Thursday, 27 June 2013

BASI Instructor Course in Verbier - Part 2

Follow this link to read from the beginning 

Mid-way through week one I found I was really struggling to make my big Dynastars turn quickly enough for the exercises we were being given. After a word with the Julian, the trainer, I decided to switch to my Rossignol Scratches - a much more forgiving pair of skis. This was great for a day or two, until one evening I came into the Bunker (the hostel - see last post) feeling like I was coming down with a cold. I left my skis outside the dormitory with everybody else's rather than locking them in the shed on the edge of the grounds as I did most nights. Then I had an early night and was in bed by about seven. I slept well and woke feeling a lot better, as though I had avoided the illness I thought I was getting. I got up and saw that my skis were missing, along with everybody else's. It seems somebody had been into the hostel in the middle of the night and helped themselves, taking advantage of the lax security. It still amazes me how many people have told me that there is no theft in Verbier - I was there less than a week before my skis were stolen. Even the police seemed surprised when I reported the theft. Luckily my Dynastars were safely locked in the ski shed, so at least I had a pair of skis to use for the rest of the course.

Continuing my run of bad luck, my jacket disappeared from an apres ski bar the following evening. As it had my skipass in the pocket this was a bit of a disaster. I bought a one day pass the following morning, and fortunately I found the jacket again that evening - it had been taken by mistake as it was next to a pile that belonged to the same group. This would not be the end of my bad luck on this trip though.

The weekend and the midpoint of the course soon arrived. This brought two days of relief as BASI courses give students the weekends off. We were given a midweek debrief with advice on what to practice and made arrangements to meet for a ski on the Saturday. As it was earlier in my BASI career and I was younger and more foolish I went for a biggish night out on the Friday. I do not remember that much of it - more because it was a long time ago than because of how much I drank. I do remember wanting something to eat at around two AM. There was nowhere open as Verbier did not allow late night takeaways, but I saw a queue had formed below a small high window in an otherwise blank wall. This was the back of a bakery - the famous 'secret bakery'  - where ham and cheese croissants could be purchased semi-clandestinely.

Over the weekend I took advantage of the opportunity to ski some of Verbier's legendary off piste, as did everybody in the group. On Monday morning, Julian asked each of us what we had been practising over the weekend.

"I worked on variables."
"Yes, variables."
"Me to."
And so on.
"You all just went off piste, didn't you?"

Well, yes. We did. Skiing is supposed to be about having fun after all.  However passing exams is about hard work as well so we were soon back to it. We had theory sessions in the evenings and skied hard in the daytime. We also had to fit in teaching sessions were we delivered mock lessons to the rest of the group. Mine went well enough, just about, so I passed that part of the course. I also passed the written exam on the Wednesday evening. That just left the skiing part to pass.

On the Friday afternoon we stopped as a group. Julian went ahead and had us ski down to him one at a time to get our result. I learnt later that this meant not all of us had passed. I skied down nervously and stopped next to Julian. He said 'Welcome to BASI', shook my hand and that was it. There was a more detailed debrief later on but that was it for on the slopes. I had passed. I was officially a ski instructor.

I would finish this post here but for a couple of incidents on the way home which completed my run of scatterbrained bad luck. After the course and the obligatory big night out in Verbier I had a few days of leave left so I had arranged to meet up with an old friend Neil, in Les Arcs, France. Buses and trains got me there without too much trouble and I had a pleasant two and a half days of stress free skiing with Neil and his brother. The problems arose when it came to leaving. I could not find my passport anywhere and eventually concluded that it had been lost in transit somewhere. I called the airline for advice and they just said to arrive extra early at Geneva airport to sort it out. I left Les Arcs late-morning on the funicular to Bourg Saint Maurice from where I planned to take the 1PM bus to Geneva. It was only when I got to the desk to buy my ticket that I discovered the small print on the timetable. The one o'clock bus only ran on Saturdays. I needed to have taken the 8AM bus. I tried the train but it would have taken seven hours to reach Geneva and my plane took off in six. My only option was a taxi. For one person. For a two to three hour drive. I'm sure the taxi driver couldn't believe his luck when I headed to the rank and asked the price for Geneva airport.

