Spirit of the Dolomites - Chapter 1

Chapter One – A Year Out

“He is on his way,” a disembodied voice rasped down the telephone. “But you said that ten minutes ago,” I whispered. I was terrified; it was all going so horribly wrong. Already the phone was silent and immune to interrogation. As I slowly replaced the receiver the room was suddenly awash with bright light. At last, it had arrived. Heaving a huge sigh of relief I left the house and raced down the driveway. There was indeed a car parked outside but a slowly flashing blue light suggested it was anything but a taxi. The driver was peering suspiciously at my new, rigid suitcase standing in solitary splendour on the pavement.

“Don’t blow it up,” I panted, a feeble attempt at a joke I knew but at three o’clock in the morning my brain was racing towards the next possible disaster on this black night. I was asked, very matter-of- factly, just why a suitcase had been apparently abandoned by the roadside, who I was, where did I live and why was I hanging around on a street corner in the early hours? Naturally I was able to answer all the questions but my agitated state and constant squinting at my watch did not help my cause. I explained that I was waiting for a taxi to pick me up and take me to the city centre bus station to catch a National Express Coach to the airport. Finally they believed me and with a warning never to leave my suitcase unattended again they drove off into the night. Immediately I cursed myself for not asking them for a lift! I really was getting desperate and did not dare go back into the house to call the taxi company yet again. I slumped down on my suitcase head in hands. It seemed my adventure was over before it had begun. Around me the leaves of my garden shrubbery waved gently in the breeze, reflecting the sulphur yellow of the street lights stretching towards the junction to my left. Occasionally there was a flash of white light as a car turned right from the main road just beyond but they never made the second turn into my street. My heart was pounding. Time was running out. I was aroused from my stupor by the sound of an engine changing gear to turn into my road. Finally my taxi had arrived but by now we had only five minutes to get into the town centre, a journey that normally takes fifteen minutes. My suitcase loaded in the boot I leapt into the back of the car and told the taxi driver that he would have to move quickly if he wanted to avoid driving all the way to Leicester to connect with the coach there. I had done my homework on taxis that failed to turn up and discovered that there was actually a law that obliged a taxi that is late to take you to your destination should the delay cause one to miss some form of public transport.

We roared off down the road, my heart was in my mouth as we approached the first of many sets of traffic lights. If this one was green the rest should be green and we might just make it. It was green and we sailed through, the next one was amber but I yelled at the driver to keep going. Fortunately he did as he was told and we ran the gamut of lights successfully and the bus station soon loomed into sight. We were supposed to follow a circuitous one way system to get to the bays but I could see my bus and it was already pulling out so I told the taxi driver to enter by the exit knowing he was unlikely to meet any traffic at that hour and to stop in front of the departing coach. Amazingly, he did as I asked and even parked in the path of the departing vehicle. I suspected he was actually enjoying the ‘chase’ now.

Scrambling out of the taxi I ran to the coach and explained to the bemused driver and his assistant that I had a ticket for that bus and that my taxi had been late. They were very understanding and my suitcase was soon safely stowed below and we were on our way. Relieved I slumped down into the first empty seat I came to and stared out into the darkness. That was some close shave! If I had missed the bus, the only one that could get me to Gatwick in time for my flight then surely I would have lost the best job I had ever had. Eight months of my one year career break had passed by already in a flurry of trips and adventures and this morning I was embarking on my first skiing trip as a tour leader. It was six years since I last skied and having spent the week skiing around muddy patches and down narrow strips of snow precariously passing skiers being dragged up the mountain on a lift, I had doubted I would ever ski again. Nevertheless I had agreed to do this trip, as ski lessons were included for everyone so it would be a chance to restore my confidence. Musing on this possibility I gazed out of the window watching the suburbs of Nottingham go by. As a true traveller I even enjoyed my bus journeys to the airport. It was not long before I drifted off to sleep and I never did get the cup of tea the cheery attendant had promised me after my scramble to catch the bus. I rectified this omission at Gatwick then refreshed and revived I donned my smart red blazer, pinned on my badge and made my way to the seating area in front of Dixons’ where I was due to make contact with my fellow travellers.

Red blazers were very fashionable then, not only were they the uniform for a large company whose employees worked in the airport but I had seen several passengers around the departure lounge similarly attired including a lady seated at our meeting point. As I scanned the area for members of my group I saw a person approach her and then immediately back away with the temerity of someone who has just encountered a snarling dog. I suspected the lady concerned had already been approached by strangers enquiring if she was their tour leader. Hastily I made a detour to waylay the retreating passenger and check the label on her hand luggage. Yes, one of my group. I called out to her and introduced myself. Clearly she was relieved to see me and I was also glad to see her. This was one of the aspects of the job I had found most difficult when I started, meeting clients at the airport. I usually arrived at least two hours before necessary, spent more money than I had in the Duty Free shops and then went to the meeting place much earlier than indicated on our itinerary.

We were a large group, thirty of us in total, and I had been concerned about my ability to deal with so many people. Despite the assurances of my colleagues that all I had to do was get them to the resort then the hotel manager, who we will call Mario, would take over I had still been riddled with doubts. Fortunately I had been well primed by fellow tour leaders and was able to answer most of the questions that were fired at me on this my first acquaintance with the group. The first hurdle was remembering their names. It was relatively easy when they arrived one at a time and introductions were being made each time a new person joined us. I had tried various memory techniques including visualising something that would remind me of their name but this meant I stared at a face for so long trying to bring to mind a suitable object that the person under scrutiny must have thought I was very strange. I finally employed the technique of repeating the name over and over again in my mind while watching for newcomers. Of course when several people arrived together it descended to a name ticking exercise. It was soon time to make our way to the Boarding Gate and I herded them all in the right direction confidently dealing with questions that were constantly being asked. I could describe the hotel and the ski area as though I had already spent several weeks there. But Mario, who would be organising the programme for us? Now that was another matter and even chatting to the people who were returning for a second visit had not enlightened me. I would just have to wait and see.

