Tag Archives: skiing

Sleep well, old friend

I lost a friend today. A good friend.

I only met him 20 years ago, and we probably only saw him two or three times each year, but for 15 years or so one of those occasions would be for a week’s skiing.

There were 8 of us in the gang. We stayed in catered chalets across Europe, and revelled in making the wish list as challenging as possible for whoever had the onerous task of finding somewhere that ticked all the boxes that year.

But once we all met up at the airport, something magical happened. It was as though we had just finished the previous year’s final run, and we all slipped effortlessly back into the same warm camaraderie as before. We knew a great week of snowy escapades, excessive food and drink consumption, banter, laughter and friendship would follow, as surely as an Alpine lunch is vastly overpriced.

Our friend was the oldest in the group, but probably also the most fearless. He was the one who first embraced helmetdom, but his excellent value  protective head wear from Lidl didn’t prevent him seeing stars after a heavy fall on a packed piste. And in flat light in Zermatt one year, he failed to see the edge of the groomed piste and performed a spectacular somersault into fresh powder, leaving his skis way behind him. Blood still gushed from his nose as we boarded the funicular back into town, but he had a demonic look of quiet satisfaction etched on his craggy face.

Our snowy pilgrimages started off in middle age, and we were all sliding inexorably towards old age, when he became ill. Unable to ski, we spent a memorable autumnal week in Dorset instead, renting a house to try and replicate that ski chalet ambience for one last time. We enjoyed a lovely Sunday lunch at  River Cottage, a brilliant piece of theatre in Lyme Regis – he loved Nina Simone – and he even managed to play golf for the first time in a while.

He was fiercely intelligent, with a wit as dry as his glass after a long lunch. He was sociable, and yet intensely private. He was a special person. His only flaw was that he supported Manchester United and Wales.

We might all ski again, but it will never be the same.

You have left a big hole, old friend.

Sleep well. And when we all meet again, it’s your turn to find the chalet….


Courchevel ski trip

Just back from our annual pilgrimage to the ski slopes of Europe. To Courchevel in the French Alps this time, part of the wider classic Trois Vallées ski domain.

I say annual, but Gill and I did sneak in a cheeky additional week on the pistes this year, at Champoluc in Italy with old friends Nigel & Julie Cripps.

Courchevel was with our usual group of alpinistes, whose ageing process I wrote wistfully about after the St Anton expedition a year ago. Sadly prophetic, the Gang of Eight was reduced through poor health to the Team of Six for this year’s outing.

Not wanting to betray the gang’s ethos – just us being pampered in a catered chalet, with a list of priorities longer than an EU summit’s – we stayed at Robin & Maggie’s own apartment in Courchevel. My brother Paul and sister-in-law Carol completed the reduced team.

The delightful village of Courchevel Le Praz sits at 1300 metres, lower than the bling-tastic resorts of Courchevel 1650 and 1850, but more of a living, breathing local community. And you don’t have to speak Russian.

Thanks to intense pre-tour negotiations, we managed to agree an interesting array of catering solutions: each couple would conjure up a feast one night; we would celebrate both Gill’s birthday (first night) and Robin’s (last night) at local restaurants; we would trial a catered meal, delivered to and eaten in the apartment; and for the remaining night, we might buy a ready-prepared meal from the excellent boucherie in the village.

It all worked so well that perhaps we should copyright and market the concept to self-catering chalets throughout the world. Mix & Match Catering Solutions? Smorgasbord Ski Meals? Courchevel Catering Concepts?

We splashed out on the celebratory meals, at Le Bistrot du Praz for Gill’s birthday and at the Michelin starred Azimut for Robin’s. In the end, we had a decadently long and late lunch – rather than dinner – at Azimut, leaving the slopes early in anticipation of deteriorating conditions and fading light.

This was sadly the story of our skiing week….clouds, limited visibility, and constantly changing conditions, with occasional bursts of brilliant sunshine and huge dumps of fresh powdery snow. Essentially as varied as the catering package.

