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The feeling of skiing beginner runs in blue jeans.

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Just over a year ago I donned some blue jeans and had one of the most insightful skiing experience of my life. Not able to shake these lessons and not having a better way to say them, I’m bringing it back to the surface for a simple, spring reminder of what it’s like to be a beginner.

I started the day with a simple goal: get as close as I could to being a beginner so I could, hopefully, see through their eyes.

But as the idea shaped up, I realized that I didn’t just want be a beginner in theory, I wanted to be a real beginner. A beginner who doesn’t know a thing about gear or clothes. A beginner who takes the wrong trail and ends up in a situation that’s way over their head. A beginner who goes straight to the top and figures out how to get down.

A beginner that looks like this.

Top-secret, undercover research mission.

A photo posted by Gregg Blanchard (@slopefillers) on

That jeans-clad skier, however, is me. I hadn’t spend more than a few beginner runs on skis during my life (I snowboard), so playing the part was fairly easy.

I wore 15 year-old boots my brother used to ski in and a pair of way-too-short skis we picked up at a thrift store years ago. I left my waterproof gear at home, donned a pair of jeans and a zip-up hoodie, and went straight to the top of a non-beginner lift to make my first turns on skis in years.

I expected to experience something unfamiliar. I expected to at least learn some random lesson from this exercise. But I was completely taken aback not just by what happened, but what I felt.

#1) I Was Really Self Conscious
Let’s start with perhaps my biggest surprise. I’m not one to worry about my appearance much {understatement}, so I was totally caught off guard to find myself nervous about getting out of my car. Why? Because I’d be the only one in a busy parking lot wearing the wrong thing. Even more, I knew exactly what all those skiers would be thinking when I did.

I think a similar scenario would be showing up to summer ski conference (thing NSAA National) in a tux. It may have seemed like a good idea based on your world view (you do, after all, wear jeans doing outdoor things and some ritzy conferences do have absurd dress codes), but you’d instantly realize you’re the only one dressed like that and feel completely self conscious until you could change.

And remember, I was dressing this way intentionally and that fear of being judged still hit me. Catching a liftie saying “dude, check out that guy in the jeans” after I loaded a chair didn’t help. That desire to not stand out (when you aren’t trying to) is a powerful thing.

#2) I Always Felt in the Way
I was expecting this, but once I was actually in that situation the emotions were 10x stronger than I could have imagined. I caught myself looking over my shoulder probably 25-30 times before I’d gone even 400 yards. And all those people flying by me on either side (like I would do without a second thought on my snowboard)? They absolutely terrified me.

The more kids that sailed by, the more I tensed up and shortened my turns. The only comparable emotion I can think of is riding my bike on a busy street with no shoulder: extremely tense, mentally crossing my fingers I make it through unscathed, and hoping to get somewhere safer soon.

#3) Taking a Wrong Turn is a HUGE Deal
I wish I could wire the emotions from this part of my day directly into every marketing director’s brain, because it’s an emotion I have absolutely no words for. I should have worn a heart rate monitor just to see the spike at this point of my day.

It reminded me of driving an icy mountain road with no guardrail. Every muscle was taut, my speed was slow, and if my ski hung up even slightly as I tried to initiate a turn I could sense my eyes widen and hands tighten their grip. In hindsight I can laugh at how scary that situation seemed, but the fear was absolutely, 100% real.

#4) The Ability to Stop is Everything
I’d heard the Snow Operating guys talk about this with their Terrain Based Learning stuff, but I can say first hand it’s the honest truth. The fear on the steep runs was NOT falling, it was ending up going too fast with no way to stop.

The scenario that played out in my head when a my ski got hung up on a turn was being pointed straight downhill, off balance, only going faster and already past where the point where I feel I can stop.

#5) Short Skis are Amazing
The last skis I used were probably 195cm long. I can actually see them out in the garage now and are at least a few inches over my 6’2″ head so maybe even closer to 200cm than that. The difference was instantly noticeable and the ability to make those short, tight turns was everything on both busy trails (to feel less in others’ way) and steep trails (to keep my speed under control).

We marginalize the idea of snow blades, but man, what a perfect way to get a feel for snow. Skate around, get a feel for edges, get used to the idea of your foot being attached to something, and gain a bit of confidence.

Confidence, Confidence, Confidence
Speaking of which, as I think back over this day, I can’t help but find myself arriving at the same word no matter how I slice it: CONFIDENCE.

  • Confidence that I didn’t look like an idiot.
  • Confidence that I could stop if I needed to.
  • Confidence that I wasn’t in others way.
  • Confidence that I was on (or heading toward) the right trail.

And for people who hadn’t spent 20 years on a snowboard.

  • Confidence that you’re holding your skis right.
  • Confidence that you know how to get on a lift.
  • Confidence that you aren’t breaking some unwritten rules of skiing (think stepping on someone’s line while putting in golf).
  • Confidence that you even know where a ticket office is or what kind of ticket you need.

Because here’s the thing, I ended up having a really, really great time.

