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Ski Memories: There are places I remember . . .

As I packed away my ski gear thoughts wandered Proustian-fashion down a wormhole of memories:

‘There are places I remember,
All my life, though some have changed …
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all’

John Lennon

I’ve been privileged to meet and ski with some remarkable people; stayed in some posh lodgings; eaten some notable meals, and enjoyed some unforgettable runs. In 2011 I was invited to Bad Kleinkirchheim to ski with Franz Klammer…the skier’s Super-Hero whose record has never been beaten; champion alpine racer, gold medalist at the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics; winner of 25 World Cup downhills, including four on the fearsome Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel. Fortunately for me, trying to keep up with the former downhiller, he stopped often to talk to fans…mostly women, who flocked to him like paparazzi. Over lunch he told me his philosophy for a great day’s skiing. “Start early, ski hard and fast, then stop for a long leisurely lunch, followed by a relaxing sauna and swim”. I’ve followed his advice since, with the exception of the sauna and swim – I prefer an après-drink in their place.

Michael Cranmer with Franz Klammer
Pic 2 Simone Origone

In 2015 I had revelatory moment chatting on a chairlift in Champoluc, Italy, with my guide, local man Simone Origone. We’d had a superb hard day on the slopes and my quads were turning to jelly so I was relieved when he asked if he could leave me half-an-hour early. “Of course. Are you meeting your girlfriend?” I asked. “No, training with my brother”…“What, slalom?”…“No. Speed skiing”. I knew a bit about this: set over a timed 1km course, the racers wear special aerodynamic ‘space helmets’ and skin-tight suits, and reach the highest non-motorised speeds on land possible to man. I asked him how fast he went. “Well, my best is 252,632 km/h (156.978 mph)”. “What’s the World record?” I asked. “That is” he laughed. I’d been skiing with the Fastest Man on Earth on Skis!

Speed has never been my thrill. I prefer to ski ‘in the zone’ concentrating on being in that moment, reaching for the perfect carved turn…‘zen’ skiing. In 2018, Kitzbühel, possibly my favourite resort, provided one such memory. 20cm of freshly fallen snow; that subtle ghostly light that precedes another fall; all sounds deadened. Empty pistes but for Catherine, myself and Katie – Best Pals. Catherine and I swooping like the Red Arrows from opposing sides of the run, perfectly synchronised, intertwined carved tracks marking our passage; Katie riding a board in the diamond dust of our wakes. No words spoken, the run seemed to go on forever. We still talk about it to this day.

In 2018 I skied with a Zen Master, Pat Zimmer, one of the world’s top off-piste and heli-skiing guides. It was the penultimate skiing week in Val d’Isère. The combination of a record fall upon fall of snow and intense May sunshine made for precarious conditions, which appeared to the untutored like perfection. “Look closer” Pat said, “the snow has frozen overnight, and is slowly melting. We’ll have some warm-up runs on piste and wait until its right. I never ski a slope without running through my personal checklist. I remember that the best off-piste run is always the safest. If one thing is wrong I prefer not ski it. The slope will be there another day and will certainly survive me. Twenty died in avalanches in France last season. The danger can be quite high. Just a few degrees difference in the exposure can make the difference between a safe or dangerous run”. Sobered by these thoughts, but feeling completely secure in his hands, I launched down the piste. True to Pat’s word, the snow had warmed in the last half-hour. I was in a zen-like bubble, tingling with each grain of snow, each breath of air, each carved turn, which left me giggling like a schoolgirl on a first date. Pat stopped by the edge of the piste, head cocked, listening, absorbing, like a gun-dog pointing, sniffing off the side of the groomed run.

Have you ever skied spring snow, Michael?” Pat asked. “This looks good. Follow me.” The surface off-piste was velvety; my skis (slalom carvers) barely sank in to a solid base below.  First turn, another linked, and another; I visualised the snaked tracks behind, my signature in the pristine snow. I didn’t want it to end. The mountainside curved down softly like the flanks of a seductive reclining Venus. Pat was waiting for me, smiling, looking, with head-cocked again. Michael” he paused, “I have been watching you degustation de la niege…tasting the snow”. Words of wisdom from a legend.

