Downhill all the way

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Neil DeMarco offers planning points for a problem-free ski trip. Every year thousands of teachers take school parties skiing. While it is true that a well-run ski trip can be a great holiday, the responsibilities remain intimidating. Good organisation and some awareness of likely hazards can limit the scale of the problems you might encounter.

Choosing the right country - let alone resort - is difficult. The resorts with the most runs and the highest slopes also tend to be the most expensive. Most resorts of this type also tend to be French - another factor which spirals up the cost. Apres-ski activities, drinks and snacks are very costly because of the adverse exchange rate.

Exchange rates don't work in Austria's favour, either. Neither does the fact that they tend to speak German there. Furthermore, Austrian resorts are generally low and therefore often don't have snow on them. When it comes down to it, Italy at present offers the best balance between cost and decent skiing.

Here the currency is on the economic equivalent of a life-support system and, with some resorts matching the French ones for height, Italy is good value. The Italian resorts offered by school ski companies rarely match the extent of skiing available in France but they do tend to be 10-15 per cent cheaper.

In choosing a resort, it's important to check which way the slopes face - particularly if you're skiing at Easter - since north-facing slopes will retain the snow better. Tonale is a good example of the problems met in a resort with south-facing slopes. I skied there once in April, admittedly, but the bulk of Tonale's runs are south facing and were unskiable after about midday as they became very slushy. By contrast, Santa Caterina's north-facing slopes hold out until about 3pm in the April sunshine. But Tonale does have the Presena glacier as a consolation - check that it's open. The glacier closes after the Christmas period and doesn't open until March, but that's something which ski brochures somehow overlook.

For ski lessons, resorts whose runs are spread out and approached by different main lift systems cause further difficulties - even if they are linked together. It is possible that the beginners will be taught in one part of the system and the others in another. This creates serious problems when you have to take responsibility for your pupils over lunch. Six days of excellent skiing at Bardonecchia, for example, were marred by the fact that the beginners finished their lessons at the nursery slopes a long way from the intermediate and advanced skiers and their teachers. It meant a teacher had to be with them all day to supervise them over lunch. This is fine if the teacher is also a beginner.

Another problem to be aware of is the "extended lift pass included" hype. Santa Caterina's lift pass includes 60km of pistes in Bormio - the group I took last year would have welcomed these, as Santa Caterina has only 40km of its own. We could certainly have skied them if we had wanted to but not with our instructors: they wouldn't undertake the 20-minute journey down the valley to get there. So it's always worth checking whether you'll be able to make use of the extended lift pass and still have lessons.

Pre-ski information is important to ensure the children - and their parents - are given advice on ski wear, on the ski-way code, and on the implications of physical activity at high altitudes. My final letter to parents sets out the ski-way code and I stress the importance of children understanding its requirements. This is especially vital if the groups are skiing outside of lessons with a teacher. The ski-way code, and much else, can be found in the English Ski Council's excellent handbook for ski course organisers.

Novice skiers are often unaware how physically demanding a day's skiing is, because they don't appreciate the impact of the high altitude. At 2,100m the body's workload is increased by 33 per cent from sea level. The intensity of ultraviolet radiation increases by 4 per cent for every 300m. So at 2,400m the UV level is more than 30 per cent above its sea-level value. Goggles or glasses and a high-protection sun screen are essential.

Neil DeMarco holds the English Ski Council Ski Course organiser parts 1 and 2 and skis with the pupils of Chesham High School.

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