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The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Skiing

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I went skiing this christmas. To people who know me, this will be surprising. How could that happen?

The past

Apparently I have an impressive early skiing history. My parents went skiing up to the time that I was six or so and I came with them a few times, learning to ski at the time. I could go down hills at that age – as generally kids of that age can as they’re light and falling doesn’t hurt them much. I even won a gold medal in some ski race which exists to this day. Although the story goes that I didn’t actually go all that fast and another Sven won the race but I was quicker to get up and grab the medal…

Back in the days my mum would go skiing as well and my dad wouldn’t even get his skiing equipment off the car. In fact my parents found some old and heavily used kids skis of my own and a pair of pristine skis of my dad in the attic now. But then we stopped going skiing anyway, for some reason or another. And the main thing about skiing that I can remember remained that I’d always have a Germknödel with vanilla sauce, a nice Austrian sweet dish for lunch.

My next encounter of skiing would be in my first term of university. There are very few mountains in the north of Germany, but some of them are quite close to Göttingen and sometimes they even have snow. So we decided to go there for a day trip in my first term with Claus and some other guys. We rented skis and I skied down the baby hill in a dreadful fashion. I skied into many trees that day because I couldn’t go around curves and couldn’t stop reliably either. All my bones hurt after that trip and I was put off skiing.

Indecision

Because of those rather unpleasant experiences from just a few years ago, I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic, when Claus told me some weeks ago that they had booked a skiing holiday, that there was still a spare bed in the flat and that I should come and join them. He mentioned the topic quite a few times and in the end I started actually considering to go.

Discussing the topic with various people, I was convinced that I could easily borrow ski, that those more modern ‘carving’ skis are much easier to use than the old ones, that I actually need to get a holiday and that I could just attend a ski class to learn going down hills properly and safely. This way, indecision turned into a decision to go on the trip just a few days before christmas. As I wasn’t able to contact Claus before the whole holiday stuff had begun, I ended up learning that the trip started on the 26th on the evening of the 25th. And at that time I didn’t even have any skiing clothes or anything like them. Luckily, Claus found a spare – and rather unfashionable – set somewhere which I could borrow.

Getting there

So, the plan was that we’d arrive at the destination on the night of the 26th, so we could start skiing the next day. To get there, Pablo, who still had a spare seat in his car would pick me up at the station in Mannheim (which is halfway through the country, near Heidelberg) around lunch time. As I also had to pick up some other clothes, it turned out that I had to get up at five in the morning, then catch a train to go to Göttingen for repacking. In Göttingen, I just got a cab home, repacked and got another one back to the station to get on the next train which went to Mannheim. On that train I already met Lutz, who was also coming along.

Map of the route I traveled.

And Mannheim was the place where the quick half of the journey ended. The second part would be spent in a car that was fully packed with food and entertainment for a week. That second part would also last another twelve hours because there started to be a lot of traffic, there was snow falling and there were the Alps which we had to pass. Altogether this resulted in fairly slow traffic and a total travel time of more than 18 hours. I.e. more time than I would’ve needed to get to Cape Town and enough time to start wondering whether it might have been more efficient to go to Venice or to Bolzano by plane and hope for a good train connection…

But anyway, we made it, arriving in the middle of the night, not having had any proper food, being welcomed by the others who already wanted to sleep and having to get up early the next day.

The place we arrived at was Mazzin, a small town close to Campitello and Canazei which seem to be well known towns for skiing in the Dolomites. Staying in the smaller town meant that the flat we stayed in was on the more affordable side of expensive and that it was actually a decent size (three bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, proper beds).

Day 1, Monday

After not too much sleep we got up and tried to sort everything out. After breakfast we got some passes for the ski bus from the landlady. And at the tourist information we got the hint to start skiing in Canazei rather than in Campitello because the wait for the lift would be shorter there.

My ski boots. So we went the few stops to Canazei. There, we first rented skis and boots which at around €50 for the week were fairly priced. Doing that took ages as the boots had to be just the right size and the skis had to be adjusted for the boots and everyone’s weight. It was also the moment where it became clear that ski boots aren’t made for walking and they generally seem to be one of the most uncomfortable situations to put your feet in.

Next we had to pick up a ski pass. That’s where the serious spending started. It cost almost €190 for the week. That said, it was apparently very good value compared to other ski regions. The pass, a little paper card with some chip in it that you can keep in your coat all the time, lets you use more than 500 lifts in a dozen different valleys, which, together, give a great number of slopes. While I only used the slopes in our valley, the others immediately planned to do some of the longer tours which take you around a whole group of mountains on one of the later days.

