Varsity: Learning something on the slopes, if not how to ski

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It wasn’t until I was packing my salopettes that I quite realised what I had let myself in when I signed up to go skiing. Not only in that sort of packing-up-your-kit-bag, take-a-deep-breath kind of way, but also just how difficult it was. It’s like packing a duvet; you have to fold them into a sort of bulbous rectangle, squeeze the air out and try and nestle them between everything else before they start to reinflate. It was on the third try that I realised I didn’t want them anywhere near my legs.

“My haggardly attractive French instructor noted of my skiing on the first day that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day'”

My first experience of going skiing didn’t do much to help with these initial fears. Everything, from remembering to put on goggles before gloves to knowing you should wear thermals under (not over) leggings was new to me. It was a new language (see ‘salopettes’ above) and a totally new experience. It’s completely counter-intuitive. Firstly, you have to get wrapped up in order to do a sport. You have to go up a hill, just to come down it. Perhaps most controversially, you have to lean towards the snowy ground, when everything inside you is telling you to move as far away from it as possible.  My haggardly attractive French instructor noted of my skiing on the first day that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. But as ‘Rome’ in this charming analogy stood for ‘leaning towards your impending death in order to try and prevent it’, I was worried it might even take more than a week.

Everyone assured me that Varsity is the best place to learn how to ski. Everyone including the Varsity handbook, whose reassuring tones noted that 400 beginners attend Varsity every year. So I was to be in the company of 399 other non-skiers. That seemed like plenty to distract from my personal humiliation. But then there were 2100 other people. And because Oxford is Oxford (and equally, and no less crucially Cambridge is Cambridge) most of these people looked like their mums had given birth on a chair lift, and sent them on their merry way. This was the point that my defence mechanisms set in, and I started to write off skiing as a pretentious, expensive, middle-class activity for people who have bought every possible style of Ugg boot and so have to find something else to empty their weighed-down pockets.

But then I just realised that I couldn’t blame skiing for the fact I wasn’t good at it. I couldn’t blame the salopettes for the fact that I wasn’t storming down the mountain like a bride’s nightie. I tend to blame the things (the piano, maths, Renaissance drama) for my inadequacy, rather than taking any of the flak. And it was the same with skiing – after trying it once I was just about ready to spend the week honing my snowman building.

“I suppose one thing skiing teaches you is to have some humility and actually try; something which under-achieving at Oxford tends to teach you fairly brutally too”

But looking around at some of the other beginners on Varsity, I realised I wasn’t the only one who started day two eying my skis with a mixture of disdain and distaste. This resignation is perhaps something you see more on the slopes at a university ski trip – especially an Oxbridge one – than anywhere else. If we’re not immediately good at something, it’s not worth it. But much like the ritual humiliation of tutorials (at least for me), having shortcomings publicly exposed makes you want to get rid of them faster. And shortcomings aren’t easy to hide when they involve landing on your elbows in powdery snow. So I suppose one thing skiing teaches you is to have some humility and actually try; something which under-achieving at Oxford tends to teach you fairly brutally too. And at least sub fusc has given us excellent training for getting dressed up in stupid clothes to do something you can’t do. 

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