Freestyling on the airwaves

 The radio producer helping English-speaking visitors access Verbier’s sweet spots.

Karine and Conor Lennon from Mountain Radio Verbier

Karine and Conor Lennon from Mountain Radio Verbier

Hunting down untracked snow became that bit easier following the launch of a new radio station in Verbier earlier this year.

Mountain Radio Verbier is Switzerland’s only commercial English-language station, offering a mix of content that can include anything from an interview with a cheese maker, to reports on temperatures at the top of a chairlift.

The station serves Verbier, the neighbouring small ski resorts, and the scattering of farming hamlets in between – and is the brainchild of a man who grew up outside Bracknell.

“The idea was to use the latest technology to create a holiday radio station”, says 38-year-old Conor Lennon, founder and director of Mountain Radio Verbier. “And, given the international clientele attracted to the region, it made sense to broadcast in an international language: English.”

The station has two main shows, featuring a range of music, quirky news items, adverts and interviews. In addition, Ski Breakfast carries bulletins on temperatures around the slopes, news of lift or piste closures, and live reports on snow conditions. The Après-Ski Show carries weather forecasts for the next day, and offers suggestions for activities in and around the resorts. If the formula proves successful, you may soon come across more stations like this at resorts across Switzerland.

Conor Lennon from Mountain Radio VerbierThis is not a medium serving a ghetto of holidaymakers and ex-pats unwilling or unable to communicate with locals in their own language. This week, the station is encouraging listeners to watch a play staged in a village across the valley, performed entirely in the local Franco-Provençal patois. Luckily there are subtitles in French “for those not completely conversant in local dialect,” Conor tells his audience. “And let’s face it, that is most people.”

For language is a sensitive issue here, Conor says. “There have been tensions in the community, with English visitors being seen to dominate the resort, and not making the effort to speak French. But while we broadcast in English, we see ourselves as translators, using our language skills to introduce listeners to lesser-known people, places and events.”

Short interviews with locals – everyone from community leaders and ski instructors to restaurateurs – feature regularly, complete with personal recommendations for finding sweet spots in the ski area that visitors might not otherwise discover.

For three years Conor worked for World Radio Switzerland in Geneva, and it was then that he and his wife Karine came up with the idea of creating their own radio station.

“We were already building a chalet to live in just up the valley from Verbier, in Lourtier,” says Conor, “and we thought – wouldn’t it be great if we could work here rather than commute?”

After a year of intensive research, Conor and Karine had a plan: to create a studio in the ground floor of their chalet. “It’s surprisingly straightforward to set up a radio station with modern technology,” says Conor. The local cable operator laid a fibre-optic link to the chalet, and a company called Vibration 108 fitted a mixing desk, and installed a professional playout system on the computer.

John Bristow, presenter on Verbier Mountain Radio

John Bristow

But it is the local content that makes the broadcasts distinctive. This week, Ski Breakfast is featuring a number of this weekend’s events, including Carnival celebrations in the villages, a freestyle competition in the Snowpark, and a ride down the pistes on mountain bikes fitted with special snow tyres.

The show’s presenter, John Bristow is a native of Brighton who has lived in the valley for a decade. He announced an imminent game involving the local football team, FC Sion, which had “got through 30 managers in eight years”. Conor added: “The owner even put himself in the job for a while. But he didn’t trust himself, and he got the sack, too.”

Just before going off air at 10.30am, John berated anyone who is not yet up on the slopes. “It’s a beautiful day, and the snow’s lovely. What are you waiting for?”

  • You can listen to the programmes in the Verbier St. Bernard region on any normal radio plugged into the cable network on 96.9 MHz, or anywhere in the world on smartphone or via the website www.mountainradioverbier.com
  • Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier 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)

The ninja snow man

Meet the world’s deadliest ski instructor

Michael Mason, instructor at the Swiss Ski School in VerbierYou normally know what you can expect to find in a ski school brochure. Group courses, private lessons, children’s club, perhaps a special cool school for teenagers. But a bodyguard service..?

The Swiss Ski School of Verbier has just published its new brochure, and believes it may have come up with a first – by offering skiers the services of a Swiss-qualified instructor who is also a trained bodyguard.