After the scramble to collect cases and boot bags at Verona airport we emerged into the arrivals area and I quickly spotted our bus driver holding our company sign aloft. Clearly he was used to our groups and although he did not speak any English he was soon leading us to the bus, bizarrely bronze in colour, and was expertly stacking cases, boot bags and skis in the cavernous storage area while we clambered aboard the scenic cruiser. Once everyone had settled down we departed and I decided to walk down the bus to check that everyone was comfortable. Bad decision. There are several sharp bends between the airport and the motorway and my composure was soon rattled by the need to grab hold of seat backs to avoid being pitched face first onto the floor of the aisle. Scuttling back to my seat at the front of the bus I opted for the safer but more formal technique of imparting information using the microphone. There was not much to say really, transfer of two hours, passports for hotel check in, ski hire and then the Information Meeting at which we would be presented with the programme for the week. I could then settle down to enjoy the scenery and the anticipation of three weeks skiing in the Dolomites.

My first day nerves evaporated as I gazed through the coach window. I had heard that the snow was good this year and was relishing the thought of swishing down the slopes again. I had just spotted the sign announcing we had entered the small mountain village that was our base for the week, when our driver executed a rather alarming two point turn, the end of the bus hanging over precipitous edge during this manoeuvre, and then began to reverse slowly up a narrow road. Craning my neck I could see above me a white building with Albergo emblazoned on the wall. We had arrived and I was about to meet the infamous Mario. One naturally conjured up an image in the mind about the appearance of such a well known personality and I expected to be greeted by a tall, dark, slim gentleman who spoke heavily accented English. As I descended from the bus I was surprised when I was welcomed by a stocky gentleman with a round rugged face, light coloured hair and intense pale eyes. I sensed that the group were immediately captivated by this alluring personality.

We were all greeted enthusiastically and, after sorting out our various pieces of luggage, we were shown to the reception area. This was at the top of two short flights of stairs and it took a while to get everyone and their bags up there. Meanwhile Mario had skipped up the stairs and started the check in process. Passports and lift pass photos were collected, keys were distributed and greetings exchanged with old friends. All I had to do was assist those struggling to get their cases up the stairs. At least there was a lift from the reception area to the rooms but as it could only take one person with one suitcase at a time it was a slow process.

Finally it was my turn and I was given my key and made my way to my first floor room at the back of the hotel. While waiting I had had time to appreciate the fabulous views from the front of the hotel over the town of Trento sprawling along the floor of the valley below us. Needless to say the window of my very small twin room looked out on a grassy bank and a stack of logs. The room was simple but homely, the bright orange and black bedspreads a startling splash of colour against the pale walls. A pine wardrobe, a desk and a nice picture on the wall completed the furnishings. Tipping the contents of my case onto one of the narrow single beds I quickly divested myself of my formal travelling clothes and dressed in ski gear ready to make the short walk to the ski hire shop in the centre of the village. We had been encouraged to get ready then make our way downstairs to meet Mario as soon as possible. On my arrival downstairs Mario immediately set off down the road with the first group leaving me to round up the stragglers and follow his brief instructions concerning the whereabouts of the ski hire shop. I was slightly concerned that I might not be able to find it on my own but I need not have worried, the village had just one main street and the hire shop was so small people were queuing outside so I only had to follow the sound of chattering voices. As soon as I arrived Mario relinquished the list of ski and boot numbers that he had been filling in and was gone.

Once I had completed my list it was my turn to be fitted with skis. Since I last skied technology had moved on a lot and I was offered a pair of carving skis which just about made it to my chin. Used to having skis that continued at least six inches above the top of my head I was a bit suspicious that maybe these were the only skis left in the tiny shop. However, much gesturing on the part of the owner indicated that these skis were the best so I accepted them graciously. As I was gathering up skis, boots and poles in preparation for my walk back to the hotel, a bottle and three glasses were produced from under the counter and Mrs Ski Hire appeared from upstairs where she had been dispensing the boots. The bottle contained a clear liquid and it was proffered to me so that I could read the label. Grappa. I had no idea what it was so when a small measure was poured out and given to me I had a quick sniff. Wow! It smelt like something I would use to clean stubborn stains. My new friends raised their glasses and, with a cheerful “salute”, they downed the colourless liquid in one gulp. I was clearly expected to do the same. Smiling weakly I raised my glass, whispered “cheers” and poured it straight down my throat. There was a sudden searing but almost immediately after that a warm glow radiated through my entire body. A smile spread across my face.

Elated by their success my companions produced a second bottle from below the counter. A whole plant floated in the pale yellow liquid contained in this bottle. Our glasses were re-charged and raised to a chorus of “salute” then emptied in one go. This flavour was slightly different but still accompanied by the same sensations as before although now my knees had started to feel decidedly wobbly. Time to go. I thanked my new friends who tried to persuade me to have another glass with them. I declined, fearful that I may not be able to stagger back up the hill to the hotel if I imbibed any more of this potent liquid. By the time I and my skis had made it back to the boot room the place was deserted and hastily dumping my skis I clambered up the stairs to reception to collect my key. Mario was there and I gave him the list and then escaped to my room. As I never normally drank spirits two small glasses of grappa, at 40 per cent proof, had had quite a dramatic effect. I was glad that I had at least an hour before we were all due to meet for our Welcome Drink. Just before the appointed time I made my way downstairs. In the gloom of the half light I could see shapes slumped in the large comfy leather chairs. Occasionally a groan was heard as someone struggled to extricate themselves from the depths of the plump upholstery. An open wood fire flickered in the centre of the room enticing people to perch on the stone hearth or rock gently in the cane rocking chairs placed nearby. The huge television screen was blissfully grey and quiet in the corner and the only noise to be heard was the soft murmur of voices as the early arrivals got to know each other. I had just joined one of the groups gathered around a low coffee table when the lights went up and Mario appeared wheeling a trolley of drinks before him. He was followed by a very attractive, slim, dark girl who was introduced to us all. This was his wife, Lucia, who also spoke excellent English. Lucia was in charge of the kitchen and decided the menu each day. Sociable and good fun she mixed well with my groups.

