If you know nothing about it, Fundamentals is the place to start. This explains all the key things you need to know before thinking about plans in more detail.
Base station: how do resorts differ?
Ski resorts vary enormously in scale, character and charm. And if you are going to enjoy your holiday, you’ll want to choose somewhere that matches your own priorities and/or those of your group.
At the extremes of the range are the handful of really hideous, but functional, modern apartment-block resorts thrown up in France in the 1960s - step forward, Les Menuires and Flaine - and the captivating old traffic-free mountain villages of which Switzerland has an unfair number.
But it isn’t simply a question of old versus new. Some modern, purpose-built places (eg Valmorel, France) can have a much friendlier feel than some traditional resorts with big blocky buildings (eg Davos, Switzerland).
You’ll find resorts full of bars, discos and shops (eg St Anton, Austria) and others simply peaceful backwaters (eg Arabba, Italy). Traffic may choke the streets (eg Sölden, Austria), or the village may be virtually traffic-free (eg Mürren, Switzerland). And the landscape can have an important impact - whether the resort is at the bottom of a narrow, shady valley (eg Ischgl, Austria) or on a sunny shelf with panoramic views (eg Crans-Montana, Switzerland).
Going up: what about the lifts?
There are various different types of ski lift. For beginners, some of them are easier to use than others.
Surface lifts (‘drag-lifts’) are the most basic lifts, which tow you along as you hang on to them. Common in Europe, they are cheap to build and operate, and are the norm on many nursery slopes. They include ‘Button’ lifts (or ‘Pomas’), T-bars, Rope tows and Moving Carpets.
‘Button’ lifts or ‘Pomas’ and T-bars work with a series of poles with button- or t-shaped seats on the end, suspended from a high-level moving cable. T-bars are designed to carry two people and are more awkward for novice skiers than buttons, because two of you are involved. But they are slightly easier for novice snowboarders than button lifts.
Rope tows have a moving cable at hip height, with a series of simple handles or brackets to hold on to or sit back against.
Moving Carpets are normally used in children’s areas, and sometimes on adult beginner slopes. They are basically slow-moving conveyor belts that you stand on. Some modern versions are covered (like a plastic tunnel), to provide protection in poor weather.
Chairlifts come in two main varieties - fixed-grip and detachable They can be pretty quick, or unbearably slow. Most have a safety bar that you can pull down in front of you, and footrests to balance your skis or board on. But many chairs in the States have no such bar - very unnerving, and arguably dangerous.
Fixed-grip chairs have been around for many years. They move continuously at a constant speed. Detachable chairs are disconnected from the moving cable at each terminus and slow down virtually to a halt for loading and unloading. This makes it much easier for beginners to get on and off at each end. They mainly come as four- or six-seat chairs, as well as a growing number of eight-seat ones. Some newer ones come equipped with a ‘bubble’ hood that you can bring down around you to protect you from the elements, and heated seats for a warmer ride.
Gondolas are perfect for beginners. They have enclosed cabins that you walk into, having taken off your skis or board. Cabins come in different sizes - with or without seats. A typical gondola will carry four, six or eight people per cabin, but the biggest carry as many as 30.
Cable cars (called ‘trams’ in North America) are often confused with gondolas. What they have in common is that you again carry your skis or board into the cabin. The classic cable car has two cabins linked by a single cable so that the one going down helps to pull the one going up. Double-decker versions were introduced a few years back.
Funicular railways are similar in principle to cable cars, but run on rails instead of cables. Pairs of cabins or carriages shuttle up and down. Modern ones are usually built underground. There’s nothing faster than a funicular, and provided it has big carriages its hourly capacity is very respectable too.
Going down: what are the slopes like?
Skiing and boarding take place on a surprising variety of mountainsides. Depending on where you go, you may find yourself on forest trails, Alpine pastures with areas of forest dotted around, high and exposed (treeless) terrain, or super-high and very exposed glaciers. But, you start your career on “nursery” or beginner slopes. Ideally these should be easily accessible from the resort, gentle, wide and quiet -without crowds of expert skiers and boarders racing through them at breakneck speed. There should be some slightly trickier (and certainly longer) slopes to progress on to during the week - slopes where you can build up your confidence rather than shatter it.
What is a ‘piste’?
Defined runs are known as ‘pistes’ (the French term) or ‘trails’ (the American term). Pistes are shown by name or number, generally marked on the ground with poles (usually at both edges)and plotted on a piste map that is given away in the resort. They are made safe from avalanches, regularly checked by patrollers and usually “groomed” by tracked bulldozers - to pack new snow into a dense surface and to smooth out the bumps that skiers make in old snow.
Pistes are also classified for difficulty. In Europe, the basic classification goes from blue (easy), through red (intermediate) to black (difficult). France adds green (really easy, in theory). In North America, the system goes from green through blue to black, with no red. They also use shaped symbols, too (circles, squares and diamonds).
Once off the nursery slope, you’ll normally start on green and blue runs or trails. North American resorts are particularly good at creating (and signing) an easy way down their mountains, so that near-beginners can taste the excitement of long runs from the top. In the Alps, mountain roads often become gentle winding runs in winter - ok for skiers, but generally too narrow and flat for snowboarders.
When considering a visit to a particular resort you need to treat piste classifications with some scepticism. The most you can expect is that they will accurately reflect the relative steepness of the slopes within that resort.
Snow: the white stuff?
Nothing affects the success of a skiing or boarding holiday quite as much as the quality of the snow. Provided the runs are covered, it is actually the quality that matters most, but in practice you will find a lot of emphasis is put on the quantity, because it’s much easier to assess and the two tend to go hand in hand. Soft, fluffy snow is much easier to handle than hard, icy snow or heavy, wet snow. It’s also much nicer to fall on. So beginners should take as much interest in snow as experts.
In the last two decades, dependence on real snow has been greatly reduced by large installations of snow-guns designed to create an artificial substitute. If made carefully and “groomed” skilfully, artificial snow can provide an impressively rewarding piste surface. This is regularly achieved in many American resorts, and more rarely achieved in European ones. But at least the big resorts of the Alps now have the means to keep many of their runs open in weather conditions that would previously have closed them.
Snowmaking is mainly of value in the earlier part of the season, and requires quite low temperatures. Many North American resorts are able to open in November or early December only because of snowmaking.
You’ll often hear expert skiers and boarders talking about “powder” - as in “we were up to our waist in powder”. What is it? Basically, nothing more than fresh snow that hasn’t been packed down by skiers and boarders, or by piste grooming machines. To really qualify, the snow needs to be relatively dry and light, offering minimal resistance to your movements. Skiing deep powder demands more skill than skiing on piste, especially if you use everyday skis (as opposed to specially wide powder skis).