Games of snakes and snow snails

4th February 2000 at 00:00
David Henderson plays follow the leader at ski school.

James glided over bumps, sank into hollows and looked perfectly balanced on his skis as he slipped down intermediate blue runs at Les Deux Alpes with a snake of pupils in his wake.

In the flat light of a grey afternoon, when it is difficult to tell where the piste ends and the horizon begins, technique has to be precise. Any fault is magnified, and the lack of visibility was taking its toll on the best skiers from the King Edward V1 Five Ways School, a Birmingham grammar.

James, zipped up in the famous red ski suit of the Ecole du Ski Francais, was nursing his group of 11 boys aged 13 to 18 plus two teachers into their ski week. "Be verrie careful een zis light," the French instructor advised his group . "Not too fast and een control."

These days, because of tight local authority restrictions on safety, many schools confine their skiing to official lessons. That usually means two hours in the morning, a break for lunch, followed by two hours more in the afternoon. "That's enough for most kids," Manu, a fellow instructor, said.

James, bubbly and outgoing with a smile as wide as the piste, teaches English pupils week in, week out. "Where are the jumps?," the older lads chorused. James did not disappoint. Even with visibility too poor to spy any sign of a rise or dip, he seized his chance to test the effervescent teenagers. He dropped down an incline and zipped over an invisible crest, tucking his knees in as he soared over. The lads were impressed.

James sidled back up and punched his poles into the snow abut a metre apart at the crest and invited the group to take that leap into exhilaration.

One by one they followed the command. One fall but no submissions, no damage and plenty of whooping. The odd leap does wonders for self-confidence and illustrates one key point: if you sit back with your weight on your heels, you've had it.

Learning to ski involves explanation, demonstration, practice, repetition and picking yourself up off the snow. The lads could ski the mountain with degrees of success but "een control" was another matter. At Deux Alpes (locally, they drop the "Les") the blue runs are a tinge red.

James sped off. Only the first three disciples tracked his trail as he traversed the piste, almost imperceptibly changing his weight to change direction. The rest of the line was more ragged.

On slightly steeper terrain, boobytrapped by soft moguls - sometimes called snow snails - the carnage was all too evident. Skis, bodies, poles and hats lay strewn over about 30 metres. There were more fallers than at Becher's Brook on a bad day at the Grand National. The snake of students had lost the tracks of the master and inexperience brought the inevitable consequences.

It was time for more advice. "You are all too steef," he pointed out."You have to be a beet like zee English goalkeeper, waiting for zee penalty," he advised, emphasising his crouch over his skis. "You have plenty of experience!" Ouch! In the international language that is football, he knew how to hammer home his point.

David Henderson travelled with SkiBound - see page right for details.

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