He was five years old when he first saw the snow-clad mountains of the Alps. Prior to that, he’d encountered snow a mere handful of times. A strange and unfamiliar substance. The last time, he built a mud-flecked snowman in the front garden at his parents house. Gave it coal for eyes and a carrot nose, then posed for a picture in duffel coat and wellies, the chill air pinking his cheeks.
That same year, on a snow-covered field just outside of Buxton, he watched his father tramp up a hill and weave down unsteadily on a pair of thin planks, while he and his brother sledged on the gentle slopes below with their mother. He couldn’t understand what his father was doing, so the next time he reached the foot of the hill, he asked him. Came the breathless response: I’m skiing. And off he went again.
His father was nothing if not determined. As a builder, getting difficult things done was part and parcel of the job. Skiing was just one more difficult, dangerous and expensive thing to do, one which suited his upwardly-mobile mentality. This mentality found its most eloquent expression in the Klosters-chic of the jet-setting Prince and Princess of Wales, combined with the daredevil antics of downhill racers Franz Klammer and Permin Zurbriggen.
Skiing only entered his father’s consciousness with the weekly downhill racing coverage of the BBC’s Ski Sunday, which he father watched religiously while twitching his toes in front of the fire. For it was Ski Sunday, with its bombastic orchestral theme tune (which borrowed from Bach’s Fugue in D Minor) and laconic presentation by non-skier David Vine, brought the difficult, dangerous and expensive pursuit of the world’s super-rich into the front rooms of countless suburbanites, who immediately rushed out to their local branches of C&A and Thomas Cook, and hastened to the Alps.
There was a sort of Gold Rush Fever about Alpine skiing in the 1980s, coming off the back of the 1976 Winter Olympics at Innusbruck, particularly Klammer’s dramatic winning run in the downhill event. In the years that followed, there was a huge influx of tourists to the Alpine ski resorts of Europe. There were few leisure pursuits that encapsulated the excesses of 1980s individualism. Wham!, the supposed posterboys for Thatcherite Britain, filmed the video to the 1984 single Last Christmas at an Alpine lodge.
On the Piste, a BBC documentary broadcast in 1987, captured the abject and hapless exploits of a group of moderately-affluent British holidaymakers on their first ski trip. These calamitous and booze-soaked adventures were counter-posed with the austere pastimes of the long-established genteel and faintly snooty British Apline Ski Club. Skiing was no longer the preserve of the super-rich. But whether a loadsamoney plumber, a yuppie trader or a Versace-clad aristocrat there was nothing straightforward about skiing.
The entire enterprise had a vaudevillian quality about it. The clothing was unflattering and barely adequate for the cold conditions. The boots pinched and were difficult to walk in. The skis and poles were designed specifically to poke you or your companions in the eye. The compacted snow was treacherous on roads or outside the lift stations. The lifts themselves were antiquated and downright dangerous, slowly moving their human cargo over sheer cliff faces and vertiginous drops. Few people wore hats, much less crash helmets.
All manner of injury might befall a novice or expert at any moment: broken ankle, twisted knee, fractured collar bone, sprained wrist, bruised coccyx, cracked ribs, concussion, crashing into another skier, being crashed into by another skier, hitting a tree, being hit by a tow bar, slithering off a chair lift, skiing over a sheer drop in thick fog, being crushed by falling rocks or smothered in an avalanche. Death was always at one’s elbow when skiing. For some, that was the thrill of it all.
Easter 1985 was warm and green in the valleys of the Tyrol, and the snow had receded to the highest peaks. Getting to the ski area, therefore, was a fraught and laborious process.
On their first morning in Zell am Ziller he and his family carried their heavy and awkward equipment from the hotel to the bus stop. There they awaited the bus which would take them to the Rosenalmbahn cable car, lifting them over the peaks of pine trees to a long, slow chairlift to the snowline, and the sunlit nursery slopes. The bus and cable car were crammed with other skiers, mostly Austrian and German men, who towered over him with their strange voices, caustic laughter and breath which reeked of beer and cigarettes.
