Season review post part 1

Once again, it’s been a while since I posted but I’m determined to get back on the horse of this. Writing about skiing is quite a cathartic process and helps me get my thoughts in order and focus my energies in the right direction.

In addition, my blog was something of an advert for me but I’ve been so busy with a couple of projects the last couple of years and a whole bunch of personal stuff that I won’t necessarily bore you with (suffice to say I am now a divorce statistic), that I simply haven’t haven’t had time to blog. This is a nice problem to have.

So here we go again, you’ll be hearing from me a lot more often now.

This is something of a review post from July until December. The second one will follow next month. I started my season, like normal, on the galcier of Saas Fee. I missed opening day by a couple of weeks but I was there around the start of August, which for a non-natural skier like me, means I’ve got plenty of time to feel the skis and get my technique in order before the winter starts.

I love this place. Saas Fee Glacier in summer.

This season however, I had a purpose and that was the looming spectre of the Swiss Equivalence conversion exam in November. For those that don’t know, if you have a bunch of qualifications from another ski instructor system, in my case BASI, the British system, you can write to another national body and ask them how the qualifications that you have got stack up against theirs and what level they will give you.

I’ve known for a long time that my future and ambitions do not reside in France, I’m now married to a Swiss, I have a Swiss kid and I just prefer it in Switzerland, you could call it my adopted home if you like. It’s been my ambition for a while to get to where I needed to be to work independently in Switzerland.

The only real reason that many people tend to follow the British system all the way to the end is that it gives you working rights in France. I’m not interested in that and my interest in the British system died a while ago.

Anyway, as is my usual summer, I was in Saas about twice a month training some very, very specific things that you have to do in the Swiss system that you don’t really find anywhere else. I’m planning to detail a lot of this in a separate post but I basically spent the whole of Autumn on slalom skis trying to learn how to carve backwards at speeds much beyond my comfort envelope.

I did some specific training with Tom Waddington of New Generation Ski School in Verbier who should definitely get a mention for running the course and making himself available to be there.

My second plug goes to Ben Shubrook at Optimum Snowsports in Saas Fee who was a great training partner. I spent many days on the Saas Glacier with Ben and his unique sense of humour and you should definitely check out Ben’s Ski School in Saas Fee if you are ever there.

The conditions on the Saas Fee Glacier itself were awesome all the way through the Autumn. They even got the pistes down to Morenia at 2500m open by mid October which was a real bonus to get the ski legs ready for the test itself. I thought this was a sign of a decent winter to come down at our end of the Valais but I was wrong.

The Equivalence test itself came and went, two days in Zermatt with some of the best skiers I had ever seen with my own eyes. I don’t want to reveal too much as I’m saving it for another post but the level of skiing from the demonstrators was out of this world and I learnt a lot on those two days.

The Swiss send the results of this test to you in the post. There is no waiting until the Friday and a nervous chat with a trainer like the British system makes you do.

The results arrived in the post after a two week wait and I was delighted to have passed. I now hold the Federal Brevet in Switzerland and the right to establish my own ski school.

After the course, I had a bunch of work to do relating to coaching football and I was expecting the usual early season big dump of snow to fall in Morgins so we could get going. The big dump came and most of the main piste in Morgins was ready but for some reason, the resort didn’t get going until mid January. An absolute disaster for the ski schools and the businesses in the village.

Everyone was forced to go and deliver their lessons in the French sector and that meant working in Chatel Pre La Joux over the Christmas and New Year period. Whilst it was great that we got some work done, being in Chatel was chaos. So many people skiing on icy, rocky pistes, the conditions were pretty difficult and ‘teaching’ in this setting is more often a case of just keeping clients safe as opposed to getting constructive work done.

I had the pleasure of skiing with the head of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club’s head of academy so I was able to pump him for some decent answers to my questions relating to football.  The answers I got relating to ‘is Pep actually any good?’ And ‘is there any place in the game for a classic number 10 like Totti anymore?’ were very enlightening.

More about the season in part 2 in a month or so.
DB

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Why don’t tourists ski ‘good’ skis?

For a little while now, I’ve always wondered why tourists ski the skis that they do. The majority of them go into the hire shop and get given whatever the ski tech recommends and even the better level recreational skiers end up on something that is a compromise for the piste, which let’s face it, is where the majority of skiing is done for the average skier.

Set up and ready to go

I’ve been banging on to anyone who will listen that what some of these better skiers need to really enhance their week on the slopes is a proper performance ski like a top level slalom or GS ski. Most people I talk to about this, mainly other instructors or ski techs, all tell me the same thing – recreation skiers wouldn’t be able to handle them, which is why they don’t ski on them and why hire shops don’t stock them.

To put this to the test, we went to Snowline in Morgins and grabbed 3 sets of slalom skis from the rack, (Snowline being one of the rare hire shops that actually hold a stock of high end skis) and headed up the hill at Morgins in the Portes Du Soleil.

The testers for the day were Rich Walker, Ross Jackson and myself, all ski instructors with the Morgins Ski and Snowboard School. None of us had actually skied a full on slalom ski before because normally when we are teaching, you need a fairly soft ski and depending on if you are teaching beginners or not, perhaps a twin tip so you can go backwards more easily. Rich skis a Head Peak 78 for everyday use and Ross uses a Salomon Tornado x-Wing. I switched all season between some Head Supershape Magnums and an old pair of Salomon 1080’s.

To be honest, conditions weren’t great for testing skis, it was snowing and there was a small covering of fresh snow on top of end of season slush. It was pretty wet and cold but being the professionals we are with a rare day off and some new toys to play with, we got on with the job in hand.

