Mid May has brought a reversal of the march to better weather: the weather forecasters are saying the season’s gone back to winter. But the saints whose feast days were celebrated at this time were known as the ‘ice saints’ so perhaps it’s not that unusual. They were St Mamertius, St Pancras and St Servatus, for the geeks among us!
Because of it, I’m prompted to write about skiing; but I’m also prompted because a 4 year old greatniece, eager for “hospital stories” on Facetime (and her mother eager to do some housework!) has made me revisit my experiences on the slopes and in an Austrian hospital. People say I’m accident-prone, but my accidents are rarely major; of the ten broken bones I’ve suffered (so far), only one was really serious and that was a skiing accident, breaking a bone in my knee. Well, you might say, it’s a dangerous sport. Actually, not so much now. You are probably more likely to be hit by lightning than to incur a crash skiing. My accident happened some years back but it was on January 1, the slopes were packed, and I was one of only 8 patients in a 16-bed hospital.
What a fab sport it can be! Ski when the sun’s out and slopes are sparkling – you’ll go again and again; but trying it in bad weather, cold and overcast, is no fun. One friend came with me for 2 weeks, but left after the first week, as her beginners class was in the afternoon when the sun had gone behind the mountain. She saw no point in standing around in the cold, going up a hill, in order to come back down again. Who could blame her?
My first experience should certainly have been enough to put me off for life. Scotland, Easter 1966; travelling 20 miles each way in a bus, then lugging long skis uphill, very little snow, rocks showing through, ski schools had to search for enough patches to ski more than a few feet;; unable to grasp the concept of balance on a button or T-bar lift. Sounds fun? Added to all of this, a hotel which was actually a noisy pub, family rows, no other children staying there – and I was told I was heading to a different school the following term. Not good.
But I persevered; the end of my first term at university saw me boarding a train with fellow undergrads for Zurs in Austria. I started in the beginners class. After a week, I was put down a class; the only way I could stop on skis was by falling over. But I did make one friend for life there with whom, a few years later, I had another go. And it was magic!
Three of us drove through France to Italy in a day, loaded with supplies, for a self-catered couple of weeks in a friends’ chalet. We had hoped to have more friends coming, but it was lucky we were only 3, as the chalet boiler was on its last legs and one bath took about 30 minutes to draw! Arriving late at the French side, we put the car (a MiniTraveller) on the train to wait for the first shuttle through the mountains in the morning – and tried to sleep. Morning came, no movement for some hours and no explanation. When the train finally moved off, and we reached the Italian side, we learnt why: it had snowed phenomenally, several feet, overnight. Cars with chains could drive off the trailer, we had to be carried off! Longing for a hot bath after our 24 hours of travelling, we were stuck in the village – at least a hotel was open which served us breakfast. They were unearthing (or un-snowing) cars, buried several feet deep, and getting supplies to people hanging out of upstairs windows, unable to open doors because of the snow piled up against their houses. Eventually, word got round that a snow plough would be leading a convoy out of the village and on to scattered villages along the main road, so we joined it.
The next day, the ski instructors were out bashing down the slopes “by foot” (no machinery could cope) and skiing began again on Day 2. And such skiing! It was SO soft, deep and glorious, if you fell, you just couldn’t get hurt; the sun shone and the slopes were empty because the snow made it difficult to get there.
Hooked by that experience I went 4 more times, before ending up in hospital with the broken knee (I hesitated, was going too slowly and when I fell, the ski didn’t snap off).. Coming down the mountain by blood wagon was an interesting experience; at least my goggles hid my tears, more of frustration than pain, as I saw fellow skiers looking with great concern at me as I had done with others before.
I didn’t “get back on the horse” soon enough, my job had a peak in the winter, so holidays were impossible during that time and although I tried skiing one more time, wearing a knee brace, I was so scared that I froze solid; as proper sports people know, to do sport well, you have to be relaxed – no way for me.
What was great about skiing? The main things for me were the astonishing feeling of controlled gliding across pristine white – and the diamond quality, the cold brisk freshness of the air in the winter mountains.
The last few years with climate change has meant that snow fall for skiing both in Europe and Scotland has diminished; it has even had to be manufactured and sprayed on mountains to maintain the economy of skiing regions. Could it be that coronavirus brings awareness of how we are distorting nature, how we “use” it (or even “abuse” it?), and skiing ceases to be a sport for everyone and reverts to being an essential skill for those living there? And we find other means of enjoying and appreciating the natural beauty of mountains.