Learning to ski
At school I was absolutely useless at football, cricket and indeed all ball games but I always had a notion for going skiing. However my parents weren’t well off and couldn’t afford to buy me skis, ski bindings and ski boots. So made my own skis … my skis were solid pieces of ash.
Whereas good skis would have about 40 pieces of wood laminated together and then covered in plastic for appearances. However my skis were probably no worse than the skis used by the Norwegians to travel from village to village. The main problem is they had no steel edges and so were virtually uncontrollable on hard icy snow. I made a few pairs for other people and made enough money to have steel edges added to mine (which needs specialist tools and expertise).
My father helped with bindings making them from pieces of scrap aluminium and he did a good job of making the ski a continuation of my foot without any floppiness. This is what I wanted. But they had no safety release features in the event of a bad fall. In these days there were many broken legs and other injuries. My father was very talented with his hands but I think safety binding would have been beyond even his skills. It is very important that they don’t release when not wanted –as that could give dreadful fall.
As well as being held back by the fairly poor skis, I was also handicapped because of having to take extra care because I had no safety bindings and having to use government surplus climbing boots instead of ski boots. Nevertheless I became one of the better skiers in the north east of Scotland. At that time I did not appear incongruous because most skiers were ramblers/hikers rather than fashionable types or even yuppie types so I didn’t look out of place.
I was dying to be on the same ski slope as my school mates who could completely out class me at football, cricket, etc. At last we had a meeting of the school outdoor club when there was snow and I was delighted to find I was an order of magnitude better than my class mates, and it gave me a great confidence boost, and which just goes to show I wasn’t useless at sports boost I just hadn’t found my own thing beforehand.
Becoming a top Scottish skier
Part of the reason I was so much better because I had worked as a postman in the Christmas holidays and spent my earnings with a week at the Easter holidays at the Austrian ski school at Carrbridge near the Cairngorms. Meantime I took my skis to school every day when there was snow and got off at Tyrie Hill for a bit of practice and then took the next bus home.
In the summer I took other temporary jobs to save up for ski instruction and proper ski boots. .Next winter I had a stroke of good fortune. However, I first need to explain that the Austrians were fed up being beaten by the Swiss, and had made a deeply scientific study of ski technique and developed a new method called (in English) the “other shoulder method”. A top Austrian instructor called Norbet came over to teach it and I was selected to join his class. Everything was the complete opposite of all that I had been taught and I was close to giving up when, after a couple of days, I was skiing worse than a beginner. But I persisted and, after a few weeks, I was another order of magnitude better than other skiers Norbert was very grateful to me because he could speak almost no English and I had studied the Austrian ski manual and was able to tell others in the class what they were doing wrong in response to Norbert’s sign language.
Norbert was so grateful for this that he gave me lots of private tuition and sold me his top quality skis cheaply and I became one of the best skiers in the North East of Scotland. I then got a holiday job over Christmas and Easter holidays at the Nethy Bridge Hotel as an instructor. So I had achieved my goal, I think you will agree, by hard work and holiday jobs rather than luck. Certainly I was the first instructor to have learned his craft on Scotland rather than abroad, funded by rich parents.
I got an hour’s skiing in before and after my classes which gave me lots more practice and facilities and as an instructor I didn’t have to queue for the ski lift. I managed as many as many as 60 runs down Cairngorm in one day. Just as well I got the proper equipment or I would have been a laughing stock because the type of skier was changing (some say for the worse) and there were many fashionable types and some yuppies.
One day for a bit of fun I went out in my old solid wood skies (with metal edges) and government surplus boots and was subject to some ridicule until I got on the snow where the mockers were completely out classed. A bit like golfers with a bag full new gear being out classed by someone with a few old wooden shafted clubs.
Taking of ski lifts, things were very primitive it was several years before there were even “anchor” type drag lifts, far less chair lifts. We were grateful for simple rope tows where grasping the tow rope ruined one’s gloves.
Sometimes it was even more primitive; just an old car with one wheel jacked up and a hub bolted on in place of the wheel and the rope wrapped round the hub. Don’t ask me how they got the car up the slope! And yes, we were grateful for these primitive lifts. It was like heaven when we saw the first chair lifts appeared on Cairngorm and Glencoe.
When I first went abroad I enjoyed getting away from the frequent cold winds of Scotland and into the dry air and bright sunshine, the much longer runs and reliable lifts with few queues. But I became greedy for more. Next I went to a resort that had a drop of about 7,000 ft and then to a resort where the skiing started about 13,000 ft. My first experience of ’thin air’ and having to stop every 20 seconds for a gulp of air. I can’t imagine how people can climb Everest at 28,000 ft. without oxygen.
Not content with the very long runs I still wanted more long distance skiing. I had a notion to spend a week or a fortnight crossing the Alps of Austria or Switzerland on skis. Not ordinary ski touring but downhill only skis and boots as follows:
Going up a mountain in a lift to the top or nearly so and then, with the minimum of walking, skiing down the other side of the mountain to the next village. Then taking a lift in the same direction up another mountain then down the other side and so on. With minimum of travelling by road between ski resorts. I don’t know if this crossing of the Alps would be possible? In these days I did not have the holiday time or the disposable income to tackle it. I thought I would leave it to retirement but then I didn’t have the health! It would be an expensive business staying one night in each place, unlike a package holiday and with no charter flights and having your luggage taken ahead by taxi. So that is one unfulfilled thing in my life.
Another unfulfilled thing is to be dropped by helicopter on the Rocky Mountains in the North America. And skiing on virgin powder snow – where I never got the opportunity in Scotland. So I would have to be taught the very different ski technique and how to keep safe from the bears!
The nearest I got to skiing over the Alps was skiing from one end to the other of the “Three valleys” in France, covering three villages and miles and miles of snow. It was not an ‘adventure’ it was more like “a highly organised thing for the tourists) with well-manicured snow and good signposting and perfectly connected ski lifts. But still highly enjoyable but not an ‘adventure’.
It whetted my appetite even more for skiing across the Alps of say Austria .Looking back on my life I regret not attempting it or even finding out if it would have been possible. I would love to hear from anyone who has attempted it.