Nothing beats a Beetle on an icy mountain road

When you write a feature piece for a newspaper you need a hook to hang it on. After all you cannot do a piece on a school trip abroad and present it as an essay “What I did in my holidays”.

I was lucky with my feature on the Rhyl Grammar School trip to a small Austrian ski resort, starting on Boxing Day 1970 and due to end on New Year’s Day 1971, because I ended up with two hooks which I was able to tie together.

The second hook literally fell into my lap on the day we were due to fly home – difficult weather conditions left us stranded at Munich airport, and for 24 hours family and friends in North Wales had no idea when we would manage to get home (no mobile phones in those days).

The first hook had been presented to me on the flight out when one of the boys on the trip had warned us all that he was a Jonah, likely to jinx those around him.

He certainly lived up to his warning and his jinx proved right from day one to the very end of the trip, with the airport disaster being the cherry on top of Jonah’s cake of mishaps.

A coach was laid on from Munich to the Austrian ski resort of Durcholzen, in the Austrian Tyrol, where we were quickly settled in to the family-run guesthouse. In fact I think we took all the beds in the place.

A trip to the ski hire shop and everyone was fitted with the best skis and boots, plus sticks, for the first lesson the next day.

Back at the guesthouse we settled in the dining room for our first taste of Austrian cuisine. This was the first opportunity for Jonah (he got enough stick as a schoolboy for his mishaps so I won’t land any more on him) to show off his powers.

All the other tables received their food and then a delay in the kitchen meant his table were left waiting.

I determined to change tables for breakfast.

That evening most of the party were tired after the long haul and we adults were left in peace for the evening allowing us to enjoy a stein or three of Austrian beer.

Out on the nursery slopes.

The next day was out to the nursery slopes to learn the basics of ski-ing before even being allowed out on the easiest run.

This was one area where Jonah did NOT display his ability of bringing down problems on those around him. He was among the eight or nine selected to go on to the easy slope that afternoon.

Although I did not take to ski-ing like a duck to water I did manage to stay upright as I headed down the small slope. Then, of course, I had to trudge sideways to get back to the starting point.

I found a style more suited to me late that afternoon when the male teacher, myself, and the boys in the group decided to have a go in the sauna.

This was a little bit away from the resort and involved a bit of cross-country ski-ing to get there.

Rather than going down slopes and trudging back up this involved going at right angles to the slope and part-walking on the skis with the sticks aiding propulsion with the odd drop to ski down with a sideways step up the other side.

It was the first time I had ever used a sauna and it was steamy but quite refreshing. Especially when we went out to roll in the snow (we had swimming trunks on but that was all) before returning for another go at the steamy sauna.

Steamy inside the sauna with snow outside.

This was when Jonah’s curse struck again, but it only affected him this time.

We had left the sauna by the back door from our section. Jonah was last out and unfortunately for him NOT last back in.

He was somewhat slow in picking up his towel and the wedge holding the sauna door open got knocked away.

It was unfortunate for Jonah that the door could only be opened from the inside.

We had not noticed his absence because we had been pouring water on the hot stones to get the steam building up.

Poor Jonah had to make his way round to the front of the building and walk past the crowded refreshment area while wearing just a pair of trunks and carrying a towel.

He then had to explain to the attendant what had happened and persuade him to let him through to rejoin our group.

It took him quite a while to live that down.

Meanwhile we dressed and had a refreshing drink before heading back on skis to the guesthouse. A blind eye was turned to the boys having a glass of light beer. After all it was legal over there.

A hearty meal was very welcome on our return to the guesthouse. I was seated at a table with one of the female teachers and four of the girls and we were first to be served that evening.

That evening more of the group stayed downstairs for a while and we all joined in with the singing when some of the locals turned up at the bar for the evening.

The next day was another one of ski-ing, eating and drinking (although the youngsters were now restricted to soft drinks including a refreshing local drink called schpesie – cola and orange juice).

On the third day a couple of the teachers and a couple of the girls wanted to go to Salzburg – just over an hour’s drive away.

Salzburg in winter – a beautiful sight

The guesthouse had a VW Beetle available for hire and I was asked if I would be willing to drive. A chance to see Salzburg was enticing and I agreed like a shot.

From where we were we had to cut through a part of Germany before re-entering Austria. The Beetle was easy to handle and I was quite happy driving even though I had to get used to being on the “wrong” side of the road.

The problem came when we were driving round the side of a mountain. The road was wide enough for two reasonable sized cars to pass without wing mirrors catching.

Obviously the car was a right hand drive which meant I was on the side opposite the drop down to the valley floor.

On that side there was a gravel strip about four feet wide with poles two feet in from the edge. Just like in country lanes where there is a strip of grass running down the centre this road had a strip of ice banked up in the middle of the road.

Some of this got under my wheels and the car started to drift towards the drop.

The teacher sitting in the front was looking to her right and then looked at me with a somewhat nervous look in her eye.

The point is I could do nothing until the front nearside wheel got a grip on the gravel and allow me to steer out of the slide.

At least that’s what I was hoping.

As I am here now it clearly worked.

Just as well our Jonah wasn’t in the car with use.

The drive back was uneventful as we were close to the mountain not the drop.

The following day I was called on to drive one of our party to the doctor in nearby Kufstein.

This was a real Jonah incident.

He and another boy had been using the ski lift which was the T-bar style in which they each leaned against the T-bar and would be dragged up the short slope.

T-bar ski lifts.

Jonah slipped which knocked the other boy off the bar as well and as they fell Jonah’s ski stick caught his partner’s leg.

It was decided it would be better to drive to the doctor’s in Kufstein for treatment and we set off with the boy and a teacher with him.

The gash looked worse than it was but it still required a few stitches and he was confined to his bed to rest the leg for the remainder of the visit.

Not that he was lonely because throughout the day a couple of the pupils at a time would go up to keep him company.

Until we got to Munich airport this was the last major disaster of the visit.

On New Year’s Eve, after returning our hired ski equipment we settled in for a night in the guesthouse entertainment area to see the New Year in.

Never mind the fireworks we are used to seeing over here, we were able to watch a line of skiers bearing flaming torches ski in a zigzag path down the mountain.

A brilliant memory.

Next day we set off for Munich airport and the bad weather which had grounded our aircraft.

After six hours of waiting at the airport the lead teacher persuaded the airline rep to get us put up at an airport hotel.

In the morning Munich was still weatherbound and we were bussed to Nuremberg where we were finally able to board a plane and fly home.

The lead teacher had kept someone in Rhyl up to date with our situation and when the coach got us back to Rhyl Grammar School late on 2 January there were parents there to meet the youngsters.

The story in the Journal opened with the airport delay story before morphing into more of a feature which spread across two pages with pictures.

It was the first proper feature, excluding advertising pieces, since I had written about the Little Theatre pantomime for the Gazette.

I had the beginnings of a style with this piece which was to develop over the next few years.

Writing news stories is one thing but this style of writing has something special about it.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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