Wednesday, 31 October 2007

How many pairs of skis does one person need?

I've been giving all my skis a bit of TLC today, ahead of travelling out to resort in a couple of weeks or so. I started thinking, does one person really need all this stuff? I have four pairs of skis here in England to take out with me, plus another pair of skis and a (whisper it) snowboard stored in Andorra over the summer. Back in the days of straight skis, I managed for years with one pair of skis that did everything, although I did travel with a couple of pairs towards the end of the straight ski era.

So could I make do with less? Well, I need the GS skis to train for the Eurotest, I need the slalom skis for any other ski courses I take this year, and for general training. I need the touring skis for the back country. I need the twintips for freestlye and skiing switch. The twintips are also a lot easier for teaching beginners, as they take less effort to snowplough and they go backwards easily. My other skis in Andorra, my old twintips, should probably be thrown out, I just keep them as a spare teaching set. The GS skis I have for a specific course, so I won't count them, but the other three pairs I really couldn't imagine doing without for a winter. If I didn't have the slalom skis I would quickly become a lazy skier (it has happened before), and my performance skiing would suffer. If I did not have the twintips I would not be able to go backwards, or do any of the tricks involving landing backwards. Also, I would have to teach on race skis or touring skis. If I left out the touring skis, well, I would have to stick to going downhill from the lifts. Until somebody invents a high performance ski that goes backwards too, and a touring binding that can cope with freestyle and racing, then it will have to be three pairs of skis.

So far this post just seems to be an attempt to justify my own extravagance, however, I want to make the point that the divergence of ski designs over the last few years has led to increasingly specialist skis. This means that a good skier either needs to specialise, or to have access to more than one pair of skis. For the recreational skier, this means that renting equipment is often a more attractive option as it gives the opportunity to try out different kit over the course of a holiday or two.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Skiing Postmen

I have just been researching an article on the history of skiing in Andorra for the Arinsal-Andorra website and I made the surprising discovery that the first skiers in the principality were neither tourists, nor ancient hunter gatherers as in other parts of the world. In fact, the first skier in Andorra was a Soldeu postman by the name of Miquel Farré.

Miquel and his colleagues originally used snowshoes to make their deliveries during the winter months. Once a week, he collected some mail from the French village of Porto, where the local inhabitants used long pieces of wood to travel over the snow. One day during the winter of 1924, Miquel returned to Soldeu on a pair of these contraptions. His collegues were duly impressed and adopted the idea. The Andorra Ski Club was founded in 1932 and the rest is history.

The only downside to this research is the discovery that Soldeu, and not Arinsal, was the birthplace of Andorran skiing. Oh well, we can't have everything.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Back to the Espace Killy

Well, I am all set for my autumn race training session. I have a fortnight booked in Tignes - I would have liked to have spent longer, but time and money constraints precluded that. I am looking forward to returning to the Espace Killy area after a six year absence. My first ski season was spent working in a hotel in La Daille - the cheap end of Val D'Isere, just over the hill from Tignes - over the 99/2000 season. I returned to visit a couple of times the following season when I was working in Meribel, but have not been back since.

The ski area is truly world class - one of the best places I have ever skied. It has everything for the good to expert skier - fast reds, tough blacks, huge areas of accessible off-piste, steeps and couloirs as extreme as you want them and plenty of back country to explore. The lift system is excellent, with many high speed lifts. However the number of good and expert skiers in the area means you have to get up very early, or hike, if you want fresh lines and untracked powder. The nature of the terrain also means the avalanche risk is quite significant, and care is always needed when venturing even a short way off piste.

The town of Val D'Isere is not one of my favourites in the Alps. The nightlife is all there, including the legendary (according to them) Dick's Tea Bar and I did have a great season there, but I have found other resorts are friendlier, more down to earth and less cliquey. It will be interesting to see how Tignes compares - I have skied through it many times but never stayed there.

Friday, 26 October 2007

New widgets and buttons

You may have noticed a sudden proliferation of new bits and bobs down the right hand side of this page over the last few days. On the basis that a blog without readers is hardly a blog at all, I decided to try out a few promotion/directory strategies. If you have arrived here via one of the directories, well you already know all about them - welcome to the blog. None of these involve any paid advertising (unlike the Google Ads at the top), just mutual promotion between blogs. So if you are curious, or want to promote your own page, click on one of the buttons to the right and see where you end up. Top Blogs and BritBlogs are blog directories, LinkReferal is a directory/community for all types of site (with a couple of reviews of this blog already) and Blog Rush lists post titles from a selection of (hopefully) related blogs.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Who Wants to be a Ski Instructor?

