A Year on the Slopes: Life as an Austrian Ski Instructor
As ski resorts across Europe start recruiting for the upcoming season, we sit down to speak with the incredible Lily Armer about what it's like to work on the slopes, her experiences living away from home, and the importance of skiing to Austrian culture.
Starting from the beginning Lily, what can you tell us about your earliest skiing memory?
"My earliest skiing memory is from a holiday in Norway when I was 6. After a fairly successful day of learning how to do ‘pizza’ turns, I realised I had forgotten how to stop. As I approached the lift queue with increasing speed, I accepted my fate and chose to sacrifice some poor guy waiting as my crashmat! Needless to say, I never forgot how to stop again!"
After sixth-form* you made the decision to leave home and move to Germany and Austria for a year. What was this transition like for you and what was the hardest thing to adapt to?
"I found the transition pretty easy overall, I think mainly because I was so excited to be independent in a new city. The hardest thing to adapt to was suddenly being alone in a foreign place, and having to proactively find people to socialise with. This became easier as I got to know the other people in my classes at the language school I was attending."
*Students in the UK finish high school at 16 before having the option to join a sixth-form, a two-year study period between high school and university.
Having spent a lot of your time in Munich, how does the Bavarian culture differ to that of other German cities, such as those in the north? How much of a role does the topography of the region have to do with this?
"Throughout Germany, culture and traditions play a very prevalent role in day-to-day life, partly because many of these traditions have origins in Christianity (which is still very much the ‘main’ religion of the country) and also because these traditions can be major tourist attractions and forms of revenue. ‘Karneval’ for example, (or ‘Fasching’ in Southern Germany/Austria) consists of parades and parties in the days leading up to Lent, and is celebrated throughout Germany. Each region has its own traditional celebrations, the most famous one being in Cologne in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The main difference between the more northern cities and Munich/Bavaria seems to be that Bavarian traditions are a year-round tourist attraction, not just during big festivals. Beer-garden culture and Oktoberfest attract tourists for the traditional dress (Tracht – Lederhosen for men, Dirndl for women) and large beers.
The topography of Southern Germany and Austria is also much more mountainous than northern Germany, and with many bodies of water; Munich is divided by the Isar River, and is close to beautiful lakes such as the Chiemsee. Therefore, free-time is often spent in beer gardens, at Gasthäuse (traditional restaurants, like an equivalent to British pubs) or heading to the lakes and mountains for outdoor activities – such as hiking or skiing!
The northern german coastline and lakes, such as those around Berlin, are major tourist attractions, as they offer a different variety of holidays and free-time activities to those available in the south."
After Germany, you headed south to spend the winter season as a ski instructor in the Austrian alps. Can you give us a break-down of a normal day working as at the resort?
08:20 a.m. – Be at the gondola valley station ready for the first gondola up at 08:30, or stay and accompany the ski school kids who are dropped off.
08:45-09:15 a.m. - Set up Kinderland (rubber mats and toys etc that we use to teach the younger children or specific skills to the other children) and then daily instructor meeting where we discuss any group changes for children or any important updates for the day.
09:15-09:30 a.m. - Sometimes we had a few runs of instructor training, which would vary from showing us different drills to recreate with groups of different levels, or to develop our own skiing. On days with no training, we would sneak a few speedy runs in before the children and parents started arriving at Kinderland.
09:40-10:00 a.m. – Daily dance and warm-up with all the kids, then splitting off into our groups and checking the equipment is ready to start the day.
10:00-12:00 a.m. Morning ski-school lessons .
12:00-13:30 p.m. – Lunch
13:30-15:30 p.m. – Afternoon ski-school lessons.
[If you had private lessons that week instead of a set ski-school group for the whole week, your workday was unpredictable and could start and finish anywhere between 08:30 and 16:00, which was good when the resort was quiet as in between lessons, you could free ski or have a longer lunch break, but not so great when you have 10 minutes to grab lunch and lessons all day during the busier periods!]
15:30-16:15 p.m. – Pack away Kinderland and any ski-school equipment, sometimes instructor training is given afterwards or we can squeeze in some free runs before we catch the last gondola down the mountain.
"By 17:00 après ski has usually begun, although we didn’t do it every night as my resort was quite small and quiet, so going ‘out’ was better at the end of the week. On other days we would just head home and chill together in the house with some snacks and Radlers and card games or TV and cook. Sometimes we would have instructor/ski-school social activities, such as laser tag or go-karting in Innsbruck!"
How difficult is it to find a balance between teaching and ‘personal’ skiing time?
"Of course this varies from resort to resort and ski school to ski school, but as my resort and ski school were both very small, it was all hands on deck for everyone, so personal ski time on work days was limited by time and also by the range of runs – my resort had about 5 runs in total, 2-3 of which were too long to squeeze in most of the time due to the time it took to get the lift back up!
We would get 1 day-off per week, which was always a Saturday (unless you were on privates that week – then who knows!), so on Saturdays we would often head to nearby resorts with whichever other instructors fancied going that day and have a more fast-paced and chilled day of skiing whilst stopping for food and of course après!
