It takes a long time and a lot of effort to become a fully qualified snowboard instructor, and especially to get qualified to teach in France. But then the rewards start to pay off with hundreds of days spent on the mountain, obligatory queue jumping with clients, powder days, split-boarding days, eat, drink, sleep, repeat.. When you've got such an enormous playground as the Chamonix Valley on your doorstep, it can't be a bad life right?!
Meet Paul McKeen, the man behind Chamonix snowboard school Horsemouth, who's got a huge passion for snowboarding and a lifestyle that will make a lot of people completely envious...
Tell us a little bit about your business, how it started out, where you're based & how long you've been here for..
I’ve been based here in Chamonix since 2003. Horsemouth Snowboarding has only been in operation since winter 2012/13. It’s a new thing which I see as a strength rather than a weakness. For me it was a logical step and it suddenly gave purpose to my snowboarding. I guess it was a matter of passing on what I’ve learned and letting people share in the great experiences that snowboarding has provided me over the years. It’s nice to be able to go beyond the selfish aspects of pursuing such a pleasurable sport.
And your background? We've heard you've been on a few magazine front covers in your time..
The magazine covers (Ski + Board) are a fairly recent thing and all thanks to the great photographer John Norris. People are always looking for justification about how ‘good’ people are although my magazine appearances are only impressive to people who don’t know me/my snowboarding very well.
In the mid ‘90s I had magazine clippings of Dédé Rhem/Jerôme Ruby (Le Triolet) and Craig Kelly beside my Cindy Crawford poster so I’ve been into snowboarding for a while… Then in 2001 I caught a glimpse of the snowboard lifestyle during a year studying abroad in Grenoble. After finishing my degree in French I started up as a freelance translator in Chamonix for snowsports related stuff; magazines, local businesses and snowboard brands such as Dupraz. This afforded me plenty of time in the day to go snowboarding so that’s pretty much all I did for 11 winters in a row!
What was the highlight of your career back then?
Although I didn’t ever have a career in snowboarding my highlights are definitely those experiences shared with friends and the feeling of freedom you get when you are doing exactly what you want to do. The great thing about this is that it applies to any standard of riding; opening new doors in your snowboarding expands your vision to what you can achieve. That’s when you feel progressively more free. So I guess snowboarding itself is the highlight!
From translator / ski bum to instructor - why the change?
For me it was about moving from concentrating on enjoying my own riding to sharing with other people what I’d learned myself over the years (the hard way). Also, snowboarding was getting in the way of me doing anything else career-wise so it was only natural to make it my occupation.
Tell us about your current qualifications and the process of getting them
I completed the British (BASI) snowboard instructor pathway so I hold the Level 4 ISTD snowboard. From there you can apply for equivalence with the French system so I’ve also got the Carte Professionnelle Française. BASI is a great system that has finally opened some doors for my snowboarding. I only started doing the courses because I found myself back in England for summer! I spent the best week of summer in minus 5 inside the Hemel Snow Centre on my Level 1 course. It was funny going back there because I had my very first job there in Snow and Rock at the old dry slope 12 years previously (that was the back when Cindy Crawford and Craig Kelly were on my bedroom wall). It was like I’d gone full circle. I then worked for Interski in Courmayeur to get practice teaching and did loads of courses without failing any. It took me four years in total to get my carte pro. I would have done the French qualification but there isn’t one for just snowboarding (!).
How hard was it to get qualified to teach in France and do you have to do a lot to maintain the qualifications?
It took a really long time to reach the end of the BASI system; this is partly due to the fact I couldn’t do any of my required teaching practice in France and partly due to the level of qualification the French authorities require. They require foreign snowboarders to be as qualified as their ski instructors are. You can take people off-piste with the Carte Pro so I understand why; you can potentially have a lot of responsibility.
The frustrating thing was that there was no middle ground in terms of being qualified; it was either you have everything or you have nothing. You just have to do some refresher’s every now and again to maintain your qualification.
