Friday, 15 November 2013

In Praise of the Stem-Christie

There was a time when the stem-christie was an essential part of learning to ski. Over time both ski technique and ski vocabulary have changed and to many the stem-christie belongs in the skiing history book. The word christie has almost disappeared from the skiing lexicon, being largely replaced with more utilitarian words like 'parallel' or 'turn'.

Back in the day, when the stem-christie was part of
the skiing language
In my eyes this is a real shame since the word christie goes back to the very roots of modern skiing in 19th century Norway. In 1866 Sondre Norheim and his co-skiers demonstrated two radical new techniques in the Norwegian capital of Christiania (now Oslo). One was the Telemark turn, named for Norheim's home town. The other was a skid to stop which became known as the Christiania turn and later as the Christie - this formed the basis of the parallel turn in subsequent decades. The next major developments came in Austria with the invention of the stem and double stem turns. The latter became known as the snowplough and the former evolved into the stem christie with the addition of a vertical movement to unweight the skis. The stem part of the name refers to sliding the outside ski out into a plough or wedge shape. The christie part to bringing the skis parallel in the second part of the turn.

So what has happened to the technique, and why is it rarely taught in modern ski schools? Apart from the change of language giving us clarity at the expense of history, the basic ski progression has changed as well. A true stem involves putting an unweighted outside ski out to the side and then transferring the weight onto it. A modern snowplough or wedge turn is initiated with two skis, turning and weighting both of them at the start of the turn. This allows for an easier progression to the parallel turn as the skier is used to using both feet.

Where does this leave the stem-christie if it is not longer needed in the beginner progression? Many skiers see the parallel turn as the ultimate aim in skiing and any form of stem is therefore seen to detract from technical perfection. More practical skiers see good skiing as being about control - whether this means dealing effortlessly with difficult terrain off piste or skiing a race course as fast as possible. In both these situations the stem-christie is a useful technique to have in the toolbox. Mountain guides and ski mountaineers will have no reservations about using a stem to negotiate heavy snow on lightweight skis with a big rucksack. At the opposite extreme many a ski racer will automatically make a momentary stem at the start of a tight turn, placing the ski on its edge in the new turn before standing on it. This can easily be seen in slow motion footage of the best skiers in the world. Do they care if their skis aren't parallel? Not if it helps them go faster.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

2014 Season Under Way

After the summer hiatus the temperature is dropping and we approach the important part of the year again. The Alpine Ski World Cup got under way at the weekend with Ted Ligety and Lara Gut taking the top spots in the Soelden GS, and yesterday marked 100 days until the Winter Olympics begin in Sochi.

Most of us will not have hit the slopes yet but there has been plenty of early snow across the Alps and people have already started ski touring. Ski clubs, athletes and instructors are up on the glaciers of France, Switzerland and Austria for pre-season training.

My winter season will start the first week of December in Tignes with a week of bumps training. After that I will be in Les 2 Alpes again for the rest of the season, except for three weeks of BASI courses in January. For the moment I am waiting in England, working night shifts and counting down the days.

Monday, 10 June 2013

My New Blog - How I Became a Ski Instructor

For many ski instructors in Europe the road to full certification is a rocky one with many highs and lows along the way. There is hard work and sacrifice and long hours of training. This is interspersed with the euphoria of passing the Eurotest for example. For me the earliest exams were not too bad - I passed everything first time round as far as Level 3, although some of those were pretty close. Moving on to Level 4 has been a long and difficult journey. with many failed hurdles and returns to training with a renewed determination.

With this in mind I have decided to spend some time over this summer writing down the story of how I became a ski instructor. Hopefully this might provide some idea of what it involves for those thinking of embarking on the same path. I know I have touched on this in recent posts with some advice for those considering a ski teaching career, and this is what got me thinking that it might be a good idea to tell my story of the last ten years.

Given that this project will involve quite a lot of writing, I have created a new blog to keep those posts together, rather than writing them in this blog. Please do have a look and let me know what you think.

Friday, 7 June 2013

All Those Pesky Rules on Ski Teaching in Europe

There has been a fair bit in the British press this winter about resort staff, particularly in France, getting in trouble with the local authorities. As the dust settles with the end of the season it might be a good time to have a look at the current situation in European countries. Before that, for those who missed it, here is a quick summary of the main headlines on this subject.

