Blessed to be a witness

Monday, 5th September

Avant ski

I surprised myself by not being utterly crap at skiing. In fact, amongst the pre-teens on the nursery slope, I was one of the most upright, and definitely the one who was crying the least.

Totally not me

Alas I can't say as much for my performance prior to getting on the slope. Coming down to reception first thing in the morning, I enquired in the hostel about beginners' courses. It turned out there was only one a day, and it began in forty minutes. How long did it take to drive to the slope, I asked. "Forty minutes," was the reply. I ran up to the room, told M I was off (she declining to come, opting for beauty treatment instead), and jumped into the car.

The road up to the mountain was steep and the car an automatic. I had forgotten about the low gear settings, so was cursing the damn thing as it kept on changing gear on me. Eventually locking it into second gear, I urged it to the top of the vertiginous, winding slope, and when I parked there was a terrible smell coming out of the transmission. Still, it was a hire car, so who cares? I legged it up to the ski school, where I discovered that I was indeed in time for the lesson, but I had to get kitted out first, so would in fact miss the class. Thankfully, however, there was a second class laid on an hour later due to oversubscription, so I could make that.

I went through to get skis and so on, and here is where my bumbling and idiotic characteristics surfaced. I got my boots, which made me hobble, and my skis and poles, which clattered around in my arms and I dropped regularly. Where the advert said "all equipment provided", I assumed this meant appropriate clothing too. Not so. I was only wearing jeans and a fleece. I went and paid for a jacket and trousers, but they didn't rent hats or gloves. Seeing my crestfallen face and probably taking pity on my ineptitude, the guy behind the counter lent me his own gloves, and recommended my fleece's hood instead of a hat.

I put my clothing into storage, then realised I'd left my wallet in the locker. I dropped my skis again and apologised to the storage people for bothering them again. Then I realised I was still wearing my jeans, so, tripping over my ski poles, I changed, apologised to the storage people and put them in. A coffee and a sandwich later, since I had missed breakfast, and I was dropping my skis and whacking people with the poles outside the ski school, waiting for my class to arrive. "Are you waiting for a class?" asked a woman. "Yes. You too? We're meant to wait here." "I'm the chief instructor," she said in a disgruntled manner. I apologised again.

Eventually the instructor turned up, and here is where my luck changed: I was the only person in the second class. I was to have three hours' private tuition for the price of being one of thirty. And I could do it. I progressed very quickly, according to Luc, the French instructor, who had no real reason to flatter me. He delighted me by saying "bend ze knees" too.

After lunch, the two best skiers of the first beginners group, and me, joined Luc to do a real slope. It wasn't terrifically challenging, being called "The Big Easy", which is a rather unfortunate name given current events. Despite this designation, it scared the bejaysus out of me. At the top of the chairlift I took my first tumble of the day, because Luc was lost in a reverie, telling me of his philosophy of life and his lost loves. I stood up too late, one ski twisted beneath me, and I fell flat on my face, then sprawled under the lift dropoff like an upturned turtle, while two snowboarding dudes on the next chair bore down on me with concern. "Turn ze fookin' lift off! Turn it off!" Luc shouted at the operator. "Look bro, you do your job and I'll do mine," said the operator, artfully diverting the now irritated snowboarders back round the pulley, to their irritation.

I finally righted myself, apologised again, and we set off down the slope. I didn't realise - and Luc hadn't told me - that the side-to-side motion of the downhill skier is to slow one down. I just shot straight off down the slope, getting faster and faster, my 'wedge' technique having little effect, until Luc screamed "Turn uphill! Mon dieu, turn uphill!" Surprisingly I managed it without causing carnage to myself or others, and eventually set off again with the correct side-to-side motion.

We did three runs of that slope. I fell twice on the first run, the second fall filling my inadequate clothing up with wet snow that I couldn't shake out, but I enjoyed it immensely. By the end of the third run, however, one of the other learners and I were discovering that our leg muscles were no longer responding to commands, so we called it a day. It was also raining, the snow was melting and sticky, and it seemed that the season was over that day.

As I drove down the mountain again, I picked up a hitchhiker, a ski instructor who worked six months in New Zealand, and six months in Austria. The view down into the vast, looming valley below us was green and stunning and Tolkeinesque (an adjective I guess I'm allowed to use now), and hills and "It's a great life," he said. "I never get tired of looking at that."

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