Closer to the edge

At the Primitive School of snowboarding nobody will hold your hand. But with tenacity and technique, you might fast-track to 'intermediate'
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The Independent Travel

Forget the steep black pistes and the narrow gulleys. The most frightening place to be in a ski resort, if you don't stray off-piste, is on the nursery slopes. Everything that moves there follows a dangerously unpredictable path. The only skiers that pose no threat are those already lying in a heap on the snow.

Forget the steep black pistes and the narrow gulleys. The most frightening place to be in a ski resort, if you don't stray off-piste, is on the nursery slopes. Everything that moves there follows a dangerously unpredictable path. The only skiers that pose no threat are those already lying in a heap on the snow.

Even when you are travelling up on a drag-lift, errant learners attempting to master the technique of turning often edge towards you with an expression on their faces that vividly conveys that they have no idea whether a collision is avoidable. Get off the lift unscathed, skirt around the unsteady lines of stage-one skiers trailing behind their instructors, and you still have to reckon with the speed-freaks using the nursery slopes as a short-cut to an appointment for which they are apparently already late.

Under normal circumstances I might, I fear, have been hurrying down among them. But last week I was using the nursery slopes at Les 2 Alpes for their proper purpose, making another attempt to get to grips with snowboarding, two years after a handful of lessons at St Anton.

Still unsure whether snowboarding is like riding a bike - a technique that, once acquired, is never forgotten - I asked Crystal Holidays to put me in a beginners' class. Enrolling me in the local Primitive School might have seemed too much like a step backwards, were it not for the test I failed in the equipment rental shop even before lessons began. I remembered I was "regular" and not "goofy" (the difference lies in whether you lead with your right or left leg on the board); but I had no idea what my preferred binding-plate angles were. Perhaps I wasn't ready for primary school.

The teaching method of the Primitive School, run by Gaëtan Demard with his brother Jean-Valÿre and Olivier Picone, lives down to its name. Maybe the dozen of us looked like a difficult class, because all three of them came out on the nursery slopes. But there was no fancy stuff, none of the hand-holding (to help keep one's balance) that I had previously enjoyed. After a brief familiarisation session, we were all pushed off down the slope to see what we could do, like children thrown into the water to teach them to swim.

Snowboarding differs from skiing in that beginners cannot learn a defensive stance: there is no way to "snowplough" on a board. You have to start as you mean - if possible - to continue, by riding on the edge. Which we all managed to do, albeit for short periods. After our first attempt at turning, switching from one edge to the other, Gaëtan sensed that I was an imposter: "You've done this before," he said, to my intense satisfaction. It was like riding a bike, except that falling off was easier.

Despite its sublime setting, surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks, Les 2 Alpes is an unprepossessing place. The town, in the southern French Alps near Grenoble, is a sort of skiing strip-mall on a busy road, its garish bars, shops and eateries giving it something of the atmosphere of Tenerife's Playa de las Américas. Its name is not derived from the mountains (there are half-a-dozen Alps in the vicinity) but was coined when villages at either end of the valley joined forces to create a ski resort immediately after the Second World War.

At the southern extreme, there is an alarming view about 800 metres down to one of the villages, Venosc, a cable-car ride away, and some rather good neo-Gothic apartment blocks up above. All the way beyond the takeaway-food vendors, faux-pubs and the mess of Fifties and Sixties development, Mont-de-Lans has much the nicest building in town, the Hotel Tessa, now operated by Crystal as one of its "club hotels". The interior can't quite match the charm of the stone-built façade, but it has a character - Edwardian, at a guess - notably absent from most budget-price resort accommodation (even this month, in high season, holidays there cost from £475 per week, including breakfast, tea and three-course evening meals with wine).

In stark contrast to the resort itself, Les 2 Alpes' ski area, running down from the 3,568-metre Dÿme de la Lauze, is spectacular. In good weather last week, there were clear views of the mountains to the south and, thanks to fog on the valley floor, no sign of the town. Unusually, there are nursery slopes at the bottom, half-way up at Les Crêtes, and near the top on the glacier. Our second lesson began in the valley, then moved up to Les Crêtes.

Struggling to get down nursery slopes that I could easily have skied seemed oddly perverse - a bit like hopping the dog just because walking it had become too easy. But things got better a thousand metres further up. The bubble-lift emerged from the fog to deposit us, with Olivier as our instructor, below a wider, steeper slope, mercifully free of other beginners. There, we worked on putting rhythm into our turns, some long and fast, others shorter and sharper.

The technique of snowboarding is ridiculously simple. Essentially, if you look where you are going, that's where you will go. Small movements of the upper body create weight-transference that steers the board and switches it from one edge to the other. But trying to apply the technique can make experienced skiers look simply ridiculous. The problem is that for skiing all the important movements take place below the waist, while a snowboarder uses his or her legs merely to trim the board angle and to transmit upper-body movements downwards (and, when necessary, to absorb shocks). It's the difference between patting your head and circling your stomach, but with more violent consequences when things go wrong.

Jeremy Edwards, who runs Les 2 Alpes' European Ski School (with which the Primitive School is affiliated), dramatised how simple it should be to learn snowboarding by saying that "it would take me five years to teach a beginner to ski off-piste in powder, but only three weeks to take a boarder to that level". Olivier couldn't wait that long. For our third and final two-hour lesson he took us off-piste. I couldn't say it was a huge success, but the falling over was less painful than on-piste. As we parted, rather fondly, Olivier assured me that I was now "an intermediate". He was exaggerating, of course; but I'm on my way.

Crystal Holidays: 0870 848 7000, www.crystalski.co.uk. Snowboarding lessons at the Primitive School (00 33 4 76 79 74 55) cost FF540 for three two-hour sessions

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