Arnie Wilson was ski correspondent of the Financial Times, and he knows more about ski resorts around the world than anyone else.
Arnie Wilson was ski correspondent of the Financial Times, and he knows more about ski resorts around the world than anyone else.
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This week we're skiing, or rather talking about it on our travel podcast, to veteran skier writer Arnie Wilson. For many years, he was ski correspondent of the Financial Times, and he's knows more about ski resorts around the world than anyone else on the planet.
What's so special about skiing?
AW: It's a very good question. It didn't really start to feature in my life till I was 30, which is quite late. And it happened by accident, as nice things tend to do sometimes. A friend of mine who ran a ski magazine asked if I'd like to go to Verbier. And I then had my first wife and two children. And so I took them to Verbier. I'd only been on a on a school trip, and I thought I could ski. I was completely wrong. And I made a complete fool of myself pretending to be able to ski. I got put on what they called a blood wagon, which is where the pisteurs or the people who look after the slopes rescue you in a kind of mobile toboggan. I gradually realised that all my thoughts - that I was a good skier, were complete nonsense. And so I thought maybe I should learn to ski. And I started to go on the occasional visit to the mountains, and I liked it quite a lot. And so it went on for a bit. And I was writing travel stories and ski stories. And then something rather extraordinary happened. A very dear friend, who worked for the Financial Times as the leisure editor, very tragically died in the mountains and his replacement didn't ski. And he rang me and said: “Would you like to look after our skiing?” And I could hardly believe it. And nor did I expected to last. But it lasted for between 15 and 20 years. So I was the Financial Times ski correspondent. So after that, I had no choice. I had to really start to ski well and learn about lots of resorts.
So the question I get asked all the time is ‘what's your favourite resort?’ You've been to so many. There must be one that you actually love more than any other?
We all get asked that question, and I am so used to answering it. I always don't give it any thought because there's one outstanding resort - for reasons that are not necessarily shared by other people entirely. But my favourite resort is a place called Jackson Hole in Wyoming. It's named after a guy called David Jackson. It was originally called Jackson's Hole and it's a very wild, wonderful bit of country. They mountains are called the Tetons and they're more like the Alps than most American mountains. There's wonderful wildlife. And the skiing is quite challenging. It became my favourite resort as soon as I went there back in the mid-eighties and I've been going back almost every-other year since then.
America has always been bigger than Europe for you. Is there some reason why you particularly love skiing in the States?
Again, it's something deep inside me. I do have a theory that a lot of men of my age and possibly younger were brought up on a diet of Western movies. And there's something magical about going skiing, or visiting even in the summer, places which might have featured in the Western movies. I mean, when I was much younger, I saw a lot of Westerns on television and at the cinema. I think the reason many Americans like to ski in Europe is because they love the history of the Alps, and they feel they benefit from knowing that the Alps have a much longer history than the Rockies. But that's just a theory.
Apart from the obvious states like Colorado, Wyoming, California, how many states can you actually ski in America and how many of them have you actually been skiing in?
Well, I took great pride in skiing every state in America where you can ski. That goes from the wonderful places in Colorado and Utah right down to extraordinary places that nobody believes you can actually ski in. The most interesting, perhaps, is Alabama. People look at me as if I'm nuts if I say I’ve skied in Alabama. And indeed, some of these places in the more weird states, I say weird in terms of skiing, I think they call them feeders, breeders and leaders. So every state which has even one tiny resort like Alabama - I can hardly call it a resort - is a breeder of skiers. And they will then go on to a feeder, which might be a bigger state. And then you get the leaders, which are obviously Colorado and California and some of the East Coast states.
So when I did this trip in 1994, skiing every day for a year, which is in The Guinness Book of Records, a lot of the skiing was done in America. And it's always haunted me slightly, when that year was over, there were still a few states that had skiing. And so over the years, I've made it a pleasure and a challenge. And I have a great mate in America with whom I did this. I did three more trips to America specifically to tick off all the states where skiing is possible, which I hadn't skied in 1994. And this was fascinating because some states were unexpectedly good and some were pretty average. But I just ticked them all off. And I think there are now one or two states that no longer have skiing, which did have skiing back in 1994. But there are now, I think, 38 states where it is possible to ski. And I've done them all either once or twice, or many times.