At bigger resorts, there may be a set Kinderland ‘team’ who set up and pack away kinderland as part of their job, which would give the other instructors more time to free-ski, but this wasn’t the case at my resort."
In regards to snowfall, how good a season was your first year there?
"My first season was 2018-19, and it was a pretty decent season overall – but definitely not the best! The snow arrived in Austria a bit later than usual, but once it came, it was falling pretty heavily and sometimes quite aggressively!
Then around March, the weather started to warm up a lot. I remember teaching on the baby slope in a t-shirt, sunglasses and all the air vents unzipped on my salopettes! We all thought the season would come to an early, slushy end, but fortunately Europe was hit with another cold blast and beautiful powder, which meant that in some resorts skiing was still doable until the end of May/early June!"
What does a usual Austrian winter look like?
"Snow starts falling around November, and over Christmas the snowfall is often more aggressive and accompanied by wind and poor visibility! Then after January, the coldest month, the conditions should be at their best – a decent amount of snowfall, the weather starts to get calmer and sunnier (bluebirds become more often!), and the resorts are a bit quieter (until the school holidays). The season usually lasts until around early May in most resorts, but of course continues in the glacial resorts.
Average snowfall varies a lot between regions and resorts, so it is hard to say. My resort, Spieljoch, is in Western Austria at an altitude of 2054m (top of the resort), and the average snowfall for the past 2 years is around 90cm in January. Temperatures at this time were usually, from memory, around -10 to -20 ˚C, but of course could feel colder depending on the wind chill; there were a few days where the temperature was around -30 with wind chill.
If the snow is still ok, then Easter/Spring skiing is probably one of the best times to go, as the temperatures are much more forgiving and you can even have a sunbathe in your lunch breaks/après because almost everyday is a bluebird day (clear, blue skies)! The slopes and hotels are also quieter when there are no school holidays."
"It's like the equivalent of UK school kids playing football – some join casual clubs, others play more professionally, and it's regarded with the same sense of normality. Driving kids to [ski] races at the weekend is just another part of everyday life."
During your time in Austria you were teaching children how to ski in German. How did you find the challenge of teaching in a second language? Did any of the kids pick up on your accent? (Did you have any difficulty understanding some of the kids?)
"After living in Munich for 2 months, where I attended a German Language school and had completed German Language qualifications to a high level, teaching and ‘living’ in German was no problem. I just had to learn the more specific ski-related vocabulary, which we learnt as part of the instructing course. Once I’d got that, it was fine.
With regards to my accent; on several occasions the kids would overhear me say something in English to another instructor and ask me where I learnt English. When I told them that I am actually English and not German or Austrian, they would be pretty surprised! This also happened with some of the parents who would ask me how I, and I quote, 'speak such fluent English?', who seemed to be just as shocked as the kids when I told them I was English and I learnt German as a second language! It was a pretty nice feeling as it showed that my efforts in the language had actually paid off!
On the other hand, understanding some of the kids was something I had to tune my ear to. We had lots of Swiss-German children, and their accent and language use is strong and quite different from the Hochdeutsch (‘standard’ german) or Austrian accent that I was accustomed to. However after a few weeks of having Swiss-German kids in my groups, and getting them to repeat themselves sometimes, understanding them became no bother, I just had to tune into my Swiss-German ear and listen carefully!"
Working with young children on a daily basis, you’re likely to have some great stories to tell. What were some of the funniest?
"So many to choose from! But there are two that immediately come to mind:
Having just finished the daily post-lunch toilet trips and putting all the kids' ski gear back on, I finally got all my kids to the top of the button lift. This is a feat in itself, as there was always at least one who would be dancing about or daydreaming so they would fall off the lift and need to be retrieved and brought back up to meet the rest of the group.
So finally, almost half-an-hour after lunch, we are about to start the first run, and I hear two little voices saying ‘Lilyyyyyy, Ich muss ganz dringend Pipi machen!’ [I REALLY URGENTLY need a wee!]. I had to leave the rest of my group with another instructor, and pick up one child under each arm, skis still on, and ski as fast as I could back down to the toilets again, with these kids screaming ‘I’M GONNA PEE, I’M GONNA PEE’ the whole way! I was undressing them as we were running down through the building to the toilets, and luckily we made it just in time!
Another time, I decided my group was ready for one of the steeper red runs, so off we went to practice the plough-parallel turns we had been doing all morning, on this steeper slope. It ended up taking us one hour to get down a run that should have taken 15 minutes, because one of the kids decided about ¼ of the way down that they could no longer turn left, and also decided to tell me then that they were afraid of heights. That was a long day."
Compared to central European nations, very few British children are able to ski. In fact, 36% of Austrians ski compared to just 10% of the UK according to a recent survey. Obviously the UK is limited in regards to its climate and topography, but how much of a role do snowsports play in the Austrian culture?
"They play a MASSIVE role. Many Austrian kids grow up skiing, whether it be casually with their family at weekends, or more competitively with slalom (race) training. It's like the equivalent of UK school kids playing football – some join casual clubs, others play more professionally, and its regarded with the same sense of normality. Driving kids to races at the weekend is just another part of everyday life.
