With Olympic skiers in full flight at PyeongChang, Andrew Dickens takes his first tentative steps on the slopes; for those of us who’ve ever wanted to see what the fuss was all about…
Cowardice is never a good look, and yet, when it comes to skiing, it shrouded me for years. It was no fear of heights, or the cold, or using my face as a high-speed snowplough that cowed me; it was a fear of shame.
I wasn’t particularly attracted to skiing until my thirties, when a fortunate invitation gave me a small taste of the life, by way of a half-hour lesson from Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards. The bug had bitten late, but thanks to the great man, it had bitten hard. The problem was, by that point, friends who I might have learned with were either already competent skiers, not interested in the slightest, or were now burdened by the weight – sorry, joy – of small children. Any ski holiday would surely find me alone, stumbling around nursery slopes, my only contact with companions a ‘sympathy run’ or two down the gentlest of angles. An expensive, lonely humiliation.
But then I met my wife. A huge fan of skiing, her last taste of it was a few months after we met, and without me. This was followed by four years of envy as friends whizz off to the mountains. However, she patiently chipped away at my resistance and self-doubt until, this winter, we booked a trip to Meribel, in the French alps, with six (proficient) friends. Mon dieux!
I decided that, if we were going to do this, we were going to do it in style and with a degree of mollycoddling that meant the only thing I had to worry about was the skiing. No kitty, no cooking rota, no arguments over who drank all the Pinot. And so we booked through a company called SkiBasics, who promised they could take care of everything, including my novice anxiety.
Turns out, SkiBasics is the biggest misnomer in the travel industry. There was nothing basic about their service; they arranged everything. They sorted lessons, massages, discounted equipment hire (at a local shop called FreeSki – also a misnomer, but worth the money), and transfers. And then there was the chalet. Oh, the chalet.
We were housed in a catered chalet (i.e. posh all-inclusive) called Chalet Victoire, with four en-suite bedrooms, a roaring fire, and – mercifully after a day’s twisting, turning and falling – a sauna. Here, we tasted a life of absolute luxury; we were ‘the other half’.
Through the week, we had our own, brilliant cook, Bee. She provided continental and cooked breakfast, afternoon tea, and a six-course meal every evening (apart from her night off, where we were forced to fend for ourselves by heading to a fondue restaurant). We had a driver/barman/host called Mikey, who ferried us around the valley and kept our glasses full with the – take note – unlimited supply of wine and beer. The chalet manager, Emma, was our conduit to ski schools and hire shops, and also booked the aforementioned fondue for us. If I were to fail, at least I’d fail in luxury.
But I didn’t fail. I mean, the GB slalom squad are safe for now, but what I experienced was a week of joy, seasoned with physical pain. My slope life began with a private two-hour lesson from Phil, instructor at Parallel Lines ski school. Quick note here: if you’re considering popping you’re ski cherry, I cannot emphasise enough how much you need lessons. You don’t teach yourself to ski; that’s like teaching yourself to fly aircraft.
Anyway, my two hours with Phil were invaluable, as he patiently gave me the basics and confidence to go off by myself. What a buzz! It was like getting your first bike as a kid. With this new-found freedom, I spent the rest of the day trundling down the beginners’ green runs, mostly without incident. I say mostly because, when I went to meet my friends for lunch, full of self-congratulation, I fell from a standing start outside the restaurant, collapsing at the feet of two older women. My pride was hurt, as were the ligaments in my left knee, causing me to spend the next day with my feet up at home.
I was already hooked, though, and a little crippling wasn’t going to stop me. Strapping myself up, for the rest of the week I took group lessons with Mike, also from Parallel Lines, for two hours each morning, before putting them into practice for the rest of the day. I mostly did this alone, as my friends took on the tougher slopes. Yes, my great fear – and yet I loved it. It meant I could ski without pressure: at my own pace, without fear of embarrassment.
I even went off into the neighbouring valleys for a change of scenery (although it was still mainly mountains and snow). In fact, the worst I skied all week was on the few runs I did with my friends, as my innate need to show off kicked in and I swallowed an hors d’ouevre of freshly dumped powder (yeah, I picked up the lingo) as I tried to go beyond my abilities.
The solitude turned out to be my best friend, if that isn’t too oxymoronic. I was happy being alone, on that big beautiful mountain, getting better by the hour. I could even handle toddlers laughing at me. I realised it was going to be a long time before I was as good as my friends and go where they go, but I also realised that I didn’t need that. We met each day for lunch, and spent every evening together in that lovely chalet, sat around the dining table, where I could lie to them about how great I’d been.
After all, I was now a skier. Of sorts.