Travel: Hills are alive with the sound of skiers
It's not often that a woman with a Belfast accent gets to wear a balaclava for legitimate reasons. That's one of the main attractions of skiing for me. I get to hang around in public looking like a terrorist and no one bats an eyelid, because a balaclava's one of the bare necessities of life at altitude. The weather changes fast. It might be warm in the morning but by afternoon the mist descends, visibility's nil, and suddenly what seemed like a busy slope becomes an eerie, deserted landscape. You're glad of your fluffy friend.
Ever since I took up skiing five years ago, people kept saying: "Go to Austria." They may just have wanted rid of me, but I took them to mean it's the pinnacle of what skiing's about. I'll never be good enough to really know how much better one mountain is from another – gravity seems to work on them equally, and I always end up at the bottom – but speaking to more experienced skiers at our resort, I can vouch for the varied nature of the slopes.
We were in Soll, in the Tyrol, the Austrian state in the eastern Alps centred on Innsbruck. It's part of a skiing region known as the 'Wilder Kaiser', which also happens to be a popular destination for hikers in summer. But that's another holiday for another day. Back to the snow.
What's great is that the slopes across this so called 'Ski-Welt' area are all interconnected, with easy access using chairlifts, bubblelifts and gondolas (don't ask me why these little vehicles are called that, because it's a long way from Venice, but they just are). Basically, if you want to ski a lot – and why would you be here if you didn't? – there are 250km of ski trails to choose from. Lots of people I met weren't even taking a single lesson. Their intention was simply to head up the nearest incline and get cracking.
Personally, I can't imagine a time when I'll be happy to let go entirely of the guidance of an instructor. Probably because I took it up late in life. But who knows? This is my fourth time skiing, and my skills are still fairly basic, but I'm getting there; and the great thing is you don't have to be technically brilliant to enjoy it. Just point those skis and go and, hopefully, arrive at the bottom in one piece. The first day, we trudged up the hill, skis on, to be assessed. Some people found it nerve-wracking, but don't be stressed. It's an evaluation, not a test. It's not possible to fail. Some fell, some showed off (mostly men, needless to say), but eventually we were all put into groups. My one gripe about mine was that it was too big. It quickly became apparent that these 10 people had a huge range of ability, which is tricky for an instructor to manage, so there was lots of standing around whilst she talked and talked and we ended up freezing, with very sore legs as we dug our skis into the snow to prevent ourselves sliding downhill.
If you are put into a group you feel is too large, speak to your rep. They're keen to keep you happy and will do something about it. One of the good things about being in a big group, though, is that you can stand at the back and snigger. I went with my friend, Tara – my first full week without the children – and this, by and large, is what we did. It's like being back at school except no one can tell your parents.
After the first few days of inactivity, our instructor really upped the pace, and soon we were skiing all over the place. I'm convinced the Pied Piper must've been a ski instructor. That week my eyes were fixed squarely on her blue ski suit. A naturally suspicious soul, I can't think of any other activity where I'd so blindly follow in the path of another person without checking first if it was all right. It goes against every instinct.
She'd bring us up in a chairlift, then make us ski across mountain ridges so steep I felt I was defying the laws of science by hanging on. But hang on I did. I then congratulated myself on my progress as I scuffed leisurely through a woodland track with trees on all sides, everything so lovely and picture-postcardy that I couldn't help being pleased with myself. The next moment you come out into the open and are confronted with the sight of yet another ski lift, chairs tapering off up the next mountain into the clouds, out of sight. You swear. Here we go again...
It really can be quite terrifying when you see how high you're going. Your knees start knocking together at the height of each mountain you're ascending, especially when, just before you get on the chairlift, the instructor says you'll probably have to jump off at the other end. Flipping Isaac, they don't do this on the DART!
There's a new challenge to getting out of every chairlift; a new technique to master as each one presents itself as a potential new leg-breaker. It's amazing the things you do when skiing that you'd never think yourself capable of back home. One day, I was standing there, watching people zipping down a particular mountain, marvelling at how good they had to be to master a slope that scary. "Which one did we just come down?" I asked the instructor. Turned out it was the same one I was looking up at in awe.
There's even night skiing, which involves an additional cost because you need a special pass, but that just means you get more skiing done. Söll is part of the largest night skiing area in the whole Tyrol. Stars above. Snow below. Ski heaven.
Of course, it's not all about the skiing. There are husky rides to charm the inner child and ice skating on nearby Lake Moorsee when it's frozen. Söll itself doesn't have much to offer, because it's a small Austrian alpine village, not downtown Berlin, but there are good walks, and some pretty, typically Tyrolean, architecture.
If you really want the bright lights you can hop to Salzburg in an hour and a half or so for that whole Sound Of Music experience. (All together now – "the hills are alive!") One of the other great things about Söll is that they have plenty of activities apres ski that don't necessarily involve drinking.
For instance, there's a 3km toboggan track, open until late, which is huge fun. The night we did it, we forgot our helmets. "Don't worry," we were assured, "you'll be fine". I've never been on a toboggan before and had no idea how to use it.
Instructions are minimal, the drops off each side not so minimal, and three kilometres by toboggan can feel like 30. Nevertheless we made it to the bottom with all our bones intact and headed for the obligatory hot drink infused with alcohol. (I said there are things to do that don't involve alcohol, not that I'm a teetotaller!)
I know in Ireland we love to talk about the, ahem, restorative and medicinal effects of alcohol, but I've never heard it extolled so much as in Austria. Schnapps is definitely good for you. Wine is nourishing. Beer is full of vitamins and minerals. And to be fair, it's a principle the locals seem set on putting enthusiastically into practice.
There's a lively nightlife. It's not overbearingly boisterous, unlike some other resorts, but if there were breathalyser tests on the slopes then skiers would definitely be collecting penalty points quicker than Zsa Zsa Gabor collected husbands.
At the end of the week, we inserted our cards for a print out of the kilometres we'd completed, a great idea for dedicated skiers wanting to keep track of their distances. I'd done over a hundred, (didn't I say we did a lot of standing about in the first days?) though more experienced souls had put in four times as many. Either way, my poor limbs were in agony. It must be the only holiday where you're happy to be exhausted and in pain, as a testament to the effort you put in. Then I came home, and slept for a week.