I Learned to Ski on the Hardest Slopes in the World — Here's Why You Should, Too

I took on the toughest mountains on Earth, and now there's no looking back.

<p>Etienne Bornet</p>

Etienne Bornet

"It's just a little snow. It's just a little snow, Vanessa." These are the words I repeated to myself over and over as I peered into the vast white terrain ahead of me.

Perched on the edge of a sinuous Swiss mountain, with nowhere to go but down, it was time to show off what I'd learned over the last few days of private ski lessons. Naturally, all I could think about at that moment were the numerous wipeouts I'd endured during my training, leaving me wildly unconfident in my chances of making it off this hilly slope in one piece. "You can do this," I repeated to myself. "It's just a little snow."

Before this week, the closest I'd ever gotten to skiing was watching the Winter Olympics on television. It's an experience I'd always hoped to try, so when Switzerland Tourism invited me to explore the country as a first-time skier, I jumped at the opportunity and headed to Switzerland to learn from the very best.

After a long travel day that included an international flight, three trains, and one final bus, I arrived in the small town of Nendaz, a charming ski resort located in the heart of Switzerland's 4 Valleys (Les 4 Vallèes) in the Valais region. Snowcap-covered chalets and gorgeous mountains greeted me as I arrived at my hotel, Les Etagnes, just in time for dinner. As I headed to the dining room, I inadvertently stumbled into a lively après-ski at the hotel's appropriately named Cheersbar, where a gaggle of friendly Swiss locals noticed my luggage and shouted, "Welcome to Switzerland!" As tempting as it was to join in on the fun after dinner, I knew I had a big day ahead of me, so I turned in early to get a good night's rest ahead of my first-ever ski lesson.

<p>Florian Bouvet-Fournier</p>

Florian Bouvet-Fournier

The following day, I bundled up in my sleek snow gear and headed to the Tracouet in the center of Haute-Nendaz to meet my instructor, Amadeus Amacker. Swarms of enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders buzzed around the entrance of the ski station, but sporting a fire-engine red instructor's suit, Amacker stuck out among the crowds.

At 67, Amacker was much older than the other instructors, and as I weaved through the chaotic scene to introduce myself, his warm smile and soft presence immediately relieved some of my initial nerves about hitting the slopes. With more than 45 years of experience under his belt, nearly everyone in Nendaz knows Amacker. Even the employee who rented me my ski gear amusingly noted that Amacker had taught him to ski as a child.

While I was happy to have a true professional teaching me the ropes, I think Amandus could still see the sheer terror on my face as we boarded the gondola to take us up the mountain because one of the first things he said to me was, "don't panic, it's just a little snow!" Still skeptical, I tried to smile through the stress, and we continued up the mountain for my first day of lessons.

We started on flat snow, where Amandus went over the very basics of learning to ski. From getting in and out of my boots to walking with skis on and learning the correct ski stance, the first hour of my lesson didn't actually involve any skiing at all. Soon enough though, it was time to practice gliding. After pushing off my poles, I felt my skis glide a few inches, but then fear kicked in, and I started to panic, looking up at Amacker for help. For some reason, I was petrified of falling, I explained. "Why are you afraid of falling?" He said bluntly. "If you fall, you fall. It's just snow!" He had a point, and I eventually managed to get a handle on the basic glide. Once Amandus and I both felt confident in my basic skills enough, I moved on to my next big obstacle: The Bunny Slope.

I shuffled to the back of the line behind a flock of tiny children from the Nendaz Ski School who were also learning how to ski. It was quite a sight to see - me practicing my "pizzas" and "french fries" with the other beginners, some as young as three years old. Amandus and the other instructors cheered us on each step of the way, even when we ended up face-down in the snow. I guess it's an important lesson at any age - when you fall down, you get back up and try again.

For the next few days, I worked on maintaining a steady ski pace by learning how to speed up and slow down and, most importantly, learning how to stop without falling. My biggest challenge came when I tried to add turns to my repertoire. I'd try to turn as Amacker instructed, but I just couldn't get the hang of it. I felt like a toddler trying to walk in her mother's heels as I wobbled into the turns, and despite my best efforts, nothing was working.

Amandus, as patient as ever, tried to explain it to me in a different way. "Other sports are fast and bold, like rock and roll, but skiing is smooth, like a waltz," he said while waving his hands like a conductor. With this analogy in mind, and my mental block of falling slowly melting away like the very snow I was trying to conquer, I persevered and, after hours of trying, got my turns down.

On my last day of lessons, instead of heading to Tracouet, where I'd practiced before, Amacker took me to the Ski Station Les 4 Vallées for my final lesson. "Today, we ski from there," he noted while pointing up toward the peaks of the sweeping mountain above us. I looked at him in utter disbelief while he chuckled at my instant panic, his warm eyes once again relieving my nerves. "Don't worry," he reassured me. "I wouldn't take you here if I didn't think you could do it."

So there I was, standing on the biggest slope I'd tackled yet, mustering up the courage to ski down by reminding myself that even if I fall, it's just a little snow. With a deep breath (and a loving nudge from Amacker), I pushed off my poles and started skiing down the mountain. It wasn't a perfect run, and it certainly wasn't fast, but by using the skills I'd learned these past few days, I miraculously made it to the base of the slopes without falling once. Amacker even managed to take a video of me as I weaved and bobbed my way down the piste, showing me visual proof of my improvement from just three days before.

<p>Vanessa Wilkins</p>

Vanessa Wilkins

"Excellent work, I knew you could do it!" Amacker exclaimed when we reached the bottom of the slope. His triumphant smile was contagious, and soon we were both grinning and high-fiving while looking up at this mountain-sized milestone I'd accomplished. As I said goodbye to Nendaz, I was filled with gratitude for such an incredible first skiing experience and vowed that while it was my first time skiing, it won't be my last.

How to Ride

Purchase a lift ticket online, which starts at $73/day, or purchase an annual or seasonal ski pass, which includes access to all slopes in Les 4 Vallées, here.

Where to Dine

If you're looking for traditional Swiss fare, you must try the Restaurant Le Raccard. Perfectly situated in the center of Haute-Nendaz, the restaurant offers delicious meat and cheese fondue selections to help you refuel after a long day on the slopes. If you want something a little fancier, book a reservation at the Mont-Rouge restaurant, which offers an elegant-yet-cozy dining experience, perfect for a date night.

Where to Apres Ski

Located in the heart of Haute-Nendaz, Edelweiss is the place to go for a spirited apres-ski experience. Known for its live music, daily DJ sets, and happy hours, you'll be sure to hear the skiers and snowboarders dancing the night away from a mile away. For a more intimate apres-ski experience, the cozy Cheersbar is perfectly situated next to the Tracouet lift and offers the perfect place for a cup of vin chaud after a day on the slopes. 

Where to Stay

For the closest proximity to the slopes, stay at Les Etagnes. The hotel is steps away from the lifts into the ski area and even has ski-in/ski-out access, so you can go from your suite to the slopes in record time. If you're looking for a little luxury in between your ski days, stay at the Hôtel Nendaz 4 Vallées & Spa. The 4-star resort is renowned for its luxury accommodations, upscale restaurants, and, most notably, its Spa des Bisses, which spans two floors and features multiple saunas, a steam bath, an ice cave, and more.

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