#27 – Ski a Black Run
I am proud to confirm that on Friday 31st January 2014, I skied a black run to complete challenge number 27 of my 40 before 40. This was one of the riskier inclusions on The List and many a time I’ve asked myself why, why, why did I include it. Most of the challenges I’ve set myself require time and/or money, some need the right equipment, some want a bit of determination or bravery but nothing else on The List requires any special skill or talent. Skiing however, does. I’ve done six weeks skiing so I’m not a beginner but I’m definitely no expert either. I’m most comfortable skiing green and blue runs, I’ve done the occasional red in my time but I’d never previously attempted a black. For good reason; black runs are usually so graded because they’re either narrow, or steep, or both. I don’t like narrow or steep and I especially don’t like narrow AND steep so this was never going to be easy. There is also an element of luck involved as it’s a lot easier to ski a black in good weather – giving good visibility and good snow conditions (i.e. no ice! I’m not good with ice either).
In skiing terms, ‘ice’, ‘steep’ and ‘narrow’ all make me panic which makes me lose control and either go too fast or fall, risking hurting myself, taking out someone else or flying off the edge of a piste into god knows what (hopefully a big snow drift but also possibly rocks, trees or off the edge of a cliff). And once you’re on a run there’s not always a way out. Once you’ve started, you’ve got to finish.
This year I was all set for my annual Spice pilgrimage to the mountains, this time staying in Courchevel 1850, France. In theory, I still have several years to complete these challenges. In practice however, with what I need to do to achieve the rest of The List I don’t have enough annual leave left to be able to take another ski holiday before my 40th birthday. It was pretty much now or never.
I booked a couple of afternoons in ski school as I thought it would be a good idea to brush up on my skills and get some pointers on improving my technique before tackling a black. I hoped that maybe in the second lesson I could actually ski a black – so doing it in the safe hands of an experienced instructor. My first lesson was really useful. I learnt that a) I lean too far forward which is why I go 1 – too fast, 2 – speed up on turns feeling like I’m losing control, 3 – speed up if I hit a bump and 4 – fall over when it gets steep. I was told to stand more upright to keep my centre of gravity more in the centre of my skis in order to be more stable, more in control of my speed and less likely to fall over when it’s steep or when I hit a bump. I learnt that b) I put too much weight on the front of my foot when I turn and I needed to keep a more even pressure through my skis to be more in control and make the skis go in the direction I want them to. I learnt that c) I don’t have enough pressure on my back (uphill) ski when turning so it wobbles about destabilising me and risking it crossing my downhill ski and making me fall over. I learnt that d) I move my upper body too much, flinging myself into my turns. Apparently I should lead the turn from my feet. I learnt that e) I hold my poles too tightly and at the wrong angle, so I should relax my arms and hands. (Can’t remember the theory on exactly what this achieves but when I remembered to do it, I felt more in control.) Still following? Yeah, you’re right, that IS a lot to remember when you’re hammering down a slippery hill at anything between 20mph and 40mph…
The next morning, to bed in the learning, I practised these new techniques on green and blue runs. I had a lovely time. I felt great, I felt more in control, more stable. I got to my lesson and asked if we could ski a black run. Categorically I was told “No, you’re not a good enough skier.” I was gutted. That was the end of my safety net. If I was going to ski a black, I was going to have to do it alone. I proceeded to have the worst afternoons skiing I have had for a long time. I forgot everything I’d learnt just the day before. I starting falling over, I lost confidence and then lost more confidence and then lost even more confidence. I fell over so many times I couldn’t even get up anymore. When I started falling on greens I knew my head wasn’t right and I needed to get off the mountain before I hurt myself. I cried. I had to be taken to the nearest bus stop to get a bus back to resort as I couldn’t be trusted to ski anywhere. I had to wait an hour for the bus. I spent that hour berating myself for the fact that not only was I a rubbish skier but I’d also ruined my 40 before 40. I would never be able to ski a black so I would only ever be able to complete 39 of the 40 challenges. It was not a good day.
