Want to try a skiing holiday with your children? Mareike Graepel has all you need to know...
If you have ever been on holiday with children, you know that it makes no difference if you travel for three days or three weeks. But if you go on a skiing trip, packing is a completely different story: Ski gear; gloves; looped scarves; helmets; goggles; sunglasses; long underpants and shirts; very strong sunscreen; food and – just in case it might be too foggy to ski (during the winter) or too warm and not enough snow (around Easter) – swimming gear and hiking boots.
If all goes well, though, the entire family should be on the mountain and in the fresh air from nine in the morning and in the evenings the kids gratefully sink into their thick feather pillows and sleep around the clock.
I tried skiing for the first time when I was three and a half, and have passed on her skiing obsession to my husband and daughters. Together they have tried the pistes and slopes in the Tyrolean towns of Galtür and Ischgl.
Four pairs of skies crunch on the snow, which is still frozen and slippery on the mountain. Two of those crunching sounds seem to swing in slow, big curves across the slopes, the other two – coming from two only half-sized skies – sound brief and small.
“Now, quickly down the slope! Speed up, girls!” I shout – and both children change their skies to the ‘chips’ position. That’s what the skiing instructors call it, when the children have to keep their skies parallel and not in the snow plough style, also known as ‘pizza slice’. Alva, the nine-year-old, tries to swerve properly already, Orla is only five and is still keeping her legs in the snow plough position. But now they speed down this short part of the slope at nearly 50 kilometres am hour – we measured their speed on a special slope near the ‘Idalp’, the largest hut on the mountain, the day before. It’s very apparent why skiing without helmets and proper clothing including gloves is unimaginable.
I am thinking back to times when I went skiing with the local sports club in my teenage years, in resorts like the Italian Plan de Corones in South Tyrol, wearing nothing but a strikingly green punk shirt and jeans when strapping on the skis. There are still people who ski without helmets but the percentage is low.
To ask the kids to go as fast as possible is not entirely altruistic – the slower the children get down this slope, the more they have to tramp up the sloping bit at the end – or hope that I will pull them up, looking like a biathlete-wannabe, who pulls a bunch of colourful and giggling mini people behind her.
“If you only knew how often I had to tramp up on the side of the slope,” I tell them for the umpteenth time and they roll up their eyes towards heaven behind their goggles. “We didn’t have conveyor belts to transport us back up on the beginners’ slope.“
I feel old. Several of these belts are in use by the skiing school, the Skisport Akademie in Ischgl, but are open to all beginners. There is also a children’s play area with a tyre carousel in the snow and a small platter lift. The children’s area is located very centrally in the resort - and most importantly already on the mountain, near the Idalp not down in the valley. This is perfect for families who want to enjoy the slopes themselves while the offspring practice with the instructor.
To learn how to ski is not very difficult here, guaranteed. Alva and Orla had their lessons in the next town, in Galtür, where there is also a beginners’ area and great instructors, male and female, who look after all novices, big and small.
Today, there are no skiing lessons anymore, we are exploring the mountain as a family.
We picked easy slopes, marked with blue signs, and a few with a more advanced level marking, some red-sign-posted pistes. With more than 200 kilometres available just in Ischgl, the choice isn’t difficult - we could be on different slopes all day without repeating the same stretch at all. On top, there are freestyle fun packs, short beginners’ slopes, and ski routes for the advanced.
“Pleaaaase, can we take a black one too““ beg the children. That level of difficulty we decide to keep for the afternoon, at the moment it is still too icy and slippery – we need a bit of sunshine first to make the snow a bit softer.
A group is always as strong as its weakest link, a rule that applies particularly when skiing. Everybody waits for the slowest skier, at every turnoff or before difficult stretches. So, the three of us are standing there, waiting – for my husband. Alva and Orla find it easier to dart across the white snow crumbs, due to their weight and shorter skies, they are less scared of falling and are more agile in knees and hips.
The contrast between sky and earth could not be starker. While we let the sun warm us up a little on the side of the slope, we turn our faces towards the sun, and lean on our ski sticks. The deep blue of the sky, cut off by a sharp edge of pure white, only gets interrupted by the glaring yellow dot in it.
