Ski instructor course 13: new challenges

Time to train using some unconventional skiing techniques – including skiing with unbuckled boots

Statue of someone appearing to ski off the roof of the chapel in Verbier

A challenge too far? Sculpture at the chapel in Verbier

As we glide over the snow – dropping into dips, catapulted up again, feeling weightless at each crest and giddy at each switchback turn in the terrain – I feel as though I am on a giant natural rollercoaster. But today’s is a particularly scary thrill: this feels like a rollercoaster with no seatbelts and no seats, no arm holds. I’m just balancing on my bare feet.

For this run, our coach has asked us to unbuckle our ski boots completely. At first, I panic. Usually I keep my boots tightly buckled, my ankle clamped solid, feeling safe knowing that if I fall my ankle cannot twist. Now my feet are wobbling in my boots, and my skis have taken on a life of their own: I feel as though I have lost all control.

But as we skim over the slope, something strange happens. I realise that as soon as I am perfectly balanced over my feet, my skis start to glide smoothly over the curves in the terrain, like flowing water. And I have a sensation that I have only previously experienced on a surf board: of sliding over waves, feeling through my feet every ripple in the liquid landscape as it passes underneath me.

BASI coach Gherardo Gambaro training students on a WSSA gap-year ski-instructor course, Verbier

Training with “G” (left)

The man who is encouraging us to have these unfamiliar feelings is Gherardo Gambaro, aka G. This Italian-born skier is a trainer with BASI, the British Association of Snowsport Instructors (, and this week and next he is coaching us through our Level 2 exam – the culmination of our nine-week course to train as ski instructors with the Warren Smith Ski Academy (

G has a thing about skiing with boots unbuckled. He also makes us ski on one leg – on one occasion descending half a vertical mile on one ski, which sets our thigh muscles on fire. “To be a good skier it’s not enough just to have raw power,” he says. “You need rhythm, coordination, flexibility – and especially good balance.”

G picked up many of his skills from his father, who would ski carrying his son in a backpack until G was old enough to put on his own skis, aged four. Growing up in the Alps near Turin, G developed a love of the mountains, as well as a taste for adventure. At the age of 17 he cycled around Iceland on a mountainbike, and four years later crossed the island on foot, spending four days traversing the sea of ice at its heart.

The following year he cycled solo across Australia, from Adelaide to Darwin, in 21 days. Another time he paddled 2,000 kilometres in an open canoe, with a friend, down the Amazon: “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says.

On one of his trips G met a woman from New Zealand, and ten years ago moved there to set up home and start a family. In between he has skied, trained and taught both in the Southern Alps and in Europe, clocking up 20 seasons, during which he has trained to the highest level in the New Zealand, British, Italian and Swiss training systems.

“They all have different ways of looking at things,” says G. “But they all produce top skiers. Learn what you can from who you can: the important thing is to keep an open mind.”

One of G’s suggestions is that to work on improving my balance back home, I learn to ride a unicycle, take classes in ice skating, and if I go to a gym, do my workouts perched on a Swiss ball or a wobble board. Balance, it seems, is all-important.

As we do our training, skiing around on one leg or with boots unbuckled, exploring the limits of our ability to balance, memories return of my very first sensations of skiing, decades ago. I recall the fear of sliding out of control, of losing my balance, of falling; and feel again the sense of achievement from gliding freely over the pristine landscape, as if surfing the white waves on the mountain. Understanding novice skiers, I realise, will be much easier after this.

I am reminded, too, of one of the things I love most about skiing. The fact that when you concentrate on balancing on the snow gliding under your feet, focusing on your intensely personal and intimate dance with the mountain, your head clears of any other thoughts. You cannot live in any moment but the present, or you will fall. I find this more relaxing to the mind and soul than any beach holiday, book or sunlounger. Give me movement any day: gliding through a pristine landscape, senses tuned to nature, and balancing free in the here and now.

Verbier: looking out over the cloud-covered Rhone valley