Wednesday 13 November 2019

Taking the Piste: How a beginner learned to ski in three hours

#TravelTV: Tignes Spirit

Mark McConville

Mark McConville had never skied before. After a trip to Tignes and Val Thorens, he can't wait to go again.

Trip of a lifetime, I was told. Best holiday you'll ever have, my friends assured me. Once you go skiing you'll definitely go again, they said.

I'll be honest. I was apprehensive.

I’ve watched all the cool ski stuff, but I've seen the crashes on Youtube too - people skiing off the side of mountains and all that. As you do.

So when I met up with my ski instructor, Francois, in the resort of Tignes - at the heart of the French Alps - I put on a brave face.

Realising I was a complete novice, he didn’t even attempt to get me on a kiddie slope. He took me to the side of a slope - a gradient of about 15 degrees!

It worked wonders for me, because after a few attempts at the snow plough on that tiny slope, I was brought to the top of my first green (note to fellow beginners: ski slopes are graded by colour, from green through blue, red and black, in order of difficulty).

That’s where it happened. My first fall.

Val Thorens, France
Val Thorens, France

Going at the massive speed of around an inch a minute, I managed to get my left ski caught under my right ski and went head over feet.

Picking myself up and dusting the snow off my face, Francois told me to get going again. He pointed out where I went wrong - while skiing effortlessly backwards telling me to follow his skis (easier said than done).

Were the lessons worthwhile?

Absolutely. With ski, there really is no point hitting the slopes without some basic tips. Taking lessons not only hooks you up with instructors, but with a group of similar ability, and they help you to learn the layout of the resorts.

After successfully conquering my first green, I was promoted to blue.

That's when I learned that getting onto the ski lift almost requires a lesson in itself. Slowly, I crept up to the edge before the guys in front got picked up... then waddled forward for the frantic few seconds where you can’t fall before being scooped up off your feet and into the air.

Val Thorens, France
Val Thorens, France
Tignes, France

Nerve-wracking, but the scenery was amazing.

And the blue slope?

To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, but my technique was getting better and instead of Francois picking me up off the ground, he gave me a few claps.

"That’s more like it, Mark!"

After just three hours, I could feel my confidence growing.

Tignes shares France's Espace Killy region with Val d'Isere - together offering some 300km of pistes. Both have great snow cover, and ski for all abilities.

After lunch, beer and a Leffe (my new favourite drink), I took the cable car up to the top of the highest slope. I wasn’t for skiing down it - three hours will only get you so far - but the views were fantastic, almost making the trip worthwhile in themselves.

The following day, we travelled to Val Thorens, around 90 minutes away. Here, my second lesson saw me graduate to an obstacle course designed for young kids.

At 28 years of age, I was just as good as the kids. Great!

I started out feeling like a professional. Taking the previous day's lesson on board, I set off parallel skiing on a blue... just like other, regular skiers. The instructor had a GoPro on his head, recording my best impressions of Francois.

Then thump! Flat on my face. Again.

Tignes, France
Tignes, France

You cant get to complacent with ski. You need to focus.

A few falls later, however, I was getting the hang of it again. I had to keep reminding myself that this was just my second lesson. The Olympics were a long way away.

Later in the lesson, we tried a blue that started out with what seemed like a massive drop. I was scared stiff, but slowly and surely, I got to the bottom.

I looked back up in amazement. I did that!

Afterwards, I took another lift, right up to the top of Cime de Caron mountain, over 10,000-feet high and the second-highest skiing point in the Three Valleys.

When we walked out from the ski lift and onto the platform overlooking the mountains, I felt like I was on top of the world. The tips of the snowy mountains peaked above the clouds.

My thoughts afterwards? Overall, I was surprised at how much I learned in such a short time. I did feel out of my depth, however, even after a couple of lessons.

You don’t need to be a seasoned pro to go on a ski holiday, but I would recommend at least a few lessons from a professional - and not your friend who thinks they can ski. I won’t be going down any reds or blacks anytime soon, but even a few hours of construction left me confident in putting on skis next time.

Downsides? When the journey began, I wasn’t expecting there to be as much travelling. The flight was fine, but the almost three-hour bus journey was unexpected - though the scenery added to the sense of anticipation on the way to Tignes.

Ultimately, this was a holiday that had it all - entertainment, excitement, fear, thrill and one hell of a party. After landing back down to earth, I got swept up in what felt like an outdoor music festival covered in snow, hot wine, beer and plenty of dancing skiers.

The best part of the holiday was about to begin - Apres Ski.


Get there

Mark travelled with Crystal Ski (01 433-1080; It has 3-star half-board packages in Tignes from €849pp, and 3-star packages in Val Thorens from €545pp, based on a December 19 departure.

Flights are from Dublin to Chambery (c. 2.5-3 hour transfers).

If you're a first-timer, it's also worth giving ski a try before you go. The Ski Club of Ireland in Dublin ( and Glen Resource Centre in Cork ( offer sessions from €30pp. Sandyford’s Ski Centre ( also has simulators and treadmill-style slopes.

For information on all of France’s best ski resorts, check out

Read more:

Andorra: A snowboarder tries skiing in Grandvalira and Vallnord Sybil Mulcahy: How to ski stress-free on France's snowy slopes Top 10 tips for ski season 2014/15

Online Editors

Editors Choice

Also in Life