My earliest memory is fear. It has dominated my emotional landscape ever since I can remember but after falling in love with skiing nearly 20 years ago I decided that every subsequent winter I would use my mountain time to try and overcome one particular manifestation, Acrophobia — the fear of heights.
My experiences, although rooted in phobia are common in winter sports albeit to a lesser degree. Many symptoms are mirrored by non-phobics and sadly, I have witnessed too many enthusiastic but nervous skiers and snowboarders become intimidated, miserable and alienated over the years at a time when they should be having fun. Using the backdrop of my own experiences I will explore the physical, emotional and industry implications of nervous holiday skiers and offer some hints and tips for riders and their mountain companions.
The good, the bad and the ugly
I’ll also explore the emotional intelligence of those facing their fears, its absence in unsupportive skiers, the overt bravado that can too often dominate much of our mountain time and the golden qualities of genuine supporters.
I’m a great believer that activity sports bring out your ‘true colours’. They test all manner of personal limits, tolerances and bring willing participants face-to-face with genuine danger. These raw qualities form part of the appeal to me as I’m always keen to learn more about myself and those around me. I then take this learning into other parts of my life. As a certified PADI Rescue Diver I’m confident and calm under water showing no signs of the fear I experience on the slopes. Diving is a technical sport and can present considerably more risks than skiing so why I’m calm in that environment I’m not entirely sure but whatever the reason I’m privilged to have insight into the many sides of this debate.
Why should you care?
Well, did you know that the demographic of the ski and snowboard industry is changing? The generation who made the industry what it is today are aging and sadly leaving the sport at an incredible rate. Winter sun and cheap activity holidays are now common place and the declining rate of entry level skiers and snowboarders who convert to loyal visitors should be a real worry if you are an avid skier. If you want your resorts to remain affordable, well maintained and accessible for all you need to support winter sport enthusiasts, whatever their ability.
Like many who didn’t grow up in the sport I was introduced to skiing as a young adult by a group of enthusiasts, keen to share their love of the sport. Devotees such as these play a huge role in the revenue generation of this industry. They have a tendency to encourage their friends and family to join them on the slopes and in turn convert them into loyal visitors who rent equipment, take lessons, visit attractions and ultimately fund the ski economy. Break this cycle by alienating learners (at any level of expertise) and the sport once again risks returning very quickly to the reserve of the wealthy.
Research tells me we can control the “on/off” switch to our anxiety which is fantastic news for anyone like me, who is determined to break their cycle of fear. It’s not easy (I can definitely testify to that!) and it takes serious guts but armed with the right approach, regular exposure and a new dialogue inside and out we can systematically desensitize our fears. I’ve still an awful lot to learn but I’m certainly not the same skier or person I was 20 years ago.
Exposing your vulnerabilities is hard but I can confidently say I’m a much stronger, more mindful person for having persistently faced my fears. Throughout the highs and lows I’ve benefited from the selfless generosity of many and can recognize authentic leadership qualities in other areas of my life. There is no better feeling in sport like the comradery of the underdog who shines through, so if you are an intolerant person you’re definitely missing out!
Hike a mile in my shoes
To date, I have never been able to pin point exactly how my phobia began but I do know it was well developed at a very early age. I have vivid memories throughout my childhood of being regularly frozen in fear on low staircases, ladders, chairs, escalators, fire escapes, coastal walks, parks, rivers, balcony’s, household landings, windows… the list goes on. Despite my pattern of behaviour it wasn’t until I was hiking as a teen that a local Girl Guide leader recognised that I was afraid of heights — a completely new concept to me. On that occasion I had started to cross the waterfall bridge in Glenariff Forest Park when my legs crumpled. I collapsed clinging with all my might to the wooden boards, nauseous, soaked in sweat and unable to speak or move.
