Stelvio, the university for ski instructors

September 4, 1998

With pardonable hyperbole, the "happy few" who work on the Stelvio glacier in the Alps between May and November proudly call themselves "The World's University of Skiing", an elite consortium of ski schools catering for both amateurs and professionals.

The Stelvio is no frivolous "ski resort" where you have fun slithering about on snow. Rather, it is an international ashram of skiing, where each summer ski instructors, would-be ski instructors and the national ski teams of many countries become totally immersed in exploring the science and craft of skiing. It is a high altitude microcosm of skiers where the techniques and philosophies of skiing are the only and all-embracing common faith.

Stelvio, the very name brings a far-away look into the eyes of well-informed ski enthusiasts, is to run-of-the-mill ski resorts what cordon bleu is to baked beans on toast or Cape Kennedy is to Guy Fawkes rockets.

The Stelvio takes its name from the Stelvio Pass, at 2,758 metres (9,046 feet) the highest, and possibly the most spectacular, main road in Europe. From the top of the pass, a cable car soars up to about 3,175 metres, to the middle of a vast glacier in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland.

The ski runs start at about 3,400 metres and wind down to 2,700, or a little higher in warm summers. At these altitudes, even in August, temperatures drop below freezing at night and the 100-metre thick layer of ice guarantees summer-long skiing.

There are a dozen ski schools, each connected to a hotel. Until the 1970s, all were uncompromisingly Spartan: multiple bunks in large dormitories and trestle-table dining rooms. Now, most are a little more luxurious, with private rooms, and a couple even boast a discotheque and a "boutique." But the general atmosphere remains rigidly sportif.

Few guests have the energy to stagger around the dance floor as training begins at 8am. The boutiques probably sell more foot liniments and blister-protectors than bangles or beads.

The Stelvio was discovered by skiers in the 1920s and the first ski school opened in 1930. It soon became the summer venue for the Italian ski team (The Mussolini regime was very keen on sports). Since the war, practically all the world's ski teams have held their summer training camps there. Among others are Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, France, Austria, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Japan and New Zealand.

"A couple of years back we even had the ski team from Senegal. There were only three or four people in it, but they were surprisingly good," says Aldo Ansi, a senior ski instructor, former coach for the Italian downhill racers, and now chief supervisor of the Stelvio ski runs.

Stelvio is also used by ski instructors who want to update their technique and by aspiring ski instructors who take summer training courses for the difficult selection exams to become certified instructors.

Some Italian regions also hold the exams themselves on the Stelvio during the summer, to have instructors ready for the normal winter sports season.

"The technique of skiing is evolving constantly," explained Ansi. "Over the past 30 years skis have become shorter, more flexible, and very recently more shaped, with a wider shovel at the front, a wider tail and a narrower centre. Boots have changed a great deal, too and the ski slopes themselves are more systematically prepared. This means that the technique of skiing, therefore, the way skiing is taught, has also changed and continues to change. Today it is much easier to learn than it used to be. You get more performance with less effort, for instance, and ski instructors have to keep up with the almost seasonal evolution in equipment."

Since the Stelvio is one of the few ski resorts open throughout the summer, its schools can have their pick of the best Italian and foreign instructors on the market.

The courses are taught in Italian, English, German and French, and pupils of all levels of ability come from all over the world. It is very probable that if you run into a ski instructor on Ben Nevis or in the mountains of New Zealand, he or she will at some point have trained on the Stelvio.

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