Do we still enjoy skiing?
In the old days we skied badly but cheerfully. If only that was still the case today
Saturday 12 October 1996
Much of his book is devoted to such matters: the unearthing of prehistoric skis from Swedish bogs, the ideological disputes (one ski pole or two?) between the Austrian and Norwegian schools of skiing in the late-19th century, and so on. But suddenly, on page 340, Sir Arnold turns introspective: chapter 28 is titled "Do we enjoy skiing?"
He has his doubts. In the old days, he says, "We enjoyed ourselves with the happiness of children ... We skied badly, but we were cheerfully resigned to our incompetence". So dismayed is Sir Arnold by what has happened to the sport, "the Frankenstein which I have helped to create", that he is tempted to form an association for the discouragement of skiing. Among his proposals is that "a special staff of sandwich men with arms in slings and their heads in bandages, bearing large placards [saying] 'Victims of skiing accidents' would be engaged to hobble up and down platforms at Victoria and Charing Cross, in order to persuade outgoing winter sportsmen to abandon skiing".
The ultimate object of the association would be that "in time, the standard of skiing might be lowered to the primitive condition of happy inefficiency". Sir Arnold does not dispute "that British skiing has improved out of all recognition since the war
I should perhaps point out here - if you haven't already guessed - that the war to which Sir Arnold refers is the First World War: his History of Skiing was published in 1927. But the issue he raises is still relevant, probably more so. Now that we have got to grips with living in an age of leisure we have learnt to make most of our pleasures last. Think of your other favourite pastimes - perhaps sex, cookery or night-clubbing. If they were meant to be done in a hurry no one would have invented foreplay or home-made pasta, and there wouldn't be clubs that open at 3am on Sunday morning when the others close. Yet with skiing, the better you get at it, the sooner it's over. It is, specifically, good skiing that has to be discouraged.
When it comes to being a spokesman for lousy skiers, I suspect that I am better qualified than Sir Arnold. But my position is more moderate than his: I firmly believe that everybody has the right to ski. All we need is a policy of segregation, to protect the lousy skier from the pressure to become a good one.
For those whose heads are full of finer things than just powder and wax, a chairlift can be as much fun as the piste: the more you climb, the further away you get from cities, crowds and pollution; the view of the mountains becomes bigger and better, and the amount of skiing time you store up increases. As with altitude, so with mood: when you are up you are up, and when you are down you are down.
So a lousy skier does not take a mad dash down the mountainside. With his "happy inefficiency" he makes the most of the benefits conferred by the chairlift (which, in Sir Arnold's day were much harder won, by walking up) descending in gentle traverses, stopping frequently to admire the view or hug a tree, and frightening no one.
Here lies the first argument for segregation. Beautiful slopes are wasted on good skiers - all they see is a blur - so the most attractive resorts, particularly those with wonderful runs winding through woodland, should be reserved for lousy skiers. Good skiers would, of course, be offered a suitable alternative such as Sierra Nevada in Spain, where most of the skiing is on a kind of motorway.
Perhaps, indeed, the Alps should be entirely devoted to lousy skiing: ecological groups such as Alp Action are particularly concerned about the damage done by off-piste skiing, and lousy skiers only rarely go off- piste because they are caring and environment-friendly people ... and because it's so bloody difficult.
Secondly, it is axiomatic that lousy skiers use lifts less frequently than good ones - they must do, because they spend more time on the slopes. It is a matter of simple justice that they should be spared the queues generated by skiers who use the lifts over and over again.
Third, as resorts are segregated they will be better able to serve their particular clientele. Thus those for lousy skiers will have more and better restaurants on the slopes, because everyone will stop at them. Similarly, ski schools will specialise, with beginners' classes-only in some resorts (a lousy skier must at least be able to ski) and flashy, advanced instructors in others.
Sadly, Sir Arnold Lunn had to admit that his association for the discouragement of skiing was "an idle dream ... Man is a competitive animal, whatever the Socialist may say".
My plan to protect the lousy skier has no future, either. What would happen? All the good skiers would want to go to their resorts, so they would learn how to ski badly. The crowding would be intolerable. (Sir Arnold's sub-text was that he wanted a bit more solitude: what would he make of Courchevel 1850 on a fine Sunday morning?) The only solution, then, would be to become a good skier. And that would destroy the object of the exercise.
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