Firstly - the ban on ski hosting. Many tour operators have offered a ski hosting service on their ski holidays in various European countries for many years. The host skis with the guests, showing them the best pistes and restaurants on the mountain. Although some hosts might be qualified instructors they are not allowed to teach nor to go off-piste. In February this year, a court in Albertville ruled that the practice violated French law and compromised safety, effectively banning ski hosts unless they are ski instructors who are qualified to work in France.

The second big story this winter was that of a British ski instructor in Megeve being arrested for allegedly teaching skiing illegally. He was working for Simon Butler Ski, a chalet based holiday company which has long used its own instructors to teach in France and which in the past has won victories in the French law courts allowing them to continue to do so, at least until recently.

There has been much outrage in the UK media over both these stories. Some of it has been reasonable and well reasoned whilst other stories have seen the predictable French-bashing xenophobia so common from the tabloids.

In an attempt to shed some more clarity on this matter for those not involved in European ski teaching, here is a run down of the current situation as I understand it for France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Those who are involved will have their own opinions on what is and what should be the case. I should add the disclaimer that I am no legal expert so I apologise for any errors.

France -

For a French person to qualify through the French system they must first pass the Test Technique - a fairly difficult slalom test where the course must be completed in the time of an opener plus 22%. For those who have not been brought up ski racing every weekend and school holiday this is a lot harder than it sounds and will normally require many weeks of training along with some luck to pass. Having passed this they then take the pre-formation course after which they can begin teaching as a trainee in an approved ski school. Usually these are ESF but there are others. After this they have three years to pass the Eurotest  (a GS exam with a pass time of 0 FIS + 18%). Usually the Test Technique and Eurotest have a pass rate of between 10% and 25% and candidates can have two attempts per year. After the Eurotest there are several more cycles of exams including teaching, technical and the Eurosecurité off-piste and mountain safety exam. After completion, typically taking five to ten years, the instructor is issued with a Diplome Moniteur National and the Carte Pro, which allows them to teach independently.

For a non-French qualified instructor, there is an agreement that EU nationals holding the highest level qualification from their own country can obtain the Carte Pro and work equivalently to a fully qualified French instructor as long as they have passed both the Eurotest and Eurosecurité. This agreement is not yet recognised in law but there are moves to write it into EU legislation on the free movement of workers.

For foreign instructors lacking the top qualification there are some possibilities to work as a stagiere but these vary depending on their country of origin. There are agreements between the French and different nations. Some countries' instructors can work with an ISIA level qualification, others need to pass the Test Technique. Whatever the rule for a particular country stagieres can only work for three years (sometimes extended to four) without gaining full equivalence.

There may be other opportunities for foreign instructors to work, including volunteer teaching,  coaching regular clients from your home country or schoolteachers working with their pupils, but the rules are a little grey in these areas.

Italy - 

The Italian system is quicker and more intensive than the French one but equally challenging. There is a very difficult entry test, including the Eurotest. Having passed this the instructor can gain the top (and only) qualification over a season.

Foreign instructors with a top European qualification can apply for equivalence and work full time in Italy. Other foreign qualified instructors were entitled to work in Italy for up to four weeks per season up to this winter, provided they had a suitable qualification such as BASI Level 2. There are strong rumours that this will be extended to seven weeks from next season. The rules may vary from region to region in Italy.

Switzerland - 

A ski school can employ whoever they want as long as they have a sufficient number of instructors holding the Swiss Patent (the top Swiss  ski instructor qualification - there are conversion courses available for top qualified instructors from other countries to gain this.)

Austria - 

Rules vary from region to region, but they do have a three tier system and it is definitely possible for BASI/CSIA/PSIA/NZSIA Level 2 or 3 instructors to work in some ski schools although they might have to take an Austrian conversion course.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Resorts Opening in June - Or Not

Since the lifts closed here in Chamonix three weeks ago it has been snowing - a lot. Normally May brings summer weather and the snow retreats. Sometimes there is sun, sometimes rain. Snow is not unheard of at the valley floor level but this many snowfalls is pretty unusual. The ski conditions high up must be pretty good right now.

Just over the Swiss border, Verbier got some publicity by suggesting they would open for skiing this weekend (1st - 2nd June) if they got 1000 Facebook likes. Well they did get the likes, and they did consider opening, but in the end said the weather forecast was too bad to make it worthwhile.

Meanwhile in the French Pyrenees, Porté-Puymorens which closed for the winter back on April 1st is reopening for the weekend because of the amount of snow they still have. And unlike upmarket Verbier, the Pyrenean resort say they are definitely going to open for two days.

