Taking the piste
I’d never been skiing. I’d tried ice-skating once, but spent the whole horrible half-hour clinging to the bar at the side of the rink, my ankles shaking either through feebleness, fear or both. So when I was told that even I could learn to cross-country ski in three days, I was sceptical.
But, rising to the challenge and taking my boyfriend (also a complete novice) along as witness, I set out for the northern Alps, specifically the small French ski resort of Le Grand Bornand.
“Snow!’’ exclaimed the boyfriend, as if he’d expected to see sand in the Alps.
It was a beautiful day, all bright sun shining on white mountains. I looked up at the peaks and felt very reassured; I wasn’t attempting anything like that. We were heading to the gentle foothills for a bit of cross-country — little more than a stiff walk wearing weird footwear.
Although I’d never skied, I didn’t arrive totally unprepared. I’d researched what gear I needed and had packed three sets of thermal underwear — one for each day — and some very silly big fleece hats with earpieces. I’d been advised to invest in a good pair of sunglasses but instead went for some fake Gucci in case Le Grand Bornand had an Aspen-like scene.
Unfortunately, you couldn’t get away with just wearing the right gear. Le Grand Bornand is not a showy resort where nothing but style matters, but a simple village for those intent on skiing through classic alpine scenery.
The whole place is no more than a single row of small shops and restaurants, a picturesque baroque church and a scattering of wooden chalets where big brass cowbells hang and logs are stacked.
The boyfriend and I had our own tutor for the duration. Jean Christophe was a small but perfectly formed 40-year-old native of the village. He outlined the pattern of our days: we’d start with 10 minutes of exercise followed by an hour of technique, then what he called “fun’‘, by which he meant free skiing on and off piste. “How are you feeling? Excited?’’ he asked. “Terrified,’’ I said.
“Action!’’ cried Jean Christophe, striding out across the fresh snow. Even walking was a huge effort, each foot feeling as if it had heavy weights attached. I told the boyfriend he could go first, so I could see how a novice managed. “He’s very sportif,’’ said Jean Christophe, as he went ahead. But — ha! — I rejoiced silently when a few paces out he lost his balance and fell into the snow.
We started with stretching exercises performed with skis attached. I lifted one foot off the ground and out to the side, and fell over. Then did the same with the other foot, and fell over again. Most of my stretching was done in the struggle to stand upright out of the soft snow.
Exercises over, we set out to find a good place to start to ski. Le Grand Bornand has 58km of cross-country trails with well-marked grooves in which you can lodge your own elongated skis, rather like the grooves in the tracks in wooden train sets for toddlers. That was supposed to make it easier to follow the right course. But, like Thomas the Tank Engine, I often left the track and tumbled over. It was, said Jean Christophe, time to call it a day. “What I plan for you tomorrow,’’ he said. “First: you will be able to ski on one leg.’‘
“Maybe we should think about that next month,’’ quipped the boyfriend.
“Second,’’ said Jean Christophe, unperturbed, “Ascent: I want you to ascend correctly in the right position. Third: starting to learn how to stop.’‘
It had snowed overnight, so the whole town was muffled and quiet. Jean Christophe came to pick us up, as cheery and optimistic as ever. I was not so upbeat. One thing the first day had taught me: cross-country is not entirely on the flat. On my long list of advantages of cross-country over downhill was not having all the bother of getting up a mountainside just to go down again. There would be no tiresome queuing for the ski lift. I was right; there was no wait for a lift. You had to walk up the slope instead.
This was why Jean Christophe was keen to teach us how to ascend. The manoeuvre we needed to learn was called the duck, which was, as it sounds, a waddle with skis splayed wide like webbed feet. Unlike downhill, there is nothing sexy about cross-country, especially when I do it. I took two waddles forward, and slipped two waddles back. Eventually, wishing I hadn’t even worn a T-shirt as I was so overheated, I reached the top of my own personal mountain.
Now we only had to descend. This is when we were going to learn to ski on one leg. All we had to do, Jean Chris-tophe demonstrated, was lodge one ski in a groove and hold the other leg out to the side, wavering it in mid-air.
The boyfriend went first. “Fight your skis!’’ shouted Jean Christophe, as his free-flying leg wobbled about with a life of its own. “You are the boss of the skis!’’ Then came my turn. I hope Jean Christophe didn’t notice, but I shut my eyes and just went. “Classe!’’ he shouted, as I reached the bottom still (vaguely) upright.
“Classe!’’ and “Controle!’’ were Jean Christophe’s cries. Controle was what neither the boyfriend nor I could gain when we attempted our first half snowplough. This was crucial, said Jean Christophe, for slowing and stopping; by our third day, he was determined that we would be able to do a plough and grind to a halt.
We began to ski back for lunch; the boyfriend lagged behind, struggling with his duck technique. Jean Chris-tophe and I reached the restaurant and began on a bottle of the local Apremont wine. Half an hour later, the boyfriend arrived. He’d fallen over and been unable to stand up in the soft snow. “Ha, ha,’’ I laughed. “No classe.’‘
“How are you feeling?’’ asked Jean Christophe, kissing me on either cheek as if greeting an old friend. “Excited,’’ I said. I was actually looking forward to skiing. “Then action!’’ he cried, and we headed for the piste.
It had snowed overnight again, so the ground was like a giant duvet, perfect for falling on. Today, our teacher announced, we could be going down the grand descent. Preceded, inevitably, by the grand ascent. If we did well, he had a surprise. Tucked under his puffy jacket was a home-made flask of gentiane — the local liquor produced from the roots of alpine herbs.
The gentiane was a good incentive. But when we reached the trail we were so startled by the size of the slope that Jean Christophe decided we better break out the gentiane there and then.
It did the job. Whooshing up and down the slopes I felt a great sense of achievement. Three days ago, I was a novice and terrified. Now I was at least competent and enjoying myself. As I slid down to the end of the trail and came to a halt with a full plough, Jean Christophe cheered. I didn’t really care if it was true or not, but I liked the way it tripped off his tongue: “Exceptionel!’’ — Â