Nicholas Skinner

Freelance website and web application developer

Archive for October, 2010

Review: Warren Smith Ski Course, Saas-Fee, Switzerland

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

View of Ski RunI recently went on week 9 of the Warren Smith ski course (11th – 18th September) run from Saas-Fee, Switzerland. This was the last week on the summer 2010 programme (Winter programme run from Verbier, Switzerland starts in November).

I choose the course after researching a few options on the internet and advice from my local dry ski slope. I was also considering the Snow Works course (also highly recommended form my local dry slope instructor), which on a few weeks is run from the Chalethotel Tarentaise, Meribel Mottaret, France I stayed in previously however in the end the timing for the Warren Smith course worked out better and also the Snow Works courses seemed to be aimed at a slightly higher level of skier.

Hotel

View from HotelThe course recommends you stay in the Hotel Du Glacier which we did. The initial booking process was not particularly straight forward due to not speaking fluent German / French (Saas-Fee is a primarily German speaking area of Switzerland) however we eventually managed to communicate our requirements and book a room. Apart from the initial booking issues the hotel was very nice, with modern rooms and facilities including a fridge, flat screen TV, DVD player and Wi-Fi Internet access (although I used a 3G connection rather than the Wi-Fi). The staff were all very friendly and helpful.

Hotel Gacier MenuThe hotel was half board, with breakfast provided in the mornings (various options available including, cereal, bread croissants, bacon/eggs) and dinner in the evenings where we would all eat as a group. The dinner menu was not entirely to my taste every night however luckily it was usually a buffet meaning you could pick and choose what you liked the look of.

Travel

Swiss TrainWe initially chose a Swiss Airlines flight to Geneva, and the coach service booked with the course (£45 each way) since it seemed like the simple option. However the coach ended up getting cancelled a week before, therefore in the end we booked on the train from Geneva to Visp, and a bus transfer from Visp to Saas-Fee.

The train turned out to be a good option (we would have otherwise had to wait around in the airport for the coach after having booked at early flight). It was slightly crowded on the outbound journey (not ideal when there is already limited space if you are carrying your luggage) / prefer to stretch your legs but on the return journey it was not as busy leading to a more pleasant trip.

Bus Ticket (Small)Tickets for the bus/train (leaving every 20-30 minutes) including return journey can be purchased at the same time directly in the airport. The train station is under the terminal. When reaching Visp the bus station is just outside the station exit. The buses have electronic signs that read out the name of the upcoming stop although the signs did not seem 100% reliable and sometimes were a bit slow (meaning you could miss your stop if you do not press the ‘request to stop’ button in time). Saas-Fee however (where the bus pulls into the garage) is the last stop on the line meaning its easy to know when to get off. Not knowing this at the time however we did nearly get off one stop too early (the location of the Hotel on Google maps which I had programmed into my GPS, and was checking at the time was incorrectly positioned), luckily however the upcoming stop sign on the bus malfunctioned at the same time meaning we missed pressing the button. The hotel is a fairly short mostly downhill walk from the bus station. Going to the hotel we did not hire a taxi, on the return journey however we shared one with some other hotel guests, and I would suggest it is almost required since otherwise carrying heavy bags up the hill to the bus stop could prove quite tiring. The return taxi was free (I assume there was some kind of arrangement with the hotel for guests on the last day).

View from TrainIn terms of the flights the Swiss flight was certainly very pleasant with croissants, chocolates, and tea/coffee all being offered, along with a reasonable amount of leg room. There was also allocated seating allowing you to pick online a day or so beforehand without additional cost – they send you an email). Swiss allow you to travel with certain sports equipment (including ski boots) for free.

For the return flight we chose Easy Jet the main reason for this was since the flight times matched up better with the time of the coach (had it not been cancelled) and the destination airport was more convenient, however the flight was not that pleasant, and I am fairly sure had less leg room than Swiss Air.

Overall the journey was much easier than expected, however if traveling again we would likely consider taking the train from London and avoiding the airport waiting times entirely.

