“You know, I’ve not brought a beginner class over here before”. Mike, our instructor, smiles, shrugs his shoulders, and is suddenly off down a red run. 3 days into me learning to ski in Chamonix and things have suddenly got a little steeper.
Once was a snowboarder
For the last 15 years or so, I have been a dedicated snowboarder. I say dedicated but what I really mean is, when I first went on a school ski trip, my friends and I all decided snowboarding was what we wanted to do and, since then, I’ve not had the inclination to change that. Since discovering climbing, snowboarding had taken a back seat and recently, with my eyes on some of the larger North Face routes of the Mont Blanc Massif, I’ve been toying with the idea of making the switch to skiing.
Skiing in Chamonix is the winter sport. There are boarders but they are fewer and farther between than elsewhere. The main reason for this is that Chamonix is a big mountain environment requiring more than just downhill skills such as touring and skinning up to get where you want to be. This is what most appealed to Sophie and I when we knew we would be here for winter – ski touring.
What is ski touring
Even just a year ago, I had no idea what ski touring was. I thought skiing was limited to taking lifts up then working your way down, be that on a piste, off piste, or through a park. How little did I know! It turns out, this is a bit like the difference between road running and a trail running adventure race. The key difference here is the word adventure. I’ve done a little off piste but with ski touring, the adventure level is so much higher. You take yourself off, with a bunch of friends, of course, work hard, getting higher and higher up a quiet and secluded mountain then relish in the skiing back down.
You have all of the extra things to take into account that you do in alpinism such as snow conditions, avalanche risk, crevasses (if you’re up on a glacier), and more. This creates an amazing environment of constantly being aware of your surroundings, those around you, all under the watchful eye of the beautiful mountains above you.
To start ski touring, however, I need to learn to ski. Then learn to ski off piste. Then I can go play with the big boys and girls. The winter has been less than ideal for skiing so far but the recent influx of cold temperatures and high precipitation have meant we’re finally getting the snowfall people promised back in November. Never too late to join the party, this week I booked myself in for ski lessons!
Learning to ski in Chamonix with Evolution 2
There are not many options for learning to ski in Chamonix and I was there choosing between ESF or Evolution 2. I had a great experience learning to snowboard with ESF many moons ago but a few friends highly recommended Evolution 2. There was a big cost difference – 3 days with Evo2 being the same as 5 with ESF – but the high praise for the people in orange and blue won out and so I took the plunge.
The beginner lessons were up at the other end of the valley and so, after and early start, I made my way up to Le Tour for Day 1 of skiing. Upon arrival I was introduced to our instructor for the next three days, Mikael, or Mike as he liked to be called.
As complete beginners, we started from absolute square one but within an hour Mike had us cautiously making our ways down Le Baby, while practicing various drills. By the end of the lesson we had moved up to the longer version of the green run and I stuck around after for a few more laps before work beckoned and I had to hang up the skis for the day.
On the second day, we continued to progress and even managed to get onto parallel turns – as soon as we started these, it suddenly felt like we were really skiing! Fine, I might not have the style and grace of those more experienced, but I felt like I was skiing and felt confident.
On day three, after a little warm up run, Mike decided we had outgrown the baby area and would benefit from trying something a little bigger. When he mentioned in the lift that we would be heading straight over to a red run, we all laughed and assumed he was joking. He wasn’t. Taking care to teach us out to negotiate terrain that might be too steep for us, he then got us taking our parallel turns up a notch, on the red run. This was proper skiing!
Before we knew it, a low cloud came in, taking our visibility down to about 10m. If I were on a snowboard this wouldn’t have bothered me, you just kind of feel your way down the slope, updating your points of reference whenever you can. I haven’t developed that feel for skiing yet and was amazed at how all the hard work over the last three day just disappeared and I was all over the place. Thankfully the cloud cleared shortly after but it was a good lesson in taking baby steps.
By the end of the third day, and end of the course, I couldn’t have been happier – Mike had taken a complete beginner who barely knew which end of the ski was which and unleased me onto the slopes a competent beginner. Thanks Mike!
Skiing with Sophie
After three days lessons, Sophie and I set off for our first ski date together. Normally, I’m racing around on my snowboard but this time, Sophie very patiently took me around Les Houches, never rushing me and always supporting my progress. It was so much fun to be out on the same medium, and to be able to show her all that I had learnt.
Before we knew it, we were working our way down red runs and even had my first experience with a mogul field. Not so fun with my limited range of skiing ability, but good to know I can get down them!
We met up with Alex and Maudie, and carried on with a few more reds. Whilst not paying attention to where we were going, I looked up and suddenly saw that the piste markers either side of me were a touch darker than I was expecting. In fact, they look black.. Oh, how did we end up on this piste! I felt surprisingly ok and, by the time we made it down to the bottom, Sophie was whooping and congratulating me on my first black run.
I have, obviously, got a long way to go, but I am so happy with such an amazing start. Now, I just need to get out and practice more… oh the chore!