What's the most unlikely of those ones?
Well, I think Alabama: Cloudmont, an extraordinary place where you can actually play golf or swim on the same day. The actual resort, I think, has two lifts and or maybe it's just got one lift and two runs. One of which is intermediate and one's a beginner. And the intermediate one is only better or more challenging than the beginner one because it has one or two bumps in it. And it is still open to skiers. And before one is completely dismissive, they have never borrowed a penny from the bank because no bank would be stupid enough to lend them any money to run such a ski resort. So they are very proud of the fact that they run this resort without any help from any bank. And they have a very good rental place. And it may not be great skiing, but you get good skis. And they're very proud of the fact that they have skiing in Alabama.
So when people come from Europe and go skiing in the States, they tend to go to the Rockies. They go to California and sometimes they go to the East Coast. East Coast skiing any good?
It is actually it's quite good. In fact, more than quite good. I mean, some of the Vermont resorts, which is probably the state that's best known for skiing, have got very good skiing. And it's usually because the mountains are lower than the Rockies. You're normally skiing in the woods, which gives it a nice flavour - you are skiing between the trees or in the trees. I think there are about five or six states on the east. We say the East Coast, but I mean in eastern America, where there is very good skiing and you certainly wouldn't be disappointed. It may not be Aspen, it may not be Vail, but it's certainly good skiing.
And then the resorts like Taos in New Mexico, which are slightly different to the mainstream Rocky resorts?
Taos is a fascinating place; a bit of a cult resort. I think it was run by a guy called or started by a guy called Ernie Blake, whose real name was Ernest Bloch. And he fled from the Nazis. And because of his association with Germany and the Nazi period, he named some of the runs after interesting people. And one of them is Stauffenberg or von Stauffenberg. And that was named after a German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler, failed, and was executed. But much later on, I came across von Stauffenberg's son. I think it was his son, but it could have been his grandson. Anyway, I asked him whether he'd been to Taos, and I imagined that he would be terribly emotional about skiing his father's run. And he kind of surprised me in a way. But also, perhaps typically German, he did not want to get emotional about skiing his father's run.
So I said: “It must have been amazing to ski your father's run.
“It was a good run,” he said, “and I enjoyed it. But I don't want to read that I cried when I skied my father's run.”
So anyway, that's one aspect of Taos. And it is a special place and it's one of the resorts that you can't really classify. It's got a life of its own, I guess. And there are others. I mean, Lake Tahoe is a place that is absolutely fascinating to be a skier or even just to be there, not skiing. Lake Tahoe is divided between California and Nevada. And I think there are about 14 resorts spread around the lake and you can actually visit one after the other. And they're all very different. But it's quite something to be by a beautiful lake. I think it's the second-highest lake in America. And to be able to visit all these amazing ski resorts… and one of them, Heavenly, is in both states. You can start the day in California, go up to the top, ski down into Nevada and then come back. So you actually ski in two states on the same day. And you can gamble in Nevada.
And, of course, there’s Sun Valley which is, I think, one of America's oldest resorts.
Yeah, that's a lovely place to ski. And as you say, it’s quite traditional. I think Sun Valley opened in the in the late thirties. So by comparison with many other American ski resorts, it's really quite early and it attracts a lot of interesting people. I was lucky enough to bump into Arnold Schwarzenegger there. He reluctantly allowed me to ski with him for a bit. And I interviewed him for the Financial Times, not knowing (because the cunning so-and-so withheld information) that he was having major heart surgery the next day. So that did not appear in my interview, but it was still worth getting to know him slightly and skiing with him. And I also met Clint Eastwood there, had a very nice lunch with him that was complete by chance. So I was sitting down for lunch and lo and behold, he was at the next table. So me being me, I couldn't resist. And he was extremely charming and nice and asked about what I was doing there and this kind of thing.