Still, as Gill always says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Which nearly happened to Robin one day. Dying, rather than adding muscle to his slight frame.

After impressing us for days with his Zen-like affinity with Courchevel’s vast network of pistes and lifts, guiding us safely down the mountain in clouds as thick as Gérard Depardieu’s accent, towards the end of the week he promptly disappeared from amongst us.

In limited visibility and in the teeth of an icy blizzard, we all headed down the well-known blue track to the appointed meeting place, right of a large rock.

I passed Robin and stopped at the rock. The others arrived. Robin didn’t. We waited 10 minutes. We considered our options. We waited some more.

Half an hour later, we were finally reunited, further down the mountain in Courchevel 1850.

Robin had contrived to ski away from the marked track, falling head-first into deep snow and losing his skis. And if you’ve ever fallen in fresh powder, you’ll know that finding a ski is like looking for a cup of coffee costing less than €6 in the 3 Valleys.

He found them. He lived. He’s another year older, if not wiser.

In imperfect conditions, we still had a great week. But hopefully next year, the Gang of Eight will be reunited.

What’s in a name?

A few years ago, a good friend of my nephew Steve changed his name from plain old Christopher Young to a rather more uplifting Kit Fantastic.

Kit, his wife Beth and children Tilly & Teddy are obviously now The Fantastic Four. But there’s no truth in the rumour that they’ll christen the next child Fantastic Fantastic.

It turns out that Kit was ahead of his time. An article in the Times today reports that in 2015 a record 85,000 people in the UK changed their name by deed poll.

And why wouldn’t you, when you could wake up one day as Simon Smith, but go to bed as Bacon Double Cheeseburger.


“A name is the least important part of your personality”, Mr Smith told The Sunday People. “It’s given to you by someone else”.

The 33 year-old from Muswell Hill changed his name last year. “Bacon Double Cheeseburger was the first name I came up with”, he said. Presumably with a straight face.

The report doesn’t comment on whether he kept his job – as an investment banker? An Ocado delivery driver? – or what his wife – now Alice Mushroom Stilton Cheeseburger – thought. (I made that last bit up).

The report goes on to say how others have adopted equally bizarre names, such as Sarge Metalfatigue or Simply MyLove Poet.

In a remarkable tribute to Kit & Beth, another couple have renamed themselves Mr & Mrs Amazing.

Louise Bowers, of the UK Deed Poll Service, said: “One man changed his name to Happy Birthday. It gave us a chuckle, but if that’s what they want to do, it’s their choice.”

The process takes 4 working days and costs just £33 for an adult, and £35 for a child.

So I’m going to scribble out a cheque for £66 right now and by the weekend, when we’re off to Courchevel, boring old Andrew & Gillian Morris will have morphed into Monsieur Deep Powder et Madame Corduroy Avalanche Beacon.

It’s Gill’s birthday on Saturday….she’ll love the surprise, right?

And I suppose we’ll just have to find another new name for the summer.

Champoluc ski trip

Just back from a very enjoyable week skiing in virgin territory for us, Champoluc in the beautiful Aosta valley in Italy.

A group of local friends went there last year and enjoyed the village and the skiing. So when old Kentish friends Nigel & Julie Cripps mentioned at a recent reunion that they were heading there in early January, it somehow seemed like fate that we should join them. Whether they wanted us to, or not.

Nigel & Julie are old Champoluc hands, lauding its quietness, beauty, friendliness and good value.

And now we’re converts too.

The skiing domain – even when fully open – is not vast. comprising 45 lifts, 95 slopes and 4 valleys in the total Monte Rosa area. And after the warm snow-free start to the season, hardly any of that capacity was accessible over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Fortunately for us, the white stuff began to fall early in 2016….and at the moment, it just keeps on coming. So we went from the sublime – skiing on decent snow in bright sunshine and good conditions on our first day – to the frankly ridiculous. On our last day, so much fresh powder had fallen overnight that we had to push our way through a snowdrift as we jumped off the chairlift from the base of Frachey.

