In Foreign Parts: John Lichfield in the Alps

A chalet dad admits failure as Gulliver of the slopes
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I still don't get it. I don't understand why they all do it. And yet it – skiing – has never been more popular.

I still don't get it. I don't understand why they all do it. And yet it – skiing – has never been more popular.

For the French middle classes it has become as much a part of their rigidly lemming-like, social calendar as jamming the beaches of the Côte d'Azur in August. In my 12-year-old son's Parisian school class of 29 children, only five pupils did not spend part of their February holiday in the mountains.

The dates of French school terms – les rhythmes scolaires according to the French edu-jargon – are skewed to allow everyone a two-week break in February, staggered regionally, so that everyone can pay a great deal of money to risk their limbs and lives sliding down slopes. Five weeks after coming back from the Christmas holidays, le tout Paris, or le tout well-heeled Paris, goes away again.

Charles first insisted on going to the Alps, with his cousins, to keep up with the Jean-Pierres and Marie-Louises at school, two years ago. One of our bossier neighbours in Paris told us that, in effect, we would be inadequate parents if we refused to send his eight-year-old sister with him this year.

So I had to go too. Not to ski, because I had tried that 20 years ago and had decided, Samuel Johnson-like, that it was probably worth doing but definitely not worth learning after the age of 30. I went to be a chalet-boy for my children or more like, as it turned out, the Alpine equivalent of an American soccer mom – a non-skiing ski dad.

For eight days, I was a figure of mild fun on the slopes above the Swiss village where we stayed. I was almost the only person above 2,000 metres not wearing ski boots and skis. (I was in walking boots, corduroy trousers and an old anorak, bought for a trip to Alaska 13 years ago).

I was certainly the only person above 2,000 metres stomping up and down the nursery slopes, helping my daughter on and off the baby ski lift (until she learned for herself).

I presume I looked absurd. But so, to me, did the skiers. As a non-skier among skiers, I felt like Gulliver among a strange race of humans, who were at once blessed and cursed by enormous toenails. Skis are fine for skiing on. But a great deal of skiing involves queuing. Skiers queue in their expensively hired skis for half an hour or more so that they can spend five minutes sliding down the slope again. Queuing in skis is an absurdity – like swimming in an overcoat, or making love in a diving suit. I had a lot of fun watching skiers queuing.

On the second day, it occurred to me that an entire Swiss mountain, several mountains, had been turned, at great expense and environmental intrusion, into an immense children's playground for adults. And this was just one of these playgrounds, a small rather pleasant one. There are hundreds of others, smeared all over the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Rockies.

Why? Why spend a lot of money to fly to an expensive hotel, hire or buy unnecessarily expensive equipment to shove and push from early morning, to take a terrifying ride in a cable car for the right to queue again to slide dangerously, and briefly, down a mountain.

Many skiers seem not to have discovered the answer. As a non-skiing, instant anthropologist of the slopes, I discovered one of the skiers' great secrets. A large number of them, and not necessarily the least enthusiastic or the worst equipped, spend as little time as possible skiing. After a brief slide and swoosh or two, they adjourn to the large cafe and restaurant at the junction of the pistes and spend most of the day drinking coffee and eating complex pastries.

The skiers among you will tell me that skiing is no longer dangerous. The hospital in the large valley below the village where we stayed denies it. The number of skiing injuries increases every year, the staff say. New skis and ski boots have reduced the number of leg and knee injuries but skiers are shattering and wrenching their elbows, shoulders and arms in ever greater numbers.

Watching the general selfishness of many skiers, cutting at speed from piste to lift through the congregating areas where small children roamed, it is surprising that there are not more accidents.

The skiers will say that criticising skiing without skiing is like bad-mouthing a restaurant without eating the food. I had all the bother and none of the fun.

I suppose they have a point. When my son's photographs were developed, there was one showing his ski class standing, grinning somewhere near to 3,000 metres with endless ridges and peaks of snowy mountains stretching into the distance. Looking at that picture, I had a brief temptation to try to hire a pair of skis myself next year.

I could always prop them outside the restaurant and clump around on my ski boots eating pastries all day.