A Learn-to-Ski Rookie Mistake to Avoid

When I was a little girl my father always told me, “If you are going to do something, do it right.”  I wished I had listened to him instead of making a classic rookie learn-to-ski mistake.  I got the wrong equipment for my ability level.  A ski swap seemed like a good idea at the time, but was a place I really had no business going.

My husband and I moved to Park City last fall and were very excited about learning to ski.  So we picked up some gently used skis, helmets, poles, gloves and a really nice jacket for my son (which I have since claimed as my own) at the National Ability Center ski swap.  We love donating to a great cause but when you think about it for a minute; I really didn’t have the slightest chance of finding the right skis.  As expected, I didn’t. I found this out when I tried them out on the Wide West run (the bunny hill) and took off like a rocket!

After a few practice runs, I decided to try a green run so I hopped on the Carpenter Express with my friends and headed for “Success.” I must have been a sight crossing back and forth across the run.  My friends were probably thinking, “Doesn’t she know she is supposed to go down the hill?”  But every time I pointed my tips down the hill, I flew. I muddled my way down with some coaching from my friends but spent most of the day back on the Wide West run because I just didn’t feel confident.

When I got home that night, I “googled” my skis and bindings.  I read the words, “slalom, racing, expert, and carving” and knew I was in trouble.  None of those words even remotely applied to me.  So the next day, I decided to get some help from the experts at the Deer Valley rental shop.  A smiling green jacketed technician set up me up with some skis, Rossignol Avenger 74s that actually fit my height, weight and ability.  They were shorter and much lighter with auto-turn technology– I saw words like “stable and forgiving” and I knew I was in the right place.  My technician also gave me some tips on some runs to take.  He said, “Take Ontario! It is wide and very beautiful – nice beginner run.”  He took the time to show me exactly how to get there and off I went.

Guess what?  I had a wonderful experience with controlled turns and I was actually skiing down the hill, not back and forth across the run (making life much easier for the skiers behind me also.)  The right equipment made all the difference in the world.

Do you know what I am doing next?  I am avoiding the second most common beginning skier mistake – not taking lessons.  I decided to take my father’s advice after all and enrolled in a couple sessions of lessons.  I haven’t met the smiling instructor in a green jacket who is going to take this rookie and turn her into a skier in three hours, but I am looking forward to doing so.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Comfortably Snug

I have yet to meet a skier who didn’t have a boot-fitting horror story to share. In fact, on the Vacation that Changed Everything, my husband (who was several years away from becoming “ski dad”) had so much foot pain that he almost gave up on our first day out. Fortunately, we had a ski instructor who knew the drill—a good boot fitting (or re-fitting, in our case) can change the way you ski, for good. A name was passed, and the vacation was saved.

We’ve all got a story like this. We got a bad fit, or we have skied too many days (years?) in boots whose linings are packed out beyond repair. I’m guilty of the latter crime. My boots, custom and dialed-in as they were more than eight years ago—that’s right, just after the birth of my first son—had nothing left to give. This was probably true at least a full season ago, but I didn’t understand it until I tried on new boots. Mind you, I didn’t buy them right away, but as soon as I donned my “old faithfuls” for opening weekend, I knew. I was committing every possible boot-wearing crime—the most egregious of which was clamping down buckles until I felt secure, so that my feet, ankles and knees (and, thus, my hips) were whacked way out of alignment. This, I decided, would not do.

I was, it turned out, over my emotional attachment to my boots. They’d served me well. But my dear friend and ski guru Steven pointed out, “we can find new favorites if we just try something new.” The switch flipped. I was ready to find new ski-boot love.

And what do you need to find love? Well, you need a good matchmaker. Because that’s really what a boot fitter is—someone who is ready to help you find the right boot match for your foot. Deer Valley Resort has plenty of venues for matchmaking. Notably, none of them are known for speed-dating you into boots. This is for good reason. I’ve always been partial to the guys at Jans. You can argue the virtues of your favorite shop, and I’ll believe you. But, the truth is, all skiers have their “shop,” and Jans is mine. Still, it’s not necessarily important that you shop there—just learn from my experience and demand the same level of attention from “your” shop. Good? Good.

Now, “my” guy likes to think he flies a little under the radar. (We’ll call him Boot Fitting Guy to help preserve his anonymity.) People march into the store and demand his attention—and he’s excellent at keeping people in “queue,” without making them feel like they’re being kept waiting. He’s lauded by his colleagues as the go-to guy, and he’s quick to deflect the praise right back at them. I’m not going to try to referee, but suffice it to say, you can trust that even if he’s not directly fitting your boot, he’s involved in the fitting. I’ve seen it—the guys move seamlessly between clients, offering a supportive, “good idea,” or concurring on a fit diagnostic.  Bottom line: Look for a shop that welcomes collaboration, where there isn’t one “rock star,” to whom all others pale in comparison.