We sipped our drinks and made polite conversation. As usual this first social gathering of a new group was subdued but I knew that by this time tomorrow they would be acting like old friends. Lucia, I noticed had slipped away almost immediately after the introductions had been made. She re-appeared to announce that dinner was ready and indicated that we should follow her. A very short distance beyond reception we were shown into the dining room a brightly lit large square room. Through the large picture windows along one side of the room we could see the twinkling lights of Trento far below us. Square wooden tables were surrounded by square wooden chairs and each one be-decked with red and white table cloths. At the far end, tables had been joined together to form three long rectangles. These were to be our tables for the week. We took our places and while waiting for our first course to arrive I continued my scrutiny of our surroundings.

Pictures marched in a row with military precision across one of the walls coming to an abrupt halt at the start of the closed room divider. Behind this was a second dining area the same size as the one in which we were now seated. Shelves, open units, glass fronted units and drawers lined the remaining walls housing glasses, cutlery and bottles of wine. Music blared out from the radio and noisy radiators belted out heat. All very simple and functional. Before our first course arrived, Flavia, the waitress appeared with the ubiquitous trolley which this time transported quarter litre carafes of red and white wine. Once we had all made our choice of wine we were invited to help ourselves to salad or soup from the buffet laid out on two tables at the other end of the room.

After much scraping of chairs and jostling for position around the tables we finally began to eat, ravenous after a long day travelling and surviving on airline food. The next course, copious amounts of pasta, was served at the table. Unsure whether or not this was the main course some of us went for second helpings and were then unable to finish the meat course which arrived soon after. A small dessert completed the meal after which we returned to the bar to be informed of the programme for the week.

On our return we found the television had been activated and was running a video showing the group that had been here the previous week. This video, accompanied by a droll commentary from Mario was hilarious and a good icebreaker. We watched the groups having ski lessons, Mario always seemed to be around when someone fell over. Interspersed with the skiing were glimpses of the afternoon activities. Snow shoe walking featured in one clip and showed a colleague of mine stumbling through the snow cursing as she tried to mobilise the tennis rackets attached to her feet to keep up with the group ahead. A notoriously heavy smoker we could hear her gasping for breath. I decided to be wary of the camera during the week ahead but I was soon to discover that this was easier said than done!

“Allora”, Mario attracted our attention in order to begin his presentation of our programme of the week. His dry and very English sense of humour soon had us all roaring with laughter as we were introduced to the various activities planned for the days ahead. We were given copies of the programme for the week and our host described the events in store for us. His delivery was enhanced by his emphatic pronunciation of the English language, mustt, hadd. I looked forward to the days ahead although I did wonder what my role would be as there had been no mention so far of any duties I would be expected to fulfil.

Finally we were encouraged to relax and enjoy the slower pace of life in the mountains although “in slowing down maybe you sleep through breakfast, naturally you will miss breakfast but this way you will gain two hours’ sleep.” This statement, delivered with his deadpan expression evoked more chuckles. As the meeting drew to a close those not intent on an early night gathered around the small bar, some perched on high wooden stools to continue their acquaintance with this charismatic personality. While amusing them with anecdotes of the antics of previous groups he carefully avoided precise answers to specific questions about the activities we would be experiencing during the week ahead. Mario thrived on the element of surprise, it made good video footage and also allowed him to build up the drama by leaving explanations to the last minute. Did he have a great sense of theatre or was he a realist who knew that our groups would not pay attention to instructions until it became absolutely necessary? I was never sure but looking around the bar I could see that already they were all under his spell. I slipped away and climbed up the stairs to my little room. I was up very early the next morning and had a stroll along the main road through the village to orientate myself. This took five minutes during which I established the whereabouts of the two lifts to the ski area above us, the only village shop, two bars, and a surprisingly large Information Centre. On my return I discovered several members of the group loitering in the bar area waiting for the dining room to open so that we could have breakfast. We chatted about the day ahead. Several of us had not skied for a few years and were anxiously discussing whether or not we would remember how to do it. Reminiscing about past experiences we were all trying to decide the level of our respective skills and I began to worry that I would be far worse than anyone else and an embarrassment to my role as their tour leader.

We heard the scraping as the heavy door was opened announcing that breakfast was served so we made our way into the dining room. At every place was a warm croissant and baskets of fresh bread rolls punctuated the tablecloth at regular intervals. One croissant and one bread roll each supplemented by slices of cheese and ham from the buffet accompanied by either tea or coffee. This simple but adequate breakfast was soon eaten and we then gathered at the main entrance by which time I was getting quite nervous about the ‘test’ we were about to undertake to grade us for lessons and listened with sympathy to others expressing a similar fear. I hoped that I would not fall over or otherwise disgrace myself. Mario had gone on ahead and I had been given instructions to send everyone to the bottom of the nearest lift, just fifty metres beyond the garden of the hotel along a rocky path. They were to be sent up to join him in small groups so I was running around counting them as they left and then going back into the hotel to chase up the tardy ones. Having finally rounded them all up I was the last to leave the hotel. As I stepped out of the door one of the group, Debs, having shouldered her skis in readiness to walk up the path, swung round to talk to the person next to her and I was smacked across the face by the end of the skis. Almost immediately I found myself plunging forward into a pile of soft snow by the roadside and being held there for a few minutes. This was the result of the initiative of another member of the group in order to stem the flow of blood from the resulting cut on my face. It succeeded but I had no time to return to the hotel to check the damage in a mirror and had to content myself with dabbing at the area with a paper handkerchief to check if the bleeding really had stopped. Concerned bystanders had assessed the damage for me and seemed to relish the idea that I would have a real shiner.

