Reach for the sky
Won over by France’s most challenging ski resort
A crisp morning on the slopes of Val d’Isere and I’m trying my hardest to visualise a golden orb, into which I mentally place the number 1,888,948. Slowly, I shrink the sphere to the size of a ping-pong ball and move it towards my heart. I try not to imagine how silly I look to everyone hurrying to catch the ski lift; I am now programmed to be a super-hot skier.
I’m with Bernard Chesneau, who combines life coaching with ski coaching. “This is not just a lesson, it is an outlook — a way of life,” he tells me, before asking what I want to achieve from the afternoon and revealing the “magic number”. My list is simple: not being scared of moguls, ice on the slope or the scrunch of a snowboarder behind me. Really, not being scared of skiing in this particular French resort.
Val d’Isere has been my skiing bête noire since I visited five years ago and was nearly mowed down several times by huge men thundering down the slopes. Its world-class runs and world-class snow make it a magnet for ski daredevils — not wusses like me. Even the best skiers admit that Val is a “challenging resort” with misleading piste gradings. A green called Verte, which runs down to the bottom of the resort, is anything but verte, while many blues leading down the mountain are accepted as “commercial blues” that would be a red run anywhere else.
After my last visit, I swore that in future I’d stick with Switzerland’s wider, calmer pistes.
Yet here I am again, in perhaps the busiest week of the season — February half term, which coincides with France’s school holidays. Of all the weeks I could have chosen, this one was perhaps the silliest. The word busy doesn’t begin to describe the sea of ski helmets at the meeting point for lessons, or the 45-minute wait for a burger in the self-service queue at the Sun Bar. As one ski instructor puts it, “It’s carnage out there.”
But this time I have Bernard’s magic number to help me, though I’m unclear where exactly it comes from. That’s because Bernard, who can talk for France and Canada (he is French Canadian), never seems to have a quick, easy answer for anything. He talks us all the way over a series of ski lifts to the far side of the mountain, away from the crowds. There is a lot about how we need to rise above life’s problems, whether that applies to work, relationship issues, or being scared of moguls or ice on the slope.
After many questions, I establish that when his marriage broke down, he studied life coaching in Montpellier and now applies it to skiing. Here (I summarise) it’s all about putting your problems to ground by properly feeling the mountain beneath your skis and exhaling on your turns. “Start by choosing yourself rather than worrying about everyone else on the mountain,” Bernard tells me. “You have to see the mountain for what it is and not a series of problems. You are on a date with the slope.”
To show this, he produces a small red wooden heart and makes me lean towards it as far as I can. We watch different ski styles on the slope, then I try skiing blind down the piste with only Bernard’s hand to guide me (scary), before I embark on a series of exercises to get me to exhale properly and to stop strangling the “eagle chicks” that are my poles (embarrassing). The basic message is about self-confidence and how I am capable of anything, as long as I recite the magic number first. Bizarre.
But even without Bernard’s magic number, I’m finding that Val is actually growing on me. The key is to go high in the mountains and to resist skiing the home run, taking the cable car or funicular down to the resort, thus avoiding the narrow, hard bottlenecks where inconsiderate skiers pour through. Up among the peaks, I discover
The mountain village at Val d’Isere, top; skiers on a resort run