Train Like a Pro in France
An exclusive 36-hour guide to summer camp life at Europe’s largest skiable glacier
How do you get to Les Deux Alpes, France, for summer training?
For me, it began with an email I received while attending World Cup Finals last March at Meribel, where Burke Mountain Academy’s Tory Amorello, the director of admissions and a U16 coach, first delivered the bad news about my summer plans.
After 10-plus years of coaching at several American ski academies, I continue to serve as a guest coach at a few Burke camps each year, one in November in Colorado and another in June that had always been held on the Palmer Glacier. It helps keep my eyes sharp and my brain dialed into the latest technical and tactical trends for junior racers.
“There’s very little snow in Mount Hood,” said Amorello. Record-low conditions meant no access to the lower mile for freeskiing and moderate terrain.
But then came the good news. “We’re thinking of going to Europe instead,” she said.
I told Amorello what I knew from a June camp I’d done in Les Deux Alpes with Killington Mountain School back in 2009: the town’s well-contained and walkable. You have to keep your elbows up in the lift lines, but otherwise it’s awesome — a great cultural experience, and moderate terrain that would be good for skill development and drills.
And that’s how I ended up on a 3.5-hour bus ride with 30 BMA U16, U14, and FIS athletes, along with six coaches, heading from the Geneva Airport to the largest skiable glacier in Europe — Les Deux Alpes, France.
Want to experience summer camp life on the other side of the pond? Here’s what I learned.
Arrive at the Geneva Airport after an overnight flight from North America (and likely a connection or two). If you’re waiting for the rest of your group to arrive on a later flight, grab a short nap on top of a ski bag. I cheated by flying to the Schengen Area a week early and then puddle-jumping down from Oslo. Everyone else was dead tired by the time they cleared customs in Switzerland. Jet lag can be brutal if you don’t force yourself to stay awake for the duration of your arrival day (says the journalist who’s flown 40,000 miles and counting since January).
Check-in to your quaint two-star hotel in a French mountain village. We found our hotel staff to be incredibly accommodating, especially considering the large group of teenagers. Rooms were small, particularly with all the gear ski teams carry, but we were given tuning and storage space in the basement, and the athletes figured out how to make it all work in tight quarters. As a bonus, the athletes’ rooms stayed fairly clean and organized, and nobody lost a passport. Tip: Don’t plug a U.S. power strip rated to 120 volts into a 220-volt European plug using only an adapter. Our coaching staff spent the first night in the hotel rooting out unknowing offenders who were blowing fuses left and right. You need a universal power strip marked 110-240V for travel outside North America.
After a hearty breakfast of croissants, ham, hard-boiled eggs, apples and O.J., walk through town with your skis on one shoulder to line up in the queue for the Jandri Express gondola. Once the athlete line starts moving at 7 a.m., be ready to battle with other ski racers from France, Italy, Spain, Slovakia, Andorra, and beyond who all seem to want to cut you. Stand with your shoulders wide and your poles out to the side, and hold your ground. It’s not that these other kids don’t have manners – they just love to ski that much.
Welcome to the top of the gondola and the world. At 3,600 meters (11,811 feet), you’ll most likely be sucking air. Hydrate. Your coaches, who loaded the gondola from a special line and have already finished setting courses for the day wherever your team’s lane is assigned, are drinking cappuccinos in the lodge awaiting your arrival. Coaches don’t always set the best example; stick to water, at least until you’ve finished growing.
Spend the first hour on skis warming up and working on technical skills. What brings out your best skiing? Take a few runs performing that drill. Slow down your movement patterns, and then speed them up. Experiment with your stance. Whatever you do during your first few runs of the day, try to have some particular focus. That is, unless you’re a classic over-thinker who has specifically been instructed to, “Think about nothing and just feel…” which is, in essence, its own focus.
