Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Skiing or the joy of telling every nerve in your body that it's got it wrong

Extraordinary sport, skiing. 

Most sports are based on something real: running is about the quickest way of getting from one place to another on land without a vehicle; swimming is about getting across water; even something like synchronised swimming is about a real skill, the ability to hear music when your ears are wet, and keep a smile fixed on your face however ludicrous whatever you’re doing may be.

But skiing? Unless one imagines a world where any destination is downhill of the departure point, with snow the whole way, it really doesn’t correspond to anything that could possibly be described as useful.

Somehow though it’s extraordinarily fun. And I say that as someone who spent most of Sunday coming off run after run.

It’s an ugly feeling. You’re skiing along. There’s ground under your feet. And suddenly there isn’t.

It’s astonishingly worrying when you make that observation.

It doesn’t matter that the fall is only a metre or so, because retrieving your skis and your sticks in deep snow is a pain in the backside, though that’s as nothing compared to the struggle back up the slope onto the run again. And why did this keep happening to me? Because I lack two key qualities: an ability to see the edge of a run when I’m mist mixed with falling snow, and the sense to realise that these would be good conditions to stop skiing.

Still, we’ve had two great days since then. I could see where I was going, and I didn’t ski off any runs. And therefore relished the true pleasure of skiing.

Which is the spice that comes from having to behave counter-intuitively. You get nowhere with skiing until you can fully take on board two key ideas that are directly opposed to everything you’ve learned before.

The first is that though you may be flying downhill, you need to lean forward – in the direction you’re travelling. Sorry, hurtling. Every jangling nerve in your body is saying ‘lean backwards, to stop this horrible thing that’s happening to you.’ If you do, however, you take your weight off the front of the skis. That, no doubt to their annoyance, is the only thing holding them back, so they cry ‘wow! we can really let rip now’, and they tear off down the hill even faster. Until, inevitably, you fall down in an ignominious heap of yourself, your sticks, your skis, your hat, your glasses and a lot of snow.

The other odd notion is that travelling fast isn’t the difficult bit. Unlike running or swimming, where speed really is what takes the effort, in skiing nothing could be easier. Point your skis straight downhill and you’ll be travelling fast in no time. So fast that you’ll reach the end of the run, or at any rate the first curve, a lot more quickly than you were expecting.

That’s the rub. Because the aim isn’t to get to the end of the run or the next curve as quickly as possible, it’s to get there as quickly as possible but in a way compatible with actually surviving the experience.

The difficult thing in skiing isn’t going fast. It’s going slow. And stopping when you need to.

And that’s what makes it fun. Lovely surroundings of course, beautiful views. The thrill of speed. But above all the paradox of behaving against what your body’s telling you to do, and enjoying the speed while keeping it under rigid control.

It can be fun when you stop too. And relax in the sun
Can’t wait to get out there again tomorrow.

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