Tuesday, 23 July 2013

My First Day as a Ski Instructor

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The rain poured on the car as I pulled into the Nevis Range car park a couple of days after Christmas. Everything was shut for the day due to the weather. There was little snow on the mountain as yet and the wind was stopping the Gondola from running. I approached the ticket office, getting soaked in the short walk across the car park. The people inside looked surprised to see anybody, and more surprised when I asked for the ski school. When I explained that I was the new instructor they seemed relieved that I was not looking for a lesson. It was a day for drinking coffee and watching the rain through the window, not a day for learning how to ski. I was taken inside and introduced to Davie the head of the ski school, Dave the chief instructor and a couple of instructors who were around the building at that point.

A couple of days later saw me delivering my first real ski lesson for an actual wage. I was given a beginner group for two hours, starting at midday. At first it was a struggle as there was a mix of nationalities - not everybody spoke good English - and the weather conditions were less than ideal. Several of the group were underdressed for a Scottish winter and getting cold. I had to learn class management skills quickly before the lesson disintegrated completely. It was quite different from teaching in the closed environment of an artificial slope or the simulated lessons of the instructor courses. Just over an hour into the lesson I had things under a bit more control and I was actually starting to enjoy myself. My students were standing in line waiting their turn, rather than sliding uncontrollably around the slope. They were learning as well and they seemed to be enjoying themselves despite the increasing wind which whipped snow and cloud across the nursery slope. Just as I began to relax into the role I was interrupted by the message that the mountain was about to close early and the lesson had to be cut short. There was a fear that the access gondola would not be able to run to get the customers off the hill if the wind increased any further. My first day as a ski instructor seemed to be coming to a premature end. It turned out that although the lesson was finished, my first day was a long way from over.
The Nevis Range top gondola station seen from the beginner area
At the top of the access gondola was the main lift station building on the hill, with the bar, restaurant, shops and so on. It also held our locker room, which was where I headed to change out of my ski boots after my lesson was cut short. I was expecting to be heading down the mountain soon when Davie told me that I needed to stay when there was an evacuation in case I was needed to help. I was not sure what he meant by an evacuation - was he referring to the mountain closing early and the customers having to head down? From the conversations around me I gathered that a number of climbers were trapped in the back corries after being avalanched ice climbing. To make things worse a member of the mountain rescue team had been blown over the edge of the corries by the extreme winds at the top of the mountain. Davie was a member of the Lochaber mountain rescue team so he drafted the ski school and ski patrol in to help with the rescue. I had to borrow some ski mountaineering boots for this and put my gloves and goggles back on before a group of us piled into and onto the Kassbohrer piste basher that was waiting to take us to the top of Aonach Mor. I was lucky enough to get inside the cab, where three of us shared a space meant for one passenger. Others braved the elements and sat outside, hanging on to the back of the machine.

It was dark by the time we reached the summit plateau and there was no sign of the wind letting up. I was glad of my instructor uniform which had been well chosen for Scottish winter conditions. One of my colleagues was roped up before disappearing over the edge with ice axes and crampons to reach the stranded climbers, one of whom had been injured, and to assist the rescuers already at the scene. My role was limited to staying away from the edge, keeping out of the way and waiting for instructions. The uninjured climbers were brought to the top first, whilst the stretcher and pulley system was being set up. They were able to sit in a ski patrol hut to get warmed up. Like having a piste basher to hand, this is unusual in a UK mountain rescue and the whole experience felt quite surreal to me. Once the stretcher was securely attached to ropes I was given something useful to do; pulling on the rope to haul it to the surface. After it felt like we had been on the plateau for hours the stretcher appeared with the injured climber. It was loaded onto the back of the piste basher to be taken down to the gondola station and then to the ambulance that was waiting at the bottom station.

