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Scott Begbie: On the piste for apres-ski – without the skiing

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In normal times, there would be people across the north-east whooping with glee at all the snow, strapping their skis to the top of their cars and sloping off to Glenshee or the Lecht. Not me.

Sunset at Glenshee in March 2020.

Let’s just say when it comes to the joys of the apres-ski set I’m all about the apres and want nothing to do with the ski.

This was a bitter lesson learned at a young age, courtesy of Edinburgh Council’s forward-thinking idea of giving every P7 kid free lessons at Hillend Ski Slope.

To be honest, I really liked the sound of it – after all, skiing was cool. It was the sort of thing that they did in the Heroes Of Telemark, with Kirk Douglas battling the nasty Nazis while whizzing down a mountain. See Roger Moore as Bond also.

Roger Moore hit the slopes in A View to a Kill.

And it sounded like a better field trip than the one we were taken on to the local slaughterhouse. I kid you not. They did that sort of thing in the 60s.

Anyway, back to Hillend and our first outing where we were shown basics like putting boots on and standing up on skis. It was about here things started going wrong. All my classmates were upright and beaming. I was flailing around like the Robot from Lost In Space shouting “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger.”

With a bit of remedial help – I was held upright by the instructor – we were allowed to go on the nursery slope to learn how to get moving, how to turn, and how to stop.

When I say, we, I mean everyone else. I just kept crossing one ski over the over and falling on my rear end. The main lesson I got out of that was the hard bristle hexagons which made up the artificial slope cause friction burns when you face-plant on them. I also discovered they are just perfect for trapping your fingers and bending them back very painfully. There was actually a condition known in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary as “Hillend Thumb” for that very reason.

Scott was never one of the happy, excited kids at skiing lessons.

First lesson over, there was excited chatter on the bus back to school about how brilliant skiing was. I just looked out the window with the sinking feeling that the next few Fridays were going to be a bleak time for some of us. Specifically those whose utter lack of hand-eye co-ordination had so far made any attempt at sports a living hell of misery and ridicule. Try growing up virtually in the shadow of Tynecastle unable to kick a ball in a straight line, with a 50/50 chance you were going to fall over it in the attempt. Skiing was just a new gateway to contempt from my peers.

Ski lifts as they should be, according to Scott… with him not on them.

On the return trip to Hillend we had graduated to the higher slope and the chairlift up to it. Which is when I discovered vertigo is a thing. I was already in a state of panic, before facing the horrific downhill descent in front of me. Or so it looked. In hindsight it would probably have been so gradual a gradient you’d need to give your Easter eggs the odd kick to keep them rolling all the way down.

Our instructor again ran us through the basics of turning, of control, of keeping our speed down and stopping safely, then unleashed us. I watched a few of my classmates gracefully gliding down the incline, slaloming from side to side then stopping at the bottom to look up, grinning, for the big thumbs up from the teacher.

Artificial ski slopes… not a place you want to face-plant.

For my turn, I hurtled down the slope in one continuous straight line of undiminished acceleration accompanied by one continuous scream of terror. I did stop at the bottom. I achieved that much at least by smacking at full tilt into a fence. All I can remember is the panicked look of people as I missed them by inches, then the open-mouthed astonishment of the instructor as he skied down the slope to make sure I was ok.

On the bus back, there was more excited chatter but I still had my rather young life flashing in front of my eyes.

Hillend Ski Centre at the Pentland Hills on the south side of Edinburgh… a place of childhood misery for Scott.

I went home that night with a long white envelope from my teacher to give to my mum. Inside was a letter explaining I was banned from returning to ski lessons at Hillend as I posed a hazard to myself and everyone else around me. And that was that.

Now, it’s funny how the passage of time eases painful memories. So when years later I was invited on a press trip with a pack of other journos to sample a learn-to-ski package in Austria, I jumped at the chance.

After all, I was older, wiser and a bit more in command of my faculties. Cut to the next scene…. Me on a nursery slope with toddlers whizzing past while the grown-ups were off tackling scenic mountain runs.

That’s the way to do it… slaloming with elegance and without screaming.

My demotion was down to the instructor realising he could shout, “no Scott, you must turn, you must turn now,” as much as he wanted, but I was still heading for that precipice until fate intervened and I took a tumble onto soft snow rather than go flying off the cliff edge like a kamikaze Eddie the Eagle.

The rest of my press trip was taken up with thoroughly enjoying Austria’s apre-ski culture while not going on a piste again. After all, I was told, I “ski like a tree.”

Years later when I was living in Canada for a while, I was constantly invited by colleagues to go skiing. I declined, politely. In Ottawa the requests became a demand that I do something winter sport related. After all, this was the frozen north and the home of the world’s longest outdoor skating rink when the Rideau Canal froze over.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa is the world’s longest skating rink.

So, I took some skating lessons. The only time I could manage was Sunday mornings… a kids’ class with adults as an add-on. Warm ups included doing the hands, knees and nose song with all the moves. I spent a lot of time picking myself off the ice.

Eventually, I plucked up the courage to go on the canal with Canucks zooming past like they were born on skates. Some of them probably were. I spent a lot of time picking myself up off the ice. Sometimes that came with the added thrill of throwing hot chocolate over myself when my ambition overreached my abilities. A life lesson. If you can barely skate, don’t attempt it while holding a hot drink, no matter how cool the other folk look doing it.

There was, however, still one roll of the Canadian winter sports culture dice for me to try. Ice fishing. What’s that?

Ice fishing…. finally a winter sport that involves eating and drinking without falling over.

Well, you and a bunch of mates drive your cars onto a frozen lake. The creaking of the ice is unnerving, but I was told it was fine. Then, someone gets out a huge petrol-powered ice augur to bore a few holes. Then you drop your baited fishing line down it, connected to a tip-up – basically a catapult-shaped piece of wood is shoved in the ice and a little cross beam balanced over it. If a fish bites, the end tips up, so you grab the line, yank hard and land yourself a fish.

What do you do while you’re waiting for the fish to bite? Sit in a heated hut, drinking cold beer and yakking, the merriment only broken by the occasional dash out to pull in a tipped up line, then clean and fry up the freshest fish you’ve ever had.

Nice and cosy in a warm ice fishing shack in the depths of a North American winter.

So, finally, some 30 years after the Hillend horror show I found a winter sport I actually liked and was good at.

And you know what? To this day I’m still a dab hand at eating fresh fried fish and washing it down with cold beer.

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