The descent of man. In seven steps.

For many of us learning to ski can feel like a slalom course, with countless gates to be negotiated on the way from novice to expert – as Aiglonians recall.

1. Erm, so what do you call this white stuff?

When Dadley Ogetti (Alpina, Upper Sixth) arrived at Aiglon from Kenya last year, he had never seen snow. Nonetheless, he was now an Aiglonian, so he was put straight onto some skis. “I didn’t enjoy skiing that much during the first few weeks. I can still recall my short beginner skis and no poles, and other more experienced students whizzing past. However, I intended to be as good as any other student.”

Happily, Dadley was able to avail himself of some expert tuition – something that accomplished racer Michelle Kremer Goldberg (Exeter, 1988) had to do without on her first ski run at the age of seven. Michelle’s family had just moved to Switzerland from Africa and so her father took her to a small resort in the Jura. She says: “He gave me and my brother these little skis that he’d just rented, and said the best way to learn was, in his words, to ‘get up there – you don’t need instruction’.

“I remember the feeling of sliding on the snow, and how strange it was: the speed and the wind in my face. I remember feeling exhilarated, even though I had snow in my jacket and all down my pants, thinking this was unbelievable. But we realised that we’d never learn to ski unless we got some lessons!”

2. Snowplough coming through...

Ask any group of skiers what they remember most about their early days on the slopes, and the snowplough position is sure to come up. Though it’s ungainly and tiring, the classic knock-kneed stance provides stability and the ability to make your skis go where you actually want them to. Mr Michael Thompson, Head of Sport, says: “That’s probably the biggest step in learning to ski – being able to check your speed and feeling in control.”

Some instructors swear by the use of mechanical aids to stop the ski tips from drifting apart. School Guardian and British Schoolboys’ giant-slalom champion Hugo Ng (Delaware, Upper Sixth) recalls both advantages and drawbacks to this approach. He says: “There was a piece of rubber that I had to use, to keep the fronts of the skis together. It was a good way to learn. But if you fell over, the skis wouldn’t release from each other. That caused a few bumps.”

3. Look, Mum – french fries!

Once upon a time, it was easy to pick out those who had learnt to ski in the United States as they’d speak of progressing from ‘pizza pie’ (snowplough turns, with the skis arranged like a pizza wedge) to ‘French fries’ (skis side by side). Today the terminology has spread through Europe – and substituting fries for pizza is a significant skiing milestone. “It’s something you pick up really fast when you’re young,” says Hugo. “As soon as you can get out of that pizza, it’s amazing.”

Nevertheless, one peril of parallel skiing is overcon dence. Having left the nursery slopes behind, learners can find themselves in terrain that seems scarily closer to vertical than they’re used to. Mrs Naomi Haynes, Houseparent of Delaware, began skiing last year, and remembers one occasion when a lift closure ruled out the usual route back home. “My husband and I had to choose between waiting for an indeterminate time in a huge crowd, or try a more difficult route, which is what we did,” she recalls.

They were not the only ones to take this option and regret it. “There were lots of people on the side of this red run with the same facial expression as mine, and a partner slightly further down saying ‘You’re doing really well – it’s OK’. And most of them were seething like I was, shouting back ‘You should never have brought me here!’”

4. Shall I carve?

When the rudiments of good technique are in place, such as the ability to carve turns on a moderate incline, a wealth of terrain becomes accessible. Dadley Ogetti, who last year received an award for being the school’s most improved skier, says: “I believe I can pretty much do any slope now. If it happens to be a black run, I’ll have to regulate my speed. Nonetheless, I’ve got the experience and confidence necessary for difficult slopes.”

At this stage, it’s often said that skiers risk getting stuck on the ‘intermediate plateau’: they stop receiving tuition and never develop their technique any further. It’s a problem that Mrs Haynes has been determined to avoid. She says: “I carried on taking lessons to make sure I didn’t get into bad habits, which I think is easy to do when people aren’t watching. Then an instructor comes along and says ‘You’re wiggling your backside – you look ridiculous, and that’s not the way you were taught’.”

6. Any colour you like. As long as it’s black.

It’s liberating to unfold a piste map and know that everything marked on it is skiable; but this is just the first stage in becoming a truly advanced skier. Learning to cope with all snow conditions, from sheet ice to windblown crust, is a must. And above all, the vast back country beckons. Venturing off-piste safely demands mountaincraft, the right equipment and professional guidance, as well as ski technique.

Ali Daud (Belvedere, 1984) ended up in the top ski group at Aiglon, but found he preferred freestyle skiing to race training. “The free ski groups were free-spirited, and we could explore all kinds of skiing,” he says. “We could go off-piste, look for moguls, go cliff-jumping... I loved it.

“I think that typically Aiglonians become quite adventurous and love to explore and conquer off-piste ski runs. It was part of the school spirit. Looking back, Aiglon taught us how to enjoy and respect nature.”

7. The steeper, the deeper, the better!

For many Aiglonians, the ultimate goal is to become a complete skier: to be able to tackle all terrain with control and grace, from remote powder bowls to rocky chutes lined with VW Beetle-sized moguls. Reach this standard, and the rewards last far beyond schooldays at Aiglon.

Ali Daud still meets up each year with his former classmates for a weekend in the Swiss Alps. He says: “Even now, we are always looking for little challenges while skiing, even places where we could just get in five turns off-piste. We still think we are 18-year-olds!”

Likewise, dedication to the downhill or slalom course pays lifelong dividends. Michelle Kremer Goldberg raced before, during and after her time at Aiglon College, representing the Kandahar Club in Mürren and St Lawrence University as well as the school, and competing at FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) level. “We had to be really disciplined and self-motivated, we trained almost every day. But that discipline is a value that I really cherish today, in all facets of my life as well as skiing.”

If there is a slight downside, it’s that gentler recreational skiing can never quite match the thrill of launching out of the start gate on race day. “You do feel as though the thrill has gone a little,” says Michelle. “And I still have that competitive spirit – every time I see a racecourse, I’m
a little enticed. But when we go to Verbier at Christmas, I still enter the masters’ competition!”