Head for the hills: Instructor Warren Smith gives students at his ski school a pep talk on the slopes

For intermediate skier Nick Boulos, an academy in Verbier offered a real chance to improve

Seeing yourself on camera is rarely a pleasant experience, particularly if it's footage taken while hurling down a mountain with all the grace of an elephant on ice. I had no choice though.

"We film all our pupils in action and analyse the footage. It's the most effective way to improve your skiing," said professional coach Warren Smith, who's been transforming nervous novices into seasoned skiers at his academy in Verbier since 1998.

I had come to the Swiss Alps hoping to break through my intermediate plateau, a problem that afflicts most keen skiers at some stage. I can get down a red run, but still find myself, involuntarily and far too frequently, reverting to a snowplough. It was time to address the problem.

Catering for anyone from complete beginners to professional athletes, Warren's five-day courses are designed to build confidence and master key techniques, such as carving and, in my case, parallel turns.

The day had started on Les Ruinettes piste with Fiona, one of the academy's 10-strong team of instructors. "People think of Verbier as a resort for advanced skiers but it's also full of good terrain for beginners and intermediates," she said as our group of six set off along the groomed slope. In the basin of the valley far below, the treetops and pitched roofs of Verbier were coated in sparkling snow.

After observing our skiing and teaching us the art of pole-planting (a trick that helps improve balance and controlled turns) Fiona paused and rummaged in her pocket, retrieving a video camera. It was the moment I was dreading. She raced on ahead before stopping to point the camera directly at me.

That evening, everyone gathered in the cosy bar of the Chalet Hotel de Verbier. The entertainment on offer wasn't karaoke or a movie, but the videos of us skiing up on the big television. There was nowhere to hide; I shifted uneasily in my seat. I entertained an image of myself on the slopes as a vision of skill and agility. I knew this was far from the truth, of course, but I never had to confront the ugly reality, until Warren hit the play button.

After several impressive but not faultless displays from my fellow skiers, it was time for my critique. I flashed up on the screen: a dark smudge inching across the snowy backdrop, all wobbly knees and snowploughs.

"Good effort, Nick, but your body weight is in the wrong place," Warren remarked, rewinding and playing the clip again, this time in slow motion, prolonging my embarrassment. "Your hands drop back and your legs aren't flexed. Tomorrow, we'll work on getting you on the front of the skis."

I digested my lacklustre display over dinner at the nearby Le Farinet Hotel. It's due to reopen next month after a major refurbishment that will be crowned with the Après Bar and Lounge where live bands and Cream DJs will perform every night.

It's symbolic of Verbier's glitzy appeal: this is the resort where Richard Branson keeps a chalet, and where W debuted its first ski hotel last winter. The Cordée des Alpes hotel opened the previous season, a design property filled with locally sourced stone, wood and marble whose walls are etched with murals of the Valais Mountains. The spa offers a cocooning body massage using "oxygenating" Swiss chocolate. However, this month, there's a new three-star in town. The Montpelier Hotel has just opened its doors, with 47 rooms that feature stylish Alpine touches and fine mountain views.

Warren and I had the slopes to ourselves the next morning. "Everyone hits a plateau because they pick up bad habits and lack fundamental skills – things like range of movement, symmetry, and confidence," he explained. "Successful skiing is also about the psychology of being on skis."

One-on-one time with Warren doesn't come cheap – £599 a day in addition to the cost of the five-day course – but his approach, one of science, philosophy, and practical advice made easy, delivers results.


Returning to Les Ruinettes, we began by working on posture and flexibility. I traversed the slope on one leg before raising and lowering my arms at precise intervals to ensure the optimum centre of balance.

"Imagine you're pedalling a bike," shouted Warren over the crunch of my skis on the packed snow. "Push down on your leg and extend as you initiate a turn. Then gently roll the other knee out to stay parallel."

Repeating Warren's instructions like a mantra ("push, extend, roll") I glanced downwards to see my skis turning and coming together naturally rather than spreading apart in the dreaded V-shape.

Keen to push me further, Warren introduced more complex exercises, including the "braquage" turn – the simultaneous pivoting of skis in one swift movement. "It's crucial for negotiating narrow terrain and a move you should be able to do on a 10p piece," he said. My initial attempts were laughable but subsequent efforts were decent, or so Warren told me.

Speeding on ahead, Warren veered off the main piste and down a short but steep slope that ran parallel. Following his lead, I criss-crossed the challenging passage making tight and controlled turns, relishing every second of my new-found confidence.

Waiting at the bottom, Warren broke into applause. He pointed back to the vertiginous piste and smiled. "You've just had your first taste of a black run." It barely seemed possible.

Fuelled by adrenalin, we pressed on until Warren's video camera made another appearance. This time, however, I skied with conviction. We reviewed the footage on the camcorder's grainy screen. It wasn't perfect but each parallel turn was followed by another. I hadn't just overcome my plateau; I'd smashed it.

Getting there

Nick Boulos travelled with Inghams (01483 791111; inghams.co.uk) which offers a week in Verbier from £544. The price includes return flights from Gatwick to Geneva on 6 December, transfers, and half-board accommodation at the Chalet Hotel de Verbier.

Visiting there

Five-day courses with the Warren Smith Ski Academy (inghams.co.uk/warrensmith) start at £419.

Hotel Le Farinet (00 41 27 771 6626; hotelfarinet.com). Doubles from CHF410 (£272)

The Montpelier Hotel (00 41 27 771 6131; montpelierverbier.ch). Doubles from CHF225 (£149), including breakfast.

La Cordée des Alpes Hotel (00 41 27 775 4545; hotelcordee.com). Doubles from CHF350 (£232), including breakfast.

More information

Verbier Tourist Board (00 41 27 775 3888; verbier.ch)