When I was 13 years’ old I went on a skiing trip to Austria with my school. I wonder whether such a carry on would even be possible in these paranoid times. The whole thing was wonderfully chaotic. Every child’s parents were told that if the school was given a note authorising the consumption of alcohol, their children would be allowed to drink a single drink with their evening meal. On the day of departure almost every single one of us (Not me though!) hand wrote a sentence on the bottom of their general permission slip which said, “and [name] can drink alcohol.” The result was that the teachers allowed almost everyone to get completely rat arsed every evening.
The daily activities included ski lessons in the morning, unmonitored skiing in the afternoon and there were different activities each evening: an Olympic toboggan run, ice skating on a frozen lake which started cracking up underneath us and various other alcohol fuelled nonsenses.
Like most of us, I’d never been skiing before. I wasn’t much good at it. We were given lift passes which doubled up as a piste map. Mine was tiny, badly printed and difficult to use for navigation. One afternoon I was skiiing with a friend, Mark, when we took a wrong turning and found ourselves tumbling down a double-black. Luckily, it was a short hop. At the bottom there was another hub for various runs. As we were examining the hopeless map, a snowplough came along to flatten a piste. It left a wonderfully smooth surface behind itself, with thousands of tiny ridges. Mark and I fell in behind it, thinking that this would make life easier.
It travelled rather slowly. After a while we got a bit bored and decided to overtake. This wasn’t too easy – this piste was rather narrow. Eventually, Mark spotted our chance and swung to the left of it. He’d found a path which appeared to skirt around the side of the piste, a few metres into the trees. I never doubted that we would emerge from the woods back onto the straight and narrow a bit further ahead.
Instead, this path turned away from the piste. To be honest, it was quite good fun. It wasn’t very difficult to start with. We were enjoying our adventurous run too much to notice that the fir trees around us were getting denser. After about half a mile, during which time we had been steadily dropping away from the official piste, the path started to get too difficult for us. It was getting steeper. Roots increasingly stuck up through it. At only a yard wide, there wasn’t room for error. We quit the sporting approach, dismounted our skis and began to walk.
We’d come too far to make our way back up the hill. Anyone who has ever skied will know that you cannot walk very far in downhill ski boots. Discussing the predicament, we decided to keep following the path. It was bound to lead somewhere. It went down. It narrowed. It petered out.
Encumbered with skis and poles, wearing heavy plastic boots and lost on an alpine mountain is not a good prospect. At the time, I was having so much fun that the obvious concerns never crossed my mind. So long as we kept going down, every would be alright, wouldn’t it? Mark and I joked about during our increasingly tricky descent. From time to time the firs opened out a bit. In bigger clearings, we put our skis on again and tried our luck with the deep snow. Luck wasn’t our strong point that day. It got steeper.
At one point, we caught sight of a village below. Reasoning that the settlements in the valley below would all be connected by a road, we decided to get to the village we had seen and ski down the road back to the one which we were staying in. The problem was that our skis were just too cumbersome to carry around. We started to throw them, javelin style, ahead of us. Then we threw ourselves after them. This made for fine progress until the inevitable happened. Mark couldn’t find one of his skis. I lost one of my poles. The lost pole hardly mattered but the lost ski was going to make the final leg home next to impossible.
Luckily Mark discovered that he could just about manage on only one ski, if he counterbalanced himself with his arms and his other leg. We weren’t laughing now though. It took us all of the rest of the afternoon and some of the evening to get back to the valley floor, from where we caught a bus to our base.
Nowadays, it would be a simple insurance claim. Really, it should have been back then too. Our parents had paid for insurance. Instead of being relieved that we had returned our teacher shouted at us for being late. When he discovered that we were missing equipment, he went berserk. Point blank, he refused to countenance the idea of getting replacements from the hire shop. He said it was our responsibility and we had to go and find what we’d lost in the morning.
I can hardly believe I took the request seriously. The next morning, after breakfast, Mark and I parted company with our friends and teachers and caught the bus back to the village up the valley. This time, I didn’t trouble with my skis but Mark insisted on taking his remaining one. He said we’d need at least one each to get back down. He seemed to believe that we would actually find what we were looking for.
