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My First Ski Holiday

After crashing into a fence in training, I was careful in The Alps. We went to a place called Tignes near Val D’Isere. We flew into Geneva airport and got a taxi from there, which was more convenient than landing in France due to timings.

There were six of us, two of us being beginners who were technically intermediate, having done the day course. But we didn’t feel at that level. We stopped at Geneva airport where the prices made us wince. I paid about £5 for some Burger King chips. It was very clean, with adverts for watches, investments and diamonds. The people there were smartly dressed and coiffured. The average salary is 6160 Swiss Francs per month (£4319), with only 3.5% unemployment but it has been argued that living costs in Switzerland – one of the richest countries in the world – average 4000 Swiss Francs per month.

The drive was long and we dozed as day became night and the hills became mountains which grew until they were snow-capped and touched the sky.

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We finally arrived at our “Bonjour bonjour” chalet 1550m up in the Alps. It was in a little chalet village and did not look like much from the outside. We had a hard time finding it as it was not clearly marked. I was jealous of one nearby with a ground floor swimming pool.

But it was lovely inside, with soft carpets a wooden communal dining area, a homely glow and young, enthusiastic and welcoming chalet staff.

They had kept dinner back for us and so we had a late meal which was delicious, including a creamy courgette soup (with cream, thyme and coriander) and a salted caramel pie, all cooked in the kitchen next door by a gourmet chef.

I kept a diary of my ski learning and experiences.

Day 1

On the first day I was too tired to write in it, flopping down after lessons on the green (beginner) slope. The instructor found out whether I was suitable for the intermediate class by taking me to the top of a small slope which looked incredibly steep as a newcomer. I am not good with heights but I was determined to work with it. I lost it though and shrieked and told him he was not to let go of my hands. He did and skied backwards as I rocked clumsily down in the biggest snowplough I could manage (your skis are in a triangle shape with the narrow bit at the back or a backwards pizza slice). I spent most of the day getting to grips with the fear enough to learn and fell asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow after another wonderful meal.

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Day 2

We started our lesson with the sun peeping over the peak. Our instructor was called Christophe, a calm patient teacher who couldn’t stop grinning at my Franglais (English with a bit of French). He was observing at this stage mostly so I spoke French to get more tips, as he didn’t always understand our English. It was a lot about getting balance with your feet and leaning forward, knees bent, turning with your legs rather than the upper body. Christophe had us circling ski poles around us as we went down to remember to focus our weight on our feet and move with our legs. As he said, “it’s all in ze ‘ips”. What follows is from my diary:

“Today we did more work on the green slope with parallel and snowplough turns. I was told to relax the upper body and turn from the hips. I did a blue run and chairlift for the first time.”

blue blue 3The slope starts where the first dot is on the left.

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Chairlifts and steep hills

The chairlift was a bit scary but I soon got used to it. It swept you off your feet so you had to bend your knees ready and watch it. It felt quite exposed. Also after spending the first day on the nursery slope the blue one looked awfully steep and it was quite intimmidating heading towards the bottom in order to turn. At some point you get used to it and launch yourself down it, knowing that the worst that could happen is probably that you’ll slide to a stop.

Back to my diary:

“In the morning I had a bruised leg from the awful boots (Head) the day before. It hurt a lot and I had to take unofficial breaks. But by lunch they were fine. I got a bit of friction burn on my left foot. I got new boots from the hire company yesterday night and they were lovely and padded, very comfortable. I think the make was Dalbello, an Italian company specialising in ski equipment. They retail at around £200.”

My boyfriend had brought his own boots so he was ok. It’s mostly a problem for newcomers to the sport. Apparently you get used to the pain.

“I also got a new hat as the other one was too big. This one is a good fit. I love that my skis match my slope onesie.

For lunch I had a lovely pizza with cream in, squares of prosciutto-style beef and rocket on top. The food here is fantastic and they serve American size portions. I had it with a piña colada cocktail for the pain around my ankles, the boots squeezing the sore muscles from before. It was cheaper than a vodka and lemonade and much more tasty, although cocktails here are nothing compared to back home. Needless to say I felt nothing in the afternoon.

