Saturday 16 November 2019

What I share with Roy Keane

Normally we hear about cruciate ligament injuries only in connection with top sports stars, but Mary O'Sullivan wrecked hers while learning to ski. However, thanks to the facilities at Les Arcs, the holiday was not all downhill after that

Mary O'Sullivan

HOW does that Louis Armstrong song go? "You say either, and I say 'eyether'/ you say neither, I say 'nigh-ther'." It echoed in my head every time I tried to remember what was wrong with me. "You say crucial, I say cruciate. Let's call the whole thing off."

I'd never heard of the cruciate ligament, and for quite a while got stuck on the word -- crucial, Croatian, crustacean -- but it seems everyone else in the world knows of it. Thanks to Roy Keane. So, that is something else I have in common with Roy -- both from Cork and both have suffered from cruciate ligament problems. Excruciate, more like. Apparently, it is behind the knee, and when you twist your knee in maybe football or skiing, you can tear/stretch/ damage the cruciate ligament. And, of course, it happened to me on my first ever day skiing.

I'd been given a lot of advice when I announced I was going on holiday to learn how to ski. "Don't" was the word on most people's lips, but two pieces of counsel stuck in my mind: not to be late for the first lesson, as the instructors start without late-comers; and, above all else, learn to stop. I was late for my first lesson through no fault of my own; all the flights from Ireland were delayed due to snow and so when we arrived at our resort, the ski-hire shops had closed. Lessons started at 9.30 the next morning, but the shop did not open any earlier than its normal time of 8.30 to deal with the backlog.

I also hadn't realised I would have a 20-minute walk from my apartment to the ski school -- mainly down endless flights of steps, wearing the requisite Michelin-man ski suit and the robot-like unbending and unwieldy boots, while grappling with two giant skis and poles.

Suffice to say, I was hassled when I hit the slopes, any instructions were lost in translation and I missed the bit in the lesson about how to stop, and when the instructor jollied me into my skis and told me to join the line of other beginners (all twentysomethings) and do what they were doing, I obeyed like a five-year-old child, instead of using my fiftysomething-old brain. Only they were skiing down a little hill and when I attempted the same, I found I couldn't stop.

Instead, I hurtled to what I saw as certain death, shouting at the same time for help. Finally, a girl put out her hand, I grabbed it and in the process twisted around on my knees. I could feel a wrenching sensation, but I got up and stoically carried on.

But by the afternoon, the ache in my knee forced me to the doctor, who prescribed pain killers, physio, a sturdy support and a ban on skiing for 39 days. (Another lesson there for you -- ensure your health or travel insurance covers skiing and do bring your EHIC, but note it only works in hospitals.)

The sad thing is, I felt I could have got to like skiing, but what to do for the rest of the week? I decided to approach the whole experience as I would a sun holiday; only instead of lazing on the beach watching my fellow holidaymakers prancing about on the sand and in the sea, I would watch them, clad in their vibrant clashing colours, doing their thing in the snow.

It was quite therapeutic, particularly as Les Arcs 1800, the French resort in which I was marooned, is situated in spectacular landscape. As I sipped my coffee at the bar (Americano with cold milk €2.50, Americano with hot milk €5, go figure) under vast blue skies in the blazing sunshine, I watched the comings and goings of the skiers and snowboarders against the backdrop of Mont Blanc. And for a different perspective, I took the gondola to the top and watched them skiing down the different runs of varying difficulty. Definitely a relaxing break from the routine at home.

Les Arcs 1800 (so called because of the height of its slopes) is one of a group of resorts branded together under the clever term Paradiski. These were created by a couple of visionaries, who decided in the Sixties that the area would be an ideal setting for ski resorts and set about creating the infrastructure. Hence the apartment blocks had the functional look of that era's architecture.

Our apartment in Le Belmont was spartan in decor, and lacked luxuries such as saunas and hot tubs, but the beds and shower were good and it did have Wifi, a microwave and a dishwasher. What the resort lacks in character it apparently more than makes up for in ski runs and other facilities.

The area, I learned, is one of the largest ski centres in the world, linked by more than 420km of pisted runs -- 12 green, 125 blue, 64 red and 31 extremely challenging black runs, with a combination of forests and sweeping high-altitude bends. My wonderful travel companion Debbie -- who did get in a little skiing when she wasn't looking after me, and who has skied in Austria and Italy -- said the slopes compared more than favourably with the others she has experienced.

It was hard for Debbie; her skiing prowess improved daily but until we made friends with some other Irish, she had no one to share her accomplishments with -- her talk of snow ploughs, parallel skiing and carving just left me baffled, so that's another lesson worth taking on board -- go in a group; at least there'll always be someone to talk skiing to.

In Les Arcs 1800, the ski pack is very serious about skiing and disappear the minute darkness falls. Our little Irish group kept things going at pub Ambiente each evening and then we looked for food.

The resort is in Savoy, the cuisine is called Savoyarde and every dish seems to contain cheese. Raclette and reblochon are the two speciality cheeses of the area and feature in everything, even pizzas. My favourite meals were at Barking Mad, where I fell in love with the Savoyarde pizza (reblochon, potatoes, lardons). I also enjoyed the hearty dishes we ate after a torchlit walk through the snow one night to a Mongolian yurt (tent). Of course, I didn't walk -- the organisers kindly laid on a skidoo (a sort of motorbike on skis) for me.

A skidoo ride is a thrill in itself and I was taken down red and blue runs. That was the nearest I got to the piste in Les Arcs. But you know what? Only 18 more days to go and I can try again.

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