Book review: Around the World in 50 Slopes, by Patrick Thorne

The latest book from Patrick “Snowhunter” Thorne is a round-the-world ski trivia extravaganza, writes Roger Cox

Patrick Thorne
Patrick Thorne

Patrick Thorne is the ski writer’s ski writer. In a career spanning almost four decades, he has travelled to every corner of the known skiing universe, writing countless travel stories and also building an enormous database of ski resort information, featuring more than 6,000 ski areas in 80 countries. If you can name it, chances are he’s probably skied it. And written about it. And then skied it again.

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Based near Inverness, Thorne is also the editor of InTheSnow, the UK’s most read ski publication in print and online, and in 2004 he also set up Save Our Snow – a website dedicated to documenting the environmental initiatives of ski resorts around the world.

The Beatles Monument at Obertauern, Austria
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His magnum opus, however, published in 2014, is a huge coffee table book called Powder: The Greatest Ski Runs on the Planet. Lavishly illustrated and full of maps and stats (as you’d expect from a man who evidently eats stats for breakfast)​,​ it’s like a bucket list for skiers and snowboarders who are too lazy to make one. A few of the 50 runs included are achievable for intermediates, but for the most part the slopes he has selected are of the experts-only variety. Corbet’s Couloir at Jackson Hole, ​Wyoming, ​with its sketchy drop at the top? Check. The formidable, mogul-strewn Wall at Champéry in Switzerland? Check. The Edelgriess run off the Dachstein Glacier in Austria with its you-fall-you-die traverse? ​Also check.​

Obviously any list of the world’s "greatest" ski runs is going to be highly subjective, but given Thorne’s enormous ​amount of experience, it’s hard not to view this book as the nearest anyone will ever get to a definitive list. There’s something about the way it’s written, too, that keeps drawing you back in. Partly it’s the detail in the descriptions of the runs; partly it’s the way everything’s addressed to you as if you’re standing at the top of each slope, skis on, getting ready to drop in. There’s nothing flowery about the language – this is clear, precise, businesslike writing, primarily intended to keep you in one piece when you reach the bottom.

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A new book from Thorne, then, is kind of a big deal in the skiing world, and he’s got another one out this month: Around the World in 50 Slopes. That title might make it sound like a very close relative of The Greatest Ski Runs on the Planet – not least due to the recurrence of the number 50 – but in fact it’s a very different proposition. Whereas the earlier book was primarily concerned with the runs themselves, Around the World in 50 Slopes is more of an intercontinental romp through a galaxy of ski trivia, in which the various runs are included not only because of the quality of skiing they offer, but also because of the stories they have to tell.

So, for example, the Gamsleiten 2 run at Obertauern in Austria is included, not just because it’s one of the steepest mogul runs in Europe but also because it features in the Beatles’ 1965 movie Help! (Although the film appeared to show the Fab Four skiing Gamsleiten 2​ like pros, they actually had a little help from four local stunt doubles.) Similarly, the Olympia run at St Moritz serves as a jumping-off point for an essay on the early days of ski tourism (St Moritz may or may not have been the first ski resort), and CPR Ridge at Kicking Horse, British Columbia ​is an opportunity to recount the story of naturalist James Hector, a native of Edinburgh, who, while prospecting for a railway route through the Rockies in 1858, was kicked in the chest by his horse and presumed dead. His workmates had dug him a grave and were about to put him in it when he regained consciousness – the pass where all this took place was named Kicking Horse in recognition of his lucky escape and so, eventually, was the ski hill.

Around the World in 50 Slopes, by Patrick Thorne

Speaking of Scotland, whereas the Back Corries at Glencoe is the only Scottish resort to get a mention in The Greatest Ski Runs on the Planet, in the new book that honour goes to the White Lady at Cairngorm. While it’s obviously a wonderful run on its day, few would make the case for it as the best in Scotland (or perhaps even the best at Cairngorm). However, it does provide Thorne with an opportunity to talk about the history of Scottish skiing, noting that, in the early days, the White Lady chairlift used to take people up the hill sideways – maybe making it unique in the skiing world.

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Inevitably perhaps, this bit of trivia from the advent of commercial skiing in Scotland also leads to a discussion of the state of the industry here today, with reference to global warming. "The snow arrives erratically," he writes, “so there may be skiing at Halloween one year or in June the next, but then another year it can be too warm to open the lifts in January and February.” Still, he points out, whatever the snow conditions, it’s usually possible to get a bottle of White Lady beer at the Cairngorm base station, first produced by the Cairngorm Brewery in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of the ski lift of the same name.

Around the World in 50 Slopes, Wildfire, £16.99.