Thought Leadership

I do not ski

By Colin Walls

For many years, I used to attend an annual conference in Grenoble, France. For a number of reasons, I am unlikely to go there again. It used to be in early December. For me, this was annoying, as the weather can disrupt travel and I often found myself walking some distance in the cold and wet. There were rumors about why the conference was scheduled at that time …

Grenoble is right by the Alps and is a popular base for people who enjoy skiing. Many participants in the conference would stay on for the weekend. I was often asked why I did not do that. I made excuses about wanting/needing to get home. Whilst this was true, I never revealed the real reason why I have never been skiing in my life …

It was about 40 years ago. I was at university in my final year. It had been quite a hard winter and there was a lot of snow on the ground. The roads from the university, which was on a hill, down to the town were closed. But we were cheerful and an evening of partying was coming to an end. My 3 friends and I were not yet ready for bed. We were sure that there was some activity available that would keep us amused for just a little longer.

One of the guys said “Let’s go sledging!” This seemed like a wonderful idea [at the time]. We had 2 out of the 3 necessary ingredients: snow and hills. We lacked a toboggan, but we figured that we could improvise. The usual makeshift sledge was a kitchen tray, but these were rather small and were not an ideal vehicle for high speed excitement. We remembered that we had spotted another option: at the back of the Physics department were a couple of “pods” – fiberglass things that were like small boats, big enough for two people and very, very smooth. Just the job, we thought. They were clearly not designed for the this purpose, but what could possibly go wrong?

We hauled the pods to the top of the hill and considered our options. Ahead was a straight run down, ending among a small clump of trees. Although it was late, the snow was reflecting enough light that we could clearly see where two go. We paired up, pointed our “sledges” in the right right direction and pushed off. They moved quite slowly at first, but quickly accelerated to an exciting speed. The only problem was that the bottoms of the pods were completely flat and smooth – no runners or whatever to keep us going in a straight line. Inevitably we began to spin and, when we arrived at the bottom of the hill, crashed in an untidy heap.

Although it had not gone exactly to plan, we had enjoyed the experience and were all ready to go again, given that all four of us seemed to have not sustained any apparent injuries. We were about to head off up the hill, when one of the guys, Nick, said “Hang on. I can’t find my glasses.” Clearly he had lost them in the crash. We all searched around in the dim light, but his spectacles were nowhere to be seen. In the end, we agreed that, as he had a spare pair back in his room, we would come back to look for them in the morning light. The plan was to do another run, with a slightly different course and then call it a night.

That is what we did, with exactly the same result as last time: a big crash at the bottom. This time it was me that lost my glasses. This was concerning, as I did not have a spare pair. A search yielded nothing, so we headed off, with the plann to search again in the morning. We left the pods, planning to return them the following day [we never did]. Back in Nick’s room, I was considering the rather blurred world in which I found myself. I looked in the mirror and straightened my hair. As I took my hand away, I realized that it was covered in blood! Nick inspected my head and confirmed that there was a large hole, leaking blood. [He later claimed to be the only person to have ever seen my brain!]

We soon found somebody sober enough to drive and stupid enough to set out for the local hospital. We got there safely and I was soon repaired – 5 stitches, if I recall. The doctor said that I was the only sober person that she had seen that evening. Well, I guess that I had sobered up …

The following morning, I was with a number of colleagues, feeling rather sorry for myself with a sore head and blurred vision. I was waiting for my friends to go off on a spectacle search. One of the guys said: “I saw a funny thing earlier. There was this guy walking back and forth across the hill. I wonder what he was doing?” I knew. At that moment Nick strolled in, still wearing his spare pair of glasses. He handed me mine, which were totally intact; they had been resting on the snow as if carefully put down for safe keeping. He had found his too, but they had been flattened.

So, this is why the idea of flinging my self down a snowy hill has never appealed to me. I still have the scar …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at