alan little’s weblog archive for march 2008


23rd March 2008 permanent link

You could choose to spend the day before your 47th birthday thinking “shit, I’m nearly fifty. How did that happen?”. Or you could choose to spend it on a mountain, most of the day going down a blue slope with your family: your son grinning from ear to ear the whole time(*) and shouting “Daddy, again!” every time you arrive back at the lift; your wife after a while deciding short blue runs are boring and she’s going off up the mountain to do a three thousand foot red run, arriving back at the easy slope a surprisingly short time later, sweaty but smiling. While wife & son are having breaks you head off up the mountain yourself into still-falling fresh snow for a couple of hours of the best on-piste snowboarding you’ve ever done.(**)

After spring skiing in February, the week before Easter the temperature in Germany and the Alps dropped fifteen degrees with big dumps of fresh snow. We headed out at short notice, this time to Zauchensee and Wagrain. These are part of the biggest connected ski area in Austria and definitely don’t come under the heading of small/funky ski resorts, unlike the other places I’ve been this winter. Big and commercial doesn’t have to mean impersonal, though, as we learned when we told our bed & breakfast landlord that we needed to hire skis for our son. “Oh” he said “then you need to go to Sepp”, and hailed a passing friend to hop in our car and take us to Sepp’s shop.

In Altenmarkt where we were staying there are three big ski shops on the high street. Sepp’s isn’t one of them. In a town that is a major centre of Alpine skiing, Sepp’s is Nordic Sports, a cross country specialist operating out of what appears to be a converted living room and garage on the edge of town. You have to respect a man who goes against the grain. He has decent Alpine kit to rent too, at decent rates, and is clearly a professional. After one look in his workshop I decide it’s time for a new wax job on my snowboard. Cross country guys live and die by wax.

Sure enough, next morning my board is better than new. Three years of scratches and dents, some of them deep and embarrassingly diagonal, have disappeared under a coat of wax so deep and lustrous I can hardly see where they were. Sepp charges me ten euros. I’ve paid two or three time as much for inferior jobs at bigger places.

I don’t do commercial plugs very often, but here’s one: if you’re ever in the area, you should rent your kit or get it serviced at Nordic Sports in Altenmarkt.

(*) Especially the bit where you call to him “ok, now let’s go a bit faster” then promptly fall over.

(**) There are those who would say “good on-piste snowboarding” is an oxymoron. They are more proficient snowboarders than I am.

related entries: Snowboarding


19th March 2008 permanent link

In my previous snowboarding career, my friends and I tended to look down on German ski resorts and preferred to drive the extra hour or two to Austria. German resorts, we thought, were small, had unreliable snow conditions and antiquated lifts. In particular they have lots of drag lifts, which we as beginner snowboarders were afraid of. All these things were and are true; last week at Spitzingsee I was well and truly frightened by the sight of the Rosskopf (Stallion’s Head) lift, the steepest and fastest t-bar I have ever seen.

Nevertheless. This year I have been to:

These quiet little places have their charm, I am discovering. I used to like the big glacier and high mountain resorts in Austria, but so do thousands of other people. These days I don’t need thousands of feet of black runs and off piste to keep me challenged and amused. And my family certainly don’t(*).

Alan’s Snowboarding Blog? We’ll see. Probably not. The winter, what little we have had of it this year, must surely be nearly over by now. In any case, if I want to blog more about boarding then I can see I’m going to need to get good enough at it to feel safe carrying a camera. Posts like this need pictures.

(*) although my son probably will all too soon if we keep this up. At Spitzingsee we saw what appeared to be an extreme off-piste skiing class for seven year olds: a little ski-school style crocodile of them, happily following their teacher off into the woods underneath the steepest part of the chairlift. Locals, presumably.

related entries: Snowboarding


18th March 2008 permanent link

Twelve years ago, in the midst of and in reaction to some major turmoil in my life, I gave up rock climbing. Climbing had been one of the major loves of my life for a decade and a half before that, but I felt it had contributed to the hole I thought I was in, so out it went. I don’t miss it; it’s a wonderful activity, but so are lots of other things. Yoga for example, which I took up directly afterwards.