In a continuing blizzard, on-piste was off-piste and goggles fogged up faster than Sepp Blatter’s memory.

In decent conditions between those extremes, we loved the long intermediate red runs – and occasionally more challenging black ones – spread out above the Champoluc, Frachey and Gressoney villages

It’s hard to find words that capture the simple pleasure of skiing on a quiet mountain in such a beautiful area. Whatever the conditions.

It’s easier to describe the gluttony we indulged in, every night during our hotel’s challenging 4 course dinners and, during the day, at some buonissimi mountain restaurants. Enjoy a freshly baked pizza and a couple of glasses of local vino rosso for lunch, at 2,700 metres, whilst a blizzard rages outside, and somehow your senses feel sharper than the edges of an Italian suit.

And back in Champoluc, the village is a charming enclave of local artisan shops, traditional houses and friendly people, sitting happily alongside the tourist bars, hotels and ski lifts. Long may that comfortable marriage remain…it would be a shame if over-development spoiled the essence of this gentle place.

Book review – A Whole Life

The oft used adage less is more has never been more appropriate than when applied to this charming book:

I chose A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler as my first selection for Steve Dover’s West Surrey Book Club, not quite at random but certainly serendipitously. And because of my own affinity with mountains.

Its brief description on Amazon captivated me as completely as seeing the sun rise on a single mountain, clad in fresh overnight snow.

Andreas Egger lives a simple, hard existence through the first half of the 20th century in a remote valley high in the Austrian Alps. He is at one with his natural habitat, often sleeping on the grass outside his ramshackle hut….and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.

He falls unexpectedly in love and – almost wordlessly – marries Marie. She, together with their unborn baby, dies in an avalanche. He leaves the valley only to fight on the Eastern Front in World War II, spending 8 years incarcerated in desolate conditions.

He returns home to continue working amongst his beloved mountains, helping to construct lifts for the burgeoning ski market. He stumbles into a late career as a mountain guide. He dies.

The book is a mere 149 pages. I read it in not much more than 2 hours. Its simplicity, honesty and beautiful prose captivated me from first to last.

As far as he knew, he had not burdened himself with any appreciable guilt, and he had never succumbed to the temptations of the world: to boozing, whoring and gluttony. He had built a house, had slept in countless beds, stables, on the back of trucks, and even a couple of nights in a Russian wooden crate. He had loved. And he had had an intimation of where love could lead. He had seen a couple of men walk on the Moon. He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death. He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.

Charlotte Collins has done a remarkable job translating Herr Seethaler’s original German text.

Read and enjoy A Whole Life….both what it says and how it’s said.

St Anton ski trip – age shall not weary us

Can you remember what were you doing in 2004?

Jose Mourinho was appointed manager for his first spell at Chelsea. M&S turned down a bid from Philip Green. Thousands of people were killed by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. And our ski gang went to St Anton for the first time.

We’ve just got back from our second trip to this Austrian skiing Mecca…and goodness, how life has changed.

Just 11 years ago we queued for the first lift every morning. We hurtled down the pistes all day, and danced on tables at the infamous Mooserwirt apres ski venue, clutching our oversized beers and singing along with the oompah band. We abused the all-the-wine-you-can-drink policy at our chalet, and still had enough middle-aged energy to go out and explore the town’s many late-night fun-spots.

That was then….this is definitely now.

The chatter was more about replacement hips and knees, dodgy hearts, tummy bugs and the current pension reforms.

We started late, lingered over long lunches on the mountains, and retired early to the chalet for tea, cake and a pre-supper snooze.

We had a token apres ski effort at the Krazy Kangaruh towards the end of the week, but we were struggling to stay awake beyond 9:30 every night, without some sort of contrived entertainment. Or a discussion about medication.

More pills were popped than in a 1980s rave at a disused factory on the outskirts of Croydon. But for pain-killing purposes rather than Ecstatic dancing and trancing.

Where did it all go so wrong…..can the ravages of time really have worked their evil magic that quickly?

