I’m cold and I’m tired. Through puffs of a cigarette, my very French ski instructor is rattling off commands, but I can’t hear him through my hat and helmet. I nod anyway, and chunks of snow fall from my hair, matted there after a particularly rough spill on the last run.
I remember my first ski trip vividly: being bundled up like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the sting of snow in my face the first time I fell doing a snowplow, the warmth of my dad’s arm wrapped protectively around me on my very first chairlift ride.
I wasn’t one of those fearless little rippers you see on the slopes today with their helmets and self-confident pivots. Always a cautious skier, I preferred being parallel to the lodge to zipping straight down, even on the bunny hills.
Over the next few years, I learned how to ski by trailing my father. Though my parents often tried to foist me into kids’ camps in the hopes that they could have some grownup ski time, I insisted on weaving behind Dad, following his tracks and using him as a buffer between me and the bottom of the mountain.
But after years of taunting from my expert skier friends, I have made a command decision: I will become a better-than-mediocre skier. This year will be my “Year of Magical” skiing, where I go from blah to badass while skiing around the world. I’ll finally buy proper gloves and wear a helmet. I’ll get fitted for real boots that won’t give me blisters for days. I won’t beg to go to the après-ski by noon.
My journey began with the opening weekend of the brand-new Club Med Sensations resort in Val Thorens, France, the highest ski resort in all of Europe. It was my first time skiing in the Alps and my first two days with a serious instructor, assigned to me by the ESF (École du Ski Français), Michel Santoro, a heavy-smoking ski buff with the tanned leathery cheeks of a man who knows his way around the mountain and the disposition of a junior high librarian.
I warned Michel about my project on our very first ride up the mountain together, but I’m not sure he entirely understood my plan.
“Tell me everything I am doing wrong,” I yelled to him as I zipped past him on the beginner slope, knees bent, sitting back as though I were in a chair, arms flailing as if I were trying to get someone’s attention in a crowd or cheering for a touchdown.
“Slow down,” he yelled back. “You need to learn control. Without control there can be no pleasure.”
It was the first of many times that day and the next that Michel told me to slow down, to enjoy myself, to find the pleasure in the movement down the mountain. I had no idea that my ski instructor would be more Pema Chödrön than Jean-Claude Killy.
“You move too fast. On the mountain and through life,” he said.
“My shrink tells me the same thing,” I said. He didn’t laugh as he continued to catalog my various deficiencies.
My arms were too far back, and I didn’t tack them into the snow during my turns. I wasn’t making enough use of my quads. I was too far back in my seat. My upper body was too loose, too wiggly. But most important, I wasn’t focusing. I wasn’t present.
“Be mindful,” he said. “Be here.”
By the end of day one, Michel and I were like an old married couple. He would nitpick. I would scowl.
We’d make nice again on the chairlift, and I’d hate his guts again by the time we were back down the mountain. I’d stare longingly at the lift ads for Hoegaarden and French cheese plates and beg for a break. He’d ignore me.
The conditions during the first weekend of December were apparently the worst that Val Thorens had experienced in 27 years. Yet, for a girl from the East Coast, where ice and slush are often the norm, this was ski heaven.
Michel wanted to transform me into a magical skier in just one afternoon. I wanted to take baby steps.
That was when he insisted on taking away my poles, which he referred to as “sticks.”
“I want you to dance,” he said. “I want you to be graceful.” Never tell a woman she isn’t graceful.
I huffed. “I want to dance with my poles.”
Off he skied with my sticks, forcing me to chase him, my arms floating at my sides. I had no choice but to focus on my form to stay upright.
"That wasn’t so bad," he said when I met him at the bottom of the mountain and snatched my sticks back. "You need to concentrate on one new thing at a time," he said in a way that felt like a judgment of all my life choices.
For the next day and a half we focused on my arms and only my arms.
"You touch and you turn. You touch and you turn," Michel said to me over and over again.
By the end of day two, I was finally doing just that. I touched and I turned. I touched and I turned. I thought about that one thing and that one thing alone. The concentration forced me to slow down. Moving too fast during a pivot would knock me off balance and hurl me into the snow. I was learning to be mindful.
"You have a lifetime of bad habits to erase," Michel said as we finally headed to the après-ski. "It won’t happen overnight."
Thank God I have four more months.
—By Jo Piazza. This article first appeared on Yahoo Travel.
Photos, from top: Jo Piazza for Yahoo Travel, Elizabeth Carey for SKI Magazine.
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