I have serious issues with snow.
To me, it’s nothing more than rain with ideas above its station. My predisposition for hating crystalline water (see, I find it hard to even utter the ‘s’ word) very probably stems from a series of unpleasant incidents during childhood: finding a pet rabbit frozen rigid in its hutch at the height of one particularly bitter winter; a painful collision with a concrete fence post while sledging; the week-long numbness down one side of my face after being blindsided by a snowball on entering the school playground.
I never went on the school ski trip – never remotely wanted to.
Like golf, skiing seems to be a sport loved by those that do it and dismissed by those that don’t. And like golf – a sport that I do play, and do love – it looks easy until the moment you try it for the first time. But I didn’t try skiing. No, my introduction to the anguish of alpine sports came via snowboarding – in Australia of all places.
I was working on a sports magazine in Sydney at the time and one weekend a carload of staffers set off for Falls Creek in Victoria to produce a feature. At the shop where we were kitted out with the gear, I was asked what I wanted to do. I chose snowboarding over skiing because it seemed cooler at the time, the clothes were better and the girls seemed to go for snowboarders.
To my naïve eye, it also looked like snowboarding shared DNA with surfing, another sport I liked the look of, had tried and failed miserably at.
It was on the nursery slope – located in a bowl framed by mountains on two sides and hotels and resort buildings on the others – that I discovered what a serious mistake this was. A lone adult male surrounded by infants aged between three and five, all zigzagging confidently down the slope as though they’d been born in those stupid boots that make you resemble one of those plastic crippled kids that used to be parked outside newsagents for you to slot loose change into.
The whole day was spent bellowing increasingly foul oaths; oaths that echoed off the mountainside and buildings and drew increasingly snarky comments from the little brats who couldn’t understand why the angry Pommie kept getting spat off the button lift. I completed three runs down that nursery slope in six hours. The rest was spent telling children, the lift and the whole concept of snowboarding where to go – that and eating snow.
Things got worse on day two when I discovered that I suffer from vertigo. I was halfway up a mountain, suspended high above the ground on a chair lift that had mysteriously stopped and was now swaying in the void between earth and sky. Sat next to me was an insouciant youth with the textbook blinding white teeth, mahogany tan and thatch of unkempt curls.
As he swung his legs mindlessly and flicked open his mobile phone to trade boarder slang with his mates, I was drowning in a rise tide of panic; fast, shallow breathing, the ground hurtling towards me and then retreating as fast, the steepness of the climb and the slackness of the cable sending me into full-on meltdown.
After pleading through clenched jaws for the safety bar to be put down, I tried to focus on what the youth was telling me about it being perfectly normal for the lift to stop every so often while those at the top got off. I remember nothing of the view from the summit for the simple reason I went straight back down again.
Some years later, my next assignment to a ski resort ended in similarly disastrous fashion. This time I was not required to strap anything as stupid as a plank to my feet. No, at Lillehammer in Norway, venue for the 1994 Winter Olympics, I was to try my hand at the luge, skeleton and bobsleigh, at the behest of an editor who was trying everything in his power to kill me.
And so it was that with little more than an hour’s instruction and no evident aptitude, I found myself lying flat on my back on a sled made for a midget, looking between my feet at a glistening ice flue disappearing into a black hole, all the while pleading with the man holding me in place not to let go.
The luge and I parted company after about 30 feet, ensuring that the remaining 3,868 feet of the run were spent smashing into the walls at high speed. The midget’s sled reached crossed the finishing line a good two minutes before I did.
The skeleton – face down and face first – was even worse, while the experience of riding in a bobsleigh can be best described as being pushed off Rome’s Spanish Steps in a Tesco trolley.
Still, at least the editor seemed pleased with the staged photographs of me looking pained having squeezed into an all-in-one Union Jack Lycra speed suit. You can imagine his delight on learning of the bruising that stretched from my knees all the way up to my neck.
That should have been it for me and the snow, but it wasn’t. In the course of following Liverpool home and away on their glorious Champions League campaign of 2004/05, I ignored my better judgment and wound up in a ski resort in the Swiss Alps.
I had been persuaded to drive north from Turin, having spent the evening dodging coins, plastic seats and even a flying moped from baying Juventus fans. Three close pals were working the season in Morgins, while working their way through quite colossal quantities of high-grade weed. They had been badgering me to go and visit them and though I warned them of my deep antipathy, they were adamant I’d love it.
They were wrong. Over the course of three awful days, I was re-acquainted with the hateful gait caused by ski boots – knees permanently bent forward in the manner of a geriatric with terminal hemorrhoids; the blithe smugness of those who enjoy slippery environments while strapped to long pieces of wood; the fabled après-ski, based on terrible cheese-based food, drinks you would never dream of imbibing at home and music loved only by the Swiss, Austrians and Germans.
But worst by far was the blind terror of standing at the top of a proper ski slope.
Having shut my eyes and gripped the safety bar for dear life on the chair-lift up the mountain, the sensation of impending doom that enveloped me at the top is something I’ll never truly shake. It was all too steep, too extreme.
The lunatics on planks seemed to be moving too fast, the light was too bright, it was all too shiny and slick. The cold turned the mucous lining my nostrils into gravel, my field of vision swam and the first thing I did at the summit was fall on my arse and throw up on my boots.
Like the idiots I called friends who once persuaded me that my surfing debut should take place on a gnarly reef break two miles off shore, my trio of so-called ski pals were insistent that my first ski down a mountain should be a red run.
It was painful, utterly terrifying and culminated in arriving at the lip of a drop that I refused like a spooked horse. I told my friends and everyone else on the mountain where to go, threw my ski poles into a drift and sat down in protest. Half an hour later, having finally managed to unclip the skis, I began the hellish trudge off the slope.
I will never ski, this much I know. But I can claim to have enjoyed snow on one occasion. It was on a trip to the Arctic wastes of Greenland, a journey that involved a series of flights, a helicopter ride and sled pulled by huskies over frozen sea ice. The best thing about being in this spot 90 miles inside the Arctic Circle was not that there was to be no skiing, snowboarding or bobsleighing, but that I was there to play golf in the inaugural Arctic Open golf tournament. At last, a proper use for frozen precipitation in a granular form.