It's an early start - still dark and we are subdued. There are pockets of friendship but there are still lots of people who don't yet know each other. The students make their way to the coach bleary eyed and in what becomes an enduring theme, someone leaves something behind. Jack Clough. We pick up his coat and somebody else's for good measure and get on the coach. There is very little chat from our group, their faces alien-like in the moony glow of their devices and it is not until we stop to pick up our companion sixth form college that the first signs of life emerge. I am assured feebly that this is nothing to do with the young handsome Nordic-looking women streaming down the aisles but I remain unconvinced, though there are some who are clearly more attached to their seats than the new passengers and do the old 'I'm pretending to be asleep and my bag is far too big to fit anywhere but on this spare seat.'
But for the masticating of young jaws around Haribo’s, starbursts and any other number of gummy sweets, all is silent until we stop for breakfast, which young Joseph and Daniel set to quickly, getting to grips with a pre-11am KFC bucket, whilst Matty displays admirable self-control and sticks to water (something he recovers from as soon as we leave English soil until we return). Back on the bus, we make it in good time thanks to the planning of our Scouse duo, Steve and Gary, to enable some of the boys to sample the delights of a Burger King. Once contained on the ferry, they scatter like marbles mostly rolling towards the duty free shop for sweets, Daniel rushes past me to say he has seen someone who looks just like Mr Doherty our RE teacher from school. 5 minutes later and to my utmost astonishment, I bump into him, Mrs Hoyle, Mrs Matthews, Mr Ciuccio and Mrs Foster on their way to Rome for a pilgrimage, which explains why our English teacher's choice of reading material is 'The Tweetable Pope'. A chat about the qualities of Francis ensues and then we are back on our own buses and swept into the world of Pirates of the Caribbean and France.
Sometime straddling day and night, we pause at a French service stop. Not as customer focused as the Brits, they have nothing to sell and laugh in an unhelpful way when I ask about the possibilities of sandwiches for us to buy. The bathroom is variable but nothing comes close to the pile of vomit evacuated by a young girl queasy after a long journey. They put a chair there to remind us of its presence and promptly forget about it, so, as the smell dissipates, we ignore it and instead get busy with making our own sandwiches with cheese, salami and baguette. Alyx watches with speculative interest and has a nibble of some celery, despite her embargo on vegetables, whilst Caitlin under the watchful eye of Pater Covey sucks down some painkillers with a lozenge: she is clearly unwell after a gruelling set of exams.
The pre-dawn morning brings us into a twinkling mountain world of pretty villages built into ledges between a series of mouse holes sucking us into mountains sometimes a kilometre at a time creating an odd stop motion animation where the dawn comes in increments between weird dystopian orange concrete tunnels and vistas of jutting rock and scrambling trees. Gradually, things flatten out and the houses develop allotments penned out with small olive groves and vines. We are in Italy! The coach is the apex of comfort but it is still a coach and it is silent as people wait expectantly for a toilet stop. It comes soon enough and slabs of sandwiches and small hot black rounds of coffee are consumed, putting us on until we arrive in Prato Nevoso. We have made excellent time. The approach to our mountainside hotel is 13 Km long and takes in Frabosa Lower and Upper. Both are deserted. We are far from Rome and it is not unusual to find empty hamlets and villages in Italy where the young have tired of rural poverty, lack of opportunities and infrastructure or else been driven out by earthquakes to the big cities.
Hotel Galassia is towards the top of the hill which is navigated superbly, in spite of hairpin bends. We are discharged with our belongings into a blinding world of white, face to face with the colossus that we will be skiing within the next 24 hours. The hotel and their staff are wonderful. Check-in is swift. Our rooms are cosy, warm, wood and tile affairs with clean bathrooms and a bed that looks particularly inviting after the stretch on a bus. But there is prep to do for tomorrow to go like clockwork and once we are fed with salad and pasta, we are led down into the basement of the hotel to a long corridor past bunkers to the outside where we are taken to Beppe's ski-fit which is dwarfed by the mountain it sits next to, like a staging post. It is a superb outfit. The men have topknots and expertise in abundance and we are processed in no time bedecked awkwardly with helmet, skis, boots and poles walking back to the bunker for dinner and an early night.
