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Dispatches from Varsity: III: “Back Yourself.”

See the previous instalment for the first days of the Varsity Trip.

VII

Baptiste is about thirty years old. He tells us during one of our ski lessons, that if we lose him, we should, “Just look for a white guy in a hat.” This could, of course, refer to about half of Val Thorens’s ski instructors. Baptiste’s hat is striped black and blue. This is usually the only way to pick him out. The VT ski instructors work for the Trois Vallées Ski School, and wear identical bright red ski jumpsuits, marking them out as a separate cult from NUCO (burgundy), the Varsity Committee (green), and the lift operators (black). Baptiste’s jumpsuit has a little badge which says “BAPTISTE”, as though he were an officer aboard the Starship Enterprise.

Baptiste has been a ski instructor for nine years. He came to Val Thorens because his grandparents have a chalet in Saint-Pierre de Belleville, close by. He instructs at all levels, including off-piste skiing; and also in snowboard. He is an excellent teacher with a learn-by-doing method. His lessons have steep learning curves, but after seven hours with Baptiste I am able to accomplish far more than  expected. One of the other members of ski group 28 expresses that they hoped to be able to do a blue run by the end of the six-day holiday. With Baptiste, we are doing blues (a bit messily) on day two. He teaches us in English, though he breaks off for instruction in rapid French for the members of our group who speak it. From what I understand, there’s a bit more specificity in Baptiste’s French instructions; there are specific references to épaules and ce jambe-la, whereas in English he is all snowplough and down-ski, which I manage to pick up, though Baptiste never really explains them. From what I can gather, they’re part of a semi-international or Val Thorens lingo, because Louisa has never heard of the snowplough, which refers to angling the skis together in order to reduce speed.

I don’t think skiing could be effectively taught through precise instructions and diagrams. As someone who typically ‘learns by doing’, the Baptiste method is ideal for me. At one point he takes my poles because I am relying too much on them. I ask for them back. Baptiste refuses. I ski down the Cascade run while taking more time over my turns, which was the point of the exercise. Baptiste is right. He is astute enough about safety to return them when the time comes to try a more difficult run.

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The ski lessons run in the morning. We go out as a group and generally get in people’s way with our resolution to stick together. This does not always work, as my inability to brake properly on Day One and resultant loss of the group shows. But we do alright, and we build  few friendships in the first terrifying ascents of chairlifts and descents of green runs which, at the time, seem hideously steep.

There are quite a few lesson groups on the runs in the mornings. At the elusive Rond Point des Pistes, a gaggle of NUCO reps and Trois Vallées ski instructors wait for les éleves. The NUCO reps hold up pieces of blue card with the group number on, take down names, and phone up anyone who is running late because they have been out vibing the night before. It is almost impossible to actually arrive on time. On Day Two, Baptiste tells us that things will be stricter on the third and final day: “I wait five minutes. Then we go.”

On the way up to the Rond Point, I have to pass the école ski d’enfants, which consists of a fenced enclosure in the middle of the central Val Thorens piste. There is also a giant inflatable chicken here. I am unsure what it symbolises. There is something deeply unsettling about being passed by a group of snowboarding children, who waddle across under adult supervision like migratory geese. I wonder if we look like that, too.

A small thing, but I’m very impressed by Baptiste’s efforts to foster camaraderie within the group. He learns all our names on Day One. That’s much harder than you think. By Day Two we are fist-bumping on arrival and departure. On Day Three, he abruptly tells us that he needs to get to another ski lesson, and leaves us to get down the final stretch on our own. He gives us the impression that we’re all competent enough: the student has not become the master, but the student can stand on his own two feet. Then he’s off, skiing backwards away from us. His style is effortless. It’s almost sad to part ways.

VIII

One of the most curious elements of Varsity, as I’ve mentioned, is the organisation, and specifically the online systems. There is allegedly a university-wide trip group chat, which circulated a lot of useful behind-the-scenes information leading up to Antigengate last Friday. Then there is the NUCO app, which provides event tickets (useful), information about the weather (usually accurate) and bars and restaurants (a decidedly confusing interface). Then there is the Varsity Trip Instagram, which is presumably run by the Varsity Committee, a group of Oxford and Cambridge students who stomp around the daily après in bright green high-fashion jumpsuits which walk the thin line between tasteful and visually offensive. The jumpsuits cleverly feature a motif of a crowned lion, combining Cambridge and Oxford. The Insta provides event updates, nondescript pictures of après ski, snaps of Val Thorens, a lot of youthful enthusiasm, and the repeated faux-cringe promise that the Committee will “see you on the slopes”. The pictures, presumably, come from Varsity’s student photographers. If you are a Varsity photographer, you get a free base price ticket (£399), in exchange for which you are tasked with wandering round in dimly lit, smoke-filled nightclubs taking snaps of drunken groups of friends or random people who just happened to shuffle next to each other. I’m unsure how much fun they are having.

