We are staying at a hotel owned by an Australian, Alan Pennay. He is a skier, musician, local legend and resident for 40 years. Originally from Goulbourn in NSW, he played the piano professionally at Thredbo before leaving for England where he played for many years then settled here, originally earning his living as a musician. He turned 79 years old yesterday and looks in fine fettle. In this excerpt from a local newspaper, we discover other reasons why he is so famous. Anyway, he has offered to edge my skies for me so he’s immediately a good bloke.
It’s Sunday morning here in Ketchum, the village at the base of the chairlifts at Sun Valley, Idaho. Arrived here late Thursday afternoon after seven hour drive from Big Sky. Friday, my knee was too sore and swollen to ski so I stayed put. That’s two days off. Yesterday, Saturday, I couldn’t stand it, sitting inside at one of the world’s great ski resorts. Went up at lunchtime and only lasted half an hour. The pain in my right knee was intense and I couldn’t put weight on it, when the broken leg was the downhill ski in the turn. I like to try and bend that downhill ski in the turn, less chance of it skidding away. Couldn’t do it and nearly fell a couple of times on a blue run. I couldn’t believe it.
What I saw of Sun Valley looked good, although they really need some snow. There are some big wide blacks, which were closed but I couldn’t ski them anyway so I didn’t feel too bad. Spent the afternoon dosed up on anti-inflammatories with a bag of snow around my swollen knee. The joys of rehab.
So today is my fourth day in a row not skiing. That’s a lot in a three week holiday, especially as I may not be able to go up again tomorrow.
So what do you do when you are stuck inside at a ski resort? Listen to the Electric Light Orchestra of course. In 1977 I had just arrived in London after a year spent travelling across Asia. It was the era of Grease, Saturday Night Fever and disco balls. I had gone right off music. The guys I was flatting with were all mad kiwi rugby palyers, except one, Martin who was a musician. One night after we came home from rugby practice and were having a late-night feed, Martin put a record on an old Gramophone and an amazing sound floated around the room. It boomed back and forth inside my head.
“Shit, Martin. What’s that?” I asked, of the piece of black vinyl going around on the turntable.
“It’s called Out of the Blue. Electric Light Orchestra. Just came out,” he replied.
Indeed it had. It was released virtually the day I arrived in London around November 1977, and it elevated ELO from relatively unknown, fringe musicians to one of the most enduring bands of all time. Some of those songs have stayed with me ever since, songs such as Telephone Line, Turn to Stone and the ultimate feel-good song, Mr Blue Sky. But if any song has resonated in the fog of my brain on this trip, it is the ballad, Wild West Hero. I don’t remember this song from London but it’s been going around and around in my head all through the skiing sessions I’ve had on this trip. The music comes with me when I leave the hotel room and it plays on an endless loop in my head. Maybe it’s because Montana and Idaho are quintessential Wild West locations.
What prompted this return to my past musical loves was a wander into a bookstore at LAX during the stopover between Sydney and Bozeman, Montana. I noticed a copy of a book, Jeff Lynne, The Electric Light Orchestra: Before and after. Jeff Lynne was one of the founding members of ELO and is considered its great, creative genius.
“That might be interesting,” I thought and bought it on a whim along with another couple of books. What transpired was a wicked collusion between the book and iTunes and someone with a lot of time on their hands. As each song was mentioned in the book, during the band’s development, I would race over and listen to it on iTunes. You can waste a lot of time doing this but it’s a great way of discovering songs that I hadn’t previously heard: Ma-Ma-Ma Belle, Diary of Horace Wimp and Do Ya jumped out at me and have been getting lottsa air time.
It’s a beautiful blue day outside. Wish I could go up on the mountain.
The other thing you can do when stuck inside at a ski resort is read. And I’ve done plenty of that. 13 Hours in Benghazi : the inside account of what really happened was another book I bought at LAX. I thought this would be interesting as I didn’t know much about it. The raids and deaths of American servicemen gained only scant mention in the Australian press. I knew it had been dogging Hillary Clinton’s election campaign during the Primaries. Terrific book. An unbiased account of two simultaneous raids on the US diplomatic and nearby CIA compounds in Benghazi, Libya. The author doesn’t try to sheet home blame,
any fair observer of the events in this book would be lead to the inescapable conclusion that if you leave school and can’t write your name and you get caught, aged sixteen, having sexual congress with a horse, while simultaneously managing to burn down your father’s barn, you have an excellent chance of ending up in the CIA. Enough said. An excellent addition to US military history about an incident that is going to blight Clinton’s campaign if, as looks likely, two days before Super Tuesday, that she will be the Democrat candidate for the 2016 Presidential election.