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my massive pizza and cocktail and Andrew

I couldn’t go back to the chalet on a blue run as I forgot my lift pass. Then we tried to go from half-way down via a bus. But when I got my skis on and headed down the hill I lost my courage and started snowploughing really slowly. I got picked up by ‘securité du piste’ as it was the end of the day, the light was fading and he wanted to close the piste. He pointed at me and said “béginneur, béginneur”. “Non non!” I insisted “je suis intermédiate!”. He was having none of it and wouldn’t go until I got on the back of his snowmobile. I stomped over in a huff and we were off, whizzing down narrow mountain tracks. This was actually quite fun so I didn’t mind in the end.

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11073571_10101900839855469_4445226531970279845_nI also bought Voltaren (we call it Voltarel) gel and paracetamol. I would recommend it for skiing as it works quickly to tackle pain and inflammation and can relieve it at least half the day. Be careful not to overdo it though, it is possible to overdose with it, as Andrew reminded me when I was putting it on every hour. Andrew got his boots changed too as a bit of his snapped off. I had no blisters or falls today. I had one fall yesterday trying to parallel turn. I keep doing a snowplough with my weaker foot. The chalet has a hot tub which we are looking forward to using.

Last night we went to Knights – a lovely local pub. I felt sorry for the empty one next door. They had table football and a snooker table there unlike Knights but there were just two people and some sorrowful staff.

The mountains are truly beautiful with breathtaking scenery, especially when the sun shines on them and the snow glistens and sparkles. The taxi driver “Renault” said that there had been 11 metres last year but there was only 1.85 this year. Perhaps it is global warming.”

 Day 3

“I am elated after going down the blue run I didn’t manage yesterday. My boyfriend kindly joined me as I am not sure I would have gone by myself. He said he may accompany me a bit every day. It had a 45° slope which was not very wide, so it was easy to pick up speed. Either side of it were flat narrow runs. We passed a nice icicle cave.

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We got back in time for cake at the chalet and this time we managed to use the hot tub before dinner.

For lunch I had a steak sandwich and chips. Lunches here average €15 but this was only €9 so it seemed like a bargain at a “Fast-Food” restaurant. Skiing went much better, mostly because the pain went after lunch following repeated Voltaren applications. My bruised ankle and sprained ankle muscle were agony yesterday and this morning.”

Day 4

“It is sad that tomorrow is our last day of lessons. We have had a great time. Today I went from the top of the mountain to the bottom on a blue run, right down from Le Lac to the chalet at Les Brèvieres (via a chair lift to get to the top). It was the most terrifying experience and the scariest day. Going down to the chalet involved a lot of hills, often one after the other. My boyfriend said more experienced skiers liked them for speed. They whipped past me and my boyfriend went off piste as he got bored but he got chased by a dog near a village and struggled to ski away as it was flat. I screamed most of the way down. I also fell at the bottom but it was a smooth “elegant” fall. I was going fast and lost my balance a little. One ski wobbled and I crashed into a barrier for the first time since doing the intermediate bit of a day course at Castleford. It was a snow wall, so it didn’t hurt. In the lesson we went down our steepest hill yet.

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Terrifying ski lift. This does not quite convey the height.

Day 5

Today involved a lot of hills. Steep hills, the like of which I had never gone down before. It was terrifying but you felt you had achieved something. We had our last taxi drive with Renault. He had nicknamed me “Jambon” as I said I had sore “jambons” instead of “jambes” – legs. We had our last lesson with Christophe. He was great but I needed more intensive instruction. Doing better parallel turns would have prevented pain in my ankle and shins from brake turns, where you dig your skis in on a turn to slow down. I was fully bending my knees to brake turn, meaning that my knee that I had not had leg support on ached with the strain. I was prudent enough to buy knee supports from Boots for the trip which helped avoid this. I think they were about £20 each but definitely worth it. Someone also recommended glucosamine supplements. However my (former) doctor dad says that you don’t absorb vitamins from pills because they need to be combined with minerals and co-factors to be absorbed and these get removed in the synthesising process to make them into tablets.

