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the canyons ski holidays

It's February 2008, I'm lying on my back on the cold slush of Val D'Isere's nursery slope in the sleeting drizzle coming from flat grey skies, my Italian instructor is receding into the distance glued to my wife's shapely derriere and it's fair to say that I hate skiing more than I ever thought would be possible.

Rewind a couple of months. Mrs D, who has been on one skiing holiday with the girls and loves the sport is using every persuasive gambit (nagging?) to get me to give it a go too. "The kids would love it, being outside all day together, beautiful scenery' etc. etc. The only problems are that as a lifelong scuba diver with a fear of heights, mild agoraphobia and the balancing skills of an inverted cone I have never had even the tiniest desire to slide down a mountain at warp snot risking terrible injury merely to repeat ad nauseam until something gives. Co incidentally however she knows a group who are looking for another family to complete their party going to Val in the half term after Christmas and oh couldn't we do it just this once if only for the kids?

Clean bowled, middle stump so the next months pass with trips to buy strange lumpen clothing and assorted underwear more suited to John Wayne in True Grit and then there we are, two adults with three kids aged four, six and eight going to the Chalet Hotel of a well known family ski operator in the aforementioned resort. The flight to Chambery goes smoothly but then we wait for three hours for another delayed flight to arrive and complete the coach load travelling on to the mountains. Great fun in cold rain with ever helpful French bus drivers refusing to allow anyone to board until the entire coach load are all present and correct.

On arrival in resort we find that the 'hotel' is half way down the main street, up a narrow alley between two industrial looking units and smells rather strongly of dead, damp dog. Having booked ski hire in advance from the UK and having taken no advice we arrive at the hire shop where we are shouted at, told that the gear we are given is the gear we are getting, despite it having no resemblance to the stuff we ordered online and sent stumbling out for the last pain free ambulatory experience we are to have for the next seven days. Things deteriorate further when one of the party has to leave urgently for the UK as the result of a family emergency leaving his wife and kids behind without a credit card. As any decent person would do I offer to sub the remaining family members for their ski passes the next day and in so doing the lift ticket office ' mistakenly' overcharges me by some €400.00. An immediate return to the desk results in Gallic shrugs, refusal to refund and an order to return the next day.

The following morning, madness ensues getting three kids ready for their first ESF lesson whilst trying to sort out a whole host of unfamiliar kit and gear. My son point blank refuses to walk in ski boots and so yours truly carries him the half mile along slushy, slippery streets to the meeting point in footwear that feels like red hot nails are being driven into the heads of both little toes. Then back to the lift office to be told that although the guy I bought the tickets from isn't there that they've checked his box and have indeed found that he is some €400.00 over. Still no refund though until they've had a chance to talk to him and ask for an explanation. And so to meet with the instructor that my wife and I have hired through the ski hire shop.

'Marco' is Italian. It may be typecasting but on meeting the two of us I cease to exist as a human being whilst my rather lovely wife becomes the centre of his world. Nothing is too much trouble for M. where Mrs D is concerned whilst I seem to be relegated to a rather Baldric like role of carrying gear, buying coffee and generally getting in the way. I can honestly say that in the five half day 'lessons' we have that I receive about five minutes of instruction on how to put a ski on and how to get on a button lift. As I seem to have a natural talent for falling over and looking like an idiot my lessons in this direction go no further than an occasional irritated bellow of 'Why can't you ski? Watch me! I used to be on the Italian ski team, it's easy!'

Anything other than a simple green, ie. one single run, terrifies me and no one seems to care. Daily visits to try and reclaim my stolen money eventually lead to a phone call with the 'All France Manager' who assures me that if I shut up, leave my bank details and just go home then not only will I receive a full refund but will also get a fabulous free gift. On polite refusal of this offer I am treated to a stream of invective questioning my morals and asking in loud, hurt tones as to why I don't trust her. Only on finally losing my temper and threatening to involve the local gendarmerie am I given the opportunity to walk a mile cross country to a very secluded office to receive a full refund of my stolen money. No apology, no help, no nothing.

