Learning  to ski

I last tried skiing for a sunny morning in Scotland around 28years ago with some fellow students from Aberdeen. Needless to say they were all naturals.

I wasn’t.

The button lifts got me every time & I provided much entertainment as I scrambled to get out the way of oncoming skiers half way up the slope after failing to stay attached to the lift.

It was the lifts that had convinced me over the last 28 years that I didn’t need to try skiing again, along with an earlier memory of sitting on alpine lifts during summer holidays with my younger brother swinging them as we were suspended high a over the tree tops during our family summer holidays. Our parents dropping us off and meeting us at the top. As a parent I can see now that it was as much, if not more, for their benefit than ours. A half hour or so without children during a family holiday being a much welcomed break!

This ski trip is with my parents, and my brother with his family, making us a party of ten in total. Four teenage boys, three of whom had skied on school trips and with my parents two years ago in Austria. Our youngest son was booked into a beginners group with me, my husband Greg & sister in law were in an intermediate group and the rest were happy to go it alone.

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Borovets is a very popular resort for the British, Bulgarians and Russians. Most of the locals ( excepting all of those in our hotel- The White House) speak good English and most were very friendly although not naturally smiley!
Constantine greats us as we pass his cafe every morning, stood in front of his ‘Luvlee Jublee’ English breakfast sign. ‘See you later’ in an accent that wouldn’t go amiss in Coronation Street. We succumbed to his breakfast special one morning after he told us that even the Bulgarian school kids who stayed in our hotel a few weeks ago complained about how bad the food was, much to his cafe’s benefit! Happy Duck

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‘See you later!’ Constantine from the Happy Duck bar.

During our breakfast with him we learned of his military past. During National Service in the 90s he was stationed on the Turkish border with instructions to listen in on the phone conversations. An American General’s loose talk on an insecure line to his wife home in the USA gave Constantine the gem of a nugget of intelligence. Also a great topic of conversation to any tourists willing to listen.

Our instructor, Hristo, is excellent. Very calm, relaxed yet willing to keep us on the edge of our comfort zones. By the end of the first day all 12 of our group could snowplough down the nursery slope and he even had us starting to turn.

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Hristo Hristov ( The best instructor!) 

Day two he had us straight on the pommel lift to the top of the slope and together we snaked down. He even placed poles for us to go in between, practicing our manoeuvring skills. We were all excited when we moved across to a longer ‘green’ run with another pommel lift. It was incredibly windy and as the day wore on this run became busy and lumpy as other runs were closed due to power cuts and the wind closing the gondola. There were reports of 150mph winds and Greg & Emma’s class were stranded half way up a mountain after the gondola was closed. Luckily after an hour and a half of huddling together considering emergency evacuation, the lifts re opened bringing them back down the mountain sharing their tales of adventure with other skiers trapped at various points. Our group had gone up in the afternoon to the top for a brief look around and a go on the gentle green slope.

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I left early as Greg and I had planned a trip to the Sapareva hot springs. I was very hot, especially after walking up a non working travelator carrying my skis but had to giggle to myself when I was sharing a gondola with a group of Russians. By now we had all noticed that the Russian female skiers were always very well made up, never had ‘helmet hair’ and even had immaculate nails. I decided to sit quietly keeping my helmet on and my coat and gloves so as not to let my nation down with my obvious lack of post skiing glamour!

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Russian Ski Glamour

That evening, Greg & I joined a Russian tour from the hotel Rila to the Sapareva hot spa. It was a half hour coach trip through the nearby town of Samakov and up into another mountain range. The spa baths were outside and steaming hot with a modern hotel complex and restaurant built around them. Under the name of ‘The Anchor’ it was superb. The journey through rural Bulgarian landscape was also an eye opener. February, but without snow, made it very easy to visualise the communist days and how slow development has been since. Our Russian guide Diana, took us into a corner shop to buy some ‘flipper flops’ for the spa- a bargain at 4Lev ( under £2) with the sales tip of ‘if your size isn’t here just get the nearest to it’.

We soaked and bubbled for over an hour before all being ushered out to return to our coach. There was time to pop into a very dimly lit corner shop to buy drink and snacks for the journey back.

Arriving at our hotel for 7.30 we were again disappointed by the scant supply of hot food in our  dinner buffet and decided that the rest of the week we would eat out at the local restaurants. The difference in welcoming service and choice of food was extraordinary.

The next day our beginners group were taken up the gondola to the top of the mountain to try our our newly learned skills , have lunch and enjoy the views! By now we all realised that if we bought drinks and lunch our instructor was well rewarded by the chosen restaurant, so that encouraged us to enjoy the hot chocolate, cheesy chips, salads & very popular pizzas.

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Mountain top menu

The green run on this summit was lovely. A smooth pommel lift which we all managed making Hristo very proud! We practiced parallel turns in a long snake and straight speeding down to the lift base.The views from here were lovely and the slope was gentle and wide giving us the opportunity to experiment and practice our turns and be able to pick up a bit of parallel speed on our decent.

