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|
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