You’ll notice athletes from other clubs warming up in the public lanes next to the T-bars. Watch what they do. We happened to be there at the same time as the French and Italian women’s World Cup teams, and Slovakian slalom ace Adam Zampa showed up halfway through the camp. It was a rare treat to have access to watching World Cup-caliber skiers during their preparation period.
It’s time to explore the kinds of lifts we don’t have in North America. Both an exterior and interior funicular service the glacier, which means you can ride on a cable railway that goes over the mountain, and another that cuts right through it. The train through the mountain runs the same distance as the lower two T-bars, so it’s a convenient option if the lines get long at the bottom of the glacier.
After warm-up and a mountain exploration, meet up with the team at the bottom of your training lane for a group meeting. Here you’ll find out the focus and goals of the day as well as any unique instructions for the course sets. We ran a lot of drill courses (corridor, apex, stubbies, etc.) that required some explanation before execution.
Sometime during your session, the T-bar might break, as it did for us, for up to 15 minutes or so. Some athletes waited it out, but others were more ambitious and decided to either hike or ski from one of the other available lifts. Either way, don’t let a small lift mishap ruin a great opportunity for training.
After a productive morning on the glacier, reward yourself by schussing through the two ice caves cut underneath the super G lanes toward the gondola. They prevent skiers from interfering with speed training whether it’s set that day or not. Just follow the yellow arrows.
Scavenger hunt en français! Burke brought French teacher Ben Clarke along to lead afternoon language activities, part of the academy’s regular curriculum. A scavenger hunt helped the athletes get to know landmarks in the village and also required them to speak French to locals in order to win the hunt. Additional foreign language exposure occurs on the daily gondola rides to and from the glacier; there’s not much English spoken here. Amorello and I were thrilled to use our Spanish skills (rarely handy in my line of work) during an impromptu gondola ride with a team from Andorra. ¡Ándale! Ten cuidado con su casco cerca de la ventana abierta.
There may be no backdrop more picturesque for your daily dryland sessions than Les Deux Alpes. A core workout on the community tennis courts one day might morph into a beach volleyball game or a round of soccer the next, followed by a dip in the pool or the village lake. The peak of Pied Moutet behind our hotel turned into a popular hiking destination over the course of our two-week stay.
Working on your skiing doesn’t end when you leave the snow for the day. Just before dinner each night, coaches meet with athletes to watch training videos from the day and also highlight runs by World Cup and top domestic skiers. It’s classroom time, so bring a notepad and pencil. Our four-point slalom focus of the camp was on edge control, independent foot movement, pole touch/plant with timing, and a disciplined upper body. By the second video review session, the guys in my group could rattle those off instantly and then begin to breakdown their own clips accordingly.
Much like Jessica Kelley’s low-tech experience at Keely’s Ski Camp for Girls, the Burke athletes were prohibited from bringing computers and tablets to France and had only their phones. With no roaming data plans and limited Wi-Fi access in the hotel, they were severely hampered in their abilities to Instagram, Snapchat, and update Facebook cover photos. What they did discover was the hotel’s pool table, chessboard, and an area outside perfect for socializing and tossing around a rugby ball. Exhausted by the end of the day, you’ll be quick to fall fast asleep while it’s still light out, because the whole routine starts all over again the very next morning.
Should You Do It?
Yes, summer skiing is expensive. And you don’t need to fly to Europe to become a top ski racer. But if you can make the investment, consider an international camp. Airfare aside, our 15-day trip with 10 days of skiing cost individual athletes about the same as six days of skiing at Mt. Hood. One foggy day withstanding, we skied on firm snow under crystal blue skies (without throwing a grain of salt) for three hours nearly every day before the surface softened.
As for the cultural experience this group of (predominantly) American teenagers acquired by traveling to Europe and being surrounded by some of the best ski racers in the world and those who also aspire to one day become champions? Well, that, you could argue, was truly priceless.
The camp was such a success, in fact, that Burke is already planning on returning next June regardless of the snow conditions in Oregon. I only hope they’ll let me tag along again, if only for the crêpes and hero snow.