Schwarzenegger was later, to my great amusement, asked: “Where'd you like to ski, Mr. Schwarzenegger?” And he said: “Well, I love being in Sun Valley, Idaho.” And he was remanded. Sorry, he was reprimanded later by the powers that be in California, where he was the governor. And he was told: “You're supposed to say that you like skiing in California, not in Idaho.” But anyway, that was quite funny.
Okay, so moving on from the United States, maybe Canada…
Yes, I've done quite a bit of skiing in Canada. Heli-skiing, of course, is very popular in Canada. It's very expensive, too. I normally only do it for three days before I start to worry about cost. But it's the real thing in Canada because you stay in a lodge in the middle of nowhere. And that's all there is to do. You wake up in the morning, you go skiing, you have lunch on the mountain, heli-skiing on it.
Just remind us what heli-skiing really means?
Well, really, I don't want to make it sound unromantic, but it is simply a way of transporting skiers to parts of the mountains where they couldn't get to normally for wonderful powder. If you're lucky. But it's just away from the lift system. You don’t have to be a fantastic skier, as long as you can manage off-piste, there's a kind of lot of mythology attached to heli-skiing. The most common I've come across constantly is: “That’s where you jump out of the helicopter in mid-air like James Bond?” Well, I don't think James Bond ever did jump out of a helicopter to heli-ski. And anyway, this is a fallacy. But as I say, I don’t want to make it sound banal, but it is really a taxi service which takes…depending on the size of the helicopter…11 people plus a guide or it can be five or four people plus a guide. And you ski behind the guide and you don’t ski in front of him because he knows when to stop and whether to avoid any problems or to avoid crevasses. And this kind of thing is just exhilarating. You can’t really beat heli-skiing.
And then moving on from North America. Next on a trip round the world is South America where you can ski in two countries or three countries?
Yeah, the main skiing in South America. Really the only skiing is Chile and Argentina on either side of the Andes. The people are lovely on both sides of the mountains. They are very different. The Chileans are quite quiet and reserved, but very friendly. And the Argentinians are very sort of Italian, even though they speak Spanish. They have an Italian ancestry. And the skiing is wonderful. A lot of volcano skiing in Chile on the Chilean side of the Andes. And it's not that the mountains are necessarily that much higher than the Rockies or the Alps, but they're wild and lovely to ski. I don't speak Spanish, but it gives an extra- romantic twist to the skiing. And it's just a completely different experience. And people say, oh, can you ski in South America? Well, is there really any skiing? And you say, yes, they have mountains just like us in Europe and they have mountains just like us in America.
They have, in fact, something like 30 or 40 ski resorts in the Andes, either side of the Andes, including the volcanoes. You don’t actually ski from the top of the volcanoes, unless you climb up if you really want to. You can always walk up and carry skis, but normally there are a few small resorts at near the foot of volcanoes, so you have lifts going up to the lower reaches of the volcano and you can see the volcano smoking when you get off the lift, which is quite dramatic.
And what's your favourite resort in South America?
Well, that's difficult. I think Portillo's lovely. I have been there a few times. It’s right on the border. It's one of the few places where if you just go slightly over the top of the pass, you are in Argentina. But Portillo is actually in Chile. I think Las Lenas is probably the most difficult skiing. There's one lift called Marseilles or Mars, which is the key to all the really good of skiing. And if that lift is closed because of avalanche risk or because of bad visibility, then you don’t get to the really good off-piste stuff. And they did have heli-skiing there at one stage. No longer, but I think they have cat-skiing now - that's a bit like poor man's heli-skiing. It's like a big piste groomer, the one they used to prepare the slopes. But actually it's used to transport skiers. And so you can you can visit terrain that you might visit if you're heli-skiing, although not so much of it. So if you can't get into the helicopter for some reason like there's bad weather, you can still in some resorts, not just South America but also in Canada, you can actually get into a piste groomer and it's used as to transport you up the mountain. So that's another form of skiing that you can enjoy.
