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Downhill for generations

Mark Palmer finds a family legacy on the slopes

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

My 22-year-old daughter is feeling a little low. Me, too, actually. I’ve just told her there aren’t enough pennies in the coffers to go skiing this season — just as there weren’t last season. I suggested she should get together a group of friends and do it on the cheap but we all know that doing skiing on the cheap means pretending you’re flying down the mountain while parked in your local Costa with a hot -chocolate.

‘We’ll go next year,’ I said. And we will. In fact, I’ve already been in touch with those nice people at -Powder White and I am about to sign up for a 12-berth chalet in Courchevel 1650 that has an open fire, a hot tub on the roof and the promise of freshly baked cake every evening when we get down from the mountain. My children, step-children and all their respective girlfriends and boyfriends will be invited. My wife — who doesn’t ski but likes the scenery — won’t have to boil a kettle or wash a pan for a week.

I’m feeling quite emotional just thinking about it, but that’s because I get quite emotional about skiing. For a start, I’m chuffed that my children still want to ski with me. I’ll be almost 60 by the time we get out there in February 2014. Yes, money comes into it but there’s more to it than that. It’s something we’ve always done together. When I split up with their mother it was the one holiday that worked. We would wake up in the morning, have breakfast and ski all day. Then we would do the exact same thing the next day and so on for a week.

We probably had some tiffs, some awkward silences at lunch, but when we were skiing we were one unit. Primogeniture ruled. I was in front, my son behind me, his younger sister behind him. From the age of seven and four respectively they would follow in my exact tracks. We shared every turn, rode every bump, negotiated every patch of ice. And we went faster and faster each year. Whenever we reached our cruising speed I used to start singing ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, belting out with gusto the verse about surviving even if your deck of cards is ‘missing the jack and the ace’.

Skiing is the perfect family outing — but nothing would induce me to take it up as an adult. Many resorts in the French Alps are hideous, and the people are pretty awful too. Along the way you have to deal with snow-boarders in baggy anoraks who may or may not be tripping on acid, and indifferent spaghetti bolognese costing £30 in posh places like Zermatt; and our German brothers and sisters still won’t give an inch in the queues.

It’s all such a performance. But that’s what I love about it. Have I got the right gloves? Perhaps I should change my boots this evening for a more comfortable pair. Not sure my skis are quite up to scratch. Maybe my parallel turns will improve if I invest in a more fetching bobble hat.

No other nationality does it like us. The chalet holiday is a uniquely British invention pioneered in 1959 by Colin Murison Small in Grindelwald. In those days, his ‘Muribirds’ would melt some cheeses and call it fondue, and plonk a couple of bottles of vinegary red wine on the table. Today, the smarter ski companies talk about ‘lodges’ rather than chalets and they’re staffed by ‘hosts’, not Sloaney Pony chalet girls.

Even in the 1980s, it was hit and miss. We once joined a chalet party in Megève and everything was going splendidly until the second morning when I got up and noticed there was no sign of breakfast. Then, suddenly, a man appeared from the basement where our two chalet girls were billeted. He was wearing white Y-fronts and carrying a pair of tracksuit bottoms. ‘Sorry, mate, nearly forgot these,’ he said, making for the door. We never got breakfast that morning and then the girl not entertaining Mr Y-fronts was dumped by her French boyfriend and needed a constant shoulder to cry on. By the end of the week we were cooking our own dinners and had -considered drawing up a dishwashing rota.

I learnt to ski in the 1960s in Zürs, Austria, a sister resort to gritty St Anton and swanky Lech. We used to go with Erna Low (still in business) and it took almost 24 hours to get there. I think the idea was to reinforce the notion that life is not meant to be comfortable. We took the train from Reading to Paddington, the sleeper from Victoria to Zurich and then another smaller train up the mountain. To make it clear that luxury was vulgar, we had to wear our heavy leather boots all the way, tied so tight that the blood stopped just above the ankles.

‘Wear them in and make sure they mould to your feet,’ my mother would tell us. ‘And anyway it’s much lighter wearing them than carrying them all that way.’ And far better, I would have thought, to have rented them once we got there, but I imagine my parents didn’t trust the Austrians to produce proper boots — after all, what did they know about winter sports?

I used to be paired with my father on the T-bar lifts. It was a good time to talk, just as chairlifts are a good time to talk today. Perhaps it’s all that fresh air and heightened elevation, but no topic is off-piste on the mountain.

Zürs used to have one of the longest lifts in the world. Once, the visibility was so bad that you couldn’t see the top of the stanchions and then just to top things off, thick snow and an -arctic wind blew in. I lost all feeling in my feet and hands, followed by a light-headedness.

My father kept talking, hoping the sound of his voice would keep me alive, but the only comfort came from the certainty that I would be dead by the time we reached the top.

My own children will have their own stories to tell their children. I know this because the last time we could afford a proper week of spring skiing in the Three Valleys I asked my daughter what she was listening to on her iPod as we stopped for lunch at my favourite mountain restaurant, Les Crêtes, on the way down to Saint-Martin-de-Belleville.

‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,’ she said. And I felt good about that.

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