The cold snap: Get fit before you head to the slopes or you could be heading to A&E
Siobhan Mulholland and her family learned the hard way in the Austrian resort of Zurs
Saturday 10 January 2009
The skiing holiday in Zurs, Austria did not end well: on the very last day, the two oldest members of the family incurred knee injuries. Mine, a partial tear of a ligament, caused much swelling, a visit to a fantastically clean and hi-tech mountain ski clinic and the wearing of the fanciest orthopaedic knee brace I've ever seen. It had a bionic woman look about it and made all onlookers clear out my path. My husband's injury was damage to tissue and tendons that, over the months, developed into a painful cyst requiring keyhole surgery to remove.
According to our knee surgeon in London, we injured ourselves because, put bluntly, we're not fit enough. "We do this very stressful activity and aren't that fit, we don't take time out to train and prepare for it, we all get caught cold," explains Andy Williams from the Chelsea and Westminster hospital. And getting "caught cold" is evidently exacerbated by age. Once you hit 30, the number of muscle cells you have decreases; in terms of muscle strength it's a downward slope unless you exercise. So, combine lack of training and dying muscle cells with a hell-bent attitude to enjoyment and you're asking for trouble.
"There's a bravado to skiing," says Williams. "People get up there every morning and think: 'I've damn well paid for it'. So they don't take breaks if they feel tired and they stay out too long. The classic time for injury is that extra last run on the last day of the holiday."
Which is exactly when my husband injured his knee: trying to excel his personal best, on his last run, on the last day of the holidays, just as the last lift closed. But what I don't get about it is that he's a Norwegian. He used to ski to school; it was a practical mode of transport rather than an expensive bravado-type activity to be indulged in once a year. Williams says this counts for little if you're not fit. "It's like getting on a bike – you never forget how to do it, but if you haven't ridden a bike for a few years and you hop back on, it isn't quite as easy as you thought. You get the basics right, but the fine tuning is not as good."
There is, however, another equally valid reason why we were both injured: the excellent all-day child care. It's been more than a decade since I have been able to ski for so many hours each day. Family skiing holidays with young children usually mean parents have to fit their skiing into the two or three hours each morning when their children are in ski school. But for this trip we went with the very family-friendly tour operator Powder Byrne, which assures its customers that "having children does not mean you have to compromise your ski holiday".
Powder Byrne provides all-singing, all-dancing, all-day child care. You hand your children over at 9am in the morning and, unless you pass them on the slopes or meet them for lunch, you don't really see them until 4pm. During this time your children are taught by English-speaking ski instructors, have fun mucking about in the snow with various friendly nannies, are given lunch and returned to you happy and tired at the end of each day. Which leaves parents free to ski all day.
We stayed in lovely, authentically Austrian family-run accommodation – the Arlberghaus Hotel. It was, as it promised to be, a ski-in, ski-out place. Just a few ski-boot strides away from the hotel door are the Trittkopfbahn lifts, which take you up to some great slopes for intermediates and link you with one of the biggest, and arguably best, powder ski areas in Europe: Austria's Arlberg region, with 260km of prepared pistes and even more kilometres of off piste. There's a limit to how many people they let on the slopes, so you don't have to spend hours queuing for lifts. If prolonged use of a sat nav hasn't completely ruined your ability to read maps, then the network of cable cars, chairlifts, buses and runs will link you to the surrounding ski resorts of Lech, St Christoph, St Anton, and Stuben. Intermediate and advanced skiers are spoilt for choice.
For those of us with fewer mountain-conquering ambitions and who are content to stay closer to base, there are more than enough runs to keep you happy for six days of skiing. Immediately behind the hotel where we stayed there are nursery slopes, and beyond that a good choice of pistes for skiers of all levels. Two bridges crossing the main road mean you need not keep getting in and out of skis as you criss-cross the slopes on either side of the resort.
The other great pull of this area for skiers is the guarantee of snow. Zurs is one of Austria's highest ski resorts, at 1,716m above sea level. The average snow fall of 7m each year, combined with some very efficient snow machines, means it can genuinely claim to be "snow sure" throughout the season.
And when you're not skiing? Well, with Zurs the entertainment revolves pretty much around the hotel you stay in, so you need to choose carefully – especially if you have young children in tow.
The Arlberghaus Hotel, owned by Thomas and Hannelore Eggler, worked brilliantly for us. They were 100 per cent Austrian, genuinely welcoming and put all they had into making sure we had a good time. They led guests on guided ski tours, took families tobogganing and hosted wine-tasting sessions. They have three children themselves and clearly understand the potential awkwardness of young children staying in a hotel. The result is they've made the Arlberghaus the sort of place where parents, as well as their offspring, can relax. The restaurants – both on and off piste – were good, with efficient service.
What really worked about this holiday, and made it a treat, was the attention to detail – from scheduled flights (we travelled on Swiss to Zurich), with a minibus to meet you at the airport and take you to your hotel (two and a half hours), to being personally shown where the boot and ski hire shop was. You felt every eventuality and potential organisational mishap had been thought of and pre-empted.
We're avidly planning our next trip – mainly, I think, because short-term memory is a very selective thing. As an optimistic sort of person, I tend to remember the good things more than the not-so-good, especially when it comes to family holidays. So yes, we will take the advice of the very knowledgeable Mr Williams and attempt to become fitter before our next outing on the slopes, and we will definitely be pacing ourselves better than this time.
But toning down the bravado is a bit more difficult; without it, skiing wouldn't be half as much fun.
The writer travelled with Powder Byrne (020-8246 5300; powderbyrne.com). A one-week family trip during school Easter holidays cost £8,335, including half-board accommodation in "superior" twin rooms at the Hotel Arlberghaus, Zurs, scheduled flights from Heathrow to Zurich, return transfers, and insurance. The Yeti Club for children, which runs five days a week, costs £415 per child, including lunch and all refreshments. Ski passes are not included.
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