There’s a place where hundreds of skiers get stuck every season, a place where mountain rescue can’t save you, a place of frustration, fatigue and fear.
It’s called the intermediate plateau.
Those who catch the skiing bug take the early steps of progressing through snow plough to become parallel skiers.
Getting to that point is a big achievement; there’s pride in being able to call yourself a ‘proper’ skier, zipping down pistes and sharing tales of slopes explored over apres drinks.
But at some point you will get snared on a plateau, leaving you confused, disheartened and wondering just where to go from here.
It might be on that black run that proves a step too far, the icy piste on which you lose all control, the mogul-filled slope waiting like a frozen minefield, the piste that was fine this morning but is now a sea of energy-sapping slush, or a dump of fresh snow that sees you tumble again and again while other skiers swoop and whoop through the powder.
One man who has made it his mission to help skiers master this variable terrain is Phil Smith, the director of ski course company Snoworks.
During one of Snoworks’ early-season courses in the French resort of Tignes, Phil Smith told me:
Anybody can find they plateau at any point and that’s where we come in. We know people want to go places, want to learn to cope with different terrain and conditions.
The starting level for taking a Snoworks course is to be an adventurous intermediate – although new for this season the company will run two beginners and novices courses – while advanced skiers and those looking to make a career in the snowsports industry are also catered for.
If you’re comfortable on red runs and above, the first port of call with Snoworks is to book onto one of its all-terrain courses.
While some of my fellow skiers were taking a course for the first time, many more have been trusting Snoworks to improve their skiing for season after season – often meeting up with friends they have made on previous courses.
The all-terrain course remains the most popular, but Snoworks also allows you to specialise in particular aspects of your skiing.
If you want to improve your moguls technique there are bumps courses, off-piste aficionados can progress through to backcountry training, while in summer and autumn Snoworks offers race-carve training.
And if you start a course and find it’s not for you, or feel the level of your group doesn’t suit you, it’s no problem.
We will have three or four groups running in the all-terrain and quite often we mirror that with an off-piste course.
If somebody books on the off-piste course but overestimates their level we can slot them into the all-terrain, and if somebody in the all-terrain underestimates their level and wants more off-piste experience we can switch them across.
So we have people either switching courses or switching groups within the all-terrain course to find the best level for them.
That fluidity between groups is a result of one of the key Snoworks philosophies: that each skier is assessed on an individual basis.
Each morning the Snoworks team put their heads together and assess each skier’s progress, deciding if changing groups would benefit them.
You don’t have to of course, but the instructors have your best interests at heart and know their stuff.
It took a long time to train the staff to be able to spot strengths and weaknesses.
Ski instructors are trained to look at technique but actually for all-mountain skiing, technique plays a smaller role than the psychological aspect.
So if you’ve got someone who arrives who is fairly strong mentally but weaker technically, they still feel the urge to push themselves.
We have to be careful because everybody has to be in a group that they’re capable of, but ski instructors have to recognise other strengths in people… fitness and emotional thresholds.
This is what sets Snoworks apart from more traditional ski schools: tearing up the one-size-fits-all blueprint and instead focusing on what works best for each person.
The emphasis is on teaching each skier at their own speed rather than seeking to instil precise technique – it’s not about looking good but about acquiring the skills to cope with the terrain under your skis.
The main overriding philosophy is the ‘open’ environment – the variability of skiing open mountains. That is where we come in.
We have to teach people to ski an ever-changing environment.
All the instructors are qualified to British Association of Snowsport Instructors ISTD level 4 – the internationally recognised top level – while the majority of them are BASI trainers, those licensed to teach other instructors.
There’s even a four-time Olympian in the shape of Emma Carrick-Anderson, who after being Britain’s top female alpine racer for 15 years now passes on her knowledge to other skiers.
Snoworks also runs a large pro training programme, from eight-week gap courses for those wanting to qualify as level one and two instructors, right up to level fours looking to pass the Eurotest – a giant slalom speed test required to work in countries such as France.
The switching between groups extends through the whole Snoworks programme and you can easily find yourself skiing with those taking a pro course.
Two of those with me in Tignes, Alan and Alice, started the week on the race-carve course but were soon invited to stretch themselves with the Eurotesters.
Phil provided the expert and enthusiastic tutelage as we made our (mostly) high-speed turns through the race gates in brilliant sunshine, tweaking our technique and boosting confidence.
I’d started the week skiing a foot of powder with the gap course, which we’ve previously covered in depth on The Snow Guide.
Fresh snow continued to fall as I moved onto one of the all-terrain courses, with several of the gappies also joining in as we worked on skiing all the conditions the Grand Motte glacier could offer us.
That intermingling during the day’s skiing translated into a very sociable atmosphere each evening in our comfortable hotel, the Aiguille Percee, newly refurbished this season and in an ideal position in Tignes Le Lac close to ski-bus stops and lifts.
Mark Warner, which runs the hotel, is a leading partner with Snoworks, allowing the option of complete packages including accommodation and travel – although you can just book a course on its own.
Gappies and ‘regular’ skiers sat together during the filling three-course dinners, swapping jokes, stories, skiing tips and a little of the complementary wine.
Plans for the rest of the season were also shared, with some having already signed up for further courses or trips.
While Tignes is the early and late-season base for Snoworks, many of its courses at the height of the season are also on offer in Courchevel in the Three Valleys.
The company also runs adventure trips to other resorts, from European big-hitters such as St Anton in Austria to more exotic destinations including New Zealand, Chile, Japan and Kashmir.
With so many options available across 15 resorts, there’s something to suit most skiers.
So if you’re up a mountain one day and find you’re stuck on a plateau, Snoworks is waiting to guide you off it.
Phil Smith’s Top Five Ski Tips
- Go open – don’t get trapped in a technique, move and think freely.
- Ski in the now – work with what’s happening to you, too many people try to plan what’s going to happen.
- Connect with the mountain – be in tune with your edges and the snow.
- Control your speed – you must be able to move the snow or the snow will move you.
- Ski like a child – don’t be self-conscious, feel free to experiment and move, don’t worry about making mistakes.