The end of a journey – and a new beginning
We climb on our skis over the untracked snow, through the trees and up to a ridge. Where the ground drops away we can see over the snow-capped treetops to the valley below, framed by a horizon of glaciated peaks. A soothing silence envelops us.
“See this?” asks Gherardo, aka G, the last of the sequence of coaches who have accompanied us on our journey to train as ski instructors. “This is my office. This is the view I have from work every day. And if you all work hard over the next few days, you could work here too.”
I find it hard to believe that we have reached the last of our nine weeks of training in Verbier. But the ride has been an eventful one. With a string of coaches we have spent many hours snaking down the slopes in short turns, carving across the piste in long sweeps, and poring over videos afterwards to hone our technique.
We have revisited our own skiing journey, uncovering memories of being a novice so that we may teach with empathy. And we have accompanied instructors at work, discovering the skills needed to manage a class of tearful tots or a gang of fearless teenagers eager to attack mogul fields like a pack of pinballs.
We have learned how it feels to be buried in an avalanche, and what we can do to avoid them; and we have qualified in basic mountain first aid, and know how to recognise the symptoms of ailments from anaphylactic shock on the piste to a heart attack in an après-ski bar.
And we have skied day-in and day-out – in fog and under piercing blue skies, on ice and over powder, on and off the piste, across wide open bowls and in between the pines. And each week we have survived we have celebrated in style, whether free-riding in fancy dress or dancing on the tables at après-ski.
There have been setbacks in the form of injuries, but happy returns too: Alan, who went home to Aberdeen last month after injuring his elbow, is back this week, with the news that his arm was not broken after all. Of course the news of his engagement, in a classy restaurant in Geneva, as well as that of physio Susie, at the top of a mogul field, have been among the highlights of the course.
I will miss seeing and skiing every day with fellow students who have become good friends. And I will also miss telling this story, for today’s instalment is my last.
It has been a privilege to write about the people who every day live their passion for the mountains – from the inspirational trainers to the equipment gurus, from the instructors who choreograph the complex ballet that is ski school at half-term to the 250-kph speed skiers and the pastry chefs who create miracles of perfection in their ovens in the mountain huts beside the pistes.
There are many more whose stories I wanted to tell: the mountain rescue workers, the helicopter pilots, the technicians who scale the giddying pylons of the cable cars and chairlifts festooned across the peaks and valleys. But time has run out; I hope I can tell them another season.
I have also been inspired by people I have met who have used their creativity and ingenuity to indulge their love of the mountains in unconventional ways. Some juggle occasional stints as a ski instructor with part-time work back in the UK; others have set up home offices here, plying their trades online. If the price is a lack of traditional job security and paid holidays, the reward is a life in which work and leisure find a new balance.
I know I am not the only student on my course with such thoughts going through my head. But for me, until now, they had been distant dreams, a nostalgic connection to childhood.
Every year, for our family holiday, we would travel to the Swiss Alps, to the Italian-speaking region of Ticino. We would stay with my grandmother in the house in which my mother grew up, overlooking Lake Maggiore and the mountains beyond. My grandfather used to serenade them from his bedroom balcony, singing Verdi arias.
I had a chance to stay longer in the Alps when I left school: working as an unpaid dogsbody for a gang of nuns at a mountain retreat high above Lake Lucerne. On the far side of the lake, perched on a high cliff, was a former grand hotel; according to the nuns, this now belonged to the Beatles’ former guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. His devotees, said the nuns, came here to learn yogic flying, and in idle moments between masses and dusting duties we would gaze across the lake to see if we could spot anyone going airborne.
We never did. Yet the mountains did feel like a place where you could sprout wings, even if only spiritual ones; a place of transformation, where the spectacular vistas allow your soul to take flight.
For now, though, my fellow students and I are still here in Verbier, our feet firmly on the snow. We have a final week in which to work on our ski technique and our instructing skills, and we all put in a final burst of effort.
Not just into skiing, but ski bumming as well. One evening, some fellow students take advantage of the CHF 26 (£16) all-you-can-eat pasta deal at a local Italian restaurant to hold a contest. The team does itself proud: after bringing the seventh urn-full of spaghetti, the waitress says the lads have broken the house record. The favourite to win, Alex from Melbourne – aka “The Hunger from Down Under” – gives up after just six and a half bowls, as do most of the others. In the end it is Rich who triumphs after more than seven bowls – feeling “uncomfortably full”, but claiming he could have eaten more if he had to. Alex’s verdict: “Never ever again.”
On the penultimate day of our course, G leads us to the start of a long off-piste route to the valley floor. At the top we have to negotiate a tricky passage between rocks, with a steep drop-off to one side, before we can reach the inviting powder way below.
“Don’t look at the rocks,” says G. “Look at the space in between that you are going to ski.” If you look at an obstacle you will probably hit it, he says: “You need to focus on the solution. You are good skiers, trust your skills. You need to believe you can do it: it’s all in your head.”
We all negotiate the passage successfully, and go on to enjoy a day of glorious skiing. Along the way, G has us give impromptu, unplanned lessons: a beginner’s guide to T-bar lifts; a session on how to ski safely in a whiteout; a workshop on skiing on ice. G makes his final observations in his continuous assessment for the BASI Level 2 exam that we need to pass in order to be able to work as instructors in the Alps.
The next day, we learn that everyone in our group has passed. In fact, of three dozen-odd students that have entered the BASI Level 2 exam with the Warren Smith Ski Academy, all but one have passed.
We are thrilled – and immediately aware of the possibilities opening up for us: for the school-leavers looking forward to long university holidays, and for the professionals pondering how to juggle our lives so that we can spend more time in future in the mountains.
G points out that if we really want to work as instructors, we need to keep training: “This is just the beginning,” he says. And I think he’s right.
- 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).