Day one: And we’re off!
Everyone present and correct, the trip hits a hiccup before we get going with a door that refuses to close and a pile up on the M606. Some quick contingency planning courtesy of Trip Leader Covey and Driver Ian means that hitches notwithstanding, the generously apportioned coach disgorges our own now sweet engorged jelly-tot-eating, YouTube-watching, History-book-reading ragtag group in a very timely fashion.
The airport would be unmemorable but for a dreamy Abbas raising our pulses with fingers, in the words of the inimitable Covey, like 'cow’s teats' in his ski gloves managing to lose his passport between leaving the coach and entering the airport! Unbeknownst to us, a Czech taxi driver witnesses the event and hurries inside, a face full of concern, holding the little red book. Luck and other people are on our side. Relieved, we eat and then, stuffed full of burger and chips, the team eschews a stroll for the more sedate comfort of the massage chairs, which seem more pain then pleasure judging by Jacob's face. A couple of leisure hours later and the landscape looks like a Pokémon hunt with nearly half the airport’s young travellers bemusedly clutching odd soft toys, courtesy of Isaac and Alex's skills on the grabber machine and their prolific gifting.
The first compliment on how lovely our kids are comes within a couple of hours from two older women who, whilst showing immaculate judgement in that respect, struggle to differentiate between the students and their teacher (Mr Teale's moisturising regime paying off then). The next comes as we pick our baggage up in Italy after a mercifully uneventful flight, from an impressed passenger on the plane. We have had an excellent start to the trip, which is barely disrupted by the Italian coach seats not quite meeting the numbers needing to sit on them. Finally at Hotel Renzi, we are greeted with plates of antipasti and cereal. Though the group is shattered and the supper strange, the blast of icy mountain air has perked us up and the excitement in the air is palpable. We’re going skiing tomorrow!
Day 2: Doe a Deer
An early reveille and the weather eye turned by our crew at the cheese and prune fair, means that breakfast is swift and we whirr up the mountain, stomachs filled with cocoa pops and croissants (4 for Isaac!) to get our kit fitted in a very timely fashion. The gondola is an eye-opener as it cruises up the mountain through a landscape graced with towering pines and ever increasing amounts of powdery snow, through which hoof tracks reveal the paths deer have taken criss-crossing the mountain. There are some who are terrified and others who chatter excitedly. It is clear that there are going to be elements of the trip, even without the skiing, that present a challenge for everyone whether it is time-keeping; managing heights; eating unfamiliar food/any vegetables at all; or staying organised. And yet, reflecting the character of our group, there is not one single person who complains at any time during the trip. At the fitting, the boots are heavy, strange and difficult to put on, let alone walk in. Everybody helps each other. The rest of the gear is cumbersome and we are all very grateful that our trip is so highly honed preventing us from having to walk with poles, helmets, goggles, gloves, boots and skis more than the few tricky metres which take us outside.
In spite of cynical and cruel odds favouring a teacher hitting the deck before the students, Abbas is the first to meet the snow, closely followed by an utterly glorious wipe-out courtesy of Stefan, who, unharmed, smiles good-naturedly and we set off up on a chair lift in twos. The first real challenge is disembarking and there are few of us who don’t struggle to slide off the chair lift, leaving many ending up on their backsides. Within 20 minutes, most of us have been intimately acquainted with the ground, so we take to our nursery slope – the aptly named Bamby. This friendly slope has a gradient that in reality a ball would struggle to do much more than trickle down, but anything on skis is so unfamiliar that it looks like a Munro when you are at the top of it. We are taught the basics of the snow plough for stopping and we eke our way down nervously following the instructors. Though we are all novices, with the exception of George and Jack, who are superb on the slopes, it is clear that there are some who take to the snow more than others and we are separated into two groups for the afternoon as we bump and stagger to lunch (also on the mountain!), which is carb heavy and deliciously Italian.
The afternoon sees one of the groups venture up the button lift to another two teaching slopes, at the top of which occurs to me that skiing requires nerves of steel and no more than a passing concern for your life. For, compared to Bamby, this is the Eiger. However they may be inwardly feeling, the students rise up to meet the challenge barely breaking a sweat. Some, like Molly, Amelia and Estelle are very quick on the uptake and learn to turn but are more cautious whereas Duha and Haroon demonstrate fearlessness and a need for speed, therefore it is Isaac who shows the most control and speed together and is chosen to lead the group. They all have courage aplenty in spite of some nerves and everybody is game. Which is why it is doubly sad that Alex has an unlucky fall and is dramatically bundled up and skied down to the clinic at the foot of the mountain. Thankfully, after a trip to Dimaro for an X-ray, nothing is broken but the doctor’s advice stresses that the utmost care must be taken: it looks like Alex might not be on skis for the rest of the week.
