Choosing the right children’s ski school is vital for family holidays, says Robert Pimm
Financial Times, February 19 2005
It’s Day One at the Lech ski school and I’ve never seen so many children crying. In the hubbub, mobile phones ring, helmets are tightened and farewells are made as parents prepare to off-load their offspring and start their own pilgrimage to the pistes.
Getting ready for the day’s ski-ing – Photo Robert Pimm
The head of the children’s ski school, wearing a white cowboy hat, is besieged by adults demanding to know which class their children should ski in. Amid the tumult, a well-groomed Englishman is kneeling in the snow, holding his tiny son by both shoulders. “I don’t want to go to ski school,” the boy says. “I’m cold.” “You’ll enjoy it.” “No I won’t.” The man climbs to his feet and looks down. “I’m afraid, darling, you simply must.”
Skiing with your children can be both a sublime pleasure and a challenge. If all goes well, you can watch them gain skill and confidence at a pace which leaves you brimming with pride, or envy. You can tackle snowy challenges together, and talk about it for years afterwards. But dreadful dangers lurk.
If children don’t like ski school, they have to stay with you, threatening to torpedo your skiing plans and ruin everyone’s holiday. That’s why tears fall like rain on the morning of the first day. That’s why, when you book a family ski-ing holiday, you start by making sure the kids are well catered for. Top priority is the ski school. Quality children’s ski instructors are like opera divas – rather uncommon, and miles better than all the rest. When found, they should be worshipped.
The pick-up after the first day is a crucial test. Have the children enjoyed it? Is the standard right? When I go to collect Owen, aged 12, and Anna, 10, initial signs are bad. Owen has landed on his head. “It’s a bit fast in my group. Good thing I had a helmet.” Anna’s class is too slow. “It’s boring. We always have to wait. There’s this boy who keeps pushing everyone.” The reassurances of the ski-teachers come as a relief: Owen can manage, they say; Anna’s group will go faster tomorrow.
Francois Defaix and Danielle Vitalis from Rotterdam say the communication skills of ski teachers are the key to parent confidence. “We started Tom at 6. When the teachers report back in a friendly way anything which needs saying, you feel they’re looking after your kids.”
Johannes Bischof, director of the Lech Ski School, has a clear philosophy. “We’re not babysitters or a children’s club,” he says. “We’re here to teach children to ski.”
Just how much can be built on those foundations becomes evident on the day of the ski races. Hundreds of children hurtle, or in a few cases dawdle, down a slalom slope, class by class. Every single run is timed, recorded and announced over the Tannoy by Tony, the man in the white hat (“a big round of applause for Stephanie, well done Stephanie!”). Later, medals are distributed on a podium in a colourful crush of children, parents and video cameras. Every child receives a gold, silver or bronze medal – there are no losers.
It’s important to be realistic about what your children can achieve.
“Skiing is really fun when you know how to do it,” Anna says. “But when you start off, you think, ‘my goodness – am I supposed to ski down that?'”
And Danielle Vitalis says, “You’ve got to be careful not to push too hard. We try to be relaxed when the children aren’t learning as fast as we think they should. But it’s not easy.”
It’s even harder when competitiveness sets in. Last year, Francois and Danielle went skiing with another family with children. “The two lots of children infected each other with fear,” Francois says. “Or irritated one another with comparisons. It can even affect your relationship with the parents.”
Other sources of inter-generational conflict are accommodation and food.
Make sure your hotel doesn’t have the kind of dining room where noisy children draw censorious stares from childless diners. It may be better to stay in a flat or a pension and go out for a raclette or a pizza than to expect children to sit through a three, four or five-course fixed menu night after night. Evening walks to restaurants also offer scope for unlimited snowball fights.
To ensure maximum enjoyment of a family skiing holiday, you should aim to exhaust your children before they exhaust you. Some resorts provide facilities to help you achieve this. Lech, for example, has a 1.2km floodlit toboggan run, terrifying for adults, awesome fun for children, and open every evening until 10 p.m.
At the end of my second day’s skiing, I trudge towards the pick-up at the children’s ski school with trepidation. I’m knackered after a hard day on the slopes; the thought of sorting out the problems of my offspring fills me with dread. But when I see the children, their eyes are bright.
“It was brilliant,” Owen says, “we skied powder all day.” “It was great,” Anna says, “I made a friend.” Owen looks at me, assessing the degree of my fatigue. “We still have two hours before the lifts close,” he says. “Can we go skiing again now?”