It hadn’t snowed overnight. We found footprints where we had left them and began to retrace our steps. A couple of villagers looked on the start of our climb, baffled. It wasn’t easy. After several hours we’d managed to regain a lot of height. Neither of us were too sure where we’d last seen my pole or Mark’s ski. All the dozens of clearing which our path led through looked much the same as each other. The weather began to worsen so we couldn’t check sightlines either as a point of reference. We lost and found our furrow several times; the places we’d skied down were impossible to navigate in reverse but the bits we’d thrown ourselves down looked, well, they looked like someone had thrown themselves down the hillside. In the mid-afternoon, Mark declared, “it was here!“I wasn’t sure. It looked familiar but then again, so did pretty much everything else. Neither of us wanted to go any higher. Above us the mountainside got an awful lot steeper. Both of us were thinking about the effort required to get back.
It’s worth remembering that the teacher who sent us back up the mountain had absolutely no idea where we were. We never told him. He never asked. I cannot imagine any of this happening today. Any teacher who permitted, let alone encouraged this debacle would be sacked and prosecuted these days.
The area Mark had declared as our hunting ground was pretty large. I can remember it very clearly even now, thirty years later. It pops up in my dreams sometimes. Along its high side, it was about 90 yards. The firs edging its sloping sides were perhaps sixty or seventy yards wide and the bottom side was less distinct but was quite a bit longer than the top, perhaps 50% more. The snow was deep – our furrow was almost above head height. Soft, fluffy snow. Everywhere. Lots of it. We scrambled back up our furrow to where it rejoined the firs in the top corner and looked back down.
If Mark was right, we’d thrown our stuff downhill and slightly to our right. At the time, it had just dropped straight into the snow. That’s how we came to lose it. We’d thrown each item individually. We’d thrown the lost ski and pole much further than our other stuff. As soon as we saw them drop out of sight into the snowy depths, we’d been less brazen with our other stuff.
We started digging. There’s no way to describe the sense of futility in this search. Sisyphus had nothing on us. Commanded from on high to pursue the task, we carried on and constantly declared that we’d never find it. We kicked, poked and dug up snow to a depth of five feet or so over an area of approximately thirty square yards. No-one in their right minds would have even started such a preposterously large search. Teenage boys don’t have right minds though.
The Gods must have smiled at our labours. Mark had a stroke of luck. His foot kicked against my pole. He held it on high, like a modern Olympian signing his glory to a full stadium! “Stand still. I’ll go back to where we threw from and work see if I can work out where the ski might be“, I suggested. I was about half way up the slope when I heard another cry. Not wanting to spend a moment longer than necessary on the freezing hillside, Mark had just plunged through the snow with the idea of pursuing his sudden luck. He’d slipped. I couldn’t see him any more. “Are you alright?” No answer.
I was really panicking now. I imagined that since losing a single ski and a measly pole had landed us in such trouble, losing my friend would probably get me expelled. “Mark! Mark!” No answer. I threw myself down the slope again, thinking he might have knocked himself out somehow (there were rocks under the snow) and be drowning in the white shit. When I got to him, he was just lying there, knackered. He’d given up. Fair enough.
We got up and started walking back down the slope. This wasn’t going to be easy. Mark’s remaining ski was a real pain in the arse to carry. “I wish I’d lost them both“, he kept saying. We began to wade down the slope to rejoin our furrow. I’d gone ten yards when my knee connected with something sharp and painful under the snow. Hardly able to believe the possibility, I reached down and found… Mark’s missing ski! It was quite a distance from the place we thought it had landed the day before. It must have scooted along underneath the snow.
I got my skiing lesson after all that day. After his endeavours yesterday, Mark had become quite skilled in the business of skiing with only one piece of foot gear. However, now we didn’t have our ski boots on. We worked out how to slot our trainers into the clip as best we could. It was insanely dangerous. How neither us broke any bones, I have no idea. You couldn’t brake or even turn. It was a case of point, shoot and collapse and safely as chance would allow. Nevertheless, we made good progress and it wasn’t long before we arrived yet again in that tiny hamlet and found the locals even more incredulous at our antics. Keen to show them what we were made of, we didn’t buy a bus ticket home but instead hung to the back of the bus and slid along on a single ski each, until the bus driver stopped the bus and insisted that we ride inside for free.