A masterclass with the thinking man's ski instructor

In 1976, an ex-downhill racer changed the French ski industry forever. Thirty years on, Pat Zimmer claims his teaching methods can turn a lower-slope lamb into a black-run beast. Owen Sheers clips in
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

'Look, don't get existential about this. Stop thinking and start skiing." With that Pat Zimmer, a French former international downhill racer and founder of the ski school Top Ski, zips off down the slope into the thickening snow storm. Our small group follows him, trying as best we can to stop thinking and, as Pat tells us over his shoulder, "to feel the snow under our feet".

All this is a long way from my memories of the usual ski-school mantras: "bend ze knees"; and "parallel, parallel". But then Top Ski is not your usual ski school, and Pat Zimmer is certainly not your usual ski instructor.

It was in 1976 when Zimmer, then a 24-year-old racer from Alsace, asked for a meeting with the head of the Ecole du Ski Français, the state-run monopoly that once kept an iron grip on all ski instruction in France. Zimmer wanted to let the director know that after a couple of years as an instructor for the ESF, he had decided it wasn't for him, and that he was going to set up his own alternative ski school in the high Alpine village of Val d'Isère. He just thought the director should know because, as Zimmer tells me 30 years later, "I was brought up to be polite and respectful".

The response of the ESF was anything but. Shocked by his perceived arrogance, they took Zimmer all the way to the French high court, where they lost, Zimmer won and Top Ski, France's first alternative, independent ski school, was born. Zimmer went on to help other independent schools follow in his wake, but Top Ski in Val D'Isère remains the original cult operation, offering a style of teaching that reaches parts other instruction fails to reach.

Or at least that's what I've been told. I've come to Val d'Isère to participate in one of Top Ski's intensive ski clinics which Zimmer established with Peter Hardy, co-author of the Great Skiing and Snowboarding Guide. According to Hardy, I'm the perfect candidate for a Top Ski clinic. I had ski-school instruction up to the age of 16 and then felt confident enough to tackle the slopes on my own. I'm more than comfortable on most reds and blacks and various sports have kept me pretty fit, even if a recent knee injury has meant a rest from running for the past six months.

The Top Ski team's translation of this is: yes, I'm fine on blacks and reds, but what about in poor conditions? How do I ski in bad visibility? Er, well, not too great. I'm comfortable on the pistes, but what happens when I take a foray into deep powder? Fall over a fair bit? Lose my style? Um, that'd be it. And all right, so I have been fit in the past, but six months off? Those thighs are going to be in for a bit of a surprise aren't they? Um, could be right there.

What's so great about Pat's style of teaching," Hardy explains on the evening before our first day's skiing, "is that it's very simple. It's about developing a style that can transfer straight from piste to powder, that keeps you skiing well in bad conditions. It's also very efficient, which is great for people coming back from injury or those who aren't as fit as they once were."

Hardy should know what he's talking about, and not just because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things skiing. It was Zimmer, after all, who brought him back to the slopes after a mountaineering accident left his right leg shattered in 17 places and four inches shorter than his left. Hardy and a colleague were descending an icy couloir when they fell the height of Nelson's Column and then "bounced four or five times, going about 200ft with each one".

His colleague didn't survive, and Hardy was left facing a future without skiing. But then Zimmer phoned him in hospital and told him: "When you ski again, not if, you will come to me and I will teach you how to ski in an entirely new way so that you conserve energy." Hardy thought Zimmer was mad, but two years, several operations and a Zimmer-designed boot later, he found himself on the mountain again, completing the first of what would be thousands more turns down the slopes.

It is an impressive story, and Hardy is convinced that no one but Zimmer could have brought him back. So what can Zimmer and Top Ski do for me?

At the end of the first morning, I'm pretty sceptical. True, Top Ski offers a very different feel to its tuition; personal, hassle- free, pick-ups from the chalet, characterful and impressive instructors (one of our party, a complete novice, finds herself being taught one on one by an ex-world mogul champion). But at first, the instruction itself feels pretty familiar. I also appear to be skiing much worse than I usually do.

Zimmer's emphasis for this first day is on weight transfer, the disassociation of upper and lower body and committed pole-planting. I feel that I've got too much to think about and that my normal style, which has got me down hundreds of slopes in the past, is collapsing around me. And my thighs. God, my thighs. The build-up of lactic acid in my quads doesn't seem to speak of a particularly efficient style.

