If I were to say ‘winter’ and ‘Europe’, most people would conjure up a vivid image of mulled wine, wooden markets and dustings of snow on famous, historical buildings in their imaginations. However, others may enter a more active world of whizzing down jagged, hellish mountains before suffering an inevitable bone-crunching fall. The crooked smirk on the faces of such people when they are dreaming of winter sports is a primary sign of madness within their souls.
Such is my view of all things cold, wintry and beginning with S – skiing, snowboarding and skating. As usual, I feel this way because I didn’t learn to master any of the aforementioned sports as a child, and consequently can’t do any of them with a remote degree of fluency. An infamous attempt to ski in Austria five years ago, where mountain rescue were almost called due to my inability to get down a slope without falling every five seconds and only just making the last bus back to Salzburg, hardened my opinion that skiing and snowboarding are for those with a large vacancy in the space where their brain should be. They seemed unsafe, expensive and, more than anything, cold.
Forgive me for the shoddy pun you are about to read, but of late I have warmed to the notion of being able to propel myself accurately down a large, snow-licked mountain. Having a skiing lesson in Kazakhstan not only made me accept the humiliating fact that children will get from top to bottom far quicker and more elegantly than I could, it also brought a realisation that it will take more than one hour of learning to actually get from top to bottom. In one piece, at least.
Skiing is a popular winter activity in many continental countries, and the Czech Republic is no different. There are resorts scattered around the country but the primary resort is in a town called Spindler in the northeast of the country, close to the Polish border. It is a two-hour drive or two-and-a-half hour bus journey from Prague, depending on the transport available to you. It’s a quiet village geared solely to the pursuit of enjoyment outdoors.
We arrived on a Saturday lunchtime, feeling jaded after a Christmas party the night before. Being the opening weekend of the season, it actually seemed quite quiet – people were perhaps waiting for an increase in snowfall before hitting the slopes. Mercifully, this meant that there was less traffic for amateurs such as myself to negotiate. I thus spent the afternoon honing my technique and getting increasingly arrogant with each attempt to go a little bit quicker down half of the bunny slope. My final attempt, which resulted in what could have been my audition for Total Wipeout, was the only time I face-planted into the soft, white powder.
We were in Spindler for two days, and had managed to acquire a lesson on the Sunday morning. It’s always good to discover that the skills you were honing the previous day were in fact what not to do on the slopes. The lesson, led by a young man who started learning when he was two years old, resulted in me being able to turn in both directions, which is always a good skill to have on the slopes. The 2 hour session flew by.
It was a flippant comment from the instructor which led to this day going downhill – sorry, I couldn’t resist. As we were finishing, he stated that, with one more lesson, I would be able to negotiate a ‘blue’ – the easiest of the slopes emanating from the peak. Having just had a good lesson, I naturally took this to mean something slightly different: you can do a ‘blue’. I thus had a quick drink (why you are allowed, nay encouraged, to drink and ski is still a complete mystery to me) and popped onto the chairlift going all the way up to the top.
On the way up I started chatting to an older man who was with his son. He explained to me, with great authority in his voice, that the slope recommended by my friends was ‘a bit too icy and dangerous’ for a beginner, and suggested a better alternative. I followed him off the chairlift down a gentle, well-protected and quiet slope. Bliss.
Approximately 200 metres down the track, the man stopped at a junction ahead of us and started conversing with a couple of men positioned at the fork in the snowy road. Straight ahead was a continuation of this path, which seemed potentially even gentler than what we had glided down thus far. To the left was…well, I couldn’t see anything, which suggested a steeper drop. The man skied back to us and stated that the straight path was closed. You know where this is going.
I edged nervously towards the precipice. Though nothing in comparison to the picture above, what I saw almost gave me a heart attack. Hannah instantly took off her skis and decided to walk down the slope. Hindsight will say that this was the sensible option. I have never been known for being particularly sensible, however, so gulped and stared down the steep, bobbly, bumpy slope in front of me.
Starting as tentatively as possible, I attempted to go across the slope to kill my speed. Unfortunately, this didn’t work, and then I made a fatal mistake of trying to turn without sufficient conviction. Almost instantaneously I was hurtling down the mountain, as if a cannonball just unleashed from a battleship. Cannon fodder.
I managed to make myself fall before my speed accelerated to dangerous levels. It was at this point, I learnt later, that the man turned to Hannah and said, “I think your boyfriend is going too fast.” Being aware of this is one thing: doing something about it, quite another. A few more tumbles got me close to the bottom of the slope, from which I was able to put my learning into practice and actually ski comfortably.
A slight aside; one of these falls resulted in me visiting the doctor when I returned back to the UK for Christmas, complaining of an issue with my jaw. His prognosis?
“You’re a rubbish skier.”
Did the man lie to us? Not really. At the bottom of this slope was a slope definitely designed for beginners, on which we slowly meandered down and grabbed the pole lifts back up a few times to rebuild fragile confidence. The only problem was that this slope was on the other side of the mountain to the town, and there was no way of getting back to Spindler itself in time for the bus back to Prague. We thus had to get all the way back up to the top and decide whether to ski down the original slope deemed ‘too hard’ for us, or to swallow pride and take the chairlift all the way down. We did the latter.
It was an eventful weekend; bruising physically and mentally, yet also incredibly enjoyable and exciting. Skiing is not an easy skill to master, but with each lesson, session and ungraceful fall I am becoming more competent. The joy of sites such as Spindler being relatively easy to reach means that there will be plenty of opportunity to ski and eventually tackle death slopes such as the one we inadvertently tried at the end of our weekend.
Love you all