I threw my bags in the back and we headed off. Around Annecy we hit heavy traffic. I was clearly getting anxious as the driver told me not to worry, I would have plenty of time. He handed me a cigar and lit one himself. My one good memory of that day is enjoying the view across Lake Annecy, smoking a companionable cigar with the taxi driver. The traffic soon cleared and we were on our way. As we approached the Swiss border I began hoping fervently that we would not have our passports checked. Fortunately checks are rare at that border and we sailed through. What I had not expected was the meter switching to a different rate as we left France. The numbers on the display began to spin and the few short miles on Swiss soil caused my already hefty bill to jump extortionately. I was relieved when we pulled up at the airport and the numbers stopped moving.

I had a few hours to spare so I could sort out my passport issue. I presented myself at the Easyjet check-in and was directed to an office at the end of the airport. They were expecting me. I was sat down at a desk in front of a severe looking Swiss official.

"So tell me," he said threateningly. "Who did you sell your passport to?"
"Um, I didn't," I tried to say. I was not expecting an interrogation.
"Ha, ha, only joking with you." An airport official with a sense of humour. I was expecting that even less. He explained that he just needed to get clearance from UK immigration and I would be allowed to travel. It helped that I had my driving license to prove who I was. After endless calls to UK border control offices around the country who were having tea breaks he managed to find somebody at Luton who actually answered the phone and gave permission for me to travel to Liverpool. My somewhat over budget month away could finally come to and end.

Next week I begin my actual teaching career in Scotland. That coincided with getting my first camera-phone so expect to see some pictures at last.

Click here to read the next post

Thursday, 20 June 2013

BASI Instructor Course in Verbier - Part 1

Follow this link to read the story from the beginning

On the Trainee Instructor course I had been advised to ski for two weeks to practise what I had learnt before embarking on the Instructor course (now known as Level 2). Taking this to heart, and because my younger sister Clare was spending the winter season in Les Menuires, I decided to visit her for a fortnight and then do the Instructor course in Val D'Isere immediately afterwards. The first challenge was to get four weeks off work. I put my annual leave request in and my boss at the time signed it without looking at it. He was not entirely happy when he realised he had given me a month off in one go. With return flights to Geneva and a BASI course booking made I was committed. BASI had yet to confirm the course and advised against booking any accommodation until they had, so I set off to Les Menuires with no idea whether my course would run and nowhere to stay if it did.

I took the public bus from Geneva to Les Menuires, changing at Moutiers, and met my sister Clare without any hiccups. Staying with somebody who lives in the resort means getting to meet a lot of people quite quickly so it was a fun two weeks. I skied hard and practised the things I had to work on from the Trainee course. These included edge control - keeping the inside knee in to avoid an A-frame, and using a tighter arc to control my speed. I have just dug out my course report form from ten years ago and it is interesting to see that the same issues have tended to crop up again over the years. I also got in a bit of informal teaching practise skiing with Clare's colleagues. During this fortnight I managed to lose my phone through the elementary mistake of skiing with my pockets unzipped. BASI cancelled my unconfirmed course in Val D'Isere at this point, a week before it was due to start, and I remember spending a lot of time and money in payphones trying to sort out what I was doing next. I managed to transfer to a BASI Instructor course in Verbier instead, so at a few days notice I had to organise transport to Verbier and accommodation once I arrived there. I booked a bus to Geneva airport via Moutiers again and worked out train times from there to Verbier. Continuing the theme of making simple but expensive mistakes, I somehow left my bus ticket in the laundrette on the last evening of my stay so I had to buy another on the morning of my departure.

From the airport it was fairly straightforward to negotiate the Swiss train system, which does run like clockwork. Three trains, one bus and three and a half hours later I was in Verbier. I did not realise until much later that it takes about half that time to drive the distance.

I still had nowhere to stay in Verbier so I had a quick beer in the first bar I saw and met a few locals before heading to the tourist office. With the budget I had I was pointed to the Bunker - about the only cheap place in Verbier. This is a large hostel underneath the town's sports centre. As you might guess from the name it is inside a nuclear bunker. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this aspect of Switzerland, the country is full of underground fallout shelters to be used in the event of a nuclear war. Private houses and apartment buildings have private shelters stocked with provisions and there are also large public shelters - I am not sure whether they are for those too poor to have their own shelter, or for those caught away from home when the sirens sound. Anyway, for about twenty four hours it was quite exciting to be living underground in a concrete warren with 12 inch thick steel doors and no windows. Then the novelty wore off and I was still living underground in a concrete warren with 12 inch thick steel doors and no windows. The accommodation was twelve or so people to a concrete dormitory on bunk beds. Meals were provided in the sports centre cafe, and we had use of the sports facilities as well so it was not all bad. The instructor course is one of only two courses I have taken with BASI that lasted longer than a week, so I was there for a while and had to make the most of it.

