Embarrassing tales, from wedding scandals to painful collisions, break the ice in Verbier as training begins at the Warren Smith Ski Academy in Verbier.
What is the most embarrassing thing you have ever done? An interesting question to be asked – especially in front of 40 strangers who are about to become your surrogate family for the next two months. The exercise, suggested by one of our ski instructors, is supposed to break the ice.
One woman says it was her first time with a boyfriend, at a tender age – and the moment when his mother walked in. One lad says it was the occasion he skied fast into a rigid pole, one ski on either side. Another man says it was a vineyard tour on which he went missing – and his mates found him passed out on a donkey.
Alcohol is a leitmotiv among school-leavers. One lad tells of a 15th birthday party at which he threw up over his friend’s mum. Braver still, given present company, was the confession by a lass that she had greeted two ski instructors in a similar way on her last course. “That’s when my parents found out I like the odd drink,” she adds.
Perhaps the most original is the woman who says, “It was a wedding between two very Catholic families. And I realised I had got off with one of the priests.” Even the ski instructors are shocked. “He had changed into different clothes by then,” she adds, weakly.
I ponder telling them about the night I confessed to a crew of firemen in Portugal tackling a forest fire behind our holiday cottage that I thought it was all my fault: a barbecue that, in retrospect, went badly wrong even by my dismal standards. I settle for another story – too toe-curling to relate here.
Next comes the dreaded “ski-off”: one by one, we are to make a few turns in front of the instructors, who will put us into groups according to how well we ski. I remember all the afternoons at school I was the last to be picked for football teams, and feel about nine years old.
Who will I end up with, I wonder? I met them briefly last night, at our welcome meeting. Forty of us students packed into the living room of a chalet. The majority are men; perhaps a third are school leavers, most of the rest are in their twenties or thirties; I’m one of the oldest.
We were welcomed by the instructors, led by Warren Smith: thirtysomething, tall, stubbly, with a streetwise Hemel Hempstead accent. He asked us to introduce ourselves, and say why we are here. Some are dreaming of starting a new life in the mountains. Others just want to devote a couple of months to their passion, skiing. A few are between contracts, have been made redundant, or are responding to the economic crisis by adding a new skill to their freelance portfolio. One man said, “to get a nine-week break from the wife.”
Up on the mountain, I do the best turns I can, and am put into my group for the next two months. There’s Will, a 31-year-old former hotel reviewer from Birmingham; Susie, a 26-year-old physiotherapist from Jersey; Craig, a 42-year-old financial wizard from Perth, Western Australia; 45-year-old Ian, who grew up in Ibiza, and worked as a ski rep, soldier and landscaper before becoming a dealer in antique currency; and three gap-year students: Becky from Guildford, about to study French and Spanish at Cambridge; and Ollie from Harrogate and Tom from Charterhouse, both heading to Newcastle, to study economics and politics respectively.
We meet out instructor for the week, 26-year-old Jordan Revah from London. The time for sharing intimacies is over; the hard work is about to begin.
- Further information: the Warren Smith Ski Academy (www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com), the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the local tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
- Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)
- Equipment rental through Ski Service (00 41 27 771 67 70; www.skiservice.com).