These, though, are only the official channels of communication. The other big part of online Varsity isVarsiTickets, Oxtickets’s fun spinoff. One quickly discovers that there is a VarsiTickets etiquette. Image posts must verge upon the surreal. In order to receive a ticket to Thursday’s Oxford-Cambridge crewdate, I posed for DT who wrote a satirical caption “exclusive[ly] revealing” that “the editor-in-chief of Oxford’s inferior student newspaper” required a ticket. There are some inaccuracies here. However, if a plan works, it works. One particularly popular genre of image post features Varsity injuries (an X-ray image of someone’s spine, one Tripper stuffed into a body bag). Failing that, a blurry pic of après, preferably taken at a Dutch angle for no apparent reason, should suffice. Alternatively you can crack an egg on the floor of your apartment and take a picture of that. Following your surreal meme, it is necessary that your friends ‘big up’ your post through a combination of in-joke comments and Facebook reacts. I am maybe overexplaining something here. This, after all, is the premise of Oxtickets. But Varsity, and correspondingly VarsiTickets, elevates shit chat to an art form.

What do people buy on VarsiTickets? Most common are event tickets: Opening and Final Night Parties, crewdates, silent disco, the bingo hosted by the Haute Mess queens. There is a hierarchy when it comes to tickets at one of the seven Opening and Final Night events, with Slipped Disc and Park End/Cindies tickets originally the most sought after, before being rivalled in recent days by the mysteriously hyped-up Grandma’s Groove. The most popular event of the week is something called Blues’ Bop, for which tickets are being listed for more than seven times the purchase price – or, in the case of one poster, £25 “and my firstborn”. Blues’ Bop is ostensibly a massive bop attended by members of Blues sports teams, who, as one might expect, appear fairly often on Varsity. Personally, I don’t think this actually sounds that fun, agreeing with a nuanced assessment from a girl on a ski-lift that being good at rugby or basketball doesn’t have any correlation with having good music taste. DT expects Blues’ Bop to the be the “moshiest” event of the week, mostly because people have paid so much for it that they will force themselves to have a good time. I wonder if we can say the same for all of Varsity.

Who sells VarsiTickets? The injured, the tired, and those who seshed too hard the night before. You have to take things slow. Have a break every now and again and watch Chalet Girl. It’ll do you good.

Alternatively, there are those who bought tickets with the express purpose of selling them, particularly with something like Blues’ Bop. Typically, prices of VarsiTickets rocket about a day before the event, before steeply dropping in the final couple of hours as supply outstrips demand. An interesting facet of VarsiTickets, however, is that ticket transfer and payment is an imperfect science which always advantages the seller. You transfer your tickets by giving someone a screenshot your NUCO app barcode – but technically, you can reserve the barcode for yourself, meaning that, if you arrive first, you can get into your event with this original barcode while the poor sod who bought your ticket is left to explain why their barcode is used-up.

VarsiTickets also reveals some other trends of Varsity. The first of these interesting trends is how often people are losing things. On VT, safety deposits are part of the culture; you pay £90 to secure your place on the trip, followed by £31 for some kind of insurance that I’m not entirely clear about, and €12 for equipment in-resort. Helmet hire is about £15. Full clothing hire (a jacket, ski trousers and gloves) is £75. A set of poles, skis, and boots is bundled with lessons for £139. But damaging or losing your equipment may set you back around €300. Replacing a lost ski pass can also cost €200 or more.

While I don’t think there are many people on Varsity that can be put into financial distress by equipment loss, losing your skis or poles is a major inconvenience. You can safeguard yourself against this in a couple of ways. First, taking a photo of the barcode on your skis allows you to use VarsiTickets (bien sûr) to publicly announce your predicament and facilitate a re-swap with whoever took your skis after indulging in too much vin chaud at après. Secondly, you and your friends – assuming that you have those – can mix up your skis when you stash them in the snow outside Bar 360 or La Folie Douce, to make sure no-one takes your mismatched equipment. I’ve heard that this doesn’t necessarily work, especially where the vin chaud is involved.