But that pleasure came almost exactly proportional to gaining confidence in each of those areas. When I embraced the way I looked, I started having more fun. When got a better feel of my edges and could stop faster, I became more relaxed. When I found a trail that was less crowded, I stopped looking over my shoulder. When I knew I was confident I wasn’t headed toward a steep run, I could actually enjoy the skiing now instead of worrying what was ahead.

I guess what I’m trying to say is two fold.

First, confidence is everything on your first day. And we have control over a lot of that with our marketing communications, signage, and staff. If we can help people feel confident in the small aspects of skiing – like how they dress, where to go, etc. – the only thing they’ll have to worry about it making their turns.

Second, the difference between imagining how beginners must feel and actually feeling those emotions was massive. In fact, there is no comparison. There is NO WAY to truly understand what’s going on in their heads until your feet are in their boots.

So let me wrap up this post by challenging you to do the same.

If you ski, grab a board. If you board, grab some skis. If you do both, I dunno, go country swing dancing. Put on a pair of jeans and a starter jacket and expose yourself to the feeling of being totally out of place. Realize that you already know where to go, you know how to buy a ticket, you know where to park, you know how to load a lift, and try to imagine those parts as you semi-truly experience the rest.

I dare you.

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  • Robin May

    This was part of my mandatory instructor empathy training for years. Making the staff wear rental equipment, wait in lines..etc. I started in an era when the ski school yard was covered in blue streaks from skidding jeans. Scotchguard was a top seller in the retail shop along with gaiters. And we were all a little less pretentious…and we were mostly kind to newbies…and we all had fun. I am proud to have grown up with rope tows and the smell of wet wool by the lodge fire.

    • That’s awesome, Robin, and such a great idea. I love that.

    • That’s awesome, Robin, and such a great idea. I love that.

  • Mike Crichton-Struthers

    Teaching entry level snowboard instructor courses for CASI, and doing staff training with our snow schoo I have my trainees do all the basics (skating, climbing, straight runs) switch. It’s often quite humbling and great empathy training.
    One piece of the puzzle you didn’t test out was taking a lesson. As a ski and snowboard instructor I view my job as first and foremost as helping people gain confidence. From little things like terminology, how to carry their gear, to the rules of the road, and speed and direction control. Maybe a good next step for your experiment?

    • David Morralee

      great article . I’ve done the rental ski thing with our ski school years ago. Here is the best way to understand what its like to be a beginner. Take your skis off and put a snowboard … now you understand lol

  • Dave Belin

    Cool idea, great execution. Nice descriptions, too (driving on an icy road with no guardrails). Thanks for sharing the experience! I don’t teach many adult beginners (almost exclusively kids), but from talking to instructors who do, the challenge of learning to stay in control is a lot harder than most people think. They get frustrated with the lack of accomplishment on the first day. Anything that can improve the chances that beginners feel more success on day one, like the Terrain Based Learning concept, is huge!

  • Great article. I think one of the biggest problems the ski industry has these days is a lack of empathy towards those who don’t understand. The rental shop guys who make beginners feel stupid with a remark along the lines of “boy, that was a dumb question. I mean, how can anyone not know how to buckle up ski boots?”. Or the liftie who makes a comment about what you are wearing. The reality of the situation is that these “newbies” are the people who are going to grow the sport, and pay the liftie or rental techs wages. People who are already into skiing are great, but our problem isn’t the people who already ski, it is the people who don’t, and that the ski industry needs to survive. As a side note, why can’t resorts in North America wrap their head around the fact that we need to embrace beginners and people new to the sport and lower cost (barriers) to entry? Think about it, spending $150 on a lift ticket, $100 on ski rentals and then have the rental guy and the liftie both make fun of you? I wouldn’t want to do that either. European resorts give away the beginner lifts for free!

  • Ross Walker

    Could not agree more with this, and with Marcus Thackston’s comment. The ski industry needs to make this shift in understanding if we want to foster growth in the area. Those of us who work at ski resorts are typically very outdoorsy and adventurous, and we’re much more equipped and trained than our typical guest. I remember when I interviewed for my current job and asked, “So how many snowboards do you have?” and when I replied, “one” I was told that’s not enough. For me, someone who lives in the mountains, maybe, but to instill that attitude in a marketing coordinator I think is a mistake. We should be saying, come in your jeans if that’s all you have, not putting up roadblocks to the sport.

    • Great perspective, Ross. It’s almost akin some parts of US history. When other countries (sports) turn people away because they don’t fit in, we should have our statue of liberty welcoming any and all to join us.

  • Powder Hound

    Wow, this isn’t just about skiing or snowboarding but a life lesson. Empathy and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes is a skill that is endangered. Great job on the article. It’s inspired me to write a post.

    • So true. Let me know when you write it, i’d love to read.

  • WisSkier

    I made my second trip to a ski mountain, spending 3 days on Whitefish in Montana. I took some lessons and I was engaged in some drills on the “Ant Hill” which is the resort’s “grand central station”. That was unnerving with skiers of questionable abilities (plus many who were unquestionably good) in flat light and me doing turns according the instructor’s command. More than once I received a chide for turning my head (and hence the rest of my body) uphill making sure I was not about to cut into a dive-bomber.

    Yeah, I got the feeling of being a newb again.

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