In the hours before dinner, reminiscent of last year's trip, George admits to feeling ill and takes to his bed in order to head off his tonsillitis, the rest of us wander down the hill to the town and see what we can find. We separate into smaller groups and with the young cohort, we end up looking at food, which suits me very well. The year 10s slip off into a cafe as Ibby is craving some mint hot chocolate and Sam is all too glad to partner up, whilst the year 8s and 9s find the most extraordinary delicatessens to look inside and leave holding tubes of Pringles and diet coke! After some severe recriminations, they are willing to broaden their horizons at the Creperie and get stuck into bona fide European (if not Italian) chocolatey pancakes with Adam and Daniel both trying out their '(grats-ee-ay)' and '(per favoray’) to great effect.
A competitive jog up the hill results in Ibby's wallet coming unstuck from a pocket something that causes his big brother to sigh gravely about and demand that he looks after it instead. Something which I decline but with hindsight, doesn't seem to be such a bad idea.
Breakfast is a chattery affair with Joseph tucking into the biscuits and most other people playing with the coffee machine and trying out the pastries. It is our first day on the snow! The beginners are bussed down to the bottom of the slope to meet their instructor but Toby Leaker, our friendly and utterly inept ski rep has not told the bus drivers where to go, or the instructor where to meet them or any of us and so we mill around the 4-man ski-lift which is as much scrum as anything else and wait. And wait... and wait. Tempers are rising and people are rightfully becoming impatient, but it is difficult to get too hot under the collar. It is a beautiful day but still quite fresh and anyway there is enough beauty to keep us going until sundown and plenty to look at. Besides some of us are still buzzing after the run to get us to the chairlift - a longish blue which will prove to be nothing after a few days but just then sent adrenaline coursing through the central nervous system. Toby shows up and slams on the breaks in a hockey stop sending a plume of snow over passers-by. He is nonplussed to see us there and not on our way. He is not a born rep.
Our tutors turn up. The advanced set have dashing and daring Mario, the intermediates have patient and elegant Francy and the beginners are on the nursery slopes in the kind and capable hands of Andrea. After a bit of active queuing, we are at the top of Malanotte and guided down blues. Alyx remembers immediately how it's done, Adam is daring right from the off and Esa is tentative (not least because I charge into him and knock him down whilst shouting imprecations - sorry Esa - and Luke too) but gets working on his parallel turns straight away. Luke looks in command of himself and has inner confidence and Caitlin reveals impeccable style. By lunchtime, Joseph has been shipped out of the beginners and is like a foal at first but full of daring and soon comes on. Matty and George fit right in with the advanced group who are stuffed full of expert skiers from the Ponty school. A stop for lunch reveals Sam has managed to lose his helmet, which he nobly offers to pay for immediately but there is no need and it is replaced straight away.
Exhausted and acclimatizing to this new adventure and each other, we make four separate groups around trestle tables and eat together with the wonderful, antipasto (translates to food before the meal), primo piatto (pasta of some sort), secondo piatto (meat and veg) and finally, dessert. The food is delicious but the Italians are not great with vegetarians or any other sort of dietary requirements and the whole dining hall is bellowed at some point during dining (not necessarily before the meals have been brought out but more as a gesture) 'Chi es vegetariano e NO PORK? much to the embarrassment of all. Mercifully by the fourth day, this has stopped, though not without mistakes. The vegetarians seem to be given a lot of soufflés but our fare switches from cutlets, to steak hache, to chicken and to fish. The chicken and chips are not exactly the Bradford-style affair hoped for by some of our less adventurous diners, but I for one am glad that Chicken Cottage has not become a global brand.
We are only on day two of skiing and what looked like an impossibility yesterday - the thought of night skiing on Tuesday night, now seems probable. By the end of the day, the beginners have made significant progress and have been on the blue run. Louis is careful and still feeling his way, Jorge feels confident and is encouraged by his own progress. Nikhil and Rohan are developing their control and discipline keeping cautious at this juncture but developing a desire to go faster and push themselves. Sam keeps pace without too much trouble but often skiing to his own loops and not always in full control, Ibby is able to talk and ski, which has its advantages and drawbacks. Both Jack and Daniel, despite being the youngest here and holding their own without any trouble whatsoever.
We have not had much opportunity to convene properly as a group but the morning meeting was good and the trip feels solidly underway. We are given the keys to the chapel, which is on site. It has a steep roof and is quiet but for the music softly playing. We sit together and listen to Mr Covey's words about adversity, character and gratitude. Then we pray. It is heartfelt. Some stay to light a candle, all leave quietly and thoughtful.
