Ski instructor course 5: dreams of life in the mountains

As the first set of exams approaches, the group contemplates what it takes to make a living on the slopes – in Milton Keynes and beyond

Two skiers looking out over the clouds, by the Attelas piste, VerbierHAVE YOU ever been away on holiday and realised you have found your spiritual home?

Many of us British-based skiers dream of starting a new life on the snowy heights. And for those of us on the instructor course, that fantasy is a step closer – sort of. At the end of this, our second week, we will complete the first of our exams. And, fingers crossed, we will then be qualified to teach skiing on indoor and artificial-snow slopes – in the rarefied heights of Milton Keynes, Hemel Hempstead or Tamworth.

Well, it’s is a first step. How long, I wonder, does it take to qualify to the same standard as our instructors?

Jordan, our instructor for the first week, did exactly the same gap-year course as us, here in Verbier, four seasons ago – straight after completing a degree in philosophy at Leeds, for which he wrote a dissertation on God. A natural progression, I’d say. He took his last ski training module a year ago.

BASI trainer Tess Swallow teaching on the Alpine Level 1 course

Tess (left) coaching the group

Our instructor this week, Tess Swallow, decided she wanted to live in the mountains while working a season as a waitress in Whistler, Canada. She spent a year learning French, and worked as an instructor for six seasons in Nendaz in Switzerland and Val d’Isère in France before qualifying fully. “If you don’t manage it in 10 seasons,” she says, “you probably never will.” Two weeks down the line, I reckon it is too early to start getting stressed.

Both Jordan and Tess qualified through the British Association of Snowsport Instructors (BASI). Tess now works for the organisation, and she is both training and examining us this week for our BASI Level 1 certificate. After a week of performance training with Jordan, and a course at the weekend in mountain safety and avalanche awareness, the time has come to focus on our own teaching skills.

It is an intensive week. From Monday to Friday, we spend six hours a day on the mountain, before meeting again in the late afternoon in one of the chalets for tutorials and video reviews of our ski technique.

We learn how to teach the basics of skiing to complete beginners – from becoming familiar with the equipment to having those first sensations of sliding on snow; from gliding in a straight line to learning to snowplough and master all the transitional stages through to skiing parallel. We also learn about different teaching styles, and how to prepare and deliver a lesson.

Tess also trains us how to manage a group safely, and what to do if someone gets hurt or we come across an accident on the mountain.

Practising accident response on the mountain on the BASI Alpine Level 1 courseAll this requires teamwork – something that Craig, the Australian financial wizard, knows a fair bit about, having helped set up several new government departments in London. He says things like “There’s no ‘I’ in team” – which we think sounds wonderfully Zen. He then adds, “But there is ‘me’ – so listen, guys, let’s work as a team and do this my way.”

There is no doubting my team-mates’ commitment to the long-term dream, though. Susie, for example, who works at the London Hospital, wants to start a new life in the mountains combining work as a physiotherapist and as a ski instructor. At first we think it’ll be handy having a physio on our course, but Susie tells us that muscles aren’t her thing: she’s a respiratory physiotherapist, and says there’s nothing more satisfying to her job than emptying a patient of phlegm. We stop asking her for free physio after that.

Will, meanwhile, has already given up his job at a travel company where he worked as a hotel contractor, hotel reviewer and then travel feature writer. He has already made the first step in his plan to earn a living with a mixture of writing and ski instructing: writing punchy nightlife reviews for the local community website,

The school-leavers Becky, Ollie and Tom, meanwhile, hope to work as instructors during university holidays and beyond – as does Seb van Zijl, another 18-year-old who has just spent two months travelling by public transport from London to Cape Town. Seb has joined our class in a reshuffle just for the week, as has Dean, who is here primarily to improve his technique. He gave up a career as a clinical psychologist to set up his own car-trading business (“fancy cars – you know, Bentleys, Mercedes, Porches, Astons, stuff like that”). He asks me not to print his second name: “I have a lot of repeat clients, they might not like to know I’m out here for two months spending their money.”

Tess assesses our performance throughout the week. On one day we each have to teach a lesson that we prepared the night before; we are also marked on how well we are able to demonstrate basic skiing skills, as well as on our own more advanced technique.

On the last afternoon we get our results. Seb has been let down by his short-radius turns, and will do a retake, but he’s philosophical: “It’ll just make me work harder,” he says. The rest of us have passed. Friday après-ski at the Farinet is more raucous than ever, with dancing on the bar, the tables, and every other available surface.

Milton Keynes, here we come…

Verbier: Friday night at the Farinet

Further information: the Warren Smith Ski Academy (, the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, and the local tourist office (

Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070;; onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (

Equipment rental through Ski Service (00 41 27 771 67 70;