You may wonder why you might need one. Have manners really become that bad on the slopes? Are the rosbifs really so boorish and unpopular that they risk being lynched on the piste? Or have the lifts become so crowded that you need a bodyguard to defend your place in the queue?

Not according to the man in question, Michael Mason from Brighton. He expects his services to be of interest to visiting celebrities, and to super-wealthy skiers worried about the risk of kidnapping.

“People like Russian billionaires,” says Mason, “they know that criminals are going to think seriously about kidnapping their kids. They probably have their own highly trained security, and are protected in resort, and when they are driving – but can their bodyguards ski?”

So what, you wonder, would a ski instructor/bodyguard actually do when things get ugly? Unclip his skis for a round of fisticuffs? Bundle his celebrity client onto a waiting skidoo to whisk them away from irritating fans? Smuggle them down the slope incognito in a blood wagon?

“It’s all about eyes,” says Mason. “It’s seeing a problem before it gets too close. It’s about planning, and being prepared. Close protection isn’t about being a roughty-toughty, it’s being able to think clearly and spot trouble before it happens. That’s all part of your training.”

It’s not so different from the awareness you need as a ski instructor, says Mason. “The whole time you are thinking about the safety of your students, watching out at crossings, keeping an eye out for skiers or snowboarders who might be out of control.”

Mason’s protection extends to breaks, as well – for example, avoiding exposure in visible locations by making reservations for lunch, using a false name that has been agreed with the restaurant.

When he is not in Verbier, Mason is based in Brighton. Outside the ski season, he teaches martial arts and self-defence around Britain, works as a freelance bodyguard, and runs courses in close protection – mostly for former soldiers who want to work as bodyguards.

A long way, you might think, from the world of the ski resort. “I always wanted to be in the mountains,” says Mason. “When I was growing up, it very rarely snowed – but when it did, I loved that mystical, magical feeling when everything went white. I loved the snow, I loved being cold, and I just had this dream of living in the mountains.”

Michael Mason, instructor at the Swiss Ski School in VerbierHe discovered skiing on a school trip, aged 16, and fell in love with the sport immediately. For many years he skied for pleasure, before training as an instructor in Verbier – where he has worked for the local Swiss Ski School every winter since.

His passion for martial arts, meanwhile, began at the age of ten: “It was at the height of the Bruce Lee era. There was a programme on TV called Kung Fu with David Carradine, and the first time I saw that I was hooked.” Mason took up karate while he was still at school, and went on to train in the Japanese martial art of aikido, before qualifying as in instructor in Krav Maga, a combat system developed in Israel. Soon after, he discovered what was to become his calling – the Japanese martial art of Ninjutsu. For the past 20-odd years, he has been travelling to Japan for a month every year to train with a grand master.

Ninjas are known in popular culture, both in Japan and in the West, as masters in sabotage, espionage and assassination. Over the centuries, they have gained a reputation for possessing supernatural skills – such as being able to control the elements, and become invisible.

For Mason, it is not just the oldest of Japanese martial arts, but also a highly spiritual discipline. “It’s not about how well you can kick, or punch, or throw someone, it’s about how well you can recover from being punched, kicked or thrown. It’s about developing the spirit of survival.

“If you are thrown 1,000 times, you get up 1,001 times. In training, I may be thrown six feet up in the air, slammed onto the ground, and choked – and yet afterwards I bow, and say: thank you very much. But that’s not part of English culture – saying thank you for nearly breaking my bones.”

Much of the discipline, according to Mason, is about controlling your ego. “You don’t get into a fight just because you think you’re tough. Sometimes it means avoiding trouble. It’s about picking your fight at the right time, when the odds are in your favour.” Which fits in with the image of Ninja as the stealthy, quick-witted fighter of folklore.

“Like any martial art, it’s about using your body in the most efficient and effective way,” says Mason. “And that’s not so different to skiing – it’s about being able to survive whatever the mountain throws at you.”

  • Classes at the Swiss Ski School in Verbier can be booked through Verbier Sport + (00 41 27 775 33 63; www.verbierbooking.com)
  • Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier 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)

The secret life of the ski resort

Back to Verbier – in a bid to discover what goes on behind the scenes in a ski resort – and to track down the experts who can transform a skiing trip.