Pic 3 Off-piste in Val d'Isere
Pic 4 Sergio, the waiter at La Stuvetta restaurant, at Carosella3000

Lunch taken late, à la Klammer, gives pleasure and a time for reflection. My bestest, bestest meal memory is from 2014. Location: Livigno, Italy. La Stuvetta restaurant. High (3,000m), sunny, and with an indescribably beautiful view. I put myself in the hands of Sergio the waiter. “I suggest Aragosta con spaghetti cotti in nero di seppia, with a Franciacorta wine to accompany” In other words lobster, with spaghetti cooked in squid ink, and a local Lombardian sparkling wine. I was in heaven. Conversation turned to philosophy – the philosophy of food. “What day is it?” “Erm, Tuesday I think”. “Perfect. Any other day and I would not have let you eat lobster” said Sergio, somewhat incomprehensibly. “You see the fish deliveries come from Naples on a Monday, so you know it’s fresh”.

The Hotel Cristallo, also in Livigno, ticks the box for my Best Hotel.  Run by sisters Maura and Lorenza Cola it is three-star simplicity that kicks all the poncey, snooty five-star corporates into touch; home-made food, a good bar (all the locals drink there) and five minutes from a ski-lift. Perfetto.

Proving that small is beautiful, tiny Claviere (still in Italy…there’s a pattern forming) was where I had one of the most memorable runs of my life, not a steep black, or some narrow couloir, but a simple green in the magically-named Monti de la Luna sector. From the Colla Bercia to Cesana, piste #90 (numbers not names in Italy), a farm track meandered down, overhung with branches heavy with snow forming an ice-tunnel, dappled shadows contrasting with shafts of piercing sunlight. I snow-ploughed slowly, the more to prolong my enjoyment of the moment, the place, and my senses. It was colder than a traffic-warden’s heart, trees coated with ice-rime crackled with my passing. I didn’t believe it could ever be that perfect again.

The memories that crowd most, of course, are of friends… Arnie, Catherine, Charlotte, Frank, Katie, Lynsey, Peter, Sue…(alphabetically, so as not to offend) and so many others; but one above all. Rob Freeman. We communicated in a mixture of Bertie Wooster-ese and foul-mouthed street slang, ‘Old Bean’, ‘Yo! Rude Boy’ etc. – I’ll omit the naughty bits for the sake of propriety. Approximately the same age, our careers as old Fleet Street hands ran parallel and our life-experience much the same. He was a scallywag, superb skier, fine, fine writer, and matchless story-teller, but he had one unforgivable fault. He liked football and in particular Watford FC, a world incomprehensible to a sensitive and intellectually-aware soul such as myself.

One story about Rob. He had two close, very close, brushes with death. In 2013 his aorta ruptured and he was saved, incredibly, by a blood clot blocking the hole; then in 2016 during planned surgery to replace an aortic aneurysm, his lungs collapsed, followed by his liver and his one remaining kidney. He was on life support for a week, then an induced coma for three weeks and in hospital for two months. Despite nil response, his family never left his side. When he eventually regained consciousness he was told he would never walk again and certainly never ski. Not so. The brilliant medicos hadn’t bargained for the stubborn Mr Freeman. Exactly a year to the day after his operation he was back on skis for the first time when we skied together on a beautiful sunny day at Le Grand Bornand. The style was there, as was the smile that turned to tears as we hugged. “Take a picture of me my Dear Chap” he said, “I want to send it to my doctor and nurses”. Since then we’ve shared more adventures and smiles. We were due to go to Chamrousse in March when he was struck down by a virus leaving him in bed at home. His last email to me (edited) ‘Hi Old Chum, …14th day in bed…what a f*****g nightmare not to put too fine a point on it. What a shocking state! Take care, much love, Yr Trublud, Rob’.

Rob’s gone, but will never be forgotten.

‘There are places I remember,
All my life, though some have changed …
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all’

Pic 6 Rob Freeman' s first ski after illness

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