Afraid of losing control
It’s embarrassing to admit I have an anxiety disorder especially the ‘fear of heights’ which I believe is a phrase regularly misused. For starters, it’s perfectly normal to be afraid if you are at a high spot. These are perfectly rational fears given your location …you are not afraid of heights. A phobia is different; it’s an irrational, illogical, insurmountable fear, an extreme reaction that is completely out of proportion to your surroundings.
For me symptoms have included a tight/nervous stomach, nausea, vomiting, heavy breathing, dry mouth, dehydration, instant heavy sweats, galloping heart rate/palpitations, racing thoughts, a flushed face, instability, locked/clenched jaw, shaking, severe muscle tension/cramps, a constant need to use the bathroom and of course being completely frozen to the spot. These all add up to the fear of losing control which is the foundation of all phobias.
In my experience nervous skiers exhibit many of these same symptoms yet too often their mountain companions are intolerant, dismissing their plight as weak, lazy or not trying hard enough. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Nervous skiers are some of the most courageous people I have ever met on the slopes and deserve every respect for strapping on those boots day after day and trying to overcome the physical and mental challenges they face. Importantly ‘nervous skier’ does not necessarily mean beginner (I’ve been one for 20 years!) but time and time again the wrong approach to fear prevents us all from becoming the skiers and people we really want to be.
It’s NOT all in the mind
At the most primitive level there are 5 major emotions in life: fear, love, sadness, anger and joy and all other emotions stem from these. They are essential survival tools and in moderation they are designed to trigger and sustain our instinctive ‘fight or flight’ functions. However, chronic fear such as acrophobia is an irrational reaction to the world around us, an inability to cope, a feeling of being completely overwhelmed which we struggle to control.
In response to any perceived environmental threat our body’s normal function is to manufacture two primary stress chemicals: adrenaline and cortisol to help us destroy the threat or escape. Phobics irrationally perceive severe environmental threats where others don’t thereby producing excessive amounts of adrenaline and cortisol resulting in extreme physical and emotional responses.
The adrenaline binds to the components of our hearts significantly increasing our heart rate and oxygen levels by forcing rapid respirations and muscle contractions. Cortisol, on the other hand, binds to the receptors in our fat cells, liver and pancreas to increase the glucose levels that feed our muscles and among other things it forcibly shuts down the body’s maintenance, digestive and immune systems.
It all makes perfect ‘Sense’
In addition to the chemical changes, our senses play a pivotal role in our spacial awareness, particularly our ‘Vestibular’ and ‘Proprioceptive’ senses. Widely considered the king of all the senses the vestibular sense contributes to our sense of balance, movement and position in space whereas the proprioceptive sense receives inputs from our muscles and joints about body position, weight, pressure, stretch, movement and changes in our position.
Alongside visual cues, the human balance system integrates signals from our vestibular and proprioceptive senses to determine motion, position and equilibrium. As height increases most people respond by placing greater reliance on the vestibular and proprioceptive branches and less on visual cues. An acrophobic will continue to rely heavily on visual signals and less on their senses thereby overloading their visual cortex which results in significant biological confusion. We are literally chemically, sensually and emotionally overwhelmed.
With all this in mind, it’s not unusual for symptoms to linger after a panic. It will literally take time for your body’s adrenaline, cortisol and equilibrium to rebalance so an inability to ski even the most basic runs after freezing on the mountain is common place. This will pass, if you let it, you just need to take a little time out to heal. For me, information really is power and understanding that my post-panic reactions are driven by biology has often helped to recover my confidence in reasonable time.
Top tips for nervous skiers
As a nervous skier you will probably battle on a few fronts all at the same time: mountain, people and body.
Understand your fear: Only you truly know what elevates and reduces your stress levels. As a nervous skier we tend to see fear where others don’t so it’s immensely important to pace your challenges, learn how to relax, enjoy the people you are with and celebrate your down time. It is a holiday after all!
Exposure therapy: This is a proven therapeutic approach that gradually exposes you to the situations that trigger your symptoms and will help you to systematically desensitise your fear. I believe this could be the key to my own success so I’m very keen to do try more of this. If anyone out there knows a ski academy that specialises in fear I’d love to hear about it.
