Thanks, but I'll stick to high heels
NIGHT VISION Söll's slopes lit up for skiing.
Ploughing on: Rosemary Mac Cabe on the slopes in the Austrian ski resort of Söll
Go Austria: Rosemary Mac Cabe’sfriends told her that skiing can be a refuge if you’re not very sporty. So she headed for the slopes expecting to excel. It wasn’t quite what she’d imagined
ON THE FOURTH day of the week I give up. I hit the wall, reach the end of my tether, can do no more, will have no more. I have accepted that skiing, like all sports, is outside my physical capabilities. I am doomed to spend my life on the treadmill, leaving exhilarating outdoor sports to those for whom these things come naturally.
I played basketball for a while at school, but my terrible fear of the ball and lack of hand-eye coordination meant it wasn’t going to lead to the stellar career I’d imagined. Gaelic football produced much the same result – although, as I never quite mastered the solo, that’s to be expected. As for soccer, I would run squealing from the ball, which seemed to me to be travelling at the speed of light, and always with a purposeful trajectory that ended somewhere between my eyes. There’s no “I” in “team”, in my world, translated to mean there was no Rosemary in team, and I was left on the bench as often, and for as long, as possible.
So when the opportunity arises to ski for a week in Söll, in Austria – to learn a sport that is reliant neither on balls nor on team playing – there is only ever going to be one answer, minor fear of heights notwithstanding.
I hear tales of unsporty figures for whom skiing provides a refuge in an otherwise talentless life. “I’m a natural skier,” my friend Ciara tells me days before my flight departs. “It’s the one sport that I’m good at.” My heart swells and I think: “This is the sport at which I will excel. I will soon rise up the ranks and be skiing down black slopes with the best of them.”
And so I find myself, on day four, at the top of what seems to be a never-ending hill, on my side, one ski cast ruthlessly aside. It reminds me of those vertical-drop slides in children’s play centres, the slides down which I always had to be pushed, lest I spend all day perched at the top, arms crossed, tears streaming silently down my cheeks. I replace my ski and manage to move about 10m before I fall again, ski off, cheeks burning.
The thing about learning to ski is that it’s a little like riding a bike. For starters, it’s best done early, a fact attested to by the tots who zoom past in their multicoloured suits, like Teletubbies on skis. It’s also all about leaning – but with the crucial difference that, when riding a bicycle, you lean into the corner, up the hill, as it were. When skiing, you lean down the hill, and it’s no easy feat convincing your mind that this is a good idea.
The first three days are a blur of leaning, angling my legs and pushing my shins forward into my boots, the pain of which no amount of colourful description can convey. I have spent 12 years trying to train my feet to walk in high heels, a feat that results in blisters, hobbling and no small measure of cramping. Now, having spent five days skiing, I can say I would rather walk for the rest of my life in 15cm heels than spend an hour walking in ski boots.
The pain is the main hurdle to overcome. I awake on day two with a burning in my calves and hobble down to the breakfast room to stock up on protein. Dried fruit and eggs are my foods of choice. A gym instructor once told me that eating a lot of protein is the way to heal aching muscles; I’m not quite sure I believe him. The waitress takes one look at me. “Are you all right?” She looks concerned. “Skiing,” I explain, and she laughs and walks away. Sympathy is thin on the ground when you’re a novice with nothing but whining to bring to the table.
The walk to the ski school – 15 minutes down a steep hill – is almost enough to loosen my muscles, but my second day’s skiing is a blur of shaking legs and aching calves. It is on the second day, too, that people’s natural abilities become clear. Bridget, a British woman who, on day one, fell five times and could not master the turns is now a pro. David, a young Dublin fellow, is as close to intermediate as a beginner can hope to be at this early stage; when quizzed, he speaks of a background in mountain biking. “It helps you ignore the fear, because you’re used to going fast downhill,” he explains. I have no such background to rely on.
It is on day five, when I am ruthlessly demoted from my beginners’ group, which has been approaching red slopes with gusto while I wait at the bottom for a return to the easier blue, that things begin to come together for me.
At a slower pace, with less anxiety at always being last in the group, I conquer the art of leaning (although my new instructor, a 19-year-old Belgian named Steven, keeps shouting at me to “lean more!”) and begin to appreciate skiing as being fun, a notion that had astounded me just the day before.
On my final day, when I return to skiing playschool, I start to love it. I begin to plan my next holiday – in the beginners’ group again, doubtless – and to relish the idea of that final hill that was my downfall 24 hours earlier. My old instructor passes by. “You are smiling! Oh, you never smiled with me!” He’s right; I’m almost laughing, with the wind in my hair and the snow at my feet.
