Standard Issue wanted to send someone to learn to ski. Step up, novice Sadie Hasler.
There’s something about snow, isn’t there? Some people want to stare upon its pristine whiteness and leave it unmarked. Some people want to make neat crisp footprints in it, to hear the crunch. Some people want to mess it up with snow angels. And some people want to explore it, trek into it, cut it up with the trails of adventure. How we feel about snow – and we all feel something – is a test of who we are. It’s a blank white Rorschach test; whatever we see in it, is what it is.
When I got offered a press trip to Austria to sample Tyrolean food and fun, I jumped at the chance to ‘do a new thing’. I hadn’t skied since I was a teenager, and that was only on a dry slope off the motorway in the Midlands so it doesn’t really count.
Then I began to panic. What on earth was I thinking? I can’t even do escalators without getting a bit wibbly – how on earth was I going to manage on a mountain of slippystuff, with my feet strapped to cumbersome planks? This was going to end very badly. I became more sure of it the more socks I packed, and I packed a lot. I found myself saying coded goodbyes just in case I died. Subtle stuff like, “If I die, you can have my books,” and “Here’s a list of my funeral songs. If you leave out the Bon Jovi I will haunt you.”
Still, I was booked and committed and there was that calling of the unknown that always somehow speaks louder than any fears.
I’d been excited about going to Austria. Not only because I love the Sound of Music (and secretly hoped everyone still walked round singing dressed in clothes made of old curtains) but also because my father’s great-great-grandfather had come from here. It felt nice to be going to the homeland of Haslers, even if my knowledge of my heritage didn’t stretch further than that.
“There’s always the après-ski, which I always thought sounded like a menthol rub-down administered by someone hefty named Helga, but which is, of course, booze – wonderful, glorious booze.”
On arrival at the airport to meet my fellow journalists who would for the next five days be my companions, I soon realised only two out of six of us were beginners. I surrendered myself to the fact I was going to be the worst tit on the piste and that my arse was going to get better acquainted with the slopes than the rest of me. And then I stopped caring. So be it, I thought. Get stuck in. Do mountains. Fall over. Look silly. Hurt yourself if need be. There’s always the après-ski, which I always thought sounded like a menthol rub-down administered by someone hefty named Helga, but which is, of course, booze – wonderful, glorious booze. And if anything is likely to get you through something scary, it’s the thought of the booze you’ll have earned after you’ve managed to stay alive.
Taken under the benevolent wing of the wonderfully cheeky Rob Freeman of Ski-write, we were soon deeply nestled in the lap of superlative hospitality. We were to be based in the party town of Ischgl, at the fantastic 4* Superior Hotel Brigitte. It’s the sort of hotel which has lots of amber-lit nooks and crannies that makes you want to cosy up and read and write for days, if only you weren’t out being so goddamn sporty and intrepid. Our welcome could not have been warmer. In fact, my room was so comfortable it’s amazing I managed to drag myself out of it for dinner.
How glad I am that I did. We spent our first night in the hotel restaurant eating delicious course after delicious course and having our wine stealthily topped-up by attentive staff. Quite how any of us managed to roll out of bed the next morning is beyond me – perhaps being spherical is a health and safety requirement on mountains – but roll out we did and so began our first day on the slopes.
Ascending in the Fimbabahn cable car (which they call a gondola) to Ischgl’s ski hub, Idalp, I felt strangely calm. The beauty of the mountains will do that: your gaze is carried outwards, upwards, onto something much bigger than yourself. There is a greater pull: you can see why humans strive to come up this far, merely so they can see what’s there and come back down again. Even after I was introduced to my ski instructor, an Austrian chap named Gabriel, I felt quite peaceful. I decided on the spot to follow him wherever he went. Mainly because Gabriel is a trustworthy sort of name – angelic heralder of sons of god and guider of wise kings and shepherds and all that – but also because if I didn’t follow him I would essentially be standing on a mountain alone with no means of getting off.
And with such blind faith did I embark upon my first ski. I spent the morning snow-ploughing and crouching like a toddler having a secret wee. To his credit Gabriel later got me turning – big curvy turns amid lots of other people soaring past me with, at times, excessive skill. I just thought I’d be doing basic stopping and starting on my first day, not fast careering and shoopy goodness.
