High life | 2 March 2017

Those were the days: when skiing was hard to do and even harder to prepare for

High life | 2 March 2017
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Back in the good old days a funicular used to take skiers up, bucking all the way and stopping from time to time when the snowdrifts across the track got too deep. We used to wax our skis at every opportunity, deposit them in the baggage car, and ride the outdoor car. Most of us had a flask with good stuff in it, and once on top we’d push our laced-up boots into the toe irons and clamp them shut. We’d then wrap the long leather straps of the skis tightly around the boot, and presto, we’d be ready to ski.

Skiing back then was an adventure, not just something to say you’d done. You had to put on lots of pullovers to ward off the cold, and top them off with a bulky ski jacket. Dressing alone took close to 30 minutes, what with long, buttoned underwear, and lacing up boots was exercise in itself. Skiers made jump turns as the two-metre-plus wooden skis were resistant to curve. Woe betide anyone falling forward. If the shin didn’t shatter, the ankle did, and it was time for the meat wagon, as it was called. One crouched so as to be close to the ground for more control, and travelled in a straight line whenever possible, sticks trailing behind. The snow was uneven and there were no bumps, or man-made moguls as they’re called. Very few people skied. As I said, those were the good old days.

Papa Hemingway came up to Gstaad some time in the Twenties. He checked into the Posthotel Rössli, which is still here and retains the traditional feel of a Swiss alpine inn. There is a table reserved for the locals, who drink their beer and used to smoke their pipes before the health assholes of Brussels stopped them. The next morning Papa rose early, arranged for a guide, and the two walked up the Wasserngrat on skins. It most likely took them two-and-a-bit hours to get to the top, where they had the lunch they had been carrying in their rucksacks: salami, cheese, bread and a bottle of white wine. Papa would also have drunk freely from his flask, most likely a good brandy. They then skied down to town, which probably took them about an hour. Then they called it a day. Papa got back to the hotel, had a drink or two at the restaurant, then went up to his room and began the first sentence of a book he had had in his mind for a long time. When it eventually appeared it was called A Farewell to Arms.

I think of Papa Hemingway all the time, but more so when I’m up here. His one-day ski trip reminds me of my youth, when skiing was hard to do and even harder to prepare for. Whether by instinct or design — or luck, even — as a young reporter Hemingway frequented the small inns that dotted Europe, skiing (a non-sport at the time) and fishing — pursuits that would come to seem true and lasting. He distrusted journalists at a young age, writing: ‘If you say nothing, it is difficult for someone to get it wrong.’ He obviously hadn’t met today’s bunch, for whom making it up has replaced misquoting.

Good old Papa. I wonder what he’d make of today’s skiing scene. That’s why I think about him when I’m up here. The snow-making machines, the short, carbon-fibre skis that turn on a dime, the boots that need only one click to shut tighter than the exit from Hades, the man-made pistes, the down jackets that make you feel as though you’re skiing in the Tropics when it’s 20 below. The restaurants serving great country food on top of mountains, mountain peaks reached by cable cars travelling at the speed of cars, the helicopter rescue teams that get the injured off the slopes within minutes of being informed via the mobile telephone of the fallen skier. The safety strap one wears when skiing off piste that bing, bing, bings when an avalanche strikes, enabling the teams to find you before you asphyxiate. Knowing Papa as I do, I reckon he would call it girlie stuff.

And what about the super chalets and the super rich that own them? He liked soldiers and bullfighters and tough guys, and the few rich men he hung out with — men such as Winston Guest — were gentlemen of the old school, plus a ten-goal handicap in polo. I don’t think today’s bunch would have raced his motor. They sure don’t race mine. My problem is that despite all the toys that make skiing easy as pie, I can no longer ski fast and lose balance all the time. I still ski when the visibility is good, and still think I can get down any mountain that’s skiable, but I’m deluding myself, just as I’m deluding myself that when I meet Emma Stone she’ll fall for me. What was that about old fools making fools of themselves?

Skiing has been so-so this year — not enough snow. Next week I’m off to Athens for a friend’s 90th birthday, if I ever get over the bloody bug I’ve had since the last time I got paralytic after skiing badly all day and being passed on the way down the slopes by young whippersnappers, and even young girls. My shame was such that I simply had to have a drink. Or two. Or more.