Staying only 100 metres from the main chairlift at Pennay’s at River Run. It’s owned by an Australian, Alan Pennay, who has lived here for 40 years. Have met him several times. Classic bloke. Almost as famous here as Ernest Hemingway. I wonder what it would be like to live in a small community like this for most of you life. Very secure in some ways and very limiting in others, I expect. He seems happy enough.
Strange Magic, by ELO playing on my travelling BOSE speaker. Beautiful song. Lovely, sunny day outside. Life is a magpie, some black some white. Could be worse, iTunes may never have been invented. Thank you Steve Jobs.
The morning was bright and clear with the moon setting over Lone Peak as I had my last breakfast at Chets in the Huntley Lodge. At Big Sky, the mountain is superb, the townspeople friendly, the slopes uncrowded, the views forever and the chipmunks pretty cute………but………….the food!!! It would kill a robber’s dog. Irremediably crook, at all locations, in Big Sky.
Thankfully help was at hand. I sent an SOS to Margaret Carney to bring sustenance from Australia, which she did in the shape of a jar of Vegemite. Unfortunately, it only arrived just before departure from Big Sky. Nevertheless, here is a photo of me on the last morning, showing the two vital ingredients necessary for survival in a Montana ski resort.
After breakfast, it was down to Bozeman to pick up the rental. It would be misleading to call it a car. It was a small bus. A brand new Ford Expedition with only 700 miles on the clock. We could have held Amelia’s wedding reception in it. It was a beast. I shudder to think what the fuel consumption was. I expected it to run out of gas before we left the airport carpark. Got away at 915am for what was excepted to be a seven hour drive.
Drove south out of Bozeman back towards Big Sky. Had one of the worst cups of coffee imaginable just past the turnoff to Big Sky. I think I was poisoned so we fled south in the bus. Soon stated to see eerie, wilderness scenery as we approached the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. Not as remote as Australian wilderness but not bad nevertheless. Our wilderness is red, theirs is white. Skirted the western edge of the park, before turning west and crossing the continental divide at Targhee Pass (7,075ft). This marks the boundary between eastern and western America. On the Montana side, where we had come from, the rivers run east towards the Missouri and ultimately the Mississippi. Once over the divide we were in Idaho.
In Idaho, the rivers run west into the Pacific Ocean. I have been on the continental divide a few times, but I always find it moving and so evocative of Lewis and Clark. The first major town we came to was Idaho Falls. Here Margaret, who was navigating got us lost. We took a break at a small gas station in the back blocks of Idaho Falls where I took the pawn shop photo displayed in the gallery. Only in America……..
The navigator was sacked and the Sun Valley address was inserted in the GPS. This lead us west on highway 20 , a provincial, two-lane road heading into the wilderness, towards the small town of Arco. I prayed that the GPS knew what it was doing as we had just gone off the edge of the rental car company map. I had some misgivings. We were supposed to be going south west. We were actually heading slightly north west. Still the decision to employ the GPS was fortuitous. The snow-covered back country west of Yellowstone was some of the most ethereal I’ve seen in the USA. It was a great advertisement for travelling in the winter and a wonderful opportunity to practice some of the things I learned in my photography course.
Before Arco Margaret was pulled up by the cops for doing 79mph in a 65mph zone. I wanted to laugh – the copper was only about 18 years old but Margaret was terrified. I never seen her so subdued. I wanted to tell him to arrest her for dangerous driving but thought I had best stay silent. Would have made a good story though.
“That policeman has got all my details. Do you think he will contact me and ask me out?” Margaret fretted as we drove away.
“Doubt it. Best you could hope for is some Facebook stalking,” I replied. The cop trailed us in his prowler right into Arco so Margaret, as well as driving very slowly, remained hopeful. Alas, it was not to be and after Arco we proceeded sans constabulary.
The wild scenery continued after we left Arco and headed south-west past the Craters of the Moon National Park. It stayed snow-covered all the way to Sun Valley and we finally pulled into Ketchum at 5pm. Some snow, lotsa grass. Looks depressingly like Thredbo. Obviously hasn’t snowed here for a number of weeks. My knee is very sore. Don’t think I will be skiing tomorrow. Still I’m not missing much. They are not having a magic season.