Top station of the Mont Fort cable car, Verbier/Nendaz

Top station of the Mont Fort cable car

Have you ever wondered, as you sit on a chairlift, what would happen if it broke down? Who would come to help? How would they get to your chair? And how would they lower you down?

Perhaps you have had similar thoughts riding a cable car up a giddying rock face. Or asked: how did they build that pylon projecting out of the top of the cliff? And how did they loop miles of thick steel cable over the pylons and pull it taut?

Over the next few months, I hope to find out. A few days ago I returned to the Swiss town of Verbier for another winter in the mountains. Last season, I wrote about my time learning to be a ski instructor here. This time, I will dig a little deeper into what goes on behind the scenes in a ski resort with a regular column for Telegraph Travel Online.

Competitor at Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World Tour, being photographed

Competitor at Xtreme Verbier

Take those moving lights that you glimpse on the distant slopes late in the evening, as you head home from a bar. I’ll be finding out how it feels to spend all night alone in a piste basher, grooming slopes immaculately in time for breakfast. I’ll discover what it is like to be plucked off the piste by a helicopter – should you be unlucky enough to need one.

I’ll also be speaking to the world’s top freeride skiers and snowboarders at Verbier Xtreme, the climax of the Freeride World Tour, and will find out what motivates them to throw themselves off 50-foot cliffs. And I’ll meet the people that capture their exploits, and will pass on their pearls of wisdom to budding photographers and videographers.

For those looking to improve their time on the slopes, I will be passing on skiing tips from Warren Smith, one of the most highly respected coaches in the Alps; I will also bring you advice from top children’s instructors on making a family ski trip safe and enjoyable. And I’ll explore the innovative ways people find to make their annual trip to the Alps more permanent by talking to the chefs, resort managers, beauticians and others who make a life for themselves here in Verbier.

Student of Emmanuelle Luisier and Chloé Darbellay, ski instructors, Verbier

Budding champion at the Swiss Ski School, Verbier

For now, I count myself among them.

I spent the summer dreaming of snow-covered mountains, slogging away in London to finance the season. I worked on my fitness – including learning to unicycle to improve my balance, as one of my coaches suggested – and now I am back to train with the Swiss Ski School in preparation for my first dose of instructing other parents’ children.

And I am feeling a little anxious. I have a couple of weeks of compulsory instructor training, in French, and memories are flooding back of my own first ski class as a child, across the valley in Leysin. For a moment, I almost wish my mum and dad were here to make sure I’m wrapped up properly, haven’t forgotten my goggles or lift pass, and have a few francs in my pocket for a hot chocolate.

I am thrilled, though, at the prospect of sharing the pleasure I get out of skiing, and of introducing children to the joys of being in the mountains in winter. And I am looking forward to working face to face with people – instead of communicating through electronic gadgets, as I do at home.

So far, I am not missing much about life in London: certainly not the Underground, nor Oxford Street in December. And I am delighted to be in a place where fresh snowfall does not bring everything to a grinding halt but spreads a bigger smile on people’s faces. As the resort comes back to life, there is a definite buzz in the air and I get the sense that a fascinating season lies ahead. It’s great to be back.

The sun reflected in the clouds, seen from Attelas, Verbier.

Unusual optical effect: sunshine reflected in the clouds above Verbier

  • Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier 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)

Ski instructor course 14: Survival on the slopes

Can you actually make a living as a ski instructor? Three professionals tell their story

Instructors from the Warren Smith Ski Academy, Verbier

On the job, from left: Rob Stanford, Tom Goldney, Tom “Scouse” Lewis and Jordan Revah

What do ski instructors live on when the snow melts? Can you make enough to survive the winter, let alone the other seasons? And what use is a ski qualification in summer?

These are just three of the questions regularly asked by skiers – and of course would-be ski instructors.

The first thing a professional instructor will tell you is that it takes time to build up work. As a newly qualified member of staff at a ski school, you are last in the pecking order. You will be given classes at busy times – Christmas, February half-term, Easter – but in quieter weeks you may end up with none at all.

