First-time skiing at the age of 50
Reading Tim Brewster's recent article on skiing past the age of 50 got me thinking. Fifty may well sound old to a millennial, but most pentagenarians I know still feel pretty youthful – me included. I go to the gym, I mountainbike, why shouldn't I ski?
Problem. I've never skied before and, like many of my generation, have lived with the notion that unless you start early, forget it, because it'll take you an age to learn and you'll probably end up injuring yourself, badly.
So, if I'm going to do this thing, I'm going to do it properly at every level, both up on the mountain and back down at ground level. I've also limited myself to a single weekend. I choose Queenstown as home base and Eichardt's Private Hotel as my lodgings.
The name Eichardt's is synonymous with luxury at every level, and my first experience does not disappoint. The welcome is friendly not snooty, and because there are just a handful of guest suites and apartments, you feel special from the get go.
I'm in the hotel's modern new extension, a stark but fitting contrast to the existing hotel that has commanded this prime spot on the shores of Lake Wakatipu since the mid 1860s.
My Lakeview Suite is quite simply spectacular. It comprises a generous sitting area with a welcoming open fireplace, a bedroom, thoughtfully raised a few steps so that I can take in the view from my king-sized bed, and a marble-lined bathroom suite. And then there's the view.
There's a knock on my door. It's my host for the weekend, Patrick "Paddy" McAteer from Bravos, who calls himself an adventure architect. I like that title. The previous week I'd sent Paddy my vital statistics so he could select all the equipment I'd need in advance, then fit me out from the comfort of my room – all part of the bespoke service.
Boots, skis, poles, jackets, helmets, goggles – this is all new to me, so I'm glad I'm in a relaxed environment being introduced to all the gear and how it works, and it certainly helps to get me into the right frame of mind for tomorrow's experience.
Gear fitted, we head down for dinner at Eichardt's in-house restaurant, The Grille. It's quite a bit later than we booked and the floor is busy, but that doesn't faze the waiter – "You're a guest, sir, please come this way."
As we sit and talk, watching the sun go down over the lake, Paddy explains what Bravos is and how it came about. "We arrange activities you just can't buy off the shelf. I call it 'beyond the bungee', tailoring adventures for people who can afford to have more exclusive experiences."
Our entrees arrive. My West Coast whitebait is good, but I'm a little jealous of Paddy's choice, the Parmesan Churros. Yes, doughnuts. Not sweet, but sprinkled in marjoram blossom salt, served with wild watercress-and-walnut pesto, and a black garlic puree. I feel vindicated, however, when my chef's special main arrives, by sous chef Trent Watson – Beef Tongue Wellington in garlic-and-thyme pastry, harissa, pumpkin puree, slow-roasted shallots, and charred broccolini. It's sublime.
Satisfyingly replete, I bid Paddy a good night and retire to my suite upstairs.
Early the next morning, with the sun barely kissing the tops of Walter and Cecil Peaks across the lake, I'm off to the heliport, and a brief but truly spectacular ride up to the snow, thanks to Over The Top Helicopters. Without trying to sound too much like a tosser, it really is the only way to travel. Less than 10 minutes later we've disembarked at Cardrona Alpine Resort.
It's a bluebird day – one of the best days of the winter so far. I've hit the jackpot.
The resort is buzzing – it's like Grand Central station at rush hour. For a first-timer, knowing what to do and which queue to be in would be a little daunting, not to mention time consuming. Thankfully, there's no queuing for me, it's straight up to one of the resort's apartments to get my gear on and to meet my instructor for the day, Becky.
Like many of the young people who work on this mountain, Becky follows the snow from the northern hemisphere to the southern, then back again. This is her 20th straight season. I feel in good hands.
Walking in ski boots for the first time is strange. They're heavy, bulky and solid as a rock – like having your lower legs set in large blocks of wood and being asked to walk on glass. Get the picture?
As I stumble and slide my way up to the beginner's slope, I ask Becky whether 50 is too old to learn to ski? A bit late, I know, but I had to ask. "Ideally you'd start as a kid because you're fearless, closer to the ground, and you bounce more," she smiles. "But it's never too late. Just last week I had a 77-year-old take his first lesson with me." Wow, that makes me feel a whole lot better.
Reassuringly, Becky also says everyone who skis will have started from the same position I'm in today, with the same basic lessons and drills. And so my journey begins…
We start off on the flat, which suits me perfectly, because if walking in the boots was weird, then having a couple of skis attached to them took the weirdness to a whole new level. Little by little, Becky gets me comfortable with being on skis and learning about mobility on the flat.
"Having lessons are essential," she says "As instructors we can tell you the best way to ski, which will help you progress a lot quicker. And the way you're doing it, one-on-one, makes learning a lot quicker." Becky says she can have up to 15 people at a time, which obviously isn't ideal, as you only progress at the speed of the slowest pupil.
I'm now on a slope. This is a very different proposition, as gravity has now been brought into play. My mountainbiking experience has taught me about balance and speed going downhill, but bikes have brakes, skis don't. Again, it's Becky to the rescue, and before long I'm snow-ploughing my way from the top of the beginner's slope.
After a well-earned lunch back at the apartment, I am now being let loose on a proper "grown up" slope. Yikes. Initially there are nerves, but they soon dissolve into enthusiasm mixed with a little impatience to go just that bit faster. That impatience soon disappears, however, when a good dose of over-confidence enters the fray and I find myself barrelling down the slope with very little control.
Yep, I'm over. Beached as, bro. Although barely half my size, Becky hoists me up and I'm away again, but for less than a minute. Bang, I'm down again. OK, time to reboot. What had I learnt before lunch?
Skiing is quite unlike any activity I've tried in that you can go from a state of reasonable confidence to one of blind panic in the space of a heartbeat. However, I am learning and I am making great progress, according to Becky.
"Not everyone makes it down the Skyline run on their first day," she tells me. It's now 3pm, a hour to go until our helicopter's due to pick us up – just enough time for one more run. I'm hooked.
More information: Eighth Wonder Travel, which prepared John Williams' skiing package, is a bespoke travel specialist offering tailored experiences in special locations. See eighthwonder.travel or go to their Instagram page.
The writer was a guest of Eighth Wonder Travel.