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Freezing Fraser - Fraser Wilkin, Val d'Isere
Tuesday December 11, 2012 - Email this article to a friend

PlanetSKI reporter, Fraser Wilkin, has just been trying to improve his skiing on a course with Top Ski in Val d'Isere. The conditions were positively Arctic but that did not seem to deter his coach, the legendary Pat Zimmer. Or Fraser.

There are bad weather days in the mountains and then there are really bad weather days.

This one is off the scale.

It's Day 1 of our intensive pre-season ski clinic with Le SKi in Val d'Isère, and it doesn't take long before things get pretty wild.

It isn't so much the temperature that's the problem - although -13°C is hardly tropical - but more the wind.

It's blowing a gale the moment we step out of the gondola and under any other circumstances I would bolt for cover after just one run.

But these aren't just any circumstances, we are on a course, and we are going to stick it out as long as possible.

In the event, this isn't very long.

By lunchtime the wind is gusting to 80km/hr, visibility is nil and you can no longer tell which way is up and which way is down.

In fact you can't even tell if you're moving at times. 

Val d'IsereWeather window













This is one of the strangest and most disconcerting experiences I have ever had on skis, but I don't panic as I know we are in safe hands.

Our instructor, Pat Zimmer is one of the most experienced guides in the Alps and, as the mountain is evacuated, he shepherds us to safety.

Zimmer, 61, is a former downhill racer who went on to work for the ESF after injury curtailed a promising early career.

He quickly became disillusioned with the establishment and in 1976 became the first person to defy the ESF's stranglehold on French ski schools by declaring he was going it alone.

Needless to say the ESF were unimpressed and the matter ended up in the high court.

Zimmer won and in creating Top Ski changed the face of the French ski industry forever. He sold out in 2010 but remains influential - just as Top Ski remains one of the most revered ski schools in the business.

Pat ZimmerPat Zimmer












So, what's his secret?

Zimmer might best be described as a disciplinarian with a twinkle in his eye.

He can be direct and uncompromising but is highly effective and always has the best interests of his clients at heart. He will share a joke at an appropriate moment but is never off guard and is just aloof enough to command total respect.

His style is simple but engaging and he is careful not to overcomplicate matters by introducing too many ideas at the same time.

 "You see Fraser, when you ski, you ski - there is no time to think". By this he means that it is imperative that you have a mental picture of what you will do before starting each run.

If you can visualise how you will start, where you will turn and what rhythm you will adopt, the hard work is already done.

And so, on our second day, the weather eases off just enough to enable us to get up to full speed.

Nothing frustrates Zimmer more than lost time and the morning session is run with military precision. We board the very first Olympic gondola, ski over to Tignes, up the other side and back over to Val.

We then ski the 900m vertical from the top of Bellevarde to La Daille 3 times in a row, until our thighs are burning and we are gasping for breath.

It's not yet 11am.

On each run we are given a little tip, sometimes two, but we never stop for long and much of the theory is done on the lifts.

By the time lunch comes round we are knackered but not defeated.

Quite the opposite in fact.

Val d'IsereA small break in the weather













The Zimmer effect has taken hold and we can't wait to get out for more.

This time the camcorder makes an appearance. Video analysis is an integral part of the Top Ski package and, after skiing, our runs are scrutinised in the more relaxed surroundings of Val d'Isère's Pacific bar.  

The review process is meticulous but never dull and is a great way to better understand where we are going wrong and how we can correct it.  Just 24 hours after our whiteout experience, the entire group has fallen back in love with skiing, testament to Zimmer's extraordinary charisma.

The next morning Val d'Isère wakes to 50cm of fresh snow.

It's our last day and to our intense frustration the mountain is too dangerous to open. Credit to Top Ski though - the instructors still come down to our chalets for a chat over coffee. Later they also join us for lunch. It's all part of the service and strengthens the bond between teacher and client.

Indeed many clients have been coming on this course for years and are treated as friends.

The course's popularity also owes much to the Tour Operator that runs it.

Le Ski is the longest serving specialist chalet operator in the UK and a perfect match for Top Ski, sharing many of the same core values.

Like Top Ski, Le Ski offers a tried and tested, quality product, delivered with the minimum of fuss at sensible prices.

The staff are friendly and motivated, the food is simple but delicious, and unlike many other companies these days, there are no gimmicky extras that incur unnecessary expense.

There are numerous other pre-season ski clinics available these days, but demand for this one is a strong as ever and most people I met had been on it several times before.

If you want to give it a go, you don't have to be an expert but it goes without saying that you do have to be keen. The tuition is intensive and a reasonable level of fitness will go a long way towards getting the most out of the course.

Nobody can promise to transform your skiing overnight but with Top Ski you will notice an improvement.

More importantly you will be left with an excellent grounding on the fundamentals of skiing that will stay with you for life.

Courses begin in early November and can last 3 or 6 days.

Click here for further details. 

Val d'IsereHeavy snow













Val d'IsereHeavier snow













For the spirit of the mountains

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