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Working abroad: The ski season

So you want to be the next ‘Chalet Girl’? The ski season might feel a long way away, but companies are already taking bookings for the 2013/14 winter season

A couple of years ago the UK Film Council, in a less than shrewd commercial decision, released ‘Chalet Girl’.

Promising the classic ‘normal’ girl (normal being a loose term: she's a skateboard champion with a dead mum) meets ‘posh-boy’ plot. The film features a cast of long blonde ponytails and drawling vowels. Oh, and it was set in the hills of the French Alps. It’s unlikely you saw it, but its release marks the moment where the ski season concept came to the wider public’s perception.

Previously dismissed as the exclusive domain of yah-ing public schoolgirls and boys, of whom there’s certainly still a strong contingent, the pistes are opening up to anyone with a passion for snow and a desire to strap flattened plastic to their feet and hurl themselves down a semi-vertical piste of compacted ice. Which, let’s be honest, sounds like an entirely sensible way to spend a few months.

There are a variety of jobs in the mountains, even if you decide not to qualify as a chalet host or ski instructor, finding employment will keep your parents off your back for a few months.

Most of the companies which offer ski work in Europe are based in the UK, so you’ll need to be over 18, although some companies only employ over 21s, and have a valid passport and National Insurance number. If you choose to work in Europe, and you’re an UK national, you don’t need to worry about a visa or work permits as you’re folded into the E.U. If you decide to work in one of the American or Canadian resorts, you need to have a valid work visa before you travel, which can be both tricky and expensive to get a hold of. Canada is generally easier than the US for work.

Chalet girls and boys

The stereotypical jobs are chalet hosting, ski instructing, or bar work, but there are plenty of other jobs out there, including roles in administration, childcare, maintenance, or hotel work.

To be a chalet host requires a considerable amount of preparation. Most people working in chalets have taken one of any number of cookery courses available in the UK. These courses aren’t cheap, but most of the companies do promise to help you land your first job. The Orchards Cookery School specialises in training chalet cooks and is based in England. The courses aren’t cheap though; a five-day course will set you back just under £1,000 (depending on the week) and a two-week course is from £1,660. Mountain Chefs is another option and will take you through everything that is required to run a chalet smoothly and efficiently. They cater for both gap year students and more mature individuals either looking for a sabbatical or a complete change in direction. They offer a short course at £595 or a gourmet course at £1,200, and there are still available slots for the summer. There are a number of cookery schools in the UK and in Europe, so it’s worth having a look around to find the one that will best suit you.

Chalet hosts frequently come back with among the funniest stories, mainly owing to their proximity to guests, and the low wages they can be paid – neither of which are conducive to excellent behaviour. Generally starting work at around 6:30 (or earlier) each morning, hosts are expected to cook, clean, and generally care for the guests staying in their assigned chalet. Depending on the company roles and responsibilities will vary, and – again depending on the company – wages can be low.

Enjoying chalet hosting greatly depends on your location and chalet. I spoke to two boys who had been based in a small French resort over the previous winter. Neither earned any money while working – booze and an initially small salary blamed – but both recommended the experience. Each had slightly rocky starts to their chalet hosting experience.

One managed to set his kitchen on fire after leaving a cake baking in the oven while he went up the slopes. Half-way up the mountain he received a call from his boss, who, screaming with rage, ordered him back to the chalet where a thin stream of black smoke could be seen emerging from the kitchen window.

“The chalet smelt like Joan of Arc’s funeral pyre for the next week. Fortunately the guests found it funny, but I nearly got fired for that small mistake,” he admits.

The other, hosting a few years previously, served his guests an apple and raisin crumble … minus the apples and raisins. It seems that guests frequently come off the worst; neither of the boys liked the majority of the guests in any way. One family were so bad that half-way through the week matters were taken into the hosts own hands. Blocking all the loos bar one, he then laced his guests’ food with laxatives. The results were suitable explosive.

The host’s treatment of his guests was only one of a list of appalling treatments which have been meted out to ‘rude’ or ‘grumpy’ guests. Chalet hosts are typically paid only £120 a week, and while your accommodation is taken care of, not all companies cover your ski pass or other expensive necessities (like health insurance) on the slopes. The perks can be considerable though – tips can be highly lucrative, although speaking to the boys there were massive grumbles about this too: “A lot of companies will only hire pretty girls – and it’s them that usually get the better tips.”

The boys also spoke about the sometimes crushing loneliness: "separated from your family, there’s often no mobile signal in some of these resorts, and your only company are the guests. You can get pretty low; lots of people went home in my first couple of weeks because they were so homesick."

Ski instructor

If the above doesn’t sound all that appealing, you can qualify to be a ski instructor. Although the initial costs are significantly more expensive, the average wage is much higher. The longest standing ski instructor course is the British Association of Snowsport Instructors (BASI) which is a member of the International Ski Instructors Association (ISIA).

As a member you get a range of benefits ranging from reducing equipment to worldwide cover for public liability and professional indemnity. However, as ski instructing has gained popularity there are a number of other courses out there ranging in price and in different locations over the world. Snoworks GAP runs courses at BASI levels one and two for £7,495 for eight weeks in Tignes. Accommodation, ski passes, and first aid course is included, and the program will assist you in job applications. Alternatively, The Snow Centre offers BASI level one in their indoor ski school just off the M1. Their short course is significantly cheaper (£555 for five days).

Isla Marsh qualified BASI level one and two with Snoworks GAP last year – and then spent the next ‘best six months’ teaching and skiing in Japan. Speaking about her experiences, Isla clearly found Japan an incredible place to live and teach. Her resort, on the northern Japanese island Hokkaido, was frequented by holidaying Australians and wealthy Chinese – so there were never any real language barrier problems. Now back in the UK, Isla is working towards qualifying for her ISIA level three and four, an internationally recognised qualification which will allow her to teach anywhere.

“Japan was just such an amazing experience," she says. "It’s something you can’t really tell anyone about unless they’ve experienced it as well. When I was training I was speaking to my instructors and looking at their lives and I just decided that university wasn’t for me.”

Leaving two university offers behind her – at Exeter and Loughborough – Isla has decided to pursue a career in skiing; something she’s clearly ecstatic about. Her parents were initially less keen, though Isla says she talked them round, and they’re now supporting her through her studies, which she is taking in the UK (in a snow dome) and in France.

“They’re now looking at it like university – and I hope I’m going to get a party like my sister when she graduated!” Isla adds.

Isla was well paid for her work, earning around £20 an hour teaching in Japan. Once fully qualified she’ll be able to work within a company or set up her own, establishing her own earnings.

The ski industry might be changing, it isn’t changing that fast. There’s still a definite ‘type’ of school leaver who heads out there, and while they might not be the only ones out there anymore, they seem to be the loudest on the piste. However you look at it, Chalet Girl’s version of events bares little to no correlation with reality.