Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The Smell of Winter

It began to snow here last night, and it is still going strong. It is nice to see the first snow of the season falling as early as October, but more exciting is the fact that it is falling all over Europe. The Alps, the Pyrenees and even Engalnd are all getting their share.

Stepping outside this morning I was hit by the smells of winter in the air. Woodsmoke, cold clear air, and the smell of the snow itself, all combined to make it clear that winter is on the way. Autumn is a time for anticipation of the coming winter, and it feels like it is going to be a good one.

I'll sign off with a couple of photos taken whilst working this afternoon, just to show how the snow looked then.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

How to extend your winter season

Many people I speak to seem to think that the ski season lasts from Christmas until February. There is a mad rush to fit everybody's holiday into a few short weeks. Even seasoned skiers often seem to think the season is basically late December until mid March. In fact it is quite easy to make a winter season last six months or more in Europe. This year I am planning to do five months (mid-November to mid-April) but it will be running out of money and work that ends the winter, rather than running out of snow. Similarly, most ski resorts shut in April when the customers dry up, not when the snow melts.

To start the long winter, plan some warm up weeks in a high resort with a glacier. I'm heading to Tignes in November for four weeks race training, but there are other options. No resorts will be fully open, but some will have quite a few runs. In late November and early December, watch out for resorts opening early, especially if there is good snowfall. Last year several Austrian resorts opened a few weeks earlier than planned to take advantage of good conditions - the publicity was probably worth more to them than the actual tickets they sold.

Opening dates proper are spread throughout the first half of December (with one or two exceptions) so from then until April it's easy. Take your pick of resorts or travel between them.

Into April, and resorts start to close as they run out of customers. Most of the bigger resorts will be open until late April at least. Some, such as Val D'Isere or Chamonix are open until early May. After that it is time to get out the skins and start hiking, as the only way up is under you own steam. May is the height of the ski touring season - spring snow, longer days, safer conditions and no crowds mean ideal conditions for gettting away into the back country. Most years ski touring will be possible well into June.

After that, well if you want to keep skiing it's back to the glaciers for summer skiing. Or up to the Arctic Circle to ski under the midnight sun. Or down to NZ, Oz or South America.

Hopefully this might give some of you some ideas, either to extend your ski season, or to slip in an extra holiday or long weekend. Of course there is a whole world out there - there are lots more places to ski in Europe than those I've mentioned, let alone North America and Asia.

By the way the photos are from Tignes last November and Chamonix in May.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Three Tier ISIA

This post is all about forthcoming changes in ski instructor qualifications, so if you are not an instructor or planning to become one it might all sound a bit complicated. Hopefully it will be of some use to those choosing an instructor or ski school as well.

The International Ski Instructor Association (ISIA) has been setting minimum standards for ski instructor qualifications for some time now. These standards are pretty high, and to be awarded a qualification with the ISIA Stamp is an achievement that usually takes several years. This stamp represents the top or next to top level in the various national sytems, e.g. BASI Ski Teacher, CSIA 3, PSIA 3 or NZSIA 2. For a more detailed explanation of ski instructor qualification levels see this post.

Up to now, the ISIA has never recognised any other qualifications, either higher or lower. This has made it dificult to compare qualifications from different countries, and have them recognised properly when working around the world. Many European countries have a top qualification that is significantly more demanding than the ISIA stamp, which they consider to be a middle level. Each system also has one or more entry level qualifications which are generally similar in standard to one another but which have no international recognition.

Earlier this year, the ISIA proposed a new three tier ISIA stamp system. This will retain the current ISIA stamp as the middle level. The new levels will be as follows:

Entry Level - for "non professional ski teachers" and entitled to hold the national association stamp. This is likely to be similar to BASI Level 2 Instructor, CSIA 2, PSIA 2 or NZSIA 1.

The 2nd Level - "the first step for Professional Ski Teachers" Recognised by the ISIA as meeting the Minimum Standards, entitled to the ISIA Stamp. This should be similar to current ISIA stamp qualifications.

The Top Level - Fully qualified Ski Teacher. At this level the curriculum must include a speed test and a mountain safety module. Entitled to the ISIA Card. This is likely to be at the level of the top European qualifications such as the BASI ISTD, French Diplome National, Italian Maestro etc.

Hopefully when these levels are established internationally it will put an end to any uncertainty about how various qualifications relate to each other, and make it easier for qualified instructors to work around the world. It might also make it easier for customers to choose an instructor.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Using Your Mobile Abroad

A common peice of advice for anybody travelling abroad for any length of time (e.g. doing a ski season) is to buy a local phone or SIM card. If you can get your phone unlocked, and for many phones you can do it free on various websites, then a new SIM card is the cheapest way but buying a new phone does let you check your messages on your existing number more easily.

The rationale is the high prices most phone operators charge for roaming calls and texts, and the assumption that calls with an operator from the country you are in will be vastly cheaper. However, this is not always the case as I recently discovered in France. Several friends told me that only one of the French networks provides decent reception in the Chamonix valley, so there seemed no point in shopping around for the best deal. I bought a basic thirty Euro SIM card, expecting to get nearly that much credit and in fact getting only five Euros included. I wasn't too happy about that, since every SIM card I have bought before in any country has nearly its full value included as credit, but I thought of how much money I would save by stopping using my UK phone. Until I found the (not well advertised) tarrifs and discovered that making calls in France cost 55 Eurocents a minute - significantly more than using my UK phone in a foreign country. Roaming charges have been capped by EU law for the last year or so, but it seems there is no limit to what a company can charge its customers while at home.

Anyway the moral is: research things before you rush in and buy, and compare the prices properly. There are several options for using a mobile abroad - buying a local SIM, buying a roaming SIM that works cheaply in many countries, or finding a phone operator in your home country that does good roaming tarrifs.