“Do you have to take the lifts?” asked a friend of mine as we discussed a possible skiing trip the other day. He had never been before, but was fired up from hours watching the Winter Olympics from Sochi.
And I was indulging in my annual reverie of a skiing trip to the Alps, which is planned down to the finest detail until, having done exhaustive research on flights, chalets, ski hire, lift passes and glühwein, I finally accept that I can’t afford to go.
“Well,” I said, “it’s hard to get to the top of the mountain without them. Why?”
“It’s just that he’s afraid of heights,” explained his wife. “Could we not go somewhere flat?”
I tried to explain that skiing is a bit like having kids: those who have tried is say it’s a life-changing experience and wonder why they waited so long.
The scenery, I say, and the fresh air, and that lovely feeling of having spent a day full of activity, a sense of pleasant fatigue as you drink your first mulled wine.
And that moment when you get to the top of the highest run on the mountain and look down, planning your route to the bottom in your mind, and the sound of your skis on the snow and the clouds of your breath white against the blue sky.
I didn’t mention the fact that your first ski holiday is spent mostly on your back, sliding gracelessly down the piste after another wipe-out.
On my first outing, which was to Courmayeur in Italy, I fell off everything there was to fall off. I came off button lifts and chair lifts, fell when going down hill and when stopping. I was quite capable of topping over while standing still in a lift queue.
Most injuries come at the end of a week’s skiing, when you’re tired and you’re trying to get in as much time on the mountain as possible.
I once lost control on one of those level pathways that link adjacent runs and smacked into a bank of snow, leaving a Looney-Tunes style me-shaped hole in the snow.
Later on the same run, my skis crossed and I clipped the awning of a mountain restaurant. As I careered off, legs and arms akimbo, I heard an amused diner remark: “Ti-dy!”
I decided not to mention these embarrassments to the novices. “The learning curve on your first ski holiday is huge,” I said, which is one way of putting it.
For some reason, it took me several days to get the hang of the lifts. I was fine sitting on them, but the getting off was tricky. I often went down, taking several locals with me.
“But isn’t it dangerous with all those people coming down the mountain at the same time?” my friend asked.
“Not at all,” I lied. “The person above you on the slope has the responsibility of avoiding you. It’s like driving.”
The image of fresh blood on the snow, a vivid red against the white powder, came to mind. I have seen it many times. They can’t all be nosebleeds.
I knew too that most injuries come at the end of a week’s skiing, when you’re tired and you’re trying to get in as much time on the mountain as possible.
“Just one last run,” someone said on the last afternoon of my last ski trip, to Courcheval. “If we push it, we can make the lift before it closes.”
There was no sound, as I thought there might be when a knee ligament goes. But there was pain. The ski tip got caught in the snow and, although my leg turned, my ski didn’t.
I thought of a fellow beginner, all those years ago in Italy, who turned up one morning to ski school on crutches. “Oh you poor thing,” we chorused. “You didn’t try a black run, did you?”
“Nah,” she said. “I fell down the steps of the Bar Roma at about three in the morning.” So the danger is not all on the mountain.