Drama over I set off with the last few along the path. Debs, the perpetrator of my misfortune could be heard muttering darkly that I had walked into her skis and was therefore entirely to blame. Tempted to point out that standing in a doorway swinging a pair of skis around was not the most sensible thing to do I managed to refrain from comment; one of the hardest things about my job is having to keep quiet in order not to offend or annoy the client. Earlier in the morning I had examined the rather unusual ski lift that was to convey us to the ski area but I was none the wiser concerning the method for loading skier and skis into the metal contraption that resembled a stall for an animal. Indeed, I was not surprised to learn later that previous groups had christened it the bucket lift. Mario was there to furnish an explanation and demonstration. Two people were to travel up together and in between buckets had to take their place one in front of the other on the two white lines marked on the ground. Skis were handed to a lift attendant and loaded into the bucket as it completed the loop prior to starting the ascent. The first passenger then had to leap on board and shuffle as far forward as possible. The second passenger had to be quick to get on board behind the first so that the confining gate could be slammed shut by a second lift attendant who often had to run some distance behind it before the occupants had moved forward sufficiently to allow him to corral them inside.

Mario, having already taken some footage of failed attempts to get on this lift now announced that he would ride up the mountain ahead of us in order to catch our attempts to dismount at the top. He re-iterated instructions to dismount backwards as he was swept upwards. Our attempts to get on the lift had us convulsed with laughter. The lift attendants did their best to co-ordinate our clumsy efforts but the end result was that buckets trundled off with just two pairs of skis, only one person aboard, or two people and no skis. Finally all the people and all the skis were on their way. The ride up was wonderful, giving us our first real chance to enjoy the spectacle of the majestic mountains around us. Below we could hear the swish of skis as people descended the slopes through the trees. As the journey took at least twenty minutes I and my companion forgot our instructions regarding the dismount. I had also forgotten that the skis would be the responsibility of the lift attendant. The entire group were gathered by the exit and Mario was poised with his camera when I unwittingly turned round to step forward out of my bucket as soon as I was liberated by the lift attendant. We had shuffled around on board in order to lay claim to our respective pairs of skis. I heard shouts of turn round and leave your skis but the dismount was suddenly upon us and I stepped out and immediately fell forwards. Fortunately the lift attendant was ready and he caught me before I hit the deck. My skis and poles clattered to the ground around me. These had to be kicked to one side as the next bucket was already nearly upon us. Bright red with embarrassment I gathered up my equipment and trailed after the departing group. Mario, I soon discovered was not one for sympathy and understanding and I suspected he was finding this rookie tour leader rather exasperating.

After a quick tour of the ski area including the pizzeria where we were to meet for lunch it was time to make our way to ski school. A large crowd had gathered outside the small wooden building that housed this institution and people were being directed to the top of the blue run where instructors were telling them to put their skis on and then wait until everyone else was ready. We then followed the ski instructors a short way down the slope before stopping again and being organised in lines to take the dreaded ‘test’. We were not the only people taking the lessons and it soon became clear that we would not necessarily be in classes with other members of the group. I managed to evade public assessment by persuading the ski instructors to allocate me a class based on composition rather than standard and selected my own level – easy.

Once we were sorted into groups we set off with our respective instructors to begin the lesson. I was with seven other people from the group and our instructor was Primo. He was grey haired, short and lean and a cheeky grin was constantly breaking out across his face as he charmingly misused the English language. Most of the time we tolerated his mistakes, as generally we could understand what he was trying to say. However, on the occasion when he told me to screw my knees into the mountain I felt I should offer an explanation of the meaning of the word in English. Clearly delighted at the result of this faux pas when we finished the lesson Primo shouted after me not to forget to practise screwing in my room that evening!

We all gathered together for lunch; a pizza and a beer at a bargain price was on offer and hugely enjoyed as we were all hungry after the morning’s exertions. And there was more to come. Each afternoon a different optional activity was offered and today it was cross-country skiing. Only eight people had opted for this diversion, the rest preferring to practise their downhill skiing. Mario took us to the cross-country ski centre at Viote in his minibus and then disappeared. I had already discovered that he had a penchant for short, unexplained absences but guessed that as he was running both the holiday and the hotel he really was trying very hard to be in two places at once. Unsure what was supposed to happen next we trudged across the car park and made our way to a small wooden building that Mario had indicated as the place where we could get our boots and skis. There was no one around but as soon as we entered the hire shop two men appeared and quickly organised boots and skis for us all. The flimsy boots and thin skis looked impossible to control and I began to doubt my ability to master this new skill. I was not alone, we all sat outside in the sun casting doubtful looks at our equipment and predicting disasters ahead. It seemed a shame to waste such a beautiful afternoon and as we could see people speeding around a track just across the road we decided to go and try it ourselves before the lesson started.

We soon found a place where we could get on to the track. Having briefly experimented with this activity on a trip to Lapland I knew that the idea was to get the skis into the parallel tracks in the snow and then propel oneself along. It all looked very easy. First we had to attach the skis and it took some time to insert the metal clip on the front of the boots into the holder on the skis. I had forgotten how narrow the skis were and we all found it quite difficult to keep our balance, as there was a tendency for the boot to slip off the narrow surface of the skis. It was not long before the first person went down and as we had all been standing close to each other this created a skittle effect and soon several of us were spread-eagled on the snow with no idea how to get up. The length of the skis and the poles hampered rather than helped our clumsy attempts to regain the upright position. Assistance from those still on their feet was also not very effective as they were distracted by their laughter at our predicament. Eventually we decided the only solution was to remove the skis. As the technique for this is to push the pointed end of the pole into a small indent on the binding just in front of the boot it was quite difficult to manoeuvre oneself into the correct position to achieve this. It was some time before we were back on our feet and our skis had been re-attached.