I am a leaf on the wind, zooming down slopes with a gay abandon I have never before associated with sports. I am unflappable, unbeatable. Then I spy a tiny blur of colour zooming past me on the hill. Then another. Like my own personal Children of the Corn, all shiny helmets, chubby legs and terrifying skiing superiority.
Rosemary Mac Cabe was a guest of Topflight
If I can learn to ski . . .
SKIING COMES SO naturally to some people that it’s as if they were born to do it. They glide down mountains in such a carefree way that you wonder if they are even aware of the snow beneath their skis. Alas, I am not one of them.
I’m standing on a ski slope at Val Thorens, in France, the highest ski resort in Europe, and am wishing I were anywhere but here. My instructor, Michel, is
trying not to laugh while he encourages me to try to stay on my feet for more than 30 seconds at a time.
“Walk like Charlie Chaplin,” he says as I once again become entangled in my skis and tumble into the snow. “Yes, you will be a good skier,” he says cheerfully. “Just like Mr Bean.”
This is my introduction to the world of skiing, and I’m not having fun. That I don’t get it is obvious from the fact that two colleagues who are also just starting out can already negotiate their way up and down the mountain. I can’t even manage the magic carpet, the travelator that takes you back up the slope. I fall over on it, causing a tailback.
Thankfully, it’s not all about skiing here, and while the French Alps may have lost Irish skiers in recent years to cheaper resorts in Austria and Bulgaria, it’s hard to beat it in terms of food, wine and entertainment.
Take Val Thorens. The resort is part of the Three Valleys ski area, which, at more than 600km, is about the biggest ski area in the world; it has 68 pistes, including eight black runs, and is popular with both skiers and snowboarders. It also has bars, clubs and restaurants (one with a Michelin star) to beat the band, all of which makes the resort a great spot for those more interested in apres-ski.
Even better is the resort of Alpe d’Huez. Its pistes, which span some 200km, include La Sarenne, the longest black run in Europe, at 16km.
It was in Alpe d’Huez that I finally made it down a piste unimpeded – proof that even those of us with two left feet and no sense of balance can, when pushed, ski.
Charlie Taylor was a guest of Topflight
Where to stay, eat and go if you're skiing in Söll
Where to stay
Hotel Alpen Panorama. Sonnbichl 18, 00-43-5333- 5309, hotelalpenpanorama. com. Quaint Alpine hotel with great views, extensive lunch menu, sauna and solarium, a 15-minute walk from Söll.
Feldwebel Hotel. Dorf 73, 00-43-5333-5224, feldwebel.at. Family-run hotel with bright, cosy rooms in the centre of Söll. Serves typical Tyrolean cuisine.
Bergview Haus. Unterhauning 1, bergviewhaus.com. Self- catering apartments with two double bedrooms each, sleeping up to six people. Rent all three for groups of up to 18.
Where to eat
Bella Vita. Dorf 136, 00-43- 5333-20360, bellavitasoell.at. Upmarket restaurant serving international cuisine.
Gipfelrestaurant Hohe Salve. 00-43-5335-2216, hohe-salve.com. At a height of 1,829m, this mountain-top restaurant serves traditional Austrian food. Come for the views – and be sure to sample the goulash.
Where to learn
Skischool Knolln. Dorf 135, 00-43-676-6485060, skischule- knolln.at. Extensive courses, with five days of lessons and six days of ski hire for beginners at €190 (or from €160 for children).
Ski School Snowboard Söll. Stampfanger 6, 00-43-53335454, skischule-soell.com. Classes in Alpine and Nordic skiing, as well as snowboarding, for adults and children. From €143 for a week’s lessons.
Freaks on Snow. Gasthof Feldwebel, 00-43-6643418409, freaksonsnow.com. Snowboard lessons start on Sundays and Wednesdays. From €48 for a one-day course (two hours of classes).
Where to go
When the lifts have closed and the slopes are off limits, visitors to SkiWelt, as the larger skiing area that Söll is part of is known, can try their hands at a variety of evening activities. Tobogganing will entertain all the family, while bobsleighing gives you a chance to sample Olympic glory. Tubing – careering down the mountain in a giant inflatable tyre – is also on offer, as are paragliding, sleigh rides and night skiing, for the more advanced. Bookings through local ski schools.
If you want a day off from skiing, Wörgl and Kufstein are accessible by train, as are Salzburg and, across the border in Germany, Munich, which is just an hour away.