I sang along to the track that my iPhone had randomly selected. The Bowie lyrics seemed poignant; it was five years since I’d been to the Espace Killy and, with reluctance, I was on my way back.
For most, the Espace Killy in December is an early season powder heaven but for me it is a place of trial and tribulation. It is The Ski Club of Great Britain’s training ground, where aspirations are realised and dreams are often shattered.
I couldn’t believe five years had elapsed since I’d passed their gruelling Leaders’ course – a two-week boot camp, were no quarter is asked and none given. Five years was the tenure awarded and mine had run out. It was time for me to take the Leaders Refresher course in Tignes, to revalidate and gain another five years of skiing at the front.
I tried not to take it too seriously; I told myself nothing of magnitude was actually at stake – just five more years of subsidised skiing. But, in my small snowy world, being a Ski Club Leader was important for existential reason – I defined myself through skiing. I’m no athlete, but the refresher course was my Olympics and it had come round too soon.
I wasn’t after gold, but I needed a podium finish. Ski Club grades; red, silver, purple, purple+ and gold would be awarded at the end of the course. And, if I made ‘purple’ I’d not be stripped of my treasured blue Leader’s jacket.
The Ski Club grading system is an objective measure of ability based on how well a skier copes with increasingly difficult terrain, but it is open to interpretation. Our trainers, six mountain guides, would be continually assessing us. So for Leaders the course is all about impressing these judges – it is Strictly Come Dancing on snow.
The guides also review our leading grades; C, C+, B, B+, or A. This is a measure of our ‘mountain craft’ – our ability to sniff out fresh powder and more importantly, return those that follow us with smiling faces or at the very least still breathing.
More importantly, our leading grade determines which resorts we can lead in. ‘C’ leaders get the ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ resorts and ‘A’ graded leaders get sent to places with big mountains.. Saas Fee, for instance is a ‘C’ resort, Avoriaz a ‘B, Chamonix an ‘A’ and the Tamworth Snow Dome is possibly an E.
Memories of previous exhaustion on the slopes of the Espace Killy during my Leaders Course and fear of failure had driven me out of bed and into Lycra on many a morning over the summer. It had even forced me to arrive a week early to train at altitude and acclimatise to the cheese, ham and red wine diet. But, as every athlete knows, luck can be a cruel master.
Injury struck me back in January (see image below) and my ‘journey’ to peak performance had started on crutches. I couldn’t walk, let alone ski, nine months before the course.
My choice of pre-refresher training camp, the Ski Club’s Premier Party in Val d’ Isere, had also been a bit of a miscalculation. I ended up sharing a room with a drunken Scotsman who snored like an asthmatic hippo – then I caught a chest infection. But those are the breaks you get and every five years, for three days in December, whatever life has thrown at them, the measure of a leader is taken.
The weather is critical too. It’s one thing looking like an off-piste god on a bluebird day and a completely different challenge in poor visibility. Arctic conditions can often prevail in the Espace Killy and the avalanche risk never seems to fall below 3/5 in December. My ski demons can often surface in such conditions and a battle for control of my body rages in my head. The demons make me wonder why I ever thought skiing was enjoyable.
The course itself involves first-lift/last-lift skiing every day, bracketed by early morning and evening avalanche avoidance and rescue lectures. The lectures included video footage and analysis of real mountain fatalities. They basically show you the many ways you can die on a snow-covered mountain, then expected you to follow the guides, without complaint, into whatever white abyss they decide on.
You’ll have to drop in after them knowing there is no going back and hoping there isn’t a long sidestep out at the bottom. There won’t be any coffee stops and lunch will be considered a bonus. If you want a rest or to take an easier line you know you’ll be chastised for it later – you have to pretend you’re a fearless powder hound when your primary concern is really survival.
Knowing all this, I arrived in Tignes, with a great deal of trepidation. However, poor visibility during the first two days meant the off-piste skiing had to be conservative. Inexplicably, the guides kept losing their rucksacks under the snow. Then, as if life depended on it, they would expect us to find them within 15 minutes!
On the final day the mist cleared and the Espace Killy revealed itself to be a place of joy not just one of foreboding. I got my mojo back and I concluded that I did quite like skiing after all.
Although I coughed and spluttered from time to time, I did mange to hold everything together. I fooled the judges into thinking I was fit, fearless and competent enough to avoid skiing into danger. More importantly, I proved I was effective when it came to finding lost property.
I made the prerequisite skiing grade and was given a ‘B’ for leadership. Delighted, I headed home looking forward to getting fat and unfit over Christmas.
I had gained five more years of skiing at the front, five more years of skiing in blue, five more years before I had to return to those slopes, five more years of skiing with nobody watching.
There are those who love Val d’Isere and Tignes and religiously go there every season on holiday. I cannot dispute the skiing is top draw, but for me, the Espace Killy is simply the world’s largest petri dish.