certainly have seen me tackling a blue run or two. But as it was I left on a high and wanting more.
I had to check out of my hotel at 11.30 but, because the bus didn’t leave until 4.30, I had hours to kill on Friday afternoon. It seemed like a weird system that made it difficult to squeeze every last minute out of skiing time but perhaps the more experienced have ways around this.
Instead I rode the Kosciuszko Express – Australia’s highest chairlift – to the precipitous Eagle’s Nest restaurant. Wearing hiking shoes and carrying my book, I once again felt like an impostor in ski land, but a filling hotpot stew for $26 and endless views made it worthwhile.
Eagle’s Nest restaurant. Photograph: Fred McConnell for the Guardian
Back at the village square I dropped into Thredbo Ski Museum. Packed full of photos and artefacts from the dawn of Australian skiing, it helped put the vaguely artificial village of Thredbo in context. Reading of those who plotted the first routes or built the first lifts – and of those who have died there – made me even more grateful for my exhilarating but immeasurably safer jaunt.
Next time – and there will be numerous next times – I won’t worry about the ways it can seem technically or culturally daunting. I’ll also go with mates, so the time between runs – and the apres ski – are as fun as the skiing.
I stayed at the Thredbo Alpine hotel, which is just across from the Merrits and Kosciuszko chairlifts and just below the main village square. In winter, doubles start at $299 a night and there are also self-catered apartments.
My trip took place just as the peak snow season was starting. The whole winter season runs from June until September. The summer season, which offers mountain biking, hiking and fishing, runs from October to May.
• The Guardian travelled as a guest of Thredbo Resort
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Fred McConnell from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.