Subscribe now to our new Travel newsletter!
Geneva - I never learnt to ski. As a child my family went on holiday to Wales or Cornwall, not St Anton or Val d'Isère. But I've always wanted to give it a try. The idea of soaring down all those white-clad mountains, making swooping turns with an effortless shimmy was appealing enough; the notion that you could combine it with the heady world of après-ski sealed the deal.
The problem, however, was that by my late twenties - when I could actually begin to afford it - most of my friends could already ski, and ski very well. Each year a group of them would head off to the slopes and come back with helmet-camera videos showing just how rapidly they could rattle down deadly black run after black run. If I joined them, I thought, I'd never be able to keep up. Every evening would surely be spent with me gazing forlornly at a glass of vin chaud, while listening to their tales of derring-do.
All this was on my mind as I awkwardly strapped on my ski boots at the cable-car station in Morzine in the French Alps, about two hours from Geneva airport. I was here to join the You Can Ski programme, a three- or six-day course with ESF ski school, which includes a lift pass, daily small-group tuition and all your equipment hire. I'd joined a group of four other adult first-timers, and the idea was that next time round I'd be ready to join my red-run friends.
I soon discovered the biggest problem with skiing for the first time was getting the kit on. I'd been prepared to be cold and frustrated, but I hadn't readied myself for the hell of putting on ski boots, or lugging around unwieldy skis. Thankfully Pleney Sports, the ski-hire shop that You Can Ski uses, was only a few metres from the télécabine that climbs up to the nursery slopes and gentle green and blue runs above Morzine.
You Can Ski is aimed at beginners in their twenties and thirties, but it was soon clear that two of my companions were actually using it as a top-up for their skills. So while I struggled to click into my skis, they were already gliding over to Paul, our instructor. I wobbled across in my cumbersome kit as troops of tots slid by with ease. “Have any of you skied before?” asked Paul. Thankfully my fellow pupils admitted they had, so our group was split, and I was left with Paul and two other beginners. One of these, Graeme, told me his Finnish wife was so professional that he was very keen to master the sport. He explained this between yelps as he lost his balance, flailed backwards and knocked me sideways with his skis.
So, the first fall of the trip was ticked off - and it hadn't been mine.
Day one started gently on the nursery slopes as Paul guided us through putting on our skis, moving forward, walking down inclines, mounting the ski elevator and mastering the “snowplough” (the basic stance in which you form an A-shape with your skis to control your speed). It was hard work, but I wasn't doing as badly as Graeme. After a morning of this (and some reasonably successful runs down a gentle training piste), the “advanced” group swished in. “Do you fancy a tame blue run?” they asked. I looked to Paul, and he gave me gruff acknowledgement: “Yes, of course. You can try.” His choice of words concerned me, but I agreed and gingerly headed off the nursery slopes.
Things quickly started to go wrong outside the safety net of Paul's tuition. I gained speed too fast and found myself leaning backwards (“Your first mistake,” muttered Paul the next day) down a slope far steeper than I was ready for. The result was inevitable. I wiped out sideways, clattering into an advertising hoarding. Nothing was broken, though, and I eventually overcame my embarrassment and made my way back to the nursery slopes.
Morzine is a pretty little town, with picturesque chalets and bars. Most importantly it has plenty of gentle green and blue runs for beginners. I was staying just outside the centre at the ice-covered Hôtel Fleur des Neiges. It had just the right combination of rustic charm and family comfort, plus a packed bar and a roaring fire.
After a night's rest, my calves were still rather sore. However, aside from a slightly wobbly head from too much wine and cheese at La Chaudanne (the best restaurant in town for a relaxed après-ski meal), I was ready to go. Graeme volunteered to be left behind for a short while so that Paul could take me and another “intermediate skier” (as we'd very charitably become known by the advanced pair in our group) down a gentle run. He was stern but patient and I was surprised with how easily he got me down.
The second night formed my biggest après-ski adventure. It began with me launching myself down a red run on a tiny plastic sledge with only a guide, a head torch and a helmet for protection. For just €20 (about R200) we hurtled downhill, stopping halfway at a tipi for a warming drink, before hitting town.
And on my final afternoon I started, just tentatively, to parallel turn down a green run. I'm sure it wasn't elegant, but I was quickly imagining myself rushing downhill stylishly to the theme of Ski Sunday.
For me, three days was not long enough. I felt I'd only scratched the surface. However, the premise of taster courses such as these seems sound. Will I head off with my friends next year? That all depends if they are kind enough to join me on the green runs. At least I now know what's in store for me.
If You Go...
Morzine's nearest rail station is Evian, 30km away. By air, Geneva is served by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com). Transfers to Morzine are available through firms such as Skiidy Gonzales (skiidy gonzales.com; €60/£48 per person).
Jamie Merrill travelled as a guest of the Portes du Soleil Tourism Board which offers You Can Ski packages from €169 for three days or €269 for six. Both include ski pass, group lessons with a qualified instructor, equipment and helmet hire (00 33 4 50 73 32 54; portesdusoleil.com).
Activities including sledging are available from Indiana'Ventures (00 33 4 50 49 48 60; or online at indianaventures.com).
Hôtel Fleur des Neiges (00 33 4 50 79 01 23; hotelfleurdesneiges.com). Doubles start at €92, room only. - The Independent on Sunday