Relieved that he is not badly hurt, spirits are high and the group take to dinner and are then bussed down to ice skating where Alyx shines, zipping backwards, travelling rapidly and helping our numerous fawn-like skaters around the rink. We are sharing the ice with a private girls’ school and our students, feeling uncouth and rebellious in comparison, trundle slowly and precariously past their front and back, inelegantly photobombing their carefully staged group pictures. They don’t realise that the same girls will be at the bowling tomorrow night and for now are in a huddle on the ice feeling conspiratorial. They are bonding nicely.
Day three: Knockout
From the first day to the second, even the bubble ride up the mountain seems easier. Whilst the skis feel new and awkward to some, already others are beginning to look natural and even enviable. The PDM’s are on the right hand side of the button lift and by the afternoon the Fallen Gods are completing their mastery of the left side. There are no incidents worthy of recording beyond the speed with which learning is taking place and the guts being shown by students who are struggling with nerves and fear. Their bravery is all the greater for them overcoming hurdles that seem gargantuan.
Dinner (about which I could write a separate blog, so lucky are we to eat such excellent food – not that the students agree) threatens to stir up the most untroubled of waters with both tables refusing to entertain the secondi piatti. One is as a result of being fuelled with secret pizza from across the road and the other table is militating against the meat! It quickly becomes apparent that there has been some misunderstanding regarding the veal cutlet, which someone has insisted is deer and now the table are refusing to eat out of righteous solidarity with the pretty ungulate NOT currently gracing our table. Thoroughly uncertain, Victor is looking less than enthralled at the possibility of chewing down on ‘bamboo’ whereas Molly is point blank refusing her tea. Discovering that is it young beef and neither bambi or Japanese plant stuff, concerns and moral indignation are placed to one side and ravenous eating ensues (definitely not the time for a discussion of the ethics of veal).
The bowling is great fun with lanes strangely decorated with Native American memorabilia. Cultural appropriation, whilst not high on the Italian PC agenda, is of concern to some of our more aware: Manaal converses most intelligently on the subject, but most of the others are busy worrying about the lack of buffers. Everyone just tries their best. Duha, Jack, Alex, George, Isaac, Jacob, Oliwier, Stefan and Abbas particularly, crack on and get some really decent shots in. Manaal, Victor, Amelia and Alex doing well in spite of their unfamiliarity or pain. Alyx here deserving of a special mention, not only for her high score but for having the second most powerful thump at the arcade’s punch bag, aced only by Stefan's forceful effort.
Day 4: Prayer and pizzas
It’s Tuesday and the aches are starting to set in so that the walk over to the bathroom for morning ablutions is more John Wayne than Wayne Sleep, which pretty much sums up the skiing too. The tiredness affects all of us to the extent that Duha always knows exactly how many minutes there are until lunch and a rest; Amelia, whose control sees her wending down the slopes without a hitch, falls off the drag lift; and fleet-footed Manaal, who makes skiing look like as easy as being still, ends up flying off the mountain’s edge and having to be Bear Grylled out of a powdery snow dump.
That being said, the fitness levels of the group have increased exponentially along with their closeness. No longer do they roll in the snow like baby seals at any opportunity to rest their legs. They are already hardier and stronger. It is impressive. Impressive too is how they help each other. Jacob extends his pole to help Manaal, Isaac helps to unclick the skis, and Haroon helps everyone. This is not a sport for softies. The PDMs are off into the winding wood on the number 6 and head for patches of red. By the afternoon the Fallen Gods are off too, up to the top of the mountain on a four man and the myriad slopes which await there. It feels dog eat dog out there with all manner of humanity blasting at you on skis or snowboards but the truth is that most people have control and are able to slip past as easy as pass you on a busy street. Once on the red stretches it is easy to feel like a novice again, so it is a relief to end the day on the old slopes careering over a jump which is incredibly exhilarating and a bit terrifying. It is the kind of slope where it is possible to be going very quickly but still have enough breath to yell out an expletive in order to manage the adrenaline and fear. Not that that ever occurred. Ahem.
