Piste of cake? No

- Stand up.
- I can’t.
- Try.
- I am.
- OK, try again.
- I’m going to have to take my skis off again… This is so stupid… Why won’t they come off? Right, got it.
- OK, put them parallel to the slope… No, top foot in first.
- Why isn’t it going in?
- Try again.
- OK, got it.
- Ready?
- I suppose.
- You’re actually doing really well.

An idea that wasn’t mine
“Let’s go skiing,” she said. “It’ll be fun,” she said. And there was no gainsaying her, despite my utter ignorance (previous experience: thinking the Ski Sunday theme music was quite fun), my lack of kit, and the onset of a cold. Try stopping a skier from skiing if they think they’ve got an opportunity, I bet you won’t succeed.

I had two reasons to go skiing and neither of them were that I wanted to go skiing. Firstly, I really like hanging out with Debbie, so if she goes up a mountain I’m likely to follow. Secondly, I like looking at mountains so I hoped a ski resort would be a good location for that. The decision was made.

Some last-minute phone calls enabled me to get hold of some kit, without which the experience would have been even more awful than it initially was. My eternal gratitude to Phil Ford whose ski jacket, trousers and gloves spared me from being even more cold, wet and miserable than I got.

We went to Glencoe Mountain because it was the easiest to get to. Not just easy, beautiful to get to. The snow showers relented and we skirted Loch Lomond as the sun rose above the gently rippling waters. Despite the sub-five hours sleep my spirits were high and remained so until we arrived and I tried to get into my kit. There are many things that can be said about Phil but “He’s six foot tall” is certainly not one of them. Trying to pull on trousers that don’t quite fit whilst hopping around a snow-covered carpark was enough to stir the feelings of despair that I had suspected were lurking somewhere within me.

We handed over a large amount of cash and were fitted with ski boots which are secondly only in hindering a normal person from walking to skis themselves. Then it was onto the chair lift, during which my reasonable fear of heights was trumped by the fear that my fingers and face were going to fall off at any moment, such was the horrible cold. Snow-covered mountains were beautiful to behold, as were frozen streams we glimpsed but I was twenty feet above them and couldn’t feel my hands any more.

Many (ten?) long minutes later it was time to get off the chair lift, which of course was not going to stop for me. Here I experienced a minor triumph as I smoothly got off the chair without even almost crashing. Ten seconds later I fell over.

How anyone gets up off the floor whilst wearing skis is entirely beyond me. I didn’t even come close to mastering it. The only satisfaction in falling over (apart from my ligaments and bones remaining in situ) came from removing my boots from my skis by pressing a clip on the skis. Or repeatedly punching it, as I preferred.

From bad to worse
With no instructor available, it was down to Debbie and the third member of our party, Roger, to try to teach me. Failing to spot the beginners’ ‘slope’ (it was barely an
incline and would have been a good place to start), I was put onto a button bar. Wikipedia glibly describes how these work: “The lift consists of an aerial steel rope loop running over a series of wheels, powered by an engine at one end. Hanging from the rope overhead are equally-spaced vertical poles or cables attached to a plastic button or platter that is placed between the skiers legs and pulls the skier uphill.” That final clause was intermittently true for me. I was told to stay standing up with the pole between my legs dragging me along. I slipped, the pole kept going, I threw myself to safety, the bar operator laughed and reminded me that I should have stayed standing up. The rigmarole of ski removal, ski attachment was repeated again. My second button bar experience was more successful: I travelled a few hundred metres until I nearly reached the far end, whereupon I fell off once more. Skis off, skis on again.

I looked around, ignoring the lithe bodies sweeping past me. Mountains really are astonishing, even with the contrast turned down by the blanket covering of snow. They were my only source of joy for the next few minutes.

Have you tried walking in skis? Even if you can do it you look like an idiot. “Put your legs wider, make an upside-down triangle,” I was told. Which means the skis trap each other behind you! Eventually I took my skis off again and marched through the snow. It was finally time to learn something actually about skiing. Here’s how it’s supposed to work: you try to make a snow plough with your skis by angling your feet in, keeping your legs as far apart as possible, and just let the slope take you. If it feels like your knees are about to snap you’re probably doing it right. To stop, “dig your edges in, snow plough!”, whatever that meant. Fear, crash, skis off, skis on, fury. This pattern was repeated at two minute intervals down a run that was deemed to be more blue than its advertised green. All I knew was that I was hating every minute of it. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so mad about anything. Snow clouds arrived and took away the view. Snot rang down my face, unabated.

It was around this time that I came to the conclusion that skiing is essentially golf up a mountain. It costs loads of money, requires loads of specialist equipment, involves the successful participant continually using their body counterintuitively, and seems to delight in making the novice look a complete fool. The only difference is the dress code – snowboarders look cool.

We reached the stupid end of the stupid run and decided to head for the Café. Hot drinks and hot food brought some much-needed respite. Glencoe is Scotland’s oldest ski resort and it shows. I was assured the ski resorts on the continent were much nicer, although given that they probably still involved skis I wasn’t convinced that they would be that much of an improvement.

We went out again into the bitter cold (later ascertained to be –11 Celsius) and saw that we couldn’t see the top of the mountain any more. We went to the beginners’ slope. This was much more like it, I could stop moving if I wanted to and falling over seemed much less likely. Because it was flat, and there was no button bar. Half an
hour of repeatedly going down/along this run did quite a bit for my confidence. So much so that I tried to walk up a slight incline whilst wearing my skis. I began to slide backwards towards a ditch and swiftly fell over to spare my life. Skis off, trudge up slope, skis on.

With the button bar successfully negotiated (at the second time of asking) I faced another run. Legs twisted into the snow plough position and falling snow whipping into my face, I began to slide. Having gone a few metres I felt it was time to stop, so I tried to. It didn’t work. Bumps came into view and, despairing of being able to stop, I pushed with my legs to avoid them. That did work. A ditch appeared, I pushed the other way and skied past it. Scores of metres passed and I was still unsuccessfully trying to stop bu
t successfully not falling over. Every moment I felt on the cusp of disaster but it never came. The end of the run was particularly icy, steep and sudden but it was followed by flat and so I was able to come to an upright halt. I’d done a whole run. Debbie was amazed. I was relieved to still be in one piece.

We went up again (button bar triumph at first time of asking) and went down again (still couldn’t stop, only fell over right at the end). And then a third time – no falls at all! Competence brings a dangerous joy but there was no complacency; I was too aware that incompetence could mean compound fractures. Yet I did have time to t
hink, as I wobbled down the run. And what I thought was how rare it is in my life for me to feel on the edge of disaster, to be unsafe. Specifically, how often do I put myself in circumstances where unless God turns up, things will turn out badly? Very rarely, because I prefer being in control. I don’t think this was adrenaline talking, it’s something that needs to change. For that realisation, plus a smile from Debbie, hot chocolate and cream afterwards, my limbs remaining in working order and a glorious sunset on our way home, it was a day with much to be grateful for.