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Ski guiding in Meribel France with British ski instructors
Ski guiding in Meribel France with British ski instructors
Ski guiding in Meribel France with British ski instructors
Ski guiding in Meribel France with British ski instructors

MH2SKI Blog

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Back In The Day

Posted on
November 8, 2019
Yours Truly 'racing' down the Méribel Olympic race piste in the 1990s

Hi everyone, and welcome back to another ski related blog post. Earlier this week I visited my Dad up in Cheshire; over lunch he mentioned that he had found some of my old photos and asked if I still wanted them. I of course asked to have a look, and blow me down there were three images of me in my early skiing days. I had a real mixture of feelings and emotions initially...... First of all, the sight of me with an almost full head of hair was a shock, then I was horrified at the lack of helmet (not that they existed back in the day). Check out the old ski equipment with the long skinny skis, I think this dates the above image to around the mid 1990s. Then I spotted the banner on the race gate, which says E.S.F Méribel - this race course must've been organised by the ski school (just like still happens). In those days, little did I know that I would end up being one of the ski instructors at that very same Méribel ESF, where I have been for over 16 years!?! Boy oh boy, what a lot has happened since then, and what a journey it's been.

Off-piste in Val d'Isere

After leaving my Dad's that afternoon, driving back to Leamington Spa (with these photos on the back seat), my mind was racing away thinking about my history with the sport. And then I wondered if I should share some of it with you, my journey from complete beginner to fully qualified ski instructor. Why not? So here goes with a slightly longer version of what you will find on a ski instructor's website biography page, warts and all.

To my knowledge, no-one in my family has ever skied. There were no family ski holidays to introduce me to the sport - it was all because of television and the iconic Ski Sunday programme. I remember watching Ski Sunday, sat on the lounge floor in front of our black and white tv, and being amazed at the scenery and the glamour of the sport. This was back in the day when David Vine was the commentator, and it sounded as though he was using a telephone in a telephone box to provide his commentary. I LOVED it. LOVED it.

Fast forward from a young wide-eyed cherub, to an 18-year-old auburn haired Steve Davis look-a-like, and I had just booked my first ever ski holiday - to Borovets in Bulgaria. It was with a large group from the Lancing Badminton and Squash Club. There were a few of us in the group who were beginners, and it was suggested by a wise head that we should have some lessons on a dry slope before going on holiday. Sounded good to me. I had a lift with a guy called Dennis who lived around the corner from me, and off to Bowles Outdoor Centre (at Tonbridge near Tunbridge Wells) we went. I remember the excitement, I remember how uncomfortable the hire boots were, and I also remember the ski instructor who looked after me. She could ski backwards and talk to me at the same time, amazing. I LOVED it. LOVED it.

With my skiing chums, Trumpet, Carpenter and Courtnadge.

After taking four dry slope lessons, next up came the holiday. Back then, Bulgaria was still behind the Iron Curtain, Mikhail Gorbachev was just about to start the process of the 'glasnost' period. I of course had nothing to compare Borovets with, but I had the time of my life. I suddenly realised what cold weather was actually like. I learnt that snow is way more slippery than a dry slope. I felt the power of the mountains! I adored the sunny days, looking at the views. Learning to ski was fun, it was hilarious, and occasionally a little scary.

That was the start of a very long love affair with the mountains and the sport of skiing. I had been warned of its addictive properties, and guess what, I fell for it hook, line and sinker. The next year I had two ski holidays. The year after that I had three....... you get the picture, the addiction soon got out of hand. I hope this doesn't sound negative, because it really wasn't. I visited many countries thanks to the sport - France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, the USA. Wherever there was snow on mountains, then I'd consider taking a holiday there. Going back to my badminton days, I became aware that I much preferred the training aspect of the sport, compared to playing in the league or at tournaments. Not sure why, perhaps because I wasn't that competitive with other people. I could see others were different however, they had to win - whereas I was most happy trying to improve my own performance without the pressue of competition.

And skiing was no different. After a few holidays of having group lessons, for some reason I decided to not take them anymore. Why did this happen? I don't remember but it could well have been because no-one else in my group of friends were booking lessons. I soon realised that I wasn't improving. I could see some of my skiing friends were, without a doubt, stuck on the intermediate plateau. At times it was hilarious watching their botched attempts at trying to stay upright. But as a keen sportsman, I wanted to improve. That meant private lessons were the next move.

From that realisation onwards, I booked at least one private lesson per holiday. It was the best thing I ever did; all of a sudden my skiing came on, highlighted by the fact that some of my friends couldn't believe the change in my skiing. They kept saying that I was wasting my money on the lessons, and I never did understand that. However it wasn't by chance that my standard kept improving, and theirs stood still or even regressed. The other interesting thing I found was that I absolutely loved following behind, or watching, my ski instructor. To me it was totally inspiring to watch someone perform at that level.

