Skiing is something you either adore or hate. The haters have often never tried it, or maybe it just hasn’t ‘clicked’ for them. The complaint can be that “it’s far too cold” or “I would rather be on the beach in 80 degrees” In truth one rarely gets cold wearing modern technical clothing and the sun is so strong it delivers a wonderful tan, writes Phil Wood.
At some alpine locations girls can be seen in bikinis, such is the temperature. The scenery is truly magnificent. To be in the mountains at altitude is a special experience, many say very special indeed.
I learned to ski later in life and it all began for me in the former Yugoslavia.
The journey from the airport can often be a deciding factor in selecting a resort; in this case it was approximately five hours, far too long. Although the resort was beautiful and the staff a pleasure to be around, I found learning to ski quite difficult even though I have an ice skating background.
During my years in broadcasting I made many travel programmes and was fortunate to take my young family on ski trips, recording our laughter and occasional tears for a family audience.
My eldest daughter proved to be a natural on skis; her younger sister was not so confident and usually waited until the last day to shine. They were in total agreement on two subjects; the fun to be had on a winter holiday and the ski instructors!
To this day, wherever you go, their red suits and poetic mastery of the slopes make ski instructors the undisputed Kings of the castle. There are an increasing number of Queens too these days…. of the castle I mean.
Ski school is without doubt the way to learn in a fun way, along with other people of a similar standard. You will make friends quickly and enjoy the experience so much more.
Falling rarely hurts as the snow is soft and magic mountain potions like gluhwein and jagertee usually remove many inhibitions … and most feeling too!
Mountain drinks and long lunches on sun-drenched terraces are as much part of the ski experience as the skiing itself. From my own travels, Austria comes out top to be the king of après ski and France to be in top spot for the long and leisurely alfresco luncheons.
What exactly is après ski? Well, it starts at about 3.30pm in the bars … I am huge fan of this unique and enormously fun part of the ski day, and it varies according to the country you’re in.
In Austria it can be loud and boisterous featuring oompah music with much swaying from side to side and loud choruses of well known songs. All regularly punctuated with your own choice of mountain tipple, from a small beer or schnapps to a Jaeger bomb, vodka or any combination that you can manage to pronounce … Prost!
The French version of après is decidedly more sedate and often takes the form of drinks at the bottom of the lift station. Depending on the weather and the time of year, drinks might be vin chaud, a cool beer or maybe a champagne cocktail.
Over recent years, it appears the French version of après ski is getting a little more Austrian with establishments like La Folie Douch springing up in the Three Vallees area. Whatever your taste or preferred sound volume level, the après period is more than welcome after a challenging day on the slopes, whether you be a learner or a proficient skier … it’s quite simply a real blast.
Besides the skiing there are many more diversions the modern mountain resort has to offer.
Once a favourite of Princess Diana’s, Lech in Austria is one of many places offering a romantic horse-drawn sleigh ride. It really is a magical experience to be trotted through the forest at dusk on a cold frosty evening powered by two black horses that appear to enjoy the ride just as much. Candles flicker on the coachwork, bells jingle on the reins whilst those under the sheepskin blankets enjoy the views and a welcome warming gluhwein.
World class Zermatt is a totally car free village. Here, one is whisked off to chalets and hotels in their unique milk floats and golf carts or, on snowy days, on horse-drawn sleighs.
There are more Swiss watch shops than you can shake a ski pole at and, of course, Zermatt has its own famous heli-port. It was from here that I actually took, or endured, my first helicopter trip. For someone with vertigo issues this location was not ideal. Well, for a start, the village itself is 5,276 feet above sea level, and then the Matterhorn rises to approx 15,203 feet. Ass the pilot said “We will have to fly right over the top.”
There are glaciers and crevasses and the terrain is such that only the “best of the best” fly for Air Zermatt, as mountain rescue is part of their business.
I reluctantly got on board and perched next to the pilot. I noticed that most of the helicopter’s cock pit appeared to be clear glass … ideal for maximum observation of course … not really good for me though, I have vertigo!
As soon as I belted up I was given helmet and head phones. A bucket would have been useful too.
Choppers create lots of snow movement on take off and landing. From clouds of powder we rose above what looked just like a Disney landscape. Up and up, practically touching the Matterhorn itself. At the very top we saw the cross embedded in the summit.
My stomach was now churning. Over the top and like a rollercoaster the aircraft plunged down following the contours of the mountain to fly literally across the top of the glacier.
I was supposed to be recording a dramatic piece of radio for broadcast in London and the North West, but the sequence eventually proved to be a series of staccato-panicked screams and grunts as we climbed and plunged seemingly endlessly.
Again in Switzerland is the little known resort of Reideralp in Valais.
It’s quite high again but this time the family and I were hosted by a fascinating gentleman by the name of Art Furrer. Well known in the area, he has a group of hotels; is a fabulous skier but what we later found out is that he used to have a national TV programme, something like Candid Camera.
One of my favourite stunts that he regaled us with took place on The Eiger and the world famous north wall.
The world’s press would gather to observe and report on north wall climbs, whilst being safe on a hotel balcony way across the valley.
They would use high powered lenses to capture all the drama. Art’s team had been made aware of a climb that was due to take place some time soon, so swung into action.
It’s easy to imagine the excitement of a climb on one of the world’s most unforgiving high altitude rock faces (remember the Clint Eastwood film, The Eiger Sanction?).
The atmosphere was tense as the climbers were observed close to a famous overhang area on “The Wall”, a tough section demanding experience and a cool head.
Using crampons and ropes the two leaders were observed carefully negotiating the overhang thousands of feet up. As they carefully pulled themselves up, they were confronted with a sight that they will remember for many years. The overhang area had been secretly converted into a newsagents & tobacconists shop and Art Furrer appeared to be ‘open all hours’.
The climbers were nothing short of “gob smacked” to see a fellow in a jacket and tie arranging newspapers and magazines for sale with a selection of cigarettes and crisps, various flavours.
”Twenty Bensons sir”? Was the question posed to the mountaineers… at approximately 3,500 feet!
I can thoroughly recommend Courchevel in France for sensational skiing, magnificent scenery with first class dining and shopping along with some of Europe’s glitterati.
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