Every year hundreds of skiers and snowboarders go to Canada on their gap year, with Banff being one of the most popular destinations. Lucy Flynn deferred her university place and jetted out to take part in Nonstop's 11 week ski instructor course. Here's how she got on...
I went to Banff in 2013, for twelve weeks and I can safely say that it was the best experience of my life so far. Before the course, I was doing my A Levels and applying for university. I applied for a deferred place so that, if I got in, I could go on my gap year stress free, safe in the knowledge that everything was sorted for when I returned. I decided to go on the Nonstop course, primarily because I love to ski and am always sad when I have to leave a ski holiday after a week, but also because I didn't want to go straight from school to university, so wanted to do something completely different away from home and normal life.
I was very lucky to have gone on the course with my best friend, Emily, so we planned everything together and organized to share a room when we were out in Canada. Having Emily there made turning up at the airport much less daunting, but I probably could have done it alone too, as everyone was so friendly and we all immediately started chatting. When everyone was sitting in the bar at Gatwick you could feel the excitement building. For many people, including myself, this would have been the furthest and longest time they had spent away from home, and we were all desperate to get back on the slopes!
The hotel that we stayed in in Banff was great and we had our own private communal Nonstop room in the basement, where we had tech talks, yoga and where we all hung out before going off on a night out in town. There was also a hot tub, which turned into a skier soup most days after lessons. We all ate together in El Toro, a tapas restaurant next door to the hotel, four times a week and when dinner wasn’t provided we ate amazing steaks in town, or McDonalds when money was tight!
The first day on the course was spent walking around town, getting ski passes and being told where all the important places were. I remember thinking, ‘how will I ever know my way around this place?’, but now I can visualize all the streets and shops in my head like I have lived there for years and within about two weeks it all felt so familiar – within three weeks we were all calling Irwin’s Mountain Inn ‘home’. Our first day skiing was so much fun, as we were just split into groups and got to ski around all day, while the instructors made small assessments to see what stages people were at. My first instructor, Kelly, was very entertaining, and everyone was so friendly and conversation always flowed. I was very shocked by the minus temperatures in Banff, as it was like nothing I had experienced before but after a small battle with a very tiny bit of frostbite on the end of my nose, I started to get used to it, by which time it was starting to warm up!
My Nonstop experience as a whole was absolutely incredible, but it seems like it went so quickly, which I suppose is a sign that I was having a really good time! It’s hard to pick out the days and experiences that I particularly enjoyed, as it was really just three months of constant fun. A few off-snow experiences that I remember were the kick-off party, that happened a few days after we arrived, held in Auroras, which was amazing. At this party we all started to realise that we would be enjoying ourselves in the clubs and bars for a long time, and that every night would bring something new. Everyone on the course was so relaxed and up for a good time, so every night out in Banff was fun. We had pool competitions at a bar called Paddock, which were very entertaining and even a trip to see the Canmore Eagles play ice hockey, which was definitely an interesting and different experience for the English! At half time they asked someone from the stands to come and throw a frozen chicken into the goal, which was when you really knew you were in Canada.
A day that really stands out for me, was Cat-Skiing. We were taken to Fortress Mountain, an abandoned ski hill about an hour and a half outside of Banff. The red cat, full of snowboarders and the yellow cat full of skiers, drove up and down the mountain all day, dropping us at the top of beautiful wide open powder runs, that had been untouched. A professional photographer, who captured us skiing knee-deep in fresh powder, looking a lot more stable than we really felt, followed us around! I fell over about fifteen times during the day and was more often than not the last person to get on the cat, usually with snow encrusted around my goggles. Another very memorable day was the last day of lessons when everyone on the whole course wore fancy dress and skied or boarded together in a huge group. Everyone had made an effort, including four superheroes (who had cleared Banff out of cardboard and the hotel out of bed sheets), a few crayons, a boarding bride in a full wedding dress and two M&Ms. People gathered around us when we stopped, with their phones out taking pictures of the group, as it really was quite impressive! Standing in the queue for the lift, I got some very odd looks, at which point I would remember that I was dressed in a yellow tube with ‘mustard’ written across the front and a huge yellow spout on my head.
