Skiing: Two on a slippery slope

Learning to ski in a week may sound impossible, but Helen and Peter Rodriguez tried it - and lived to tell the tale.
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They seemed a nice enough couple. Then the verbal avalanche began. Before I could slalom away I was deluged with the joys of powder snow - "better than sex" - and the beauty of the Val d'Isere: "I can't believe you've never been". Yawn. Two weeks later, against our better judgement, my husband and I were booked on to a learn-to-ski week at La Plagne in France. Decked out head to toe in C&A, we laid bets on who'd break a leg first.

After picking up our hired skis and boots, we trudged off for our first lesson with the ski school Oxygene, run by brothers Bertrand and Pierre de Monvallier.Their aim is to impart a love of the sport. Did they succeed?

Helen's diary

Day one, and Peter was already looking grim. It wasn't the prospect of skiing; it was the sight of the male ski instructors, clearly hand-picked for their looks as well as their skills. I, on the other hand, had no complaints.

Stereotypes were shattered when the most handsome and French looking of the bunch opened his mouth: "All right mate?" He was a Brit, from Norfolk. Quel dommage.

Six of us were taken to the nursery slopes by Olivier, whose first task was to teach us the most important lesson of all: how to stop.

"Crazy," the rest of us muttered jealously as two-year-olds overtook us on the nursery slopes. Then we learned the difficult business of turning. Stick a hip out, put the weight on one leg, then the other. It could have been the hokey cokey. Olivier was not impressed. "No, no, no, you save that for ze deesco."

Day two, and having mastered turns and stops Peter and I were promoted to Patrick Gostoli's class. Patrick used to be in the French national slalom team and he had high hopes for us. Suddenly we found ourselves on green and blue runs with real skiers. Just as suddenly I forgot how to turn and stop, and had a crisis of confidence as snowboarders whizzed past me. Now I know why instructors call beginners jambon. My legs were soon so bruised, they looked like hams.

Day three, and everything was starting to click. As our group of six whooshed along Patrick kept saying: "I am so happee" at the sight of us trailing competently behind him. Never before had I felt so elated; I never dreamed I would be able to ski after just three days. I could just see myself on Ski Sunday. Just before lunch Patrick rewarded us by taking us to a mountain cafe for wine and panoramic views. It was only as we left that we realised why. A horribly steep red run awaited us - sheer ice, and no way to get down apart from Dutch courage. Another crisis of confidence struck as fear reduced my legs to jelly. "Turn, Helene, turn, turn, turn," he repeated, as I stood rooted to the spot before falling all the way down. Whose idea was this holiday?

But my most spectacular fall was that night, en route to a restaurant. Without skis I performed a surprise triple salko followed by a double toe loop before landing on my nose. My companions awarded me a Torvill and Dean six out of six.

Day four saw me back on the green slopes before class trying to recover confidence and practise technique. For the first time we were going to ski with poles.

By the afternoon, fatigue had left me lagging behind the rest of the group. I kept falling over, and Patrick took pity on me. For the final half hour I grabbed on to his waist for dear life - at least, that's what I told my husband - as he guided me down the mountain.

Day five, the best day yet. I sped ahead, perfecting my now parallel turns, and even attempted the "Hollywood" slalom - an icy, steep racetrack with poles you are meant to whip around but more often than not demolish.

Thin mountain tracks no longer filled me with dread, as I kept my eyes ahead and not on my skis. After one impressive manoeuvre (ie, I didn't fall over) Patrick awarded me his ski instructor's medal and insisted I lead the group. I promptly fell over again.

Day six - the last day, and the whole group was already planning their next trip. Tired but elated, we all hugged Patrick like an old, dear friend, embarrassing him with our heartfelt thanks. Now, can I bore you with the joys of powder snow? Or what about that time I ...

Peter's diary

How could I have ever agreed to this? Hurtling down a mountain on two planks of wood, for fun. I must be mad.

The massive queue at the check-in at Gatwick didn't do much for my morale, either, but there was certainly a buzz amongst the group of travellers dressed in what looked like outrageously bright shell suits.

The hotel, when we finally arrived, was not at all as pretentious as I had feared. I was soon swept into conversation, and had a drink in my hand before you could say "bottoms up".

On the first day of lessons most of us men huddled together - huddling in fear of our new instructors, who we thought would have us in agony, crashing down the slopes of the Kinder run at breakneck speed. But the first day was relaxed and remarkably easy, as we rolled about in the snow. They soon had me branded as a nutter; no sooner had I put on skis than I took out one of the instructors; we both crashed to the ground in a flurry of scything skis and loud grunts.

The next couple of days went by in a white flurry as we exhausted every ounce of strength. The instructors carefully helped us through our morning warm-ups, ensuring that the lessons of the previous day were reinforced before inflicting upon us a new day's rituals. At lunch, our group, which had formed some sort of bond (probably because as we fell our respective Velcro straps stuck together) would limp to a cafe for lunch - more often than not an orgy of cheese, elbows and beer.

Then back on to the drag lift (a pole with a button on the end, on which to rest your bottom as you are dragged up the mountain). This, for an ungainly male like myself, can test a man's masculinity to the max. By the fourth day our instructor had dubbed us "the helicopters" owing to the way we held our ski poles and thrashed the air. Somehow, though, Patrick, our ever-vigilant instructor, retained his faith in our ability to learn. And after three days of falling over we were suddenly liberated, sailing downhill on wings of carbon-reinforced plastic. Our hearts pounded as we sped down in a rush of adrenaline and laughter.

One week at the Hotel Christina at La Plagne centre costs pounds 504, inclusive of breakfast, high tea and dinner with wine. The "learn to ski" week operates throughout the season in La Plagne. Included are six full days of lessons, ski and boot hire, and one-week lift pass. Total: pounds 250 (for details, call Mark Warner on 0171-393 3168).

SKI TIPS

Every week a simple tip to improve your skiing, from Chris Exall, instructor/winter sport consultant.

It's better to spend more time skiing well on easier slopes than badly on more difficult ones. Practice a range of techniques on runs which are within your ability before you try them on more challenging runs.

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