Ski Club of Great Britain: Ace of clubs
Snowboarder Tam Leach reveals how she learned to stopped worrying about 'hearty group shenanigans' and joined the Ski Club of Great Britain
Saturday 03 November 2007
I am never, I thought, joining the Ski Club of Great Britain. They might provide a decent snow report and supply helpful information on resorts, but they are not my people – born on skis, Christmas and Easter in St Moritz or Gstaad with the nanny in tow. Plus, of course, there was that little three-letter word in the club name: ski. Not, I thought, a place for snowboarders who took to the mountains late in life.
Besides, I don't like clubs. Don't like the forced camaraderie. Wasn't even interested in joining the Snowboard Club UK (SCUK). The SCUK does an admirable job of supporting the nation's single-plank minority, providing discounts, freebies and information tailored to those who slide sideways. Still, the thought of spending a week at one of their bashes, trapped in a mountain village with enthusiastic unknowns, was terrifying.
Then those wristbands started to appear: "Respect the Mountain", emblazoned across green rubber. They were given out by both the Ski Club and SCUK, working in cooperation. And on weather pages I noticed a new section, "Climate Change and Snowsports". Begrudgingly, I saw that it was the Ski Club that had created the environmental policy for skiers posted on the page. Mind you, it was all pretty obvious stuff. Don't drop litter. Reuse your towels. Take the train instead of flying.
As I read on, though, I saw that the Ski Club's Respect the Mountain campaign was taking a multi-pronged approach to tackling the receding snowline. Changing consumer behaviour was only the tip of the sinking iceberg; more impressive was the club's best-practice guide for resorts themselves, as well as its ever-growing resort-ratings database, which details every step taken on a resort's path to greenness.
By the next ski show, it was getting harder to hold on to my preconceptions. The Ski Club booth was covered in green wristbands. Respect the Mountain T-shirts were everywhere. Gone were the garish blue-and-yellow ski jackets of old; in their place were smart green Gore-Tex numbers.
"As a ski club, we're acutely aware of climate change issues," said Caroline Stuart-Taylor, the club's chief executive. "How long until there's not enough snow for us to do the thing that we love? But we feel that our responsibility is to raise awareness; we're not a major campaigner."
Perhaps not, though almost £7,000 has been raised from the sale of those wristbands to Ski Club members, along with nearly £20,000 from a 50p environmental levy added to every membership subscription. These funds have been donated to the Woodland Trust tree-planting scheme, and to educational and sustainable development research projects in the Alps.
Another surprise was the number of holiday courses designed with mountain-savvy skiers in mind – from Learn to Ski weeks to courses in mountaincraft and avalanche awareness. Around half the club's holidays focus on off-piste or touring for serious skiers – not at all the emphasis on après that I'd expected. Again, the reason given seems to stem from a genuine desire to spread the love. Thanks to carving skis, skiers can now get off-piste relatively quickly – often before they're aware of the dangers inherent in the mountains. "Ultimately, skiing is about having adventures," said Vanessa Fisher, the club's spokeswoman. "We don't want our members to lose that feeling, but at the same time, we want them to be safe."
Next came real-life encounters with Ski Club members at large. Stationed in around 40 resorts, Ski Club volunteer reps run weekly guided tours, each day geared to a different level of skier – or rider. About 14 per cent of the Club's 30,000-strong membership are snowboarders; every year, a handful take the reps training course. The rep service is free, even to non-members, who are invited to just show up and try it out for a day.
In Argentière, I watched as guide Graham McMahon thoroughly and carefully taught avalanche awareness techniques, a skill that he repeats at the Club's annual series of avalanche lectures in the UK (see panel, right). In Flaine, I spoke to a group of friends from Middlesbrough who were soldiering on with an "Improving in Powder" course, despite a distinct lack of powder in which to practise. "Oh well," said one middle-aged man brightly. "Conditions are so bad that I'm sure we'll all find it much easier when we get into the real stuff."
This is classic British stiff-upper-lip stuff – and as I discovered more about the Club's history, there was no denying that it is something of a national institution. Formed at the turn of the last century, the British Ski Club organised the first world downhill championships and fought successfully for downhill and slalom to be included in the Winter Olympics. Since the Sixties, its emphasis has shifted from promoting competition to taking care of recreational skiers. Over the past decade, the club has been broadening its appeal to snow sports aficionados in general, rather than the traditional downhill fraternity.
Fisher and Stuart-Taylor believe that the growth of the club's website over the past 10 years has had a massive influence, increasing their membership by opening up their services to a far wider – and younger – audience. The site works on three levels: environmental information and basic resort and weather reports are in the public domain; more detailed reports are available to those who register with the site; and members have access to pages and pages of discounts – with chalets and tour operators, at ski shops and snowdomes and ski shows, on ferries and transfers. You even save on National Express bus trips and car hire to destinations that have nothing whatsoever to do with skiing.
It was the savings on the Eurostar Ski Train – enough on a single trip to cover the cost of membership – that did it. That, and the club's insurance, which, like the cover provided by the SCUK, covers skiing and snowboarding off-piste without a guide – a small-print rarity. I still haven't shaken my fear of hearty group shenanigans, but, back at the ski show, Stuart Taylor set me straight.
"Members have the choice, you know," she said, reassuringly, as if I was a slightly slow child. "They can be as involved as they want to be." So yes, dear reader, I joined.
Individual memberships with the Ski Club of Great Britain (0845 458 0782; www.skiclub.co.uk) cost £53, family memberships cost £80, and memberships for the under-24s are £20. Membership of the Snowboard Club UK (01273 620 877; www.snowboardclub.co.uk) costs £30 for adults and £70 for a family of four
Avalanche lecture series
A series of lectures is being organised by the Ski Club of Great Britain and Snow & Rock. Tickets cost £2, with the proceeds going to the voluntary Scottish Mountain Rescue (www.scotclimb.org.uk). Book via the Ski Club website (www.skiclub.co.uk) or your local Snow & Rock (0845 100 1000; www.snowandrock.com). The dates are:
7 November – Kensington, London
13 November – Birmingham
21 November – Monument, London
27 November – Hemel Hempstead
5 December – Chill Factor e, Manchester
The Ski Club is also running two Avalanche Awareness weekends next year, both of which will be held in Argentière, France. These will run from 17-20 January and from 13-16 March; the cost is £195 for the course only, or £295 for the course and three nights' B&B. Flights are not included.
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