I got back in the saddle though, spending the next day skiing greens and then slowly progressing back to blues, reminding myself how to ski. By the end of the day I at least felt I wasn’t completely useless but I still didn’t think I could ski a black. The next day dawned bright and sunny – gorgeous blue skies, fresh snow; perfect ski conditions in fact. It had also been designated as fancy dress day so we set off en masse, me in my giraffe onesie accompanied by a tiger, a couple of leopards, a crocodile, a black cat, some hula girls, a few penguins, a nun, Woody from Toy Story, Robin (but sadly no Batman), a parrot, another giraffe and a tin of Spam.
We cut a bit of a dash on the slopes, skiing some great runs (including my first red of the week), and having our picture taken by many, many strangers. After lunch in the sunshine and a vin chaud, I was looking forward to a leisurely afternoon. Dominic (our group leader) had other ideas. “So, you want to do your black? I’ve found just the one for you.” He’d found me an 800m run in a quiet corner of the resort (so not overrun with other skiers). Not as narrow or as continuously steep as some blacks can be, with a lovely long rolling second half which could just be paralleled. And he was prepared to guide me through it. I was a bit scared (probably an understatement) as I would have preferred to do it in the morning with fresh legs but the conditions were so good I figured I’d go for it. We missioned across the resort. The last red run (Marmottes) we skied down to the final chairlift was hideous – steep for ages and ages and ages. I picked my way down it, traversing, traversing, traversing, wondering when it was going to end until I went to turn and realised I had grass under my skis instead of snow. Bang. Next thing I know I’m sliding downhill on my stomach, nose a couple of inches away from the piste, rapidly gathering speed. All I could think was “Well, at least I’m losing quite a lot of height, quite quickly.” Every cloud has a silver lining. I came to rest about 200m downhill in a soft patch of snow with just 5m of slope left until it flattened out, miraculously with both skis and both poles still attached to me. I chose to slide gently down that last little bit to stand up on the flat. After reassuring a crowd of concerned onlookers that I was absolutely fine and totally unhurt I skied off to join the rest of the group. Who looked a bit apprehensive. “So, the black?” braved Dom. “Yep”, I nodded. I may not be a very good skier but I am very determined and having got that far I wasn’t going to back out.
So suddenly, there I was. At the top of the Chanrossa chairlift, about to ski the Chanrossa black run with a small band of friends who were brave enough to risk life and limb to do it with me. I tried not to look at the slope (it was steep). I took a deep breath and I set off. I tried to remember to stand up, put pressure evenly through my foot, relax my arms and hands, look where I was going, lead with my feet and most of all not to panic. Before I knew it, I’d traversed the first 200m. My legs hurt. I stopped for a rest. Dom pointed out the section where the run flattened out and where you’d need a bit of speed to get through to the end without poling. The run then got a bit steeper and a bit narrower. I told myself I was there now, there was no going back so I just had to deal with it. I set off through the narrow section, fell, slid down a bit on my bum and stopped when my skis jammed underneath me. Dom patiently skied over, untangled me, picked me up and told me to straightline it further down the run to where the others were waiting. Once there, I’d done the difficult bit and I was halfway. I was jubilant – hands in the air! There was time for a quick photoshoot before skiing off to finish the run and rejoin the rest of the group.
I was on such a high at the end. Not only had I skied a black run, I’d skied a black run wearing a giraffe onesie. My 40 before 40 was still on track, but also (best of all) I was reminded once again that I have a fantastic bunch of friends who are super supportive.
In terms of my 40 before 40, this was one of the most difficult yet. Walking the marathon was physically demanding but not beyond my capabilities. This one on the other hand very well might have been. I had to improve my skill before I could attempt this, but it was also a ‘head thing’. I’m proud that I didn’t let the fear overtake me and grateful for the support and encouragement I had along the way. I’m not sure if I’ll ever ski another black but hey, I’ve done one and that’s all that matters.