That first morning, he and his younger brother were put into ski school. His brother, then aged three, immediately collapsed into hysterics and refused to leave his mother. His round face, wet with tears, took on an equivalent colour to the little boots on his feet. It was optimistic to the point of delusion to expect him to want to ski. From a very young age his brother resisted any physical activity, up to and including walking. Instead their mother, more averse to the Alpine climate than she was to spending a week cooped up in the hotel with a three-year-old, took him back down the mountain.
He and his father joined their classes. They had come away with another family, so he joined the same group as their children. Both boys were slightly older than him, but neither had skied before. They formed a contented trio within the larger group. By the end of the week he had learned to snowplough, sliding slowly down the hill with his skis positioned in an exaggerated V.
He remembers the heat of the April sun, and the snow like slush, on the point of melting away for the summer. With his fair skin he burned easily, and his nose and ears soon became a mess of peeling skin and thick scabs. During the week, his father would suddenly materialise before him to daub his face with sunblock, before frantically skiing off to catch up with his own ski class.
Being too small to grab the wildly swinging T-bars or hold on to the fast-moving Poma tows, he found himself wedged between the legs of the instructor as they made their way up back the ski slope. He enjoyed being safe and secure in the lap of an adult, listening to the alien and unintelligible conversation passing over his head. The instructors were suntanned, cheerful and seemingly impervious to the cold, speaking rudimentary English with thick Austrian accents, brazenly smoking cigarettes on the lifts.
Come the evening, as they made their way back down to the valley he fell into exhausted repose in his father’s arms, lulled into slumber by the gently rocking chairlift. A picky eater, he learned to value food as fuel, as a necessity. On their last evening at the hotel he was served a clear leek soup. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted.
Subsequent trips were less successful, a succession of ski schools in Flaine, Isola, St Johann. Often he was the only English speaking child in the class. Once, aged seven or eight, after being released from ski school he made the long journey on foot from the slopes to the apartment where his family was staying. Desperate for the toilet, he urinated into his ski suit. He felt the warm liquid seep into his underpants and long johns, run down his leg and soak into his socks. He didn’t mention it to his parents, though he was certain they must have known. If they did, they didn’t say anything.
Was that the same year that the Italian boy pushed him off their T-bar halfway up, too far to ski down on his own, too far to walk up without making the group wait for him? The Italian boy pushed his right ski against his left, and with increasingly insistent force pushed it to the right, so that he lost his balance and tumbled off into the snow. He walked up the rest of the way, close to tears, and as he crested the slope found the group laughing. The female instructor asked him what had happened. He shouted he had been pushed off the lift and pointed at the Italian boy, who shrugged and shook his head when rebuked by the instructor.
Frequently, he found himself at the rear of the class slowly snaking down the mountain. Later that week he fell on a long schuss, and watched the rest of the group ski away, leaving him behind? He fell heavily, winding himself. His hat and goggles were filled with snow, water slid down his neck and back. He was cold and he missed his parents. He cried then, in loneliness and frustration, hoping the instructor would return to rescue him, without realising that she couldn’t leave the other children.
Several adults skied past him as he knelt sobbing on the snow. Eventually a young couple stopped. The woman had curly brown hair and sunglasses, which she removed as she knelt down to help him. Taking a tissue from her pocket she wiped his eyes and nose, dabbed away the tears and snot smeared across his face, replaced his goggles and hat, got him back into his skis and helped him up the slope.
He calmed his tears before he saw the group, huddled and waiting. The instructor asked if he was ok, and he nodded yes, so she turned and skied away, with the other children following. He didn’t know any of their names.
Some years later, he read in a news story about another little boy who had got lost on the mountain while skiing. Separated from his parents on the last run on the last day of their holiday, the boy had skied off the piste into a dangerous area, removed his skis and stepped off the edge of a cliff, falling to his death. He thought about that little boy often. How alone he must have been in his final moments. Calling for his mother and father in the dark. Cold and afraid. Panic-stricken. Desperate. He couldn’t bear to think of it.