Rising early the next day, refreshed, unstressed and gasping for anything providing hydration, we are reminded how long it takes to dress for skiing. Ski socks, tights, a figure-hugging body suit that makes me feel like Spider-Man (going to the toilet reminds me of this Kenny Everett sketch – the third one about 40 seconds in), jumper or fleece, balaclava, ski trousers (with braces), ski jacket, gloves, helmet and googles. And that is just me. Once finished you are so hot you have to take most of it off again. Then you have to repeat with a couple of kids. If you have ever tried dressing children in winter (in fact, anytime) then you will sympathize. If not, I hate you and there is a special place for you reserved in Purgatorio without a pension.
Next it is off to the piste but not before you have take all the clothes off your younger child who suddenly decides he/she needs what we used to call a big one. Ablutions taken care of, you are provided with the first punitive shock of your holiday: the price to actually ski on a mountain (about 125 big beers for 6 days, 2 adults and 2 children; youngest free). This is not cheap or expensive, this is normal. Then you queue (shuffle on mass like multi-coloured penguins) for the cable car but first passing through the ski-lift entry gates with its immortal, computerized salutation wishing you – hold on to your hats – a “good fart”. Loaded up, hoping you haven’t forgotten a child, you are whisked up the mountain across silent wooded slopes and empty, perfectly combed ski runs, snow flakes glittering like precious stones in a diamond mine worked by seven dwarves.
Seeking dispensation from the freneticism that passes for first-ski-morning, I imagine Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood fighting on top, or worse, being attacked by Richard Kiel (Jaws) from Moonraker. Unfortunately, I am stirred from my cinematic retrospective reverie by a Hungarian unwrapping his breakfast, a salami Kornspitz that has travelled from Budapest. He should try that on the Vienna underground, I think.
And so to the “Berg Station” and time to disembark. My first thought is, who ordered the fog? But no time for a weather whinge, next stop – ski school. Ski school is an excellent idea and such a system should be compulsory for any family holiday. Kids love each other’s company and fighting with ski poles is better than fighting with parents. For just over twenty Euro per day per child (4 hours) you get expert child supervision staffed by qualified ski-instructors (like most things in Austria, highly regulated) fluent in the briberous language of the Gummi Bear. Off they go, up and down the mountain leaving the parents time to sneak off and ski in peace (in my case piecemeal) till lunch, and then it is another two hours in the afternoon to really wear them out.
At the end of each session the individual groups engage in something like an alpine Hakka although to me it somehow seems inspired by the philosophy of post-war, East German sports camps. Which is no bad thing in this cosseted world of incessant acquisition and moral decay which young people are today born into, and I nod agreeingly.
I am too cool for ski school. But on my first outing two years ago I did have some private lessons with a ski instructor (at least I assume he was; he accepted my money and took me up the Berg) and very quickly gave greater resonance to the notion of crash-course. Yet within the first hour, I was up the t-bar lift on the Kreischberg blue run, where pre-schoolers cruelly mocked me with their fearless and flawless execution of the skiing basics, and by the end of the third lesson I was ready for a red piste … partly. This may surprise you but not as much as it surprised me. Standing on that ridge trying to work out if the instructor was a sadist or really believed I could traverse what, for me, was the north face of the Geiger.
The thing about skiing is talented or not, stylistically or clumsily, cautiously or with unfettered speed, one eventually reaches the bottom of a hill. And so those first few, difficult days I made it up and I made it down, and the next year I did the same again. And I’ll tell you a little secret: it felt great. And like most learned activity, the more you do it the less self-conscious you become and any fear is gradually transmuted to confidence and a big smile (which is the moment you fall and twist your knee and hope you sent off the insurance policy).
This feeling of complacency quickly melts, however, as you attempt lunch, and you learn facing down your fears on a slope is nothing to the stresses of the alpine self-service restaurant with many stairs and kids in imminent need of a toilet.
The ski-schools have a nasty habit of stopping for lunch all at the same time which means several hundred people suddenly descend on the few, ill-equipped restaurants on offer. It is depressing spectacle of public relational squalor. Either a cat-fight to get a table or you have to shed any hint of being British and brazenly block a few tables with repeated polite but secretly triumphant shakes of your head that, sorry, these seats are taken (for the rest of the day). In any case the food is pretty bad at the start of the week, gets worse towards the middle and the less said about the end the better.
But this year we are professionals and have re-located to Berg 7 which is much more agreeable, less busy and more like a bar. To keep out the marauding, red-faced, cracked lip throng they have implemented a devious concept of playing decent music. It is a mix of funky garage and soulful house (I may have just made up these terms) and it reminds me of some of the better Saturday nights in London clubland in the 1990s. As a contrast to the tragically appalling sounds of alpine Europop it is a veritable oasis of relaxation and I have not heard better music in Austria in years (although the air is thin up there).
Hitting the Wall
Although the relentless trial that is dressing and ascending the mountain every day is now more or less routine, by day five I am flagging. A combination of poor sleeps on a bed designed by the architects of the inquisition, peppered with vivid dreams of my inability to extricate myself from the t-bar lift – or to use the technical term – unload, combined with four days of quite extensive skiing (my version of it) have left me quite exhausted, mentally and morally.
So I take an executive decision and much to the shame of my children, elect to spend the day in normal(ish) shoes. I shall sit on the sidelines, maybe trudge through the forests and enjoy a bit of essential solitude on the mountain. Perhaps, like David Carradine in Kung Fu, I will wander from valley to valley and draw on the open spaces and fresh air to ruminate on the meaning of existence and what it really is about alpine sports and crimes against fashion. Then again I might just go for a schnapps (drinking before lunchtime above one-thousand metres is customary and expected).
On our last day I seek out Hans, my ski instructor from two years before after realising that my technique is holding me back and I need a few pointers before I become disillusioned (I had begun to fear the t-bar lifts and I had just heard that my four year old son and successfully descended a red-run in the style of real skiing).
We meet at nine on a stunning morning and then head up to the top of the hill chatting about the development of Kreischberg, the Winter Olympics and whether Vienna really is a den of corruption and iniquity. Due to my pragmatic and Machiavellian instincts, I cannot help myself and agree, condemning the Viennese and their wily ways with gusto.
Once we are on the peak we go through the motions and quickly learn that I have been persisting with some basic mistakes (it is something to do with weight) which he quickly rectifies as we descend the red-run in the middle of the ski area. I barely notice the slope as we do so, focusing intently on my technique and balance if my life depended on it, which it probably did. And on reaching the end of the run and the base station for the new gondola system I am rather elated, calm and sense a revival in my self-belief.
One thing I have noticed with skiing is that people ask me when I return to Vienna if I like it, almost as if they expect me to say no, not really. In truth, it took me some days to begin to understand why people go to all the trouble to do it (ski). Certainly, you will get the same sensation after a day’s surfing (although you might have to talk to surfers), cycling or simply walking in the wilderness breathing in the curative stillness. And I would not disagree, which is unusual for me. But once you have spent a few days up a mountain, outdoors all day, in incredible air, immersed in the uplifting sight of nature at its best, when the fog clears, and although you might quip it is the tight underwear, you feel like Superman. And then you need a toilet.
Sums (all in Euro) for the week. Would be difficult to do it cheaper in Austria and I am parsimonious to the core (except after cocktails).
Appartment – 850
Ski hire – 240
Ski school – 280
Lift passes (6 days) 500
Lunch – 250
Petrol – 60
© RJ Barratt 2014