Geraldine Brennan learns to ski. Geraldine Brennan remembers a childhood yearning for the thrill of the piste but finds the real thing trickier to master than the fictional version
Ray-Bans: check. Sunblock: check. Trendy headband: check. You can learn to ski indoors on a muggy midsummer afternoon without any of these, but I was leaving nothing to chance.
I had not given a thought to skiing lessons since primary school, when I read a children's novel in which a wholesome bunch of Blytonesque youngsters pitch up at a remote Swiss chalet. The plot hinged on skulduggery among spies and jewel thieves rather than on skiing technique, which the gung-ho heroes absorbed painlessly and off the page. After a week they could all ski in the dark, dodging the trees, spies and other obstructions that littered the Alps. The tale left me with a vague yearning for the whisper of skis along moonlit trails, the tingle of ice crystals in the nostrils and the reviving cups of hot chocolate, but I had no idea how this could be achieved.
Skiing remained something that other people did in books or occasionally in Hello! magazine, until I found the SnowDome. Its indoor piste of powdery snow (the recipe is secret) is perfect for novice skiers and snowboarders. Conditions are authentic - it's even cold, a few degrees above freezing - without a dry ski slope's potential for painful scrapes. During the low season (April to October) the SnowDome can be very quiet, and there are moveable crash barriers to create havens for the nervous. Solo or group lessons are available, and learning the basics here means progress is faster if you do go off to a resort in pursuit of the whisper of skis, etc.
Instructor Peter Hair, who escaped from retail management 15 years ago to indulge his passion for skiing full-time, has a calming presence and the gamut of teaching tactics. We explored them all during the four hours in which I learned to snowplough (the technique for stopping, using the inside edge of the skis) and make linked turns. Peter usually teaches adults to snowplough first. "They feel more confident once they know how to stop," he says. "Children want to know how to go."
His ideal student is "all-round body-literate rather than super-fit" - possibly someone who enjoys dance, swimming or some other form of movement in which the most graceful, fluid movements are also the most efficient.
I certainly saw parallels with ballet in the languid curving of the experienced skiers from the top of the slope - a glimpse of life beyond the exhausting, crabwise shuffles up the mini-molehill of my practice area.
The first hour was long. I was plagued by foot cramps within five minutes. "Stop curling your toes," said Peter, seeing through my boots. I was also banned from looking at my feet and from concentrating too hard. "Relax. Trust in the technique," he intoned. "Open the curtains," as I attempted to turn my hamstrings inside out to push the ski edge deeper into the snow. "Hips over the feet," as terror led me to point my rear end uphill. My left hip developed an involuntary twitch which led my snowplough astray, leaving sad, boomerang-shaped tracks for all to see.
Peter introduced loosening-up exercises to help me forget the 10lb of unwieldy hardware attached to my feet. Beginners' boots are shaped to allow the feet to spring about inside them. At first I was disappointed to find that he bans beginners from skiing with poles - "People use them as props and don't learn to balance" - but later I was relieved not to have to grapple with more technology.
Within two hours my snowplough was really not too bad and I hummed "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" on my way back up the slope. I was allowed to try out the tow rope to the next level - an adventure in itself. We quit while we were ahead: Peter believes lessons are most efficient in smaller chunks, although he can teach some of those body-literate types to ski from the top of the slope (a blue or green run - moderately difficult) in an hour.
There was no pretty scenery to look at as I sipped my hot chocolate in the bar, but I marvelled at the SnowDome's tractors smoothing the surface of the piste to get it deep and crisp and even for the next session. Apr s-ski was limited, but I fitted in a trip to Tamworth's excellent museum, 10 minutes' walk from the SnowDome, before a hot bath and an early night.
The next morning was spent confidence-building at higher altitude - the next stop on the tow rope, high enough to let me build up speed without inducing panic. Peter tried out a skiing harness which improved my posture and encouraged me to "commit to the descent". It cured my urge to look at my feet, a hangover from the day before.
Turning was simply a matter of pointing the skis in the right direction and letting the body follow, so why couldn't I do it? I had trouble with "left" and "right", so Peter set out markers and tried me with "red" and "yellow". The breakthrough came in the last 10 minutes of the lesson when I turned, unprompted, to avoid a huddle of snowboarders, displaying common sense and initiative as well as brute force. Give that woman another hot chocolate.
The SnowDome is at Leisure Island, River Drive, Tamworth, Staffordshire B79 7ND. Tel: 0990 000011. It is open every day of the year except Christmas Day, 9am-11pm. The SnowDome is offering teachers two free places per school in an introductory one-hour group ski lesson for adult beginners (or one hour's recreational skiing for those who can already ski). The offer runs until October 1, subject to availability. Advance booking necessary. Mention this article when booking. Tuition rates for school groups are Pounds 5 per pupil; one teacher free with every 10 pupils. Tuition includes ski and boot hire but you must wear warm clothing including ski gloves and long socks.