Back to the Future
As Featured in Ski and Board Magazine October 2013
The last time the Guardian’s former chief sports writer Richard Williams skied, Alberto Tomba was still king of the slalom course, John Major was prime minister and the Prince and Princess of Wales had recently separated. So when he was lured back to the slopes, he found himself in something of a time-warp. Most of all - what on earth had happened to the shape of the skis?
The prospect of a return to the piste for the first time in almost 20 years was quite enough to arouse all sorts of anxieties and apprehensions. But I had not anticipated the sensation of coming to a halt at the edge of a run barely a handful of minutes into the first morning, head hanging down between my knees, retching helplessly, in the grip of a profound nausea.
Could it have been generated by nerves, or a sudden exposure to altitude? Perhaps it was the delicious rabbit I’d been served the night before, or the several glasses of an excellent Entre Deux Mers that went with it? None of the above, apparently: the cause was the light, or rather the absence of it.
On my first morning back in a pair of ski-boots the mountain was shrouded in mist to such a degree that the definition between sky and snow had been completely obliterated. There was no horizon, there were no shadows, but here I was, trying to turn my way gently down a Pyrenean slope in the tracks of my guide, feeling totally disorientated.
“Mal de mer,” the owner of the ski hire shop volunteered an hour later as we sat in the restaurant and I watched my companions tuck into a lunch I couldn’t begin to face. It was far from unusual, he added. But I’ve never suffered from sea-sickness - or from air-sickness, come to that - and in the days when I skied regularly a couple of hours of flat light was nothing to make the stomach churn. But on this day something had triggered that nausea, which left me weakened for the rest of the day.
Fortunately for my stomach, for my morale and for my hope of a rebirth as a recreational skier, it was all consigned to history by the next morning, when we awoke to a bright early-spring sun shining on perfect snow. The sickness had vanished along with the mist, and I could get on with re-learning all the things I’d forgotten. What I discovered was that, if skiing is not exactly like riding a bicycle, it was at least possible to reassemble an adequate range of intermediate-level skills.
The skis themselves were the first surprise. Somewhere at the back the garage are my last pair of cherished K2s, 203cm in length and sharply pointed. Those, of course, were from the days when the length of your skis said everything about you. Now I was presented with a pair just 165cm long, 15cm shorter than my own height, with strangely rounded tips: the newfangled (to me) carving skis, whose configuration means they cannot be used as a silent assertion of masculinity.
Helped by the most comfortable pair of ski boots I’ve ever clipped into, I set off to rediscover the basics with my guide, a young Englishman named James Dealtry. The “new” skis, James warned, don’t track as well as the longer ones in a straight line, but they do the difficult stuff practically by themselves, particularly when you roll them on to their edges and allow the pronounced sidecut to carve long turns.
By the end of the second full day, still in perfect conditions, I was beginning to see what he meant. Skiing the Pyrenees was a new experience for me, although I was familiar with the location in summer conditions, after many years of covering the Tour de France. Our first call was Peyragudes, the ski area formed in 1988 from the union of Peyresourde and Les Agudes: this was where, eight months earlier, Bradley Wiggins burned off the last of his serious rivals and knew that, three days later in Paris, he would become the first British rider to win the Tour.
Peyragudes, with its two base stations at 1600m and skiing up to 2400m on a network of mostly blue and red runs, is ideal intermediate territory and just as good, too, for children. There are magic-carpet rides to the beginners’ slopes and I have never seen so many happy youngsters in one resort as there were on the last day of the French half-term holiday.
The next day was spent at the neighbouring resort of Saint-Lary Soulan, a more extensive area covering three sectors going up to 2500m, including a spectacular drag-lift up to Pichaleye, from where the entire panorama of the Hautes-Pyrénées captures the eye. That afternoon James had me doing sequences of short, fast turns as I followed him down an unusually friendly black run: wonderful for the morale!
Both Saint-Lary and Peyragudes are within 10 minutes’ drive of the hamlet of Avajan, where I stayed at L’Ancienne Poste, a building bought by Dealtry as a near-ruin and restored over the past three years, using money saved from 15 years of winters in Val d’Isère. In Val he’d become the first British instructor to work for the Ecole du Ski Français, having passed the school’s most advanced exams. Summers were spent alternating between mountain-guiding in Chamonix, teaching people to surf in Biarritz and crewing private yachts around the world.
I left with regret, feeling that I could hardly have selected a more welcoming environment or been better looked after as I attempted to rediscover the magical sensations I used to find above the snowline. After that initial hiccup, it certainly worked. The old addiction is back.
L’Ancienne Poste nestles beside a quiet road just under two hours from Toulouse airport (about the same from Lourdes or Pau) and has been reconstructed, using local craftsmen and Dealtry’s own carpentry skills, with sustainability in mind, as well as a high degree of comfort. Up to 14 people can be accommodated in six bedrooms and, thanks to woodburning stoves, intimate warmth is radiated in the communal living and dining areas. For €899 per head you get seven nights’ board and Dealtry’s expert ski-guiding for two days; individual lessons, off-piste excursions and ski touring are also available. Dealtry is also launching ‘MOT’ ski clinics this winter. The courses – suitable for all ages and abilities – cost from €499 per person, including three-nights’ half-board (four-course dinner and wine), with personal tuition from James and video analysis. Lift passes and flights not included. Transfers available on request at a supplement. For further information call 0033 (0) 6 09 49 73 80 (www.ancienneposteavajan.com). Visit www.pyrenees-holiday.com for further information on Saint Lary or Peryagudes.