The week could not have started more inauspiciously. There I was, all on my own, halfway up the chilly, final chairlift to the top of the slopes in Cervinia, and already in the doghouse.
Way below me, I could see a slope-side queue of 70 eager skiers being carefully organised into small groups for different levels. It had followed a ski-off on a steep red run – everyone allowed to take their own lines down the slope and encouraged to put in some committed turns, providing some insight into their ski competence and technical abilities.
By contrast, I was badly late, my ageing ski trouser zips having imploded as I was putting on my boots back at the Plan Maison lift station. A rush back down to my hotel and a change of gear later, I had unwittingly become “dunce of the day” for no-nonsense lead instructor Rob Stanford. “Just catch us up as quickly as possible, put in a few turns and get down here,” he chided, as I managed to get through to him on his mobile.
Like so many British skiers, drawn to the snow a few lucky times a year after hitting the slopes for the first time in my mid-20s, I had experienced the vagaries of different instruction and classes in many different countries.
It had involved the inevitable, and sometimes contradictory, meander through a variety of clashing ski instruction cultures – feet clamped together or planted apart, the snowplough disdained or retained as a vital emergency tool, turns skidded or carved, poles vital or jettisoned, moguls relished or to be avoided. Picking up differently tutored habits, both good and bad, I had managed nonetheless to make a transition from the dreaded intermediate plateau to a reasonably advanced level.
However, the lure of the courses overseen by British instructor Warren Smith had nagged at me for several years. His approach looks to move on from merely trying to fine-tune people’s skills as part of a recreational activity. Instead, the aim is to rebuild each skier’s technique and ability, get them performing athletically and dynamically as part of a sporting endeavour, and equip them better to be all‑mountain skiers.
And yet it had felt out of my reach. Perhaps overawed by Smith’s links to Verbier, its off-piste steeps and the pumped-up freeride scene, I kept putting off getting in touch. But within hours of meeting Smith’s instructor crew, I was regretting having left it so long to join them.
I had eventually opted not to do a course at Smith’s main Verbier base but instead in the cheaper Italian destination of snow-sure Cervinia(with its compelling link to the Swiss glacial heights of Zermatt), opting for one of the quieter weeks in late November as a tune-up for the coming winter.
Most of the week’s skiers had chosen to stay up the hill at the Hotel Mon Rêve, where welcome drinks and subsequent video analysis sessions were held. I decided instead to stay down in the main village at a small b&b, venturing up the main base-station cable car every morning to join the rest of the team at the 2,500m-high Plan Maison mid-station.
The daily routine started with an early meet-up at the bottom of the chairlifts, with everyone on the course doing a mass stretching session. Lunch would be taken quickly at a mountain restaurant to allow a relatively early finish. Two evenings involved insightful – at times excruciating – course-wide video analysis to focus on everyone’s strengths and inevitable weaknesses.
The approach of the five-day course was organised, focused and analytical. What initially seemed like hours of random exercises and drills, often in apparent slow-motion and on the flattest of grippy blue pistes on the Zermatt glacier, were in fact part of a constructive, systematic approach.
“You are all skiing at a good level, but you can challenge yourselves to perform better and get even more out of your time on the slopes,” Rob told us.
The drills frequently involved taking the speed out of our skiing, establishing whether we really had the basic skills and requisite control to advance. We were inspected for ankle flex and degree of hip flexibility; observed for signs of ‘A-framing’; made to snowplough exaggeratedly from one side of the piste to the other; tested for side-slipping and skidding capacity; urged to reach out fully and extend our legs in the middle of big round turns; forced to slowly (and uselessly, in my case) perform reverse 360-degree turns on almost flat terrain; and, on a seemingly daily basis, practise our ‘braquage’ skills.
Also known as the pivot or no-speed turn, the dreaded braquage turn, performed on terrain from virtually flat to properly steep, became the defining test within our supposedly top-level group.