Bracing against a gale, skis wedged into the peak, Emma teeters high atop a convex couloir. So steep she can’t see over the edge, so long she can’t see the bottom – Emma has a serious case of the willies.
Her mouth is dry, her pupils are dilated, her heart is pounding double time. She’s got the strength and she knows she has the skills. But her head is getting in the way. It’s a long way down.
Naturally, she jumped in, nailed it and brought a good lesson home. The fact that Emma Cairns is a BASI Level 4 examiner and among the best skiers in Verbier didn’t make a hoot of difference. We all suffer crises of confidence. Especially women.
“It's good to feel how your clients sometimes feel,” says Emma, a Glenshee-Dundee transplant who’s been in Verbier 12 years. She started Element Concept in 2015, offering private lessons, off-piste guiding, and instructor training from only Level 3 and 4 coaches. While that couloir may have been beyond the reach of the six participants in our five-day Verbier women’s camp, it’s obvious she knows where each of us is coming from.
I’m taking part in a five-day Intro to Off-Piste, one of several women’s courses offered by Element. Based on the understanding that women learn differently and have specific physiques, a women-only group lets us focus on both psychological and physiological needs without the distraction of mansplaining menfolk.
The approach is collaborative: no ski-offs, competitive tactics or macho manoeuvring. Participants are welcome to mix into other groups. (There are two running concurrently during this particular week in February.)
“First we practise the skills on easy slopes, then we transfer them to powder,” Emma explains. “When it gets tough we can rely on the skills we've been practising on piste and on gentler slopes.”
Before we hit the hill, we have head work to do. Along with a nutrition seminar and yoga class, the course includes two life coaching sessions which aim to help us break the mould of confidence-killing thoughts. Over morning coffee, Elaine France, founder of Women Who Move Mountains, encourages us to trust ourselves, trust our skills, and not be afraid of failure. “You don't need approval,” Elaine reminds us. “Emma will give feedback – and no, feedback doesn't mean you're doing it wrong.”
After the session, we ride the Medran gondola up into the sunshine. I ask Ladan, a young London professional, how she felt about life coaching. “This is how the cults begin,” she jokes. “I used to hate the yoga speak, then one day it just clicked and I was one of them."
Aged from thirties to fifties, everyone in the group is accomplished in their fields, mostly finance, either British or American. After several runs with Emma breaking down our turns into specific elements and learning about the mechanics of “spreading the butter” to turn the feet and pressure the edges, we are all making strides.
The group is fairly matched, variously displaying the greatest hits of women’s obstacles to advancement on skis. Along with Tiffany, a fun Californian in the thong business, I share two of the most common – a convex spine and a dose of knock knees.
“There are three main physiological differences with women: core, pelvis and spine,” Emma explains. “We naturally pronate, putting strain on ligaments. We have less core muscle mass. And we ski with a hollow in the back, so we need to slightly round the back and tuck the tailbone.”
With Emma’s articulate, positive analysis we watch ourselves in a private video room in the afternoon, focussed on tucking tails, rounding bodies and engaging cores.
Over the days, confidence grows and Verbier’s famous powder doesn’t disappoint either. After transceiver checks and before launching (or stepping gingerly) into boot-top powder just off the piste above La Chaux, Emma reminds us to take five seconds at the start of every run, like World Cup racers, to focus.
Leaping off our own personal couloirs into virgin-snow territory, we lap up the freedom of the off piste – each linked turn its own tiny triumph of technique and trust. Some snake beautifully, some achieve giant GS arcs. I veer hard left away from the group for the prime powder – strictly in the interests of testing my new self-empowered life-coached self, you understand.
At the bottom, we regroup for high fives, hugs and laughter. “That was my first time,” Ladan exclaims with joyful excitement. “I straight-lined into a hole and launched onto my face. It was nice!”
Obviously pleased with our progress – full marks for enthusiasm, too – Emma declares us all winners. “The journey doesn’t happen in one run. If it feels different, you will have changed something.” Mission accomplished.
Need to know
A two-day weekend women’s camp with Element Concept including ski coaching and two life-coaching sessions costs CHF 350. Remaining dates this season are February 24 to 25, and March 10 to 11. Five-day courses are CHF 750. Nightly rates for a double room at the Hotel Montpelier start from CHF 365 and at the Hotel Nevai from CHF 495.
Other female-focussed courses
Women-only ski training in Méribel
These clinics are run in small groups of three to six women, with a focus on building confidence on terrain that suits you. Coaches will identify strengths and weaknesses, working on key areas with a mixture of technical and psychological exercises.
A three-day camp, three hours a day (9am to 12 noon or 1pm to 4pm) with TDC ski is €250pp for three days, three hours per da . The next course is from February 26 2018.
North Face women’s ski weekends in Whistler
Running on Saturdays and Sundays, these two-day coaching sessions cover the ski area’s two mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, with the aim of building skills and confidence on all terrain and in all conditions. The programme includes a private après get-together after you’ve finished on the slopes for the day – perfect for some more female bonding.
Price is C$379 per person, or C$567 including lift pass (discounts available for advance booking), adults over 19 only. Remaining dates this season are March 3-4 and March 24-25. Further details from Whistler Blackcomb.