Zooming Down a Mountain Like a Train With No Driver

29 Jan

I’d never even looked at a ski slope before I rocked up to Ruka on a bus full of thiry-odd other Erasmus students, geared up for a weekend of skiing and snowboarding. The cabins that greeted us were cosy and the views were incredible – snow and trees for miles, blanketed by a peaceful, unspoiled quiet. It was a Christmas fairy-land meets remote village meets sporting community. In two days I learnt to ski, snowboard and experience a real ESN Oulu outing and it was one of the most challenging weekends of my stay in Oulu.

Ruka

As one of the largest ski resorts in Finland, Ruka is located in Kuusamo, only an hour’s flight from Helsinki and easily accessible by road (albeit a long one). At the resort there are as many as 21 ski lifts, 2 ski shops, a bowling alley, 28 restaurants and bars and miles of the stunning Finnish countryside. This place has it all. As well as a variety of skiing and snowboarding routes there are also opportunities for cross-country skiing, husky safaris, ice karting and snow shoe walking. You’re really spoilt for choice here and it’s not restricted to the winter season – there’s plenty to do in the summer. You can read more about what Ruka has to offer here.

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Learning to Ski

If you’ve never gone skiing before I would recommend that you let go of your fear, inhale the fresh air and go for it. And maybe get some lessons too. That’s what I did on our first morning; I joined three other students who had never skied before and met Pekka, my wise but friendly instructor. He took us away from all the professional adults and overconfident teenagers chasing each other down the mountain and led us to the slightly more relaxed children’s area. Comical penguins and elves lined the slopes, cheering us on.

It was fairly easy to get the hang of skiing – keep your feet straight, make the ‘plow’ shape when you want to stop, hold a good posture. I thought I had my technique down and was feeling cold but confident. I ran back for a peanut butter sandwich lunch, keen to get onto a real slope. A proper slope.

Now, had I been smart I might have opted for the ‘in-betweeny’, middle-sized slope for people just starting out, but instead I eagerly hopped into a ski lift and zoomed up the mountainside. The view, by the way, was incredible, but sadly I didn’t take my camera for fear of crushing it. I alighted at the top, gazed around in awe, and then felt my heart jump into my mouth. I had to go down. The only way down was to ski. Down. A hill. A really big hill. After some dithering and panicking I went for it and pushed away with my poles – it was great, I was flying!

The only problem was that I couldn’t find the brakes! All my lessons in stopping fell from my head as I panicked and tried to avoid swerving into innocent children and happy couples enjoying their day. There I was zooming down a mountain like a train with no driver! After an age I reached the bottom and a flat surface but my legs wouldn’t stop shaking!

On my second attempt I had a big fall and thought that it was the end of my skiing career – which was unlucky, because I was still midway down a slope, but luckily two friendly French guys helped me down and I passed the rest of the afternoon on the nice steady easy slopes with some friends.

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Beaten, Bruised and Ready to Snowboard

The next day, sore and battered, I was ready to try my hand at snowboarding – another first. Although I fell many more times than the previous day I enjoyed it so much more and felt a lot more confident than with skis. This time, however, I stuck to the nice ‘in-betweeny’ slopes and didn’t have any major disasters. Only minor squabbles with the ski lift to take me up – instead of sitting in a car I had to hold onto a pole and let it drag me up whilst I was standing on my snowboard. I can’t tell you how many times I was knocked off my feet by it. But it was worth the perseverance and although I was stiff as a piece of metal by the end of the day, I was satisfied with my new skill.

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Equipment and Accommodation

If you’re going to Ruka to ski or snowboard you can rent everything need (apart from clothes) from the ski shop – even goggles. The guys in there were great – super friendly and helpful, especially when I told them that I was a beginner. They even helped me get the shoes on and taught me how to fasten them. Look out for discounts when you go – everything we did was half price on this particular weekend, making it a lot cheaper than it should have been. You can also change your equipment once for free – so if you don’t like skiing you can give snowboarding a go instead.

There are plenty of cabins in the surrounding area and ours was only a five minute walk from two restaurants and the ski lift. They’re cosy and great for a group of friends, with a nice big living area, dining table and kitchen. This is compensated for by quite small bedrooms, but they’re manageable for a weekend trip. And as a word of warning most of them have a ‘walk-in’ bathroom – there’s a shower curtain, but no door, so make sure you trust the people who you’re staying with!

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While the ESN students partied at night and nursed hangovers in the morning I had an exciting but relaxing weekend. With no internet, no assignments to worry about and beautiful surroundings I spent my days in good company and my nights chilling out with a good book (Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, which I would highly recommend).  The ESN leaders had arranged some activities and games but I was too tired to join in and the most social activity I managed was a game of Jenga. Even so, I met some new people and had a blast. I would happily return to Ruka with some friends in tow and do it all over again – and who knows, one day I might even manage an intermediate slope!

For more info on Ruka and Kuusamo check out the website: http://www.ruka.fi/

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