Still no sign of an instructor or Mario. The track in front of us was empty and tempting. I explained that there were two sets of tracks, inner and outer, and that the tracks used depended on the direction you were going. Then I suggested that we make our way to the top of the slight incline we could see just ahead of us and then cross over to the other track and make our way back. Warning bells should have sounded when I voiced my suggestion at the use of the phrase “up that hill”. However they did not and as I had been elected the leader I got myself in position, one ski in each track and pushing off with one of my poles slid the opposite ski forward and I was soon shuffling up the incline, my companions wobbling along behind me. We had covered about one hundred metres when it was time to retrace our steps. We lifted our skis out of the tracks and waddled across to the track opposite. It was then I realised that the journey back was all downhill and I could not remember having covered this technique before.

My companions were asking me how to apply the brakes at the bottom. I suggested a snowplough but we soon realised that this was extremely difficult on the long narrow skis as they kept tipping right over when we experimented while stationary. Surveying the lie of the land I decided that the circuit flattened out sufficiently at the bottom for the gentle slope below us not to be a problem. One of our number having bravely offered to test this theory, stepped into the narrow tracks and pushed off. We watched in admiration as he trundled downhill. It looked so easy that I decided to follow suit without waiting to see what happened when he got to the bottom. I quickly picked up speed and was soon catching up with Jerry who was now rapidly slowing down in front of me whereas my speed seemed to be increasing rather then decreasing. Suddenly Jerry was sprawled on the track in front of me. I had to veer out of the tracks and realising that I was now heading at speed towards a tarmac road threw myself to the ground. I went down with a thump and was just catching my breath when I heard a warning shout from behind and looking round could already see the alarmed expression on the face of the next skier who was now hurtling towards me. Lifting my legs to get the skis clear of the ground I rolled over and had just managed to get everything out of her way when she crash landed just inches away from me. The others had wisely remained at the top of the slope to watch the result of our efforts and rather than add to the heap of humanity below removed their skis and walked down to us. We were still gasping with laughter and marvelling at the fact we had actually managed to miss each other when they reached us and began to untangle us and help us to our feet.

An angry shout brought the hilarity to an abrupt halt and Mario could be seen striding towards us, his face like thunder. We waited, subdued and anxious, like naughty children. I was not sure what crime we had committed. Maybe there had been complaints about our antics from the experienced skiers on the course. I stood nervously as Mario and the instructor, who I could now see running along behind him, approached us. By the time Mario reached us he had regained his composure and introduced us to his breathless companion who was to teach us the basics of cross-country skiing. Our instructor could speak enough English to take us through the technique and after the introductions we set off behind him. I noticed with relief that we went in the opposite direction where there was no sign of any inclines. Mario trotted along beside us, video camera at the ready but nobody obliged by falling over or even gave the appearance that this was a possibility. We were all concentrating hard and trying to behave like model pupils. In fact we all did very well and were soon whizzing along the track having mastered the technique of sliding and poling with opposite leg and arm. No interesting video footage which I realised was probably the cause of Mario’s earlier loss of equanimity.

Having conquered the flat section we were introduced to the skill of skiing downhill. I was rather sceptical about this and glad that I would be the last to go. I expected that this exercise would produce a lot of interesting footage for the video. In fact with one exception, Jerry, we all negotiated the slope without any problem and when Jerry went down Mario had been talking to the instructor so he missed it! Soon it was time for the lesson to end, the equipment was returned and we were our way back to Vason to meet up with the downhill skiers and then make our way back to the hotel with them. Mario was very quiet and grumpy all the way back and clearly not amused as we discussed our antics on the cross-country piste prior to his arrival. As we clambered out of the van he took the opportunity to tell me that in future I should make sure that we waited for his arrival before we started an activity otherwise he missed the best opportunities for ‘funny things’ to video. Chastened, I joined the others in the bar where they were pondering over a mouth-watering selection of home made cakes and ordering vin brulèes, the Italian version of mulled wine. Relaxed and happy, our first day on the slopes was concluded by skiing all the way down to our village.

Later, after dinner we assembled in the games room for our first taste of Mario’s evening entertainment programme. Most of this room was filled with a snooker table and we were squashed around the edge of it. On the table were two snooker balls, the white and a red. The object of the exercise it seemed was to hit the red ball with the white ball while the former was still in motion and from any position around the table provided that position was obtained by travelling there in a clockwise direction. The explanation was hilarious and it was difficult to concentrate for laughing. We were allowed a trial run with Mario bellowing instructions at us but inevitably people forgot to continue in the same direction and reversed into those behind. As we still did know each other very well there were lots of polite apologies and excuse mes. It was a different matter when the game was for real and there were shouts to get out of the way as people tore around the table chasing first the white ball and then a good position to roll it against the red ball. The air was punctuated with shouts of outt as Mario refereed us ruthlessly. Those who had failed in their mission to strike the red ball were clustered at one end cheering the others on. Each game became more intense and more frantic as the competitive streaks surfaced. Finally, exhausted, we returned to the bar to end the evening with a quiet drink.

Next morning quite a few people were up early and away to practise before lessons began at eleven. As I had to make sure everyone arrived at their lessons in time this was not a possibility for me unless everyone went out early which was highly unlikely. There was always at least one person who would not leave the hotel until the last possible moment or would sleep through their alarm. I also had to stay until everyone was united with the right pair of skis. Despite the fact that each ski was inscribed with a number and there was a list of numbers and owners in the boot room, nevertheless at least once during the week somebody went off with the wrong skis. Generally this was easily solved by exchanging the skis at the sister shop at the ski area.