Last day in Montana. How do I sum it up. Some light, some dark, some good some bad. I’ve skiied nine days in succession, mostly blues, some single blacks. Skiing has been uneventful. Beautiful, still sunshine days. Haven’t broken anything. Only snowed once and then only lightly, which is disappointing, but the windless conditions are a compensation. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a long run of sunny, still days on a ski resort before. Gradually getting quicker – did 68.9km/hour the other day on one run. Nothing like previous adventures. I suspect the double blacks are beyond me now but I’m glad just to be here. Knee hurts sometimes, especially if I’ve been on steep stuff and going hard. Never mind. This time last year I was in a wheelchair, so I’m not complaining.
I wore a neoprene knee brace today for the first time but I don’t think it made much difference.
Leave for Ketchum at Sun Valley, Idaho tomorrow for ten days. Interestingly, that’s where Ernst Hemingway went for the last years of his life and where he committed suicide. He was one of my great literary influences as a teenager so I’m going to pay my respects. He is buried in Ketchum, where he went to live after a long self imposed exile in Cuba. So it’s not all about skiing.
Chipmunks have been great here. One came and perched on my ski the other day while I was sitting high on the mountain contemplating the view. Super moment.
Looking forward to the drive tomorrow to Idaho and a new resort. I’ve never done this trip before. Never skied Sun Valley. Drive goes past the Western side of Yellowstone National Park and it’s supposed to be beautiful.
One of the things that Phil Thomas, my friend from the BBC, has encouraged me to use is modern software, called Ski Tracks, for monitoring skiing during the day. I’ve been fascinated when I ski with him to see the amount of information he gets out of it. All done on the phone of course. Just turn it on and carry it in your pocket. he takes great delight in sending me this page which shows max speed. He would see this and say I’m skiing like a grandma and he’d be right.
So I decided to try it today for the first time. I wanted something to monitor progress the same way I used the recumbent bike and various leg strengthening machines in the gym. Today was probably not the best day to do it. I didn’t get to sleep until around 4am. I think I am jet lagged and stressed from all the build up to that bid on the house in Manly yesterday. Bidding on a house is hard enough – trying to do it from the other side of the world over the phone is just a recipe for stress.
I felt really tired going up on the chair and my vision was blurry which it has been of late and as it was the day I hurt myself in Canada. I think it may be dehydration but everything looks blue. The weather was closing in and it was whited-out by the time I got up onto the top of the Lone Peak Triple chair. Headed off down Upper Morningstar which should have been easy but it was frozen solid and I couldn’t see. I felt my way down. Was not having a good time. It was like skiing on concrete and I couldn’t get an edge.
About half way down I momentarily lost concentration and realised just in time that I was heading for a small cliff off the piste. Same deal as Canada – did not see it until the last moment. Rocked back on my heels and managed to swerve past it. Gave me a terrific fright and I nearly fell over backwards. Another chipmunk ran out onto the piste while I was collecting myself and stood there regrading me with haughty disdain. They are beautiful animals up close. I continued to the bottom at a sedate pace and called it a day. Started to snow quite heavily. The lesson in this is: I have been warned to never ski:
- If jet lagged or
- If I haven’t had a good night’s sleep.
I ticked both those boxes and went out anyway. Bit stupid as these were the two issues I had in Canada.
Called Macca. It’s Sunday morning in Australia and that means Australia All Over. Told him about the Gallatin River which is visited by heaps of Australian fly fishermen every summer. Then tried the hotel pool. Twenty laps of boiling hot water. I would have been sautéed if I stayed in there much longer. Nevertheless, I have to do something as I’m sure Barry is training the house down back in Sydney. I won’t have much time to get up to speed when I get back
Software worked well. I think I’ll have fun with this when I’m properly back on my feet and I can get some rampage going. Put some zoom back into it. I hope Phil Thomas doesn’t see these initial set of stats. I’d never hear the end of it.
It’s late Friday evening and my fourth day back on the snow is over. Starting to get a bit tired and my knee is swelling up a bit in the area just above the kneecap. It’s a bit soft and pudgy, so there is some fluid there but it’s not hurting so no big deal. I was getting tired up there today though.
My exploration of this amazing mountain continues. Yesterday in the afternoon a big storm came in and started dumping corn snow followed by a vicious wind. Going up in the chair was like being blasted in the face with small, stinging shotgun pellets. I had to bury my face in the crook of my arm and bend over in the chair. It really hurt and was coming in sideways. Despite the storm, I decided to explore the eastern part of the resort and ended up at the bottom of the Iron Horse Quad after a long traverse in the blizzard. This is the area known as Moonlight Basin. It used to be a completely separate resort but was purchased some time ago by Big Sky and incorporated into their infrastructure.
