The French Alps: Take the fear out of skiing

Scared of taking on more challenging pistes? You're not alone. An apprehensive Rhiannon Batten joins an expert in the French Alps who wants to take the fear out of skiing

The interior design offers the ultimate in converted-dairy chic. The Alpine views are spectacular. The food (local cheeses, nutty salads, spicy sausage and polenta so creamy you could almost dive head-first into it) deserves at least a couple of stars. But, would I return to Val d'Isère's La Fruitiere restaurant? Absolutely not if it means navigating the terrifying red run that leads from this mountain-top restaurant back down the valley.

As I stand at the top of the slope after lunch - jelly-legged, hyperventilating and sobbing into my goggles - it is all my instructor, Pierre, can do to persuade me to strap on my skis. "Are you OK, sweetiepie? Think positeeve. Are we 'aving fun?" "Um..." "Where eez zat positeeve attitude? Smile. Not like zees," he says, grimacing.

I smile, hysterically, and slip shakily down the slope."Weight on ze left leg. Why you do ze snowplough? Come on, parallel skis. Look at me, look at me. Don't look down. I'm 'ere all ze time. Nothing can 'appen to you. I'm so sorry to put you through this, sweetie pie, but c'est la vie. Ze lift eez closed. Ze green run eez closed. Zis eez ze only way down today."

As I weigh up whether the embarrassment of having to hold the instructor's hand is on a par with the time, once before, that an instructor took me accidentally down a black run and I had to ski an entire piste on my bottom, Pierre offers more words of encouragement. "You are more calm now. I can feel it een your 'ands," he says, as I slowly release him from a death lock. "Is it this steep all the way down?" I ask, my positive attitude slipping again. "Yes," he says, adding that he normally wouldn't bring scaredy cats on to this slope.

He isn't being rude. Scaredy Cat Skiing is a new programme that Pierre's ski school, Oxygène, has developed for guests of the upmarket chalet company, Snowline. Partly inspired by Pierre's South African wife, Fatima, who isn't all that sure about skiing either, the idea is that small group lessons with a more sympathetic than average instructor can turn a nervous skier into a more confident one.

"So many people are put off skiing because they are scared of it," explains Pierre over a glass of restorative vin chaud later on. "They send their husband and kids, or their wife and kids but they don't come themselves. We want to change that. Out of my 20 instructors, I have 10 that I know will be suitable for the Scaredy Cat programme," he says, adding that it's usually the really good skiers who are the kindest because they have nothing to prove. "I know that those 10 won't raise their voices. Not that the others raise their voices but we are Latin and you are Saxon..."

The idea isn't exactly new but Oxygène, which has won awards for its children's lessons, aims to do it better than anyone else. Not least because, while more British skiers are said to come to Val d'Isère than any other resort in the world, according to Pierre, the overall number of people visiting each year is falling. "We need to come up with new ideas to make sure that people feel the place they've chosen to ski in is the best resort in the world," he says.

It can't be that hard to persuade them. Set high up among the jagged mountains of the Tarentaise Valley, apart from a few architectural accidents, Val d'Isère is far more attractive than many of the large ski resorts, with the clusters of modern stone and wood chalets that were built for the 1992 Winter Olympics blending in nicely with older farmhouses and a picturesque 11th-century church. If you're into après-ski, it's also one of the more sociable resorts, as proved by the crowds of mini-skirted students descending on Dick's T-Bar at the weekend (some classily swigging Smirnoff straight from the bottle en route). But few people come here for the social life, or even the scenery. The resort's real USP is its altitude, meaning that snow is pretty much guaranteed between November and April.

But can it provide a cure for the self-confessed scaredy cat? The skiing guide lying on the chalet's sturdy fireside table doesn't bode well. The general atmosphere may be nicely mellow after a decadent three-course meal, a few glasses of Poui- lly-Fuissé and a chalet visit by Pamper Off Piste's mobile massage therapists, but the reading isn't. In terms of Val d'Isère's suitability for skiers, the resort gets five stars for experts but only three for beginners, plus a warning that many of the slopes are more challenging than their piste map colours suggest. "If Val d'Isère didn't show any green runs coming down from the top of the mountain no beginners would come here," whispers one old hand, brutally, as I flick through the guide. The Ski Club of Great Britain's online resort guide agrees, recommending Val d'Isère for "complete beginners, strong intermediates, and experts - but not for wobbly second-weekers". Oh dear.

