You should always take a lesson when you go out for the first time. Even friends who are great skiers cannot always explain the mechanics like an instructor, who does it hundreds of times every season. To illustrate the importance of developing a sensitivity to the snow, an experiment was once carried out in which several expert skiers had their feet injected with novocaine in a variety of doses. The more novocaine they received, the less they were able to maintain control over their skis.
An instructor will spend time familiarizing you with the feeling of your equipment. You'll walk around on a flat surface with your skis on, just to understand that feeling. You'll then start off on an easy slope, which should build your confidence as you work up to higher levels. After your lesson, you'll want to work on reinforcing what you've just learned. Don't get cocky and take "the wall." You will only be developing "survival" techniques to compensate for things you haven't learned yet. This will lead to bad habits, which are hard to break. The U.S. Ski team coaches often take their skiers out on fairly flat runs when they work on new techniques and reinforce the basics.
As far as equipment is concerned, the ski lodge personnel are generally busy, and often cannot help you properly fit equipment. Visit a local ski shop, where trained professionals can assist you. Often these shops offer cheap rentals packages as well. Also, it's best not to be taken in by trends. Don't buy skis because they are pink and look nice. Before you invest, make sure you like the sport, and that the equipment you buy is suited to your ability level.
Before you attempt to ski, do some research. Try to find an area that offers a good variety of easy runs, if you are just starting out. A multitude of easy runs will keep you from becoming bored and attempting the toughest slopes, before you've even learned to stop. If you know that you'll be skiing sufficiently ahead of time, try some activities that will carry over muscle memory into skiing. Skating and wind surfing utilize similar muscle groups and require similar balance maneuvers. I've also heard coaches suggest that you can learn to ski in your living room, by working on the movements while breaking in new boots.
Make sure you've stretched out before you try to ski. You'll be surprised how many muscles you body has, and how many of them will hurt the day after you ski. Concentrate especially on stretches for the calves, ham string, and groin area. A limber body is much less susceptible to injury.
Most of all, remember that skiing is a great sport and can offer many social, athletic and if you like, competitive opportunities. If you tackle it the right way, well-prepared, smart and safe, it'll be a great experience. The only problem you may face is that you'll never want to stop!
Cara Dunne '92 was a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team from 1982-1989.
With help from Rana Dershowitz, captain, Harvard Ski Team.