But then things started to change. I was a corporate man, a responsible leader of an IT team - a good job, but I wasn't happy. Something inside me had changed, and I became disillusioned with the corporate world. Plus, the power of the mountains, and the sport of skiing kept distracting me. I wanted more, but didn't know what to do about it........To cut a long story short, with the help and support of a couple of friends, I made the seismic decision to hand in my notice at work. Some of my colleagues thought I was nuts, others thought it was a brilliant idea and very brave. One of the hardest things I had to do was tell my parents I was giving up my very good job to follow my dreams. They were very hard working individuals from a proud working class background - my Dad was a carpenter; my Mum a personal secretary - who had both made a fantastic path in their lives from reasonable hardship. And I was doing this! To this day, I don't know what they thought, perhaps I should ask my Dad the next time I go and visit.

The first step was to figure out how to go about working in a ski resort, and make a start with high-level training. I phoned Dennis (remember we learnt to ski together on a dry slope, and lived around the corner), who had also caught the skiing bug. He had started a chalet company in Méribel, which later expanded over to Courchevel La Tania, and is still operating to this day. I explained to him what I was thinking of doing, and he immediately offered me a position as a chalet manager in Méribel Village, this was the year that the Golf chairlift opened there. I was grateful at the time (and still am) for his kindness in giving me the job. I still occasionally bump into him on the mountain. There's no denying that it was very hard work that season in the chalet industry, but it gave me even more time on the snow, and I trained with some excellent BASI (British Association of Snowsport Instructors) Trainers. This set me up nicely for the first of fifteen exams (in total over the following years), at the end of my first ski season.

By the way, this was the winter that Harriet and I first got together. We trained together, and took our exams that spring. Five years later we became husband and wife.

The long road had started, and I LOVED it. I was in the mountains for almost six months a year, and I was skiing. At first I found the ski instructor exams enjoyable and not too stressful, but then they got harder and harder. Within the BASI system of qualifications, there are four levels - starting at Level 1 through until the highest possible qualification called 'International Ski Teacher' up at the lofty heights of Level 4. The percentage of those starting at Level 1 and going all the way through to qualifying at Level 4 is quite small for different reasons. A ski instructor can teach in France with, as a minimum, the Level 3 qualification. They are a 'stagiaire' or trainee, but can only work at that level for four winters maximum. They can only teach permanently, for longer than four years, after passing the 'Euro Speed Test' (more on this in a moment) and then the Level 4, i.e. the highest qualification possible. Also known as the 'Diplome' in France, a 'Maestro' in Italy, or a 'Staatlicher' in Austria - they are all equal.

One of the hardest exams for me was the 'European Speed Test'. In essence this is a Giant Slalom race that requires you to be within a certain time with what's called a coefficient. It's quite hard to explain how it works, but I found it very very difficult to pass. Some skiers can succeed quickly, especially if they have had a racing background (especially as a child). Many candidates never pass the speed test, and in my view this doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't good skiers. I found it extremely hard and travelled around various French ski resorts (and a Spanish resort) to attempt this exam. I can't begin to tell you how many autumns I spent shivering on glaciers, race-training in my catsuit! Plus, I also had two New Zealand winters training for this exam, not working or earning, just purely training. And then finally on 16th December 2003, at Alpe du Huez, I passed. From memory, on this day there were only about four of us that passed out of about ninety-five candidates. What a massive relief. Oh, by the way, this was on my fourth (and final) year of being able to teach as a stagiaire - no pressure then!

After this success the Méribel ESF ski school invited me to join them. (I had previously been teaching for another school over in Courchevel La Tania). I had one more exam to pass before achieving the highest qualification position, the BASI Level 4 - also known as an 'International Ski Teaching Diploma'. Then a little bit of French procedural paperwork was required before I was given the 'Full French Equivalence'.

I think that I'll take this opportunity to explain something else. Countless times each winter, someone will overhear me speaking in my uniform, and express their surprise that I'm British but work for the French ski school - because, in their words, "I thought the ESF don't like the British!" This is absolute nonsense. And without sounding like a rant, I'll keep it brief. As long as an instructor has the correct qualification, the ESF has no problem at all with any nationality. In fact at the latest count I think there are about eight Brits working with the Méribel ESF at the moment, out of over 400 instructors. Most British Level 4 ski instructors choose either to work for other ski schools, or as an independent, which I completely respect. Just like you have the choice of working for whoever you want to.

This winter will be my 22nd European ski season, and I can't wait for it to start. If I get to ski with any of you this winter, I'd love the chance to ask you about your skiing background, and how you started. I think we've all got an interesting story to tell about this amazing sport. Why do we LOVE IT so much? Is it the mountains, the sport, the hot chocolate stops, the apres ski, the camaraderie with friends and fellow skiers, the ski kit, the views, the sight of falling snow, the log fires......? What a brilliant long list. Whatever it means to you, I hope you all have an amazing ski holiday this winter. Live With Passion. Martin.

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With our skills- based system of learning, we give you the tools to safely negotiate any demands the mountains make on you, helping you to increase your comfort zone and ski in a wider range of conditions. Whether you are a nervous novice, a blue piste cruiser or an all mountain adventurer, we tailor your ski lessons to create a perfect fit. The question is, which one are you?

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