Three years later I moved to Munich; most of my friends there went out snowboarding at weekends, so I did too. Driving down the autobahn on the way to my first outing, before I even knew anything about how snowboarding was going to be, I realised a large part of what I had been missing terribly from climbing wasn’t climbing; it was simply the cameraderie of being in the car with a bunch of friends, heading out to the mountains on Friday night.

So for two winters I was a snowboarder. We were almost entirely self-taught and doubtless nowhere near as good as we thought we were, but we could go more or less where we wanted to do on the mountain. I wasn’t fanatically in love with it – it seemed to be bad for my yoga, which was more important to me – but a couple of times I experienced the flying in powder snow sensation, and that really is ecstatic.

Then I spent a winter in India, then I became a father. I got out boarding once or twice a year, most years, but if you do something as little as that you can’t do it well enough to really enjoy it, and I didn’t miss it much.

Now my son is nearly five, the age at which kids normally start skiing around here. A week’s family holiday with friends in Austria was fun. The week after we got back there was even new snow in the Bavarian Alps, for the first time in months, so we thought we would venture out again for a Saturday afternoon to a little local resort called Spitzingsee.

This was purely a family day out, and that is a different thing again from heading out to the mountains with a bunch of friends. Particularly when my wife and son are very much beginner skiers and I am a barely intermediate snowboarder. Previously we’ve always been out with friends who are experienced and capable skiers, well capable of helping beginners who get into difficulties. A good adult skier can just put a kid between their skis and ski down more or less anywhere; once I even saw a guy skiing with his daughter tucked under his arm. Whereas even good snowboarders, which I’m not, are severely limited in their options for helping skiers. Imagine, then, our dismay when the baby lift at Spitzingsee turned out to be closed and, after we’d walked back up the baby slope a few times, my wife didn’t feel confident enough to make it down a blue slope to the nearest t-bar lift. Nor did I have any idea how either an adult beginner or a snowboarder was going to make it up a t-bar lift with a small child.

Our options at this point appeared to be: walk up and down the baby slope half a dozen times until we were all sick of it then go home, or take the chairlift to the top of the mountain where according to the map the only ways down were red (intermediate) runs. My wife wanted a bit more time on the baby slope; my son and I were bored and ready for adventure. Into the chairlift. What’s the worst that can possibly happen? At best a long and humiliating walk down the mountain at the first hint of anything steep or tricky; at worst an appearance in the paper as an example of irresponsible parenting.

But no. Spitzingsee turns out to possess quite possibly the easiest “red” run in the Alps. With good snow conditions (and the snow that day was lovely) it’s no problem at all for sufficiently brave beginners – of which it turns out I have two in my family. I am immensely proud of them and we had a great time. I even grabbed a couple of chances to play on slightly more challenging runs while they were resting.

(So I have still only had to walk down a ski piste once, during a total white-out in a snowstorm on the glacier at Hintertux in February of my second snowboarding winter. It was worth it. The next day my friend John and I were the first down the valley run off the end of the glacier, putting first tracks through a metre of fresh powder courtesy of that storm. Just like in the movies.)

related entries: Snowboarding

photography quotes

17th March 2008 permanent link

Cartier-Bresson got by with one lens … and Sebastiao Salgado uses three. You need more?
Mike Johnston

related entries: Photography

yah anauvaad nahim hao payaa

17th March 2008 permanent link

I’m off to India in a couple of weeks, on a business trip to check out my new supplier’s development team. My employer has switched the outsourcer for my project from a local one in Germany to a non-local one in Pune.

A business trip to a major industrial city to visit a (we hope!) state of the art tech company should be interestingly different from studying yoga in sleepy traditional Mysore. My Indian colleagues tell me things have changed quite a bit anyway in six years. Some bloggage and pictures might appear here in due course, although I’m only going for a week and time will be tight – so relentlessly employee-unfriendly is my company’s travel policy that I can’t even fit in a weekend side trip to Mysore to see my friend’s new baby. I’m told the office I’ll be visiting is near BKS Iyengar’s yoga school, but I assume both my schedule and the three year waiting list mean I won’t be dropping in on a class or two there either.