I met the rest of the candidates and the trainer the following morning. Three of them were already instructors working in Verbier but wanted to switch to BASI from other instructor systems. People often switch for one reason or another. In this case it was because the qualifications have to be refreshed every couple of years to stay valid and it was easier to do BASI refreshers than Canadian or Swedish refreshers in Verbier. Nationality wise we had a mix of American, Swedish and Brits on the course and like the Trainee course there was a fair spread of ability levels, although it was not quite as pronounced this time. I soon discovered, as I would do so often in my BASI career, that the goalposts had moved slightly. What had been the 'Speed' strand on the Trainee course became the 'Piste Performance' strand and now included short turns as well as high speed carving. As I understand it short turns were kept within the 'Steep' strand up to that point. If this sounds confusing that is because it is, and I still struggle to remember which are strands and which are threads in BASI speak after nearly ten years.

We started with some clean carving which seemed to go alright although on my Dynastar 4x4 Freeride skis I struggled to make as tight an arc as those on slalom skis. The task was clean carving rather than tight carving at that level though so it was not too much of a problem. One early difficulty that the group had was when asked to do a basic parallel turn at slow speed whilst being watched. Every one of us used a stem or slight snowplough to start the turn. Julian, the trainer asked if we were really ready to be ski instructors if we couldn't even manage a parallel turn. It can be surprisingly difficult to perform manoeuvres on skis at very low speeds, but of course as instructors we need to be able to do good demonstrations. To correct this we were split into pairs and had to follow one another shouting 'stem' loudly every time we saw the skis deviating even slightly from parallel.

Over the next couple of days we ran through the four strands - piste, bumps, steeps and variables (off-piste snow) as well as the central theme (beginner progression). Those involved with BASI will know that it has its own language for many things using a mix of North American ideas, translated French terms, educational theory and a few inventions. I was not surprised to find that my bumps and piste needed work but I was surprised to find I needed to work on my variables as well. After my first variables run I was told,
   "If you can keep your knees apart you might - might - pass this course." Which burst my bubble a bit as I had thought I had been doing quite well.

I am going to finish here and make this part of the story a two part post as it is quite long. Click here to read part two.

Monday, 17 June 2013

A Note On Skis

Follow this link to read the story from the beginning

This is not really a proper post in the story, just an addendum. It occurred to me that the question of what skis to use comes up so often than I ought to mention my own ski choices as I go along. Those readers who plan to take ski instructor exams will hopefully learn something from my choices (both good and bad). Apologies to the more general readership for throwing in a slightly technical post - I will continue the story with my BASI Ski Instructor Course in Verbier later in the week.

The question of what skis to use has two parts to it - what to use for exams and what to use for teaching. At this point in time I owned two pairs of skis - the original Rossignol Scratches (the red/yellow ones) and a pair of Dynastar 4x4s. The former I believe was Rossignol's first venture into the twin-tip market and the first freestyle ski that I owned. I loved those skis at the time; they were responsive and forgiving and seemed happy to do anything. I found they suited me much better than the Salomon 1080 which I had tried out previously. Also the graphics were slightly risqué but not in an obvious way which I liked. My other skis - the Dynastars - were a long, stiff freeride model. These days they would be considered far to narrow underfoot for an off-piste ski, but this was not long after the days of straight skis so long and thin seemed fine. I did the Trainee Instructor exam on the Scratches and my shadowing hours on Ski Rossendale's rental skis. I used the rental skis partly because it made sense to be on the same skis as the customers but mainly to preserve my own skis from the abrasive plastic matting. At this time the Scratches seemed the ideal ski. I have since learnt that most ski instructor trainers/examiners are not keen on twin-tips and prefer to see candidates on piste oriented skis - more on that in future posts. For the entry level exams though the best advice is probably to use a ski you are comfortable with and not to worry about its pedigree.