And then moving on to South America. Let's go to Australia and New Zealand, Australia first. Is it really worth going all that way to ski?
I wouldn't think so, to be totally honest. I love skiing in Australia and I love Australia, but to go all that way, as I once did, just to ski in Australia - probably not, because you're saying effectively, why go to Australia when you can ski in the Rockies, the Alps and the Andes? But if you're going to be in Australia anyway, or perhaps you're in New Zealand where the skiing is actually pretty damn good, then it's certainly worth trying the skiing while you were there. If they get a good snow season, which doesn't happen every year, there are three or four resorts in Victoria and New South Wales, which are the main ski resorts in Australia. They are worth visiting. Of course you'll find sometimes there are some people from the east coast of Australia, Brisbane or Queensland who’ve never seen snow before. And I remember a group of them turning up at this lodge I was at in Australia.
And I said: “How was the skiing?”
“This here's amazing, mate.” All they'd had during the day was some sleet and the skiing was okay, but they were thrilled with it. And they said: “We really enjoyed it.”
New Zealand has very good heli-skiing. It's got numerous resorts. They claim to have more mountains than the Alps. I've always disputed that, but certainly they have some serious mountains on both islands there. Most of the skiing is on South Island, but North Island, which doesn't have so many mountains, does have volcanoes.
And I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say this, but there is one resort – Whakapapa - which you can variously refer to as Fokker Pappa, Wucker Pappa, or Fucka Pappa. And the correct Maori pronunciation is, I'm afraid, Fucka Pappa. But if you're in mixed company, it's probably safer to say Fokker Pappa. The thing about the volcanoes is that they attract bad weather because they're central to North Island. And for some reason that brings in wind and snow. But on a good day, if you catch it right, it's probably some of the best skiing in New Zealand.
So leaving that part of the world, let's go across the Pacific to Japan.
Well, I love Japan. I've skied all over Japan. Probably been there about 10 times.
So tell me about Japanese ski resorts. Are they similar to American ones or European ones?
It's a very different experience. Some of the resorts are called onsen, which means they are spa resorts. So there's a lot of hot water. It's like having a spa and a ski resort in the same place. Some of the some of the hot water sources get very hot. And in fact, in one resort, they actually cook vegetables in one of them – you don’t want to fall in there.
The powder is fantastic in most places. It's known for powder both on Hokkaido, which is the northeastern island where they get snow coming in from Siberia, which is why they get such good snow.
Honshu Island is the main area where they had the 1998 Olympics. And actually the mountains there are higher and the resorts are very good. But the real snow, the one that people talk about, mainly comes in Hokkaido. So you've got a choice. You can either go Honshu and enjoy the Olympic areas to ski, which is Happo One, which is the main downhill area. Or you can go to Hokkaido and enjoy the great powder they have there. But the mountains are not quite so spectacular. It's a fascinating place in which to ski and the food is also interesting. The problem is you don't know what to ask for unless you speak Japanese, so you have to point at the food you want. And if you're lucky, you get it.
The other thing about Japan is that skiing off-piste is not encouraged in some resorts, and they've had to learn that if they want to have European and American guests, and indeed New Zealand guests. When they had the Olympics in ‘98, they had New Zealand skiers, perhaps they were coming here to work and they jumped off cliffs and did crazy things. And they almost came to blows with the ski patrol because the culture was so different from New Zealand, and so a lot of resorts have had to turn a blind eye to skiing off-piste. Skiing off-piste is discouraged or you can get away with it. It's quite ironic, that having such good powder, skiing off-piste isn't always encouraged.
Niseko is definitely a leader. I mean, a lot of Australians got property because obviously Australia, as the crow flies, is not that far away from Japan. And that's the reason the Australians tend to go there than then rather than go to the Rockies or to Europe. And they kind of they almost took over Niseko. And so it is known as being a cosmopolitan ski area with great powder. And even today, off piste is not exactly encouraged, but it's not discouraged.