At weekends and during holidays kids come up the mountain and build kickers at the side of the runs, and spend the day messing around with their friends. Sundays are often race days for the kids and skiing and snowsports in general are extremely popular pastimes for both Austrian children and adults."
Do you think it influences their attitude towards the outdoors and their relationship with nature and wild places?
"Yes and No. Not all Austrian children are into snowsports, meaning they could have a relationship with the outdoors though a different hobby or sport, or not spend a lot of time outdoors at all!
It’s hard for me to say really, as I didn’t have a lot of interaction with the Austrian kids. Of course the snowsports kids will have more of an appreciation and understanding of the dangers of snow and the mountains compared to children who don’t spend time there, such as children in the UK, and presumably their attitude to the outdoors will be more positive, especially in winter, as it is synonymous with their favourite hobby."
As a vegan, did you struggle at all to maintain your diet in Germany and Austria? Their traditional meals tend to be heavily based around meat and dairy.
"You can say that again! Austrian cuisine is potatoes, bread, meat and dairy – so not even vegetarian-friendly, let alone vegan!
I stayed 100% vegan throughout my whole first season; cooking vegan food for myself and supermarkets had a small selection of vegan products. Getting food from the restaurant on the mountain was probably the trickiest thing, but even that wasn’t impossible. There was a salad bar everyday, and the mass-produced pretzels sold in the restaurants and supermarkets were also vegan, so that was my lunch sorted!
I made up for the lack of variety at lunch with my home-cooked meals. If I ever needed to ask if something was vegan, I took the route of saying “Is there milk/eggs in this? I am allergic”, otherwise a request for ‘no cheese’ or ‘no egg’ wasn’t really taken seriously due to lack of exposure to a vegetarian or vegan diet."
Were people understanding of your lifestyle?
"Yes and no. The younger generations were more accepting and understanding as veganism is more talked about and common among young people and on social media. Older generations meanwhile were more set in their ways and viewed something like veganism, which was basically a rejection of huge parts of Austria’s traditional food culture, as a ‘diet’ that ‘looked down on’ their cherished food culture. Therefore my asking whether they had vegan options or if a dish was vegan may have been taken as a judgement or comment on their food choices.
Some people were also just genuinely curious as to why I follow a lifestyle that is so different from the Austrian norm, which probably stemmed from confusion or disbelief that I didn’t ‘indulge’ in specialities such as the cheesy Käsespätzle (like an Austrian mac and cheese).
After an explanation of why I choose to be vegan, such as the ethical, environmental and health benefits, people become more understanding and receptive, perhaps partly because it was more clear that my ‘motive’ or ‘goal’ was not to pass comment on their lifestyle, but rather to improve my own."
And lastly Lily, What would you say to people who are on the fence about spending a season at a ski resort? What advice would you give to them in regards to organising their time there?
"I would ask them what is holding them back from just doing it. If their concerns are easily dispelled, such as worried about social life or anxiety about working in a new sector, I would say honestly just go for it! All ski instructors start somewhere, and the ski school will be fully prepared to support you and your development in the job. I can guarantee that you will find people who you will get on with as seasonnaires are usually a random mix of people from all walks of life and age groups!
If language skills are a concern, I would say to choose a bigger resort, as the clientele and ski-schools are more likely to be English or English-speaking.
And don’t forget; ski instructing isn’t the only job available in ski resorts! Childcare, bar/restaurant work or hospitality jobs are other options, and may even give you more time to enjoy independent skiing without a group of kids following behind you!
Ski instructing itself is tiring and mentally draining but doesn’t ever feel like a ‘real’ job, even on the bad days. Go for it and make some memories!"
Many young people who want to spend a season at a ski resort are often unsure about being away from home at Christmas. Can you tell us about some of your own experiences about missing family holidays back home?
"One thing to remember about winter season jobs is that you will definitely be working Christmas and new year, but they are still a lot of fun because working in a resort, all the guests are in holiday-mode.
For example, New Year’s Eve 2018-19 I was with the other instructors in the most popular après bar, we were all dressed up a bit and having a good dance and a good few Jägermeisters. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the family of one of the little girls from my group for that week, who was also there! I danced for a bit with the girl, and then we all took photos together before she went to bed. After, her older brothers and cousin bought rounds of shots for us all - I don’t think they remembered that I would have to be up the next day ready to take care of their daughter and several other kids on the mountain at 8:30am!
Christmas is the celebration that most people feel a bit bummed about ‘missing’, but in reality you don’t miss it, you just experience a different kind of Christmas!
Last year, all the instructors from my ski school (we all lived together in an old guesthouse) cooked a big pot of veggie chilli and bread, and squeezed all 20 of us around our dining table. We had drinks, listened to music and chatted for hours and it was honestly one of my most simple yet memorable christmases!
We wouldn’t be able to finish this interview without talking about the Austrian apres-ski. Describe it in three words.
"Repetitive, questionable music."