Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Ode to Skiing

I wasn’t looking forward to coming home. Who would be after a week pounding the sunny slopes of the Three Valleys in the French Alps with bountiful good food, good drink, good company and laughs a-plenty? This is my one real holiday of the year. The one where I don’t have to do anything other than get up and ski. Someone else cooks. Someone else looks after the children. Someone else cleans and does the laundry. All my other holidays involve me continuing my domestic and maternal duties in some shape or form but this one, and only this one, lets me off the hook almost completely. True, I have to get up quite early and then do a lot of physical exercise. But who cares when it’s what you love? Skiing is my absolute passion in the sporting world. I don’t care if it’s sunny or a white-out, on-piste or off-piste, flat slopes or moguls, alone or in company. I love the fact that it can be challenging and solitary, or easy and companionable. It changes with the day, the mood, the weather, the snow, the mountains. Skiing, for me, is a dance with life.

I first strapped on wooden planks at the age of 9 in Aviemore, Scotland. I don’t remember it in huge detail, just in snapshots: the curling rink, the sheet ice on the White Lady run (a good testing ground for budding ski racers if ever there was one), the wooden T-bar lifts which I only mastered at the end of the few days we were there. I remember laughing with my brother, and the feeling of exhilaration when I finally stayed up on those wretched lifts (mercifully now defunct apart from in the odd eccentric skiing outpost of Austria perhaps).

My next foray into the skiing world was when I was 11: an altogether less enjoyable experience. It was in Val d’Isere in the French Alps in January. Memories of white-outs, grey skies, snow and more snow; sickness every morning as I looked out onto a bleak expanse, knowing I had to go out into it and mix with a group of strangers who were four times my age and didn’t speak my language with a bugger of an instructor who lost patience with my falling off the lifts (button lifts this time, but still I struggled). For anyone who has come a cropper up a steep rocky incline on a drag lift in a white-out when you have barely mastered the snow-plough, this will surely resonate. These were meant to be holidays, time off school, time to have fun – not be tortured and abused by geography, weather, man and leather (boots were not as they are today – it took hours just to lace them up and work out how to get them into the complicated configurations of metal which they called bindings). No, this was no happy union of man and mountain, I can tell you.

As Fate would have it, I broke my leg a year or two later. Not skiing, just skateboarding. Well, not even skateboarding but rather attempting to skateboard. It was 1977 and I was hanging out with some lads who had embraced the new craze from America with fervour. I was determined I was going to be the coolest skateboarding chick on the block. It didn’t last long. First run down our steep drive and I decide I didn’t fancy hurtling over the pavement into the road. I put my trainer-clad foot down on the tarmac. It sticks like glue while the one on the board hurtles on. I twist and fall; it snaps and dislocates at the ankle. Painful. Very. And no anaesthetic for hours because I’d just eaten breakfast. The discomfort and inconvenience of the next three months in a full leg plaster was not something I was rushing to repeat, so I had my perfect excuse not to ski. I left it to my brother and father for the next couple of years.

But time moves on and time heals. I got to 16 and another family trip loomed. It was 1979 and the ski world had moved on too. Great new shorter skis made of lighter, more flexible synthetics – new clip in bindings, new clip boots. Things were looking up. I took my Dynastar Pulsars, I took a friend. We went to Argentiѐre, the skiing mecca at the top of the Chamonix valley – where the British first ‘invented’ skiing. It was April and the sun shone. We had a groovy young instructor who carried a packet of biscuits in the kangaroo pouch on the front of his jacket. He taught us stem-christies till they were ingrained forever. The stem-christie – the tool of survival on the ski slope. It teaches you all you need to know about pole placement, forward stance, ‘bending ze knees’ and standing up around your turn – in short, the techniques which stand you in good stead for the rest of your skiing life. From there I never looked back.