Dryland Training

Last week I talked about the many reasons why winter is not the best time to improve your skiing. I discussed the reasons why out of season skiing can be better for improving your technique. The other side of this equation is that the off-season is also the best time to improve fitness. Whilst skiing every day in the winter is undoubtedly good for you, it is not likely to be as good as a serious fitness programme. Living in a ski resort it can be hard to keep fit. Gym facilities may be limited or expensive and it is often difficult to get motivated to run or cycle when there is snow on the ground. Plus there is always the temptation to go for an apres-ski drink straight after skiing.

Spring, summer and autumn give you a good seven or eight months to get ready for next winter. There are many approaches, several of which I have written about before. The ideal combination would be a balance of strength and power training, aerobic training, balance and flexibility training. It is best to begin with building an aerobic base at the start of the off season, then gradually introducing weights work to build up strength particularly in the legs and core, before adding speed/power training at the end of the winter. Balance training can be added into the mix at any point.

I have mentioned slackline before - it is great for balance and core strength and you can make up exercises or tricks to train particular muscles. I like to try one legged squats on it for example.

Another unusual training aid is the unicycle - great for balance and working legs and core.

Gym work is also important for that strength training. I wrote a series of posts on ski fitness a while back which are still relevant.

Being creative and imaginative can really help. There are many exercises using different equipment, or none, such as swiss ball exercises, plyometrics, balance boards, jumping or hopping over a ski pole or line. Search YouTube for some top skiers' training routines if you need inspiration.

Finally I will leave you with Jonny Mosely dryland training bumps. The video is a little old now but it is still awesome to watch, and demonstrates how a good training session can use the same movements as skiing.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Why winter is not the best time to get better at skiing

Glacier training in the sun
If you are serious about getting better at skiing - for its own sake, to pass instructor exams or to do better at competitions of any sort, then doing some training over the summer period is vital. For those readers that only manage a week or two of skiing each year then I am not going to suggest that you spend those in the summer. Winter is undoubtedly the most fun time to go skiing, with the best snow conditions.

I am really speaking here to the people who live in ski resorts all winter, or who take extensive winter holidays. Working and living in a ski area is a fantastic lifestyle, lots of fun and will improve your skiing to an extent just by doing it. But ask yourself how much do you really work on your skiing in a winter? Be honest with yourself. There will be some people who are really dedicated to their skiing but most find it hard to train when there is so much else to do. Cruising around the mountains with friends, fun skiing, mountain lunches, and nights out drinking - it's easy to have a great time on the slopes. Then there is work - daytime work gets in the way of skiing and night-time work makes it hard to get up early and perform. Ski jobs (instructor, ski patrol, ski host, video-cameraman, photographer) keep you on your skis all day but you are rarely going to be pushing yourself. The only people who will make really significant improvements over a winter are those who are super motivated or those in an ongoing training programme several days per week. Perhaps a third exception is those who are beginners, or doing their first few full winters, so that they are getting far more practice time on the skis than they have ever had before.

The other problem in winter is that most resorts are not focussed on developing skiers so much as delivering a fun time to holidaymakers. This is natural as holidaymakers bring in the money but it can be frustrating for those trying to train. The spaces to set gates are limited, the pistes may be crowded and the park will be full. In the other three seasons of the year the ski areas that are open know that they are catering mainly to competitors, instructors and others who are serious about developing their performance. The main business for resorts in this period comes from training camps of various types: race camps, freestyle camps, performance courses or instructor training. Because of this, large parts of the skiable terrain are set aside for race courses and snowparks, and these areas are well maintained. There can often be the added bonus of training alongside national teams from all the Alpine nations which is pretty inspiring.

To relate my personal experience; in 2012 I spent three weeks taking instructor courses in Hintertux April/May after my resort had closed, two weeks race training in Les 2 Alpes in June, a weekend in July, six weeks  autumn race training in Tignes in November/December and a final week of Race training in Alpe D'Huez. After all that I finally passed the Eurotest, but not by much. In those twelve weeks of training, even though some of the days were quite short, I made far bigger improvements to my skiing that I could have done in several seasons of teaching every day.

It is possible to practise alpine ski racing, piste skiing, bumps and nordic skiing on glaciers in spring, summer and autumn in Europe. Off-piste skiing is harder to work on in summer, although the spring is the best time to do many descents and I have done some great ski touring in August in France such as my ascent of Mont Blanc in this post.