As I set off walking down the mountain with my new colleagues the sky cleared and the wind dropped. It was a beautiful night to be walking tiredly through the fresh snow, and a lot of that fresh snow had fallen through the day. The gondola was switched on again for us to get down when we arrived at the top station and my long first day was finally finishing. Nevis Range advertises itself as a 'Mountain Experience' and I had had one of those. My first day had been unlike any I have experienced since but my learning curve as an instructor was only just beginning.

Next post - Important Lessons

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Becoming A Real Ski Instructor

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In the last post I described how I qualified as a BASI Ski Instructor. In summer of 2004 I became the proud owner of a shiny new Ski Instructor Licence. Obviously I was eager to put this to good use as soon as I could. It is perfectly possible to work as a part time instructor - at a dry ski slope or on working holidays for a week at a time. This would have been the sensible thing to do in many ways. I could have kept my regular job and had a steady income as I worked my way through the system. Being me, I did not even consider doing the sensible thing. I was determined that one way or another I would spend the following winter teaching skiing full time. Unfortunately I had no idea how difficult it would be to get a job doing just that. I had naively assumed that it would be a simple case of choosing a resort I wanted to work in and calling the ski school. After all, I had my shiny new Licence to prove I could do the job. I decided to work in Verbier as I had just done my exam there and knew one or two people from that course. I sent a couple of emails and had a telephone conversation with the director of one Verbier ski school who was encouraging and suggested I had a good chance of getting a job if I got some experience at the dry slope and my CV looked good. I considered my CV to be pretty good for someone with no experience, so I took this to mean I had as good as got the job. I did send a couple more letters to ski schools in Switzerland and Andorra as a backup but to be honest I did not try too hard after this. I sure I was going to Verbier.

Summer faded into autumn. I had no replies to my half hearted backup job applications but I was not worried. I called the ski school director in Verbier to follow up my application, as we had agreed I would do. I was quite surprised when I he told me that I had no chance of getting a job due to my lack of experience. It turned out that due to a rule change a lot of instructors who had worked as trainees in France no longer had jobs there and were applying to Switzerland. A lot of very experienced and better qualified instructors were applying to work in Verbier and the ski school was not interested in employing anybody with less than a full season of teaching behind them.

At this point I began to frantically look for a job in any ski school that would have me. Most had finished their recruitment process months before and it dawned on me that I had left everything far too late. I scoured the web and the BASI News (a ski instructor newsletter) looking for ski schools who were recruiting, and I wrote prospective letters to many ski schools who were not advertising. I did have a few phone interviews but in each case I was rejected in favour of somebody with more experience. Most ski schools did not reply to my letters.

Two pieces of advice then for the would be instructor wanting to avoid my mistakes. Firstly - don't be in such a hurry to give up the regular job. Part time teaching is a great way to gain experience and fund more courses and may put you in a better position in the long run. Secondly - if you do want to work full time apply for as many jobs as you can and do not be too picky about where you want to teach. At the start of your career the important thing is to get some experience. If you really want to work in a particular place - if you live there already for example - then talk to the ski school(s) before you book the instructor course. Find out what the chances are of them giving you a job, and what you would have to do to get it. The best thing would be to get a conditional job offer guaranteeing you a job if you pass, but do not expect the majority of schools to give these out.

Back to my job search; I was getting worried by now. I had already confidently told my employers that I was leaving in December to teach skiing. With every day that went by it seemed more likely that I would have to go back and sheepishly ask them to keep me on. Just as I was losing hope the BASI News came through the door with the possibility of job adverts in it. There were one or two companies still recruiting for that winter and I applied immediately to all of them. Two days later I was called by the head of the ski school at Nevis Range, Scotland. After a brief chat and confirmation of my qualification he offered me a job.

My Destination - Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg from the ski slopes of Aonach Mor
A few weeks later I was driving north rather than south. I was relieved to have found a job at last, but disappointed to be going to Scotland and not the Alps. In the end though it turned out to be the best way to start my ski instructing career. At this point heading up the M6 I was poised between worlds - my career, home and girlfriend left behind me and my unknown life as a ski teacher waiting ahead.

Next post: My First Day as a Ski Instructor