There comes a time in everybody’s life when one is compelled to look directly into the Heavens above and bleat like a petrified lamb.
For instance, when the chair one is sitting on takes off up the slope of a steep, craggy mountain and plunges over the summit into the middle of the cold, empty sky. Far beneath your terrified toes, multi-coloured ants whizz across a gleaming white canvass, zig, zag and gone again.
Meanwhile, the Frenchman in the seat next to you continues to talk calmly about his cycling holiday in Ireland two decades ago and seems perfectly at ease, as if he has a glass of Chablis to hand. But lo, the chairs are now fast approaching another mountain and the Frenchman is suddenly preparing to eject himself and urging you to do likewise and suddenly your feet are scraping the ground and you gather all your strength, wobble the knees down a short incline and pull to a halt.
Hurrah! You have made it to the top of a ski slope. It’s all downhill from here.
It is true to say that ski holidays are not designed for the meek or scared of heights. Although there’s a solid argument that confronting one’s phobias is the best way forward. As a boy, I was petrified of heights; learning to ski knocked such fear on the head. In fact, I learnt to ski in Scotland which is not the sort of thing many admit to. The stark slopes of Glenshee and Aviemore have never held much kudos amongst the skiing elite. Scottish cuisine somehow lacks the panache of the French; the Caledonian weather is unsuited to sunglasses; the temperament of the ski instructors a touch too reminiscent of that dour codger in the Pink Floyd song mooching that “if you doon’t eat yer meat, ya cannae have any pudding“. But all the same, the Scottish slopes gave me an inkling as to why dinner parties throughout March and April are full of people who won’t belt up about the skiing holiday they’ve just been on.
But the simple fact is that if you go skiing, it is very difficult to think of anything else. Even in your dreams you are barreling down slopes like a hobbit in a hosepipe. Feeling cool is an inescapable fate, no matter how modest you might be. Because skiing rocks. How often do you get to bomb down a mountain of poivre blanc on a pair of planks, clad in shades and a t-shirt, pursued by gorgeous Europeans, with a jug of gluevine, a cheese tartaflette and a pinstriped deckchair awaiting at journey’s end? The only thing cooler than a skier is a snowboarder. The latter like surfing and chillum bowls and listening to Outkast albums. But they also seem to spend most of their lives sitting dazedly on the ground rubbing their bums.
There are plenty of other pluses besides being cool – stunning snow-smothered peaks, air fresh as a Polo mint, the aforementioned vertigo-inducing chair lifts and ball-crunching dragbars hoisting you to the Gods. It’s incroyable! Skiing gets you fit, gives you a suntan, extinguishes the blues and encourages you to roar with laughter whenever one of your mates falls flat on their ass. And if you need a statistic to go with that, our gallant Topflight hostess told us that upwards of 60,000 Irish are now headed for the slopes every year.
The best thing about skiing in France is that you get to eat exceptional food and speak in a silly accent. My last trip was split between two Alpine resorts. The first was Val D’Isere, a deservedly celebrated 1850 metre high Savoyan village of warm wooden balconies, snow-capped rooftops, lively bars and swanky clothing retailers. The resort is already warming up to host the 2009 World Alpine Skiing Championships. The slopes are outstanding, the views impeccable and a useful clue as to the vitality of après-ski was offered when one of my colleagues bundled eight boxes of Solpadene into his handbag before we left Dublin. A worthy hat-trick of venues might be Bar Alexandra for excellent tunes and table footy, Victors for Scando-cuisine and Swedish blondes, and Dick’s Cafe Bar for dancing on table-tops and whooshing down cocktails at fifteen million Euro a shot. We stayed in the superbly located Hotel Lattitudes, a short moon-walk through spongy snow from the main chairlifts.
But because some of us sprayed too much Right Guard on our socks when we woz kids, there isn’t always snow when there should be. That’s why, a few days later, we upped and headed three hours west to Alpe d’Huez, a pretty resort perhaps best known for the Mountain or “Marmottes” stage of the Tour de France, twenty-one hairy bends designed by God to unseat cyclists. The mountain-top village has been a ski resort since 1924 and now boasts 3,000 hectares of sumptuous slopes with 238km of track including the 16 km Sarenne, the longest run in Europe. It is surrounded by the sort of white-capped peaks where eagles soar and foxes rumble and the ghosts of Gallic chieftains flirt with crescent moons and ripening suns. Silver mines from medieval times have been found close by.
And how can anybody not feel utterly epic when skiing from the Mountains of Ossian to the Plateau of Emparis?
Even if you did have to bleat like lamb in order to get up there.
Turtle Bunbury was a guest of www.topflight.ie. He stayed at the Hotel Lattitudes in Val D’Isere and the Hotel Royal Ours Blanc in Alpe d’Huez. See also: www.valdisere.com and www.alpedhuez.com This article was written circa 2007.