Is it the mountain views? The crisp Alpine air? Whatever it is, hearts keep melting on the slopes of Verbier of late.
You might think the top of a steep mogul run a risky place for a proposal: one false move, and your diamond ring and potential fiancée could go tumbling for hundreds of metres. Perhaps a gourmet restaurant would be a safer bet? I can happily say that both venues fit the bill: as proved by two students on our ski-instructor course this week.
The first happy news comes last Monday morning: Susie Norman, the 26-year-old physiotherapist from Jersey, became engaged to her boyfriend Toby, an army doctor, while he was visiting over the weekend.
He chose to take her to the top of one of Verbier’s classic off-piste runs, from Chassoure down to Tortin. At the top is a vast, steep mogul field where on our first week we saw two skiers tumble down like rag dolls. Toby led Susie on a long traverse high above the moguls – “which he knows I hate,” says Susie – and stopped on a cliff – “which he knows I dislike”.
By the time she caught up he had removed his skis, and handed her one of his gloves. “I thought, that’s funny, there’s something in it. But I couldn’t open the box, my hands were too cold, so he opened it for me – and I cried.
“I think he was scared of me dropping the ring, so we wedged it on and skied straight off down the powder field – though I skied badly, I had jelly legs. And Toby – he was just impatient to carry on skiing.”
By the end of the week, Susie says her cheeks are still sore from all the grinning – and it’s the turn of Alan Smith, the 51-year-old IT consultant from Aberdeen. He has arranged for his girlfriend Alison, from Arbroath, to fly over for a weekend rendezvous, midway through our course.
They spend it in Geneva, and we find out what happened on his return. They were walking round the city when Alan realised he had found the perfect venue: the Café de Paris, world-famous for its entrecôte steaks. Did he get down on one knee, I ask?
“No, it was too crowded for that,” says Alan. “We got a table, ordered champagne, I asked her – she said yes, and she cried.” He arrived back in Verbier armed with two more bottles of bubbly, to celebrate with his fellow chalet guests – one of whom promptly burst into tears. Alan says he and Alison are planning a winter wedding later this year – “evening dress, with kilts” – and that the best man will be one of his two daughters – 25-year-old Amanda.
Two engagements in two weekends is an impressive tally: the mountains must be working their magic. And powerful it is, too: scenery as spectacular as this gives you a guaranteed natural high.
On some days we find ourselves high above a duvet of cloud, so fluffy that you feel like skiing off a crest to bounce across it to the other side of the valley. In the distance, the eerie white dome of Mont Blanc rises behind a serrated skyline of rocky pinnacles. Further to the west stands the towering Grand Combin, draped in glaciers. And from the northern side of the ski area, we can look way down to the vineyards that stretch across the floor of the Rhône valley, a vertical mile below.
All this makes a dramatic backdrop for our training, which is more intense than ever. The musical-chairs rotation of instructors continues, and this week my group has Tom Lewis, aka Scouse: sharp, quick-witted, no-nonsense and inspiring. He drills us further on our technique, and even has me viewing a field of moguls with something other than blind panic.
We continue with our instructor training, and Scouse sets us various scenarios, in which one of our group teaches, and the rest play-act. In turns, we pose as know-it-all Etonians; as women on a rampant hen weekend; as priests on sabbatical; and as 60-year-old women learning to snowplough. I end up teaching a bunch of pretend 8-year-olds who have never been on skis before – and learn a valuable lesson in anarchy management.
Our last day, following local tradition, is Freeride Friday, and a fresh snowfall is all the excuse we need to don fat skis in search of fresh powder. The mountains are muffled in cloud, so rather than swim on our skis through a whiteout, we head for the tree-covered slopes below Savoleyres, where we will be able to see more easily.
For hours we dance through the powder, weaving through the pine trees, making giant doodles in the snow. Each time we emerge from the trees onto a track leading back to the gondola: we glide past pines that strain under the weight of snow, past rowan trees with their fat red berries capped in white, past little log chalets wreathed in wispy veils of cloud. A wintry wonderland: a landscape to enchant the soul, and melt the heart.
- 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).