At the end of the piste, just before the six-people-chair-lift of the Höllkarbahn, as we continue our way down, I call across the fourfold crunching sounds: “Stop again, we forgot to put on sun lotion!” Normally we do this in the gondola on the way up in the morning, but we were preoccupied with the fact that the kids had signed up to take part in a ski race just before lunch.
With the start numbers of 3 and 199 - no chronological order, we noticed, relieved – both kids wait for their signal at the race slope, lotion-ed up and everything. Among other parents, we wait along the spectators’ line, get mobile phones and helmet cameras ready.
“And here she goes,” says the announcer and he pronounces her name as if she was called “Orrrrrla”. Slowly and carefully she half circles the slalom sign posts.
And before she is halfway down the piste, Alva takes off.
She is much faster than Orla and speeds down the slope - and only just before she gets to the finish line, tries to avoid a collision with Orla and turns too fast, She straddles a gate – which catapults her high up in the air. Both skies go flying, she ends up flat on her back. I am relieved I did not take off my skies and dash down towards her.
When I stop beside her, she is already up, thank goodness, and a skiing instructor as well as another father who is a doctor apparently, check her for injuries. The tears stream down her face despite having remained unhurt, the shock is big – and the confusion. “What happened?“
After we have shown her the pictures and videos, her tears dry up quickly and she says, rather proudly: “Jeepers, I was fast!”
For consolation (it is not clear who needs more comfort now, the parents or the child), we head towards a restaurant hut - the choice is huge, with 14 different ones in just this resort. At the Idalp, 1,300 people find a space and there is also a kindergarten for guests, so Mummy and Daddy can go skiing without having to worry about their smallies. But today, we pick a smaller, more rustic hut, with a DJ and a dancefloor outside and a hearty and comfy atmosphere inside, the Paznauner Taja. While stalking across the room in their heavy boots, the kids sway to the music and sing along – to a rather X-rated drinking tune, which they don’t understand yet, thankfully.
A total of 162 kilograms of chips get fried in Ischgl’s hut kitchens, 160 Germknödel (yeast dumplings) and uncountable amounts of vanilla sauce get prepared, 183 portions of Kaiserschmarren (a cut up pancake mix with raisins, applesauce and icing sugar) get cooked as well as 5,212 kilometers of spaghetti with bolognese sauce and mountains of parmesan. Alva picks a Germnknödel with vanilla sauce and covered in ground poppy seeds.
For the next few minutes, there is no sound at the table other than spoons and forks making the porcelain sing - and of course, the Best of Slope Hits sounds from outside.
During the afternoon, we are heading towards a black slope, finally.
Using chairlifts is much easier here in Ischl than anywhere else – because most lifts have designated children’s seats, perfectly designed so nobody can slip through.
In Galtür, the smaller resort next door, the chairlifts are still more old-fashioned - but the solution is simple: Every child travels up with an adult, who holds on to the small skier, as a matter of course.
Once at the top, the kids get handed back to the instructor or the family.
With the Zeblasbahn-Lift we head up to the 2,791-meter-mark. From there, we glide along the crest– to left and right of us, behind snow barriers, the flanks of the mountain are steep – on a so-called cat-track until we reach the third of three black slopes.
The first two are too difficult for us, but the black slope numbered 21 seems perfect.
The kids ski across the edge at the top, fearless. Orla watches out for faster skiers around her. Only Daddy doesn’t want to use this, he continues to a blue slope a bit further on.
Here we go – following the kids, I get faster and faster, the slope bends to the side and in the corner of my eye I notice the massive mountains – Austrian on one side, Swiss on the other – and I feel so small.
Small, but not helpless, a part of the mountain, a part of nature.
I can feel how the snow sprays under my boards, I gather momentum and swing around beside my daughters waiting at the side of the slope.
Later, during the gondola ride back into the village in the valley, Orla will try to describe the feeling when skiing.
But when you are only five years old, it is hard to find the right words for the magnificent lightness, the rhythmic movements and the racy lateral position on the mountain in lucent sunlight, on sparkling snow. In the end, she says: “It is just beautiful!”
She has a point there.
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