Friday 20 October 2017

Mal O'Kelly: Decades-long wait for a piste of perfection

Free to ski again after nearly a quarter of a century of self-denial, rugby legend Mal O'Kelly was looking for somewhere really special. He found it in Italy

Mal O'Kelly

Rugby has been good to me down the years, yielding 92 caps, four triple crowns, a Heineken Cup, a Celtic League title and more. That's the plus side of the equation.

A lesser-known consequence of my involvement with the game is the manner in which it choked my fledgling skiing career at the tender age of just 15.

Let me take you back to the Eighties, a time long before ski breaks were fashionable. The O'Kelly clan, with yours truly in tow, headed off to Austria for a family excursion in the snow-encrusted Alps. It was dad's idea. He worked as an engineer and his job frequently brought him overseas to places such as Germany and Switzerland where the concept of regular skiing breaks was well established.

Then a young teenager, I was bitten hard by the skiing bug. On my return to rainy Ireland, I resolved to be among the first to sign up for my school's annual skiing trip the following year. The venue was exotic Bulgaria.

However, sporting duties hadn't yet been factored in to my schedule. Fast-forward a few terms and, to my horror, I discovered that there was no way I was going to be allowed to join Templeogue College's legendary PE teacher Mick Glynn and the rest of my mates in Eastern Europe. Instead, I would line out for my school and experience the agony of going down 6-3 to Presentation Bray at Donnybrook in the quarter-finals of the Leinster Junior Cup. Adding insult to injury, I also lost my IR£100 ski deposit.

From this point on, it seems rugby was consistently disrupting my plans to get back on the piste. It wasn't that a specific rule existed prohibiting players from strapping on skis and careering down mountainsides. But everyone signing a contract was left in no doubt that participating in "dangerous sports" would have serious employment implications if an injury was incurred.

When the Celtic Tiger generation began embracing skiing, I had to sit on the proverbial sideline, frustrated at being unable to join in the fun. Which is just as well given what happened to a French forward called Sylvain Marconnet. The prop caused anguish among both management and fans when he famously crashed out of his national team on the eve of the 2007 Rugby World Cup after breaking his fibula and tibia on a weekend ski break.

Playing rugby is now behind me but, as they say, when one door closes another opens up. And so it was that a few months back I found myself on Google researching skiing trips. Given that I'd waited almost a quarter of a century to resume my love affair, I was determined the experience would be a special one for me, my wife Stephanie and one-year-old son Cian. A package holiday didn't appeal and so I hit the internet. I've always wondered why people will use the internet to plan weekend breaks or trips around the world, yet seem incapable of taking the same approach to hitting ski slopes.

We struck gold in stumbling across what seemed like a pretty special place, well off the beaten track. Chiesa, in Valmalenco, is a village of less than 3,000 people in the Italian Alps about 100km north of Milan. It's close to no less than three airports with Irish routes: Linate, Malpensa and Bergamo. I could have hired a car and driven up to the resort or even taken a train to nearby Sondrio. In the end, our hotel, the Pizzo Scalino, arranged for a taxi to collect us at the airport in Milan for a very reasonable price.

The next morning, we headed for Snow Eagle, the world's biggest cable car, where the ski pass was a reasonable €130 each for six days. Then we headed straight up a mountain face to the skiing area of Alpe Palu.

And so began a magical holiday, of which the marvellous skiing was just a small part. Make no mistake, the snow on the resort's 60km of runs is truly outstanding and offers a variety of challenges to suit all skill sets. Ski lessons were as reasonably priced as the ski lift and equipment hire. And we hardly saw a queue the whole week.

But it's the other things that set Italy apart, such as the food and drink. We ate at a variety of small restaurants dotted across the various ski runs, all the way up to the Bernina mountain, overlooking Lake Palau at a height of 4,000 metres. There was a sumptuous cliff-top meal of pizzoccheri -- a delicious local dish made of wheat noodles, potatoes, cheese and butter -- on the balcony of Motta. Another highlight were meals at Malga Rundai, a converted cowshed on the Nana ski run. The speciality of this establishment is Schenatti, a local spirit called grappa that contains herbs and can lead to wobbles once you try to clip your skis back on. And finally, there's the highest hostelry, up on the Campolungo ski run, where Paolo Masa makes his famous bombardino or "bomber" cocktails. The ingredients are a secret but there's definitely whiskey and Advocaat in the mix, with whipped cream on top.

The friendliness of the Italians also sets them apart. One evening, in the company of ski instructor Davide Lenatti, I ran into his uncle Bruno. This larger-than-life character also happened to be president of the local rugby club down in Sondrio. The nephew spilled the secret of my previous employment and soon I found myself booked in for an impromptu training session, surrounded by young Italians. The fact that Bruno, and seemingly everyone else associated with the club, hadn't a word of English only added to the occasion.

The highlight of the entire trip came right at the end. It involved a trip up to the mountain village of Chiareggio, which is more than 3,600 metres high on the way to Passo del Muretto. There is no road access in winter and our host, Paulo Vedovatti, met us on a snowmobile to bring us to his Pian del Lupo restaurant. Named after the wolves that used to inhabit this stunning mountain valley, we emerged after a fabulous meal, cooked by Paulo's brother Luca, to a magical moonlit view of a mountain amphitheatre. Just over the jagged peaks, we were told, was Switzerland, and a little further on, glamorous San Moritz, playground of the rich and famous. But as far as we were concerned, the real jewels of the Alps have yet to be discovered.

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