Families chill out in the queue

Rock carvings in northern Norway show that man has been skiing since 2000BC. There is, it is true, no evidence of bobble hats from that period, but wooden skis measuring twice a man's height have been found fossilised in bogs and are essentially the same as those we use today.

Rock carvings in northern Norway show that man has been skiing since 2000BC. There is, it is true, no evidence of bobble hats from that period, but wooden skis measuring twice a man's height have been found fossilised in bogs and are essentially the same as those we use today.

The trouble is that skiing in Europe, at least, has not kept up with the times. In recent years, those who can afford it have abandoned the ski queues in France and Switzerland for the more friendly and accessible slopes of the USA and, especially, Canada.

Now, despite the setback of the recent funicular tragedy in Austria, the Europeans are fighting back. The old T-bar lifts are being phased out in favour of six-seater chair lifts. There's to be streamlining of all the boring administration of ski passes and equipment, and, in France, a massive programme is under way to upgrade the unlovely purpose-built resorts of the 1960s and 70s. In Tignes, for example, there are new quality hotels, and the busy road which used to run through the centre of town has been consigned to a tunnel.

The quality of ski tuition often gives rise to complaints. In Europe, with the notable exception of Andorra, "tuition" at worst means paying to watch as a snake-hipped, unilingual instructor demonstrates his skill on the planks before disappearing down a red run in a plume of snow. Now, after a successful court case last winter, top-level British instructors have broken into the protected realm of ski schools staffed only by nationals, and the market has opened up to independent ski instruction outfits such as Mountain Masters, mostly run by British instructors.

After what the Ski Club of Great Britain admits was a very flat season last winter, European slopes are now becoming more user-friendly than at any time since Mr Neolithic skied home to his cave.

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