Just as I arrived at the Iron Horse lift there was an enormous crack of thunder, really ear splitting and they immediately closed the lift. In fact they closed every lift on the mountain. There was nothing for it but to head into Moonlight Lodge and sit in the lounge with all the other punters who immediately proceeded to get pissed. I waited and watched NFL football highlights on TV. Not so bad.
About half an hour later the storm started to abate and I noticed the lift had started so I zoomed up Iron Hose as quick as I could. To my astonishment it was covered with about 4 inches of fresh snow and I had it completely to myself. I was completely alone up there making fresh tracks in the snow on the Powder River run. Then the wind dropped and it got very calm. A chipmunk ran out of the trees and seemed surprised to see me there. We stood looking at each other for awhile before he skipped away, with his tail bobbing. Beautiful moment.
I never saw anyone else and the snow was fresh. I had three runs where the only person on the lift was me and the only tracks up there were mine. Complete stillness. Complete silence. Just me and the chipmunk. It was one of those mountain experiences you never forget. Wish I’d had someone to share it with. Soon all the punters realised the lift was going and the storm had dropped and stumbled out of the pub. But for them it was too late. There were three sets of tracks up there. Powder River run on Iron Horse. Excellent. That was yesterday.
After all the excitement, had a decent night’s sleep last night and decided to go and tackle this mountain in a serious way today. Knee was a bit stiff to start with and fluid is developing on the right hand side above the kneecap. I had a lot of oedema in that location after surgery. Never mind, it’s not hurting.
Spent the morning on the Lone Tree Quad doing the single blacks into the Lone Peak Bowl. Got more and more confident as the morning wore on. Went back over to Moonlight Basin again and did a couple of hours on the Elkhorn which is a beautiful long black run. Not game to tackle the double blacks yet, but I’m getting there, certainly getting to know this lovely, lonely, big mountain.
Had to come in early as I was bidding over the phone for a property at Manly. Phil Thomas was on the phone for me but it went just a bit high. I was exhausted at the end of it and a bit disappointed as I’d done so much work on it. Maybe I should forget about Manly and buy a house up here in the mountains in Montana. It would certainly be cheaper.
This is a copy of a letter sent to my personal trainer Belinda Van de Venn, at the Virgin Active Gym in Pitt St in Sydney, after my second day of skiing at Big Sky in Montana.
The alarm went off and I was dead to the world. The first thought that entered my head was, “Well, here we go, the big day has arrived.” I staggered over to the widow and looked out. A grey day, not snowing, overcast. It looked brutal up there; hard as concrete. Still, I felt pretty good. I’d had about nine hours sleep and it really does knit up the ravelled sleeve of care. My sleeve, this morning, was sporting nary a hole or even a broken thread.
Breakfasted over at the Huntley Lodge which wasn’t too bad. Found some muesli buried among the pancakes and syrup and donuts. Who eats donuts for breakfast? God, Americans eat a lot of junk, even for breakfast. A nation as rich as this and they all eat like peasants, albeit peasants with a sugar addiction. Coffee was undrinkable but I expect that now.
Came back to my room and collected the myriad of gear, trying not to leave anything behind. It was a curious feeling stepping out into the cold wind once again, skies over my shoulder, hearing my boots crunch on the snow. “How may times have I done this?” I thought. It was very familiar. This was strangely reassuring. My guide turned out to be a diminutive, American woman, Laura Herr, in her 50’s. She reminded me of Louise Stevenson, same height and build but less cheeky and more respectful. She was very much into post-surgical rehab. This is her first season back on the mountain after suffering a fractured fibula, broken ankle and torn ankle tendons. Run down by a snowboarder last winter. Screws in her ankle but no plate. When she described the accident I was amazed she wasn’t killed. We swapped a lot of war stories on the chair lift. Like me, she had been skiing continuously for 40 years without incident and then – bang – she cops a big one. She had the screws out before the season started so she could get a ski boot on. Little bit of residual pain on steep slopes and very apprehensive when she hears a snowboarder looming behind her. Understandably.
Anyway we started up the Ramcharger Quad and onto an easy blue groomer called Pondersoa, which became the first slope I’ve skiied down since breaking my leg. Not bad. No pain so we kept at it. Ended up skiing solidly for 3 hours. I had an ache in the Patella tendon, just below my kneecap but Belinda had told me to expect this. No pain from the plate even when I leaned hard into a turn on that side.