Hristo always knew when to push us beyond our comfort zones and so suggested we try the blue run down to the high speed and steep pummel lift to the Markudjik peak. We were all a little nervous but Hristov was gentle easing us down in stages.Our decent was hairy to say the least, lumpy snow, high speeders overtaking us, snowboarders all around and almost all of us falling over at one point or another. As we were all travelling relatively slowly, no one was hurt but we were all terrified! I was concentrating so hard that on the last leg, thinking I’d been left behind I shot passed our group and found myself alone at the high speed lifts. As a ‘punishment’ Hristo let me go first with the instruction to ‘not fall off’ and to turn right at the top. I have NEVER gripped anything so tight in my life. I was too terrified to even turn my eyes left or right to admire the dramatic blue skies and white mountain tops. My eyes were fixed on gripping the pole and keeping my skis in a straight line so as not to suddenly find myself on the side of the lift in the deep snow! Behind me I could hear various ‘whoops’, ‘F**k’s and nervous laughter as our group were literally dragged up the mountain. At the top there was a gentle slope to negotiate then to wait until all our group and Hristov had arrived. I was shaking like a leaf and although the following green run was delightful- even fun, I knew that was enough for one day!

Day 5 and feeling tired the fifteen minute walk uphill to the slopes was a bit of a slog and I missed my group by 5 minutes. Hristo had decided to take the group up the chair lifts to Stinyakavo and bring them down the green and blue run. I was unaware of this decision so decided to stay put on the nursery slope and practice what little skill I had. Luckily Greg & Caspar found me after seeing my group on the peak and I enjoyed a chocolate break before they took me up the chair lifts to meet my group. Hristo had already started heading down and so it was up to Greg & Caspar to talk me down- I was terrified! Any excuse to pause and enjoy the views before gritted teeth and deep breaths took me down stage by stage.

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Greg trying to relax me before we headed down the mountain

Looking back it was a lovely route but only when going at my own pace, slowly and when I felt in control! I have since learned that night skiing saw this route quiet and well lit with freshly piste bashed! Maybe if we visit again I’ll give that a go!

By the time we reached the bottom my confidence had returned and Hristo spotted me ready to add me to the group as we went back up the Gondola to the Yastrebretz and Musala summit. It was so good to be back with my group and after a delicious lunch we then returned to our comfort zone of the green route after a smooth pommel lift. ( We had all learned by now which loos to use during our day, the Rila Hotel before collecting our skis, then the Gondola loos at the BASE of the mountain. Absolutely NOT the loos in the cafe at the top of the Gondola, the rusty interior was quite off-putting! )

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last resort loo! 

 

 

The rest of the group had a bit of a hair-raising run down the Sitnyakova slope in the morning, earlier than me they’d caught the masses forced onto the slope by the closure of the Gondola in the morning. When masses ski a route, the proportion of falls increases and they told me of having to  negotiate bodies all the way down! Thankfully on my run the route was mainly clear, with me being the major hazard to the other skiers!

 

The next day the plan was to follow the same plan and we were all a little less nervous of attempting the blue run and the high speed pommel lift. Alexandra, a Chemistry teacher from Newcastle came a cropper on the pommel this time. We all had to helplessly speed past her, not quite sure what the protocol was after falling off such a long and steep lift. A nightmare to walk up either carrying skis or sideways, but way too steep and scary to ski down and start again. After a reasonable wait at the top we were reunited with her and she told us of her fun slide down on her ‘bum’ with our instructor. It was quite a relief to all of us to know that helicopters weren’t needed should any of us fall off!

Knowing when to stop. 

Day 6 and after another interrupted night of sleep where images of today’s planned ski route flooded into my brain followed by questions of ‘why am I doing this?’ . I love my group and they missed me almost as much as I missed them yesterday. I’m loving the social side and there are moments of satisfaction when I can feel in control and calm during a decent. Generally though I am feeling fear & panic. I’m not even fearful of falling or breaking bones, it’s a simple fear of movement beyond my control.

I love the mountains, I love the views, I love the chats whilst queuing for the lifts, I particularly love sitting in the bars & cafes drinking Bulgarian tea or hot chocolate, watching others perfect their manoeuvres. Mostly though I’m on the verge of tears. Maybe because I’m so tired, or I feel the pain of others as they fall with legs in unnatural positions. As I write this a tiny child overtook his mother and, unable to stop himself, he collided with the steps of the ski school. Several people rushed to his rescue but nothing more than a knock to his confidence and a stab of guilt for his mother. An incident that could be forgotten or remembered and enlarged in future years to remind the mother how she could or should have done more to protect her offspring.

