It is one of the most annoying experiences you can have on a wintery slope. There you are, just getting your balance on a powder-perfect blue or red mountain run, settling yourself into your skis and preparing for a long run down a mountain. Then, suddenly… Whoosh: a column of helmet-wearing synchronised mini European ski ninjas zip past you in tight formation, close enough to make you lose your footing and your confidence, before they rocket off into the distance. The kids’ Alpine ski school is an infuriating phenomenon created by the French government (I suspect) to make us Brits feel like we don’t belong on the slopes. A reminder that we might have decent restaurants, eat goat’s cheese and drink good wine, but the mountains will always be theirs from birth.
But don’t be defeated. We can’t beat them, but we all know what we have to do: we need to get our littlers to start skiing early, and get them practising alongside the little French tots in the ski schools. Friends thought we were mad to do exactly that last winter. ‘Skiing’s not cheap,’ said one, ‘why risk coughing up for a trip that kids might not enjoy?’ But children love snow. They adore seeing it, throwing it, and being on it. If you start them early enough, before they can fully work their legs into a normal run away from the slopes, the thrill of sliding down a hill is so intense they could become addicted.
Our lad Jake was just three years old when we first took him skiing. We layered him like a Michelin man to avoid the cold, then set him loose. He stepped out tentatively at first, then quickly began to love the feeling of movement. But we were careful about where we picked. Saint-Véran in the French Alps was high enough to have plenty of great snow, and we made sure we found a hotel with a warm pool to enjoy before and after the slopes. You can swim through a plastic curtain at the L’Alta Peyra Hotel and into a section outdoors among the mountains. It was breathtakingly chilly, but visually spectacular. Everyone loved it.
On day two, we sent him off to school. The grizzled French ski instructors tasked with training 15 toddlers and under-10s looked like they’d drawn the short straw, or been given a punishment duty. But their gruff approach worked well. Kids didn’t get much of a chance to complain or whinge. Gravity was also rather useful. A gentle tap and the littlers were moving downhill, then sliding, and then, within just a couple of hours, skiing. I was astonished at how quickly my tiny complete beginner was able to control himself, turn, and stop.
The advantage of putting them into school is that they get to try it out in safety, of course, but also that parents can zip off and do a couple of runs, if you’re happy to leave them. Another great joy of the school for me, if I’m honest, was watching Jake zip past a couple of local French children who weren’t quite so sturdy or confident on the powder.
So, give it a go with your clan. After all, despite what those little ski ninjas might have you believe, the mountains belong to us all.
Simon Reeve has travelled extensively in more than 120 countries and presented multiple award-winning BBC TV series, including Australia, Sacred Rivers, Tropic Of Cancer and Indian Ocean. His last series was Caribbean. simonreeve.co.uk