After Laura clocked off I had a quick coffee…Yuck, it would kill your old brown dog on a chain, and kept going. Became acquainted with mellow runs like Elk Park Ridge and Big Horn. They are only blues so I haven’t let the dog out yet, but they were fun to ski without any pain. Surprised myself and kept going until 3pm – that’s 5 hours of skiing on the first day. Much more than I had expected and surprisingly, my quads weren’t sore which is unusual for a first day’s outing. Maybe I’m fitter than I thought or maybe Belinda’s exercises have done the trick. Either way I’ve realised that If I want to keep skiing I’ll be in the gym for the rest of my life. I also realise that I wouldn’t be here expect for Belinda – She who must be obeyed – was worth every cent I paid her.
I was supposed to be packing as I leave tomorrow, but hey it’s Saturday and a clear, hot day outside and who wants to pack anyway. I had a swim at Balmoral, still a bit stiff in the back from the Cole Classic, but mercifully no shoulder or neck troubles. I could probably attempt the Palm Beach to Whale Beach swim now but alas, have to go skiing. Anyway, I had promised Jan Davies that I would take her walking group out on a hike today so drove my car back to Manly after the swim. A quick bowl of muesli and Rob Fitzpatrick pulled up out front, with a car load of female walkers, one of whom was his wife.
We set off from Long Reef, at 10am, along the edge of the golf course, the ocean a vibrant blue on the left; not much swell but an eye-popping demonstration of the distance Barry and I are planning to swim from Palm Beach. Things were going well, albeit a bit hot, when my phone suddenly beeped and it contained the following message from my daughter Amelia: Guys …Don’t freak out but I came off my bike.” Attached to the message was this photo:
There is nothing like this type of message to send a chill into a parent. She was okay, just bruised, but so lucky she wasn’t going fast when hit and neither was the driver of the car. While snow skiing, mountain climbing and horse riding have their fair share of mishaps, nothing touches road biking around the streets of Sydney for outright danger. I wouldn’t do it. The only accidents cyclists seem to have are serious ones.
We were at Curl Curl when I got the message, almost at Manly, so I peeled off when we reached my place. I said good bye to all the trekkers, told them to keep up the training and watch their feet. I was covered in sweat but went to see Amelia. She was propped up in Catherine’s chair, ice packs on her legs and elbows, with my crutches leaning on the wall. I’d loaned them to Catherine when she had her plate taken out. We had a laugh about it. I’ve now got photographs of two out of my three daughters on a gurney after suffering an accident, plus one of myself. Maybe we are an accident prone family.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s day and I leave for America.
And so its arrived. Wednesday February 10, the last rehab training session before I go to America on Sunday. I’ve been at this every week, mostly twice a week, for almost 11 months and I guess in a way it ends here. It’s like a Uni exam. You study as hard as you can but exam time has finally rolled around. Belinda has done all she can – I couldn’t have asked for anything more – so now I have to go and sit the test. Like a good school teacher she can’t help me now I have to go and do it myself.
I warmed up on the boxes doing one legged squats carrying a 5kg dumbell in each hand
30 x right legged squats x 3 reps broken leg
30 x left legged squats x 3 reps
20 x right legged squats x 2 reps broken leg
20 x right legged squats x 2 reps
This was much harder on the sound leg than the broken one but I still managed it ok although my patella tendon in the bad leg started to hurt. Also the coordination in my broken leg is still not as good as the sound leg.
Belinda arrived full of her usual briskness and I explained about the lack of coordination. She said that’s because of the intrusion in the knee from the surgery. The surgeon sometimes has to push the patella aside to get at the break. This stretches the tendon. This will improve over time and, as she pointed out, it is much better than it was and should improve with skiing although she warned me it may be a bit rough at the start.Thankfully she had nothing too strenuous planned but wanted to concentrate on stretching. It is too late to do any further strengthening work now. The horse has well and truly bolted.
I did a series of the now obligatory jumps off the big box before moving onto squats and lunges on the Kinesis machine. Things then turned weird. She got me to stand side-on to the machine, arms out straight in front of my chest, pulling sideways against the resistance. Then she asked me to stand on one leg. This mightn’t sound hard but it is the first time you try it. All the muscles in the foot, knee and thigh of the leg you are standing on go crazy at once trying to stop youy from falling over. It’s like standing one legged on a Bosu ball.
We had a discussion sitting in the gym after the session about how apprehensive I was about going skiing. It’s like the anxiety I got coming back from Freshwater in the Cole Classic. She had an interesting take: “Happens to people who have a serious injury, particularly if they haven’t been badly hurt before. It comes as a shock to them and you did have a serious injury. It’s also part of getting older. People just seem to lose a bit of physical confidence as they age. I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Such a wise head on young shoulders. I agree with her. Anyway bring on Montana.