A university student from London, who took his remote studies to the Alps, has been a lone ranger on the Swiss slopes
Empty slopes, bluebird skies and a professional on tap to make sure you’re skiing your absolute best – it’s the stuff ski holiday dreams are made of and for one lucky Briton, last week, it was reality.
Benedict Wilson, a university law student from London, whose studies have moved online during the pandemic, has taken the opportunity to flee the capital and spend some quality time on the slopes – despite travel bans, lockdowns and quarantines leaving most ski holiday plans in tatters.
“I figured now was a really good time to gear up my skiing and where better than Verbier and Switzerland where the ski resorts are still open,” Ben told The Telegraph.
The 22-year-old travelled to the Swiss Alps in early December and has been there ever since, with no plans to return, yet. The student arrived in Verbier on December 4, before the phrase ‘new variant’ entered our daily lexicon and before the world closed its borders to the UK, forcing Britons abroad into quarantine, including in Switzerland where a retrospective 10-day quarantine was introduced for arrivals after December 14.
Verbier made global headlines at the end of 2020 when reports wrongly emerged of Britons “fleeing” this quarantine. These reports were debunked, but left the resort’s reputation in tatters.
Luckily for Ben, his early arrival meant he was exempt from isolation. “I arrived on December 4 when there was no quarantine in place, so I was fine in that regard, but since then I’ve witnessed the disruption as that’s come through, but luckily avoided it myself,” he said.
So how do you spend your time when you’re one of only a handful of British tourists in a ski resort? You try to become a skiing master, obviously, with the help of the British-run Warren Smith Ski Academy.
Last week, Ben was the Academy’s only client. “It’s totally unique and the first time it’s happened in 25 years,” said Academy founder and internationally-acclaimed ski instructor Warren Smith. The first week of January is typically one of the busiest weeks for the Academy team, with over 50 people on a whole variety of courses.
“It’s been really good to be the lone-ranger in Verbier this week, Warren Smith has really taken care of me. Obviously it’s a shame more people couldn’t be out here this time, but I guess the pros are open pistes and lots and lots of attention via instructing,” said Ben.
It’s a novelty that isn’t lost on the 22-year-old. “There are many benefits to having a ski instructor all to yourself, my learning has been accelerated massively, there’s lots more attention on how to focus my way forward and we can tailor the day around what suits me,” said Ben.
So great is the appeal that Ben has done back-to-back courses with the Academy since his arrival in Verbier over a month ago, during which time he stayed at Hotel Rotonde in Verbier until New Year, before moving onto the MAP guest house more recently – hotels in Switzerland have been allowed to stay open.
“I’ve done a couple of courses with Warren Smith over the period I’ve been here, so I’ve learnt pretty much everything there is to know about skiing,” he said.
“Unfortunately I’m yet to master it [skiing], so we’ve done carving, we’ve done some off piste now the conditions are better, we’ve done some bumps and short turns. It’s been great to experience a variety of instructors too.”
With thousands of ski holiday plans currently in tatters, hordes of keen skiers and snowboarders eager to get out on the mountains, and his friends and fellow students left in the UK to study from their kitchen tables, Ben’s updates from the slopes have fuelled varying reactions from home.
“My friends have reacted with envy, surprise and outrage to me being out here – a whole spectrum of emotion. I think a lot of people have had their normal skiing plans disrupted, so it has been great to come out and I’ve been trying to let my friends live vicariously through me,” he said.
His position out in the Alps makes him one of very few British skiers who have been able to experience skiing during the pandemic this winter, plus all the rules and regulations that come with it.
“It’s quite surreal,” he said, before explaining how the pandemic has forced the focus in ski resorts to shift.
“I think it’s one of those years where you can really take advantage of the resort to actually ski. Verbier has obviously got plenty more to offer than just skiing, but I think this year is a really, really special year to enjoy the empty pistes and good conditions,” said Ben.
This is enough to leave keen skiers and snowboarders drooling with envy, but many are still questioning whether it’s safe to go skiing right now – especially with new clusters of cases being reported in the mountains, in the likes of Jochberg, Austria where a group of Britons training to become ski instructors have tested positive, and Wengen, Switzerland where racers in the Lauberhorn World Cup have gone into isolation after contracting the virus.
“I feel absolutely safe on the slopes,” said Ben. “I’ve been told to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, but I always feel safe,” he added.
This is largely thanks to efforts made by the Warren Smith Ski Academy, who Ben explained “literally adapted over night”.
“When new rules came in from the next morning we were split into groups of four, everyone was wearing masks, the groups were chopped and changed so there was only ever one instructor with students and everyone was always compliant. It was really good and I didn’t really notice an impact on the teaching,” he said.
While clients like Ben continue to have the time of their lives, behind the scenes the Academy is facing challenges like every other business in the ski industry.
“Our Academy is trying it’s best to survive as it’s been doing since March 13, 2020, when resorts were first forced to close,” said Warren Smith.
“It’s been a really tough 10 months for the business, with so much unpredictability. We’ve got a small number of clients keeping us just about going and fingers crossed we get a better end to this winter than the start,” he said.
Businesses in Verbier, like everywhere else in the Alps, are clubbing together to ride out this storm and Smith said he is “holding out hope” that Britons will be welcomed back to the slopes, quarantine free, before the end of the season. “The resort and lift company, Televerbier, have been amazing – everyone is working together out here, being sensible and doing a great job,” he said.