‘You know he’s not really so bad’ said the Cross Country skiing instructor as he turned his attention back to R and then added ‘for an Englishman’. The aforementioned Englishman was of course yours truly and at the time I was gracefully travelling through the air before once again landing on my rear end. Snow I was discovering can be as hard as concrete.
We were in the Ramsau am Dachstein for the New Year. Although an area in the (northern part) of the State of Steiermark, about 3 ½ to 4 hours from Vienna, it is closer to Salzburg than Graz. The Ramsau, I was to discover, is both an area of natural beauty and one very large winter playground.
Like many (but certainly not all) of my compatriots my expertise when it comes to the mastery of winter sports is close to zero. My normal approach to our winter trips to the mountains is to follow R and H to the bottom of the downhill ski slope, wish them well and then rapidly retreat to the warmth of the nearest hut serving coffee. You will be pleased to hear that at various stages in our holiday this civilised division of labour/enjoyment (delete as you feel appropriate) was maintained. Indeed the staff of one such establishment rapidly became accustomed to my visits and black coffee was swiftly provided upon my taking a seat.
However, the Ramsau offers a range of skiing and other winter entertainments including good opportunities for Cross Country (CC) skiing. From a distance CC appears to be a rather simple and therefore accessible form of the sport. I was particularly attracted by the idea of not balancing precariously on skis whilst standing on a 45 degree slope. I did, none the less, have enough sense of self preservation to insist that we get some professional instruction before I went any further in agreeing to R’s suggestion of a little family CC expedition.
So it came to pass that one morning I found myself standing on skis about to receive my first and possibly last CC lesson. The opening ten minutes produced a few surprises and painful confirmations. The first surprise was that both R and H, who are capable downhill skiers, found the CC form of the sport more challenging than they had expected. I on other hand rapid became reacquainted with the reality that what little sense of balance I possess all but disappears once my feet become attached to skis. The next shock to my system was that what at a distance had looked like a gently stroll, with sticks to balance you, turned out to be an energetic activity which requires you to essentially run on skis. This presented me with two significant challenges. Firstly, how to run and balance for two hours with a body whose level of fitness is not shall we say what it used to be. Secondly, how the hell to run whilst leaning forward and not fall flat on my face. In my now long distant youth I was in fact a reasonably accomplished long distance runner and like many such athletes had (have) a rather up right and lopping style of running. Hence my increasing difficulties and strong urge to be somewhere else as my instructor continued to insist that it was a simple matter of a smooth forward leaning running action.
Our instructor, in order to give himself time to actually teach the two members of our party with any degree of competence, sent me off to practice the technique of stopping whilst gliding down a slope. At the time I likened my performance to that of an elephant on skis but this may in fact fail to adequately describe the spectacle that was so amusing the onlookers. It was during this activity that the instructor made his comment to R ‘he’s not really so bad – for an Englishman’. It was also the point at which I found myself once more looking up at the clear blue sky and thinking of that seat and coffee at the bottom of the downhill ski slope.
I am pleased to report that I did complete my two hours and despite the bruises agreed to go CC skiing with R and H the following day. I am sad to say that the sight of R falling over, as well as H and R discovering that they too had to learn this form of skiing, somehow made me feel better about my one pitiful efforts.
The first part of our CC trip, the follow day, went well with all of us managing a mile or more before being tempted by a coffee at a rather nice restaurant along our route. However, the second part of our journey involved skiing down a long slope and I discovered the ability to fall at speed over a rather long distance. Despite this I then managed to navigate my way down a slightly gentler slope and up the other side only to then land on my backside as I reach the top. Alas at this point I removed the skis from my feet and was last seen walking through deep snow with skis over my shoulder heading for the comfort of our bed and breakfast accommodation.