Course

Ski Run LiftsThe course started everyday outside the hotel, where we would meet as a group then walk to the first gondola lift station (Alpin Express), there is then a quick change to another gondola, and finally a change to the Metro Alpin subway to get to the top of the glacier. I did not time it precisely however in all it seemed to take around 40 minutes or so. My guess is that most people booking a summer course may be aware of this somewhat long trek required every day and expecting it however it was not something I was aware of, and not something mentioned on the Warren Smith website. In terms of the journey itself, if you are lucky you could get a seat on the two gondolas otherwise you were left standing which at the start of 4 hours skiing, or at the end of it was not particularly idea. To avoid this it is worth considering leaving the hotel earlier and making your own way up when there is not so much competition for the gondolas from the young racers practicing Slalom.

The first day we were led in groups to the warm up area, however after that we were mainly left to find our own way therefore you need to make sure you pay attention so as not to get lost (although its a fairly small area so you are unlikely to get too lost). The initial run to get down to the wamup area took a few of us slightly by surprise as it was fairly steep. After the warm up we were split into groups based on ability. In general the level of skiing seemed quite high which was fortunate for those in the lower group such as myself as there was only 4 students to one instructor most days (rather than the standard of 8).

Mountain ViewWe initially started practicing a few drills on the mountain, including zero speed turns, where we would all have go at the same time with the instructor watching, and giving advise where needed. From there we moved into some general practice around the mountain. The following days were similar, sometimes we would ski one after the other following the instructor practicing our technique, sometimes he would ski down and watch us one by one and we would then all go back to the lift, and then other times he would stay put on the mountain while we individually went up on the lift, and back down with him watching and giving advise on every run.

At the end of the days session we would ski back to the lift station to get back down the mountain however this required a bit of skill since to avoid walking a fair amount of speed is required, however you also need to negotiate crossing the path of two lifts as the same time.

Mountain Dynamics Track Logs

[Download: GPX Track Logs]

View from TownAfter getting back to the hotel for the first few days there was a group “cool down” / stretching session, however then later on in the week you were left to do it yourself, having been previously shown the exercises.

We were lucky in that part way through the week there was fresh snow giving an opportunity to both practice what we had already learnt under more challenging conditions, and learn new techniques. In general the weather held up well with sunshine / reasonably visibility most days apart from the last when there was heavy cloud cover in places. Due to the weather the rest day (which was meant to be Wednesday) was moved to Monday however that meant we skied for all 5 days of the course.

On two evenings there was video analysis in the hotel bar area via the use of a projector. During this time the instructors talked through each group members skiing providing feedback and pausing / playing the video in slow motion to assist in showing both good and bad technique. I found this quite helpful. After the last video analysis session scores in terms of rotation of the lower body / legs were also taken, presumably for future reference / comparison.

Ski Area

Ski Run CloudsIn terms of area in general, compared to the 3 Vallees area I have been to before it seemed very small with as far as I was aware only 2 or 3 T-Bar lifts. If I had come on a holiday as opposed to a course I think I would have been slightly disappointed but for the course it seemed perfectly adequate. I initially found the T-bar lifts slightly challenging, previously only having experience on button / chair lifts however after 2-3 days I became more confident on them.

Unfortunately on the last day someone accidently took my backpack (backpacks are generally left at the bottom of one of the two lift stations), however it was later handed back in at my hotel since it contained the hotel room key. I would therefore suggest putting some distinguishing mark on yours if it is a fairly command brand.

Internet Access

Not knowing how reliable the hotel wireless Internet would be, or if it would be available in room, I looked into other options, mainly 3G. Based on past experience of 3G internet in foreign countries it seems to general be very reliable and fast, even on the mountain where it would be better than in the UK / London.

MarmotsVodafone used to be the only UK based carrier that offered reasonably priced Internet in foreign European counties (i.e. not £1-3 per megabyte), however they have since discontinued this rate. This therefore left the only option as picking up a local SIM. Unfortunately however due to Swiss laws it is not possible to buy a Swiss SIM card (or at least an activated one) online, therefore this means a visit to an actual SIM card supplier.

Saas-Fee itself does not have any Swisscom shops / resellers however there are a few around Geneve airport, including “La Poste Suisse” located in the terminal. Geneve airport is quite big therefore finding it took some time, however after going in the wrong direction we noticed overhead signs for “La Poste Suisse”. After finding the shop, actually purchasing the cards (one for my iPhone, and one for my laptop) took around 10-15 minutes (they need to copy various details from your passport, it my case twice), but they did allow you to instantly topup.

