A Guide to Winter Sports For The Common Man

Bored of kick abouts in the park or rainy rugby matches? We offer some death defying icy alternatives...
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Bored of kick abouts in the park or rainy rugby matches? We offer some death defying icy alternatives...

Looking for a relaxing snowy break?

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As soon as the last mince pie has been digested and the last sprout released into the atmosphere, it's traditional to start thinking about holidays. For some people, those thoughts are of distant summer holidays, lazing by the pool with a drink in their hand. For the more sporty types, minds are drawn to a more immediate way to address the post Christmas flab, the skiing holiday. For those people skiing is the king of winter sports.

When you think of winter sports, your mind wanders to a place where ice skaters pirouette gracefully across the ice, skiers twisting and turning as they descend the mountain slopes and people dressed in impossibly tight fitting Lycra fly down icy tracks on advanced tea trays.

However, winter sports are not as accessible to the common man as summer sports are. Nobody teaches you to ice skate at school, because the harsh reality, it seems to me, is that it's one of those things that you can either do or you can't. But how do you find out? Take ski jumping for example, how do you know if you are cut out for it? If you tried it once and didn't die then things are looking promising. I think not dying could actually place you in the running for an Olympic medal.

When I was at school, the litmus test to establish aptitude for winter sports was to be occasionally packed off on a urine fragranced bus to the local skating rink. Once there, new trainers were exchanged for a pair of athletes foot infested, badly fitting boots that smelled like damp stilton and you were sent to the ice without instruction. I remember putting those boots on the first time and taking my first tentative steps onto the ice, growing in confidence, gliding across the ice and swooping through my first initial turns before attempting a tricky triple toe loop which I executed perfectly. Everyone was agog at my natural flair and poise and whooped in admiration.

…not really...

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In actual fact I fell over exactly four nanoseconds after my skate hit the ice. I was only a tenth of the way back up when my other foot shot from underneath me and I found that I had a hitherto undiscovered talent for performing the splits. I adopted a strategy of hanging onto the safety rail for dear life occasionally grasping at it as my feet continually failed to remain attached to the ice for more than a few seconds. I checked to see that they hadn't given me a pair of banana boots by mistake but evidently that was not the case. Over the next 20 minutes, I shuffled around the rink twice, never leaving the sanctuary of the rail.

I must have fallen on my arse at least 12 times and I simultaneously discovered my coccyx and how painful a sore coccyx was within milliseconds of each other. Each time I slipped the cold thud of my body hit the ice harder than the last and it became harder to get back onto my feet. My Bambi impression had by now attracted the attention of every girl in the ice rink and my previously lofty position in the social stratum of the school was instantly downgraded to 'cockwomble' status.

I gave up and skulked off to the arcade to smoke and play Galaxians (two activities I excelled at) and made a firm commitment to studiously avoid anything in future which could even broadly be described as skating.

Since that trip  aged just 14, the nearest I have come to skating was last year, when dropping off my car for a service one morning, I went to join the queue of waiting customers but instead found myself windmilling down the length of the queue on sheet ice.I hurtled past the crowd of surprised onlookers, whose faces seemed to simultaneously admire my gravity defying attempts at staying on my feet but also registered the doom laden inevitability of the situation.There was only going to be one conclusion and I didn't disappoint them when I finally lost my battle with fate and ended up on my arse. Not a word was spoken when I dusted myself down and joined the back of the queue. As the kids say - awkward.

Anyway, despite my unsuccessful attempt at skating I wasn't going to give up on any chance of competing in the winter Olympics. I was determined to sample other aspects of cold weather activity. Unfortunately one avenue of potential opportunity was already closed to me…

I'd already disqualified myself from any potential career in sledging or tobogganing. Aged about 8 years old, my Dad made me a custom built sledge for Christmas. He spent weeks perfecting this present. They were hard times financially and my Dad was determined that a lack of money was not going to stop him from delivering a great present for me. As a result the end product was incredibly impressive. The runners were red and sleek, topped with a wooden seat and a bar to hold onto. I was delighted with it, I couldn't have been more thrilled. I was praying for weeks for it to snow so I could test her out and I imagined myself tearing down the massive hills that were a feature of where I grew up in Lancashire.

Eventually, the big day arrived and I awoke one morning to a blanket of snow and as was often the case in those days, a day off school due to the weather. I can vividly remember the sense of wonder and excitement I felt that morning. I pushed aside my coco pops and hot Vimto that morning….I had business on the slopes. Those hills were not going to descend themselves, somebody needed to do it for them and that someone was me.

My new sledge was hauled from my house to the top of the nearest big hill, which was already populated by a gaggle of sledgists, or whatever they are called. These poor unfortunates were in possession of the most miserable collection of sledging equipment you can possibly imagine. Bright garish orange plastic sledges were the most popular item in the sledging fraternity at that time, so most had those. The odd person had a metal framed, mass produced item and of course there was the odd lunatic with a maniacal grin and their grandmas best tea tray but nobody had a custom made beauty like mine. I was the king of the hill and the rest of the sledgists would just have to watch and wonder.

As I put my sledge down perfectly positioned at the crest of the hill I remember a palpable hush descending on the crowd around me. After puffing my cheeks out a few times for dramatic effect I carefully mounted myself atop my winter wonder and kicked off with my heels to commence my descent.

Nothing…

I tried again, this time a little more forcefully and again nothing.

Perhaps I'd found a rough patch of ground. I adjusted my frosted beast once more confident that no slippier a contraption existed on earth. I had an appointment with the bottom of the hill and I was already running late.