If you have been following my occasional series of posts on how to be a ski instructor (see Part 1 - The Gap Course, Part 2 - Individual Courses and Part 3 - Finding a Job) you will have an idea of what it takes to gain a ski (or snowboard) instructor qualification and start looking for a job. The next question is: Is it for you?

For me, teaching skiing is the best job in the world. However it is not an easy way to make a living. My summer 'holiday' this year was a two week ski training course, since when I have been working six days a week to pay for november ski training before the season starts. If you just want to spend a season working in a ski resort (something I highly recommend and will talk about in a future post) then there are much easier ways to do it than instructing, unless you are already qualified. Working for a hotel, bar, shop or tour company you will have a great season with a lot more personal ski time than an instructor. If you simply want to ski, the chances are you will soon become frustrated with teaching beginners on the nursery slopes.

Teaching is something to look at if you want a longer seasonal career. The investment of time and money to be an instructor means that for most of us it is not worth pursuing for a season or two (although you can always continue teaching part time, either a week or two a year or on artificial slopes as mentioned in the previous post). Most instructors teach for several years to a lifetime, with many working two winters a year - the second in New Zealand, Australia or South America. In the school I work for, the oldest instructor is 67 and has taught there for fifteen years, many instructors have worked ten years or more and even the ski school photos from the seventies have a number of familiar faces on them.

In the Alpine nations ski instructing is usually seen as a long term career, often started as a teenager and ended at retirement age. While the British do not always see it this way, it is certainly to be regarded as more than a holiday job, if only because of the effort it takes to get the instructor license in the first place.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

How To Be A Ski Instructor. Part 3 - Finding A Job

Okay, so you've been on the courses and got yourself qualified as a ski instructor (see Part 1 - The Gap Course and Part 2 - Individual Courses). The next step is to find a job and be an actual ski instructor as well as qualified as one. If you passed last winter you have hopefully found a job for the winter. If you qualified in the summer, or if you hope to pass this autumn, it will be difficult (but not impossible) to find a full time instructor position abroad before the start of the season.

The problem facing newly qualified instructors, just like anyone newly qualified in any other profession, is that most employers are looking for people with experience. The work experience part of some qualifications and gap courses helps with this, but it is inescapable that you will be much more employable once you have some paid work experience on your CV.

If you are applying for jobs abroad, work at it hard and apply for as many as you can find. Look on the web, in the BASI news/course directory. Find contacts for as many ski schools as you can and phone them up. I will revisit overseas job applications in the spring, but for now I am going to look at other options to get the experience you need for your dream job in the Alps.

Firstly, look at the local artificial slopes. There are many indoor and dry ski slopes throughout the country and all of them employ ski instructors. Hours tend to be more evenings and weekends (though not exclusively) so can fit around other work or study. The busiest period runs from around October until March, as people visit before their winter holiday.

The second option is the peak week employer. There are a number of companies which employ instructors for a week or two at a time. These jobs are sometimes misleadingly advertised as part time instructor positions. The best known of these companies is Interski, who run a program of school ski trips in the Aosta Valley in Northern Italy throughout the winter. Interski and other companies offer a package including travel and half board accommodation, with lunches at mountain restaurants - basically a free trip with pay on top and around twenty five hours work. Many regular ski schools also take on extra staff at peak weeks (i.e. school holidays).

The final option I would suggest is Scottish skiing. There are five ski areas in Scotland, each with a ski school. My first season as an instructor was at Nevis Range (pictured above). I had a great winter and picked up a thorough grounding in every aspect of teaching skiing at instructor level. I taught private and group lessons of all abilities as well as school groups and adult ski club classes at the weekends. I also ran lifts when needed and helped in ski hire, skied with the patrollers in the mornings before work and had a much fuller experience of the mountain operation than in my subsequent seasons in New Zealand and Andorra.

