The last days of the skiing season have a curious feeling. As the last visitors sweat down the slopes in sunshine or top up tans in piste-side bars, there’s a slightly wistful tinge as the snow turns to slush and melts back into the slopes.
But it’s a world away from the intense melancholy that accompanies the shortening days and falling temperatures of autumn in a coastal resort. The mountainsides are being reborn, not closing down. The shops want to swap ski gear for hiking boots, and the hotels want to advertise swimming pools not saunas. As the mountains shrug off the grubby crust of accumulated snow, an illusion lifts. As cigarette butts, dog turds and club flyers are revealed by the snow’s retreat, so is the deep structure of the ski runs. This piste is a road, this one a footpath, this one a gentle flower meadow.
This awkward metamorphosis lays bare a complex and intricately evolved infrastructure – the cables that spider up and down hills, and the lifts, conveyor belts, gates and pulleys that transport skiers up hills, like products in a perpetual motion assembly line designed by Heath Robinson. Ski resorts are nature, but nature improved, primped, preened. Through the winter, snow machines spew water vapour into the freezing night air, and from the hotels and bars you can see the lights of piste-bashing tractors crawling up and down steep inclines, turning their churned-up surface to uniform white corduroy.
There’s nothing natural about skiing either. Encased in polyester and crash helmets, and balancing on a steep hillside, on two wobbly planks of carbon fibre, you are told to lean downhill, against all common sense and years of conditioning. To turn right, you must lean or shift your weight to the left; to turn left, you must do the opposite. And all the time, to retain any sense of control, you must point your nose downhill.
But, for those fleeting moments when it works, when you feel the sheer joy of swooping down the manicured winter wilderness, more or less in control, you feel as close to flight as you can without leaving the ground. Suddenly it feels like the most natural thing in the world.