Feeling totally exhausted on our last  morning I met up with some of my group before our class started, and joined them for a warm up nip down the nursery slope. They waited for me at the top of the small button lift that I’ve now familiarised myself with and I realised I just wanted to cry. Beccy with her bad knees was also tired and I knew I wasn’t up to going up the chair lift and making our way down the blue & green run, which according to the group was scattered with bodies yesterday morning. When Greg & Caspar had taken me up yesterday we must have managed to arrive after a clear up of the fallen but I didn’t enjoy the run. My teeth were gritted and I tried to negotiate the ‘moguls’ that crop up here and there to prevent me from relaxing. There were also rocks and icey patches, all way beyond my very basic expertise. I’m still trying not to over think which leg needs my weight and aim to regain control after a rather rapid parallel decent. Caspar reminded me to ski ‘up hill’ when I want to slow down. This is a tip I’m managing to remember but only works when the moguls haven’t divided my skis to such an extent that the only way is down on my backside! I also manage to cross my ski tips, goodness knows how, and that has been responsible for removing me from the pummel lifts on more than one occasion, although thankfully not the baby one or the high speed one!

Hristo was sympathetic and was more than happy for me to stay on the nursery slope and meet up with the group later to all go up the Gondola one last time.This final morning was very foggy and I met greg with his group as they returned from the Gondola slope. It was too misty and windy so skiing up there was treacherous. I was still anxious about the high speed pommel and the blue run but the relief of having a relaxing morning was wonderful! I enjoyed 5 trips up and down with the absolute beginners and high speed children. When I was found by Hristo and my group we all decided to take one last ride up the Gondola, even if it was only for lunch! Visibility was zero as we were carried up the mountain, it gave Mark, Ally and I a great chance to chat and we all relaxed into a party mood, confident that the mountain and it’s weather had decided for us that we’d had enough! This lunch time the kids all eagerly connected to the mountain wifi and the adults decided to relax with the generous shots of brandy in our hot chocolates. After lunch we had one go up the green pommel and down the quiet and very foggy green slope. Everyone was skiing in slow motion, which suited us fine. The winds were very strong and for the first time all week we were all glad of our many layers to keep us warm. Most of us decided that one run was enough and we happily retired to the cafe in a party mood. Very few skiers were left and the cafe was glad of our business, music turned up and we sang along ( some danced) to the Jacksons!

We all said our farewells, until that evenings certificate presentation, returned our skis and boots and had an hour or two to fill, enjoying the shops and restaurants of Borovets.

On the walk down to our hotel there is Bulgaria’s only wooden church. Mum and I had a brief visit earlier in the week and I’d bought a couple of mini icons. I popped in again, with Greg and watched the resident sculptor carve. Neither of us speaking a shared language, we scribbled and doodled on a scrap of paper and he was happy for me to photograph him in his tiny studio.His name is Jordan Xpustov and I’d said I’d share his work with the rest of the world!

 

Our holiday was drawing to an end, we were all tired from so much outdoor activity, and the boys from so much partying each evening! Tempted to have an early night, we dragged ourselves out to the Rila Hotel and it’s night club for our 9pm certificate presentation. What a surprise, the atmosphere was great and the instructors were keen to get us all in a party mood! Free drinks and very loud music and the chance for our group to see each other clean, made up and with great hair!

The two teachers from Newcastle,Alexandra and Khadiza partied into the early hours with the groups ‘youngsters’ and impressed us all with their brilliant dance routines. We were a great group and I hope that we all meet again one day, maybe back in Borovets? We bonded together and have shared memories of our hopes and fears regarding skiing, our observations of the Bulgarians and Russians, eating and drinking together and all laughing when a group of lost beautiful young British girls approached our group half way down Markudjik, looking for their instructor Ivan-‘ with the great eyebrows’. It certainly took our minds off how scared we were after most of us losing control but then Hristo joining our discussions on whether Ivan was hiding from the girls or he was ‘Lucky’ to be instructing such a beautiful collection of young ladies!

Some of us shared the coach trips to Sofia the following day, and some of us were together on the terrifying flight back to Bristol,( that’s another story!) but we mainly all bade farewell that night, knowing that our special week together would never be repeated, yet secretly hoping that one day it could. I feel blessed to have been part of such a great group with our wonderful instructor, and even more the fact that I shared this group with my step son, securing a bond and both seeing each other in a different light, to the advantage of us both!

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Oh what a night! With Lucy, Mark,Beccy,Molly, Ally, Khadiza, Emma, Alexandra, Milly, Morgan, Tom, Stephen & Hristo.

If you want to know how I managed this only 14 months from being wheelchair bound, read this: https://paulacarnell.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/sizzling-minerals/

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2 comments

  1. What a saga! I personally have no desire to ski, but dutifully accompanied my husband and children to the slopes on Vitosha and near Dobrinishte (not far from the more chi-chi slopes of Bansko). I am excellent at cheering them on from the sidelines and drinking hot tea. Also eating bean soup in the lodge, which the Bulgarians do better than anyone in my highly subjective opinion. Thanks for sharing your story and photos!

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    • Ha ha! Thanks for reading my story. I didn’t get to try the bean soup sadly although I was tempted on more than one occasion. I loved the Bulgarian tea & was upset when the cafe would presume I’d prefer Tetly tea! I’d definitely go back, spotted a castle on a mountain top on the way to Sofia, plenty to explore!

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