Skiing with Paddy Ashdown: fond, if sometimes exhausting, memories



These pictures of Paddy and me were taken ten years ago on the last of many ski-holidays we'd spent together since 1988, when he'd become leader of the LibDems. 

It was also by far the most exhausting few days I ever spent on a ski holiday - on which more after the history of the Ashdown-Atkinson ski-tours below.

Ashdown-Atkinson ski-tours (pre-internet)
Very early in our friendship, we'd discovered that we both had children of a similar age, that all of us liked skiing and that our families tried to go skiing every every year. For them, the Ashdowns, weekend family skiing had been a pleasant perk of life in Geneva (between his lives in the Royal Marines marines and in politics).

After Paddy became party leader, I'd book apartments for the Ashdown and Atkinson families and he'd tell friends and colleagues (including MPs, party members, officials, activists, etc.) where and when we were going that year. Some would make their own travel and accommodation arrangements, others would phone me to ask about this year's available options.
Flaine: one of the first
Ashdown-Atkinson resorts

During the eleven years of his leadership, many people came on these haphazardly packaged holidays. Usually there'd be 15-20 skiers (+ partners and younger children who might or might not be old enough/good enough skiers to follow the leader).

"Follow me to the first lift - no matter how cold it is!"
Those wanting to ski with the group in the morning knew that they'd have to be at the first lift as soon as it opened at 9.00 am.

Anyone in or near the Ashdown apartment also knew that they'd have been woken up at 'sparrows' fart' (Ashdown family jargon for 'crack of dawn') by the sound of our leader's loud imitation of the military reveille WAKE UP! bugle call - after which there'd be no chance of ever missing the first lift.

Once on the slopes, there was no need to think any more, as it was a matter of 'follow my leader' -  who allowed for the fact that it was often a mixed ability group that he was leading. So the route he selected would be reasonably gentle and reasonably free from other skiers. After a few hundred yards, he'd stop and wait for everyone to catch up in as safe a place as possible.

More follow my leader down the slope and however many more catch up/rest/gossip interludes were deemed necessary before reaching the next lift queue, followed by a longer and more relaxing rest on a chair-lift.  

During the days, there'd be occasional breaks for coffee or beer at mountain restaurants but we were then left to fend for ourselves from about 12.30 hrs to 14.00 hrs.
Paddy, Kate and Simon went back to their flat, where Jane would have cooked them a wholesome lunch.

In his skiing Paddy managed, as in all other aspects of his life, to be thoroughly focused, thoroughly considerate and thoroughly pleasant.


Q:  Why was this the most exhausting few days skiing I have ever done?
A:  Because Paddy and I were the only two skiers in a house-party of four: Jane and Joey had long since given up skiing and were quite happy relaxing in the chalet and wandering around the village.

My need for a very cunning plan 
Having skied many times with my son and family, mainly in Les Arcs, I'd discovered that there was much to be said for NOT getting to the first lift as soon as it opened at 9 o'clock.
Later on in the day, snow gets softer and less icy - and, if the sun comes out, it gets even easier to ski as the day wears on.  

In blizzard conditions and/or if it's too cold and icy, you can just mooch around bars and restaurants.

On this particular holiday, I obviously couldn't avoid Paddy's early morning bugle call and the first challenge of the day (for a leisure skier like me) was to delay our departure for as long as possible after breakfast - which I succeeded in doing on most days.

Help from the dreaded G word
Fit and healthy though he always looked, Paddy had suffered for many years from a painful condition he never talked about in public (gout in one of his legs), a condition that made the laborious business of getting a heavy ski-boot on even more laborious (and painful) than usual. So it was a real help having someone there who was willing and able to help.

Having spent a few minutes helping him with his wooly socks and cramming his foot into the boot,  I'd an excuse to take many more minutes pretending that there was something wrong with my own boots - which bought me enough time to delay our departure until 10 o'clock).

A heavy price to pay: hours of non-stop skiing
Once on the slopes, there was little chance to stop for a rest and I had to spend the whole day trying to keep up up with him with few chances to  stop for breaks. What made it worse was that the resort seemed to have more drag-lifts than chair-lifts, so I couldn't even sit down, have a chat and rest between the different pistes.

The pictures of us at the top of the blog were taken on one such day when (after much nagging from me) he agreed to stop for a coffee - not in a restaurant or bar with seats, but standing in the fresh air at a table poking out of the snow on a stick. A quick coffee each and we were off again. 

As on Ashdown Tours, he always selected the routes and led the way. But with only two to think about, he stopped far less frequently and for much shorter periods than when there was a big gang skiing behind him. Reaching him wasn't a cue for a short rest, but more like firing the starting gun for Mr Boundless-Energy to be off again.

Exhaustion, enjoyment and fitness
That's why these were the most exhausting few days I ever spent on a ski holiday. Though two years younger than Paddy, I knew him to be much fitter, stronger and a better skier than I was. Managing to keep up with him on these exhausting days therefore gave me a real sense of achievement. 

And, needless to say, apr├Ęs ski in the chalet with Paddy and Jane was, as always,  a pleasure...

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