My heart is pounding so hard I can hear it echoing in my helmet. Beneath the padded gloves, I know my knuckles are white as I grip the ski poles so tightly my hands start to cramp. The wind whips around my head, snowflakes settling into my hair as the blizzard picks up and the all-white world vanishes a little further. Ignoring the thudding in my chest, I lean forwards into my skis and push myself downhill.
If this were a film, right about now is where the cameras would pan out to reveal me creeping, slower than walking pace, down a twenty foot slope which can’t have been more than a three degree gradient. Skis inverted into a determined “snow plough” (aka pizza – the classic beginner position to control speed) and clad in the ill-fitting, baby-blue ski gear I borrowed from a friend before the trip. With my too-small children’s goggles and dorky helmet I look like an oversized, awkward kid. It’s far from impressive – something I quickly learn as my first, awkward descent earns little more than a derisive nod and a “control your speed” from our surly instructor.
In the run up to my recent ski trip with Mark Warner Holidays, I was pretty terrified. I’d never skied before, and at age twenty eight I’d pretty much given up on learning. Skiing just seemed like one of those things that you have to learn while you’re still young enough to be fearless, and I’m well past that stage. But, I recently made myself a promise; that I would do one thing every month that really, truly scares me. So when the opportunity to learn to ski in the French Alps came up, I could hardly turn it down.
So, I found myself bound for Tignes with a group of lovely travel bloggers: Vicki Flip Flop, Wanderlust Chloe, Sabina from Girl vs Globe, Peter from Travel Unmasked, Amelia aka xameliax, Elizabeth of Rosalilium, and Deborah from Places to Go. We were staying at the gorgeous L’Ecrin Du Val Claret, a hotel which is exclusively used by Mark Warner, meaning that you get their fantastic service throughout the stay. I spent the week at this adorable chalet hotel, which was big enough to have plenty of great amenities but small enough to retain the intimate, cosy atmosphere of a chalet. Roaring log fires and cosy arm chairs, a pine-filled, Goldilocks-esque bedroom, not to mention an amazing three course meal from the gorgeous restaurant every night. It was perfect!
Learning to Ski
Thankfully, I didn’t have to be the only one on the baby slopes as there were four beginners in total. We headed off down the road to Le Lac, taking the free local shuttle bus to get there – which is far harder than it sounds when you’re laden down with ski gear. One thing no one warns you about is how difficult it is to get anywhere! I was restricted by layers of bulky clothing, weighed down by two cumbersome and surprisingly heavy skis, and somehow had to find a spare hand to hold the ski poles as well. Add to that the knot of nerves building in my stomach, and I can’t say that I was feeling particularly great about hitting the slopes.
Our instructor, Guillome, kicked things off with the basics; how to actually get your skis on. Again, this is harder than you’d think, because the skis won’t clip on when your ski boots are covered in snow – and of course you’re standing in snow while you put them on. There’s an art to it – and I can’t say it’s particularly graceful. Step one complete, we had a few more of the basics shouted to us over the noise of the wind, before it was time to make our first descent.
Once I’d seen the baby slope, I actually felt a lot less scared about skiing. And, once I was on it, cruising slowly downhill with Guillome’s shouts of “snow ploooo” floating behind me, all my fears vanished. This wasn’t as hard as it looked. Dare I say it, it was even fun!
We took a few more runs of the baby slope, and I finally mastered the art of the snow plough – as well as the even trickier art of getting onto the “Magic Carpet” (an airport-style travelator in a tunnel – complete with disco lights – which transports learners back to the top of the nursery slope). My confidence was building, especially because I’d managed not to fall over once yet, so when Guillome led us off for our first try of a green slope I was more than up for it.
In actual fact, we only did the very bottom of the green slope. First we made our way slowly down a winding track slightly steeper than the baby slope, which came out onto the last section of a green slope. This looked really steep to us newbies, but in reality it was only a gentle hill. Overcoming the nerves as we shuffled awkwardly across the slope in a slow diagonal was pretty tough, but we made it – and I still hadn’t fallen over!
By the end of our first session, I was a total convert. I was having so much fun, and feeling really proud of myself – a rare thing and a feeling I always cherish. I have to admit, I was probably the only one in our group. Guillome was a fairly impatient teacher, and that drove me on in an attempt to prove myself to him, but I don’t think it had the same effect on the other girls. Still, we all did really well and had every right to feel incredibly proud of ourselves at the end of our first ever ski session.
Serious R&R Time
Ski lesson over, we retreated – in my case limping like Igor thanks to severe cramp in both my calves – for a fantastic, warming lunch at Le Coffee in Val Claret, followed by a visit to our hotel’s spa. Although quite small, the pool here was really lovely, and unwinding in the jacuzzi worked wonders on my aching legs. There were several facilities designed with sports therapy in mind, and walking up and down through the water jets in the pool really helped with my cramped muscles. Better yet was the sauna – the perfect way to warm up after a day out in the snow!
