Sunday, 17 March 2013

Spring Skiing

OK, so last year I begged off skiing in the Pyrenees which means I eliminated any chance of dodging at least one ski trip this winter. I do like winter, but usually in a more remote form (i.e. pictures of snow, etc.). As the spring weather arrived in Arcachon, and thus delightful golfing conditions, I was even less inclined to expose my rapidly thinning, barely recognizable Canadian blood to genuine winter conditions.  However, Ann was determined to have a go at the Alps, so off we went.

This time we were off to Chamonix, a mountain town nestled against the flank of Mont Blanc, and surrounded by a half dozen or so ski hills. Fortunately, the trip was pre-disastered by Ann (we missed our flight owing to the complexities of an emailed itinerary shamelessly utilizing the 24-hour clock to identify the departure time - next time everyone reads the itinerary). A zillion dollars later found us in Geneva the very same day where our driver scooped us up for the hour-long drive back into France. I don’t think the Swiss appreciate the French ski resorts using the Geneva airport as the pick-up spot for thousands of tourists who won’t spend a single Swiss franc while waiting for their rides back into France. Perhaps the Swiss should adopt the Euro. I’m just saying…

The first day in far-east France gave us a chance to get used to the place, see the sights, and remind ourselves Chamonix was like southwest France, just bumpier.
Looking one way...
Looking the other way.

The first order of the day, after breakfast, of course, was a gondola ride to the top of the world, or so it seemed.  In reality, it was to the Aguille du midi, a pointy bit right next to Mont Blanc and surprisingly high in its own right.

At the top of the gondola there are some interesting views and the start of the Valley Blanche ski adventure, where crazy people can be guided around cliffs and glacial crevasses for over 20 kilometers of potentially fatal, but fun skiing. As a snowboarder, I begged off, in hopes of being able to kill myself later on the regular ski hills.

I’m pretty jaded, being old and curmudgeonly, but I admit to being quite impressed with the views from over 12000 feet. I’ve never been that high without being told to keep my seatbelt on until we reach our cruising altitude.

12602 feet above sea level
Mont Blanc 
Some other mountain and the start of the Valley Blanche.

Mer de Glace - it used to be bigger.

We followed up that experience with a short train ride up another valley to see an ice cave in the Mer de Glace, a receding valley glacier (France's largest). For those of you who are climate change theory deniers, feel free to check this out. Nothing says ‘warming’ better than standing next to the ‘Ice level in 2003’ sign while hovering 100 meters above the current ice level of a glacier 7 km long and ½ km across. The advantage of a receding glacier, if you can call it that, is the occasional melt-water cave exposes itself, and somebody can turn it into a tourist attraction.

Girl on ice - inside a glacier. Cool?

The next few days were all about skiing. These ski hills tend to get you above the tree line where the snow is good and the visibility is great, unless it isn’t. We had three days of the former, and one of the latter. All told, pretty good.

A couple of the adjustments we had to make from our experiences in North America:

1. Each ski hill defines only 5 or 6 actual runs on a map, which they groom, and everything else is regarded as “off piste”. Apparently, breaking your neck off piste gets no sympathy from, and more importantly, no attention from the ski patrol. That being said, we spent essentially all of our time off piste. The snow was so good, skiing on the groomed runs felt like doing jumping jacks while the hot new zumba instructor (gender left to the imagination and orientation of the reader) was running a class across the hall.

2. I had been told getting onto a chair lift in Europe was like trying to get rush seats at a Who concert. Fortunately, we never had to find out as the crowds were quite light. We never had to wait more than a couple of chairs, on those occasions when we chose not to take a gondola. Now, before everyone gets too excited about the good manners and sportsmanship of our European brethren, I’ll tell you the buses were a different matter. Free buses ran up and down the valley all day such that one could go to different hills over the course of the day, or get back to town at the end of the day. So, at the end of each and every day, watching a few hundred fully-equipped skiers and snowboarders squeeze into a bus, was … a study in human nature.  When the doors opened it was every man for himself, as seats were worth pushing your own mother down or elbowing an obviously pregnant woman. If you failed to get a seat, you could spend the 20-minute ride without touching the floor of the bus, such was the crush. At times I imagined myself riding the Tokyo subway at rush hour.

Above the trees, and the clouds (elevation: 10400 ft).
The shear magnitude of skiable terrain on these ski hills is breathtaking. We spent three days on the Grand Montet and never came close to getting bored with it. I would argue it is as big as Whistler although entirely above the tree-line. And, there are four more hills on the same bus route. Granted, I believe the other hills are a bit smaller. And, speaking about above the tree line, the one not-so-good day we had involved going all the way to the top of the Flegere ski hill just as the whole valley disappeared in the clouds. Sadly, we were the only ones at the top of the hill when this happened and had to rely on the spotty signage to find our way down. There is no question about that being the worst whiteout conditions I have ever experienced. Every time we stopped to discuss directions, or the likelihood of cliffs, or simply dying of exposure, I would fall over because there was nothing to tell me which way was up or down until I hit something. Fortunately, the clouds cleared for the next day and we were back on the Grands Montet, still finding good snow.

Definitely not 'on piste'. Yes, that is a glacier at the bottom.
Before the whiteout.
As an aside, I heard so many different languages being spoken on the various bus rides, I began to think we had inadvertently joined a UN-sponsored symposium on ski resort water quality (don’t get me started on the UN). Chamonix is a truly international tourist destination.  

The town itself is typical of any ski resort town, complete with plenty of stores to capture the tourist dollar, and a wide variety of expensive eating establishments.

Mont Blanc, from outside our apartment.
All told, I could probably be talked into visiting Chamonix again next year.

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