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Not Alternative or Radical, just Sensible

Not Alternative or Radical, just Sensible

Daniel Wildey
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Regular readers of this blog will know I'm a little fixated on lifestyle.  Whether I'm trying to justify my own decision to jack in the 9-5 routine, or I'm simply in awe of those that have done so is still unclear to me.  But don't we all envy those tanned and chiselled, sun-bleached, weather-beaten, adrenalin-sculpted specimens who guide us through the mountains or send dispatches from the corners of the globe?

The cliched ski instructor is an archetype of this image; "earning" a living by doing what most of us save up 51 weeks a year to indulge in.  What sacrifices did they make to get to this enviable position, or what fortune allowed it?  How do you make the choice to detach yourself from the mundanity of the real world?

Alison Culshaw - owner of Off Piste Performance, habitant of Chamonix, and brand ambassador for Jöttnar - didn't make a choice it seems.  She told me "A good friend of mine is a lawyer and she was recently telling me how much she hated her job.  I asked her why she still does it and she said 'it's the route I've chosen'.  I just can't relate to that; the thought of doing something you hate for the rest of your life.  I don't see my lifestyle as 'alternative', it's just sensible to do something you enjoy."

This attitude is apparent as we skin across the Glacier du Geant in the middle of July.  Aside from a slight giddiness at skiing in the height of summer, Alison is entirely at home; there is a completely cool assuredness about her leadership.  It might come from her years of experience, but I'm sure it requires a significant level of happiness too.

Having learned to ski at the age of 2, I guess Alison's life seemed obvious, or at least natural to her at an early age.  "I'm originally from Aberdeen and my parents are really keen skiers - they would take me and my sister to ski at the Lecht every weekend through the winter."  Alison's retired parents still volunteer at the ski resort.

Watching ski porn, particularly the American variety, could lead you to believe that professional skiers are hedonists wrapped in a veneer of spiritual oneness with the mountain - spouting a deep connection with the environment one minute, and exploding things with shotguns the next.  There is none of this affectation about Alison; she makes a mountain life seem sensible, rather than radical. Literally down-to-earth.  Alison is devoid of that strange assumption many of us hold, that work should not be enjoyable.

Perhaps that's why I asked her about the downside.  As with any dream, the danger is that it may become reality.  If your passion is your day-to-day, doesn't it become mundane?  Particularly with instructing and guiding, I wonder if it almost seems like baby-sitting - how do you push yourself, how do you progress?

"Skiing with clients doesn't mean I just switch off.  We may not be skiing the hardest terrain, but whenever I ski I concentrate on my technique - everything can be improved.

"But the thing that really pushes me is competing."  Last year Alison took part in the Patrouilles Des Glaciers; a ski mountaineering race from Zermatt to Verbier covering 110km and 4000m height gain.  "Training for something like that, skinning for miles before sunrise, forces me to make progress I wouldn't normally come close to.  I love the preparation as much as the race."

There has been an explosion in the popularity of ski mountaineering in recent times, but Alison has been touring for years.  What made her embrace the uphill?

"We were pottering around on skis at a local golf course one weekend when I was very small, and the only uplift was a basic tow.  My sister wasn't with us and when I asked why, my mother told me she'd gone to the big mountains where they had chairlifts.  The thought that I would one day go there and use the chairlift was the most exciting thing - I thought the whole point of skiing was to get back for another ride on the lift!"

I'm not sure skinning is quite that exciting, but it's good to enjoy the whole experience!

Thanks to Daniel for the words and images, and to Alison for her time.  Alison had just returned to Chamonix after a summer's guiding in Scotland and Daniel was in the midst of his European road trip, having resigned from his 9-5 to do so.  

You can follow them both on @Offpisteperform and @DanWildeyPhoto.

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