A downhill struggle: a first timer’s ski odyssey

AS a country, we are obsessed with what separates us. North-South; rich-poor; black-white; upper, middle or working class. I’ve always thought that skiing holidays, for the Brits at least, offer one of the most reliable dividing lines. Personally, I would do away the census and ask one question: have you been on a skiing holiday in the last five years? The question might not work on everyone – the old, the infirm, the scaredy cats – but it would provide a pretty accurate snapshot of the state of the nation.

So it has always been a source of great angst that I can’t ski. My father, who hated all holidays, reserved a special venom for skiing. In part this was because his one experience – chaperoning a class of accident-prone 15 year old boys on a school trip – had left him permanently terrified. But he also rejected it on ideological grounds: it was elitist, dangerous, pointless and expensive. “Exactly,” I thought. “When do we leave?”

I had all but given up on learning, in the belief that skiing – like riding a bike or swimming – was something you had to master as a child. I could eat in the right restaurants, shop in Waitrose, and become a member of the Tate – but I would always be an outsider. Entry to London’s chattering classes is only assured once you have successfully skied down a red slope.

When I was asked if I wanted to join two other beginners on a trip to Meribel in the French alps, I took a fair amount of convincing. I liked the idea of everything that came with it – the chalets, the Jägerbombs, the après-ski – but the thought of strapping two pieces of wood to my feet and careering down a 3,000 foot mountain filled me with dread. Still, here was the chance to enter the skiers’ club, a lifelong ambition. When I phoned my father to tell him I was going, I was triumphant. What was the worst that could happen? “Death,” came the reply.

My instructor, Richard, was France’s very own bionic man. Most of Meribel is staffed by bright university students who take classes to fund their holidays on the slopes, but Richard was a lifelong resident. It would be impossible to find a more manly man. He hunted; he explored; he knew the mountains off by heart; he swigged Calvados from a hip-flask. In the summer, he left civilisation behind to live in a secluded lodge without running water or electricity.

Before I even put on a pair of ski boots, it was clear I would be a disappointment. “Have you been hunting before,” he asked. No. “Shooting?” Erm, no. “Fly-fishing?” I looked at the ground and shook my head. “I like Ernest Hemingway, though,” I offered.

To learn how to ski quickly, you need two things: good coordination and fearlessness. It turns out I have neither. As predicted, I failed to live up to Richard’s expectations. Getting started wasn’t a problem, it was stopping that was the hard part. “Open your snow plough,” he’d instruct each time I descended the kiddies’ slope. And each time I approached the barrier preventing me from tumbling to near-certain oblivion, I simply crashed into it or fell on my side, skis tangled, legs akimbo.

For the uninitiated, “snow plough” describes the movement made to brake one’s skis before coming to a graceful stop. And it was a move that I simply couldn’t master. Richard put my poor performance down to psychological flaws. I thought too much instead of doing what felt natural; I was lilly-livered; I had spent too much of my life reading Hemingway, and not enough time copying him.

Diagnosing the source of the problem didn’t help, despite Richard’s best efforts. To begin with he was encouraging and reassuring, chuckling every time I fell over and repeating, ad infinitum, “open your snow plough”. His patience didn’t last. Then came the harder line. “OPEN YOUR SNOW PLOUGH,” he’d bellow, to no avail. After I fell over for the thirtieth or fortieth time, he kneeled down, stared me in the face and whispered slowly “Open. Your. Snow. Plough”. I’m pretty sure there were tears in in his eyes.

I did what I always do in situations like this: took succour from the fact that, of the three beginners in Richard’s class, I wasn’t the worst. That title went to a man in his forties who had come on the trip to conquer his pathological fear of heights. It didn’t work.

When we took our first chair-lift, from the kiddies’ slope to an easy green one, he flipped out. Innocently enough, I remarked I was enjoying the chair-lift – anything was better than lying in the snow while someone repeatedly shouted the same four words at you. He turned on me, delivering a tirade littered with expletives. “You’re crazy, you are,” he shouted. That afternoon he hung up his skis, strapped a pair of tennis rackets to his feet, and spent the rest of the week snow shoeing.

Having gained confidence from another’s failure, I redoubled my efforts and eventually mastered the snow plough. As a skier, I was still shaky at best, but I could come to a stop without falling over, at least most of the time.

At some point, around the middle of the second day, everything suddenly clicked. As Richard had predicted, it all fell into place when I stopped over-thinking things. I started to daydream about something innocuous, and when I awoke I found myself skiing with relative ease. It is hard to describe the epiphany of that moment, but it is something I will never forget.

It was only then that I understood what all the fuss was about. I stopped staring at my feet and started to look around me, at the stunning scenery, the craggy mountains with their fluffy, meringue-like snow caps and the dense green forests.

That night, back in January, I learned on returning to the hotel that Andy Coulson and Alan Johnson had both resigned. As the paper’s then political editor, I was annoyed to have missed one of the biggest news days since the election. But when I returned to the slopes the following day, and the days after that, I didn’t give it another thought. Thinking, you see, is for wimps.


Les 3 hôtels de la Chaudanne
It mightn’t be the trendiest hotel in Meribel, but the location – seconds away from the ski lifts, bars and shops – couldn’t be better. Rooms cost from €278 per double room including breakfast.
0033 (0)4 79 08 61 76

Le Zinc
The newly-opened Le Zinc brasserie at the Altiport Hotel pairs chic interiors with contemporary versions of traditional Savoyard dishes like tartiflette.

Chez Kiki
Vegetarians beware. Chez Kiki is all about the meat, which is barbequed on an open grill in the middle of the restaurant. Sirloins from €25 and fillet steak from €31.

Le Blanchot
Widely considered one of the best restaurants in Meribel. Make sure you leave room for one of the exquisite deserts.

The Allodis
This four star hotel is a favourite with skiers, but it’s worth trying out the restaurant even if you stay elsewhere. The impressive menu degustation costs €55 a head.

Skiing can take its toll, especially if you’re a beginner. So take time out to relax at the Parc Olympique spa. Access to the jacuzzi, saunas, steam room and herbal tea bar is €26. Treatments start at €20.

5 half days: from €124 per person
One to one lesson: from €130 for a half a day.

T: +33 (0)4 79 00 59 61