When learning to ski, the most crucial thing to absorb is how and when to apply the ‘snowplough’. Instead of simply leaning one way or the other in order to fall over as a means of stopping, the snowplough allows a more dignified way of coming to a halt. It doesn’t come naturally, as in order to perform it one must become almost knock-kneed and pigeon-toed; a rather ungraceful look when striving for the elegance exhibited by the more experienced skiers.
The pristine mountains of Meribel, where 150kms of snow-kissed slopes yields 73 different runs in the centre of the Three Valleys (Courchevel to the left; Val Thorens to the right), are the perfect place to learn the snowplough. It’s here my first taste of the importance of the manoeuvre arrives in the form of Richard, my instructor. Richard (pronounced Reeshard) is the embodiment of the Meribel life. At 6ft 3in, with the deep alpine tan and fit confidence of one for whom the mountains are his office, he is also a third-generation local. His grandfather, so the tale goes, used to chop trees to make skis when he arrived among the first settlers in the Thirties. Now Richard, when he’s not searching for powder off-piste in the back country or teaching rich Americans how to flyfish near his log cabin with no electricity in summer, takes people like me under his wing for a few days. He likes to get them going early.
So, not long after I demonstrate that my balance is of a sufficient standard, Richard decides to let me ski the softest slope, one with a decline so gentle even children are handling it with ease. However, soon after teaching me the snowplough, he’s unimpressed by my dependency on it. Rightly so. Sliding down a hill with your skis pointed in to a V is hardly skiing. “Open your snowplough,” he bellows as I lose momentum. And then, as I gain it: “Use youuur snoooowwplough!” It works. Richard nods in approval as he skis alongside me. I’m glad. He’s the sort of guy you want to impress; a majestic skier who is giving up time he could be using to launch himself from the top of the resort’s steepest ridges, to attain the state he calls being “at one with the mountain”. I soon learn, however, that application of the snowplough isn’t only the initial skill to be learned. Richard wants me to now understand how to turn; how to get near the edge of a steeper slope and, at the last minute, contemptuously slide away from it until I’ve reached the other side where I will repeat the prescription, ultimately achieving a fluid, flowing routine all the way to the bottom of the run. Varying degrees of the snowplough are to be employed throughout. “I weel push you,” he warns. ”That eez the way to learn. Do not be afraid of the side. It is only soft snow down there. You will land az eef on a pillow.” It proves a struggle, though. My distaste for the edge becomes ever more apparent and frustration increases as I tumble two, three, four times, rather than face it.
But Richard is determined to cure my weaknesses. “Let the edge become your friend,” he orders. ”If you lean towards it, you will go away from it. It is not possible to fall off then.” He proves a tough taskmaster during the following two days, taking me higher up the mountains, seemingly subscribing to the theory of birds who push their young from the nest in order to get them to fly. He leads me down a higher run, laughing uproariously when I forget my snowplough and careen into the icy bank of the piste in a blur of limbs, rather than try to turn away from the edge. As I glare at him, he reassuringly lets me know, “It is coming, I can see it,” before gliding off in front, his exaggerated movements showing me how I would look if only I listened. And then, on the third day, ‘it’ arrives. The flow I’ve seen exhibited by everyone from children to pensioners takes over my body and I perform turn after turn without even thinking of failing or falling. As exhilaration increases, my mouth breaks into a wide smile.
The writer finding his snow legs
Richard looks thrilled, like a proud parent. “That is the face of a happy skier,” he nods as he reaches into his jacket and produces a hip-flask of Juniper berry liquor, offering it to me as a welcome to the club. As I sup from it, Richard is already making his way to the lift. “Ok. Now we go higher … and faster,” he says. “Remember to bring your snowplough.”
Words Jahn Vannisselroy
Le Refuge in Méribel Centre serves up an excellent range of steaks, salads and pizzas for €10-€20 (about £8-£17) per head. (Facebook: Le Refuge Meribel).
Don’t leave Meribel without a meal at Chez Kiki, where the owner, Kiki, cooks his trademark fillet de boeuf (€31, or £26) over an open fire. You think he’ll burn it but it’s perfect every time. (chez-kiki.fr)
Take your friends to the stylish surroundings of The Allodis: a four-star hotel with one of the resort’s top restaurants, which is open to non-guests as well. A degustation menu starts at €55 (£47), drinks not included. (hotelallodis.com)
Meribar is the place to head if you want to catch up on sports. Four TVs and a huge sound system will make sure you don’t miss a moment of the action. Meribar serves a full English breakfast if you want a cheap meal after a big night out.
You’ll have a great night at Jack’s, the bar of choice for those in their 20s. Jack’s has been hosting apre ski parties for 15 years and serves up jugs of beer, cocktails, live music, pizzas, free pool tables, stand-up comedy and live sport. (jacksbarmeribel.com)
Le Poste De Secours is the most sophisticated, chic bar in town. It offers a full range of international beers, wines and shots, plenty of champagne, and a tempting menu
of cocktails. (Facebook: Le Poste De Secours)
Hotel Le Roc is right in the centre of the resort, 50 metres from the nearest piste. (£61 a night in low season; £105 in high season). Comfortable, cosy and with a bar below, so your day doesn’t have to end when the sun goes down. (hotelleroc.com)
A stone’s throw from the slopes, L’Eterlou has timber furnishings, a luxurious feel throughout and a wellness centre including a swimming pool, steam-bath, spa and sauna from €240 (about £206) per room for two, including breakfast. (inghams.co.uk)
Hotel Helios has 18 suites across three floors decorated in three themes: contemporary, Nordic and chalet-style. The restaurant offers a gastro menu (£70) and a beautiful 150sqm spa. From £245 per person per day, half board. (lhelios.com)