“Oh, you’ll pick it up in two days,” my friend James declared, when asked how long he thought it would take me, someone who has been skateboarding for 20 years, to learn how to snowboard.
No less than a month later, I’m dragging my board onto a gondola in Les Arcs, France, while Italian ex-pro snowboarder Beto Iacchini gives me the newbie pep talk. Am I about to find out how comprehensive my travel insurance is? “No way, man,” says Beto, who is every bit the dudey snowboard instructor: long-haired, chilled, cheeky and – conveniently for his students – fluent in five languages. “It’s all going to be fine,” he says.
We begin our foreboding ascent from one of Les Arc’s four hubs, Arc 1950, where I’m staying, to Arc 2000, with its hulking retro block hotels that look a bit like the Death Star has crashed into the Alps. People below us carve in leisurely fashion down to Les Arc’s other hubs, Arc 1600 and Arc 1800.
Beto reassures me that about 60 miles, or half, of the pistes in Les Arcs are blue runs, something that has made the area popular with largely British and French beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders since the 1960s. There are plenty of gondolas and chairlifts too, rather than pesky T-bars, which are tricky for learners. The sun is shining and the snow is fresh. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, at the start, seemingly nothing. We step out of the gondola and walk five minutes to a deserted, gentle incline where Beto shows me how to fasten my bindings. And then I’m off. My first descent consists of riding 50 metres before unintentionally turning 180 degrees, but I keep going “fakie” (AKA backwards), and manage not to fall over.
Beto declares I’ve got the hang of it and that I’m “clearly a good skater” – then marches me to the nearest blue run. There follow a few tumbles, but overall, despite no longer being a rubber-boned child, learning to snowboard feels – praise be! – easier than when I learned to ski nearly 30 years ago.
After an hour, I’ve nailed turning both ways – toeside and heelside – which my instructor, ever the flatterer, tell me normally takes six hours for beginners to master. And with that we head to a red run... and everything changes.
My initial smugness is wiped off my face with a series of lightning-quick, violent slams into the snow and before long my wrists ache, my knees throb and, just as I’m wondering whether I might actually have whiplash, a French woman, screaming like a neon-clad banshee on skis, hurtles into me. Being English, I apologise to her. Being Italian, Beto shouts at her. I call a time out.
We head to the terrace of Le Lodge, a restaurant in Arc 1800’s Mille 8 area, for a restorative fillet steak and a chat about the state of snowboarding. Beto laments that snowboarder numbers have been dropping since the mid-Noughties after skiing, once snowboarding’s older, uncool parent, pinched its clothes, redesigned its skis to allow carves and tricks, and relaunched itself as an extreme sport – with great success. I’m told skiers now outnumber snowboarders eight to one.
Regardless, snow holidays are no longer a choice between skiing and snowboarding: people want more than just slopes, as evidenced by the new, £36m Mille 8 entertainment area around us. The zone is floodlit until 7.30pm and has various draws including a pool, hot tubs and, um, a giant xylophone.
I opt for a toboggan run, which I imagine will provide some light relief but in fact ends in three snow-in-mouth crashes in about three minutes. To the west, I can make out Peisey-Vallandry and La Plagne, which along with Les Arcs comprise Paradiski, the second-largest ski area in the world after Les Trois Vallées. The first two are linked by an impressive double-decker cable car, capable of carrying 200 people at a time.
Come evening, it’s back to Arc 1950, which looks and works like a North American resort (it was designed by the people who built Whistler in Canada) and is largely made up of privately owned and rented apartments. And it’s ski-in, ski-out, which is a joy for most people, though for me means that added to the list of things I need to avoid crashing into, is my hotel. It’s car-free too – again, a plus, as negotiating traffic is a terrifying prospect.
That night I eat my body weight in tuna tataki at Arc 1950’s upmarket restaurant, La Table Des Lys, and then retire to bed about 9.30pm, hoping my early night will put me in good stead for the next day’s class. Wishful thinking. Day two begins with a sort of bizarre commando roll out of bed as I’m in so much pain, I can’t sit up. I feel like I have flu.
Later, when I’m full of muesli, croissants, Ibuprofen and about five cups of coffee, Beto comes to collect me. The day brings more confidence, sure, but also more falls, which always occur at the precise moment I feel like I’ve almost got the hang of it. And then, suddenly, by the end of the afternoon, my 48 hours is up; my challenge is over.
So… have I learned to snowboard?
Well… I can moderately confidently tackle a blue run, but it’s the simple stuff that’s difficult: especially chairlifts. Getting on them, getting off them, navigating crowds who stand around chatting like morons in front of them. Going in a straight line, too – such a relaxed joy on skis – is a nightmare on a snowboard, requiring constant, tiring vigilance not to catch an edge and stack it.
Compared to skateboarding, I thought snowboarding would be breezy and forgiving, but it’s not. Concrete is grippy, snow isn’t. You can jump off a skateboard and land on your feet. On a snowboard, you’re imprisoned, like a fish held by its tail, getting smacked repeatedly against the ground.
Would I do it again? That’s a toughie. I wish I’d taken up snowboarding as a gung-ho teenager when it took off in the Nineties, but I’m also sad I never gave freestyle skiing a go, as that now seems the most exciting thing going in the mountains.
Really, though, I’m writing this two months later still wondering whether I should go and get my wrist X-rayed, you know, just to be sure. So I think I’ll stick with skateboarding.
Return flights to Geneva from Gatwick with Swiss Air (swissair.com) start at £81. Private transfers for the four-hour trip from Geneva to Les Arcs can be frighteningly expensive, so make sure to book in advance. Bensbus.co.uk has return fares for £79.50 per person and offers discounts for large groups.
Alternatively, Eurostar (eurostar.com) connects the whole area directly to King’s Cross via Bourg-St-Maurice in eight hours, from £149 return. From Bourg-St-Maurice, it’s a seven-minute hop on a funicular up to Arc 1600. A return ticket costs around £10.
Late 2016 season prices are available from £577 (down from £666, saving 13 per cent) for a seven-night stay in a one-bedroom apartment that sleeps up to four (pierreetvacances.co.uk).
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