So moving away across the world now, let's zoom back to Europe, to the Alps. First of all, is that what's the big resort for you?
That's difficult. I love the Dolomites, which obviously is not a resort as such. I love skiing in Italy, particularly the Dolomites, I suppose, one can't ignore the fact that Val d’Isère is probably the best ski resort in the Alps - for me anyway. And for many other people, Verbier is great. And those are the two places are the ones that most people would like to ski. And there's certainly no shortage of skiing. They're both massive resorts and you can't really grumble.
Austria at all?
Yes, I suppose the resorts with the most challenging skiing is probably St Anton. And then close second would be Kitzbühel. That's just me. I'm not saying that that is how everybody will feel, but some. Anton has got World-class skiing on a level I think without his honestly and Kitzbühel it's got all the it's got the walled town, it's got the the famous Hahnenkamm race. You can't really fault Kitzbühel at all. So it depends what you want. If you're skiing purist, you go to those resorts. If you want a quieter time and perhaps a slightly more picturesque time, you might you might look at the Dolomites.
What about somewhere like Zermatt?
Zermatt is wonderful. It's got the Matterhorn, about which one American allegedly said: “Hey, look at that. That is a great rock. Someone should give it a name.”
Yes. Zermatt is a wonderful place. Again, expensive, but I think another thing to consider about some of these places is if you don’t ski and but you're with a skiing partner, would you have a good time if it didn't ski or not? I do know that Zermatt qualifies. You could spend a whole week or two weeks in Zermatt and never put a pair of skis on and have a great time because you've got so much else going on for it.
I think last year you skied in Iceland?
I've been to Iceland a couple of times. The actual ski resorts as such are quite small, but you can heli-ski in Iceland. And of course, Iceland is such a wild place that there's almost no limit. You can do first tracks almost over the whole country.
Wherever the snow, you can ski down to the to the to the waterfront, because it's so it's so little-known as a skiing area that if you if you decide to go heli-skiing, you can keep going and visiting new places and ski new runs almost endlessly. So there's no limit to the amount of skiing you can do. But if you go to the ski resorts you will find them quite small and limited. And probably, unless you visit two or three in one day, you're not going to get an awful lot of skiing.
And Scotland. We haven't mentioned Scotland.
I'm quite a fan of Scotland. I haven't ski there a lot. It's a little bit like some places that if you get the snow, like Australia…I'm not trying to say Australia and Scotland are similar, but in a good snow year, then Scotland has got a lot going for it.
The trouble is with Scotland is it's kind of unpredictable and it can be quite stormy. And people who know much more about Scotland than I do will tell you that you can have a difficult time skiing in Scotland. What really impressed me about Scotland was the mountains. They're very impressive, very beautiful. And it almost doesn't matter about their actual height. And I think because Scotland just looks adorable and the mountains look adorable, then on a good day you could almost convince yourself you're in the Alps.
And we haven't mentioned China, of course, with the Olympics coming up. You skied some years ago in China?
Yes, I went to China to ski in 2001, and it was all happening. The government had decided "We're going to make skiing a very important industry." There were hundreds of ski resorts or ski places in China, but they were not developed. And what has happened since 2001 is that many of these places have been developed and they've put snowmaking in, so that they make skiing possible. There's certainly some great skiing in China. But I'm not that wild about the idea of having the Olympics around Beijing when there's so much good skiing in the northeast, right up on the Russian border is where the real skiing is. And I suppose it was practical to decide to have the Olympics in Beijing. But actually, if you really want a good skiing experience, I would recommend the northeast and way away from Beijing.
So where haven't you been to? I know that there's something like 3,000 ski resorts in the world and you've only been to mere 737. It may be difficult to get them all in in this lifetime?
