I feel your pain. Ethereum is too damn complicated but I can pass on what I have learned. If I had started earlier I would have been able to get in before the latest price rise.
To get started download the official wallet at https://github.com/ethereum/mist/releases/ you want Wallet 0.3.9 (Beta 6)
After you install and let sync you need to setup an account, protect it with a password. This account will show up in the GUI as "Etherbase". You can receive and send Ether from Etherbase, as far as I have learned you do not need to set up a wallet contract. Still learning about what can be done with wallet contracts.
Once you have an Etherbase click on it to enlarge and you will see your receiving address. Click on the button on the right called "Deposit using Bitcoin" and a Shapeshift popup will appear letting you send bitcoin to Shapeshift and they will send Ether to your Etherbase address. When I did a test transaction the conversion from bitcoin to Ether was immediate but it took a while for the Ether to show up in Etherbase.
Today I wanted to make sure I could use Shapeshift to convert Ether back to bitcoin so I did a test transaction using Shapeshift. You do get a warning from Shapeshift that it will take three hours for the transaction to confirm ... still waiting.
Here is the warning from ShapeShift:
WARNING: Ether is currently in its “Frontier” phase, which is highly experimental. Ether transactions (on both ShapeShift and other exchanges) will take 3 hours to confirm (and your exchange rate isnt determined until that confirmation happens) The only exception is if you use our “specific amount” feature (in which case we will lock your rate for 10 minutes as long as we receive the ether within those 10 minutes, but it will still take 3 hours to receive your BTC on the other end). Consider Ether highly risky during Frontier – no guarantees are made about anything, whatsoever.
If the test transaction does not confirm I probably will not use ShapeShift to sell Ether, just buy. I will sell on an exhange instead. This is all somewhat of a pain but there is money to be made trading Ether so seems worth the effort.