Starting pay for an instructor at a Swiss resort is typically £13-£16 an hour, so a novice will have a challenge making ends meet. However, instructors say that if you continue training, secure further qualifications, and gain a reputation for reliability and professionalism, your pay rate and workload will improve steadily.

I asked three of the coaches at the Warren Smith Ski Academy about their own experience. Each has managed to turn their passion for skiing into a lifestyle that pays – but in very different ways.

WSSA instructor Tom Goldney (in yellow) with our traning group

Tom Goldney (in yellow) teaching our group

Tom Goldney, a 28 year-old from Hertfordshire, spent several summers doing a variety of jobs in Britain before finding the perfect complement to his winter work: managing a watersports centre at a lake in Oxfordshire, where he teaches water skiing, wakeboarding, knee-boarding, and barefoot water skiing (www.hardwickparks.co.uk). “The sports have a lot in common,” says Tom. “Waterskiing is all about confidence, balance and coordination. Like with skiing, you need to be supple enough to bounce instead of break; confident enough to take the risk to change; and flexible enough to create the shapes you need to make the most out of the equipment.”

Since doing his first ski instructor course 11 winters ago in Andorra, Tom says he has “sweated blood and tears, and spent a fortune on training. But you do this job for the lifestyle, not the money. And the work is incredibly rewarding. Thankfully we deal with people in their best frame of minds – they come willing to learn, like a sponge, ready to absorb. They leave all their stress at home, there’s no nine-to-five grief.”

WSSA instructor Rob Stanford (right) with Will, a gap-year trainee ski instructor

Rob Stanford (right) with my fellow trainee Will

Meanwhile Rob Stanford, also 28, spent his first few summers after qualifying working at the artificial outdoor slope where he first learned to ski at the age of seven, just minutes from where he grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire. “It was really nice going back, and staying with my mum and dad,” says Rob. “And it really inspired me in my teaching – you get such a variety of people to work with.”

As well as skiers brushing up their skills and groups of schoolchildren, Rob regularly taught a group of autistic skiers – “always a challenge, but really rewarding” – and a group of blind children. “Their other senses were so amplified, they were superb – a real pleasure to work with. They made me think really carefully about how I communicate.”

Perhaps his most challenging, yet rewarding, student was a young offender who arrived with a pair of minders. “It was a problem even getting the ski boots on,” says Rob. “He had a tag on one ankle, and on the other he still had the wound where the police dog had got him.” By the end of two hours, though, he was skiing the whole slope. “He’s the quickest learner I’ve ever had,” says Rob. “Totally fearless. I wish all my students were like that.”

Tom Lewis (right) coaching would-be ski instructors in Verbier

Tom “Scouse” Lewis (right) coaches the group

As for 25-year-old Tom “Scouse” Lewis, from the Wirral, becoming a ski instructor was a dream since childhood. His parents took him on ski holidays from an early age, as well as to the local Merseyside Ski Club. “I thought the people who taught me were the best thing since sliced bread,” he says. “Being a ski instructor seemed the coolest job in the world.”

First, however, Scouse needed a skill that would get him to the Alps – so straight after GCSEs he did a year’s training as a chef, in Chester. For two winters, he ran and cooked for a 20-guest chalet in Courchevel; in his spare time he trained as a ski instructor, as well as learning how to service skis “for beer money” (see blog 17).

Scouse moved to Verbier where he built up his skiing experience and qualifications in subsequent winters, but summers proved more of a challenge. Initially he worked back home as a chef, but the long and unsocial hours meant he barely saw friends or family. The solution: a job at a factory packing Coco Pops, Cheerios and muesli – with every evening and weekend off.

After four winters of ski training, Scouse landed his current job at the Warren Smith Ski Academy. As well as running week-long ski courses and coaching future ski instructors, Scouse teaches summer camps on the glacier at the Swiss resort of Saas-Fee, and in the spring and autumn gives day courses at indoor artificial snow slopes around the UK.

Which proves that you can make a living working on snow year-round as an instructor, even without setting foot in the southern hemisphere. The journey there, however, is anything but one long holiday.