The title? Allegedly “India here I come” in Hindi, or so claims the Government of India’s Hindi translation website. I’m sceptical though: I was expecting terms like “Hind” or “Bharat” to turn up somewhere. (No disrespect intended to the Government of India – especially not today, because tomorrow I’m off to my local consulate to see about my business visa, but …) on principle I don’t trust online translations unless I can cross check them. My attempts to cross check hit stumbling blocks., wherever that might be, throws a php error. Let’s hope their skills improve before they graduate and go and work for my new supplier. And google and babelfish apparently don’t regard being one of the top five most-spoken languages in the world as a relevant ranking criterion for deciding what languages to support in their translation services.

customer service

17th March 2008 permanent link

Thanks and praise to Ellie on the support desk at The Pragmatic Programmer.

I needed to get hold of an up to date edition of Agile Web Development with Rails for some prototyping I want to do for a project at work, the beta download copy of the first edition that I purchased two years ago being hopelessly out of date. My first attempt using my main email address failed, so I fired off an email to customer support, fearing that my purchase of a beta copy of the first edition might no longer be valid for an update to the second edition. This being Sunday morning in Europe, I didn't expect a reply for quite some time.

Then I looked more closely at the original emails and noticed that I used a mail alias two years ago that I had since deleted. So I set the same mail alias up again, logged on to the Pragmatic site using that email address and voilà, my updated download works. A little while later – round about Sunday morning in America – comes a mail from Ellie saying that she has merged my two accounts for my and everything should now be ok. So thanks, Ellie, for spending your SUnday morning tidying up problems for me that were entirely due to my own carelessness. The Pragmatic Programmers take customer service seriously.

gone boarding

4th March 2008 permanent link

Just back from a week’s family holiday in the Alps. Wife and son at beginner’s ski school. I had a snowboard lesson on the second day, having previously boarded for a couple of winters at weekends before my son was born, but then hardly at all for the last five years; after the lesson and by the end of the week I was boarding better, and having more fun with it, than ever before. I can get down black runs, in a manner that is perhaps lacking in elegance and speed on the steep bits, but enjoying myself and without too much embarrassing falling over. This despite snow conditions that, while ok, were more like April than February. For most of the week.

(No snowboarding pictures, since I’m still not good enough at it to feel safe carrying my camera on the mountain, and the numerous pictures I took of my son’s ski school graduation “race” are really only going to be of interest to his grandmothers – for whom I spent last night printing a large batch.)

Where I really should have taken pictures – but at the time was too busy being frightened – was on the journey home. In order to avoid huge end of ski week traffic jams on the autobahn, I decided to take a short cut on a back road over the Wendelstein Alps. This, as I discovered only later, was about an hour after the Wendelstein summit weather station recorded Hurricane Emma at 140 mph. Thankfully we missed the crazy winds, but the several inches of wet, heavy fresh snow defeated us and everybody else on the road except those who stopped to put chains on (locals) or wait for the snowplough. We turned back – after proudly achieving the highest point reached without chains by anybody in our little line of cars – and found a different, longer but lower way round the autobahn traffic jam.

It was a little tense. Realistically and with hindsight, drifting to the side of the road and hitting a barrier or a tree at the speed we were sliding around at, just before we lost traction completely and gave up, would have been more embarrassing and inconvenient than seriously dangerous – but just try telling that to your hindbrain at the time. I remember being very happy that we had lots of warm mountain clothes in the car. Cameras did cross my mind too, but only briefly and I suspect my wife would have taken a dim view of me hopping out of the car and doing anything that didn’t directly contribute to getting our son (who slept through the whole thing) back to safety. So you’ll just have to take my word for it that the Wendelstein Alps under a heavy fall of new snow are very beautiful. We will definitely be going back there some time when there isn’t a hurricane blowing.

related entries: Snowboarding

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