Map of our valley. Crappy photo. With the ski pass we also got maps showing the lifts in our region. As the maps have to show the lifts in each valley and are supposed to give you an idea of what’s up the hill and what’s down in the valley, they are all drawn from different angles for each valley to give the best view. I found that very confusing. But I’m sure it’s quite a graphical challenge to make a map that has all the relevant information while being easy to read.

Yet another step for me was to sign up for a ski class. Unfortunately it was almost lunch time by then and I could only start a class on the next day because they were all held in the mornings. Once that was sorted out, people wanted to start skiing. So we went up a lift, but on the mountain it was quite foggy and the few metres of the slope that I could see were rather steep. So I didn’t dare to go down which probably was a wise decision. Pablo, who had only skied once before decided to go for something simpler as well – so we went down again to a beginners slope for the first day.

My first moves there were very careful – still having my previous experience in mind – I first walked up some metres and then went downwards on the skis. And that went surprisingly well. I actually stopped at the bottom and neither myself nor anybody else was hurt in the process. After doing that a few more times and realising that walking up the hill is quite strenuous and uncomfortable, I decided to go all the way and use the lift.

The lift was a drag lift and using them can be a bit tricky as you are pulled on your own skis and have to make sure you don’t fall over and things. Pablo warned me to take care and after being probably the most unrelaxed lift-user for a minute I had made it up the hill. Not too bad. Getting down was the next problem. Unfortunately, the first few metres on the top of the hill were quite steep and I wasn’t too comfortable when going down there. But after a trying a few times, and falling into the snow a few times, I managed going down that hill slowly but reasonably well. Cool.

After these first steps, in the late afternoon, we caught the bus back and got the first hint that the trip back will be the most unpleasant thing of the day as there was a lot of traffic, the buses were slow, and the were many people on the bus. We made it anyway and finished the day with a nice pizza in the pizzeria just next to the house we staid in. Large, thin and very nice pizzas, they made. And thanks to our ignorance of Italian we managed to answer the question whether we wanted the salad before or with the pizzas in a way that ensure we got it after the pizzas. Fun.

Day 2, Ski school

On Tuesday ski school started. It started only at ten o’clock, meaning that I needed to catch the bus at nine and thus could sleep a little longer than everybody else – everybody else being determined to start skiing right away. Everything started on a very small and slight slope, where we had to walk up and go down little bits to begin with. Once everybody had arrived, we were split up into different groups – judged on how well we managed to get down the hill. I ended up in one of the better groups with a bunch of English people (probably because they tried to keep the non-Italian speakers together).

The first things we learned were the ‘snowplow’ way of slowing down and going to the right and the left. This way we could start feeling comfortable on the skis and start getting a better feeling for how they work. This could have been more exciting but I guess it was good at building some confidence. We also got to use the funny conveyor belt style lift to go up that little hill in the process.

Once those essentials were sorted we went across the street to a slightly higher hill with a drag lift. And after getting down that one safely, the first lesson was over. Not too bad.

Then I met my friends on the next really high mountain for some lasagne and cappuccinos. And afterwards they took me up the next lift and made me go down there. That took a long time and must have been a bit boring for them in a “Um, Sven thinks it’s too steep again” way but eventually we managed to get down that hill, which I’d only do in ski school two days later. Not bad at all. I didn’t go down all the way down to the valley with my friends, though, as the last bit was said to be a bit more difficult, so I went down by lift.

Once we arrived back at our flat – after another dreadful journey in the ski bus – we made some food and had an elaborate more-or-less pointless discussion before falling deeply asleep.

Trust

Trusting people is quite important when going down steep hills and such like. And while I’m always eager to believe any crap that people might tell me, I’m much more reluctant to actually trust them when it comes to putting my own life at risk (well that’s my melodramatic way of speaking about going down steep hills). In particular, I found I couldn’t really trust most of my friends most of the time.

While nothing bad happened to me, the fact that they kept telling me that what I’m doing is easy while I was having a highly stressful experience going down a slight slope. I don’t think that anything they wanted me to do was actually dangerous but it did look that way to me at the time. And having more experience in skiing may cause people to forget that fact.

This may be analogous to the situation in maths where you have a really difficult problem in your first year and your supervisor keeps telling you that it’s an easy one. And both of you are right. Of course you’ll consider the problem to be easy yourself a year or two later, but at that very moment, it’s actually hard for you. I keep thinking that it’s important not to forget about how hard problems used to be for yourself when you first saw them. Sadly, people at university often do forget these facts, thus making it much harder and discouraging for other people trying to begin with the subject.

Day 3, the big hill

On the second day of ski school two things changed. The first was the weather which after a mostly foggy first two days began to be sunny. Which was very nice, of course, and made staying outside all day at sub-zero temperatures much more pleasant. The second thing was that ski school took place on the big mountain, Pecol, for the first time. We went up the lifts and slowly started learning to go nice and parallely to the hill, to do more curves and to actually go down the hills for longer bits in one go.

