Skiing: Falling with the snow

It's never too late to learn to ski - everyone is entitled to their share of exhilaration and humiliation. John Hobson keels over with the beginners' class... and the grappa
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The Independent Online
Sixty years old and a ski novice, so what you need right at the outset is a reminder of mortality. Day One of the holiday and the lifts are closed for the funeral of a 58-year-old skier - and he was an instructor.

True, he was an avalanche victim - and these just don't happen on nursery slopes. Come to that, he wasn't just any old maestro either, but a ski- run architect, a visionary who helped this Italian village to develop other ways of appealing to tourists than making clogs. But there's nothing like a leaden sky, and the quiet contemplation of the black saloon's roof- rack piled high with mourning flowers instead of skis, to reinforce geriatric self-doubt.

It's a somewhat Gothic reprise of the gnawing anxieties that greet each day. If the dawn brings any certainty, it is that the inexpert skier of late middle-age won't be troubled by constipation.

Less than two hours by autostrada and hairpin bends from Turin, this is Champoluc, the Monte Rosa towering above like the opening credits from Paramount Pictures. Until you round the corner to the lift concourse, the only street worth the name is unhurried and congenial.

At weekends, though, the village centre becomes jammed with cars and mini-vans, a promenade of designer labels. This influx of locals means some waiting at the lifts, which for the rest of the week possess something of the quiet, and purpose, of the confessional. Side by side and soaring aloft, plump strangers of a certain age scan each other's faces for a wrinkle count, and confide their fears about recovery time from ligament operations.

These are the aerodynamically challenged men and women of the lower slopes with bulky salopettes and thick-lined coats zipped to the chin. They hire skis and boots because investing in their own would be just another temptation to fate.

But it's just possible you're not past it, and that you'll come out miraculously rejuvenated at the other end. That's the gamble. This is the hubris segment of the grey pound holiday market.

During the good times, say mid-morning after a satisfactory warm-up and a few successful turns, you're entitled to a stake in the universal exhilaration. The fresh air, the frequently flawless blue skies, the mountains coated in snow like thick cream, the crisp powder under the ski: the brochure speaks true. The bonus is the sense of being there on borrowed time.

The beginners' class is not solely a company of men and women, but trills to the sound of infant voices, and Italian infants at that. They accept as just an oddity of the adult world that a fully-grown Brit, on the edge of decline, should trail along at the back as they snowplough down the nursery slope. Later in the day, it raises a few eyebrows among passers- by when your chubby-cheeked acquaintances hail you familiarly across the street, but at least you're developing a ski reputation of sorts.

Even a 60-year-old can reasonably hope to graduate to catch-all intermediate status after a full week of lessons. From then on, allocation by ability to the ideal ski class becomes less precise, conscientiously though the organisers try to mix and match. But you might just be fortunate enough to spend the week under the tutelage of a comparatively grizzled old instructor who will intuitively understand your needs, and cajole you up the mountain with the promise of a glass or two of grappa at the next resting place.

Meanwhile, it's not difficult to ignore the happy-camper invitations to fondue nights and torchlit ski runs from company reps on 18-30 Club day release. Apres your ski, bliss is a hot shower or a good soak. Instead of stepping out into the sub-zero darkness, the evening is a decent meal and a drink in the hotel, an Italian TV game show, and so to bed. You can afford to skip the discussion in the bar about piste quality. If the slope is patchy with ice, you'll fall over. That's about it.

But you will have to scour the brochures carefully for clues to the information that's nearest to your heart. Never mind the piste, how far are you going to have to trudge with your skis wearing a hole in your shoulder? Is it uphill from the hotel to the lift? Has the travel company arranged for you to dump your hired gear near the lift bottom overnight? If so, is the cost already included? Sure, there are plenty of lifts, but wouldn't you rather be sitting in a chair than hanging on to a drag lift, trying to keep your skis in line with the ruts in the snow?

Get the details wrong, and failure will etch itself on your anatomy. The body heals, but the mental scars remain from a penitential week in Foppolo, a split-level Italian resort, where the alternative to stepping out of the hotel on to a daunting drag lift was a ski-burdened, 15-minute tramp up an unforgiving gradient.

Adjust, also, to the fact that skiing is a clan activity, for enthusiasts supposedly inured to discomfort. Airport check-in queues double in length because of all the ski clutter and because some airports struggle to cope with the numbers.

It's the shared experience and ski argot that draws participants into a group culture. The wide open spaces of the airport lounge resound to cries of recognition from holidays past, and there's much exchanging of hugs and kisses in the aisles as the coaches sweep new arrivals to the resorts.

Don't knock it. Embrace it, tentatively, having first identified your bolt-hole for when you've had enough. Consider this: where, outside a group of similarly mature years, are you going to find solicitous concern, the emergency loan of an elastic bandage or a bottle of liniment?

With luck, anyway, at some stage of the day you'll have found your own breathing space, taking in the mountain view, proud and alone. Think of the grappa. You're that much closer to heaven.

Turin is tricky to reach direct from the UK. Alitalia (0171-602 7111) flies daily from London City airport to Turin in association with its codeshare partner Azzurra Air. The alternative is to fly to Geneva, Nice or Milan and travel onwards by rail or car.