Of course we had fun. How could you not in a cosy catered chalet, waited on hand and foot, gorging on cooked breakfasts, fresh cake in the afternoon and a hearty 3 course dinner every night, lubricated by unlimited wine?

And whilst we might not have slalomed our way down the slopes as energetically as we once did, just being amongst the towering snow-clad mountains is as rejuvenating as an ageing politician shacking up with a young researcher. Emotionally, if not physically.

In 2026 the ages of our ski team will range from a mature 78 to a positively youthful 64.

By then, we’ll probably have a token run each day – around 11:30 – but only after the nurse has handed out the drugs, and the masseur has rubbed everything down. Then we’ll hunt down the gluhwein and goulash soup on a sunny verandah, reminiscing about those glory years of our Franz-Klammer like escapades, before heading back to the chalet for tea and cake at 3, and an absurdly early night.

But you know what? The camaraderie and joie de vivre of the group generated over more than 20 years of epic ski holidays will outlive any human frailties.

And I bet Jose won’t still be managing Chelsea.







Bella Italia

Grazie, Alex Polizzi.

I stumbled across the final episode of her Secret Italy series on TV last week. This piece was on Puglia in the south, the heel of Italy’s endlessly fascinating boot.

The concept of the series is Alex reconnecting with her own roots, as part of the venerable Forte family.

Her first language was Italian, but she has been brought up largely in the UK. My own connection with that bellissimo country is more tenuous, but she helped to remind me of the places I’ve already been lucky enough to enjoy visiting, and those still on the list for my retirement years. And also kick me into a more structured approach to learning the beautifully demonstrative Italian language, as animated as a Roman rush hour.

My father used to work in the travel industry, and I could only have been 5 or 6 when he secured tickets for a posh cruise around the Mediterranean. We enjoyed a few days stopover in Rome, in an August heatwave, and brief trips to Pompeii and Capri. I was too young to appreciate the history, beauty and passion of this romantic country, but the seeds had been sown in my youthful soul.

Fast forward many years and the love affair was ignited when Gill and I spent a week walking in the majestic Dolomite mountains. Part Italian, part German and part Ladino, this area is an intoxicating miscela of cultures, language and food. The following week touring round Tuscany was almost an anti-climax, although it sounds folle to dismiss the living museums of Florence, Pisa and Siena so heartlessly.

We found the quieter Lucca more rewarding, sipping chilled glasses of Prosecco in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro as dusk brought to life the locals in the multi-tiered ancient properties encircling the elliptical plaza, like the opening scene in an epic production at the Globe.

Trips to the beguiling islands of Sicily and, more recently, to Sardinia – both with their own distinct history and culture – continued the affair. And back on the mainland, another epic twin-centred Italian vacanza cemented the relationship for ever: a few days in Rome, my first time back there since the 1960s and now in a more bearable temperature; and a week in the Majella mountains and national park in Abruzzo, an unspoiled eastern province with hilltop villages unchanged for centuries and seaside resorts, with the clear Adriatic lapping at its broad, sandy beaches.

A couple of skiing holidays, in the tax-free Livigno domain and the vast Sella Ronda area back in the Dolomites, didn’t provide another full-on Italian affair. But it’s still rewarding to find a tiny piste-side trattoria serving a secret recipe home-made pasta special for lunch, or gargle with a throat-stripping grappa before bedtime….and know that the country’s traditions will endure for longer than I’ll be around to enjoy them.

So where’s next? The rugged Ligurian coastline; Le Marche, Abruzzo’s quieter northern neighbour; the tourist mecca of the Italian Lakes; stay in an Apulian trullo; and visit biblical Matera, in Basilicata, thanks to Alex Polizzi’s own love affair with this ancient community etched into its rocky surroundings, and saved in the 1980s from its poverty-stricken ghost-town status.

And I’d like to immerse myself somewhere in this bellissimo country to learn their language properly. To engage fully with Italians on the merits of this year’s Montepulciano vintage, or who will win the Scudettonow there’s a worthy ambition for retirement.

Bravo bella Italia…e grazie Alex Polizzi.