Next post - the BASI Instructor Course in Verbier - Part 1

Friday, 14 June 2013

Shadowing Hours – My Work Experience

Having completed the Trainee Instructor Course the next step was to start on my shadowing hours (70 logged hours ski school experience). The rules were in the process of changing at the time. They are always changing something in the system. Several people on my Trainee course were keen to take their Instructor course the following November as that was the last course before the 70 hour rule came in. I was advised that I was not ready to go for the exam so soon so resigned myself to doing the work experience. As a concession during the first year it was not compulsory to finish the hours before taking the Instructor exam, only to do them before being awarded the qualification.

I duly got in touch with my nearest dry ski slope, Ski Rossendale in Rawtenstall, North Manchester and arranged to come along and do some hours. This was before the Chill Factore opened so it was the only place to ski near Manchester. It was council run and had a nice atmosphere. There was a friendly ski school, an active freestyle scene and fairly regular competitions. Most of the lessons were beginner sessions so I began my shadowing with taster sessions and beginner groups. At first I either watched or joined in as a group member, trying out the exercises. I soon learnt that teaching taster sessions on a dirty strip of plastic outside Manchester is not the most glamorous side of ski teaching. In the winter it was damp, in autumn the slope was covered in leaves and in summer we got eaten by midges. As the instructors got to know me they allowed me to deliver parts of the classes, and eventually I was doing whole lessons by myself while the paid instructor watched. I soon learnt the drill – explain the kit and the rules, mess about on the flat with one ski. Sidestep up the hill. Do some straight running exercises: jumping, catching, dancing (heads shoulder knees and toes), eyes shut and so on. Finish with how to stop. On that beginner slope they never needed to stop, so teaching them the snowplough brake was a bonus. If the group were really good we might have a go at a turn but that was unusual. And that was the end of the hour.

The two hour lessons were a bit more challenging. People on these had already completed the hour long taster session and were ready to start turning. I learnt that there are many ways to teach the plough turn (wedge to my North American readers, widge to the Kiwis). Many tricks are used by instructors to encourage turning, some of them by the Book, most not, some imaginative and innovative and some invented on the spot to help a particular struggling client. The big difference as an instructor was that the customers taking these lessons had differing abilities and expectations depending on their previous experience. This surprised me given that their previous experience was only supposed to have been an hour, but some had learnt quickly in that hour, some had been taught by different instructors with different approaches (not better or worse, just different), some had skied the day before, others weeks earlier, some were more advanced but felt they should start again after a break. Some were at similar levels but had learnt different ways of doing things. This is something I have found throughout my career - the closer the class is to being complete beginners the more it is possible to follow a script, but the more advanced they are the more the lesson has to be adapted on the spot to cater for the individuals in the group. Even in lesson two I was beginning to understand this.

As I was allowed to take more responsibility for delivering the lessons I was shadowing I found to my surprise that I was not just enjoying myself. I was getting a real buzz out of people's achievements in my lessons. The first time somebody managed to turn, or when they finished the class with a big grin on their face I felt a deep satisfaction to have been part of that process. Those hours learning my trade on the plastic matting at Rossendale gave me the first insight into how much I was going to love (and need) this career. If I am completely honest, up until that point a large part of my motivation had been a simple case of wanting to ski more and to live and work in the mountains. From this point on I began to realise that I loved ski teaching as much as skiing itself, and I do feel privileged to have spent my career doing what I love doing.

I met some great characters in my time at Rossendale who really helped both in my career and as role models for how to inspire a class. People like Geoff with the bad jokes, or Rob - now working in Verbier, or Peter who I think was the boss. All of these helped and encouraged me and showed me how to manage a class. Although if I had taken my BASI exams six months earlier I could have avoided the shadowing hours, I am very glad that I did them. They prepared me for the ski teaching world, helped me pass the teaching parts of the exams and made sure that I was not completely incompetent when I came to teach my first paid lesson (that is for another post though).

It did take me some time to manage the required seventy hours. Rossendale is a fair distance from where I was living, I was working full time, and often when I went there would only be one or two hours available to shadow. Looking back these are all excuses, and I could have made the time to go more often. When I got to the Instructor exam I was only about halfway through my hours, and it was quickly obvious which members of the group had done more and which ones less. My advice to anybody in the same position is to get the hours done as quickly as possible and begin teaching for real.