Again, all this went surprisingly well. Of course I fell over into the snow a few times but the first things I learned about that is that (at least at my speeds) it doesn’t actually hurt, so it doesn’t matter too much. At the end of the day I could go down the easy slope of that hill on my own. Still slowly and carefully but without feeling to bad about it anyway.

For lunch I met my friends again, who had done another explorative trip to other hills in the morning. We met in one of the many ‘Refugio’s, little cafés that were almost at every lift. That day we first visited ‘Kristiania’ which would be our favourite one for the rest of the stay. It wasn’t as overcrowded as some of the others as it wasn’t at the end of a major lift. And their service seemed quicker that that of the other day anyway. (And it was in a place that I could reach – a criterion that was vital, of course, and ruled out many others…)

In the afternoon, Claus did a bit more of practicing with me. And said that he thought there was good progress. I agreed. We could already go down some of the slopes much more comfortably than the previous day.

Food

A big advantage of spending your holidays in the Italian mountains is of course that you’re in Italy. This means that food is good and reasonably priced. It also means that people are serious about making coffee – after all they the people who call German coffee, coffee which is considered to be atrociously strong in some parts of the world, acqua sale, dirty water.

And in fact, even the most distant refugio would have a proper espresso machine that was operated by proper human and made good coffee. Most places would sell espressos (or simply caffé, as they call it in Italy) for a Euro and cappuccinos or latte macchiatos for two Euros. Less than you’d pay in most German cafés. That was nice, of course, and I quickly started being spoiled.

Food along the slopes was a bit more expensive, but sticking to some of the local sandwiches, made with some local kind of rye bread with caraway seed, ham and cheese was both affordable and nice. The only thing I would have liked is the odd Germknödel for lunch…

Day 4, the other side

Another day to start with my ski course. Martino, our teacher, did a great job of getting everyone down the hills safely and keeping (almost) everyone who needed extra care motivated. On this day we should learn that while the snowplow technique we started with is good for getting going at the beginning, it’s not what we are supposed to do for good fun.

Instead, we were supposed to go with parallel skis. All the time. We’d hear Martino shouting ‘no snowplow!’ many times in the coming days. Now that was a scary prospect. But one that turned out to be quite fruitful after a while – once we had learned to turn properly with parallel skis and had learned to stop by just turning and driving up the hill a little, or, at lower speed, by turning and going sideways a little.

Going sideways was another big thing that day. We learned that we could simply slide down the hill sideways on our skis if we didn’t dare to go down a bit of slope straight on. Nohing like techniques that let you safely get out of situations which you’d consider scary otherwise.

At lunch I told my friends about the great improvements and they said we were making good progress. Good enough, in fact, to take me over the pass, to the other side of the hill. Nice idea, I thought. Until I actually saw the other side of the pass, that is. The first bit was quite steep, but I managed to go down after a while. But then came a bit that couldn’t be seen right away and that I considered atrociously steep, and, even worse, with more icy snow than anything I had been on before.

Next came stressful ten minutes of getting me down that steep bit. I didn’t enjoy that too much. But afterwards the slope was much tamer and fun. At the end, it even had a ‘blue’, that is easy, slope which I quite enjoyed. But we could only go there once because it was getting late and we still had to cross the pass again to get back into our valley before it got dark and the lifts closed.

And that bit was a bit tricky as well, as the topmost slope on the other side was quite steep as well. But with a bit of assistance, I managed to get down safely and give or take a lengthy experience of the ski bus, we were home soon after that.

Me, skiing

Snowboarding

Being in a ski area means that you’re also in a snowboard area. And I must admit, that I quite like the idea of snowboards – if only because they look better than ski. For æsthetic reasons I am tempted to say that snowboards are better than ski in the same way that chopstics are better than knives and forks (and on a second thought I’d have to admit that this is a really lame analogy, if only because ski are a bit like chopsticks… but perhaps you get the idea that a snowboard seems to be a much cleaner and simpler idea).

I had heard different accounts about the difficulty of learning snowboard. They ranged from ‘easier than skiing’ to ‘as hard as skiing’ to ‘harder than skiing’. I.e. they weren’t too helpful. I still decided to go for the skis as all of my friends did and they could (and did) teach me things and help me that way.

Seeing snowboarders all around, gave me a slightly negative impression, though. As for the difficulty, it definitely seemed harder for people to get on and off and stay on lifts if they were using snowboards. And despite the relatively high high number of snowboarders around the number of them who actually rode down the slopes in one go seemed quite low.

Many more of them seemed to prefer to sit around on the slope (on their knees or their backs, anyway) most of the time and relax. I was told this has to do with the whole thing being a bit exhausting, so you need a cigarette break every now and again – yet, at the time, I was more concerned about groups of people sitting in my way and I was afraid that I could accidentally run into them. The other thing that scared me were the beginners who went downhill. They seemed to have even less control of where they were going than myself. But nothing bad happened, so I guess it isn’t that bad.