My fitting went something like this:

My feet were measured. Yes, one is larger than the other. This is common.

We singled out the boot that I had researched—I’d even had the chance to try it on before the season started—The Fischer Zephyr90. Several other boots came along for the ride.

Before we put the boots on, Boot Fitting Dude gave me a quick primer on my feet, and how there are three Zones (Video) we should be concerned with.

Zone One: The instep and the shin. The instep, in case you’re confused, is the TOP of the foot, right in the middle. The underside is called the arch.

Zone Two: Heel, Achilles, and Calf

Zone Three: Toes.

“Don’t jump around. If you do, I’ll make you buy me a Deer Valley Cookie.” Since I’d already shelled out for my kids to raid the candy counter at the front of the store (yes, I was brave enough to bring them shopping—after we’d spent the afternoon on the cross country tracks at White Pine Touring—no, I’m not above bribery to keep the peace), this got my attention.

We slid my left foot into the The Fischer Zephyr90, and my right into an Atomic model. The Fischer felt like a snug, comfy slipper. The Atomic felt decidedly more “tight,” and I could already feel my toes crowding. I started to mention this, and the Dude (with apologies to Jeff Bridges) piped up with, “I’m starting to taste that cookie.” So I shut up.

Checking Zones in my Boots (Video)

Zone 1: Fischer boot offered no extra pressure on the instep. Nice. Atomic boot gave me a little pressure on that instep.

Zone 2: Fischer boot’s collar wasn’t too tight around my calves, cradled my heel and supported my Achilles without any pinch. This last bit felt like a revelation. Atomic boot gave that little pinch.

Zone 3: Ok, finally, I could talk toes. I flexed into position and found my toes sliding back from the tips of each boot. This is a good sign. The Atomic, in ski position, didn’t make as much contact with my toes as it did when I was standing straight. Still, I didn’t love the feel. Fischer, on the other hand? It worked. (Video)

Some things I learned as we continued on to the other boots: The collar of the boot should not be super-tight around the calves. Any time you clamp too tightly—either across the top of the foot or around the collar of the boot—you risk cutting off circulation, and thus making your feet too cold and cramp-prone.

Buckles should be “finger tight.” If you’re wrestling to close the buckle, it’s too tight. It will cut off circulation, and you will suffer through however many runs you manage before you hobble into the lodge for sweet relief.

And, the boot fit should be comfortably snug. My ski guru, Steven, and the Dude agreed that whether a person is buying boots or getting them from a rental shop, they need to be fully indoctrinated into the idea that the boot is “comfortably snug,” or it won’t function properly. Believe it or not, this means you can, technically, ski without closing the buckles on top of your foot.

Finally, the Dude told me something crucial. “Your boot will warm and soften as you ski,” he said. “It will feel looser. Resist the urge to tighten the buckle by moving the clasp over to the next notch. Instead, open the buckle and twist the micro-adjustment (the buckle will actually swivel on a stem) to the left.” As in, righty tighty, lefty loosey. Make one or two rotations, clip back into the same notch, and see if you’re more comfortable. Repeat as necessary.

Now, I’m completely stoked to try the boots.

I’ve been instructed to ski a couple of days in them before we start customizing them—I’ll need new footbeds, and we’ll see what other adjustments might be needed after I ski in them a couple of days.

Mommy Survival Skills

Ok, I’m taking an informal poll. On school days, I can get away with getting out of bed within a few minutes, plus or minus, of my kids. But on ski days, I need a head start. 

I try, as best I can, to get the gear laid out the night before. I make sure to charge up the battery packs on my boot heaters (these are a must, and I will extol their many virtues in a forthcoming blog post, promise.), assemble both kids’ base layers, I get the kids’ stuff into neat stacks in the mudroom—and try to get them about 85 percent dressed before we get in the car. Admittedly, there have been mornings when I have had to dig in the hamper for ski socks or long-johns, but with the advent of fabric freshener sprays, this is an acceptable practice.

The one item I never have to scramble for is the kids’ ski passes. Thanks to Ski Uncle, they are attached to their helmets. I am not a fan of hanging anything around their necks to begin with, and I think it’s a dicey proposition that often results in the pass itself flying up to hit them in the face. Plus, after wrapping the pass cord around the helmet’s goggle buckle, we seal the deal with duct tape—it ensures the pass is always on them, since they are not allowed to board the lift without their helmets. On the off-chance they misplace the helmet, it’s easily ID’d as theirs at lost-and-found.

 Oh, and can I, on that note, extol the virtues of Lost & Found at Snow Park Lodge? Goggles, shades and even (once) my wallet AND cell phone (sorry, honey), have been recovered there thanks to the kindness of the strangers at Deer Valley.

 What’s your ski-day morning survival secret?