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Run down to the chalet from the mountain top.

I stopped about four times doing the run from Val Claret to the chalet yesterday. The sight of the slope disappearing in front was too much. You could not see how steep it was on the other side. With Christophe we did our steepest run yet. I had made friends with another learner, Angelica, who was so fearless that she had been moved up from beginners. An instructor told me that 80% of skiing is confidence. Angelica is a singer and her husband Peter works in I.T. She is from Colombia and he is from Belgium and they met in London.

It turns out we are both scared of heights so we help each other out. Peter accompanied me 1601002_10101895959909919_5853577083654662311_ndown from Le Lac yesterday, kindly encouraging and praising me. He is a snowboarder and is so good that he was chatting to Angelica whilst boarding, when we were on a chairlift dangling above a death drop. Angelica has an 18 year old son and a 4 year old daughter. She speaks Spanish, so I have been able to practice that as well as my French.

We had a lovely lunch in Tovière, a gondola ride up from Le Lac (the French call them bubble lifts). Le Lac was where we  had our lessons until yesterday when we moved to a Val D’Isère slope. The torture boots were not as bad today. The first two days were agony. On Wednesday the pain went after lunch. The alcohol that lunchtime helped lower inhibitions meaning I skied better, as you need to be relaxed to have flexible knees which can take bumps in the snow. Just one drink, you do not want to lose your balance.

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Lunch was the best today. Main meals were reasonable for here, at €13-25. It was in a big wooden hut. You picked what you wanted from salads, chocolate mousse, tarts dripping with fresh fruit, mille feuille (a dessert with layers of light pastry and layers of cream/custard filling). I had egg and ham with chips as it was the cheapest option at €12.50, following a heated discussion with my boyfriend regarding my spending binges on drugs and alcohol (see Day 2).

The delight of this was that the chef would ask you what you wanted and cook it on the spot while you waited behind him. Angelica gave me relationship advice over lunch, reminding me to have my own life and to let my boyfriend have his, to let him look at other women and appreciate them with him. She also said one baby was 3kg and her oldest 5kg and that she only had two hour labours and delivered both naturally. Peter said there was a lot of blood. I said I was quite happy to wait 10 years for that as seeing placentas and their delivery on television had put a stop to another episode of broodiness.

The restaurant filled up from 12.30 and the room also filled up with smoke from the chef who was clearly under pressure. It was probably coming out of his ears too. It was nice to get out to the clear crisp mountain air again.

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Then the afternoon was spent dangling over the mountain in a metal frame and hurtling painfully down hills on two pieces of plastic. I felt like I was bungee jumping without a harness or rope on the lifts. It was thrilling though. I stopped halfway down on one slope, started crying and saying I could not do it. I stopped at the top of most hills. The heaped-up powder made for a bumpy ride. All in all a great end to the lessons.

All this week the sun has shone and it has been clear. Tomorrow it will snow 30cm or so and we are going to go swimming if we cannot ski. My boyfriend wants to go down a glacier again, he seems quite excited about that. He has been supportive, inclusive and lovely, it has been so nice. Apart from a few tantrums we have been fine.

Trouble and Tantrums

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Christophe

I had one when after practicing for an hour, I could not parallel turn as one foot snowploughed and then I fell because of it. My boyfriend had skied to the side, sat down and just watched silently as I struggled to stand and fell again. It is very difficult to get up on your skis, you have to bend your legs to one side and try and take the skis off with your hands which requires some force. I got angry and threw down the skis, kicked off my boots and shouted at him to help and not just stare. Andrew, seeing a situation, swooped by to calm things. He has been a good Samaritan with that and lending money when my boyfriend did not give me any for the next day.

