Ski instructing on Alpe d’Huez

Stuart Forster interviews Christian Jacques about ski instructing on Alpe d’Huez, France.

Christian Jacques is an École du Ski Français (ESF) ski instructor working in the Alpe d’Huez grande domain Ski. Last week I spent time with the 57-year-old, who’s in his 38th season as an instructor, exploring the 250km network of pistes in the French resort.

Impressed by Christian’s knowledge of the mountain I interviewed him to find out more about his job, which many people see as a dream occupation, and to learn what he thinks of the resort.

SF: How do people qualify as ski instructors here in France?  

CJ: It takes about four to five years if you get all the exams on the first time you go. So, if you start at 18, at 22 or 23 you are a moniteur national (qualified instructor) and can teach everywhere in France and the world too.

There’s a lot of skiing technique, then comes the teaching, the pedagogy. We also do rescue and geology. This is very important when you want to serve people; you need to know everything about the mountains.

It’s important to know the stories of the mountains too. There’s a lot and people wait for that…it’s good to know the first lift was here in 1936, before the last war. We say la montagne respirer, ‘the mountain breathes,’ and you are part of that.

A lot of exchange of knowledge goes on between the guides. When you are a young ski teacher you come out of school and normally have an older teacher so you learn things like when the conditions and snow are changing and on what side it’s good to go at what time. It is lots of little things but very important for customers when you take them on the slopes to ski in comfort. It’s very important to offer the best. We try!

SF: How often do you ski during the season?

CJ: Every day. Even when I don’t work I go for my own pleasures or to see places…it is important for you to know the conditions when out with good skiers, so you try always to inform yourself about the conditions in high altitude and off-piste, but for the pleasure too. We share those moments together because it’s a way of life and, in this life, that’s what we love.

SF: Do you only ski with experienced skiers?

CJ: We take beginners and very good skiers, off-piste skiers and competition training. We do a bit of everything which is good.

When you go from a beginner group to good skiers and intermediates, and change, it is perfect. You also get a lot from beginners because they learn very quickly in a week; they do a massive improvement compared to the good skiers. It’s a different pleasure. It’s good to change.

SF: How is off-piste skiing regarded here in France?

CJ: Well, it’s very popular since we had those free-ride competitions. Every time you get 30 centimetres of fresh powder we get new tracks everywhere.

In France it’s quite free. We consider that the mountains belong to anyone and you can do what you want, so long as you know what you are doing. You need a good knowledge of the conditions and the mountains; it’s very important. If you don’t, it’s not necessary to go; it’s too dangerous. Every year there are lots of accidents like that…If you don’t know, you go with somebody who does; a guide or a ski teacher. It’s very important.

The mountain is a bit like the sea, you know no pardon. If you make a big mistake you can finish there. It is very important you know what to do at the right time of the day.

SF: What do you like about the Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine Ski?

CJ: I’ve done many, many different resorts in my life and finally I decided to stay here because the conditions are fantastic for teaching. If the conditions are fantastic for teaching they are good for people.

As you can see, all the green slopes are at the bottom. You get maybe 20 different slopes on the first level and then you go a bit higher and get the reds and the blues. Further up you get the blacks. People who are skiing on their own make fewer mistakes like that.

I think it’s a very good area for learning. You get a bit of everything. In a short moment, you can go from one sector to another which is completely different.

SF: Which are your favourite pistes?

CJ: Sarenne offers a big wild area at the back of La Grande Rousse, on the east face. You get nothing there except you and nature. You get a 14km run just for the pleasure. It’s black but it’s groomed by the piste basher every night and you get excellent conditions each morning. Sure, if you do it in the afternoon that can be a bit moguly. But every day it’s well prepared and it’s a kind of dream. It’s black but a very easy black. If you are a good parallel skier you can do it easily.

The Tunnel is a real black. It’s steep and can be moguly. It’s difficult but always a fantastic run for good skiers.

Alpe d’Huez grand domaine ski information

The 4-star Hotel Chamois d’Or offers seven-night stays on a half-board basis, including dinner, accommodation, breakfast and free access to the spa, which has a 5x10m indoor swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, hammam and a sauna. The Pierre et Vacances website has information about self-catering options in Alpe d’Huez and throughout France.

For more information on lessons in Alpe d’Huez visit the ESF Alpe d’Huez website.

See the Alpe d’Huez Grand Domaine Ski website for information about acquiring a ski pass.

Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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The Sarenne piste at Alpe d'Huez, France. Photo by Stuart Forster.
The Sarenne piste at Alpe d’Huez, France.

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