Look after your body: Stay well hydrated and try to avoid putting your digestive system under too much pressure. Go easy on the alcohol and caffeine drinks, especially in the first few days as these will only exacerbate your physical symptoms. That said, you are on holiday so consider punctuating your week with mornings off so you can enjoy some après the night before! Spas are a great way to reward and relax!
Defend you right to ski: Too often I have witnessed nervous skiers become increasingly withdrawn by the conversations of others. These feelings can evidence as early as the planning stages when many are intimidated by the more dominant terrain hungry skiers. Well, despite your limited confidence ‘anxious skiers’ know that you have every right to ski on your preferred slopes as anyone else. You pay for the same mountain pass and should feel free to spend your time as you wish. You are of huge importance to the ski industry so defend your right to ski at your pace and share your mountain tales with gusto! True supporters will always want to listen, bolster your confidence and celebrate your wins.
Ski with people who want to ski with you: We all know the story, you’re the last one down, everyone is waiting, your struggle has an audience and the moment you arrive they set off again. Each of them secretly delighted they are not you. It’s brutal. Well, I’ve grown tired of the repeated apologies and constant feelings of guilt when I’m meant to be having fun. I’m fatigued with the dismissive looks and comments from Intolerants and I suspect you are too. Nervous skiers are often too familiar with abandonment, isolation and loneliness on and off the slopes. For years I skied with people who were absolutely not right for me, from ski schools to private groups. They always seemed to outpace, out skill and out talk me no matter how hard I tried. It was completely demoralising and held me back for years.
In a nutshell, a genuine supporter is someone who enjoys spending time with you on the mountain. They can be any ability level but importantly they are happy to share their mountain time with you. They are absolutely worth their weight in gold and can make all the difference to your confidence and enthusiasm for skiing. Seek them out, invite the right people along and nurture those relationships. I ski with a group where the pace is set by the slowest person regardless of ability so everyone gets a reasonable break. This is our golden principal and I protect it vigorously. The group is open to those with the right attitude and comprises skiers who may be learning, passing through my grade or returning to the slopes after an absence, injury or illness. Most often they are advanced technical skiers who just want a slower pace and a less demanding holiday. When you start to shape your group differently you will be surprised who wants to join in!
Peer pressure: This will set you back, I guarantee it and it’s often the root cause of nervous enthusiasts leaving the sport. Do not ski with anyone who is unsupportive or intolerant of others. For everyone’s well-being this should be non-negotiable. These situations never end well so avoid at them all costs. Sometimes that means you should be prepared to separate from friends and family, maybe ski alone on occasion or join a ski school for a good day on the slopes. What matters is that you ski without distress and enjoy it so don’t compromise your experience for the wrong people. In my experience ‘Intolerants’ make no apology for skiing the mountain their way so why should you?
A challenge, is a challenge, is a challenge. Many consider fear to be a weakness but I passionately believe it is a strength. In reality, the majority of people I’ve skied with over the years would never be brave enough to return to this sport (or any other) if they felt even a shred of the stress, panic, fear and anxiety that I have experienced over the years. Yes, I’m biased, but I have enormous respect for those who get up every morning and try to face their fears over and over again. If you are one of them, I applaud you.
Equipment: Comfortable boots can make all the difference and knowing your preferred ski and pole length will provide much needed comfort before you reach the slopes. I prefer shorter skis and poles for my height because I have a tendency to bend when I’m stressed which is exactly when I need to feel the most control. Don’t buy equipment too soon, get to know your size and posture first, and it’s always a prudent investment to rent serviced equipment than borrow old gear from a friend. If you are renting don’t be afraid to switch out your equipment at anytime, this is perfectly normal practice regardless of skill level.
Day 1 Preparation: Give yourself plenty of time to eat, digest and stretch your muscles every morning. By letting the ski schools leave first (assuming you’re not joining them) you can avoid boot room chaos, ski lift queues and enjoy a leisurely breakfast and quieter slopes. Heaven!