I began to spot little incremental growths in how you go about feeling your way on the snow; how to angle your legs and hips to go the way you want, to alter your speed, to stop. I started to feel like I might get it, and with time might get good.
And then I hit a wall. As Gabriel took us higher and higher up the mountain, I looked out at the expanse of everything and felt suddenly daunted. I thought of my double amputee uncle who had just died back home, I thought of legs, and I thought of human fragility, and the people that are left behind when something happens to you, and I decided I had done enough for the day. I put a barrier up in my own head, which later I would be very cross about. But I think it’s important to spot that when it happens rather than carry on unhappily.
Lunch beckoned. I met up with the gang and we had a long lazy afternoon at the impeccably lovely VIP lounge of the Alpenhaus restaurant – all wood-panelled walls and sinfully comfortable seats and the light of the white outside bouncing off the wine glasses. As the skiing day was drawing to a close, we ventured down the mountain, back to the welcoming arms of the Hotel Brigitte, then went up another mountain for more food. This time, fondue at fun restaurant Vider Alp, being sung to by a dark lord of Europop, (whose call to arms on the Austrian Who The Fuck Is Alice is perhaps the most invigorating entertainment I’ve had since I saw a Butlins redcoat have a minor breakdown onstage in 1995). And later, for the brave-hearted, tobogganing down the mountain in the dark. There is no rest in the Austrian mountains, even at night. I had thought it might be a bit like Heidi – all wistfulness in log cabins – but then I remembered she was Swiss.
The next day we ventured to the nearby Sunny Mountain area of Kappl, another spectacular ascent that left me breathless. This was another step along from the nursery slopes of Ischgl. There, I had remained unaware of the more daunting drops – the slopes had been wide and free of a view of sudden plummets – but at Kappl, despite its more family-friendly atmosphere, there was a view that looked like it could eat you. My heart bobbed in my throat a little more that day. But there were tiny tots in skis gliding around as naturally as swans on a lake, and I wondered if danger was somewhat less actual risk than it was a self-constructed mental block.
Again, lunch rescued me from my thoughts. Warming soup with what seemed like a cheese scone floating within it, then tender steak and steaming baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, followed by apple strudel and vanilla sauce: a thin custard that made me close my eyes and sigh in bliss. You may be encouraged to push yourself to your limits there, but they take care to comfort you afterwards.
If our lunch was the epitome of comfort, our supper that night was the epitome of exquisiteness. Our party took over Stuva, the gourmet restaurant of luxury Hotel Yscla, and were treated to countless courses of wonderment that had us all in raptures; creative dishes – some daringly simple, some astonishingly fancy – that all prompted swoons followed up by questions of gastronomic curiosity. Each course was introduced, each came wedded to its own luscious wine, and at the end we were further treated to an audience with the humble chef: heart-warmingly shy for a multi-award-winning Gault-Millau superstar, 28-year-old Benjamin Parth.
“There were tiny tots in skis gliding around as naturally as swans on a lake, and I wondered if danger was somewhat less actual risk than it was a self-constructed mental block.”
Our last day saw us take a hazy ascent to the peaks of See. Up there we said our goodbyes to the pistes – some lazily, some devouring their last chance to cut up the snow – and afterwards all basked on the roof terrace of the Pano Lounge, feeling the glorious combination of chill air and warm sun. That night we rode with thick blankets on our laps in a horse-drawn sleigh to Wilder Hut Mathon, a nearby wildlife reserve, and ate in its restaurant, which was lined with traditional dark wood and adorned with dim lights and animal paraphernalia. I had a simple dish of mushrooms and gnocchi in a creamy paprika sauce, and after all the tantalising fare we had been spoilt with, the simplicity was a perfect way to bring a beautiful few days to a close.
The next day we said our goodbyes, and I was sad because I hate all goodbyes, and I was a little sad because I felt I’d let myself down by being so timid with the skiing. I shook it off and promised myself to be braver next time. We all have our things. I might never be a good skier, but I like going up mountains and seeing what’s there.917 Views
Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.