The first time I …

In the winter of 1964/65, I found myself in the Officers’ Mess of The Royal Scots Greys in Fallingbostel. I was a very junior officer coming to the end of a Short Service Commission. One evening, the adjutant, apparently a keen skier, came into the Mess and asked for volunteers for the regimental ski team. He needed four people, including himself, to make up the team; two brother officers volunteered without hesitation. Everyone else looked away or pretended to go on reading and when I looked up, I saw that the adjutant was staring straight at me.

“Can you ski David?” he asked. “Yes, I can ski, but not at all well, certainly not well enough to be in your team,” I replied.  “Are you sure?” he continued and on he went until I began to think that being paid for two months to ski might be rather an enjoyable way to spend the winter months. So, I ‘volunteered’. I should probably have explained that my skiing experience had consisted of only two short holidays when I was in my teens during which times, I learned how to get down the ski slopes at a reasonable speed but never quite in control.

About three weeks later I drove to St. Anton in Austria for six weeks training. A guide had been hired to teach us how to race. When he saw me on skis, he realised that he would need to teach me to ski before teaching me how to race! It was a glorious six weeks. I learned to ski better and I enjoyed the evenings in the bars trying to chat up the local girls with absolutely no success at all as, not only could I not ski, I couldn’t speak Austrian.  

By the end of the six weeks, I could more or less keep up with the others and I had acquired just about enough technique to complete a slalom course. Next stop St. Moritz where the ski races were to be held.  It did occur to me that although our team wasn’t much good, there might be other skiers in other regiments who really knew how to race. And that turned out to be the case. A couple of my fellow competitors actually skied in our Olympic team and another had won the British Downhill. We all practised the various courses. For any non skiers reading this I should explain that there were three races: the Downhill, which was really just to see how fast you could ski; the Slalom, which tested your technique as you had to go through any number of gates, turning sharp corners and the Giant Slalom, which was a mixture of the two, with fewer gates than the slalom but more than the downhill.

The first race was to be the Downhill and we were seeded according to our perceived ability, so inevitably I started near the back of the field by which time the course was worn and icy. When the day of the race came, the mountain was a blanket of fog.  I could see about twenty yards in front of me which wasn’t far enough even for someone travelling at my not very fast speed.  As I watched the better skiers race down the course in the fog, an idea crept into my mind. I started to think that the fog might turn out to be the great equaliser. If I could race as fast as I dared and managed to stay upright I might, just might, be able to do far better than expected. Everyone was skiing slower because of the fog but I wouldn’t fall for that. I would go as fast as I could and maybe not win but at least come in the top twenty. 

As my time to start approached – I seem to remember that I was about fiftieth to go, I put on my leather crash helmet and listened to the starter as he called my name. Three, two, one, GO!  What I remember is this: I started well and fast and then got faster and faster and then I missed a gate which meant that I would be disqualified and then I seemed to be skiing into a mist and then I woke up.

Two marshals were trying to manoeuvre me onto a blood wagon.  Apparently, I had been unconscious for a few minutes. As I hadn’t broken any bones, I resisted their efforts and slowly put my skis back on (the marshals had retrieved them from the deep snow). I then skied down very gingerly, falling over several times and possibly recording the slowest Downhill Race time in the history of skiing. I did complete the slalom and giant slalom but, as I started last, I didn’t have a hope and came last or nearly last in both.

For the record, I did compete in one other Downhill Race about a month later in Garmisch Partenkirchen where I was teaching soldiers to ski. None of them had ever skied before.  This time I took a far more considered approach, carefully negotiating the corners and making sure not to fall down. Of course, that’s not the point of the Downhill and I came last again but not by much.

If that all sounds absolutely hopeless, which it was, there has been a happy outcome.  As soon as my children were able to walk, skiing became our family holiday every winter or spring.  My children learned to ski really well. On average they overtook me when they reached the age of twelve. But I learned to ski well enough to be able to ski anywhere with anyone and I absolutely love it, as does my wife who has recently started overtaking me as well.

David Astor

April-May 2021