Travel: Skiing: It's never too late to learn

Have the joys of skiing passed you by for ever? Roger Mills says it ain't necessarily so
SKIING USED to seem to me a bit like playing a musical instrument. If you wanted to do it you had to start young. Having reached the second half of my thirties without having got going, it never occurred to me to think about trying. Then, at the ripe old age of 38, I married someone who could ski rather well, and a year later I was heading for Passo Rolle, a small resort in the Italian Dolomites.

I had heard that ski resorts were full of distressingly able five-year- olds and, even though there was a handful of other anxious-looking oldie beginners on the slopes, sharing the discomfort didn't seem likely to make the self-consciousness any easier. But within half an hour, the problems of staying upright were taking up all the mental capacity I had available.

What I wasn't expecting was how fundamentally unnatural the physical experience of skiing would seem at first. Take turning corners. Like most people, my feelings about cornering were based on being on a bicycle, where, if you lean to the left, you go to the left. Nothing so simple for the ski world. On skis, when you lean to the left you go to the right.

Then there is the question of what to do on a steep slope. Faced with a slope, my instinct was to lean back. But if you lean away from the slope when you are on skis, your legs shoot from under you. Making yourself lean forward is the trick, instantly producing a sense of stability. But try getting your body to do that on day one.

"Adults think too much," says Fiona Coats, an instructor who runs one of the ski schools at Aviemore. "Teaching children is easy because they just copy what you do without really realising it. With older people you can see them concentrating too hard, trying to grasp the technique intellectually."

Chilling out is all very well, but skiing, at the very beginning, can be quite alarming. The abiding image I have of my first day is of standing at the top of the nursery slope feeling both distinctly uneasy, and that I was rather pathetic to be feeling distinctly uneasy.

So when, exactly, does the fun start? It didn't take long to acquire a degree of competence. Unless you are critically lacking in co-ordination, almost anyone, however old, is getting down the nursery slopes comfortably after four or five days. Another week and you're weaving past stricken beginners and wondering if it's time you went back to the hire shop to get your equipment upgraded.

"Getting fit before you start helps enormously," says Fiona Coats. "Many people come here having done no exercise at all, thinking that skiing is just effortlessly gliding downhill."

Coats recommends running, cycling or any exercise that gets the legs moving. Another, personal tip, is going for one-to-one tuition in the early days. It may be more expensive but it will have you on your feet (and staying on them) much sooner.

If you are wondering how many years you'll get out of it if you start at 40, remember that in their downhill racing competitions, the Norwegians have an over-80s category.