While most holidaymakers think there's nothing better than sizzling on a beach, there are some who’d rather spend their lives in search of snow. Iona Sanders explains why she’s scared of the summer.
Since I left school in 2001 I've only experienced three summers, and for two of those I was rehabbing after major knee operations and had no choice. I have friends who've done 15 back-to-back winters, some even more. We are winter chasers and ski bums - travelling across the world every six months in search of bigger mountains and better powder, having to burst into tears at airline check-in desks to avoid paying excess baggage (‘But I can't afford that, I have to have two pairs of skis for my job!’) and avoiding summer like a heat rash. But why do we do it? My friend Juan does it because he gets terrible hay fever - as soon as spring arrives he becomes a sneezing, dribbling wreck, so he moves on. Others may claim they love the partying, the fashion, the glamour, but at the end of the day it all comes down to the snow. I may never see summer, but last winter I spent an average of eight hours a day outside, 75% of the time in beautiful sunshine. I ski every day: when I'm not skiing for work I'm skiing for pleasure, and when I'm not in the mountains I dream about skiing. I don't need Weightwatchers and an overpriced gym membership to stay fit and healthy. My office is my playground. Sitting on a chairlift at 6am in a blizzard, with 60mph icy winds hitting you in the face may sound like a bit of a miserable start to the day, but it beats being squashed into the tube, inhaling the armpit of some sweaty fat stockbroker.
The addiction begins
I did my first season in 2001/2 as a chalet girl in Les Gets, France. I worked about 70 hours a week for £45, cash in hand. I lived in my chalet, sharing a bathroom with my guests, so after work each night I pretty much had to go to the bar in order to wind down. So that's what I did every single night for five months and I had the time of my life. I had just left an all-girls boarding school, so it was like being released into the wild for the first time. Those stories you hear about chalet girls? They are all true. There was more than one night when my 7am alarm went off while I was still partying, so it was straight to work with no sleep. One morning my guests actually asked me not to make them a cooked breakfast because the alcohol fumes coming off me were so pungent they thought I might ignite if I got too close to the cooker.
I returned home with a pickled liver and injured from skiing, with severe stress fractures in my shins. The doctor prescribed six weeks of rest, after which I only really had another couple of months left of my gap year before uni began. New Zealand looked like the right sized country for such limited travelling time and I had some money saved up, so off I went. Arriving in NZ, I was given a car by some friends who didn't want it. I didn't have a licence, but I was feeling adventurous, so I drove straight down to Wanaka in the South Island to catch up with my friends from home, Beanie, Claire and Camilla, who were working as ski instructors down there. This was the turning point - I never left. Of my 11 weeks of ‘travelling’ in NZ, eight weeks were spent in Wanaka. There's something special about the winter there, they don't have the biggest mountains or the best snow, but there are fewer tourists than in the alps which creates more of a community within the seasonal workers. Incidentally we now refer to that first Wanaka winter as the ‘fat season’ as that was the year we ate all the pies (the official term for this is ‘chalet-girls arse’.)
It helps that I still have a great crew of friends who do it too and the best part is that we are all making careers of it. Camilla is a hugely successful ski photographer with her own company, Whiteroom Pictures; Beanie is a professional Big Mountain Skier sponsored by Faction and Nikita, Claire is a freestyle coach and I am a freelance events coordinator. Camilla and I both own houses in Wanaka, and each year we all meet up there to catch up, ski and party. I have a sticker on one of my skis that rather sums it up I think: ‘My Life is Better than Your Vacation’.