When my friend Serena suggested a ski holiday in the Swiss Alps, I jumped at the chance. I hadn’t been skiing in three years, and despite living in Geneva for nine years before that I actually didn’t make as much of it as I should have. I didn’t have a car so was dependent on someone else offering to take me (or taking the dreaded bus), and, if I’m honest, I was also just a little bit terrified.
I used to ski with my family in Sweden, in Åre and Lofsdalen, when I was little. We’d go for half term but one week every few years really wasn’t enough to make me comfortable on a set of skis. I’ve always been so jealous of the children I see zooming past me on the slopes… Kids are used to doing crazy things and falling over, plus they’re closer to the ground! They just don’t have that fear that takes hold of me when I stand at the top of a slope looking down over the ridge at the endlessly steep and narrow slope that I’m somehow supposed to go hurtling down…
So Serena and I signed up to the Warren Smith Ski Academy, which offered five days of group classes with a day off in the middle. We were divided into three groups based on a “ski off” and Serena and I ended up together in the bottom one. I say bottom, but this was no beginner’s class and the overall level was high across the groups. And so it was that we went tearing down first red then black pistes, and even off piste into the fresh powder that had fallen at the start of the week. My emotions during the week went from exhilaration and delight at how much I was improving – I learned far more than I’ve ever done before, thank you Will! – to trepidation and despair when I reached a particularly steep or bumpy patch. The problem with being at the lower end of your group is that you’re constantly behind, trying to catch up.
So here’s the science of skiing according to Anna… I think it’s made up of three things: the technical, the physical, and the mental. The first, the technique, is ‘easy’ to learn and during the week we got through flexing, thigh steering, pole plants, etc. You need to keep practising to engrain it in your muscle memory but it’s something that you can work on. The second, as it turns out, is just as important: you need the physical strength and the flexibility to ski all day every day, and although I’ve been training hard at the gym it turns out that this requires a whole different set of muscles and another type of stamina! By the end of the day I simply didn’t have the strength to turn with my legs and I would end up losing control. Finally, there’s the mental aspect: fear is a killer! Here I think I made the most progress this week, as I began to attack even the black pistes with gusto. There is nothing worse than traversing across the slope, “shopping” for a turn that looks easy, until you stop at the very edge of the slope and are out of options. The reminder to keep my body facing down the slope, my arms up and my legs doing the steering instead of the shoulders, was a huge help in keeping me focused on making steady progress down the piste.
Of course, the best part of skiing is après ski, right? Each day when we finished at 3pm I would heave a huge sigh of relief at having survived another day; I cannot describe the pleasure I got from taking off my ski boots and putting on my lovely normal walking boots. We were actually very civilised, going to a café for a cup of tea or a salad after finishing for the day, rather than heading straight to the bar. Every other day we would then have a massage (a genius idea on the part of Serena, and a huge help for my sore calf muscles), after which we’d shower and head out for the après-après ski. The great thing about nights out after skiing is that you start so early – so you can have a long night out and still be in bed by midnight! If you so desire.
By the end of the week we’d settled into a routine: dinner at Le Farinet Lounge (I particularly recommend the Crispy Pork Belly and the Super Farinet Salad, or the Assiette Valaisanne to share), rounded off with a Pornstar Martini; then we’d head over to the other side of Le Farinet, where there’d be live music until about 9pm; then the T-bar and then the Loft Bar; and sometimes even continuing on to Farm Club or Twin Peaks. We were staying in the Hotel Phenix, right in the centre at the Place Centrale, which meant that everything was in a couple of minutes’ walking distance. The mood was incredibly different on different nights: when we arrived on the Saturday, Farinet Après Ski was full, with the bartenders pouring vodka straight down people’s throats or else down the back of a ski, beer being flung across the dance floor, and topless young men building human pyramids. Wild. On weeknights, though, it was much calmer, with people scattered about talking to their friends and maybe a lone crazy person dancing to their own beat. Wednesday night was back on track, though, as it’s the one day that all the seasonaires get off; and then of course we came full circle back to Friday and Saturday night when the “weekend warriors” returned to the bars.
I’m not sure what I expected from this one week but I had such a good time, meeting great people, improving my skiing, getting to know Serena better – and even coming up with a new business idea together that we’re now pursuing, full speed ahead. I’m incredibly tempted to do a full season next year, to overcome my fears once and for all and get really comfortable on the slopes. That’s the benefit of being self-employed, right, that I can bring my laptop with me and work from anywhere? I just need to find an apartment with a strong Wi-Fi signal as the weak and unreliable Wi-Fi at our hotel was excruciatingly painful. Ah, the plight of modern-day life…
I leave Switzerland having lost my voice, my favourite purple pashmina, and a sock (a modern-day Cinderella?!), with bruised toes, a suitcase full of dirty laundry and a whole lot of new gear, and with great memories and even greater plans for the future. Merci Verbier, I’ll see you next year!
The soundtrack for the week:
- Taylor Swift, Shake it Off (don’t ask)
- Hozier, Take Me to Church (Serena made me watch the music video for the first time. Wow.)
- A fabulous original song from the Swedish band in Farinet with a rather creepy chorus of “Stay awake, watch my back!”
- 4 Non Blondes, What’s Going On (always a favourite of mine, since it was played as the last song at summer camp when I was 13)
- Time of my Life from Dirty Dancing (cheeserama but oh so good)
- Calvin Harris, Blame it on the night (a great sentiment: blame it on the night, don’t blame it on me!)
The practical bit:
Warren Smith Ski Academy: The Warren Smith Ski Academy runs courses in Verbier throughout the year for intermediate right up to “athlete/performer” level. It was in English, which meant that I actually understood all the body parts and movements that our instructor Will was talking about! We did the 5-day winter academy at £429 per person. They’ll video you at the start of the week and then again at the end so you see how much you’ve improved.
Hotel Phenix: The Hotel Phenix is nothing special, breakfast included cold scrambled eggs and sausages, but it’s clean and comfortable and the location is perfect if you want to go out to all the classic bars and clubs. There was a free navette (shuttle bus) that picked us up just across the road and went to Médran, where we rented lockers for the whole week so that we could leave our skis and boots overnight.
Massage: We booked a massage every other day at 5pm, each taking half an hour. The masseuses from The Verbier Touch would come to our hotel with a heated bed so it was incredibly convenient. The only problem was wanting to go to sleep right afterwards, but a quick shower and the hunger pains we were feeling by this point would ensure that we ventured out into the night…