Anyone for ‘T’? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Anyone for ‘T’?

EWAN McNEILL reports on the 2008 SPVS Snowscene

AS a Caledonian born and bred, whenever an acquaintance of mine discovers that I’m an ardent skier I’ll invariably be asked if I do much skiing in Scotland, the assumption being that I’ll undoubtedly enthuse about what my native country offers to wintersports enthusiasts.

The answer, to my friends’ evident surprise and apparent disappointment, is always a resounding “no”. I’ve only ever had one day’s skiing in Scotland, and it was memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

We had taken a day trip to the Lecht, the small ski area that lies between Scotland’s two highest villages. It’s no more than a mountain pass with gentle slopes that rise from each side of the road to no great height, and the intermittent snow that falls on the hillsides is jealously guarded. The authorities have erected a series of wooden palisade fences which run from road level to the top of the ridges – much in the style of breakwaters on a beach – in an attempt to stop the wind that whistles through the pass from stripping the snow off the slopes in a matter of minutes.

The meagre lift system, scattered erratically throughout the ski area, consists of a few drag lifts of the old-fashioned button tow design, all of which are painfully slow, annoyingly prone to breakdown and powered by noisy engines, ensuring that the all-pervading smell of diesel fumes hangs over the slopes throughout the winter months.

With my instructor, I took my turn in one of the grossly long lift queues, and after a wait of some days we found ourselves at the top of the drag. A fierce wind swept through the pass, cutting into my ski suit to chill me to the bone and whipping up ice crystals that stung my face.

The snow, which had last fallen many days previously, was hard packed – so hard that the unwary, unloading themselves from the top of the lifts, found themselves skidding helplessly across the slope, in imminent danger of impaling themselves on one of the low pallisaded fences that protruded threateningly a few inches above the ice.

My instructor looked around him, glanced up at where the merest vestige of sunlight struggled to break through the grey cloud layer, and nodded to me. “Not a bad day at all,” he murmured, and to my horror I realised that he wasn’t trying to be funny. This was as good as it would get for skiing in my native country.

Such was my introduction to Scottish winter sports, but it taught me three things: firstly, how to ski on sheet ice; secondly, how to turn my skis without hesitation whenever the need arose (because otherwise, of course, the impaling fences awaited); and thirdly, that there are far, far better places to ski.

Which brings me to Lech, in both a literary and a literal sense. Just a single letter of difference, but a thousand miles south from the Lecht, and a million miles better in every way if you have the desire to strap two planks of wood to your feet and throw yourself off the mountain tops.

For this was the venue for Snowscene 2008 – a welcome return for SPVS to a beguiling Austrian resort that offers great snow, awesome scenery, delightful off-slope diversions (a consideration that Scotland has yet to master – the best feature that all Scottish mountain ski areas can offer is cafes that are several stages worse than the most appalling motorway service station) and enchanting Tyrolean architecture.

We were based in the Hotel Kristberg, owned and run by Egon Zimmerman; his Olympic gold medal for downhill skiing in the 1964 games hangs proudly in the hotel’s entrance.

The main purpose of the week was, naturally, education, the skiing being simply a sideline to while away the hours between lectures.

Double-bill

On the formal side, the tuition was expertly presented by a double-bill of gifted speakers: Alistair Gibson, who delivered a series of wonderfully comprehensive and understandable lectures on cardiology, and Phil Hyde, who achieved the impossible, that of making health and safety issues for general practitioners both interesting and practical.

It’s unfeasible to condense their many hours of practical lectures into a few words, but the two tables below give a few of their top tips and a flavour of what was covered.

Just as valuable, however, was the informal networking – 65 delegates who debated the rights and wrongs, the goods and evils, and the meaning of life as we know it, that of the world according to vets, on chairlifts, over dinner and long into the night whilst lingering over a beer or two at the bar.

Now, Lech has many attractions on and off the slopes. On the mountains the skiing is delightfully varied, in terms of gradient, terrain and scenery. Runs snake down through tree-lined valleys to charming little villages where modern lifts await to whisk skiers to the peaks again. Off-piste routes can be found that take one far into a white wilderness, apparently miles from any form of civilisation.

Intermediate skiers can take delight in clocking up the miles on wide, pleasant runs, while for nervous beginners the gentle “blue”-graded slopes on the outskirts of the small town allow for confidence-building skiing with little or no danger.

Off the mountains, the resort is unashamedly upmarket; the shops, restaurants and refreshment spots offer plenty of diversion when one tires of the slopes, and this would seem to be a good place to mention T-bars, which in Austria can mean one of two things, and it’s worth noting that both sorts can arouse strong emotions for the users, and indeed that the emotions vary on the type of T-bar encountered.

The first sort is the tea bar, and is typified by the Tannbergerhof, the legendary hostelry conveniently situated a few paces from the bottom of the home run, which draws people like a magnet into its welcoming interior at the end of a busy day.

Here, a mixture of enticing drinks, live music and gemütlichkeit fuse effortlessly to make après ski a fine art form; this is a place where hours pass like minutes and work seems a million miles away, although it maybe goes without saying that tea bar is a bit of a misnomer, as most of the beverages consumed are a bit stronger than tea.

And while we dwell on the delights of alcoholic hostelries, the novel ice bar at the top of the first lift is worth a mention too, as it brings new meaning to the word cool. Inside this achingly trendy establishment, everything – benches and walls, tables and bars – is made out of pure ice, where designer icicles dangle artfully from the frozen ceiling, and sheepskin rugs are scattered plentifully to allow patrons to recline in comfort and enjoy the drinks without being frozen to the spot (the coolest beverage, it need hardly be said, is frozen vodka). You have to be trendy just to be allowed into the place.

Devious ski-lift

The other sort of T-bar in Austria also arouses certain emotions for many skiers, but none of them pleasant ones. A home-grown invention that every other alpine nation has rightly discarded as impractical, the Austrians seem determined to hold on to this most devious of ski lifts, which has seemingly been designed to pull a duo of skiers up the slopes in the most fright-inducing manner possible.

Indeed, “holding on” is very much the operative phrase, as anyone who has ridden on one of these lifts will testify: the unnerving sensation of being dragged slowly and helplessly sideways (especially if their partner is heavier than themselves) whilst moving up the mountain, until the inevitable happens and the hapless skier falls off gracelessly (usually at the steepest and most inaccessible part of the drag) is not an experience that many people will willingly undertake if there is an alternative method of getting to the top of a ski run.

Against that, Lech has introduced that most delightful of conveniences, chairlifts with heated seats, an invention that literally raises skiing to new heights of comfort whilst contradicting nature, as it allows skiers to emerge at the top of a ski lift warmer than when they got on the thing at the bottom. Given that the weather we had during the week could at best be described as mixed, these ski lifts were a huge blessing and should be de rigeur for all resorts, Scottish ones included.

So after another wonderful Snowscene, it has to be congratulations to SPVS president John Hill, organiser Peter Beynon, and sponsor Fort Dodge for putting together another memorable week of CPD in the most enchanting of surroundings. One might almost say that they really did get things off to a “T”.

  • Snowscene next year will be in the Hotel Edelweiss, Obergurgl, Austria, from 14th to 21st March (free room upgrades for early bookings); details from the SPVS office, telephone 01926 410454, e-mail office@spvs.org.uk.

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