Cracked in the Head?



‘Un enfant est fragile. Mettez-lui un casque.’  ‘A child is precious. Use a safety helmet.’ Illuminated signs in the Trois Vallées ski area in the French Alps exhort parents to take care of their skiing children. And I’ve yet to see a small child without one.

But what about adults? Aren’t they breakable too? There was a time only children or racers used such protection, it being considered either unnecessary or pretentious for ‘ordinary’ skiers. I thought that when I learned to ski in the ’80s in Norway, so shunned a helmet. It was unfashionable. But those were different times.

This week the slopes were busy, it still being half-term in parts of France. There were many ski lessons and the red-clad ESF (Ecole de Ski Français) instructors were everywhere. I heard on the local radio that it takes five years to train an ESF instructor. You’d think there would be time in the five years to mention safety helmets.  None of the instructors wears one. No exaggeration. None.  These people are role models. Children look up to them. Adult skiers follow them off piste and down black slopes.

A few evenings ago, a group of ESF instructors put on a demonstration of their skills – synchronised skiing, jumps and acrobatics – for our entertainment. It was impressive and great fun. I spotted just three or four instructors wearing helmets. They cared about their skulls when doing back-flips. Presumably the others were already cracked in the head. Fortunately none of the falls was serious.

What is it with skiers in France? Probably around half of the adult skiers I saw this week wore helmets – better than it was, but still poor. In Austria and Switzerland, the percentage is nearer 90%. In Norway, it’s almost unknown to see anyone on the slopes without a helmet. A helmet won’t protect you from all injuries – Michael Schumacher was wearing one when he had his accident – but anyone with any sense tries to minimise danger.

Helmets cost around 100 euros, less in the end-of-season sales. It’s paltry compared with the cost of a ski holiday, insignificant if skiing is your livelihood.  And what price a head? An expert skier friend was hit by a snowboarder and knocked out for a few minutes in spite of his helmet. He’s sure he’d have lost more than consciousness without it.

There are now multiple opportunities to do a head-plant, with snow parks proliferating everywhere. You can take off over huge jumps and reach high speeds going down skier-cross courses. Great fun but risky. And even if you avoid such risks, busy slopes bring collision dangers.

I’ll wear my helmet.  An adult is precious too.





A Right Knees-Up


That’s the number of knee injuries I’ve had while skiing. You might say my knees are my Achilles’ heel.

It started back in the eighties in Norway, where we lived and learned to ski. I managed to remain injury-free in our first ski season in spite of various mishaps, such as falling off a drag lift and getting stranded on a closed black slope. I was less lucky in the second winter. I fell and twisted my knee. Nothing dramatic and, with difficulty, I skied down to the bottom of the slope. By the time we’d driven the four hours home, I couldn’t walk. A visit to the Medical Centre resulted in large amounts of fluid being drained from my balloon-like joint. When I asked what I’d done, I was told, ‘You fell and twisted your knee.’ Not much info there, then.

Later that season, we went to Voss on the west coast of Norway. My knee had recovered by this time and so had my confidence. We were racing down a series of rollers on a lovely piste, going straight from higher and higher up, no turning, taking off as we sailed over the bumps. Braver and braver; more and more foolhardy. I crashed. Both skis came off so I avoided any more twists but I landed on a knee.

‘Mummy, your face is bleeding!’

‘It’s my knee.’

‘But your face is bleeding!

Three anxious children stood around me. Sod my face, I thought, knowing something more serious had happened. The blood wagon arrived and ferried me down the mountain. It’s not a pleasant experience. Apart from the snow that’s thrown at you and the feeling you’ll fall out at every bend, people peer in to see if you’re still breathing.

I ended up spending two nights in hospital with a broken tibia. Voss is in the area where they speak ‘Ny norsk’ – ‘New Norwegian’. It’s different from the standard Norwegian I’d learned. But I struggled through – and even learned the word for a bedpan!

We returned to Oslo. Our house was up a steep winding path, a challenge on crutches in the snow. I remember hiding in the house, crying from sheer frustration, to be found by our youngest, Tim, aged seven. He was distraught; Mummies don’t cry.