It is Tuesday evening and after only three days of tuition our young charges - including four or five of whom were still unsure about coming out this morning - are heading out in full gear into the dark, dark night. It has been a full blue sky today and perhaps that is why it is particularly icy and cold tonight. In a physical Freudian slip, Matty skis the youngest beginners straight towards a bar before they have skied more than 20 yards whilst our other crack skier, George has the weighty responsibility of leading his inexperienced friends down the mountain without tripping them up or enjoying their wary advances too much. Worryingly, Ibby has promised to match him turn for turn, which could, in this vast floodlit plain, lead to the ski park for a host of 360s and hooligan snow boarders whose need for speed is enough to upskittle the most stoic of skiers.
Rather chasteningly, there is the usual slew of tiny children making effortless and swift gliding turns, whilst others trickle more gingerly. And then I see us. From my vantage in a cafe listening to Patsy Cline, I see Luke in his yellow jacket leading, in a lovely controlled formation, our beginner skiers who look relaxed, with Mr Teale out to one side and our great red bear of a leader, Mr Covey out to the other, both watching on, both monitoring and ready should they be needed but happy to let the students lead and be led by each other. In and amongst the slaloming and piste pros, it is somehow a very touching sight and I feel proud of our young people's capacity for kindness, care and sheer gutsiness, for this is no couple of hundred metres run in a climate controlled arena. It is minus ten, the ground is turning to crystals and the run stretches on from the 4 man at the crest of the mountain over a kilometre to the scrimmage at the bottom.
The bossa nova music and the warm cafe offer welcome and warmth after a freezing hour. They are nearly due. Hanging on the wall are a pair of slender long wooden skis with a pair of rusted iron brackets and edges bevelled for shoes. They evoke stories. Romantic stories of pine forests, thick powder and long treks through silent Scandinavian countries. It is nearly time. Like marbles everyone is now rolling down the mountain at different speeds and without the formation we become harder to spot. Unmissable with his long swooping glides is Mr Covey. I am not with them all in the glittering night but I feel just as blessed to be here.
The skiing is good and there is some serious progress. There have been some backwards moves for the beginners as a result of a poor girl from the other school losing her nerve. A word in her defence for anyone who has never skied. It is honest to God terrifying. You may have watched the slalom as a child and thought - ok, perhaps not Eddie the Eagle, but sure, I could do that downhill bit, no problem. The truth is that it is hard. Partly because you are constantly using muscles that you use only to bend down for the remote control in temperatures that have caused schools to close for in the South of England. But mostly because it is high up and steep and the mountain is utterly indifferent to you. Its scale is formidable: it often seems impassive but sometimes in the hard sunshine glints like tiny knives. This girl has had one friend fall on a blue and break her collarbone: this is no walk in the park. And so she has lost her nerve. Much of skiing is psychological and nervousness is your enemy. The thought of pointing my skies downwards and just going for it is the reason that I can't eat in the morning. And yet, there is nothing like it. Skittering and pushing your way down a steep mountain, sliding and gliding, falling in a controlled manner from one side to the next on two flat pieces of metal is a crazy strange thing to do. But descending a mountain, however gracelessly, then looking back knowing that YOU have just accomplished that is utterly awesome.
Our boys are supportive and kind but relieved to get back on the blues in the afternoon and ramp up the skiing until they are trying reds. Since the night skiing, all have notched up their performance, especially Louis. Nikhil looks relaxed - much in the same way he looks in everyday life. Sam is determined and Jack and Dan are daring and brave; always ready to take on a challenge. Meanwhile the others are beginning to flag a little. Our best skiers are ready to join the fold and make a splinter group of intermediate/advanced skiers including Esa, Luke, Caitlin and Alyx going off with Mr Teale and Mr Covey. They lead the way taking chair lifts which send them miles away on quiet and empty runs that they track at their own pace through reds, blues and blacks. I see them on their way back for all the world looking like they had been skiing for years. It is beautiful to watch their lines from this height and know their trajectories and how much they have improved. Our students never stop surprising us.
To mix things up a bit we get the coach down to the pizzeria. With ten minutes to spare we pop into the supermarket where the students shark up and down the biscuit bottled fizz-pop and bueno aisle. It is 15 below and I am missing my sallopettes. We are the first in the restaurant and the orders are taken quickly. The pizzas are very good indeed and we eat heartily until ready to consume the diabetes-inducing produce from the 7/11 and race back onto the bus and back up to the Galassia where, finally induced to go to bed, the yr. 10 boys lose between them thirty pounds, some euros, a wallet, a pair of gloves and a phone charger. Unbelievable. I find them and return them the next day to some serious relief.
