Verbier goes a touch surreal as hippies, burlesque performers and the SAS take to the slopes.
The fresh snow is so deep and fluffy and sticky that skiers taking a tumble look as though they have been rolling in icing sugar. Especially Will: sporting a bib, nappy and baby’s dummy, he looks as though he has been running riot in his mum’s kitchen.
Our tireless nightlife reporter is not the only skier dressed unconventionally today. Craig, the financial wizard from Perth, is wearing his surfing kit – on top of his ski outfit. Susie, the physiotherapist, and Tom and Ollie, gap-year students, are wearing all-in-one morph suits – and looking distinctly creepy, for the camouflage fabric covers their faces as well as the rest of their bodies.
Student Becky is a hippy chick, complete with flower-power floral trousers, beads, tassels and peace pendant. And I’m wearing my shiny black wig and round tinted specs – although I realise that I will need more co-ordination than Ozzy Osbourne to keep my face out of all this white powder.
In fact not just our little group, but all 35-odd students on our ski instructor course are out in fancy dress. Laura, who until recently worked as a risk analyst at an investment bank, looks as though she belongs on a West End stage with her feather boa and headdress. Sixteen year-old James from Ireland, the youngest on the course, is kitted out in a giant green St Patrick’s Day Parade top hat. Rachel, a marketing manager for a cancer research charity, and Emily, a primary schoolteacher, are sporting giant black beehive hairdos and lippy pouts, like a pair of well-behaved Amy Winehouses. Tim, meanwhile, is dressing down: the passionate snowboarder has decided to ski topless: a brave move on such a cold day.
There is an air of celebration because today we complete our training at the Warren Smith Ski Academy before we are handed over for our final two weeks of coaching and assessment with BASI, the British Association of Snowsport Instructors.
There is sadness in the alpine air, too, for we have lost two more students: Joe, an arctic explorer, returned home with an injury to his back, while Alan – the IT programme manager from Aberdeen whose experience of breaking his arm while wearing leopard skin leggings and Rod Stewart wig came in handy on our first-aid course – has broken his arm a second time. Not skiing: he slipped and fell in one of the mountain restaurants, and landed on his elbow. A couple of days later, during a pole-plant, his elbow “went ping”. A local doctor X-rayed him, and sent him home. “I’m absolutely gutted,” said Alan, as I wished him a safe journey home.
The rest of us respond by working all the harder. This week my own group has been training with Rob Stanford – who is in a skin-tight racing suit for fancy-dress freeride Friday. Over the week he fine-tunes our skills, helping us blend a variety of techniques in order to ski moguls, variable snow, steep terrain and wide-open motorway pistes. He videos us as we ski, and later we pore over the images, and discuss how we can alter our posture, balance and movements to conjure up better turns.
As in previous weeks, we also practise our instructing skills by giving each other lessons. Rob comes up with some challenging scenarios: Susie has to teach a group of lairy lads, while Craig tries to work on the technique of some rowdy ladettes without getting distracted by the full-on flirting. He resists admirably – but then it’s only Will, Ollie, Tom and me that he has to fend off.
I, in turn, get a group of teenage delinquents. They pay no attention to what I say: they squabble and swear, and when I try to encourage a spirit of healthy competition by sending them down a slalom course, one of them knocks the poles down one by one, like skittles. When I try to reason with them, they suggest where I put my ski poles.
I narrowly avoid a nervous breakdown, and console myself with the thought that at least none of them has absconded altogether during the course of the class. Rob says that the scenario is not entirely far-fetched: sometimes, the biggest challenge can be simply managing the students.
He tells us that one of the toughest classes he has taught was to a pair of teenage offenders, accompanied by burly minders, at an indoor slope in the UK. Yet once the lads realised that skiing was fun, they learned exceptionally quickly – and the lesson turned out to be one of the most satisfying Rob has taught.
After our fancy-dress skiing, we celebrate at the Farinet. Those who prefer a quieter chat head for the lounge bar, with its big squishy sofas; the others dive into the après-ski bar, where a band plays on stage from late afternoon, and the only way to avoid having beer spilt on you from a great height is by joining the dancers up on the tables and on the bar. When it gets steamy – which it does from about five – someone behind the bar pushes a button, and the glass roof rolls back to release the hot air, and let in a shower of fresh snowflakes.
This could be the last big party before our final exams, and who knows how many of us will be celebrating then?
- 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).