When I was 14, as a vague rebellion against my ski-mad father, I took up snowboarding. I put up with the sore bum-cheeks and burning biceps, I made regular trips to Sheffield’s dry scratchy ski village, I tumbled over repeatedly and had some knee-swelling encounters with ice. But I learnt to love the curving turns and slippery movement over the snow when eventually I reached it in one piece.
But it’s not an easy relationship with the sport. I am uncomfortably aware that ski resorts do a great deal of harm to the alpine environment. And I have a strong dislike of the preening, chortling upper classes that pile into the resorts every winter to splurge on an expensive and extravagantly wasteful pastime. I’m not keen on the over-heated apartments that pump out heat inefficiently. The way the trees are uprooted to plant ugly lifts from which pleasure-seekers flick their cigarette butts. Then there’s the carbon emissions of all the people who fly to the Alps to find the snow that has disappeared from lower slopes closer to home in the new warmer climate.
But I still love this deceptively simple activity. The exhilaration of speed and curvature, the alpine breath fast in my throat and the glint of sky on snow, the view of god-big mountains all got up in their clear white finery.
I spent the last week with a group of friends in Risoul – a budget resort in the southern French Alps, full of students from the Sorbonne behaving in a surprisingly stereotypical Britishly drunken way. It was not the lavish get-up of Val d’Isre or Courchaval and on a quiet week we spotted red-black squirrels in the conifer and crested birds nibbling seeds on the decks of the empty après ski bars. The sun shone and I had the most raucous week. I read and wrote not a word and was tremendously happy.
On my return to London I picked up a copy of David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. Back in the city, jumping through tubes and over road works, making angry phone calls to my internet company demanding to be reconnected, I began to recognise the disconnection from the sensuous non-human world that Abram writes of. I missed the snow, I missed the connection with the mountain.
And I wonder if I’m behaving like the bourgeois who experience their physical connection to the non-human in one short sharp burst only to return to their over-rich London lives for the rest of the year, craving snow for 5 months then heading to some seaside place to spend more of their mindlessly-made earnings. I hope not. I’ve lived in London for nearly 3 years now and I still miss my old home by the sea in Wales. But I love this city and its human surprises. In the meantime, until my next adventure, Hampstead Heath must be my reminder of our ‘contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.’