The outside looks like a film set from a Star Wars film. It was years ago that I learned that there was such a thing as a cold desert and the largest was Antarctica but being here, the similarities are striking. It is an alien landscape where nothing seems to push out of the earth other than dark clumps of the same tree and sharp jagged rocks. Far from the deer print in the snowy wastes outside my window there are three lines of mountains and a vast bank of huddled clouds. Not up in the sky, but below me. The sky up here is often in strips. Horizontal lines of colour. Usually pink and grey - now red with a haloed vertical streak where the sun is debuting. It has a compelling beauty for someone more used to wind and mottled skies.
At lunch, the dining hall becomes a rabble when the bread is brought to the head table and within a ten second feeding frenzy, the bread is dispensed with. The food has been delicious with the exception of the fish, which was pink and formless with a glisten that suggested it was not cooked. All the students are getting tired and hungry. There is persistent milling around the coffee machine where our boys chat to some of the girls from the other school and clearly conversations are taking place on social media if nowhere else. This is our last night and we can feel it in our skiing. All of us our pushing ourselves. The intermediates have migrated onto the occasional black slope. Some of us do better than others - understatement- but all have improved and made some fantastic progress.
The evening's entertainment is held at the nearby cafe where we drink hot chocolates and give out rewards. There is a real sense of camaraderie and respect as brief speeches are given. It is very difficult deciding who the best male skier is. Both Matty and George are close contenders for this one but it is perhaps the strides that George has made in his short time skiing that wins him the award. Best female skier goes to Alyx. Caitlin skis very well but there is something about Alyx's athleticism, daring and ease with how she tackles the slopes which makes her seem like she has been doing this since she was a young girl that gets her the prize. Sam is nominated by many people for the Skier's skier award for his grit, pluck and determination. It is well deserved. After a cheer for our leader to say thank you, we nip back to the hotel where the gauntlet is thrown and Rohan works hard to gain an advantage on the backgammon board but achieves more success in enhancing a playlist with the rest of the year 12s, who spend the rest of the night providing the music for the bar. It is very good indeed and enough to make you want to dance. They gain plaudits from expedition leaders and coach drivers alike.
This evening there has been a kerfuffle between some younger girls and some aggressive boys at our hotel. It is great to know with complete certainty that is nothing to do with our students and not just because we haven't been around but because the behaviour has been impeccable. Nobody has acted like an idiot, (apart from telling some white lies to impress girls, or jumping out of the odd ground floor window) and nobody has done anything unkind. It is a pleasure to be with these young people.
The atmosphere is a-buzz in the morning. And no wonder. By lunchtime, every group has been down a black including the beginners. This is phenomenal progress and all are impressed with themselves and each other. By the afternoon, people are done in. There are as many out as in for the final lesson, no-one wanting to risk getting injured through tiredness but others still with energy to spare. Adam has eaten enough over the week to power a small country and so it is no surprise that he is able to hold his own, but Joseph who is slight and has taken most of his calories just from kinder chocolate (in spite of our best encouragements) is easily ready to match him. There is some talk of year 12 boys lunching in town with girls from the Ponty school but everyone is so busy either skiing or packing that nobody notices. The coach trip is delayed as the year 10 lads get the wrong end of the stick and instead of joining us doing our souvenir shopping across the road, they fire down into town. When they realise that we are not there, they speed back up but on the way, to his intense chagrin Ibby loses his phone. Esa leaves the dinner table to help but to no avail. It is gone.
The tone is subdued on the bus. The students are exhausted and ready to get back home. Australia plays on the entertainment system and people drop off quickly apart from those who were canny enough to get themselves pizzas to supplement their dinners with and stave off late night munchies.
A short stop in France in foggy weather is cut short. We have left too late and this is nothing to do with the phone saga. We should have left around 4pm, not 6pm and we can't say we weren't warned. Gary and Steve power us up to Calais through the night but to no avail. We are too late. We wait until a slot becomes available and leave two hours later than scheduled. The ferry trip back is uneventful. Finally, the white cliffs are in sight and we are back on British soil. The sun is cracking the flags in the beautiful south but by the time we drop off the other school in God's own country, it is raining with some force. Back at school, parents are ready and waiting and our group disbands with goodbyes and thank-yous. We have had a wonderful time but are all pleased to be back and ready to see our families and friends, to be in our own beds and eat familiar food.
Well, until the next adventure!
Report by Sadie Hassell