Later on, I had a series of mishaps on ski slopes in France. As ‘camp-followers’ when Tim was ski racing, we skied in many resorts. There was the time one of the racers needed his rucksack at the start of the race and had left it behind. I offered to get it. Rushing along the narrow path to the start gate, I skied over the edge. As I fell and banged my knee, I remember shouting to my rescuer, ‘Get this rucksack to the start straight away!’

Then there was the time we attempted a steep, unprepared slope because the snow looked so good. I’ve never learned to ski powder properly and I certainly made a mess of this attempt. A twisting fall at slow speed, the worst sort; another ligament injury. And I know there was another twisted knee around the same time which kept me from the slopes, but my mind has blocked out the details!

I had a few undamaged years when my knees behaved themselves. But they are out to get me whenever they can. I was skiing alongside the piste in Couchevel, having yet another attempt at powder when I fell. Unharmed, I tried to pull my buried ski out of the snow. Click! I felt and heard my knee go. Another blood wagon ride, no more pleasant than the first time. More crutches. Ruptured ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament). At least this time I found out what I’d done. I recovered quickly and skied again the same season.

I knew by now I had dodgy knees. If, in the course of normal activity, I twisted the right one, something moved in it and I had to click it back into place. Painful for me and anyone watching. And it could happen at any time. Then it happened while skiing. I didn’t even fall. My knee would not click back. Here we go again. Another blood wagon ride. This time a broken cartilage which required an operation to remove it. I asked the surgeon if I’d ski again.

‘You’ll ski again if you want to,’ he said.

Of course I did. The operated knee was great, the stronger of the two.

I’m writing this with an ice-pack on my other knee. A stupid fall getting off a chair lift where I lost all grip. Maybe I skied over someone’s ski tails, who knows. Anyway, that put paid to my other ACL. I can still ski using a knee brace.

I’ve got fairly empty knees now. Four injuries per knee. It’s amazing what you can manage without. But it has taught me a little caution as there must be a limit!

One day, 35 lifts, 4 tired legs

What gives you a thrill in the snow? Making fresh tracks in deep powder? Being the first down a perfectly groomed piste in the sunshine? Building a stylish snowman? Maybe all of them. But there’s a different kind of challenge, one needing stamina and planning rather than bravado or skill.

We decided – for the fourth time – to see if we could ski all the lifts in the Méribel valley in a day. We’ve succeeded twice before but we’re older now! We set the criteria first – which lifts were in scope and which weren’t. Cheating, do I hear you say? Well, not really. We eliminated a couple of beginners’ ‘magic carpets’ and the transport lift from Brides les Bains. It still left 35 lifts – enough to challenge us.  A mid-March, sunny day when most lifts are open until 5pm chose itself.

My husband, Tony, planned the route carefully. The total descent is fixed by the lifts;the distance – and the time – across the snow isn’t.  We aimed to do five lifts per hour, giving us some contingency for mishaps. But not all lifts are equal, nor are the routes down.

We carried our water and food – sandwiches, chocolate and chewy bars. Calories don’t count on a challenge day. Lunch would be in a cabin – chair lifts make you drop anything not attached to you. We started at the earliest opening lift. No-one queues properly, of course; only the English know how to do that.

The gremlins are always out to get you. Lifts will open late, some will stop. The person in front you will have a non-working ski-pass. There will be queues. Having a Plan B is useful. Trouble is, you don’t know what it looks like until something goes wrong. ‘That’s going to bugger us up!’ is a much-heard expression.

We always felt we were running late, mainly because we kept losing track of how many lifts we’d done. Counting to 35 can be difficult!

Crud and slush at the end of the day is inevitable. We couldn’t avoid skiing into Méribel five times – there are five lifts from there – and conditions deteriorated with each descent. However, the rumours of trench foot from leaking boots are widely exaggerated.

When a ten-year-old French boy on a snowboard cuts you up, he will mutter ‘Merde!’ when you complain.

We skied the most economical way using minimum effort. There are no points for style (do we have any, anyway?) And we always chose the easiest slopes if there was more than one way down. There was one well-pisted and tempting black but we were sensible and saved our legs. We synchronised loo visits (whether you need to go or not is irrelevant). Things got really bad around lift 28 when the legs screamed and the knees belonged to someone else. Tony went quiet. When I asked him what he was thinking about, he replied, ‘Our sofa’. I focussed on a glass of Sancerre and a couple of ibuprofen. It takes superhuman strength to resist the allure of a deckchair. We gave in to a hard wooden bench for ten minutes.