I should finish with a word about Ski Rossendale. The slope was in decline for several years with council cuts and competition from the shiny (and expensive) new Chill Factore - an indoor snow slope on the other side of Manchester. The council eventually closed the slope early in 2011. The story has a happy ending however as the slope was taken over by a group of former instructors there and was reopened later the same year. The slope is now run with an emphasis promoting ski participation within the local community, and the slope is used by local groups and schools as well as offering the usual range of lessons and activities. Find out more at

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Beginning - The Trainee Instructor Course

Arinsal Ski School - where I have spent
most of my teaching career to date.
I should start at the beginning, nearly ten years ago now. There have been a lot of ups and downs since then, and it is not finished yet, but back then things were simpler. I had the idea that it might be fun to teach skiing - maybe for a season, maybe part time at a local dry slope. I had yet to leave my home, career and girlfriend to spend every penny I had chasing this dream around the globe.

I did a little research then telephoned BASI to ask for their course directory. The web was younger then and online booking was not as ubiquitous as it is now. I found a Trainee Instructor course in July on an Italian glacier in Val Senales and booked myself on. Nowadays it is a Level 1 instructor course but back then it was just (obligatory) training and preparation for the Instructor course. Accommodation and lift pass were included, and transfers arranged for a fee, so all I had to do was book Easyjet flights to Milan and ask for a week off work. I remember Easyjet taking my baggage for free and a ski bag on top for free as well - how things have changed.

At Milan Malpensa Airport I saw another fresh faced BASI hopeful, easily recognised by the ski bag in his baggage in July. As we introduced each other more people appeared with skis until we had the whole group together for the transfer. We were a mixed group with ski racers, a semi-pro freestyler, an army ski instructor, myself with just two seasons under my belt and a couple of dry slope instructors, one of whom had only skied two weeks on snow.

In Val Senales we were organised into groups and met our Trainer, Steve Rickets. Steve was a real character with plenty of stories to tell and (we found out later) a party piece called the Sambuca hedgehog. Steve was the first BASI trainer I met, and he seemed at the time to be quite a legend. I have met many BASI trainers since, and some others have had that aura about them but many have not.

To me, Steve seemed an incredible skier, but more importantly he was a great teacher and the course was fantastic. The first three days we had our skiing pulled apart (at least I did) before having it put back together again. But more importantly than having our skiing improve, we learnt about how to learn and how to teach. There were theory sessions each evening and the biggest thing I took away from these was that ski teaching could be a proper job and a serious career.

On the snow I learnt more in that week than I think I have in any other week's skiing in my life. I completely changed my technique and began to lose my bad habits. I learnt about lateral separation, how to carve properly and how to ski bumps. I learnt that ten people can make a rut-line to practise bumps. I learnt the beginner progression that to me was lost in my earliest memories (and had changed somewhat since then). The weather was mostly good, but I remember one misty day when Steve gave us a lesson in a mystery style. He gradually up the suspense as to what the final piece of the puzzle would be (which was what the lesson was about), and the weather really added to the atmosphere.

The course was great, I was learning lots and enjoying most of it, but after a couple of days I began to feel quite down about my own skiing ability. I had always considered myself to be a pretty good skier, but now I was surrounded by much better skiers and was struggling to make the changes I needed to. I felt like I suddenly couldn't ski anymore. I know now that this is quite common when learning a new technique. The old way feels felt familiar and comfortable whilst the new way is awkward at first. There is a point in the transition from one to the other when it feels hard to do either well, but this is just part of the learning process. I was as if my skiing had been completely dismantled and not yet rebuilt.

Half way through the five day course we had a midweek debrief and a chat with the trainer. I was pretty unhappy with my skiing at this point as mentioned above, so I told Steve I wasn't sure if ski teaching was for me. He gave me a real pep talk which was the start of putting my skiing back together over the last two days. I have often looked back on that chat as being the moment I decided to pursue a career as a ski instructor. Over the next few years as I taught in Andorra I hoped to bump into Steve at some point, buy him a beer or two and say thanks for my career. At times more recently I hoped to bump into him so I could ask why he didn't tell me to stick to the real world and save all the disappointments and expense of the later exams, and occasionally I have wanted to curse the man for being such a good trainer back then and not putting me off as he could have done.

As it was not an exam as such when I did the course there was no passing or failing on the last day, just a debrief and a feedback form. I was advised to ski for four weeks before taking the Ski Instructor course (now Level 2), and I did exactly that. At some point early in my BASI career somebody told me to always do what the trainer says, and that was good advice.

Next post - Shadowing hours: getting my work experience at the dry slope.