ST ANTON 2022
It’s been a while since I have been ski-ing. More than ten years in fact. Would a 73-year old man be as fit - for ski-ing, at any rate - as his 60-year old younger self? That question was about to be answered as I peered over the lip of the slope at the top of the mountain, having taken two chair lifts to reach this point. Over the course of my ski-ing career, I have developed a technique - I hesitate to call it a style - that generally serves me well, good enough to get down pretty well any run without mishap. But that was then and this was now.
There is little point in staring into the abyss for any length of time; prevaricate and you are cowed. So off I pushed to do battle with the mountain. Of course you should not do battle with the mountain. You should let the mountain do battle for you. After all, it’s downhill all the way. Let gravity and your own impetus do all the work. Ha! But it’s not like that. At least not for an average ski-er like me. I have always been stirred by watching the execution of true skill. It could be anything: playing a musical instrument, ‘ throwing’ a piece of clay on a potter’s wheel, reversing an articulated lorry, casting a fishing line, tacking a sailing boat, shuffling a deck of cards, sculpting a piece of stone, walking a tightrope, riding a horse, dancing the flamenco..... The common motif here is the expertise, the dexterity, the finesse of the physical action. It all looks so effortless. During my gap year between school and university, apart from playing cricket, I worked as a plasterer’s mate for the local county council. I watched the plasterers slapping on the material that I had knocked up - a precise mixture of sand, cement and water - onto the bare brick surfaces. They worked swiftly and efficiently and made it look easy. Intrigued, I asked to have a go. They laughed and instructed me to proceed. On I slapped the plaster with my borrowed trowel; the secret, I had observed, was to do it quickly. I stepped back to examine my handiwork. Slowly, inexorably, quite elegantly, it all peeled off the wall and plopped onto the floor. The onlookers were bent double with hilarity. “I’d stick to books , mate,” was the (redacted) gist of their advice. Never again have I doubted the true value of a skilled workman.
As a sportsman, my eye is drawn to the beauty of physical motion, especially when it is performed to the highest standard. Think of a Federer backhand, a Gower cover drive, a Salah chip, a Coe lap, a Bennett sidestep, a Ballesteros approach, a Brady touchdown pass. The coalescence of thought, vision and action, often in a split second, takes the breath away. A friend of mine often turns to me watching the football and says, “Did you see that? Worth every penny just to be here to witness it.”
I certainly hope that when I executed a slightly uncontrolled turn on the slopes nobody witnessed it. Time to catch my breath, pull myself together and remind myself to concentrate on the basics. And then a fellow-skier glides past and disappears down the mountain. He is travelling at speed but he is unhurried. Balance, poise, elegance, composure, serenity.... oh, it makes you want to weep. Or swear. To add insult to injury, a class of toddlers, knee-high to a grasshopper, make their way in crocodile file, without poles, down the slope in perfect formation, following their Pied Piper of an instructor. I console myself with the thought that you have to be born in the mountains to ski like that.
When you pause in your descent, as was frequently the case with me, you can always pretend you have stopped to take in the view. Actually, why pretend? On bright, sunny days, such as we experienced this time, the panorama is awesome. The snow-capped mountain peaks stretch as far as the eye can see and the outline of the horizon is sharply delineated against the dazzling azure of the skyline, a deep blue that you never get in England. The air at that height is crisp and clear, the best cure for a hangover I know. You can never tire of the mountains.
What else has changed in the ski-ing world in the intervening decade? Surprisingly - as far a fashion goes - very little. My salopettes, rescued from the loft, did not look out of place and jackets, of all colours, were not so different from what I remember. The contrast between the 1980s and 1990s was far greater. Do you remember the skin-tight flares and blouson jackets of those days? One of my former colleagues and a fellow ski-er said whenever a shapely girl in front of him in the queue for the button lift took hold of the pole and put it between her legs, he would immediately fall off.
The most obvious difference - rather like cricket, in fact - has been the introduction of helmets. Now everyone wears them. I was clearly an antediluvian by eschewing its use - something to think carefully about next time. After all, it makes perfect sense. I counted only half-a-dozen other hardy - or should I say, foolhardy - souls of a similar, stubborn mindset in all the time we were there.
Where was there? St Anton is probably the best-known and most attractive of all the Austrian resorts, arguably one of the best in the whole Alpine region. The town is delightfully situated, architecturally pleasing and compatible with its surroundings. The ambiance and apres-ski are lively and the ski-ing extensive and challenging. Beautiful resorts nearby, accessible by ski, include Zurs and Lech, where the Royals go - apparently. There was plenty of snow, by the way and most importantly.
Talking of apres-ski..... On our last evening, we were wending our way back to our apartment after a splendid dinner of Wiener schnitzel and were taken aback by the milling crowd of clearly- inebriated youngsters spilling out over the pavement and road.
“Why aren’t they inside the bars and nightclubs?”
“I think it’s the Covid curfew of 10.30.”
“Ah, much like kicking-out time in pubs in England back in the day.”
“Which century was that, Dad?”
The thing is that although there was a fair bit of rowdiness and unsteady gait, there was not the slightest hint of aggressiveness, menace or violence. It was all good-natured, knockabout revelry. A little further along, a young Austrian man was weaving alarmingly in our direction.
“Good evening!” he accosted us, “St Anton is shut.... but Fabian is open!”
With which he spread his arms wide and nestling in the inside pockets of his jacket were two bottles of vodka. From another pocket, he produced three paper cups and three cans of Red Bull. He concocted for us three deadly-looking beverages, all the while maintaining a cheerful but only half-understood patter about St Anton, the universe and the meaning of life. I declined his offer - neither vodka not Red Bull is to my taste - but it didn’t matter, he was not offended. He took my cup and drowned it in one go. Drunk but affable. Intoxicated but amiable. Inebriated but benign.
Let me fast-forward 18 hours. The train back to Great Malvern was halted annoyingly and for some time just outside Worcester. At length an exasperated driver came on the intercom, informing us that trespassers had been spotted fooling around on the track at Great Malvern. My wife, who was picking me up from the station, felt compelled to return to the car and lock the door because the drunken behaviour of presumably the same louts had become so abusive and threatening that she had feared for her safety.
Not for the first time I wondered at the malign relationship the English have with heavy drinking and the boorish behaviour that often accompanies it.
Andrew Murtagh 5th February 2022