It dawned on me soon enough that if I took a week’s skiing holiday a year I would be old before I would be good. What I needed was a season in the mountains. First I managed to organise my year out as a teaching assistant in a French Lycée at the foot of the Pyrenees. Not bad for starters: skied as many weekends of the winter as possible sporting a lemon yellow and white all-in-one suit with a navy blue sleeveless puffer jacket (all courtesy of C&A) over the top. Nice. I think I even had a perm at one point. Actually it was a Bananarama root perm gone wrong, but hey, the bottom line was I looked like a poodle on speed.

Moving swiftly on, I came back and completed my degree in 1986. Thatcher’s Britain. I felt there were enough Bright Young Things hurtling headlong into the financial strongholds of the world and that a little more creative thinking wouldn’t go amiss. Hurtling headlong down a ski piste instead certainly had some appeal. So I had a chat with the boss of a local schools tour operator and managed to wangle my way into a job in the Alps. Ah yes, The Rep. Apart from a couple of days a week wrestling with paperwork and French bus companies, I had all the time in the world to sit on chairlifts and admire the scenery. So much better a perspective, I felt, from up there than down in the jungle of the stock market floors. I would swing my skies, contemplate the majestic vistas, breathe the clean air and contemplate life – and my day’s skiing.

And so a fantastic six months in the Three Valleys ensued. I skied my socks off and made some friends for life. I strutted around in a navy blue Nevica two-piece with a fluorescent pink stripe across the back, and clutched the same pair of Rossignol 4s slalom skis as the ESF instructors. And the longer the better. Good times indeed.

Left to my own devices I’d have stayed on in the Alps. I’d have worked my way up to regional manager or some such thing. I’d have married a Frenchman like I’d always intended – a skier, of course. I may even have considered training to be an instructor. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have done – in the same way that I toyed with the idea of race training for Britain (but I was too old by then, of course), as I accompanied my father on some of the World Cup circuits, him writing about it, me watching it. Though I loved the idea of playing with the big boys, I realised that actually, by skiing every day of my life, as a career, I would take away all the pleasure it gave me. It would become a job, a chore, and that was the last thing I wanted it to be.

For me the pleasure of skiing is in its freedoms. It is the one area of my life where I can truly mix elemental living with excitement and physical pleasure. Gardening does that – in a more gentle way of course - in my daily life, but skiing is the ultimate escape into the majesty of the natural world. The birds of prey riding the thermals around the snowy peaks, the glimpse of chamois clinging to rocks, the tracks of unknown creatures across otherwise virgin wastes, the squeak of fresh snow, the smoothness of the ski gliding through it, the puffs of white crystals catching the sun’s rays, the elemental loneliness of skiing in a white-out, the knowledge that friendly mountains can just as quickly become foes, the feeling that you are truly alive. You are dancing with life.


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Mark said...

That feeling of being truely alive...

I don't ski, but I know that feeling; it comes I think from the mountains as much as teh activity.

Pondside said...

Beautiful! It's been years since I strapped on skis, but I remember how wonderful it was. I especially remember my silly youthful mirth at the Swiss instructors 'Shoulders to the hill, knees to the wally' instruction. Strange how the oddest things stick in one's head.

elizabethm said...

I have never skied and won't now but, like Mark, I know the feeling you write about here. For me it is mountains or hills, walking, freedom, being lost in the moment. I do get it from gardening too because it takes me over in an oddly similar way as you say. How funny, one so based on movement and gardening so static, each a form of meditation I suppose. Sounds poncey, but is true.

BilboWaggins said...

I came for a look from ElizabethM and found resonance, stirring of old memories - thank you for a wonderful post.

I haven't skiied for 20 years (didn't mean to marry a man who hated snow and couldn't ski, although bless him, he did try). A season in La Plagne as a "chalette", halcyon days.

But I remember that first successful run, many years earlier, when I came to a gentle halt exactly where I wanted, looked around at the mountains and just knew that I was home, where I belonged. Perhaps this is why I now work myself to exhaustion in the garden, or walk in the fells when I can.

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