So if you don't find yourself working in Verbier, Zermatt or St. Anton the winter after you qualify, stay positive. There are plenty of jobs out there and plenty of ways to gain the experience you need.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

More signs of winter

Today was another crisp clear day at the high ropes course where I'm working until the winter starts. I love the atmosphere at this time of year when the mist lies low on the ground and fills the hollows with dewy dampness until the sun drives it away. This week has seen the first frost and the first frozen windscreens in my part of the world, as well as the butter being to harder to spread. One by one the memories of a damp summer are banished into the past as we move into a glorious autumn. I know I've said it before, but this really is a great time of year. Time to prepare for winter, so I'll be getting out the waxing iron and giving all my skis some attention over the next few weeks, working out if I need any new kit and making sure everything is servicable and ready for action. Don't leave it all to the last minute.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

"People who sue ski resorts should be shot"

The above quote is by extreme skier Scott Schmidt in the seminal ski movie The Blizzard of Ahhhs. He was making the point that in many ski areas there were restrictions in where one could ski because the resorts were worried about getting sued if somebody hurt themselves on a dangerous run. The freedom to ski where and how you want was being eroded due to people not taking responsibility for their own actions. His comments were made nearly twenty years ago, but seem more relevant than ever in this age of blame culture, health and safety and no-win-no-fee lawyers.

Skiing, like any other sport, has inherent risks. Being in the mountain environment also has its own risks. Anybody going skiing, especially off piste, needs to accept the risk and take responsibility for themselves. I have been reading case reports of skiing court cases - there have been a number of cases where an out of control skier has been sued after colliding with another skier, and also a number where an out of control skier has sued the resort after crashing into something. Now if the skier is skiing within their ability level there is no reason why they should crash into a slow moving or stationary hazard like a cliff or a piste basher. If resorts are held responsible for the failures of their patrons it results in higher prices more restrictions for all of us.

A large part of the rewards of adventurous sports comes from managing the risk, pushing yourself without putting yourself in excessive danger, and co-existing with the mountain environment. Expecting to be wrapped in cotton wool and protected from all dangers removes the essence from the sport.

I believe we should have the freedom to challenge ourselves to do crazy things on skis (always concious of the safety of others of course). With that freedom must come the responsiblity to accept the blame when it all goes wrong. We cannot expect the ski area to pick up the pieces simply because they allowed us to do it.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Winter around the corner

It's getting colder. Even sunny days have a chill in the air now. The long wet British summer is finally over and Autumn is in full swing. To me this time of year has all the promise that others see in spring. I tick off the signs of winter approaching one by one. The days shorten, the leaves turn to gold. The mornings are clear and crisp and you can see your breath. Halloween is soon to be followed by bonfire night. For many it is a time of change - the start of the academic year, the end of summer breaks and a return to work proper. For me it is the build up to the winter and the next ski season. What will this one bring - a glut of snow with deep powder, great skiing and the attendant avalanche risk? Or a scarcity with sunshine, clear skies and snow cannon working overtime to keep the resorts open. Either way, or whatever in between we get, there will be skiing to be done. There is always good skiing somewhere, and always rewards for those who make the effort to find it. As they say, a bad day's skiing beats a good day in the office. So, good season or bad, I know it will be a hell of a lot better than staying at home.

See you on (or off) the piste

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Little and often

For years I treated ski servicing as a major chore to be done after a couple of weeks of use, or I would let the shop do it when they were in for repairs after I hit a rock. The problem with this approach is that (a) it takes a lot of work to get the edges sharp again, and (b) the skis don't perform at their best and the edges wear faster.

A better approach is to spend a little time servicing the skis after each day on the hill. The edges can be given a once over with a diamond file (and guide) to restore their sharpness. Leaving it until they are blunt means taking a lot more metal off with the file to get them sharp. Waxing the skis regularly makes the bases faster and does not take too long (but always scrape the wax off when you have finished or they will be slower than if they had not been waxed at all). It is not necessary to wax every day, but it should be done fairly often to get the best out of the skis. Ski racers will often wax their racing skis even if they have not been used, as each wax will make them a little quicker.

Obviously, if you have a ski shop service your skis it is not cost effective to send them in every day, but if you invest in a little equipment, and learn how to use it you can save a lot in shop services. The minimum you need is a file (and guide), an iron (an old clothes iron will do), some wax and a scraper. Ideally you also want a diamond file for finishing off the edges, some brushes for the bases and a vice to hold the skis. Learing how to use all this kit is beyond the scope of this post, but there are plenty of courses and books out there so go Google.

I really need to apply the 'little and often' maxim to this blog as well ;-)