During the week, I also indulged in a couple of treatments at the spa. With your muscles grumbling from the hard work on the slopes, it’s hard to resist the call of such a beautiful spa. Thankfully the treatment menu at Viva Spa is actually very reasonably priced, especially if you opt for one of the daily pamper packages like I did. Ninety minutes of hot stone massage combined with a scalp and facial massage sent me drifting away to dreamland in my first spa session, while on my final day in Tignes I pampered my worn-out feet with a much needed pedicure, combined with an amazing deep tissue back massage. Emma and Rachel, the two girls running Viva, were both fantastic therapists and left me feeling just about as blissfully pampered as it’s possible to get.
Learning to Ski: Take Two
On our second morning in Tignes, we woke to even worse conditions than the day before. The sky was apocalypse grey, and the thick white blizzard seemed to make the whole world vanish – in fact when the weather finally cleared a few days later I was genuinely surprised to see a mountain through the window at breakfast, as it had been totally invisible all week. Despite the weather, I was feeling really excited to get back out there and give skiing another go.
We had another lesson with Guillome, learning to turn before hitting the green slope again – for real this time! We took the button lifts to the top, individual pull-along seats which look like a playground zip line; you sit against them with your skis on the ground and let the wire drag you up the slope. Again, this is trickier than it looks and both Chloe and I managed to fall off on that first day – it’s pretty embarrassing to find yourself on your bum in a big snow drift, struggling to stand, as a line of people are dragged slowly past you hiding smirks.
We had a few goes on the green slope with Guillome, slowly mastering the art of turning. It’s pretty tricky to pick up, as you have to lean your body in the opposite direction whilst looking the way you want to go, and I can’t say I was the star pupil at this. I kept losing control of my speed on the corners, and suddenly finding myself shooting away downhill with Guillome angrily calling after me to control my speed. Although I wasn’t the best at turning, I was really proud of myself for keeping my cool when I lost control. Instead of panicking and trying to stop my rapid descent, I stayed with it and focused on turning again in order to slow down. I was genuinely really impressed with myself for staying calm.
After another amazing lunch, this time at L’Escale Blanche in Le Lac, I did something I never thought I would do and hit the slopes again without an instructor. A few of more advanced skiers from our group came along with me to the green slope, and I spent a couple of hours trying – with mediocre success – to perfect my turns and control my speed. The better I did, the better I felt – learning something new really is as good for you as they say – and more importantly I was really enjoying myself. So much for the nervous wreck of the morning before!
Finally exhausted, we headed to a local bar to experience a little bit of après ski. I’d always imagined this was a simple glass of wine by a log fire, something stately and civilised, but I was pretty wrong. From about 3pm, Loop Bar in Le Lac was heaving. A brilliant local band were on, and everyone – in full ski gear – was jumping and dancing (and occasionally stripping, thanks to It’s Getting Hot in Here). It was so much fun and definitely an unmissable part of the skiing experience.
My last day on the slopes, intermediate skier Vicky Flip Flop kindly babysat me for the afternoon as I pootled about on the green slope, practising my turns. Then, Vicky found another green slope nearby which, from the bottom, looked no more steep than the one I was on, and encouraged me to give it a go. We took the lift up – a proper chair lift this time, my skis hanging in the icy air over the mountain – which should have been my first clue. But it wasn’t until I’d rolled to the top of the slope and seen just how much taller and steeper it was than the one I was used to that I cottoned on to the fact that this was a blue slope, the next level up (here in Europe it goes green, blue, red, then black).
This was much more like proper skiing. Although still considered “easy”, this slope was actually steep. Steep enough for me to go pretty fast – at least by my standards. Still, there was only one thing for it, so I pushed myself downhill in Vicky’s wake, focusing all my energy on going as slowly as possible. Pretty quickly, I lost control on a turn and found myself going a lot faster than I wanted to. Just like on the green slope, I tried to stay calm, but there wasn’t enough space to turn and instead I flopped over into the deep, soft snow at the edge of the slope. Getting up was a serious struggle, but I quickly got the hang of it as I half skied, half tumbled down the blue slope before getting up a bit of speed on the final straight run. It was so much fun, and despite my poor performance I was straight back on the lift to give it another go!
I’m still not sure if she tricked me on purpose, but I’m really glad that Vicky got me on that blue slope. It was scary, but it was also so much fun, and the best way to learn something tricky can sometimes be to throw yourself in at the deep end.
My week learning to ski in Tignes reminded me why I decided to do something that terrifies me every month this year. Because things that seem scary usually aren’t so bad once you try them, and because learning to do something new can be such a rewarding experience.
Have you done something scary recently or learnt a new skill? Let me know your experiences in the comments!
The Details: A week in Tignes with Mark Warner starts at £549 per adult and includes flights, transfers, accommodation, breakfast, afternoon tea, and a three course dinner with wine everyday. Ski and boot hire costs £112 and a six day Tignes lift pass costs £168 (Espace Killy pass that covers Val d’Isere costs £198). If you’re an adult beginner like me, Mark Warner also offer Beginners Weeks from £950.
On this trip I was a guest of Mark Warner Holidays. All words and opinions are my own.
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