Allow some settling in time to acclimatise to your surroundings. Don’t be afraid to join ski grades lower than your ability as often as you like. Dropping down a class or two on day one can offer a slower pace and act as a welcomed refresher. Alternatively, taking some time out by yourself to acclimatise on quieter slopes away from the madding crowd is an excellent idea. You have all week so break yourself in gently.
Define success: For me success is skiing without distress, regardless of my ability. It is not about the terrain covered, number of runs, colours or speed. There was once a time when success for me was not panicking when the chairlift stopped mid-way or when the bar was raised before I was ready. Thankfully I’ve moved past those days but it wasn’t easy.
Encourage yourself to redefine the meaning of success every day if you need to. Big wins come in many different sizes so take a moment to acknowledge them and celebrate every single one!
Find a base camp: This is usually a ski-in-out mountain stop that accommodates my basic needs: a seat, refreshments and the all-important bathroom. In the past I have often taken some well-earned time out while my friends explored the runs around me. Knowing there is a plan in place and time-out ahead can help to alleviate a lot of bathroom worries and muscle burn.
Repeat trusted runs: as often as you like. My trusted runs are usually located near a base camp so I can rest at any time. I use them to rebuild confidence, acclimatise to my surroundings and challenge myself on a gradient that I am comfortable with. Knowing where the run begins and ends can offer significant reassurance and repeated drills are an excellent way to develop your technical agility. At low points in the past I have regularly returned to trusted runs and repeated them continuously, sometimes for a whole day on my own. Intolerants will hate this so be prepared to pleasantly cut that cord if you need to but in my experience you can often be surprised by who will want to join you for a few supportive runs.
Know when to break for the day: Some days (or years) can be better than others. Setbacks are part of the recovery process and all sorts of factors such as life events, mountain conditions or group dynamics can trigger a relapse. Knowing when to call it a day, retreat to a trusted run or relax in the spa can help you to get back on track. In the past I have stopped for the day after just one run. On those days I just knew that despite my frustrations if I persevered with either the mountain or the group I would do more damage than good so I shift my focus from technical skills to relaxation. This has always proved to be the right decision and allowed me to manage expectations, regroup and recharge. The result — a much happier skier was soon back on the slopes. Success!
Support your supporters: Everyone deserves quality time on the mountain but even your biggest fans can become weary at times. While they may be happy to share some time with you they may also want to stretch themselves with others. Encourage your supporters to explore the mountain their way as well. This may be too advanced for you so you should be prepared to ski without them for a while. Give them space to enjoy themselves; they deserve to have fun just as much as you do!
Leave on a high: I like to use my last day to bolster confidence ahead of the next visit. Consider planning your last day in advance, discuss it with your supporters and make your plans known. I prefer to avoid experimenting with mountain, people or body if I can help it; it’s never as much fun as playing confidently on trusted runs and it’s just not worth the risk of relapse before departure.
Remember it’s everyone’s last opportunity for fun on the slopes so don’t be afraid to break away from the more adventurous skiers. If ending on a high means skiing without Intolerants then do it. They will only resent your pace, crush your confidence and most likely leave you anyway to explore the mountain their way. You deserve better than that so stay in control of your last day as much as you can.
Top tips for supporters
Be under no illusion, it’s a remarkable people skill to be a calming influence on others. I can credit a small number of people who have ‘talked me down’ over the years and I wholeheartedly admire every single one of them. They have persisted in the face of adversity, offered patience where others didn’t and were always happy to share their mountain time with me in the spirit of fun, regardless of ability. Many simply offered a warm hug, good ‘craic’ and a hot chocolate at the end of a challenging day but whatever their input they have all been good sports and helped me to become the skier I am today. Thank you!
With this in mind, supporters should never underestimate the enormous positive impact they can have on nervous skiers. They should also recognise that there may be times when they need to step away to recharge. I encourage nervous skiers to support their supporters; you deserve to have fun on the mountain your way too!