On one memorable occasion when this occurred the lady concerned, Madge, was not prepared to carry anybody else’s skis anywhere. As a compromise I suggested we just take them to the local ski hire shop and change them there. Although this alternative was deemed acceptable Madge still refused to carry the skis so I had to accompany her. Madge also refused to wear her ski boots to walk this short distance which meant we would have to return to the hotel before we could go skiing. For some perverse reason Madge then changed her flat snow boots for a pair of very high heels and tottered off down the road. Petite and pretty, never a hair out of place, Madge was someone who never set foot outside the door unless ‘properly’ attired. I trailed behind, a pair of skis over my shoulder and a not very happy expression on my face. We could so easily have been skiing by now! Sighing heavily I plodded along trying to keep a neutral expression on my face. I sincerely hoped that the ski hire shop would be open as generally they restricted their opening hours to arrival and departure days. Despite trying to explain all this to my client she was adamant we tried there first. I suspected that she thought I should order the perpetrator of this heinous crime to return with the original skis which, I was informed, had been specially selected and she doubted we would find another pair that was suitable. Knowing who the perpetrator was I doubted there would even be an apology and I was sure she had already changed the skis and would be racing up and down preparing herself to be the best and fastest in class today. Debs was a complete contrast to the lady trailing in my wake. Tall, athletic, not a trace of make up on her slightly tanned face she would have viewed her ‘mistake’ taking the wrong skis as a minor irritation, nothing more.

These dark thoughts occupied me until we arrived at the hire shop. Fortunately the proprietor was outside opening up so we were able to organise another pair of skis. I had had the presence of mind to bring the list with me so that I could point out the problem by referring to the number on the list and the number on the skis. Finally Madge found a pair of skis that she was prepared to try but I was left in no doubt that she did not think they would work as well as the others and if they did not it would be my fault and I would have to retrieve the originals for her. I raced back to the hotel hampered by the skis. By the time Madge had returned I was ready to leave. Tempted though I was to leave her to follow on her own I decided this would not be a good move but thought the fact I was standing outside ready to go may encourage her to get a move on. It did not. I had to wait for a long time and eventually she emerged and we made our way along the path to the bucket lift. By now I was struggling to be polite so when we got to the lift and she started to express doubts about the two of us being able to get on the thing safely, I gallantly suggested that she go first on her own and I follow, also on my own. I needed the space! That was the time I decided to employ the twenty minutes doing exercises to strengthen my legs and spent most of the journey squatting, my back pressed against the metal cage. I was really proud that I managed to hold this position for such a long time but when I came to dismount discovered that my legs would not function properly and I staggered off into the arms of the waiting lift attendant. For the rest of the week I had trouble walking, so painful were my thigh muscles. And I had no one to blame but myself!

By the time we reached the ski area all the groups but one had already started their lessons. As my group had known that I might be late, it was no surprise they were not waiting for me. I was left with two options, join Madge’s group or ski on my own. As it was a good opportunity to ski with some other people in my party I chose the former and we set off. Madge was still full of righteous indignation and I spent the entire morning re-living the dreadful thing that had happened to her and the fact that it had ruined her day, and probably her holiday.

Our last ski lesson that week was something of a surprise to us all. When we arrived at the meeting point the whole area was a hive of animated activity. Ski instructors were racing around handing out bibs with numbers and communicating with each other on two-way radios even though it would have been easier to shout. There was a general air of excitement and expectation among the pupils who were all chattering to each other and not listening to their instructors who then got very agitated. With a sense of foreboding and having also spotted some red and blue slalom poles below me as we ascended in the lift this morning it dawned on me that today was The Slalom Race. As racing had never been my strong point I began concocting reasons in my head as to why I did not need to take part. Our group was one of the first to go and Primo was making a list of names in large capital letters and checking that he had the correct spelling. This was my chance. “Primo, the tour leader does not usually compete in the race as it would be too embarrassing were she to win a medal.” Primo countered this by saying it would be interesting to get a time for me and compare it with the others. This was said in a manner that did not invite further discussion and we were soon following him in snake formation. When we arrived at the start of the slalom course we were lined up and the first one was told to take their place at the gate. “Three, two, one” and he was off. Style a bit ragged but all poles negotiated successfully and from the right side. There was no time to applaud as the next contender was on his way before the first one had finished. I shuffled to the back of the line and resolved to somehow delay my start as due to an inability to control my speed I suspected I could finish ahead of at least two people who had set off before me.

My heart was thudding and my mouth was dry. It was ridiculous as I was not even in the competition for a medal but when one is naturally competitive it makes no difference, the desire to win is always there. As a child I was driven to making cakes and hand sewing soft toys just to be ‘best’ at school handicraft events. Needless to say as an adult I never cooked or sewed unless it really could not be avoided. Just two more to go and it would be my turn. Suddenly I was there ‘in the blocks’ and had just pushed off when the starter grabbed my jacket jerking me to a standstill half way through the gate. Trouble on the course below, the previous racer had fallen and I had to wait while the pole was replaced and he got himself off the course. Now everybody would be looking up and watching me, not the time to fall or miss a gate. I decided to ski the course with elegance and control, as my time was irrelevant. I set off and negotiated the first two poles quite stylishly, my speed was picking up but I was managing to turn quite well by keeping in the tracks of those who had gone before me. I was nearly there and could see the finish ahead of me and hear the encouragement of the rest of the group. Allowing my speed to pick up I flew through the finish, past everyone watching and then braked and turned so I was facing uphill. Lifting my poles above my head in triumph I had forgotten that I had my back facing down the slope. Shaking my arms jubilantly my skis took off again and I was away, backwards and totally out of control. Veering off towards the side of the piste I had barely time to collect my wits when I slammed into something firm but yielding and was thrown forward landing flat on my face in the snow.