The events themselves are the counterbalance to Varsity’s skiing. A week at Varsity consists of trying to fit skiing and events around each other, with the obvious trade-off being that if you sesh too hard one night, you might have a bit of trouble getting up on time to hit the slopes in the morning. For some people, this is a difficult choice. For others, it isn’t a matter of one or other. Varsity is, quoting DT, their opportunity “to take their bodies to their natural limits”. Maybe I’m one of them, even if I don’t like to admit it. I don’t think I’ve slept more than five hours a night since I arrived.

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IX

The official highlight of the week – though no-one treats it as such, not even the participants – is Tuesday’s Oxford-Cambridge ski race. It’s easy to forget that Varsity, when established in 1923, was just one among dozens of Varsity sports events (hence the name). Technically, that is still its status, except it takes place in Val Thorens instead of Iffley, and is surrounded by a six-day festival. The event takes place on a black run, coming down from somewhere called the Cascade. There are red poles which the participants must slalom through. At the bottom, there is a large arch marked “VARSITY TRIP” in Oxford blue and that colour Cambridge alleges is blue but is really green. All of this takes place in the shadow of the Stade Yannick Richard, which is not a real stadium but a rather sad-looking chalet with a few banners hung outside.

How does one become good enough at skiing to participate in the Varsity race? This is the great existential question. One suspects that experience matters more than technique. At Haute Mess on Monday night, we meet a rep who is skipping three weeks of term at NTU to come and work for NUCO on the Varsity Trip. The rep, who is an avid and experienced skier, informs us that he has been skiing at least once every year since he was three. He doesn’t seem to think there is anything particularly exceptional about this. Likewise, I have a friend who has been to Val Thorens “about twelve times”. This seems to be the common denominator among people who are capable of the most difficult black runs and off-piste skiing. The rep talks about “moguls” and avalanche equipment. This means very little to me. His tip for avalanches is that you should just try and ski away from them very quickly. The other piece of common advice among skiers is that you should simply “back yourself”, a two-word meaningless phrase which should probably be the official motto of Varsity. It has its variations. Baptiste talks a lot about “confidence”. Nevertheless. First time on a blue run? “Back yourself.” Skiing through a snowstorm? “Back yourself.” How are the competition skiers so good? “They just really back themselves.”

To get to the Varsity, we have to take a chairlift to the top of the Cascade run and ski down the blue. The bar of our chairlift has a sticker on it which reads “MAKE MATHILDE GREAT AGAIN”. I wonder who or what Mathilde is.

By the third day, I am surprisingly capable of skiing a blue run. We join a couple of Cambridge girls to ski down. One of the girls, Megan, has an extremely brightly coloured ski jacket which, in her words, makes her hard to lose in a crowd, but also means that if she “wipes someone out”, it’ll be difficult for them to forget it. At the bottom of the slope, we join a medium-sized crowd of spectators. Unfortunately for my career as a sports journalist, the event has already finished by the time we arrive. Sources have informed The Oxford Blue that Cambridge won the event, but I cannot actually corroborate this with anything definitive, nor can I provide you with information about how you actually ‘win’ Varsity skiing. One assumes that it involves going pretty damn fast and possessing the mental strength to “back yourself.”

The Varsity teams are standing around the arch. They are all slender, athletic types, so being a Varsity skier obviously involves some level of fitness and probably also technique, in addition to being wealthy enough to go a lot of skiing holidays as a child. Both teams seem to be celebrating, which adds to my confusion about who has actually won. After a while they start flinging snowballs at each other. Then a voice comes over an intercom from somewhere inside the Stade and informs the skiers that the last lift back up the Cascade will be at 4, so they should start heading up. They leap, sleek and minnow-like, into motion, and start making their way back up the mountain. The lift is one of those where you hold onto hanging poles which drag you up, so for a few moments, the Varsity skiers become almost superhuman, ascending an impossible incline.

Meanwhile, around the arch, the spectators await the much-hyped ‘slalom party’. This is the same as après, except it is sponsored by Newton Consulting. There is exclusive Newton stash: Newton blankets and Newton foam fingers. You can put a little flag in your helmet to support your University team. On one side is the logo of Oxford University Ski and Snowboard Club. On the reverse is the logo of the Varsity Trip, supported by NEWTON. By this point I am firmly #NeverNotNewton. The sponsorship deal has proven to be genius. Newton awaits my application.

Perhaps partly as a result of its corporate sponsorship, the event has an odd vibe. It’s strange to have après in a space which clearly isn’t made for it. The music is a bit lukewarm. It is also cold. We don’t stay long. We take our little Newton flags and leave.

X

Outside an ATM, we run into a former editor-in-chief of Cherwell. “How’s your Varsity going?” he asks us. “Although, to be fair, Joseph, I’ve already read about yours.”

Next Instalment