Whilst we were on the course, there were a few extra activities that we could sign up for, using our activity credits. I signed up for the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk, which was really fun, as we got to walk along a trail through the woods, seeing huge frozen waterfalls along the way, most of which we missed due to a very intense snowball fight. I also went to Kicking Horse in British Columbia. We were driven there in a very plush coach, which picked us up and dropped us off right by the hill, so that we could get onto the slopes in the morning and beat the queues. The skiing was noticeably more difficult than in Banff, as Kicking Horse is renowned for its steep terrain. Regardless, we had a great day skiing in the huge bowls and sitting outside half way down a run having lunch and a few beers in the sun. Another extra activity was Tubing at Norquay. It was a fun night flinging ourselves down steep icy luges, two people to a ring. They went really fast! There were many other activities available such as snowmobiling and dogsledding, which I wish I had signed up for, as those who went said what an amazing time they had had.
Banff itself as town is very beautiful, and I remember waking up on the first morning, going out onto my balcony and seeing the mountains behind the hotel, as we had arrived in the dark so we had no idea what was around us. Seeing an Elk cross the road in front of our hotel in the first week was very exciting and we even saw three Lynx in one day at Lake Louise! The town is set mainly around one street, Banff Avenue, which is where our hotel was situated. It took us about five minutes to walk into town, where we ate in some amazing restaurants, bought most of our ski gear, played ice hockey and even had a barbeque down by the river. The Nonstoppers became known in town and we managed to get a discount just about anywhere by mentioning that we were on the course or by flashing a Nonstop card! We also had local passes to all the clubs, so very rarely had to pay entry on a night out, which definitely helped our cash flow. I made some amazing friends in Banff, partly because everyone had one huge passion in common, but also because there was no stress or worries to be had on the course, so everyone was so easy going and carefree. We all got on so well and it was very sad having to say goodbye to people that live on the other side of the world, that you might not see for a long while.
The course itself was quite intense, but loads of fun. We had a group of instructors that were absolutely amazing and I don’t think there was a day that I didn't learn something new about skiing and the techniques that we needed to become ski instructors. When I signed up for the course, I was convinced that I would take my level 1 exam, then go on to do the All Mountain Pro course, as I thought that I didn't want to be a ski instructor. However, after doing a lot of practice teaching in preparation for my Level 1, I found that I really enjoyed it. The excitement of passing my exam spurred me on to take my Level 2. The Level 2 training was phenomenal, and we pushed ourselves further everyday. We used every part of the mountain to improve our skiing, going into tight tree runs at Sunshine, using the men and women’s downhill slopes at Lake Louise or flying down the boarder cross and challenging ourselves on hard pack and ice at Norquay. I also took part in the Canadian Association For Disabled Skiers (CADS) Level 1 course, along with five or six other Nonstoppers, which we all passed. We got to try our hand at sit skiing, blind skiing and one-ski skiing. I found blind skiing absolutely terrifying and thought I was flying down the slope, when I wasn’t actually moving at all, which gave me an insight into how a blind person might feel, should I ever come to use my qualification at work.
The Level 2 exam came around very quickly, and I was terrified after hearing horror stories from previous groups, but it was actually some of the best skiing days I had in Canada. Our assessors were so nice and immediately made us feel relaxed and calm, telling us that we should treat the exam as five days of skiing with friends. We learnt so much and improved even more. When we passed our level 2 exams, the feeling of relief in the room was enormous, but it was also a sad day, as for many of us it would be our last day of skiing on the course. The next day I needed to pack to come home, but also didn't want to jinx my time in Canada and break something. Unfortunately there were a few injuries along the way; Stephen who broke his leg and sadly had to go home early, a fair amount of knee injuries, and a few concussions, although most people with injuries were patched up quickly and back on snow in no time.
I returned from Banff feeling very strange, not really knowing what to do with myself, as it was such a change coming home. I miss waking up early in the morning, getting into my thermals and ski gear and dragging myself down to breakfast, ready for a day on the hill, but I am now even more excited about the next ski trip I go on! Now that I am home, I'm preparing for university, which I am going too in September. I plan to go to New Zealand in the summer of 2014, in between my first and second year of university, to use my ski qualifications and teach out there for a season.
Spending a season in Banff with a group of such amazing people really was the best thing I have ever done. I wouldn't have wanted to spend my gap year any other way. There was not a dull moment in Banff, from the coach rides to the hill in the morning, to trying to introduce après ski to Canada in the afternoons. I have so many good memories that I will treasure. If you are considering doing a Nonstop instructor course, do not hesitate; you will have the time of your life.
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