There was silence all around me but then, when everyone realised I was all right, a babble of voices and some laughter broke out as they hunted around for a camera in order to record my predicament before helping me up. Mario had been notable by his absence this morning and I was very grateful that he had not been there to record my spectacular finish.

And so the pattern had been established. Lessons in the morning and optional activities in the afternoon. Dinner in the evening involved somewhat rustic cuisine, plenty of it and very welcome after a full day’s activities. With thirty people to look after that first week it was hard work but also very enjoyable. Sleep was essential but not easy as my room was immediately above the bar and every night after the last drinker had abandoned their bar stool Mario would pull all the tables and chairs back into position before retiring to bed in the early hours of the morning. Once the noise had abated I then had the sagging mattress to deal with. So bad was the sag in my mattress I suspected that anyone sleeping in the second bed and looking across the room would be unable to see me. I had tried this second bed but inevitably it was rock hard. My compromise was to push the beds together to make space to place the first mattress on the floor and I slept there. As it meant I had to replace the mattress on the bed each morning this also reduced my sleep time. Both problems were solved the following week when I asked Mario if I could have a room at the other end of the hotel over the restaurant. He agreed and the following two weeks I had peaceful nights and plenty of sleep.

It was sad saying goodbye to the first group but with only thirty minutes between getting them checked in for their homebound flight and making my way to arrivals to meet the new group I did not have time to dwell on this. The next group was much smaller, just nine of us in total and I looked forward to a slower pace this week. Also, by now I was familiar with the resort, the hotel and mine host Mario. Indeed the week did follow pretty much the same pattern but due to bad weather two optional activities had to take place on the same day, cross-country skiing and snowboarding. Mario put me in charge of the snowboarding. I had just gathered my charges together, three of them, when Mario appeared with a video camera and I had a thirty-second lesson on how to use it. I had never used a video camera before and I was apprehensive as I made my way to the nursery slope where the lesson was to take place. Fabrizio was the instructor: a lean, tanned Italian with long dark hair that he normally wore in a ponytail. The two females in the class were very impressed but Frank, our only male in the group, was only interested in his teaching skills, simply wanting to get on with the lesson and impatient with the simpering and preening.

Videoing on the nursery slope was easy as it was very short and I could stand at the bottom and film everything that was happening. Then Fabrizio declared he was so pleased with their progress that he thought they could try snowboarding down the blue run. Off we went, the three snowboarders dragging their boards behind them and me trying to shuffle along on my skis and not drop the video camera. This was altogether a different matter as not only did I have to move with my subjects but they were soon scattered all over a wide area. First I turned my attention to Frank, typically macho and over confident he strapped his board on and set off across the snow in a lovely wide turn that just went on and on. Clearly he had forgotten how to turn the opposite way and continued beyond the edge of the piste. I finally lost sight of him as he disappeared into the trees on the horizon. My concern for our hero vanished at the sight in front of me. Both girls had fallen over and neither could get themselves up again so I was presented with two bottoms about six feet apart. Confident with the camera I started to practise my zoom technique so that I could capture them conversing from this rather unique position. Their predicament continued for some time as they struggled to push themselves upright.

Looking up to see where Fabrizio had gone I caught sight of Frank emerging from the trees disconsolately dragging his snowboard behind him. My sniggers became great guffaws of laughter and I kept telling myself to shut up, as I was concerned about shaking the camera and getting out of focus footage. I also suspected the video camera may be recording sound as well. The girls were now pleading for mercy and assistance in righting themselves so I let the precious camera dangle around my neck and went to help them up. It was not easy, me on skis and them on snowboards but finally we got there. When Frank joined us I remarked on the absence of Fabrizio and was informed that he had another lesson and had left while I was concentrating on my video skills. We were to continue down the run to a bar and wait there for Mario who would collect us in the hotel minibus. Camera at the ready I skied down a short distance and invited them to snowboard towards me trying to capture all three on one screen. Within seconds the screen was empty as Frank veered off out of sight again and the girls collapsed in a heap at my feet. More laughter from me. At this point they all decided that enough was enough as the struggle to get up was taking its toll. Snowboards were removed and the journey completed on foot. The resulting footage was amazingly good in the circumstances and my snorts, sniggers and self-admonitions become part of the final production. At the viewing the audience were reduced to helpless laughter and even Mario had to suppress a smile.

As it was a lovely sunny day we sat enjoying a vin brulèe on the terrace while awaiting our transportation. One became two and two became three. It was very pleasant sitting there chatting and time passed quickly until the shadow of Mario was looming above us. As we had to take the boards back to the hire shop he suggested that we return to Vason where he had left the others, collect some toboggans and use those to return to the hotel. We agreed, our sense of adventure fuelled by alcohol. Soon we were equipped with a toboggan each and joined the others who were waiting for us in a bar. As they had just ordered vin brulèes it seemed churlish not to join them. Later that evening, during dinner, I began to develop a serious headache, a hangover! If only I could follow the lead of my two afternoon companions who had slipped quietly away to bed. But I was required to make up numbers for the billiard game and spent the rest of the evening chasing round a snooker table, head thumping, wishing I could go and lie down in a darkened room.