There's nothing that rivals the drama of being pulled up a drag lift for your final run as you contemplate the drama of the sun setting behind the sharp crag you are about to rattle down, unless, of course, the person behind you is whipping through a loud, jauntily whistled version of ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’. “But it’s snowy, don’t you feel seasonal?” enquires the coolest customer on this whole trip, Haroon, not for the first time. “It is not Yuletide! It is nearly March!” I retort for the fifth time, not at all cool, as the line ‘We all want some figgy pudding’ cycles round my head, on repeat for the third day in a row. Could this be a very rarely documented side effect of Red Bull? Could I be losing my mind?
Before tea, we shower, dress up and get treated to a thoughtful and heartfelt reflection led by our master skier (how does he make it look so effortless?) Covey. The strains of Salve Regina greet our entry into the pretty pine and concrete mountain church, buttressed on all three sides by the Genesis story told in Chagall blues and yellow stained glass. We are welcomed into Folgarida by the people who live and work here and the gift of the church keys that evening characterises their trust and hospitality. As expected, our students comport themselves exactly as expected, immaculately, with Isaac and Alyx helping with our message of thanks and prayer for our families and the families of those in this mountain village.
Pizza is delicious with many of our young punters whipping through it in no time, though Estelle has to wait a long time and her mushrooms are too fulsome and a bit wet. Victor mystifyingly eats two mouthfuls out of each slice and then believes he is done. No matter, we have had a lovely time. The evening ends with thick, soupy hot chocolates all round – thank you, Haroon and Stefan – and a quick(ish) game of blackjack which Jacob noisily loses whilst Amelia dozes through the braggadocio and banter of the (mostly) boys.
Day five: AIUTO!
By now the team are bruised, battered and beginning to flag. One look at George's face confirms that he is poorly and showing much fortitude - after all, when poorly there's no paradise that holds a candle to your own bed and mum or dad at hand dispensing regularly spaced tablets, a bit of soup with hot buttered toast and lots of love. Nevertheless, he walks up the road to the lifts with us and he and Covey peel off to the clinic to hear that he has a throat infection which threaten to keep him off skis for the rest of the trip too.
The fog in the Valley of Sun is cold and clammy making it difficult to see past 30 metres. Once into the bubble though and being pulled up the mountain, the murkiness clears to haze and as we glide further, into bright blue sunshine leaving the valley smothered in mist. Not for the first time, the beauty is astounding.
The morning passes mostly without incident. New routes being new challenges, all of us end up on our backsides so that at one point we appear to have been thrown down the mountain - though shamefully, some maximise this misfortune by elaborate tumbles that gain them another 15 metres ground on some of the steepest descents. No names mentioned. The slopes are icy from the preceding night and make you skitter on the skis. Half an hour later most of us have regained our control and remembered our technique and our mild instructor beatifically returns us to a huge ploughed up snow trench to thresh across, which I personally think of as my small section of hell. Speedy Estelle, Molly and Amelia find it so easy that they are down in a breath but take the wrong route and then have to clamber their way to the ski lift.
Most of the learning dispensed with in the morning, Simon's group undertake some seriously tough reds. In line with their increasing courage and ability, they carefully track down together making plentiful turns to control their speed, when Oliwier has a blip and, true to his nickname of the bullet, angles his skis forward and rockets down the mountain connecting with a fellow skier with such brutal force that the rest of the team hear the thud of his fate halfway up the mountain and rush down to help him as quickly as they can manage.
There is little as stark in flat white fields as blood and the eggcup full which has poured out of his nose looks like a small but brutal massacre. Oliwier is cradled into a canoe-like stretcher and skied to the bottom of the mountain for urgent medical attention. His group return visibly shaken and sombre. All of them, including the instructor, are upset and the group feel reluctant to ski anymore: they have lost their nerve.
The food once more is astonishingly good though starving and uncouth, we have not realised that the salad and vegetable table is holding the dessert instead and embark on two starters at once completing our dessert of baked apples before the canapés have been touched to the bemusement of the manager, who politely thinks we are idiots.
By 8.20 we are all on the minibus laden down with the gear we had hefted down from the mountain for our penultimate activity, night skiing.
It is to my horror and that of Molly, Duha and Amelia too to discover a crowd of three hundred spectators amassed at the bottom of the slopes with an Italian compere commentating on the descents. How will they manage after today? News of Oliwier in hospital with no breaks (though kept in for observation overnight) has buoyed the group and ascending on the button lift I look to the left in time to see our students ski the lovely long slope in perfect formation looking for all the world as though they were born on skis. The stinging of my eyes is understandable given the cold but the swelling in my chest can only be accounted for by pride. What an amazing group of people.