Yeah, I might need another couple of lifetimes. I've almost given up. I did once think that I might try and get to 1,000. And I think 737 is a fairly good try. And the trouble is, every time you try and ski somewhere new, you've got to avoid all the obvious places. So you've got to actually deliberately set out. I mean, for example, I've never skied in Lebanon or in Israel. I'm not sure I want to at the moment. It's all a little bit uncertain.
There are places you could ski in Hawaii, for example.
Well, you can't. You could only ski in Hawaii with a helicopter. There are no lifts in Hawaii.
Oh, okay. You’d need a Land Rover.
Well, it's not on my list. So you could say that I haven't skiing in every state in America, but I've skied in every state in America that has a lift of some sort.
Fair enough. Alaska, have you skied there?
I have skied in Alaska, and it is very good. Skiing in Alaska is not as cold as you might imagine. I've been there two or three times. And again, heli-skiing there is very good. I skied with Tommy Moe, who won the downhill in 1994, as one of the guides. And actually I was involved in a very small avalanche. And he came to my rescue and gave me one of his skis because I lost a ski in the avalanche and he ski down on one ski. And you would be forgiven for thinking he was on two skis - he was so impressive on one ski having given me one of his. So that was quite something that happened in Alaska.
And Russia? We went there together just before the Sochi Olympics.
Yes. And I think there were four or five resorts. Some of them had been built specially for the Olympics, like Sochi. And there was one that had been around for a few years. But I think I think the general level of skiing then, if you would agree, was pretty good and certainly a novel experience to have been skiing in Russia. I'm not sure if I'd rush back to ski them, but it's again, it's a bit like Australia: you are there anyway and you are interested in skiing, why not just go skiing? It doesn't have to be the best in the world.
You’ve skied with some pretty famous people, putting aside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood. Who else have you skied with?
Well, Franz Klammer. I think even people who don’t ski would possibly remember Franz, who's arguably the best skier since World War 2, who won the downhill in 1976. And I think he won five Hahnenkamms. He's such a nice guy, and I've ski with him several times. And I once went on a race training camp with him in America, actually. And also there was a guy called Stein Eriksen, who was a very famous Norwegian skier. I skied with him in Deer Valley in Utah couple of times.
And there are a couple of nice stories about him. He invented something, I think it was called a swan dive - a sort of ballet on skis. He was out skiing on Stein's Run one day, which is the name of his own run, and a woman saw him fall over, which is unheard-of. Stein Ericksen doesn't fall over. Olympic skier. Anyway, he did fall over. And I think the visibility was not great. And she saw him fall and she thought he had done one of his swan dives. And so she said to him in a loud voice: “Stein, could you do that again? My husband wasn't watching.”
And other celebrities?
Well, I suppose you'd call her a celebrity: Carol Thatcher. She is obviously Margaret Thatcher's daughter. She was, for quite a while, a ski journalist like the rest of us. I skied with her a few times. And on one occasion, I was skiing next to her and we caught each other a glancing blow and she came off worse and tumbled into the snow, lost her skis, got up, brushed all the snow off and looked to me slightly crossly and said: “Gosh Arnie, it's a good job I'm not a fragile blonde.” And then another occasion we were skiing in Italy and I volunteered to take the packed lunches in my rucksack. We were skiing off-piste in Courmayeur.
And she said: “Arnie, would you would you also take my notebook? And I said: “Sure.” So I took her notebook. And then she announced to the assembled company: “Everybody, if Arnie falls into a crevasse. Please rescue my notes.”
FH That's all for now. If you've enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes, Stitcher, or any of the many podcast providers - where you can give us a rating. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Stay safe and we'll see you next week. If you enjoy this episode, please share it with at least one other person.
Arnie has been to Jackson Hole dozens of times with his wife Vivianne, and they love it so much that they were married there in 2000. For more on Arnie Wilson, visit his website. Also see our posts and podcast episodes on Train Journeys: The Future For International Travel? and Konrad Bartelski - From Ski Racer To Photographer. For more information on skiing worldwide, visit Welove2ski.
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