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Downhill all the way

Stuck on a skill plateau when it comes to skiing? Colin Brown joins a course that helps the stiff and timid to show some style on the slopes
Relaxing after a substantial dinner at the Chalet Tarentaise, the ski party - three lawyers, a civil engineer, a student and myself - turned to the name game. "Name one state capital whose letters are not in the name of the state." We were stumped. We went through every one of the 50-odd US state capitals but could not find the answer.

Hugh, the barman, had the answer in the time it takes to pour a glass of Kronenbourg 1664.

The ski courses run by Optimum, a chalet-based company in Le Pre on the fringe of Les Arcs, in the French Alps, aim to widen your horizons, if only to answer the geography questions in apres-ski games of Trivial Pursuit.

The courses are designed to get the intermediates off the skill plateau encountered by most stiff British recreational skiers and into the realms of relaxed, stylish downhillers who feel confident on any terrain.

Around 60 per cent of the clients are regulars who come back partly to brush up on technique but also because they enjoy being in a big ski area with a friendly atmosphere, English-speaking experts and in small groups. That avoids the problem of being stuck at the back of a snake of skiers with an instructor whose idea of teaching is to beat the queues to the bottom of the mountain.

The first two days were spent in brilliant sunshine, after the first heavy snowfalls of the season. Many of the runs were becoming icy, particularly at lower level. We were lucky that there was any snow at all, given the poor start to the year most people had endured, but on the third day, the white stuff settled in again.

Le Pre is no more than a hamlet, with a church and a handful of rustic farmhouses that seem to be propping each other up, on a track to the woods that surround Les Arcs. There are no shops, and it is not recommended for non-skiers. The only way back to the chalet from the main ski area is down a short bumps run, which makes it unsuitable for complete beginners or skiers still trying to master the snow-plough technique.

You have to be skiing parallel to get the most out of Le Pre. A chair- lift has opened up the village to the whole of the vast skiing area of Les Arcs, while avoiding the necessity of having to stay in one of the apartments in purpose-built blocks in Les Arcs main resorts.

With the snow filtering through the grey light of morning, we ascended the chair-lift to our first lesson, still with the pursuit of trivia on our minds. Nick, a barrister and a regular on the courses, observed that his Christian name contained three of the vowels of Nicole, a student who was in Les Arcs for the first time.

The clients had been split into two small groups, and Phil James, a qualified instructor, was in charge of ours. We went through the Optimum routine of a warm-up at the top of the lift, out of our skis, before the first run of the day, which produced the thigh-burn. The run, a gentle blue piste through the trees, involved plenty of poling to get to the main lifts that would take us up to Arc 2000 or over a ridge to Arc 1600.

We were taken on the ridge route to the Arc 1600 snowfields, where there were plenty of long, steepish runs to practice our technique. Phil would take the rest of the group through the week, building up edge control, speed and, snow permitting, our competence off-piste. As an interloper, I had only a taste of the course, but it quickly gave me a helping hand off that plateau when Phil took away our poles to improve our suppleness.

I had been trained as a big pole planter, concentrating carefully on the down-and-up motion necessary to complete a turn, but the absence of poles made me concentrate more on edging the skis to stay in a stable position. Within a few seconds, I had notched up a real improvement in my skiing, and when I took the ski poles back, my skiing felt more assured, which was just as well. The route back after lunch was back over the ridge in a total white-out, where skiing became a matter of feeling the snow, and finding the piste poles back to the safety of Arc 2000.

Phil also took me down a short but steep and deep powder run, and helped me to locate a ski when I accidentally flipped over. Looking back after the run, I could see my tracks in the snow, and the full-stop where I fell. It left me feeling that I should go back and complete the sentence before the snow has gone for the season. And the answer to the trivia quiz? Pierre, the capital of South Dakota.

Colin Brown paid pounds 345 for a week's food and board at Chalet Tarentaise. This price excludes transport to the chalet - self-drive is likely to be cheapest. A skill course or race training costs an additional pounds 150 per person, per week. Optimum can be contacted on 01992 561085.