In the afternoon, however, it's a different story. Learning anything new is about finding that point between conscious application of technique and the more unconscious development of a rhythm, the discovery of a new "feel". Zimmer's insistence on the "trigger" of the firm pole-plant ("just stick the bloody thing in") begins to work. The idea is that the pole-plant instinctively sets in train the rest of the sequence of movements required to produce a good turn. Conditioned like one of Pavlov's dogs, I soon begin to achieve slicker, smoother turns.

The next morning the same pattern emerges: as Zimmer intro-duces other hints and tips I feel my style disintegrate again; then in the afternoon it comes together once more, despite an icy piste and visibility reduced to a few metres. These are exactly the kind of conditions I would usually have trouble with, but armed with Zimmer's simple checklist of pole-plant, hip position and weight transfer, I find myself feeling more like the James Bond-type skier I always dreamed of being. That is, until we all sit down in Zimmer's office that evening and watch ourselves on video.

Video plays a crucial part in Top Ski's instruction, and it is both a cruel and effective teaching aid. Only when watching yourself on film do you begin to appreciate the figure you cut (or not) on the slopes. Zimmer serves up his favourite wines (from Alsace, of course) and talks through our faults and good points, frame by frame. It is seven in the evening, when most instructors are perfecting their après-ski chat-up lines, but Zimmer is still teaching and here, away from the slopes, I begin to appreciate his passion, both for the mountains and for improving the skiers that come to him. Or, as he puts it, "taking apart their engines and putting them back together to make them expert, not just good, skiers".

I felt my own engine come back together on our final day, skiing up on the glacier in Tignes. Our five-strong group are cutting our way down the slope, using, not avoiding, the moguls and pole-planting as if our lives depended on it when Zimmer suddenly glides over a lip at the side of the piste into a powder field, as smooth and undisturbed as a newly made duvet. We follow, and with no adjustment of style whatsoever I find myself skiing in a way that has eluded me for years. For a couple of minutes across that powder cache I'm skiing like a pro, and I have to admit that for me at least , Zimmer's instruction has worked.

I am not alone; the rest of the group have also made sudden leaps forward in their skiing. I ask Zimmer what it feels like to see this kind of improvement in his pupils. "Remember," he answers, "there is no scale of value, only a scale of feeling." It's a typical Zimmerism, and apart from the practical success of Top Ski's instruction, this holistic approach also stays with me once I leave the mountains.

Zimmer, I conclude, is actually the most existential of skiers. When he first brought Hardy back to the mountain after his accident he didn't let him ski straight away. Instead, they just stood and looked at the mountains, breathed in the air and "felt the snow" under their feet.

He is also the most social of skiers. Not for him the solitary figure cutting down a steep couloir. As he tells me, if there's no one to ski with, "I'd rather take the chair lift down than ski back on my own."

As we drive away from Val d'Isère through the snow-dusted forests, I have to admit that the different feel of Top Ski I sensed on that first day is after all what makes their methods work. It is just as much Zimmer's angle of approach to the whole activity of skiing as the angle of my hips or my poles that has enabled me, over three days of instruction, finally to "stop thinking and start skiing".

Follow the snow patrol

For more details of the Top Ski school and to make bookings: topskival.com.

What to read: The Great Skiing and Snowboarding Guide 2006 by Peter and Felice Hardy (Cadogan Guides, £15.99) is packed with information about resorts throughout Europe and North America, with detailedmaps, après-ski, restaurant and accommodation advice.

Where to stay: VIP (vip-chalets.com) offer a range of surprisingly affordable luxury chalets throughout Val d'Isère. Aspen Lodge (winner of the Which? Best Chalet Award 2004) offers excellent catered accommodation for six to 10 people right on the resort's main drag, close to all shops, galleries, bars and restaurants. From £389 a week per person, including flights. The Chalets Suisses private hamlet a short drive out of town offers four stone-and-slate chalets. Davos is the pick of the bunch, with a four-poster master bedroom and outdoor hot tub looking over the valley. A chauffeured minibus service is offered with all Chalets Suisses properties. From £429 a week per person including flights. The Farmhouse in the heart of Val d'Isère's old town sleeps 12 to 14 from £439 a week per person including flights.

The great indoors: If you fancy a night off from the après-ski, treat yourself to massage or beauty treatment from Pamper Off Piste (pamperoffpiste.com) in the comfort of your own chalet, complete with candles and music. A 90-minute full-body massage costs £65.

Comments