I’d never skied this early in the season. It was November 15 and according to the Tignes webcams, that I’d been religiously checking, at resort level there was little more than mud and grass. Worse, to boot, according to our transfer driver Ben, it had been raining at resort level. There were collective groans around the minibus. We’d all come hoping, despite knowing deep down it was unlikely, that there would be a decent base layer by now and plenty of the good stuff to speed our path down the mountain.
After a couple of hours of relentless, heavy rain and a pleasant, if distracted, drive through the haute tarantaise and haute savoie, we reached the town of Bourg St. Maurice. Famous for being the terminus of the snow train and the launch point to the largest ski areas in France and therefore the world. We stopped briefly for the drivers to fill up the minibuses. Job done, Ben got back in the minibus with exciting news – it was snowing heavily at resort level and had been for some time!
The atmosphere in the bus suddenly changed. The rain was no longer viewed with suspicion and despair. Where previously people were trying to sleep or had silently been staring out of the windows, suddenly everyone was active and the discussion began in earnest of what the conditions were likely to be.
Arriving at the resort
As we drove higher the snow fell thicker and faster. What that morning had been drab, brown and grey now really resembled a proper ski resort – blanketed white and beautiful. With no sign of it slowing, we pulled up at the hotel feeling excited.
After an evening meal and a brief meeting with the Snoworks management team to lay out what we’d be doing over the coming days and their general approach to theSnoworks Gap program, the early morning start was catching up with us and our beds were calling.
The first day’s skiing
We woke to find the snow had not stopped falling. It would continue to do so for the next two days, which meant not only did we have more of the stuff than we could possibly have wanted, but the resort got its first decent snowfall in time for all the different types of early season skiers.
Totally out of character, I sprang out of bed the following morning. The prospect of a full day on the mountain, in unexpectedly good snow conditions is, more-or-less, the only thing that’ll do that to me. After a hearty breakfast to keep us going through an intense morning’s skiing, the Snoworks Gap instructor Lee Townend drove me over to pick up my skis and boots from local legend Guy Clarey (father of Johan Clarey, currently the world’s fastest man on skis).
Kitted out and raring to go, I met up with the gappies and bundled onto the funiculaire. Speeding its way through the interior of the mountain, dropping us off only a short distance from the highest station in the resort, the service was rammed with racers, instructors and pretty much every other form of early season skier, all catching up and talking through the coming season’s plans. Gliding to a halt at the top before depositing us out into the still snowing, blinding whiteness, we joined the queue to take the final gondola to the top of the mountain where the lessons would begin.
The Snoworks Gap Course in action
I was there primarily to see what is involved with a gap year ski instructor course and to get a sense of what the gappies were hoping to get out of it. Having spoken to some of them the night before to gain a sense of what they were hoping to gain from their time with Snoworks, it was now time to see them put the lessons they’d learnt into action.
Beginning with some fitness work and some exercises aimed at perfecting the techniques of the would-be ski instructors, we floated our way down the various slopes, slicing through the freshly fallen and unpisted snow. Although enjoying ourselves, the emphasis was definitely on safe, technical and ultimately instructive skiing. The initial run was just to familiarise ourselves with the conditions (this was the first serious snowfall of the season, so powder skiing was new to some of the group) and also to give the group something to comment on and learn from.
Second time around the group stopped to give and receive feedback on what had been done on the previous run and to assimilate what was said. Using a variety of teaching techniques and employing the approved BASI (British Association of Snowsports Instructors) fundamentals, the group reviewed each other’s styles over the morning and made comments on how they could improve and most importantly, as ski instructors, how they could impart the knowledge they were learning from Lee to their future students in the most effective way.
Putting teaching techniques into practice
Continuing on, in a similar format for the rest of the morning, the prospective instructors all worked on improving both their own personal ski techniques and the techniques with which they fed back to the group and each other. This was done in one simple way – the group was split in two and limited on what each group could critique. Each one focused on a single, elemental part of the technique and examining only that in order to ensure that they knew what they were looking for and how to provide accurate feedback for future paying customers.
Stopping for a much needed lunch at a mountain cafe, bags were retrieved, picnics devoured and chocolat chauds consumed. Warmer, fuller and keen to go back out again, we all bundled into the gondola and set off back up to the top of the mountain. The snow was still falling thick and fast around us, visibility at not more than 50m, the conditions were not ideal, but, as was pointed out, in the future, instructors would be required to be out in all conditions if there were paying customers waiting.
That in mind, the afternoon was to involve some practice lessons. Volunteering to play the part of a novice skier, it was an interesting exercise in attempting to shake the bad habits I’ve picked up and remember what was involved with learning the basics of skiing.
The gappies were given the chance to teach their ‘pupils’ a facet of skiing, improve their technique and even boss their instructor Lee around a bit. After which we gathered once more for a debrief before heading off down the mountain, back towards the funiculaire,exhausted, but having learnt a lot. For the rest of the afternoon and the early evening the gappies split their time between fitness exercises, note-making and absorbing what they had learnt throughout the day and stocking up on afternoon tea.
Off-mountain learning & some theory
Evenings for the gap ski instructors vary between lectures on ski theory, using the BASI manual, fitness of various kinds and video reviews of their own ski technique. All of which is designed to build up a complete, scientific and practical approach to being a ski instructor. Everything from the elements of basic skiing to different teachings styles and right through to the correct way to analyse ski technique to benefit the student and improve their style is covered.
The approach is personalised to an extent I had not thought possible, focusing on each potential ski instructor’s strengths and weaknesses to ensure that they are gaining the absolute maximum from the course and are set up to be the best and most effective instructor they can be when they depart for their posts around the world.
Over the course of the time I spent with the gappies and Snoworks, this is what really struck me. The course is extremely professional, it is expertly run by some phenomenal skiers who know the Alps and ski world like the backs of their hands and manage to do so in a friendly and welcoming manner. They pride themselves on the level of instruction they are able to offer and also their USP of ensuring that the BASI Level 1 & 2 tests are done well before Christmas to make sure that their students are ready in time for the season to begin in earnest and to best position them for their future jobs, whether just for their gap season or long term as a ski instructor around the world.
Written by Pete Churchill