One of the highlights every week at this house party was the toboggan race. Everyone would meet in the bar after the lifts closed for the day and have a vin brulèe while waiting for the slopes to empty. Dutch courage was also a consideration as the contraptions we were about to hurtle down the mountain on resembled large plastic trays with a shallow rim around them. There were two brakes but these did not look very effective. Once the all clear had been given we made our way to a flat area of snow where Mario demonstrated the technique to us and showed us how to use the brakes to stop and to steer. Then we were off, tearing down a blue run. Speed did not matter here as the slope soon descended into a big dip and insufficient speed was rewarded by a long walk to the summit. At the top we were lined up and then offered a slug of grappa from the bottle Mario produced from his rucksack. Mario himself was on skis and skied backwards while recording our attempts to master the art of tobogganing. It was not easy as too violent an application of one brake to steer the contraptions usually resulted in it tipping over or veering off piste. One was supposed to keep one’s feet within the confines of the shallow rim. But this was virtually impossible due to the small space available for a pair of feet, the uncomfortable position of having one’s knees up around one’s chin and the fact that every time the toboggan hit a bump the feet escaped and flailed around until the toboggan was either halted or upturned. My first experience was really scary as I never felt in control of my conveyance. However, it was thrilling flying across the white, glistening snow in the half light of dusk.

By the third week I was becoming more expert and decided to risk taking my camera with me to get some group pictures. It was a very cold day and by the time we had gathered for our descent the snow was already glistening with ice. I soon discovered that in these conditions the toboggans were very difficult to control and from my place at the back I watched the others veering all over the place as they struggled to control pace and direction. The race was a shambles as some people were not able to stop at the starting ‘line’ and just continued all the way to the bottom. Mario was chasing after them trying to get them back but finally gave up and led the rest of us down to the bottom exhorting us to go slowly.

I waited until the last ones were down the steepest part and then set off. Almost immediately I hit a patch of ice and my toboggan was away, skimming at great speed over the unyielding surface. Hauling furiously on both brakes I tried to slow it down. Then I hit a bump in the snow and I was flying through the air. When I hit the ground my feet were thrown out of their resting place. My main concern was for my camera, a recent purchase and quite expensive. It was slung across my chest in a padded rucksack but the jolt had freed the rucksack which was now swinging wildly in front of me. Clamping down the rucksack with one hand I tried to brake and steer with the other hand. Impossible, and with two legs and one arm stuck straight out I felt as though I was in free fall mode. By now I was lying flat across the toboggan and hurtling towards the group all standing chatting at the bottom. One final attempt to check my speed sent me into a perfect 360 degree spin. Amazingly I stayed in contact with the plastic beneath me and could feel myself slowing down at last. Finally I slid to a halt and looking up from my prone position found I was perfectly framed in Mario’s video. Giggling weakly with relief I gathered myself together and picked up my toboggan ready to walk back to the hotel. The group were really impressed with my performance and demanding lessons in 360 turns. If only they knew that had been my first, and would be my last.

My final week here was also the first week that we participated in the torchlight descent, previous groups having declined the offer after discovering that they had to ski down with flaming torches and no ski poles. I had been uncertain whether I was missing a treat or had been spared a disaster. As we had some willing participants it seemed I had no choice. Mario had briefed us the evening before and had exhorted us not to wear gloves, the theory being that if the flames did start to lick up your arms you would immediately feel the heat on your bare hands and drop the torch before your ski suit caught fire. This activity was open to all skiers in the resort and most of them seemed to have gathered together that evening. We were issued with long torches made of wax and hessian and then began the slow process of lighting them all. Mario took this opportunity to give us a lesson in the technique of keeping the flame going without spattering yourself with flecks of molten wax. It seemed the torch had to be held so that the wind blew the flame away from the body but at the same time it had to be turned regularly to prevent it burning unevenly and the flames licking up one side. This was possible while stationary but once we started skiing down the slope there were other considerations such as remaining upright and not colliding with the person in front of you.

I was lucky as I was placed immediately behind the first ski instructor with the rest of my group behind me. Setting off into the blackness of the night it felt a bit scary as I was not sure if I would be able to see sufficiently well to make good turns. I had heard that skiing in the dark makes you ‘feel’ the snow beneath you but doubted the truth of this, as I had to feel through the thick sole of a ski boot and the ski. Extraordinarily you can feel the terrain and I had soon found my rhythm and was happily traversing down the mountain behind our leader. Only the sound of our skis swishing across the snow could be heard. I suppose it should have struck me as strange that I could not hear anything behind me when in theory I was being followed by fifty other skiers but in practice I was completely immersed in this magical experience.

Finally it did occur to the instructor that it was too quiet behind him and that he should stop and investigate. He stopped, I stopped. We listened. Nothing. Looking back all we could see was the eerie glow of white snow under a dark sky and the black shapes of trees in the distance. Not a skier in sight. Unsure what to do we continued to scan the empty horizon until a speck of light appeared and soon revealed itself as Mario’s torch bobbing around as he skied frantically towards us, video still at the ready. I was expecting to be told off again for ruining his film but he was not at all cross as it seemed we had missed all the fun. The lady immediately behind me had nearly managed to set herself alight as, concentrating on her skiing she had neglected her torch. Intense heat in her hand and gloves had finally convinced her that it would be a good idea to drop the torch but in order to do so she had stopped suddenly and the skiers behind her had been forced to break ranks and either ski round her or stop. The resulting chaos had compelled the order for everyone to stop so that they could regroup and start again. It was not long before we could see a line of dancing lights heading towards us. Re-joining them at the head of the procession we then all made our way down the mountain stopping for a welcome vin brulèe at the bar near the bottom, lighting our way to the door by sticking the still burning torches upright in the snow. We all agreed it was a wonderful experience including the lady who had set herself on fire but fortunately a full investigation revealed that the only damage was a melted trim on her ski gloves.

All too soon my time in the Dolomites was over but on one of my many solitary journeys up the mountain in the bucket lift I had made a decision. I was not going to pursue a career in the legal profession I was going to become a full time tour leader and travel the world.




Author: Valery Collins, © 2013