I chose the “NATEL easy liberty uno” SIM card option allowing for data access at a fixed rate of CHF 5.00 per day, and calls at CHF 0.80 per hour. Another option is “NATEL easy BeFree” at CHF 4.00 for data per day but with calls charged at CHF 3.00 per day, and CHF 1.00 per day for SMS/MMS.

The cost of SIM cards themselves are CHF 19.00 but that includes CHF 20 of free credit.

View of MountainsA further complication was that both cards came PIN protected and the instructions were only in French and German, I eventually managed to work out that the PIN numbers were on the back of the credit cards supplied where the SIM themselves pop out from, and after getting access to the SIM I deactivated the PIN feature of both on my iPhone via “Settings” > “Phone” > “SIM PIN”.

After the PIN was entered I received an iPhone settings “Profile” from Swisscom that automatically configured the APN/Username/Password for accessing the data network. I could have likely just purchased a single SIM card and used tethering on my phone (the option for which appeared to be enabled with Swisscom), however as I had already purchased two cards I just used both.

It is worth mentioning that Skype over 3G seemed to work very well on the iPhone, much better than when I have tried to use it in the UK.

To check your Swisscom balance call *130# To topup online go to https://www.swisscom-mobile.ch/scm/prv_eigenes_guthaben_aufladen-en.aspx (if you run out of credit the the 3G will still connect, just nothing will work).

Other options to consider are XCom Global (Engadget Review), Orange, and Sunrise.

If you have a new iPhone 4 you may need to purchase a SIM cutter since the SIMs provided by Swisscom are the standard rather than the micro size.

Afternoon Activities

Due to being somewhat tired after 4 hours skiing and not having things planned out as well as we could have, we missed out on a few of the activities that we would have liked to have done. We did however do the Hanning to Saas-Fee scooter trail (closest of the 3 available), Feeblitz (Absolute Informative, YouTube) rollercoaster toboggan run, Mini Golf, and Golf Driving Range.

When renting the scooters I was not thrilled that my passport would be taken (presumably as insurance against damage to the equipment) however luckily I happened to have it on me, and it was returned promptly at the bottom when we finished. At the end of the scooter trail however you should be prepared for a bit of a walk uphill back to the bottom lift station.



EveryTrail: Hannig – Saas-Fee Scooter Trail, Switzerland

Other activities on offer include:

Procedural Notes

  • From what I had read online beforehand someone from the academy team was meant to take us as a group to Intersport on the day of arrival for Ski hire however in the end this did not happen and we ended up making our own way there before they closed.
  • The ski hire shop will need to know the type of skis you need (we showed them the level description from the Warren Smith website).
  • Need to purchase a sandwich / water when you get there for the following days lunch before shops close. There are two supermarkets within a few meters of the hotel.
  • The trains have blinds on the windows that you can pull down if it is too hot.
  • The electronic vehicles have a tendency to creep up on you from behind therefore you need to watch this when walking around the town.
  • On the return flight if you have a fairly recent passport with a special symbol on the front (as shown on signs at the airport) you can skip the long customs line by looking into a machine which does facial recognition.
  • If you have an iPhone I would recommend downloading the SBB Mobile iPhone app that allows you to see bus and train timetables from Geneva to Saas-Fee. It also allows you to purchase tickets (however only one if you only have one iPhone) but this was not something I tested.
  • We purchased insurance with the Ski Club of Great Britain.
  • Prior to departing I compiled, and loaded onto my GPS a list of useful POIs, including Hotel du Glacier (later corrected), local tourist offices, the bus stops, and gondola lift stations (top and bottoms). [Download: GPS POIs]

Overall

View down on Saas-FeeOverall I am very glad I went on the course and definitely felt like I learnt a lot, especially in terms of knowing the right techniques to use, and being more confident handling skiing different conditions, although I still have a lot to learn. I am considering going on another course although am debating if it will be another summer course or a winter one. If you are mainly interested in skiing then I would suggest going with the winter course however if you are interested in other activities such as mountain biking, scooter trails, ziplines (Adventure Forest) the summer course is almost two holidays in one with skiing in the morning and everything else in the afternoon – but if you are going to take advantage of this you need to be prepared for quite a tiring day, and be well organised to book activities / know where you are going before they close.

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