Day Six: White-out
In spite of a fairly early night, the breakfast mood is muted. It is our last day on the slopes and the students are exhausted, with the exception of Amelia, who has been averaging a good hour’s more sleep than anyone else and George, who has made an astounding recovery and looks positively springy. Our group is depleted too and casting round for news of Jack we discover that he has missed breakfast on account of not being able to locate his key to open his door. Excellent!
Much like the previous day, fog fills the valley but we struggle to climb out of it and it is a different scene that greets us at Max Ski. The mountains look startling against a postcard sky, but there is a wildness in a white grey sky that has its own beauty. After photos, we make our way to the four man bubble and get straight to it. The blue runs are a pleasure and the snow that starts to fall makes them even more picturesque. Simon’s group have a bash at a couple of reds but the wind bites and a few of us are feeling the cold for the first time.
The post-prandial ski takes an eerie turn as back on top of the mountain the sky suddenly descends and smothers the sights and sounds of everything more than 15 metres away. We know that there are black runs and crazy snowboarders and bountiful parties of children but not because we can see or hear them anymore. There is only muffled white in any direction you care to look. Thank God for our fluorescing beacon of orange, who has been dressed in the muppet vest for 1) falling from a stop and; 2) to appease some of the more jealous elements of the group after his romantic success on the ski-lifts with two young Americans who insisted on feeding him chocolate - Haroon has become our star in more ways than one. Funnily enough it is easier to ski when you can’t see the behemoth of the mountain in front of you and we all trundle down easily enough down the Panoramica to a deep patch of snow where we fight mercilessly whilst waiting for the route to open. On our last runs, we saunter around the skirt of the mountain back to the button lift where we ski holding hands and then race down the mountain together to return all of our paraphernalia.
The Presentation Evening is a real pleasure as we get to say goodbyes to our beloved instructors and present them with tokens of our appreciation. Simon and Rocco, who look quite different without their headgear, say kind things and award us with our certificates. Rocco stays behind to receive some table tennis punishment at Alex’s hand (still singular), whilst Jacob gives Simon a run for his money at pool. Covey disappears to bring Oliwier home and Victor, Abbas and I get a few minutes to dance with a huge panda to some Queen hits. Later, all is good at the quiz, though how Isaac and Manaal’s team fail to win with their encyclopaedic knowledge of music reflects particularly well on Jack’s team.
Day Seven: Homeward Bound
The corona of the sun forms a halo behind the mountain ridge and the pines, which, beleaguered from a long winter, lift at the tips reaching for warmth and light. With the minimum of fuss we are on the road and curling down the mountain in long snaking roads to the Valley of the Sun, Milan and beyond. We are coming home. There's a crew on the back seat playing cards and of course and weirdly, a mournfully slow, whistled rendition of Away in a Manger. The students are subdued. As we move further away, the mountains form a backdrop so dramatic that they look superimposed. It is funny to imagine that only hours ago we were traversing small portions of them (though Jack and George might cover seven miles before we'd done with breakfast) on two long planks of composite material - some of us masters, others of us grateful just to be allowed to get away with it.
Impeded only by the self check-in stations, Milan’s infrastructure would have had their English counterparts sucking their teeth in approbation, Abbas stopped off for his mum's gift whilst, guided by their stomachs, many of the others bellyached about the expense of the low grade MacDonalds. We were all missing our delicious cooked meal and looking forward to mum’s (and or dad’s) chicken and rice, chicken pie or Yorkshire puddings.
The discerning eaters/ready to be home brigade/confident travellers, hot footed it to the gate (less so Jack, who bravely hobbled around without any complaints in spite of being in considerable pain) leaving the rest of us looking for them. The flight was fine, but for a bumpy cloudy descent, every nuance of which was experienced by Oliwier and I, and the link from East Midlands, smooth. Not until we got onto Manningham Lane did the students start to sing, with a strange mixture of disappointment at saying goodbye to their new close friendships and excitement at seeing their families.
Home now, with parents travelling towards Ardor or already waiting, anxious and excited with loves and kisses, it is strange to think that we will miss the people who only one week ago we had never even met. Ski trip is done and dusted for another year. And what a privilege it has been to be part of it – fun, fear, bumps, bruises, laughter, all.
Great thanks must go to Mr Covey for this fantastic diary of events and adventures and for organising this fantastic trip each year.