Some people might think instructors have a pretty cruisy life spending all day on the pistes - give us a run down of how a typical day looks for you
Haha, it is pretty cruisy and people who say otherwise should go and see how the rest of the world live. But like any job, if you put maximum effort into it, it can be both challenging when things don’t work and rewarding when they do. A typical day is: wake up at 7 (dark), have coffee and eat muesli then eggs, get over dressed, get to my client’s chalet/hotel nice and early, check they’re ready, take them to wherever is suitable, jump the lift queue, explain what we are going to do, then it’s time for action. This could mean anything from running up and down the slope helping people to their feet on their first day to a splitboard tour to the Col de Salenton. Plenty of refueling and normally a beer or two after to replace those lost electrolytes. Repeat. If I’m not working I’d pick my friends up instead of my client (or walk) but it’s a pretty similar formula.
You've decided to give some of your profits to charity. Tell us a bit more about the charity you support and why you chose them
I support the Right to Play charity, which was started by Norwegian Johann Olav Koss, he donated his Olympic speed skating gold medal bonus to what was to become a charity that helps children to have a chance to play and learn through sport and games. It really ties in well with my own view on sports as a good way to access that universal platform of joy, learning and expression. It’s a bit less immediate and obvious than other humanitarian charities but treating people like people and giving children a childhood is vital for the health of future society. It’s mainly concerned with encouraging health, personal empowerment, participation and social cohesion. I am pledging 1% of my profits to the charity. I was keen to start my business on the right track and it only seemed fair to give a small bit away.
What is in store for the future with your business, any exciting projects in the pipelines that you can share with us?
This year I’m really excited about running a season-long, weekly freestyle coaching programme. We’ll start with a group of people of all different standards and hopefully see a good crew develop. I don’t think anyone has tried this in Chamonix before and I hope it takes off. I’m especially interested to see how the modern-day video analysis helps.
What makes Chamonix a special place to be for someone in your profession?
The off-piste and scope for exploration really sets it apart, especially when you consider the growth of split-boarding. Snowboarding really needs a boost in this valley too and I believe there is a good market for people looking to expand their snowboarding horizons internally (how you ride) and externally (what you ride). The local crews are also really inspiring.
Which nationalities make the best & the worst clients?
Snowboarding tends to break down people’s nationalities but those who leave their ego in the valley and have a willing attitude are the best clients.
People who constantly make excuses and are too concerned with preserving their own image (of themselves) generally don’t do so well.
What are the best bits about your job?
Seeing someone who is buzzing with excitement.
And the worst bits?
When you have 8 kids going up the drag lift at the same time with 2 at the top, three fallen off at various points and three who can’t get it at all.
What are you personal and professional goals for the future?
Just to keep enjoying it, the rest will look after itself.
What's your favourite piste or off-piste area & top tip to go skiing?
There is a lot of amazing riding in the treeline if it’s in good condition but you need a good level and to know where you are going. The Charles Bozon at Brévent has always been the spiritual home of Horsemouth Snowboarding. My top tip would be to get to the lifts before they open.
Where would send someone who was after that something 'something special' in resort, to stay, eat or drink?
Wherever your good friends are eating and drinking. Cold Fusion, the Vert Hotel and Drop In Chalets all have great crews and for me that’s more important than having your towel folded like a swan.
Your favourite place for lunch or dinner?
Where will we find the best coffee or hot chocolate?
Le Lapin Agile has the best hot chocolate (+ rum). It’s always worth popping through the tunnel to Courmayeur, even just for the coffee..
What has been your best ever day in this resort?
It’s hard to say but the most memorable was when Mike and Pierrick took me to the Pas de Chevre in the morning then the Glacier Rond in the afternoon at the end of my first season. That was a real eye-opener…
Do you remember your first trip to Chamonix?
Of course! I remember asking “So where do you ride?”
What's your favourite thing to do in resort when not snowboarding?
Playing my records and/or playing hacky sack
What do you do in the summer?
I work as a boatman on the punts in Canterbury (Westgate Punts). I love it because I get to brush up on my language skills and stand on water in a different state exercising in a beautiful setting. The perfect summer job for me.
Which is your favourite shop in resort?
Echo Base in Les Praz, this shop is in it for the love so they really care about their customers.
Where are we most likely to find you for après-ski?!
Skiing or snowboarding? What's your preference & why?
Snowboarding. Because you slide sideways.
If someone was coming here for the first time, what would you suggest they absolutely must do or see in resort?
Get up into the high mountains. L’Aiguille du Midi is a must-see. Taking a guide on the Vallée Blanche is pretty special. It’s a shame it’s so expensive as a pedestrian though.
For more information on Horsemouth Snowboarding hit the website link above.
Location: Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley