Back from Saas-Fee

The 2003/04 ski season has started. Well, for me at least. We spent the last week in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, in the hands of the Warren Smith Ski Academy. Great fun, hard work, highly recommended.

The snow was wonderful for the time of year. Much more like winter snow than spring skiing. Sure it was a bit hard first thing and a few slopes got a little sugary by midday but all in all we couldn’t have asked for better conditions. The terrain at Saas-Fee at this time of year is pretty limited. There were only 5 runs open and the race training camps take up over half the skiable space until around 12. The lifts open at 7.45 and close around 2. It would have been nice to have had a little more variety but given we were working on drills and exercises for most of the time it didn’t really matter.

The course ran from Sunday to Friday with a day off on Wednesday. We skied from first lift until last lift with a couple of short breaks for food and water. No long lunches here. We ate on the slopes amongst the pile of rucksacks that marked out the base camp for the racing teams.

Each day began with a couple of warm up runs and then a long session of stretching. This seemed to work really well, especially since we were spending the days doing stuff which was unusual and had a habit of discovering muscles you didn’t know you had…

After the warm up we skied as a group; at first this seemed a little strange as there were 19 of us on the course and ability ranged from just qualified or about to qualify as BASI 3 instructors down to 3 weeks on snow, or no weeks on snow and some time on a dry slope. However it seemed to work pretty well. Warren would explain an exercise or drill to work on a particular aspect of our skiing and we’d split into small groups of 4 or so to work on the drills and give each other feedback. The drills tested all of us and it wasn’t always the most experienced that picked up the new skills the quickest. I expect this was because Warren was taking apart our skiing and reassembling it in his image ;) and this can be an uncomfortable process if you thought that you already skied reasonably well.

The Ski Academy teaches an athletic freeride skiing style; so it’s all about having your feet hip width apart, compression turns, being comfortable using the inside ski and/or ‘wrong’ edges and skiing all terrain as if it were easy. ;) This is quite different to the style of instruction that’s been common in France; no boots bolted together, no rising up during the transition, etc. I had my first exposure to this style of skiing in Meribel last season so I knew what to expect. At first it’s hard to make the change; everything you were doing is now wrong, but it’s worth it. I’m skiing faster and more confidently than ever before and don’t seem to have any of those little moments where I think that it is the mountain rather than me in control.

Warren’s a good teacher; he’s interested in you learning and making you think about what you’re doing, what works and what doesn’t and why. He doesn’t molly coddle you; if you’re doing crap he’ll tell you. This works well with the splitting in to small groups thing; he tells you what to do and then expects you to think about it whilst you do it so that you can give feedback on what works for you and any alternative exercises that worked better for your group. This could be a handy way to test out new drills and get ideas for the next instructional DVD he’s producing…

We had video analysis on two days of the course. Melody Sky did a sterling job on the video camera and Warren would review our performance in the hotel before dinner. This is where the differences in ability in the group was really useful. You could see various people doing things wrong in different ways and to different degrees… The guys put together a video CD of the footage taken for us to take home at the end of the course. This included footage of us attempting some of the more important drills and of Warren explaining and demonstrating what we should actually be doing.

We covered a lot of techniques and many of them seemed unusual; jumping a 180 degree turn from the uphill leg with the downhill leg lifted off the ground, or skiing on one leg, but in almost all cases we could see at least one racer doing something remarkably similar - though in a far more accomplished, and less amusing, manner. The drills built on each other well and we quickly moved from turning a ski with one leg in the air to jumping a turn with one leg in the air on the ‘flat’, to practicing jump turns on the steeps. This was the one point where a rift appeared in the ability of confidence of the group but luckily Rich was on hand to run remedial classes for those who couldn’t quite keep up.

Some of the things we covered include; pivot turns and the importance of being able to release your edges and use the flat of the ski where appropriate; ankle flex, most people don’t have it, you need it; powerful carving (rather than just ‘punter carving’), progressive lean throughout the turn, early (no, much earlier than that!) turn initiation with the new inside ski (learn to steer both skis rather than just the outside ski). One foot skiing, any edge will do (great for recovering a ‘wrong edge’ moment when skiing fast, suddenly there are no wrong edges, just edges you haven’t used like that recently ;) ). One foot hop turns (very amusing to watch), it’s all about the timing, use a strong pole plant and you will be able to fly. Jump turns on steeps, plant, extend, jump, steer the skis when you land. Upper body management, keep both your hands in your peripheral vision at all times. Drive your hip into the slope whilst facing down the slope to increase your angulation, edge grip and control…

It was a tiring but good week; lots of hard work but lots of payback.

The accommodation, food and hospitality at the Park Hotel was excellent - the only thing that would have made it better would have been a hot tub.

What could they do better? Use Rich more for the people who can’t quite keep up, sometimes some of the weaker skiers didn’t seem to quite get a drill before we moved on to the next. Turn off the mobiles! ;) The guys had just had a load of gear stolen in Argentina and some video had got lost in the post so I guess we can forgive the amount of time spent on the mobile during some of the days…

Thanks to Warren, Melody, Emily, Rich and Pattrick for a wonderful week. Thanks to all the other guys on the course for being such great fun. I expect to see you all next year.