I still think that snowboards look better and that it’s probably worth trying them. If only because those snowboarder boots look really comfy. About a gazillion times more comfortable than ski boots.

Day 5, New Year’s Eve

More ski class on the last day of the year. We started actually enjoying the ride then, being able to go down most place on ‘our hill’ without problems. The new thing we learned was to properly balance our body to go around curves, rather than using the ski sticks. The simple trick to learn that was to make us leave the sticks at the top of the hill and make us go down without. Nice one.

After skiing we went on to have our New Year’s dinner. My friends had brought a racelette for the occasion and we enjoyed the meal. Unfortunately, we finished eating around ten. And at that time we were tired from skiing and well fed. I.e. tired. But there were two more hours to kill before the new year. As we stayed in a small village nearby and there weren’t any buses running at night, we couldn’t join the main parties or ‘après ski’ acitvities. I do suspect, though, that the latter would’ve been considered at least musically offensive by myself. And as I learned the next day from the English people in my ski class, many of the pubs had set up ‘special’ charges for the occasion, chargin upwards of fifty Euros just for entering…

As the new year came, we had the obligatory drinks, watched the fireworks outside – and froze dearly in the process – and phoned our families back in Germany. Phoning for the new year is always a mess as everybody tries to do it and the mobile phone networks break down.

Mobile Phones

I don’t normally have a mobile phone, but my mum made me take her new one for this trip. This was useful at least once. Hooray. Luckily I don’t have to pay the bill as using a German phone while you’re in Italy supposedly is quite expensive. (And with the person you call being in the same situation, he’ll have to pay some excessive extra charges as well). Heck, we managed to get the same currency in all these countries, why is the phone system so messy, then?

Anyway, I didn’t like the phone (ugly silver flip open Motorola thing which, as we learned at home, doesn’t even integrate properly with the computer), just the camera was slightly less crappy than the one on my brother’s phone, the games were much worse than on my mum’s old phone (Snake!) and the whole UI was a colourful hard-to-understand mess. Ah well. Let’s see how long I can go on not having a mobile phone. It seems like people start being irritated when you tell them you can’t give them a mobile number.

Day 6, the last one

Let’s just say that being there for your ski course at 9:45 on January first isn’t the most relaxing thing ever and it is definitely the time to appreciate not having had a hell of a party the night before. This would be the last day of the course and Martino had promised us to take us to the other valley across the pass that day. And there we went after a little warmup. And while going down the steep bits wasn’t exactly smooth this time either, I have to admit that it went much better than during my trip there with my friends only two days before.

We then had a coffee and received little passes certifying our progress and a little pin of the ski school. A bit silly, but something I can show to people:

The result of my ski course

So I passed our ‘bronze’ level with three stars and even got half a star from the next one. I’m not 100% sure what the sheet of paper certifies, though, as my Italian knowledge is limited to food and a few swearwords.

After receiving our passes we went a bit further to go up Sass Pordoi which is one of the higher mountains in the region, just shy of three kilometres. That wasn’t for skiing (which is apparently quite dangerous there) but to get a view of the region, which we did. We could see all the slopes we went down. See them look really tiny and flat. We could also see all the other mountains and villages in the area. During our short stay – just ten minutes until the next lift arrived we also learned that, in summer, from nearby Marmolada you could look all the way to Venice.

After meeting my friends for lunch once more, we tried to make some skiing photos, so I have a ‘proof’ to send to my brother. With the sun setting early and hiding between high mountains late in the afternoon, that turned out to be a bit tricky. Particularly in conjunction with those ‘high tech’ digital cameras that can’t simply take a photo when the button is pressed but like to have a little break beforehand.

At night, we once more had a nice pizza from the place next door and then we packed everything so we could leave early in the morning the next day.

Getting Back

And that was necessary because many other people were trying to get back home at the same time so there was a guarantee for traffic jams on the motorway. Even with leaving at seven in the morning, we ended up having a good share of slow traffic and standing around on roads as we could hear the traffic reports on the radio tell us that things are getting worse with dozens kilometres of traffic jams coming into existence everywhere in southern Germany.

Claus dropped me off at the station in Nürnberg once we had made it there and I went back home by train as Göttingen wasn’t on the route back to Berlin. In the station I got a coffee to stay awake. It tasted awful, despite being made in a pseudo-poncy coffee place. The train was quite full and I had to get another coke to not sleep past my stop. Which brought me to the restaurant coach with all the smokers stinking there and the staff being really rude and out of most things…

Welcome back home, I thought.

January 3, 2005, 14:07

Tagged as dolomiti, ski, travel.

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