The Page family annual ski trips have resumed after quite understandable Covid restrictions kept the European pistes closed to UK visitors during 2021. I’ve only missed three seasons since first putting on a pair of skis in 1997, but I’ve just about made up for 1999, 2012 (when I was out in Australia) and last year with double trips in 2018 and 2020. Access to ski areas in mainland Europe from the UK mostly involves a large carbon footprint and it’s becoming increasingly clear that climate change is adversely affecting mountain weather patterns, ultimately threatening the viability of the resorts and the industry. I used to drive to the Alps with family but switched to package deals when my brother wasn’t available to lend a hand with the driving. I was happy to pay extra on flights for carbon offsetting when this was first introduced but I realise that no form of carbon-trading is going to alleviate the climate crisis. We tend to avoid tour companies now and since 2018 have mostly used the train to get to the mountains, planning carefully and using other forms of public transport as necessary; this year’s trip was another ski train adventure, giving us the bonus of an extra full day in the resort, Les Menuires.
Les Menuires, 20th March 2022, in need of a heavy snowfall
So how prog is skiing?
One slightly irritating feature of a holiday in a ski resort is the music, and it doesn’t matter if it’s France, Austria or Italy. The selection this year was dependent upon your precise location in Les 3 Vallées, with Les Menuires favouring classic rock and Val Thorens a centre for modern dance music. In Sauze d’Oulx back in 2015, one morning’s entertainment included the pop hits Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Walk Like an Egyptian, Take On Me and Take Me Home Country Roads, all from decades ago, plus some timeless, bland 120bpm Europop that could have been an Ibiza anthem from 1999 or a Val d’Isère hit from 2005, belting out from bars and cafés in the resort centre and from mountain restaurants and huts. It irked me at the time because Sauze is in Italy, home to diverse and brilliant prog. It wasn’t always like that. My first skiing trip was in Bardonecchia, only a couple of valleys away from Sauze where the live band at the hotel kindly provided us with a thoroughly decent version of a PFM song when we put in a request.
Tur d’Amun, Bardonecchia, dating from the C12
An old insult slung at prog is that it's elitist. I don't agree with this sentiment despite the fact that a fair number of both major and minor protagonists have had formal training to a high level; skiing could also be called an elitist sport though this no longer holds true as cheap air fares and package holidays opened up resorts to all comers, though some resorts remain more exclusive than others. Les Menuires at 1850m is at the heart of Les 3 Vallées and is accessible by train and bus. It’s notable for its brutalist architecture which encircles the central lift area, conceived in the early 1960s as an egalitarian ski-in-ski-out resort with 100000 beds spread over Les Menuires and Val Thorens and their satellite stations, though only 50000 beds were ever be built. The first apartments opened in 1967, followed by the first hotel and the tourist office in 1969. Brelin, comprised of more than 560 apartments, two hotels and shops has an ocean liner profile and sleek lines, and was inaugurated in December 1971. Though thoroughly functional and well-crafted with nice design touches like the use of slate tiles applied vertically and the timbered soffits on chamfered roofs, the resort was originally decried and it has taken 50 years to be recognised as an important piece of the architectural heritage of the 1970s. In contrast, the recent period of construction is characterised by small-scale buildings dressed in wood, abandoning the 'for everyone' approach in a cynical move to prettify the resort to make it more upmarket. I’m a proponent of the brutalism-utopia school of thought where much of the much-maligned architecture was contemporaneous with the beginnings of progressive rock (see https://www.progblog.co.uk/post/building-utopia-with-prog), so it was rather pleasing to be accommodated on the sixth floor of one of the early apartment blocks in the satellite area of Reberty, linked to the resort centre by walkways and two efficient sets of lifts.