I kicked off again. Nothing.

There were a few nervous coughs around me by now and one of lads  with a bright orange affair was making me aware of the gravity of my situation.

"Come on you dick, shift it. It's too heavy, thats why it won't move". I made a mental note that one day he would probably go on to become a mechanic's assistant.

I returned home crestfallen and through a series of mini experiments I confirmed that he was in fact correct and I was actually in possession of one the least effective sleds in the United Kingdom. In fact, it was so lacking in sledginess that I would not have been able to descend the hill even if I was being pulled by an entire pack of huskies. If the hill had been made of sheet ice and was almost entirely vertical, my sledge and I would have remained clung to the side of it like a limpet on a rock.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks I tried desperately to rectify the situation. I tried waxing the runners, removing the bars to reduce it's weight and every other trick I could think of to salvage the situation. Try as I might I was utterly unable to invent the portable jetpack that I would need to strap to my back to actually make it move anywhere. This was a very harsh, early lesson in my first foray into the world of winter sports.

Equipped with the knowledge that the avenues of skating and sledging were effectively closed of to a man of my limited abilities, I entered my 20's sure I'd find a winter activity that suited me.

That something had to be skiing. It just had to be. It was surely impossible to be bad at every iteration of winter pursuits.

Growing up in Rossendale, in the 1970's and 80's I was fortunate enough to be extremely close to one of the countries few dry ski slopes at the time. So naturally I was already fairly proficient on skis and could really hold my own on the slopes. At least I would have been had I ever actually been there to ski. My visits to the slope were limited to occasionally wandering up to laugh at the people hitting the wire fence at the bottom but I hadn't ventured as far as having a go myself.

Some friends gave me the opportunity to rectify that in 2002 by booking a ski holiday in Livigno, Italy. I kitted myself out in all the gear before I went and couldn't wait to get started. I'd pre-booked sessions in ski school each day to give myself the best possible chance of mastering the craft. After a five hour transfer from the airport we arrived in the late afternoon and went on a reconnoissance mission to suss the place out. We discovered the place where we could rent our skis from and were delighted to discover it was located next to the biggest bar in the resort. We had worked up quite a thirst from travelling and we embarked on a quest to quench it over the next few hours…

I awoke with a truly horrific hangover but was not going to miss my lessons. I traipsed back down to the bar to equip myself with the requisite gear but decided to have administer hair of the dog medication to at least bring me round a bit. Before I knew it, lunchtime had been and gone and I was now completely 'refreshed' once more. I decided to write the first day off and return the following day to try again.

Hangovers don't get any easier to bear after two consecutive sessions but on the second day, through a superhuman effort of self discipline I managed to bypass the bar and finally make it onto the slopes. After receiving some fairly rudimentary tuition I decided I was more than good enough to attempt some of the slopes on my own.

I arranged to meet some friends at a restaurant halfway up the mountain. To get there I had to master the button lifts which took me a good half an hour and amused my fellow holiday makers as I veered off to the side and was forced to let go. Eventually I made it to the chair lift and after a 10 minute ride I finally arrived at the top of the Red run.

I started cautiously not allowing my speed to build too fast. I practised turning from side to side and began to feel my confidence rise. In the distance I could see the restaurant and I allowed myself to go a little faster as I wanted to impress my friends outside the restaurant with my new found skiing ability. By the time I was a hundred yards or so away I had really gained momentum and I started to think about slowing down, quickly realising that point had passed and I was in danger of 'overshooting the runway'.

The distant faces began to come quickly into focus and I spotted my pals on a table next to a larger group of strangers. I tried to adjust my line but misjudged it slightly and was going far too fast. To the horror of everyone concerned I ploughed straight into the aforementioned strangers table. I remember a brief millisecond where I realised from their surprised and frightened shrieks that they were German, I had a vague sensation of flying through the air followed by the sound of glasses and crockery.

I came round under a pile of bodies, hot food and broken crockery. The atmosphere was one of mild concern and growing hostility. I tried to play it cool but quickly realised it was far too late for that. I looked to my friends for support but realised that they had been swapped for a pack of hysterical hyenas. There was not going to be much empathy from them. There was only one thing for it….

I brokered a peace deal by replacing all food and drink and apologising over and over again in a loud voice. It seemed to do the trick.

The amazing thing about this incident is that I emerged uninjured, totally unscathed. Everyone commented on what a miracle this was. I felt embarrassed but also strangely invincible and we traipsed off to celebrate my new found super power. The first bar we came to had two entrances, one at the bottom which was few hundred yards away from where we were stood or alternatively down a helter skelter. My friends chose the latter and I found myself stood alone.

I could hear their shouts of encouragement….

"Come down backwards…..go on do it!"

That seemed like a good idea - after all I was invincible, what could possibly go wrong...

What could possibly go wrong was that unbeknownst to me I was wearing an incredibly slippy jacket. In fact, if I had been able to coat the runners on my sledge, aged 8 years old, I would have dominated the slopes. As it was, my jacket sent me careering down the helter skelter backwards at a velocity that would have interested scientists. I shot off the end cracked my head on the bar, rendering myself unconscious in the process.

Turns out I am not invincible, I discovered that when making the return journey home in agony with a neck and shoulder injury that still resurfaces occasionally to this day 10 years later. I also realised there and then that winter sports activities are not for me. Don't get me wrong, I still throw a mean snowball, I can still occasionally slide long distances on ice without hurting myself. But I leave winter sports holidays to those that find standing up on snow and ice an effortless experience.