Then my boyfriend had a massive sulk because after getting him to retrieve my helmet (I was limping) having struggled to find it with no offer of help, my skis disappeared. I had left them to one side of the tourist centre with my poles when I had gone on a quest to find the helmet.  It had turned out that the company advertised as being on the ground floor (Ecole du Ski) that we wanted were based inside another company’s shop (Skiset). All I had to go on was an arrow 10929953_10101900818802659_7137242760941157693_npointing down agonising narrow winding stairs to a confusing rabbit warren of shops. After seeing that my skis were then gone, I went into the tourist centre and luckily they knew that the police had taken some. I did not know if they were mine. More painful steps followed as I hobbled down. The police looked down their noses at us. They would not show me the skis until I had described the colour. In my panic I spoke Franglais – ‘bleu, blanche et green’ without realising.

They showed me them and did not appear to believe me when I said yes. Then they got me to describe the poles before producing them. I do not know the French for those, so I resorted to mime and English (like a typical 10376722_10101900820414429_7835497072131890154_nEnglish tourist abroad). When I went in saying ‘je cherche pour mes skis et poles’ they did not understand. I had to rephrase ‘J’ai oublié mes skis’ as I could not remember the word for lost (perdu). Lost I certainly was. Luckily they understood my boyfriend’s English. Taped to my skis was someone else’s lift pass that I and the police assumed was mine (I had forgotten where mine was). They pointed to it. It is worth over £100.

My boyfriend was exasperated. He sulked and spoke angrily to me until I cried. I was tired – it is hard to sleep when you have achy shoulders and are hot. We were now late and had no way of getting back other than a €30 taxi which Andrew kindly paid for. It was just down the hill, a mere 10 minute ski down.

On Thursday I then tried to use the out of date lift pass the police gave me to use for a chair lift but could not – mine was on my bedside talbe in the chalet. So my boyfriend had another strop, saying ‘this keeps happening doesn’t it, you should’ve put it somewhere safe like I told you to.’ But since those fiascoes we have been getting along really well. Rose Heart (4)Maybe it helps that he can see how I am working with intense fear to get down the mountain. We understand each other so well. I have never known a boyfriend so well, but then I have never been with anyone else more than two years. We have  a heart duvet and lamps in our room like a honeymoon suite, so I call it the love shack. The boys have gone to the local pub tonight but I am too tired and the cocktails there are even more awful than on the slopes, so I am keeping it girly painting my nails. Tomorrow we will have more fun at 2600 metres in Tovière…

Day 6

“This morning I asked the boys whether they had talked about football, Top Gear (as the show is no more due to its presenter punching a producer I should explain that this is a mindless car show) or ladies on their night out (all of which they had before). Apparently the topics were the state of the economy, politics and whether there was a year 0. Well it was a partial Durham University reunion.”

I did not get time to do any more on my diary but I went down an even steeper hill and my first red slope. When I say “went down” I mean on my bottom, front and stepping. I skied a little. I cried and panicked as I started down a hill that seemed to have no end. My boyfriend was exasperated once more as I sat down and slid down in protest but was extremely patient considering it took a long time to get me down. A lady from the chalet stopped to comfort me, saying she was the same at first and telling me it wasn’t that bad. I unclipped my boots, applied a liberal amount of Voltarel, popped a paracetamol and then decided I would just throw myself down and hope for the best as I was getting bored.

I was sorry to leave Tignes but would be happy to return and I will ski again once I can afford to. I have an even more expensive holiday to save for this year…

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My First Blood Donation

Why don’t you start the year by saving lives regularly? Not just those of others but perhaps even your own.

January is the most popular month for donations but continuing to give blood is important.

Not only does blood improve the health of the patient, it also helps the donor – a study from Finland indicated that those aged 43 to 61 had an 88% reduced risk of heart attacks donating six months than those who didn’t. What’s more, it burns hundreds of calories.

As I previously struggled with a needle phobia I was quite anxious about my appointment. I usually saw stars and had clammy hands, so I wasn’t going alone. This is one of the biggest barriers to donation – with 58% of recipients saying this was a factor in my questionnaire.

My friend, who donates for the Interval Study every eight weeks, told me he was going and said I was welcome to join him. I’d had a few in the pub and said alright then, I’d give it a go.