The skis we tested were the Elan SL Waveflex World Cup, the Head iSL and the Atomic SL D2 – all in 165cm length. The radius on the skis varied from 11.4m to about 12, so in theory, they were all pretty similar, all we had to do was ski them to find out how they went and for me certainly, put my theory to the test and try to feel if a recreational skier could ski them.

Once we started, there were a few apprehensive turns from the testing team which then progressively became more aggressive and shorter in turn shape. After that, the whooping started as the team felt the angles and turn shapes that this collection of amazing skis could create. It’s a bit of a cliché but it really did feel like being on rails, these type of skis are not interested in skidding turns, just carving them and many times, it felt like just being along for the ride.

On the second or third run down the backside of Morgins, Ross, who was skiing the Atomics, got flipped in the same style as you see on the TV when guys get high-sided from Moto GP bikes. I was watching from below and it looked like he loaded up the tails of the skis too much and got flipped over the top. It was enough to make Rich and myself slightly apprehensive when it was our turn to ride the Atomics. Once, he’d dusted himself off, Ross compared the difference between what we normally ski and the slalom skis like the difference between driving a VW Golf and a Ferrari (when he has ever driven a Ferrari I don’t know – or a Golf for that matter.)
There was snow.  Just not in this picture.
Once we had ridden all of the skis on the same routes, we sat down with a hot chocolate to discuss our thoughts and answer a few questions from me. Here is the feedback on each of the skis;

Head iSL

In general, everyone thought that this was a ski that they could ski every day because it was the softest of the three. Everyone who skied it really liked it but it felt a little like a compromise because it was so easy to ski. Surprising, given Head’s dominance on the racing scene. Everyone rated it third for stiffness but I end up skiing it back down the hill and started to like it more the more I skied it. The iSL rated second and first amongst the team for smoothness and it was easy to vary the turn shape for short or long turns and they were good in the bumps.

All in all, a good ski but felt a little soft for what was supposed to be a full on SL ski but crucially, one that perhaps an advanced recreational skier might be able to handle and even have fun on. I expect there are degrees of Head iSL with the stiffer versions only making it to racers and sponsored pros.

Elan Waveflex SL World Cup

Personally, my least favourite of the group but I think this was the ski being too good for me than the other way round. The Elan was the only ski in the group that was (in the words of Rolf – Snowline boss) ‘a proper World Cup Ski’. It certainly felt like it when I got to use it first. For some reason, I couldn’t get it to turn into turns properly and felt like I had to force it to turn more, but I quickly understood that this was because I wasn’t physically good enough to bend the ski to make it do what I wanted it to do.

This feedback was also reflected by Rich and Ross who rated it first for stiffness and said that it only felt like it would turn in mid-turn. Where the Elan was a winner was on edge grip where everyone rated it as a winner with Rich saying it was ‘solid and grippy’. In fact, after the test, Rich continued to ski the Elan so I guess he was more comfortable on it than anyone.

In summary, probably the best ski here but so good that even relatively advanced skiers struggle to find out what it can offer.

Atomic D2 SL

Everyone’s favourite of the test and I liked it so much that the next day I bought the pair we tested here. A great ski that offered a combination of the characteristics found on the other two skis. As mentioned before, the carbon plate that runs along the top of the ski making the ‘twin deck’ seems to eliminate all of the chatter that you sometimes get back through the ski and makes for a smooth ride and amazing edge hold.

Both Ross and Rich said this was a ski that they could use every day but when you really wanted to crank things up a notch, they offered great control, grip and they were FAST. Pointing them anywhere near straight down the hill, they just took off. They rated second from the testers for stiffness and top for smoothness. I had a chance to ski them since both on a BASI Alpine coaching course and recreationally and they really are a revelation. Long turns and high speeds are handled with ease and short turns are like being in a centrifuge.

Summary

I asked the question, ‘could you recommend these to a recreational skier?’ and the answer from Rich and Ross was the same. ‘Very advanced and/or expert recreational skiers only’. We tried to look at this from the perspective of a recreational skier but a lot of the time, we were having so much fun on these amazing skis that it was difficult to remain focused.

Be warned though, these skis leave you tired. They ask for more input from you and because they are shorter and quicker to react, they demand that you are more balanced and athletic in your skiing. I wouldn’t want to ski them back down the mountain after a two hour boozy lunch in a mountain restaurant.

As a whole, the skis were much more responsive and were challenging to us and our ski ability. Rich said that he felt you had to be ‘on it’ all the time with these skis and that it would be difficult to have a hangover day or a lazy day leaning back on these that you can get away with on softer skis. We all agreed that you could you use the Head’s every day and perhaps the Atomics if you didn’t want the risk of ski school clients running over the aggressive graphics.

Incidentally, I had the chance to try out my theory of good recreational skiers skiing good skis when my ‘project’ for the season Lightning Bob and I went skiing near the end of the season. Bob is a ski tech and a fairly decent skier (especially after all of the free tuition he’s had from me) and we swapped skis on a busy Easter day in April.

Bob loved them and is now a convert to what I would call ‘proper skis’ after an hour on the Atomics. Up until then, he was taking different skis from the rack in the shop every time he went out. I could see when I was following him that he wasn’t skiing the Atomics to their full potential by any means but he was having loads of fun and the grin on his face was enough for me to know that he had seen the light.

Many thanks to the Snowline shop in Morgins for the skis for the morning and to Rich and Ross for giving up their time to test.