Teaching children how to ski isn’t just about technique – there are tears and hot chocolate breaks to consider too.
Every Monday morning a complex ballet unfolds on mountainsides throughout the Alps. Tens of thousands of parents hand their youngsters over to hundreds of different ski schools, to see their precious charges spirited up the slopes to be transformed – who knows? – into the next Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller, the American downhill stars from the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The scale of the operation is impressive. At the Swiss resort of Verbier, just one outfit – the Swiss Ski School – will have around 400 children in group classes each day during the school holidays, according to the director, Philippe May, as well as around another 100 adults. As many students again are in private classes – all taught by up to 250 instructors.
As part of my course to train to become a ski instructor, I have come along for a few days with my fellow students to “shadow” staff from the Swiss Ski School. We have spent a great deal of time learning how to teach ski technique; now is our chance to see how instructing works in practice.
I soon discover the importance of skills I hadn’t even thought about. It is not just enough to learn the names and faces of the little ones in your care, each fitted with a ski school bib identifying their level. You need to be able to recognise them from a distance of 100 yards, upside down, back to front and skis in the air when they have fallen off the button lift.
You need patience: just as they are zipped up and ready to go, wearing so many layers that they look like skiing starfish, someone is sure to want a pee. You have to check constantly whether they are cold, perhaps stopping for a remedial hot chocolate.
One day, in the lift queue, a child is sick, and we have to reorganise the groups for a while so an instructor can return her to her mother. Another day at lunch, a boy is in tears because all his chips have tipped into his lap. At times, ski instructing feels like low-temperature child-minding, with just a little tuition thrown in.
For a few days I shadow a group of children aged seven to 13, level “black king/queen”, taught by Emmanuelle (Emma) Luisier, a 17-year-old student from a village in the valley, who has been skiing since she was 2 ½ . For some of our adventures, we team up with another group a level below – “black prince/princess” – taught by 20-year-old Chloé Darbellay, who is home for a few days’ holiday from her biology course at Geneva university. She in turn is shadowed by one of my fellow students – Nigel Harris, a 46-year-old IT support analyst from Birmingham.
It is a steep learning curve, in every way. In no time we are heading down the precipitous mogul run down to Tortin, the children happily pinging around like human pinballs. I am in awe at their gung-ho confidence. At one point, 10-year-old Nadia takes a tumble, and her ski takes off like a rocket down the slope: Emma launches herself horizontally sideways, and executes a deft one-handed catch that would have an FA Cup final crowd on its feet.
I wish I could console myself with the thought that these children are born on skis, that they have some innate talent: but none of them is Swiss, nor do any of them live in the mountains. Yet they seem fearless. Ines, who says
her age is “seven and two quarters”, performs an elegant forward somersault, planting her helmet in the powder, rolling forwards, and landing again on her skis. Later, following a track bounded by a wall of snow on one side, she skis with one leg on the ground, the other horizontally sideways against the wall. And all of the children adore the snow park and its jumps, taking air with the bravado of fledglings flying the nest.
I try to learn all I can from them – not least their nifty lift queue technique. But somehow I always get left behind, as they wriggle ahead through gaps between the grown-ups. Even Emma and Chloé invariably overtake me – a skill they put down to some 10 years of race training.
When it comes to queue-jumping, the worst offenders turn out to be the grown-ups. As we wait to enter the ski cross course, with its stomach-churning waves and rollercoaster bankings, adult skiers repeatedly cut in ahead of us, pretending not to notice the class of children with their ski school bibs led by an instructor in uniform. The children tut-tut.
After a week of training and touring, for a final afternoon of fun, Emma and Chloé put us on snowblades. I laugh out loud at the sensation of my feet wobbling jelly-like on the tiny skis. Chloé has us skiing backwards on all fours, balancing on our hands and on the tips of our snowblades. We ski the conga, and perfect our penguin technique – launching ourselves down the piste on our tummies. I haven’t giggled so much on skis for a long time.
Half an hour later, we are back on our normal skis at the meeting point, handing our young charges back for the last time to their relieved parents. Smiles all round: the ballet is over for another week.
- 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).