My spirits are lifted the following morning when our small group of scaredy cats accomplishes a tough but spectacular blue run that cascades down a steep ribbon of a valley from the top of the mountain right into the village. Unfortunately, we come back to reality with a bump as we step out of the lift for the next run to be hit by fat little bullets of snow pelting our faces.

With a total white-out ahead, we hop on another chair lift and are dragged up the mountain through a snow storm, the icy wind sneaking in through our hoods and hurtling down the backs of our necks. Few other skiers seem to have ventured this high and it's an eerie feeling dangling alone in mid-air on our little metal seat, fixing our eyes on the row of empty chairs that swing creakily into the mist ahead. When I look down at the piste all I can see are circles spiralling through my vision in the fashion of a cartoon bang to the head. "Eez like ze moon," says Christophe, a poetic fellow Oxygène instructor who, going on Pierre's kindness-to-ability ratio, is a pretty amazing skier. "Or like being on a sheep. I 'ave seen people throw up when eet ees like zis."

We may not be able to see what lies beneath our feet but, as we set off downhill, it doesn't take long to find out. Five minutes down the slope, my pretty, flower-patterned skis catch on a chunk of rock and I fall head-first into icy powder, before tumbling down the rest of the piste in more of a spin than your average whirling dervish. Still, at least I'm not careering down the black run that we can see off to our left. "Zees one we call... 'ow you say? Ze box you are poot een when you are dead?" asks Christophe. A coffin? "Yes, ze coffin run. Ha ha. Eet's fun."

Fun or not, one thing becoming increasingly obvious is that there's a difference between being a beginner and needing encouragement and having such bad vertigo that when you look down a very steep slope you feel like you're about to fall off it rather than down. The truth is that, no matter how lovely the instructor is, the only way to improve is to practise, and two days weren't going to provide a miracle cure for this scaredy cat.

What I needed was some James Bond-style escape route that flipped open the mountain and sucked me instantly to the chalet's hot tub when the going got too steep. Pity I hadn't thought to ask the blazered, heavily freckled figure in the front row of our flight to Geneva who had unbuckled his belt, hopped up to a mike and announced, "My name is Moore. Roger Moore", before launching into a well-rehearsed spiel for Unicef.

In fact, Roger turned out to be pretty hard to avoid. On that day of blizzards out on the slopes, Christophe helped pass some downtime on the chair-lift by entertaining us with stories of how he'd once met Moore in Antibes and proceeded to go skiing with him. Apparently, the routine that they had carved out between them was roughly four runs to each beer. I'm not suggesting that Moore's a scaredy cat but if I followed his lead with vin chaud I might even be able to brave that red run again.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Val d'Isère can be reached from Geneva, which is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com), Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com), Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com) and Jet2 (0870 737 8282; www.jet2.com). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Geneva, in economy class, is £5. The cash is used to fund sustainable energy.

Snowline (08701 123118; www.snowline.co.uk) has seven-night skiing holidays in Val d'Isère from £609. This includes return flights from London to Geneva, transfers and half-board accommodation. Ski hire, lessons and lift passes are not included.

SKIING THERE

The next Scaredy Cat Skiing weeks take place from 12 and 19 March and consist of three morning and two afternoon small-group ski lessons with Oxygène ski school (00 33 4 79 41 99 58; www.oxygene-ski.com). Prices start at €200 (£136) per person.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

La Fruitiere, Bellevarde, Val d'Isère (00 33 4 79 06 07 17).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Val d'Isère Tourism (00 33 4 79 06 06 60; www.valdisere.com).

French Government Tourist Office (09068 244123, 60p/min; www.franceguide.com).

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