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Beginner's luck in Austria: How would a first-time skier get on in Westendorf?

First-timer Aoife Walsh signs up for ski school on the snowy slopes of Westendorf

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Aoife Walsh in Westendorf

Aoife Walsh in Westendorf

Perfect powder: The stunning SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental ski area

Perfect powder: The stunning SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental ski area

Hotel Bichlingerhof in Westendorf

Hotel Bichlingerhof in Westendorf

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Aoife Walsh in Westendorf

Sliding down a snow-covered mountain at high speed on my back, with skis somehow tucked underneath me and fresh snowfall partially blocking my vision, I realised that persistence and patience were required traits if I ever wanted to learn to ski properly.

I was on a trip of a lifetime in Westendorf, part of Austria's SkiWelt region, and making progress. On my first day with a trusty personal ski instructor, I managed to master how to stand still, move forward and stop.

With questionable new-found confidence, I decided I was capable of skiing solo down a mountain. Hindsight and numerous bruises quickly showed otherwise.

I woke up that morning in Hotel Bichlingerhof to a stunning view of snow-capped coniferous trees and houses scattered along the hills that make up the vast Tyrolean landscape. While locals went about their daily business completely unfazed by the colossal amount of snow that had fallen overnight, I struggled to stop gawking, in awe of the picturesque scene.

My group was scheduled to meet at a ski shop to have our ski boots fitted and choose our skis at around 9am. Helpful staff members rallied around to find the equipment best suited to our individual experience.

I began the painful process of shoving my foot into the hard-shelled shoes and, after querying with everyone around me whether it was normal to have that much difficulty (apparently, it is), I was ready to go.

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Perfect powder: The stunning SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental ski area

Perfect powder: The stunning SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental ski area

Perfect powder: The stunning SkiWelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental ski area

Suited and booted, I set off in high spirits for Reds Ski school to meet Angus, my personal ski instructor. Meanwhile, the more seasoned skiers left us beginners to make their way to the steeper and more challenging offerings across SkiWelt's vast 284km of interlinking pistes.

Angus, in keeping with the other instructors, is dressed head to toe in a bright red snow suit. I liked that, because it meant I could always spot him during potential moments of panic.

With not much of an age gap between us, I was immediately curious about what it was like to grow up in Austria compared to my life in Ireland. We chit-chatted as we made our way up the nursery slope (which we later renamed the 'Aoife slope', as I felt 'nursery' was slightly demeaning to the progress I was making. Saying "I had a great day out skiing on MY slope," as opposed to "I had a great day on the nursery slope," sounded much more sophisticated, in my humble opinion).

I asked Angus if he would stay in Austria for good, or return back to Bolton, where he was born and lived until he was eight years old. "I'm here for good," he said. "Look around, why would I ever want to leave this?"

He had a point.

We began with the basics. He showed me how to correctly put on and take off my skis, which is much harder than it looks and took quite a few goes before I could do it comfortably. Angus then went through how to sidestep up and down the mountain, before we eventually moved on to learning how to snow plough.

"I love being an instructor because I'm now part of how you learned to ski," he said, after I apologised for screaming at him to catch me every time I felt my ski move half an inch from under me. "Half an hour ago, you didn't even know how to put your skis on by yourself, and now look at you! You're side stepping up a mountain, and you can snow plough without me catching you."

All of the new skills made me feel like I was learning how to tie my shoelaces again, or driving a car for the first time. Around me, groups from the ski school were effortlessly putting into practice what I was just learning, and I hoped after a short while I would catch up.

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Hotel Bichlingerhof in Westendorf

Hotel Bichlingerhof in Westendorf

Hotel Bichlingerhof in Westendorf

Or at least I thought I would, before I fell from grace down a mountain later on in the day without being under Angus's watchful eye. Granted, I had fallen on the 'Aoife slope', so the gradient was not all that steep, but I was still making my way down the Alps faster than I could think of a way to stop myself.

When I learned to drive, I was told the most important thing was to know was how to start and stop. Whatever happened, whatever pace I was travelling, if I could stop the car I could regain control and prevent an accident.

The same applies to skiing.

Eventually, I remembered that to stop yourself, the back of your skis have to be pushed outwards as far as possible. While the skis were still underneath my back, I pushed them out with my hands, and it worked. I got up, freed myself, and walked the rest of the way down the mountain.

I was reluctant to tell Angus about my mishap, but there was no hiding it from him as I returned to the nursery slope next morning a shivering shell of anxiety in comparison to the excited first-timer I was the day before.

"Where's yesterday's speed demon gone?" he joked. "We were planning on entering you into the Olympics and now you don't want to move at all."

I told him all about my fall, giving a play-by-play about what happened. With his encouragement and reassurance that I was not going to fall again, soon I was too busy focusing on nailing how to turn to worry.

I fell a lot more in that session than I had the day before, but after overcoming my first big spill, I knew I just had to get up, dust the snowflakes off and keep trying until I got it. That afternoon my nerves were totally eased when we took a break to head up to Alte Mittel, the second on-mountain restaurant I dined at that week (the other was Sonnalm Hut). The entire mountain was easily accessible via gondola, so I thankfully didn't have to worry about making my way up and down the greater heights.

At Alte Mittel, I had my first sip of mit rum - hot chocolate made with rum - while enjoying panoramic views of the Kitzbüheler Alpen as skiers whizzed past the window. I couldn't help feeling extremely grateful for having the opportunity to be there. The entire scene before me was so far removed from the construction cranes and high-rise buildings that make up Dublin's skyline. Although plenty of people were around me, it still felt quiet and peaceful, and like life briefly paused.

After lunch, Angus and I reflected on the progress I made during my two days on the slopes.

I promised him I would one day return. Hopefully, when I do, we will make another stride at turning me into the Olympic-worthy skier I set out to be.

Get there

Ryanair flies to Munich and Salzburg (ryanair.com; from €25 each way in March) both a 1.5-hour transfer to Westendorf (€120 return).

Aoife stayed at the 4-star Bichlingerhof Hotel (bichlingerhof.at; four nights half-board with a three-day SuperSki card from €499pp) and was a guest of the Kitzbüheler Alpen Tourist Board. See kitzbüheler-alpen.com.

Westendorf stays open to April 13 this year.

Irish Independent