The trip home passes with only minor vomiting from the kids and a few hours delay at Chambery but seems like heaven as at last it's all over, leaving me with only one thought. I am never ever doing this stupid thing ever again. Ever. At least my only injury is an inability to walk without severe pain despite having requested different boots on two occasions only to be told there was nothing wrong with the ones I had.

But life's never that simple is it? Our eldest daughter has fallen in love with this form of mountain idiocy. The next year I steadfastly refuse to go again but in 2010 it's her 'double digit' and she's hinting strongly that it would be oh so special to go skiing again. What parent can resist or maintain their sanity in the face of a ten year old's doe y eyed pleading so this time I try to learn from my previous errors.

1) Resort Choice. When you haven't a clue, read around and find a good beginners resort. As we all know (now) Val D'Isere just isn't this. So having invested some time in a bit of research we plumped for Breckenridge. High yes but with seemingly hundreds of long, wide, slopes that graduate from the virtually horizontal to the almost vertical in easy, manageable graduations allowing a smooth progress and the ability to chose a gradient without being relegated to a 'nursery'

2) Accommodation. Again look and ask. In this case the Beaver Run Resort: a ski in ski out condo hotel within easy walking distance from the town, right next to the lifts with a free shuttle to the shops allowing the flexibility to buy food and eat in, eat in the hotel or walk to town for food before calling the shuttle for a lift home.

3) Travel agency. Don't rely on others or try to D.I.Y., spend your time instead finding a specialist agent with contacts and advice who can arrange everything for you at prices better than you can arrange piecemeal online. In our case 'Select Ski' who came in with the best price, good local knowledge and an endless supply of friendly patience whilst arranging every facet of the trip from flights, transfers, hotel, lift tickets and ski hire to lessons and a 'grocery pack, in the fridge on arrival.

4) Instruction. I gained knowledge, confidence and enjoyment from hiring an older, English speaking instructor who took the whole family for entire days worth of lessons. You all stay together, you all have fun and you all learn faster than splitting up and joining large groups of strangers. Although the bottom line price may be bigger the total isn't much more than buying five slots in five group lessons and you all stay and play together.

5) Kit. It's worth looking at what there is out there and perhaps buying things that are a little more expensive but a lot more comfortable and , dare I say it, stylish. Looking better and feeling better actually help to beat the ' beginner blues'

6) Ski/boot hire. I really regret not buying my own boots even for a first trip. A decent pair cost little more than twice a hire charge and there are many outlets who will actually take them back off you and refund your money minus an equivalent hire charge if they're no good for you. Also with a good fitter, the investment of a half a day and the ability to clump around the house before you go will give you a good fitting, comfortable boot with a proper custom insole that will last for a good few seasons and not ruin your feet. I only know now that some hire shops will give you too large a pair so that you feel comfortable in the shop, but be useless on the slopes, simply to move you on fast. As for skis I'd plump for a 'demo' option even as a beginner. Only when I was pointed in this way did I appreciate how a really good pro will swap, tune and rejig skis until you get a pair that work for you, and oh what a difference it makes to performance and enjoyment, even as a skiing newbie.

Admittedly huge snowfall, fresh powdery pistes, lift queues that were never more than five minutes, sunny days, plentiful on mountain food that didn't cause angina looking at the price and lift guys who actually helped you on and off rather than driving the following chair over your unprotected head when you'd fallen on dismount (yes this did actually happen to me in France) all helped but this is yet again a feature of resort choice and customer demographic. I'll never forget the thousands of wasted pounds spent on a poorly planned, badly researched holiday that almost put me off for life.

Thankfully doing it right the second time put me on the track I should have taken first off and I am now hooked. A sport that allows as little or as much outdoor exercise as you want, new countries to discover and a whole world of shiny bits of kit (once a scuba diver always a scuba diver) can't be all bad and is in fact really quite good.