In 2012 Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS medical director, talked of the need to “reduce blood use in hospitals” so that blood demand could be met in the future. We are an essential part in ensuring that people receive the life-saving treatment they need.

The Interval Study is research being carried out to see whether people can donate sooner than is currently allowed in England. In Europe people can already donate at 8 weeks. I was previously working on the phone line booking people in for these appointments. Currently 7,500 more donors are needed to participate. Here women can donate every 12 weeks if you are male and every 16 weeks if you are female. This is because women do not have the same levels of stored iron as men. From experience working on the Interval Study booking line I found that the majority of donors were retired and  research shows there has been a drop in young people donating. I think this is due to time – we lead increasingly busy lives and I am surprised that our city’s main blood centre is not open on weekends or very late in the evenings. I think the other main factor to donating is also convenience and with the number of blood vans vastly diminished many people don’t have the opportunity or time to make a special trip.

An Australian statistic on their blood service website.

Only 5% of eligible England donate, although almost all of my friends do. British hospitals use an average of 7,000 units of blood a day. I asked everyone I knew and the only reason people didn’t  were for medical reasons, except one gay friend – I noticed on the questionnaire that same sex intercourse in a period of less than 12 months was one of the “red” yes questions where they would enquire further. He told me he doesn’t mind at all as he is also quite squeamish. In the U.S donation is banned entirely for homosexuals but there is much protest and perhaps this will change in the near future, especially as researchers have pointed out that this standing is scientifically unsound.

When I called I was surprised to find that there weren’t any appointments available for a month. There had clearly been a surge in goodwill over the festive period. But I may be able to get an appointment on the day. So I rang up, expecting it to be full. I was told to book online.

This was quick and easy. I called again, half hoping it would be full now, so I’d have a valid excuse. No there was one slot free, just at the time my friend was going. Must be fate.

I grudgingly booked. Maybe something else would disqualify me. I couldn’t believe I was going through with it. I saw people lying serenely on the donor chairs but I still wanted to run a mile. Every inch of me wanted to escape but I wasn’t going to let fear win. I just wouldn’t look at the needle, it would be fine, I told myself.

I was assigned a motherly lady in a navy uniform. She was one as well, complaining about her daughter calling throughout her assessment.

Did I have this? Did I have that? Where had I been in Turkey and when and for how long? Not many questions really, she just checked the main ones and asked for a little more detail in some areas. The interview was in a closed room with a window to the donor area. I didn’t really want to see what was going to happen to me next. But maybe that helped me to face it better. She had two small bottles filled with florescent blue and green liquid. She pricked my finger with a needle, but I didn’t see the needle as it was hidden in white plastic tubing. I explained that I was trying to confront a phobia of them so she explained everything she was doing with a smile and a calming manner. She said that if my haemoglobin was at an acceptable level, my blood from the pin prick would sink. I willed it not too. It did, leaving a little red vapour trail through the green liquid.

Australian statistics again – I will try to get a picture for the English ones, which are quite similar. Thank you to blonde ambition at http://blondeambition.com.au/2012/11/19/today-i-saved-three-lives/ for this.

I had assumed local anaesthetic was given as standard and asked about that.

“Oh no”, she said,

“we only give a local if you ask for it. Would you like to request a local? It’s not problem”

I’d passed the 10 minute chat now. I didn’t want to be the only one not tough enough to do it without anaesthetic. The boys would almost certainly not ask for that. I asked her how much it would hurt “well it depends how sensitive you are” she said. That didn’t really help. I panicked but then I saw my friend Tom in one of the chairs. It was too late to run out. I’d lose face with my boyfriend too, who had come for moral support. There were no appointments but they managed to squeeze him in too.

Image URL copied from sptimes.com – cancer patient receiving blood donation

I deep breathed to prepare myself for the worst and the lady laughed. “Try to remember to do the exercises” she said and handed me a card detailing slowly clenching and unclenching the buttocks and crossing and uncrossing my legs as good ways of ensuring you didn’t faint at the end of the donation.

