“Short notice – would you like a cheap skiing trip week after next?”
I opened the message from my uncle while eating lunch at my desk. There were lots of reasons to say no to going with him to Italy. I had, after all, only come back from Christmas two days ago. I had an exam the week after, which I had done precious little work towards. I had next to no money left after the Christmas break. Crucially, I had very little idea how to ski. I clicked forwards and backwards through my work calendar, looking at endless meeting invites: ‘Senior Escalation’; ‘Urgent Status Review’; ‘Project Governance’. A minute later, I sent a reply:
Two weeks later, my ‘out of office’ was back on and my uncle and I were zipping along the autobahn. The drive to the Südtirol region was almost 1000 miles. The ‘Winter Extreme South Tyrol’ BBQ competition, which my uncle would be judging while I went to play in the snow, kicked off on Saturday morning. We left Leicester around midday on Thursday, heading for the little town of Rein in Taufers. Six countries and 22 hours later, we turned off a sleepy mountain road at an alpine house called Ünterhof. At the back of the house, looking over the town, was a log cabin: the Lärchenhütte. Several feet of snow covered the ground and the roof, and hiking trails had been trudged into the snow leading up the hill into a dense pine forest. The air was still and, without any wind, it didn’t feel cold. The only sense I got that it was below freezing was the smell: sharp, crisp, clean. I made us both a cup of tea and took them out to drink on deck chairs on the porch in the winter sun. The end of my nose started to feel the chill as I sipped from the warm mug.
By Saturday evening, I had a slightly bruised side, sunburn on my nose, and aching calves. I had the run of the empty ski slopes all and I had thrown myself into it with no skill but a lot of enthusiasm. Skiing was a lot of fun, but I really was bad at it. I quit while I was ahead, returned my ski hire with my dignity largely intact, and decided on a different snowy adventure for day two.
On Sunday morning, I packed a bag with one of Europe’s best burgers from the BBQ competition, a bottle of water, and a questionable route map from the tourist information centre in town. In the valley, I found a hut hiring cross-country skis. After a bit of miming, and some stilted and apologetic German, I hit the jackpot: snowshoes. I departed with seven fewer Euros in my pocket and a pair of big yellow snowshoes under my arm.
After staring at the map for a while, trying to work out how on earth I was supposed to know which way was north based on the angled photographs of the valley, I found a kind of ‘You Are Here’ sign by the village shop. Colour-coded sign posts seemed to correspond to the thick red numbered lines on the trail map. I took a chance and followed the number 10 until it pointed off the road and across the snow. A trodden path headed into the trees. I strapped my feet into the snowshoes and resolved to choose to trust my weird trail map.
Sunlight drifted through the blanket of cloud which was tucked around the sky. The only movement was water occasionally falling from clumps of melting snow on the pine branches. Drops would fall off and land on the forest floor below in a puff of pure white. I found the snow shoes surprisingly easy to walk in and I made good progress along the marked trail. The air was colder than I had ever felt, but it was nothing like the clinging, wet cold I felt back at home. It was dry and bright, and I soon had to take off a jacket and put on my sunglasses. The layers of snow made a noise like pulling tinsel out of a bag as I sliced the snowshoes through it.
The forest path deposited me further up the mountain and, out of the trees, I could see straight across to the mountains on the other side of the valley. The clouds had dropped low enough to erase the peaks entirely but, looking lower, I could see snow ledges which spat out bright blue frozen waterfalls. Around 2000 metres up, the path and signposts began to disappear. The snow beneath my shoes cracked down to its icy blue depths when I pushed my weight onto each foot. I paused again to listen and look. I could see the whole tiny town. The ski slopes, the red-tipped church, and the chocolate-box houses swam beneath a fine blue frozen mist. We had driven 1000 miles to get here and we had 1000 miles to drive back. I had eleven more months of the year to go and I had used four days of leave for one day skiing and one day snowshoeing. I made an impulsive decision to seize an opportunity and see where I ended up – and it was a fabulous idea.