Tony unable to resist the lovely wooden bench

We didn’t expect to enjoy it all – but we did enjoy most of it. Especially the victory photo at the end! We congratulated ourselves on the fact that we had skied down a total height of 12,500m. That’s nearly 1.5 Everests and about 9 x Ben Nevis! And with forty-five minutes to spare. Not bad for Oldies.

Celebrating the finish!

Keeping Young?

Keep your brain and body active. Do something outside your comfort zone. These things, they say, ward off dementia and keep you young. But now I’m not so sure.

We were on a family skiing holiday recently in Norway, at Hafjell, where some of the events of the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games took place. The bob-sleigh run is still there and open to the public. My two grandchildren were keen to have a go so we went along to watch. At 11 and 12, they were too young for the ‘taxi-bob’ – a piloted, proper bob-sleigh – but could ride in a ‘raft’. This was a rectangular, padded box able to carry a pilot and up to five additional passengers.

A short ride in a van to the top of the run – the actual top, no cheating here – a few instructions (sit up straight, face forwards), helmets on and they and their mother were away. We took the appropriate photos as they flew past us at around 80km/hr, angled at 90 degrees to horizontal, wooden runners rattling. They were elated when they got out, wishing they were older and making our daughter promise to take them back when they were sixteen, old enough for the taxi-bob.

My husband, Tony, looked at me with his eyes gleaming. ‘I’d love to do that.’ What he meant, of course, was that he’d love me to go with him. ‘Come on, it’s probably the only time in our lives we’ll have the chance to go on an Olympic bob-sleigh run.’


Not matching his enthusiasm, I agreed to the raft. The taxi-bob was a ride too far. I was definitely outside my comfort zone.

‘You can have a stiff drink afterwards.’

We packed ourselves into the raft, legs apart, bum to crotch with strangers. Tony attempted an apology in Norwegian to the woman he was pressed against. Fruitless, as she was Russian. I clutched the flimsy grips inside our lidless coffin and tried to ignore the boot that was pressing into my leg. We gathered speed at an alarming rate and the positional changes bombarded us: upright, sideways, upright,sideways. Our pilot tried to steer a straight course through the sixteen turns but we still ricocheted off the sides of the run. There were no controls. Around 15 seconds into the run, my stomach made itself felt. I am a poor traveller so I should have expected this.  Closing my eyes made it worse, although with them open all I could see was the back of the pilot. A run of 1.7 km and it was over. Everyone cheered and jumped around with delight at the experience. Tony was ecstatic; I held my stomach and attempted a grin.

I was alright in time for dinner a couple of hours later, although I declined the stiff drink (a bucket was more appropriate). I don’t know about keeping myself young; I think this trip might have aged me ten years. In a strange way I enjoyed it but I won’t be back for more!



The Curse of the Sprout


It was the first and only time we’d taken a sprout skiing.

Why? Well, there’s a story.

It was a clear, sunny day and as we tightened our boot clips at the top of the Pas du Lac ski lift before descending into Courchevel, I heard laughter. Looking around, the cause was obvious. Three ‘ladies’ were entertaining the crowd. Dressed in flowery dresses and coats, headscarves tied tightly over fluffy hair, they clasped their handbags and adjusted their sunglasses. They preened themselves and stretched their lipsticked mouths.

‘Going to the post-office to collect our pensions.’

‘Do you know where the post-office is?’

Then some advice. ‘You take care. Make the most of being young!’

One of them handed a card to Siân: ‘The skiing Nana’s’ (with unnecessary apostrophe – author’s note).

Their repartee was well-practised in a (pseudo?) Brummie accent. These ‘Nanas’ have a strong Facebook following, where their odd underwear and odder anatomical parts are on display.  They cavort around the ski resorts for no obvious reason other than amusement.

As they prepared to set off on their short skis (the sort that need no ski poles; poles would clearly get in the way of the handbags), one of them handed something that looked like an old-fashioned gobstopper to Siân.