“It’s not that bad” she said. I wondered how much they’d take and how I’d feel afterwards. Had I drunk enough water? Would I remember to do the exercises? Maybe I should have eaten healthier, maybe my blood wasn’t healthy enough? Would it hurt all the way through? Would I feel the blood being sucked out of my veins by the vampire machine?

My friend had already finished. Well at least it wouldn’t take long.

I got quite comfy in the ergonomic chair and the lady adjusted it until I was lying back comfortably. I looked away as she rubbed my arm briskly and I tensed as I felt a sharp prick and small stab of pain in my arm for a matter of seconds and that was it. I couldn’t feel the blood leaving my body. When I looked back down there was a bit of blue plastic tubing around the needle edge so all I could see was a little bit of the metal going in before a long bit of tubing. There was just the one needle. All the same, I have Raynauds so my hands went cold with the anxiety. I told a kind technician and she held my hand in her warm ones. That made the experience more relaxing.

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I was still feeling a little on edge and was grimacing at my friend taking pictures until I saw my boyfriend appear on the chair opposite. Seeing him more nervous than me (and it was his ninth time) made me relax and was quite amusing. He drew breath sharply when it went in and then twitched about, smiling but looking a bit frenetic. Looking at me didn’t seem to calm him down either. He explained later that he was just trying to keep his blood pressure up.

I followed the tubing down to the blood bag. It was underneath a little table. I was fascinated by watching the blood run into the bag. It was so dark, and looked quite thick as it ran slowly and steadily into it. The contraption holding the bag was interesting – it was moving it about up, swinging slightly from left to right, so it looked like it was moving with the blood going into it. There were one or two technicians around and I asked them why it was moving. It was apparently a bag that weighed the donation and cut off when the bag had the required mass. I crossed and uncrossed my legs once and did the buttock exercise once. After about 15 minutes the machine beeped we were done. My boyfriend was done just before me – apparently guys give blood faster due to their physical structure.

After it they put a plaster on and then a small cotton wad for pressure and some medical tape. Two days later my boyfriend went for a 10k run (they recommend rest for 48 hours) and said although he went a little slower it was fine. They brought me upright gradually and asked me how I was. I felt a bit light-headed so I told them. They immediately put the chair back so I was lying with my feet in the air. I was kept like this for about five minutes until they lowered me and asked me if I was OK repeatedly until I was allowed to sit at the treat table (all the biscuits, chocolate and orange juice you want).

I was so triumphant I said “I wanna do platelet donation!“. There is even greater need for platelet donors as these only have a shelf life of seven days and like blood donors, there are not enough. In 2012 they made up a mere 0.03% of the English population. But the technician looked at my veins and said sympathetically “no…I think you should stick to whole donations love”.

I didn’t suffer any bruising as I avoided using my donor arm for a day or so and kept the pressure wad on for a full day. All I could see was a milimetre red dot. I had joined the 12% of donors who were doing it for the first time.

I don’t intend to stop going, although sadly statistics indicate that of those who have donated, 72% haven’t done so for two years or more. Today I went in to find out what blood type I was. You can find out after two days and it appears online. I wanted to find out my haemoglobin level was as well, but apparently they don’t take statistics for that. I had to present photo ID and then I was told I was O positive. This was a bit of a disappointment to me as O positive is the most common blood type (37% of us are this) and I could see from the National Blood Service website stats that their stocks of that were plentiful. It was the rare types they really needed, AB and suchlike. They told me O negative was really useful, as anyone (except someone who is O positive) can receive O negative blood. But the plus side of being O positive is that anyone who is O positive or even just “Rhesus positive” can receive my blood, and that’s a massive 83% of people. I got a little key-ring with it on which will surely help if I have an accident.

Of course, some people will not be eligible to give blood but if you can I think you should. Around 1 in 3 of us will need it in our lifetime. As my medic student sister said “we all expect to receive blood if we needed it, and I think if we expect it we should give it as well.”

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Filed under Advice, Blood Donation, Life of Lydia