The British are renowned as being a seafaring nation, ruling the waves (and sometimes their fishing waters) and currently apparently soon to be “free of their shackles” with a trade deal, and also pride themselves of their relationship with steam (or at least steam-based transport, with a list of firsts regarding steamers and steam locomotives). However their relationship with snow is a distinctly poorer and more troublesome one. I remember the late 1970s when heavy snowfalls meant standstills, power cuts, and disruption to Britain. A measly inch of snow, that didn’t even make a good snowball used to cause problems.
Forty years on, and the Covid-19 pandemic brought it all hurtling to a stop again, as well as the fact that despite a tunnel under the English Channel (or La Manche if you are coming from France), Britain is as good as cut off from the “mainland”, with Austria extending the ban on flights from the UK until 10 January 2021. It was the English Channel that used to always be the first obstacle to overcome in the days when I used to go on skiing trips from the UK, prior to moving to a country that is more readily associated with snow and winter sports.
Strangely enough, as a child in the early to mid 1960s, I enjoyed a good relationship with snow – snowball fights were a regular memory every winter, as was the smell of damp woolen pullovers drying off after coming in from wherever the snowball fight had been. And I remember in the very early 1970s that my brother and I donned some primitive skiing equipment after being allowed to join my father and others on what might have been classed as a “jolly”, heading up to Aviemore in a minibus that had been signed out from the base, to go skiing.
To be honest I have no recollection of much of it, other than the facts that a lot of “rugby songs” were sung and it was probably a miracle that we got back with the minibus by and large in one piece, given some fairly hairy driving skills. Those were the days of drink-driving not being shunned but almost actively encouraged, no seat belts and entertainment being through singing in the bus, rather than any radio, tape deck, CD player or similar. That trip however did sow the seeds in my mind about future international skiing trips, as well as putting a few hairs on my young chest.
In the 1960s and 1970s skiing was emerging as a sport that was no longer the reserve of the rich in the UK, and it suddenly was apparently much more affordable. Prior to the Aviemore trip, which was my first time skiing on real snow, I had only had a couple of goes in Whitley Bay on an artificial slope while away with my brother and father, as preparation (the facility is long gone). But somehow, the humble beginnings did not deter me, although it was probably the 1980s where the prospect of skiing holidays became a realistic one for me, as my penchant for buying lots of records meant that a skiing trip was out of my reach before then.
Back then, I remember booking at least once through Inghams, which I was amazed to see still exists, and another trip was done on the cheap, with a coach from round the back of London Victoria Bus Station, with a pair of borrowed salopettes that I shared with my flatmate (we didn’t go skiing together, but hit upon the idea of sharing some of the gear). And of course I’ll never forget Emma from Ipswich, whose hopes were pinned on there being Ski yoghurts in the hotel (another brand I can only assumed no longer exists, having been quite common in the 70s and 80s, and were suitably dashed by the French style yoghurts at the hotel.
Another trip was on a “party plane” of the long since defunct Dan Air, and I think it was a flight from London Luton. Those ski weeks used to be fairly “ski hard and party harder” affairs and then sweat over how much money you had spent on your Access card and replenishing your travel money, or worrying about where you could get anything approaching a decent rate for your Traveller’s Cheques. One trip did threaten to spawn a potential romance (there was a tearful goodbye at Euston as Claire from Crewe got onto her train after ten intense days in Châtel), but after a couple of letters the contact dropped off.
As I remarked in one of my earlier posts in this blog (A non-skier’s guide to the Hahnenkammrennen), it was however my relocating to Austria that really transformed my active skiing career in the early 1990s. Part of it was possibly the novelty, and the genuine affordability of it all (well until you discovered you were bound by school holidays and the family Skiwoche was guaranteed to empty your wallet if you *had* to keep up with the Jonas’ and weren’t content to go to a little resort with limited facilities – although it was later in the 1990s when I started to go a bit more upmarket.
After one very cold night sleeping in the car with friends (it was about -6°C outside) we did always book accommodation although the level of luxury was decidedly slanted towards “down at heel” with a profusion of avocado or brown tiled bathrooms, and showers in baths that you couldn’t stand up in, a trickling flow of water and limited hot water. I remember a fine trip with a Wedelweiss ticket to St Anton, and staying in a suitably budget Pension, which three of us sharing, including a prolific snorer and one friend who had the ability to make it look as though the room had been ransacked within hours of arriving.
And when I was freshly married, my wife and I would also pop off with friends of hers for New Year’s Eve and invariably arise with a hangover and then hurtle down some slopes as a start to the New Year. The balance of the ski/après-ski gradually shifted towards the former, over the years, although we did feel towards the end (I was approaching sixty) that we were too old for the scene and when my knees packed up, that was it. But what does this have to do with 2020?
Well Covid-19 first hit the media in relation to Austria after infamous partying in Ischgl, which is still causing litigation, and Austria’s resorts were forced to shut as lockdown hit in mid-March, and there was criticism over their delayed shutting. Depriving the resorts of their winter season was considered financial suicide, and something that local politicians had been keen to avoid. Back then it was assumed that everything would be right as rain (or maybe perfect as powder), and Sebastian Kurz, who looks like he’d work in a ski resort and try to pick up the tourists as an Alpine Lothario, was braying about his statecraft in managing the lockdown so well.
There’s no business like snow business…
However, not getting to grips with how to draw up a “Konzept” for handling the ski season over the summer meant that the Winter season 2020/21 was threatened and the financial fragility exposed of tourism heavily centred around skiing, with shorter seasons, issues with less snow and media images from recent years of artificially groomed piste strips being constructed with man-made snow to be able to open on time in recent seasons. You have to pity the seasonal workers who come over from the UK, and who if not hunkering down in a resort already will not be able to turn up with a semi-roadworthy car and to then spend a hedonistic and care-free season in the Alps, with the prospect of then doing it all again next year.
But of course fortunately the professional ski circuit still rumbles on, albeit in biosecure bubbles, that seem a far cry from the glory days of Ingemar Stenmark, Franz Klammer and Pirmin Zurbriggen, not to mention AJ Kitt who has been immortalised in rhyming slang. Possibly only Formula 1 has been sanitised more than this. But it does mean that there is coverage on television, the analysis, the post-mortems and sports journalists can somehow report to a nation that is still enthralled by skiing, even if their interest is one borne out of a determination that their escape to Kitz, St Anton, Innsbruck etc won’t fall foul of Covid-19.
And of course many resorts have doubtless been improving their infrastructure to keep up with the neighbours, as well as there now being a lot of resorts melded into one, in the way that fondue becomes a solid lump once it cools. How quickly the resorts recover, or if they do at all remains to be seen. And possibly opening at all is wrong – Austria already being back in the headlines due to resorts and queues for lifts looking less socially distanced that was intended. I fear it might be a long cold winter of skiing discontent ahead, with an icy breeze in terms of morale for your average skiing Austrian.
So what has become of my relationship with snow nowadays? It seems very little. I now perform Winterdienst for our house, and so have become a dab hand at snow clearing (which I had to do for the first time in I think nearly two years recently, when we had ten centimetres of snow). As the New Year approaches, the temperatures are relatively cool again, and so I have been gritting and spraying, even though we are theoretically confined to barracks – unless as is the Austrian solution, of lockdown or heading off to the piste instead. I’ll content myself with the Wetterpanorama, and this too shall pass.
Stay safe, safe healthy, and Happy and healthy, and hopefully a more normal New Year for 2021!