The GREAT OUTDOORS: On the slopes

Chrissy Harris gets her first Skiing Lesson from Sophie Preston-Ellis at the Torquay Alpine Ski Club

Chrissy Harris gets her first Skiing Lesson from Sophie Preston-Ellis at the Torquay Alpine Ski Club. - Credit: sghaywood photography

Devon Life writers throw themselves into new outdoor experiences It’s all downhill for CHRISSY HARRIS at Torquay’s ski slope. Photos by Steven Haywood

When you’ve done the school run, sorted out the weekly shop, cleaned the bathroom and hung out the washing, there is nothing quite like hurling yourself down a 100-metre long slope to relax the mind.

At least that’s what I discovered when I attempted dry slope skiing for the first time.

I decided to leave my comfort zone behind to feel the wind in my hair as I hurtled down the world’s oldest outdoor ski slope at Barton Hall, Torquay.

Admittedly, the wind in my hair was provided by a bystander wafting her coat in my direction (got to look good for the pictures!) but I did manage to master the basics in my half-hour lesson with top instructor Sophie Preston-Ellis.

She, very patiently, guided me through each beginner’s stage until I was ready for the descent.

“Are you sporty?” she asks me after I had just about mastered the art of walking down steps in ski boots (no mean feat).

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“Er. Not at all,” I reply. “I quite like..um..walking at a normal pace.”

“Oh never mind,” says Sophie. “It’s just that playing certain sports sometimes helps with balance on the skis but I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Normally, this would have thrown me completely off balance but I was determined to get the hang of this skiing lark.

It’s something I’ve secretly wanted to try for a long time because it must feel so liberating - exactly like the sensation you had when you were five and zooming down the big slide in the playground.

In my mind, I had pictured snow and mountains but dry slope skiing is apparently a brilliant way to get started.

“It’s tougher than snow in a lot of ways and it soon shows up any imperfections in technique,’ says Sophie, who has been a qualified ski and snowboard instructor for seven years.

“Many people take to the dry slopes before they head off on their skiing holidays. For beginners, it means they can learn the basics here and they don’t have to waste time doing that when they arrive on holiday.”

Torquay Alpine Ski Club, which has recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, has seen thousands of people head down its 30 metre-wide slope since holiday club owner Sir Fred Pontin first cut the ribbon in 1963.

The walls of the club’s cabin are adorned with cuttings from its rich history, alongside more recent newspaper articles celebrating its success.

Top skiing athletes such as Jai Geyer started their careers here. The British alpine ski racer (and former Torquay Grammar School student) first took to the Barton Hall slope aged just four and was hooked.

But as well as breeding top skiers, the club also provides exhilarating days out for everyone from schoolchildren to pensioners.

Yes. Even pensioners have been known throw a few snow ploughs on this strange, brush bristle-type surface.

“We had a 70-year-old guy in recently,” says Adam Cliff, another of the club’s instructors.

“He was rocking and rolling his way down – he absolutely loved it. He said it was just something he wanted to try before he died.”

It was all the inspiration I needed to begin my first downhill descent on skis.

“Push your shins forward, crouch down and look up,” says Sophie who stood waiting for me at the bottom.

I wasn’t very far up the slope, I didn’t go very fast but I did it! And I stayed upright!

“That was great,” beamed Sophie. “I think you’re really getting the hang of this. Maybe you’ve found your secret skill.”

I don’t know if she was just being polite but her encouragement was infectious and I was ready to go further up the slope.

But to go higher meant that I had to master one of the trickiest skills in skiing – the ski lift.

It looks so easy – just grab the handle and let it pull you uphill. I gave the impression of a cool, calm individual but inside I was terrified. What if I miss the handle? How do I stay in a straight line? How do I get off?

Somehow – more by luck than judgement – I caught the handle at the right time and got off at the right stop.

“Well done,” says Sophie. “I didn’t want to tell you before but not many people get the hang of that at first. They can’t get off or their skis end up crossing over and all sorts.”

My main aim of the day was not to break a limb and so far, things were working out well. Plus I was really enjoying myself. I can see why people get into this.

“I came for a laugh with my friends one Saturday when I was about 15,” says Adam.

“Another decade or so later and I’m working here as an instructor and committee member. I never went on skiing holidays as a kid – I’m the only one in my family who skis.

“We’ve got such brilliant facilities here though. It’s great to see people using it, getting out of their comfort zone and enjoying a new experience.”

With that in mind, I did start to feel proud of my modest skiing achievements. I may not be slalom-ready just yet but with practice, who knows?

It was then that a group of youngsters suddenly flew past me down the slope on rubber rings. It’s called Ringo-ing, apparently. Maybe next time….

The Torquay Alpine Ski Club opened on 5 October 1963 and is believed to be the oldest surviving dry slope still operating in the world.

Hundreds of thousands of people have learnt to ski on the slope, which provided accessible and affordable skiing to the general public for the first time.

For more information, call Torquay Alpine Ski Club on 01803 313350 or visit skitorquay.com