The south(ish) of France is all about the beaches - in some ways - but there is skiing to be had too, up in the Pyrenees. It was not too far from us; about an hour and a half away. Much closer than any snow field I've ever been to in Australia. Distance is a concept that changes depending on the culture your are brought up in. I think most Australians feel little anxiety about taking long journeys, but I've been reading some Bill Bryson (Notes from a Small Island) and he tells stories about the English and their inability to come to terms with anything much further than their own set of shops. As he says, the distances that 'most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your [English] companions would puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, blow out air as if to say, "Well, now that's a tall order."' So my point is that perhaps a hour and a half would put some off, but we were equal to it.
Having said that, Myles was determined we leave early enough so we were roused at 7am (a time few of us have seen since England) and made to get in the car by 8am. The children were as sweet as you might imagine. We drove through some very pretty countryside, and then we were heading up into a long, jagged mountain range with snow on every side. We talked long and seriously about the Tour de France and how they ride through the Pyrenees and how that must be a bummer, and where each of us would be spitting blood had we had to take a bike upwards (I gave up earliest; I predicted blood spitting at the first sign of a gradient). And before long, we were in a ski resort with slopes and tows and shops that lent you all the stuff you might need.
Hmmm. So there were tow tickets, and then there were boots, and skis and poles and pants. The French don't hire pants. This was looking bad for Myles, Paris and I who had no pants (well, we had pants but they were track suit pants and one spill on the slopes and we would be Frosty the Snowman. Oh well, we hoped not to fall.) Zelda and Niccolo had pants Myles had bought in Australia at some sale. So they were fine.
What is it about ski boots? Perhaps they are designed only for movement, and if you stop, you suffer. This does not take into account those of us who ski in a very limited way and are also responsible for small children who also ski in a limited way. There is much standing around in boots in this scenario. My feet were shrieking very early on in the piece. Medieval torture really missed an opportunity by not inventing ski boots to get prisoners to talk. I would have sung like a canary about pretty much anything after about an hour of this horror. But I digress.
Myles and Paris went up the more difficult slope to scope out the options. Zelda, Niccolo and I hung around on the beginning slope to get our confidence up. If only.
The tow on the beginners slope was a Rope of Death. The Rope of Death was a thick, corded rope that would tow you up the short slope on a continuous loop. So you just grabbed it and theoretically, it would take you up. However, the Rope of Death was also very slippery which made it hard to hold, and at steeper points in the slope, you would hover in one place as the rope went on without you, sliding through your gloved hand, and all the people behind you would be sheared off as they hit the back of you. Niccolo hated it; I tried to put him in front of me and go up that way; it just meant that we became a blockage very early on in the piece (see the final photo in this post for an illustration of a parent trying to help a child, and how thankless it appears. It is.). Zelda hated it because she could get some traction, but idiots like Niccolo and I kept knocking her off. When we did finally make it to the top - sweating and having lost our poles on the way up - it was quite nice to ski the hundred metres back to the starting point. We only managed to do this a few times before it all went very wrong, and the three of us, bad mooded and in physical pain, refused to do it anymore.
Myles and Paris came back and took Zelda up the slopes with them. I remained with Niccolo. We tried the ROD again. This time there were some actual casualties. There had to be another way.
My legs, by this point, were shaking like volts of electricity were being shot through them and I worried that my feet may have developed gangrene. I suggested we take a load off. And have a wee. This was the most successful part of the day thus far.
We watched Zelda and Myles come down the steep slope together. It looked kinda of bad; Zelda cutting a gash into the side of the mountain as she snow ploughed determinedly down. She refused to go back up.
The good news was that Paris and Myles had found what they thought might be another beginners' slope. I had decided by this time to hand my skis in and to walk around in my expensive, American duck boots and help Niccolo and Zelda. There were too many clowns for this circus to work.
It turned out that the there was another beginners' slope up the hill a little. The only access was a poma. Anyone see the flaw in this plan? I tried to explain the concept to Zelda and Niccolo. Paris would ride the poma ahead of them, Myles behind. What could go wrong?
Paris got away and was steaming up the mountain. But Zelda was caught. There is little assistance on ski lifts here; you kinda have to do it yourself. She got on, and fell off immediately. Not knowing what to do next, she held on for grim death and was dragged up the mountain, hip grinding the snow away, the skis jangling and jolting behind her and a thousand French men yelling at her (we presume they were yelling 'let go!' but they could just have easily been yelling 'leave some snow for the rest of us!'). Finally, she fell half way up. Next up was Niccolo. He grabbed the poma and held it above his head. And went up thusly. Again with the thousands of voices screaming. His fight with the poma ended at about the same spot as Zelda's. Meanwhile, Paris had seen what had happened and he had dismounted and skiied down to help. And Myles came up in the other direction and dismounted to help. There were arms and legs and skis akimbo. No one could get passed for ages. Then, one by one, they returned to the bottom of the mountain.
Zelda refused to go back up. Niccolo couldn't wait to have another go. Paris was torn. In the end, Paris, Myles and Niccolo went back up the mountain (I heard later that it took another four attempts to get Niccolo to the top. The poma is a cruel mistress and should have no part in a beginner's experience in the snow.). Zelda and I sat it out for a while and then she went back to the original beginners' slope and the ROD. Paris went off by himself to ski the more difficult runs. And eventually, Myles and Niccolo returned triumphant.
I suggested that Niccolo, who was shaking with exhaustion and cold, and Zelda who was considering mass murder, return their skis and come and drink something hot. Myles and Paris continued to ski, but by this time the sun was way behind the mountains and everything was a bit shadowy.
Skiing; hmmm. Treat or torture?