Skiing: Beyond the nursery slopes
Forty years after his first attempt at skiing, Mark McCrum tries again in the French Alps
I had been skiing only once, when I was 14, on a package with a friend's family to Formigal in the Pyrenees. Even though I never left the nursery slopes, I was terrified by the steep white snow dropping away in front of me. A grumpy instructor shouted at me as I ground slowly down to the bottom, skis wedged apart in the snowplough position. The abler kids in my group soon progressed to the next stage: "parallel turns". Not me.
Years passed. In my twenties and thirties I had friends who went skiing. But you got asked along only if you could already ski, could talk confidently of "hard-packed powder" or "bashing moguls" on "gnarly slopes". My forties passed. It was too late now. The world was divided into skiers and non-skiers. I was the latter. Then came a call. Would I like to learn to ski, stay in a state-of-the-art chalet – and look, if it doesn't work out, there's a pool and a sauna and a fabulous chef?
Only when I'd accepted did I suddenly think: you're going to have to face that awful slope again. That's why you've left it alone for 38 years.
In Formigal in 1973, we queued for half the morning to get our boots and skis; in Châtel in 2011, I am kitted out in 10 minutes. The rest of my chalet group are not debutants. Getting ready the first morning I pay extravagant attention to their advice. "Make sure your socks aren't rumpled up," says one. "You'll feel every crease after two hours." That's if I'm not in an air ambulance, I think.
At the foot of the mountain, I meet my teacher, Richard, a lean, tanned fortysomething who looks as if he's been skiing since he was three.
"You have skied before?"
"Just the once. I don't want to tell you how long ago."
He gives me a Gallic shrug. The body remembers, he says. If I could do a snowplough then, I will soon be doing one now. "In half an hour we will be on the slopes."
Incredibly, he's right. After five minutes of learning how to click my boots into my skis and another 10 wobblingly over the snow towards him, I have mastered a rudimentary snowplough. The three-degree gradient next to the car park is hardly the black run, but at least I can stop. Ten minutes after that I am learning to turn. My confidence is picking up.
"Come on," says Richard. "We're going up in the chairlift."
Halfway up the mountain there is a string of clap-boarded restaurants and bars and the start of two runs: the red and the green. The red is the one of my nightmares, dropping away so sharply you can see nothing below; the green looks easier, but it's still quite a slope. But hey, I have my snowplough. I can do this.
We start, we slide a few yards, we stop. The distance increases, we go a little faster. Still, miraculously, I am in control. A little further down, my turns must come into play, as the run veers sharp left through the forest. But I'm OK.
"Well done!" says Richard, as we reach the bottom. "That was 5km."
In Formigal my friend's mum made us baked beans on toast for supper. In the Maison Blanche et Verte there is a log fire, champagne, Asian-style canapés, smoked salmon with a baby Caesar salad, Moroccan lamb and individual tartes tatins. As Daniel, our Kiwi Jeeves, shimmers around topping up our glasses, I feel I can at last join in the ski chat. Yes, it was a tad gnarly on the lower part of the green run; the snow was hard packed and a little slippery. But I cranked some pretty turns. Didn't fall over once.
In the morning the sun is shining from a clear blue sky. "Today," says Richard, with a grin, "we are going to upgrade the steepness of the slope. It will be more of a mental challenge; at the top, where we are going, the mountain drops away. You cannot see the bottom. But you will be OK."
Will I? Standing above the slope of horrors, I feel myself going into a funk. I can barely remember how to do my turns. When it gets vertiginous, he takes pity on me. We take off our skis and clump down the slippery snow. Three-year-olds whizz past my knees; they are surely laughing at this middle-aged joke. But at the bottom is a gentler slope, with a drag lift to one side.
"This will be our playground for this morning,' says Richard. And gradually, over the next two hours, as we practise lowering a right hand to swerve left, and a left hand to swerve right, my confidence is restored. By the end of the session I am going down without poles, lifting the top ski off the piste on each turn.
"You have shown me you have no fear," says Richard. "That is good." If only he knew.
I am a bit more chastened that night. I wake early, imagining the slope Richard is going to spring on me today. When the light comes up, it's snowing, thick flakes from a grey sky. At breakfast there is chat of "poor visibility" and skiing "pole to pole". The slopes may even be closed.
But it turns out that these are ideal conditions for the third stage of my progress. Now I understand why skiers love powder. With a three-inch blanket of new snow over the harder base, I can stop at will. Halfway down the green run, Richard announces we're moving across to the red. With the soft snow to save me, I arc my way to the bottom. I even fall over a few times, but it's a gentle landing.
Then he takes me back to the top of the mountain. Even with this confidence boost I'm not sure I can manage that slope. The old pro grins at me. "But the slope you have just done is steeper."
He's right, of course. And I can hardly believe that my parallel turns are taking me down something as steep as this. Effortless is not the word. Nor is elegant. But I get there, with only a couple of falls. I am actually skiing. I could do more of this.
Mark McCrum was a guest of Maison Blanche et Verte in Châtel (07917 660440; maison blancheetverte.com) which sleeps up to 12. It costs from £1,250 per person per week, fully catered, with transfers included. Flights extra.
Ski lessons were with Richard Mathonnet of Châtel Ski School (00 33 6 83 30 71 41; chatelskischool.com). Hour-long private classes from €55pp.
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