Misunderstood: Nervous skiers are repeatedly misread as unfit, lazy or not trying hard enough because of their hesitations when in actual fact the complete opposite is true. They are acutely aware of their impact on others and battling significantly more physical and mental exertion than anyone else around them. There have been many occasions in the past when it has been a massive accomplishment for me just get the skis on my feet and place myself on the mountain ready for the day ahead. Try not to underestimate the scale of the challenges faced by nervous skiers. Not all of them are obvious.
The first day: can often be quite daunting for nervous skiers. It’s likely their physical symptoms have kicked in long before the day begins and they have spent significant energy trying to mask their symptoms to avoid appearing lazy or weak.
Allow them time to acclimatise to their surroundings. Talk to them and agree a reasonable plan for the first day that offers plenty of breaks and confidence building. Help them to find a trusted run nearby where they can practice their drills and get their ski legs back. In the mean time you could have some fun exploring the terrain with some reconnaissance for the next day.
I typically have sensory overload on day one. My head is desperately trying to process terrain, views, snow reports, exposed rocks, ice levels, drop offs, cliff edges, signage, chair lifts, grooming, skier volume, likely speeds, changing conditions, accessible mountain toilets and the number of breaks per run. At the same time I’ll also be factoring the expectations of ski buddies and dealing with the many physical and emotional symptoms mentioned earlier. Yes it’s complicated, but if you think this sounds stressful imagine what it’s like inside my head!
Breaking point: For a nervous skier and their supporters success should be having fun on the slopes and skiing without distress. As a trusted supporter you should probably be prepared to repeat trusted runs with plenty of breaks in-between. For nervous skiers it can be very disheartening to always be the last one down and the only person who requests regular breaks so maybe try to pre-empt this and identify regular stops in advance. Expect that they will probably need many more than you do.
Exposure therapy: For years I barely looked past the tips of my skis, too afraid to take in the beautiful views. Encourage nervous skiers to take some time to absorb the magnificent landscape. Be careful of doing ‘too much too soon’ but managed correctly regular breaks at agreed locations can help acclimatise nervous skiers to their surroundings.
Create a trusted environment: Allow your companions time to get down the run with confidence. This will serve you both well as skiing always improves with confidence. Remember, when muscles are frozen in fear physical movement can be literally impossible so if getting down the hard parts successfully takes one inch at time then so be it. Try to be supportive by listening to the nervous skier rather than dismissing their claims and adding extra pressure with unrelenting instructions. Many of their physical symptoms prevent them from applying technical skills so any movement down the run should be celebrated.
Remember, it’s not unusual for physical symptoms to remain after a panic so an inability to ski basic manoeuvres after freezing is common. Be patient, this will eventually pass but depending on the severity, symptoms such as muscle cramps may linger. Help them to bounce back quickly by toning down the pressure.
Confidence building: I can guarantee every nervous skier will relive their humiliations over and over again in their head, relentlessly. Self-criticism is common. Try to encourage them to find other confidence building ways to share the experiences of the day with as much vigor as an all-terrain skier.
Teaching: Improved technical skills will certainly help to build confidence in part but without the corresponding mental fitness technical agility will do little to alleviate chronic fear. Learning how to manage fear is an ‘add-on’ to learning how to ski. In my experience Intolerants have underdeveloped emotional intelligence and will always struggle to see past the ‘no falls, no balls’ approach to teaching. This type of commentary will only serve to litter everyone’s day with disappointment and frustration. As a trusted supporter you will already know that a little patience goes an incredibly long way.
I absolutely love to ski
I love the challenge, the escape, the outdoors, the après, the spa, the social, the learning, the people, the whole package and I want everyone particularly nervous skiers to fall in love with this sport just as much as I have. I’m immensely proud that I face my fears head on every year and you should be too. If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that ski resorts are very big places and there should be plenty of room for all of us.
Happy skiing everyone!