13 April 2010

Half a century of skiing

If you've been wondering why I haven't been blogging since the election got under way, it's because I've had much more important things to do - on a family skiing holiday in the French Alps.

When my son kindly (or pointedly?) bought me a private ski lesson for my birthday present, the instructor asked me how long I'd been skiing. The answer, somewhat embarrassingly, was that it was more than fifty years ago - when things were very different compared with today.

1. Kit
In 1957, the boots were made of leather and the skis were made of wood.
To select 'correctly' sized skis, you had to reach into the air as high as you could before being allocated a pair that were a full arm's length longer than your height (RIGHT: Me with leather boots and long wooden skis, December, 1957).

Since then, the design of boots and skis have changed dramatically - and for the better. The boots are now much more comfortable and the shorter spoon-shaped skis make the whole business far easier than it used to be - and raise the question of whether the absurdly long skis of the past were a cunning ploy by the ski schools to make sure that you paid for classes for much longer than necessary.

2. Lifts
Apart from the kit, the best thing that's happened (except in smaller resorts) is the replacement of button and T-bar lifts that pull you uphill, wearing you out long before you ever got anywhere near to the top, with comfortable high speed chair lifts (and various high tech gondolas and cable cars).

I'd forgotten just how tiring and stressful it is being pulled up-hill on your skis before skiing down-hill until a recent visit to a small French resort - where, on a single day, I had to endure the torment of thirteen button-lifts.

A few days ago, I went up at least as many chair-lifts but was able to relax and enjoy the views on the way up to each of the summits - from where you felt suitably rested and ready for the descent.

However, although I'm all in favour of the modern chair lift, my favourite lift of all is the historic cog railway from Wengen to Grindlewald via Kleine Sheidegg, which originally inspired the foundation of the Downhill Only Club and the concept of lift-assisted skiing - without which it would never have become the mass pastime that it is today.

3. From winter sports to dedicated skiing
Fifty years ago, you went on 'winter sports' holidays and skiing was just one of the things you did among others, like skating, tobogganing and curling. Today, people just take to the slopes on skis or snowboards and doing anything else tends to be viewed as 'wasted time' - which seems a pity, as I enjoyed last week's expedition on a sledge pulled by Huskies as much as a toboggan ride we did a few years ago from Kleine Scheidegg to Wengen.

4. Resorts
Fifty years ago, most of the ski resorts were farming villages or health resorts, mainly in Switzerland and Austria, that had just begun to develop skiing as welcome boost to their local economies.

Today, if skiing is your main aim, the post 1960s French purpose-built resorts, with their hundreds of kilometres of pistes, interlinked by high tech lift systems have transformed things beyond belief. Each one of the Thee Valleys (Courcheval, Meribel and Val Thorens/Les Menuires), so the anoraks tell me, is a bigger ski area than the biggest area at any resort in North America.

But, if you're after Alpine character and old world charm, forget about the architectural monstrosities and indoor camping in tower blocks bequeathed by the French revolution of the 1960s-70s, and head for a traditional Austrian or Swiss village (providing you can put up with more limited ski areas and the daily torment of drag lifts).

5. Snowboards
Fifty years ago, these were still a thing of the future. And, if their reduced representation on the slopes last week is anything to go by, I suspect that, fifty years from now, they'll be a thing of the past.

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