Friday, 22 October 2010

Forty years of mountain skiing.

One winter's day, just after the Second World War, I was walking down High Raise into Easdale when I was passed by three skiers, swooping in great, wide turns down the sunlit snows with apparent confidence and ease. I knew the Lake District Ski Club had been formed in 1936 for many of its members belonged to my own climbing club- The Fell and Rock-but these were the first skiers I had ever seen on the fells. Many years earlier, in the mid-1930s, I had met Walter Ingham — later to become well-known as the leading promoter of winter sports in the Alps, especially Austria and, in return for my introducing him to climbing, he had offered to teach me skiing. Walter was then selling typewriters in Preston. We were to stay — for practically nothing — with a friend of his, Serafin Fender, at Solden in the Tyrol but as it happened, I had already fixed up my first climbing holiday in Skye and most regrettably, had to turn him down. Had I been able to accept his kind offer I would now have been able to boast that I had started skiing 53 years ago, whereas, alas, I can merely claim about 40 years involvement with the sport -most of them at a pretty low level.

The sight of those three ski mountaineers on High Raise — ski tourers they would be called then — inspired me to attempt to emulate them and I acquired a pair of very long, old-fashioned wooden skis with primitive leather bindings but no steel edges and fitted them to my clinker-nailed climbing boots, after gouging out grooves in the heels. The next weekend, after very shaky trials on the fell at the back of the house, I climbed Harter Fell on them from Longsleddale, using sealskins which had been purchased with the skis. Most Lakeland skiers were mountaineers in those days. Skiing being just an interesting winter alternative to ice-axe work in the gullies. They fitted skis to their nailed boots, wore their ordinary mountain clothes, carried axes for the steep, icy places and strapped on their skins when they reached the first snow. It had been in the early 1920s when a few people, mostly climbers with experience of skiing abroad, had begun to explore the winter possibilities of the fells.
Early skiers, in Scotland and the Lake District, considered the ascent of the hills, using skins on their skis and working out the best line through steep or rocky terrain, as important and nearly as interesting as the descent and my ascent of Harter Fell proved pleasant enough. But the descent- since I had no idea how to turn- was a complete disaster. Bruised, battered and covered in snow I was tempted to give up the game but when I remembered the sun shining on the summit snows, the dramatic views across winter Lakeland and the delightful sliding along the easy bit on top found I was hooked on skiing for good. Forty years on I am still trying to ski properly but can at least look back on half a lifetime of the sport on Lakeland fells, Scottish hills, Alpine peaks and, more recently, some splendid mountains in British Columbia and Washington, USA.

We started skiing on Cairn Gorm long before the road was built when the only uphill traction was Bill Blackwood's old rope tow on the Ciste Mhairearaid side of the summit, enjoyed fortnights in Austrian resorts for less than £40 — including the air fare — and, every year, had to learn some new style — the Arlberg crouch, maybe, the Christiania swing, the reverse shoulder technique. Everything about skiing has been changing all the time. We first used long bamboo poles with enormous leather-thonged baskets — more useful for recovery from deep snow than the small metal discs of today — and bindings that included a strap across the toe and a coiled spring contraption at the heel allowing almost unlimited lift. This enabled us to attempt, almost kneeling on one ski, the elegant Telemark turn — usually disastrously. The first cable bindings came much later and modern release bindings later still. With cable bindings you could either have the heels held down on the skis — but not very efficiently — or free to lift for touring. Sometimes we used long leather thongs wound several times round the ankles but, if you fell the wrong way, these merely ensured that you broke bones or tore tendons. Before modern release bindings were invented the hospitals in the bigger towns nearest to the resorts abroad were filled with skiers with broken legs — scores of them in some hospitals with beds crammed into every corridor. Skis started as wooden planks which were then laminated with short sections of metal edges screwed on. These kept falling out and you had to carry a screwdriver and spare edges — then came metal and, finally, plastic. In the early days, if a ski came off, it zoomed down the slope, usually bringing down any skiers in its path or even threatening to decapitate them!  Later we had the back of the skis tied to the boots with a strap or a piece of string — we always carried bits of string, for a variety of repairs, and, when ski touring, a spare ski tip. But the rubber bands used at one time for retaining a detached ski often merely resulted in the skis being swung into one's face, often with unfortunate consequences. For years we used our ordinary mountain clothes, with perhaps ex-army camouflage parkas — even abroad. You could always pick out the British skiers abroad because of their scruffy appearance.

We seemed to be able to ski down the hills using our ordinary nailed climbing boots — not so neatly, certainly, as today but reasonably competently using either snow plough or lifted stem turns. The Christiania turn — the first `christie' — was a revolution in ski technique but the first real parallel skiing I ever saw — by a lady member of my club on Raise in about 1950 — seemed, to me, completely miraculous. How on earth, I wondered, could this possibly be done. It was many years before we came to understand the importance of unweighting; before then the skis were swung round  with brute force and ignorance, with the arms, and the sticks as we then called them, were never planted but merely flayed the air. 
Superseding the climbing boot came the square-toed ski boot — the very best, from Carter's in London, cost £3. 19s in 1936 — and these were in general use for years before the soft, double leather boot was developed. I still have a pair of these comfortable leather boots—useful for gentle ski mountaineering but not nearly precise enough for hard snow or ice — as well as my old 'iron' boots, shod with Stubai waisted clinkers and a scattering of edge tricounis.

Occasionally, for climbing or traversing steepish ice or hard snow, we used Harsch-Eisen climbing irons, fastened to the skis, as well as skins, but these devices — and the ice axes we occasionally carried  are beyond the ambit of modern downhill skiing. Belonging, exclusively, to the world of ski mountaineering. Modern plastic boots with clip fastenings and step-in bindings have, of course, completely revolutionised skiing and even persuaded decrepit, old-fashioned skiers like myself that we can — but only when on form and on perfect snow — almost ski.

In the old days we used evil-smelling wax on our wooden skis to make them slide — smoothing it on the night before with a hot iron borrowed from one's mother, wife or girl friend. We skied wearing rucksacks, with a waist strap, for we were collecting summits, not merely skiing down the same patch of pisted snow, time after time, with tows or ski lifts in between. We were nowhere near as competent or as elegant as modern skiers — who seem to be able to ski parallel, in a fashion, within weeks — but perhaps we enjoyed our mountains more. It took us years to progress from stemmed turns to parallels — and then had to start all over again from scratch because we had been skiing the `wrong' way. We tried to ski the Austrian way, with the knees slotted together, but in France they ski with the skis further apart, in Switzerland they teach 'carved' turns whereas in Italy they aim at racing techniques with firm edge control. But, 40 years ago, with our clumsy equipment and uncertain control, we probably got just as much fun and comradeship out of our skiing as the immaculately clad and equipped skiers of today. Snow is there to be enjoyed, whether it is rutted ice with rocks to avoid in foul weather, barely-covered grass, smoothly-pisted slopes, fierce moguls or knee-deep powder — provided you have the enthusiasm and a bit of determination. So, like thousands of others, I am still looking forward to the first snows of winter —although quietly wondering whether I can still cope?

 Photo: The Guardian©

AH Griffin©
First published in High: Jan 1989.