Skiing. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, I’d always told myself. My view remains unchanged, as I falter towards the slopes of Lech like a drunken foal, having wrestled my way into a pair of cumbersome ski boots on an icy Austrian morning. I’d never been skiing, nor had I ever shown the remotest interest in skiing but, like speaking a foreign language and learning to travel with just carry-on luggage, it’s one of those things an accomplished, worldly grown-up should surely have in their skill set, right? So here I am, skiing — if you can call it that.
It’s a bright, crisp morning in December — perfect, in theory, for skiing — especially for a clueless beginner like me. My three fellow novices are far ahead. I rebalance the skis on my shoulder, and after almost impaling a passerby, trudge on. It’s too cold, it’s too slippery and I’m not genetically formulated for it (my heritage is sun, sand and kebabs) — but I have high hopes. While the resort isn’t exactly the spectacle of tinsel-tossing frivolity that George Michael had portrayed in Wham’s Last Christmas video (my main reference for this kind of terrain), it’s a tasteful vision of an understated Christmas with, I note keenly, plenty of places to get merry within sliding distance.
Lech is inhabited all year round, so it doesn’t come to life only in winter, like many ski resorts. You won’t see swarms of students or over-accessorised snow bunnies, and don’t even think about gaudy fairy lights. The onion-domed St Nicholas Church ahead of me dates back to the 14th century, when Walser migrants settled here, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the open farmland became a winter Alpine haunt of the elite (with Princess Diana arguably its most famous former patron). It’s like visiting the village of a wealthy Austrian grandmother rather than a ski resort, and I feel that even a non-skiier would be happy to spend two or three days ambling around Lech, not least as the après-ski here is top-notch.
Our instructor, Dietmar, greets the four of us outside the lift and leads us to the least-challenging nursery slope. I watch three-year-olds hurtling downhill as I shuffle along at a top speed of around 10cm an hour. “You don’t need these, they’ll only slow you down,” Dietmar says, calmly tugging the ski poles away from my clenched hands. I sidestep up a shallow slope overlooking the church and some pretty, snow-shrouded fir trees, Dietmar watching me with a bemused expression. I reach the top, and stand as still as a statue with my arms outstretched, as any move I make results in a face plant. “Put your arms down, Farida. We’re not learning to fly today,” he responds to my eagle-like stance. I spin them instead like a propeller to get my body going, and I’m off.
I wobble my way to the bottom, where Dietmar, the most patient man on Earth, is waiting, and promptly crash into him, having forgotten how to snowplough — something he taught me just minutes earlier. I waddle off, slip once again, and, for 10 minutes, like an overturned cockroach, am unable to get up. Everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives. Kids are chortling as they ride the Magic Carpet conveyor ski lift and other beginners are raring to tackle the slope over and over again. There’s an almost tangible sense of glee in the air.
At the end of the first lesson, I take off my skis, traipse to the cable-car and head up to a bar in the Oberlech area to share some glühwein with my fellow skiers: my first taste of après-ski socialising. There’s a giant disco ball spinning above me, the Alps in front dramatically eerie in the deep-navy sky, and avid skiers are retiring for a drink and a hearty singalong to Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart. Now this, I think, is the type of skiing holiday I can get on board with.
Published in the Winter Sports 2017 guide, distributed with the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)