The modernist lines of the Brelin development, Les Menuires
Prog and skiing both require technical mastery and rely on equipment that has evolved to enable boundaries to be pushed further and further back, whether that's sonic creativity or shaving fractions of seconds off downhill timings; both disciplines require practice if you wish to advance. An annual skiing holiday of 6 days on-piste is not really sufficient to gain and maintain expertise but when you’re based in Croydon and worked full-time for most of the 26 years since taking up the sport, it’s the most time I could dedicate to get to my current level of proficiency. We don’t simply seek out red and black runs which offer the greatest technical challenges but enjoy long trails, which tend to be the easier blue and green categories, for their variety. I see the thrill of successfully descending a precipitous slope as being comparable to the feeling that’s generated when you’ve mastered a particularly difficult riff or musical phrase, perhaps in an unusual time signature and in a similar vein, navigating a scenic route through changing scenery is equivalent to an uplifting melody. I’m inspired by both mountain landscapes and the imaginary worlds conjured by symphonic prog music and lyrics, be it Yes from Fragile, Close to the Edge or Tales from Topographic Oceans or Höstsonaten’s Winterthrough; if I can’t be outside in a mountain environment there’s a suitable substitute indoors, immersed in progressive rock.
I’ve skied in the Italian resort of Livigno a couple of times now, set out as a series of villages along a high valley, famous for its odd tax-free status and home to Birrificio, the highest brewery in Europe, where they produce a small rage of excellent beers. Practically speaking, Livigno has an exceptional snow record with a season that extends beyond almost all other European resorts but even better, the lower reaches of the resort was home to Disco Music Livigno (Via Plan 379, 23030 Livigno) a record store with a smattering of progressivo Italiano amongst the CDs. I didn’t buy anything there on my first visit in 2011 but in 2016 I bought 1978 Gli Dei Se Ne Vanno, Gli Arrabbiati Restano! by Area and PFM in Classic - Da Mozart a Celebration.
Disco Music, Livigno
I’ve managed to get through quite a lot of clothing and equipment in 23 years. I have my own skis and boots; the potential outlay for ski hire equipment makes it economic sense to buy your own but more than this, the comfort of fitted boots gives you more confidence and the sport becomes increasingly effortless. There were major technological advances in music that allowed the development of progressive rock and like prog exponents or sonic explorers, ski technology has also progressed with the application of new materials and even a change in the shape of the skis to allow the ‘carving’ turn. I play squash a couple of times a week and go on an hour or two hour walk almost every day to maintain my fitness, because just like performing exercises on a musical instrument, getting fit for skiing is important. There are different varieties of skiing: downhill; slalom; cross country; ski cross; and ski touring. If the technically proficient, breathtaking sprint to the finish line of downhill skiing equate to the jazz rock side of prog and slalom, with its intricate twists and turns is reminiscent of Gentle Giant’s music, then cross country skiing could be likened to the sweeping panorama of symphonic prog and ski touring, the ultimate expression of difficulty and perseverance, to Zeuhl. And snowboarding? That’s got to be prog metal!
Sauze d’Oulx - a prog panorama
As someone who believes that prog music largely reflects progressive politics, I can see the advantages of cultural and sporting boycotts as levers to isolate states that clearly breach international laws and conventions so despite being an avid snow sports enthusiast, I staged a one-man embargo of the Beijing Winter Olympics and declined to watch any of it because of Human Rights abuses by the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC). Even at the time I was disappointed that the winter games in Sochi were allowed to proceed in 2014 and was subsequently appalled that Russia should have been chosen to host the World Cup in 2018, primarily due to the support provided to Bashar al-Assad in Syria and treatment of opposition politicians, but also for allegations of state-sponsored doping. The sums of money involved in both the Olympics and the World Cup are huge, so it would obviously have been a difficult decision to cancel or re-schedule these events. However, I think all conscious acts are political and the outcry over threatened boycotts indicates their potential
effectiveness to nullify the soft power and influence gained by ‘sportswashing’. I chose to hold up a placard reading ‘REMEMBER JAMAL KHASHOGGI’ at the Crystal Palace match against Newcastle United just after Newcastle had been taken over by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, though I was somewhat outdone by the Palace Ultras who revealed a huge banner listing six reasons why the takeover should not have been allowed to go ahead. It’s my opinion that the illegal invasion and siege of Ukraine by Russian troops shows how Putin has been emboldened by the weak leadership of the IOC and FIFA who had the power to strip Russia from hosting the Winter Olympics and the World Cup, the latter after evidence pointed to state involvement in the poisoning of former Soviet military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and the subsequent death of Dawn Sturgess from exposure to Novichok in the UK three months prior to the World Cup.
Fortunately, the vast majority of world governments have now imposed economic sanctions against Russia for their unwarranted aggression towards Ukraine. Unfortunately it’s eight years too late.