When you mention a ski lift, most people imagine one that starts at a roadside, or just above a car park, that whisks skiers up the mountain. A lift that provides access to a piste – or even two or three – and in most cases, to other lifts, and other pistes.
If you asked any skier to recount the best ski run or ski experience of their life, it would invariably involve either rhythmically linked turns down a perfectly groomed corduroy piste, or bouncing through soft fluffy powder off-piste, or tackling a challenging bump run, or some other variation on those themes.
If you wish to turn the entire skiing experience on its head, however, I invite you to come skiing in the English Lake District, where the air is soft and the skiers are hard mountain men and women who think nothing of strapping skis and boots to their rucksacks to hike uphill for an hour (or longer, for the less fit) to reach the bottom of the single button lift on Raise (part of the Helvellyn range).
What is the reward for this effort? – you may ask. Well, it’s certainly not the skiing. Or at least, not if you’re expecting the sort of skiing you may have become accustomed to in the resorts of Europe, or North America, or Japan, or New Zealand.
Firstly, there are no groomed pistes. The Lake District Ski Club’s website boasts “up to nine runs available, depending on prevailing conditions” – but whereas the website does show a piste map, with nine marked routes, the reality on the hill is that the “pistes” are simply different suggested routes which span out either side of the lift – there are no markers of any kind, and no grooming whatsoever, so apart from the fence separating the main run, “Presidents” from its neighbor, “Presidents West”, it is only the terrain that provides any kind of boundary between one run and another. Essentially, if you can see it, you can ski it – providing, of course, that you avoid any rocks, unfilled gullies, or other natural pitfalls.
Secondly, there’s the snow itself. Or at least, the quantity thereof. Skiers accustomed to early-season skiing on piste depths of at least 50cm, will find the experience of skiing on depths of around 20cm, over large tufts of grass, rather disconcerting to say the least. Heading off from the top of the tow and finding yourself slap bang in the middle of what resembles a mogul field, due to the proliferation of large tufts of snow-covered grass interspersed with rutlines from skiers all having taken the same line down, is not for the fainthearted. If you consider yourself an experienced skier and wish to feel like a complete beginner again, come to the Lake District. As one other skier commented to me – “It’s alright in a straight line; it’s turning that’s the problem”.
And then there’s the tow itself. It’s a regular button lift exactly like one would find in the Alps – but due to the fact that it only opens on days when the conditions are favourable, and is entirely manned by volunteers, it doesn’t enjoy the type of regular maintenance that those in the Alps do. There’s none of this business of waiting at the bottom for a button to be released from the line of waiting ones, at a lovely low level that is easily placed between one’s legs as it gets moving
No, it’s a case of looking over your shoulder to catch the button as it swings round, at shoulder height, and then try to pull it down sufficiently far to get it between your legs, and then try to keep it between your legs the whole way up the steep slope, and not allow yourself to be lifted into the air in the process, nor allow your left ski to slide away downhill as you find yourself being pulled uphill at an uncomfortable angle. Tall blokes clearly have no trouble – at 5’4” I found it a fairly uncomfortable experience, which may account for why there were no short skiers on the slopes.
My first attempt at catching one of the buttons very nearly ended up with me being dragged up the hill by my arms, before I was brought to my senses by the lift operator shouting “Leave it!” and beckoning me to stand further back to catch the next one. With no clearly marked point at which to stand to catch the tow, I’d been stood too far forward.
Oh, and finally, when you get to the top of the lift, there’s no lovely smooth platform on which to dismount, or a sign indicating whether to turn left or right – no, there’s simply a sign saying “Danger – dismount” and you do exactly that – in whichever direction you please.
And then you clock the view. And suddenly you realise – if you hadn’t already – what the reward is for all this effort.
Because the reality is that skiing in the Lake District is not really about skiing. It’s about spending a day out in the hills, in spectacular surroundings, with a bit of skiing thrown in for extra entertainment. And if, like me, you’re used to skiing in big, well-run resorts staffed by hundreds, it’s about challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone and try something completely different. And spending time with people who just love being in the hills, and making the best of the limited opportunities for skiing that we get in our own incredible country.
This was my first ever experience of skiing in the Lake District. It absolutely will not be my last.