‘Have a sweet, dear.’

Ten minutes later, on an almost empty slope, a wild skier decided he needed Siân’s bit of piste, falling over and causing her to fall, too.  Siân never falls. She hurt her hand, not seriously, but she is a pianist.

We headed for a drink at a local chalet and Siân put a sprout on the table. We looked at her and stared at it. What kind of fetish was this?  It was the ‘sweet’ from one of the Nanas.  Well-formed, a tight little bundle, it was a sweet sprout. It accompanied us for the rest of the day.

When Siân fell getting off a chair-lift, a bruising fall, we began to think something was up. Was this the curse of the sprout? We were worried about a third fall – not that we are superstitious – so stopped for a vin chaud to calm our nerves. The sprout sat on the table again, greenly giving us the evil eye.

That evening, we decided there needed to be a ceremonial discarding of the sprout. One day was enough. We hoped it took its curse with it. The following day, Peter, Siân’s husband, was hit by a snowboarder. The third event – or did he have sprout remains in his pocket? Who knows?

The moral is – don’t accept sweets from strange ladies!


Taking our skis for a walk

Méribel Mottaret, January 2016IMG_3622

It wasn’t a day for going out on the slopes. Wind, heavy snowfall, mist – more the conditions for reading a book than being outdoors.  Then the wind dropped, the snowflakes became smaller and visibility increased. So we decided to dig out our cross-country skis.

For those who know little about this sport, it belongs to a different world from alpine skiing. The skis are light and long, have no steel edges and were developed in Norway to torture other nations. The bindings fasten to the toe of the flexible boot and the heel is free which means the skier, unless of Norwegian extraction, has little control.

We learned this type of skiing when we lived in Norway years ago and while never experts, became competent. However, like a little-used language, such skills wane with time. We have our own kit in France but we had not used it for years. No problem, we thought. We set out for a nearby cross-country area. The radio had reported the trails were groomed and there is nothing like a well-prepared track. It holds the ski in a straight line and makes the required stride-and-glide motion easy.

There was some old wax on the bases of the skis from the last time we used them. Waxes are specific to temperature and we had no idea what the conditions were at the last outing. Ski-waxing is a black art – in our case, more a dirty grey one – and many hours can be spent getting it right.

‘Let’s just go with what’s on there,’ Tony said. It was the easy option.

Fifteen minutes later, we were still trying to get our boots to attach to the bindings, partially seized up with lack of use. I succeeded but then had to remove my skis to help Tony who was struggling. When kneeling beside him pushing his foot down failed, I tried standing on the toe of his boot. This finally worked and he was shod. Putting my own skis back on was more difficult the second time and while I was trying, our Dutch neighbours walked by. We’d see them on cross-country skis a couple of days earlier and had smiled to ourselves – not mocked, just smiled – at their wobbles, lack of speed and minimal expertise. After all, hills and the Dutch are not normally associated. It was now their turn as they grinned and walked on by.

Finally, we were ready. We had a small hill to go up and that was no problem. We had plenty of grip – the wax was great. However, once on the flat we realised we had both grown. The snow was building up under our skis to a depth of around 3cm. Platform shoes were once a fashion statement. Skis are not fashion items. Clearly we had the wrong wax – one for warmer conditions – and could barely plod let alone glide. To make things worse, the perfect tracks we’d been hoping for had filled up with new snow and were little more than indentations. Skis off and scraper out. We removed as much of the grey sticky stuff as possible and gave the skis a rub with a special cork block.

Suffice to say putting the skis back on was no easier the second time. Our Dutch friends waved cheerily to us. They saw us only when we were stationary.  Our efforts gained us a marginal increase in speed but not enough so we had to go round the same wretched procedure again. The air was turning blue. At the third time of trying we made progress. I had some glide – more than Tony, which did not help matters. Our outing lasted two hours; we skied for around thirty minutes.

All was not bad, however. There were some positives:

  • We didn’t fall over
  • We used plenty of energy – mostly nervous – and got some exercise
  • We gave all our best swear words an outing
  • We thought better of our Dutch friends
  • Our skiing could only improve

Although maybe we’d have been more sensible if we’d simply read a book.