If you’ve had the doubtful pleasure of reading my recent post about Heavenly ski resort (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/heavenly-thoughts-returning/), you ‘ll be aware of my love of skiing, particularly on the snow rich slopes of Lake Tahoe. But had circumstances been different a quarter of a century before on my first winter vacation, that may have been a pleasure forever denied me.
Encouraged by another couple, already experienced skiers, my girlfriend and I agreed to accompany them on a two week holiday to Austria in late February 1987. But before that, we had to locate our ski legs and take the first tentative, or in my case, petrified, steps on snow, or rather, artificial Dendix mesh.
The ordeal began with a course of evening lessons at the Crystal Palace Sports Centre dry ski slope in south London. Sadly, I recollect little of the first lesson other than it took me more than half of it before I was able to a) wedge my feet into the concrete boots, b) stand up and c) begin to tramp around in them in a manner reminiscent of Boris Karloff in the early Frankenstein movies.
The ”slope”, if it could be dignified with such a noble word, was a terrifying 60 metres long and of a gradient that would barely have qualified it to be called a green run i.e. virtually flat, in any self-respecting European resort. But, for me, the distance from top to bottom resembled a pit of writhing, seething snakes.
Half way down, in the middle, stood a menacing, 8 foot high tree that called to me, like the Sirens luring sailors to shipwreck in Greek mythology, every time, and there weren’t many, I had managed to plod back to the top to make my next descent. Either side of this monster were run-outs to the bottom. It was not until the third lesson that I succeeded in routinely reaching the end without having had an intimate encounter with that tree along the way.
A couple of long, agonising months later the fateful hour arrived when we set foot – blessedly freed, for now, from those concrete blocks – on a flight to Munich, praying that the worst of the winter conditions were over and that we would catch some spring sunshine. Our destination was Auffach – notoriously difficult to pronounce after a couple of glasses of schnapps or jagertee (a potent mix of overproof rum and black tea) – in the Wildschonaü region of Austria, an area allegedly ideal for beginners.
My girlfriend and I spent the first week in ski school whilst our friends enjoyed themselves. She was marginally, well much, better than me in the initial test, which amounted to nothing more than being able to stand up in the skis for more than 3 seconds, and was, consequently, placed in a higher standard class.
I was consigned to the lowest group which comprised one Austrian girl and half a dozen boisterous (is there any other type?) Dutch men. The instructor, who at least had the decency to be gorgeous, even in a pink Michelin (UK) or Stay Puft (US) Man outfit, spoke Dutch fluently and used it as the default language for the week.
Unfortunately, the only Dutch I knew, other than the names of the national football team that came so close to winning both the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, was of the double variety, though I do profess to being quite fluent in that. At least I had found a ready made excuse for my ineptitude.
And that spring sunshine? Forgeddaboutit. Snowfall had been a stranger to the area since Christmas and it was conspicuous by its continued absence during our stay. Whilst the weather was generally bright it remained cold, rendering the surface thin and icy.
My “progress” was tortuously slow. When I wasn’t trying to step off the precarious button lifts prematurely, obliging me to climb the remainder, inevitably slipping back with every other step, I was sliding down an icy incline in a permanent and deeply uncomfortable “snowplough”. I did, however, become highly proficient at trudging down the side of the run with a ski tucked under each arm, having surrendered any belief in my capacity to achieve the same result with them strapped to my boots.
My girlfriend’s experience was equally disappointing and we agreed to forego the final day’s test run, and the life-changing opportunity to dribble down the hill in front of the entire ski school and any other sadists residing in the village, in the forlorn hope of earning a certificate (that was probably written in Dutch anyway).
Exhausted from the miles, or rather metres, we had carved up in the previous 5 days, we decided to take a coach trip to Salzburg, city of Mozart, chocolate and The Sound of Music. An otherwise enjoyable day was marred by the news of the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry shortly after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge en route to Dover, resulting in 193 deaths. Skiing seemed even less important on that day.
I was prepared to come home at that point. However, we had paid for a second week, and there was a limit to the number of sleigh rides, bowling alleys and “authentic” Tyrolean evenings a man with his pride still narrowly intact could take, so I resolved to give skiing another chance.
And it proved an altogether more enjoyable experience. Our friends were very patient and supportive, escorting us around the whole mountain (much of which we had only dreamed of seeing before), and providing us with one to one tuition - in English! Whilst conditions underfoot were little better, it was much more fun, and we improved accordingly – though my propensity for leaping off button lifts before reaching the top continued well into my third Alpine season.
By the end of that second week, we were hooked and did not want to leave! Had the vacation only been for a week we may never have skiied again – and our subsequent holidays – and life – may have taken a completely different course.