The other side of summer training is dryland training - gym and fitness sessions - which are essential if you want to achieve your winter potential. More on that in the next post

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Do you REALLY want to be a ski instructor

The ski season has just finished and so I have a little more time to write on my blog. I have been asked many times how to go about becoming a ski instructor, and I have gone into detail about the 'hows' over several previous posts and a little bit about the 'whys' as well. See previous posts about a career as a ski instructor.

Big snowplough, looking back to count the kids and a tasteful uniform - all part of the job
If you are thinking of qualifying as a ski instructor then I would be the first to say go for it. It will improve your skiing and open the door to many opportunities. There are great part time jobs available ranging from evenings at a dry slope or snowdome to weeks in the Swiss or Italian Alps. If you want to work full time there are amazing experiences to be had all over the world, from Australia to Japan, Chile to Canada, New Zealand to Norway.

However, if have plans to make a long term career out of teaching skiing then it is worth thinking long and hard before you start. If you want to get qualified to the top level in Europe and you are not already a very competent ski racer then be prepared to spend several years and many thousands of Euros getting there. You may well find yourself putting every penny (or cent) you can get your hands on into your ski career. There is always equipment to buy, exams to take, training to pay for etc. Unfortunately there is no allowance for age either, so it can be even more difficult if you start later in life.

If you don't reach the top European level then it is still possible to make a living as an instructor, but it can be harder to make ends meet. When considering where to work there is always a balance between wages, hours and cost of living. In some countries (particularly in North America) making a viable career means building up a base of regular clients, and this takes time. In others, instructors move up the priority list with years of service, languages spoken or qualifications. There is almost always a priority list in a ski school, and those at the top will make money whilst those at the bottom may struggle in lean years. In other words, to do well in a ski school often means being there for several years.

If you have a well paid job you can do in the summer months, or another source of income then things will be easier. If your current or previous employment is something that is hard to do on a six monthly basis then it will be a good idea to look for an alternative summer career. Doing back to back seasons (i.e. Northern hemisphere winter then Southern hemisphere winter) sounds like a great way to spend the whole year teaching but until you get well established as an instructor it can be hard to break even every season. Especially when you include the cost of flights and the inevitable time not working as you find your feet in a new place.

I don't want to sound to negative, as I have had so many good times and met so many fantastic people over the last few years. I love teaching skiing and plan to do it for the rest of my life. On the other hand I have spent around 30 000 Euros on ski exams, training and equipment, and I still haven't finished. At the moment I have just one exam left to pass to reach Level 4. When I finished my Level 3 I had no idea just how far away Level 4 was, nor just how tough the Eurotest would prove.

My favourite author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, was asked what piece of advice he would give to aspiring writers. His reply: "I'd tell them that you should only become a writer if the possibility of not becoming one would kill you. Otherwise, you'd be better off doing something else." This is pretty close to how I feel about ski teaching. Getting to the top level in this profession has been a rollercoaster ride with great rewards but also big sacrifices. With one exam to go, I hope that the ride is nearly over.

If teaching skiing is your dream then don't let me put you off. Good luck and enjoy the ride.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Ski Resort Parking

Next week I'm heading over to Val D'Isere for a course. I thought I would save some money by staying with a friend in Tignes and making the short drive to Val each day. However it looks like any savings will be more than eaten by the cost of car parking. In Tignes the parking is 15 Euros per day or 75 Euros per week, whilst Val D'Isere is very slightly cheaper. This includes the outdoor parking which used to be free in Val.

In Les Deux Alpes, where I am now, and in Andorra where I was last winter, there is plenty of free parking for both holidaymakers and seasonnaires. My last couple of visits to other resorts were to La Grave and to Hintertux, both of which had free parking. It seems there is quite a difference between resorts on this front so I am curious as to what parking charges are like in other ski resorts.

Please share your experiences of resort car parking in the comments.

Saturday, 26 January 2013


Those of you who have been following this blog will know that I have been trying to complete my Eurotest and BASI Level 4 exams in order to teach in France. The good news is that I passed the Eurotest last month and have only the Level 4 Technical to go. I passed the Level 4 Teach and Mountain Safety at the end of last winter.

I have moved out of Andorra and into the French Alps this winter in order to be closer to where the exams are taking place. The Alps and Pyrenees are both having a great season so far, with lots of snow.