February 12, 2011

First day on the slopes of Chamonix!

Well, I didn’t end up seeing nearly as much of Geneva as I thought, thanks to the ever-present demands of work. I arrived around 12pm Geneva time (6am back home), and hopped on a public bus to get to my office downtown, across from the UN. However, I was anxious to check my email (it is a curse, it really is), so I pretty much went straight there, figuring I’d go out for a bite of lunch and use that time to see the town. But “just one more task” became a full afternoon of work, until it was 6pm and the receptionist was kicking me out because the office closes promptly at 6pm (really? SIX PM? How do Europeans get anything done??) – and it was time to hustle back to the airport for my shuttle to Chamonix. Another trip to Geneva is definitely in order – this time, not as a stopover but to actually explore and see the city. I found myself totally regretting not taking the 6 month internship at the UN that I had considered in college, and now thinking I really ought to take advantage of my big company to perhaps do a stint there now. You only live once, right?

At the airport, I exchanged some money for Euros and found my shuttle without much trouble at all. The van was fairly comfortable, but I realized I had probably made a bit of a mistake by traveling at night instead of during the day. I could just barely make out the outlines of the majestic Alps as they towered above me, and I could get a sense for how spectacular they must be, but I just couldn’t quite get the scenery. While I wasn’t yet in Chamonix, I already couldn’t wait for my trip home so I could see the countryside in daylight 🙂 I arrived at my chalet pretty late, but the kind hosts had saved a plate of dinner for me in the oven – homemade and organic Indian along with a delicious apple tart for dessert. Yum! After dinner, I headed to my room – I had gotten very little sleep the night before, and I needed to be fresh for a day of skiing the Alps.

I woke up bright and early, admiring the gorgeous view from my window. The Alps are just stunning!

Next, I popped into the dining room for a quick breakfast: French bread fresh out of the oven along with the most delicious blueberry jam I have ever had. (Actually, the most delicious jam of any kind that I’ve ever had, but it happened to be blueberry). After eating about a loaf of the delicious bread (oops), I was “carbed up” (right, that’s my justification) and ready to go skiing. Judging from the dinner menu featuring organic tartiflette, I had better preemptively burn a ton of calories!

I headed for the rental shop a 5 minute walk away, and was surprised at how warm it was. The weather in Geneva had been absolutely gorgeous, making me worried about whether there would be snow, but when I got into Chamonix the night before, it seemed plenty cold. Now, however, it seemed more like a day for a run than to go skiing! But the other guests had assured me that they had gotten some great skiing in for the last few days, so I assumed it would be better up the mountain. For now, the downtown area was pretty warm.

After getting all fitted for my skis, I headed to the lift ticket facility next door, where I bought my ticket and then got to take the coolest ride up a mountain ever in a giant cable car. We all had our equipment with us, and a sign indicated that it could hold up to 44 people + equipment. WOW! Meanwhile, what I assumed was normally a snowy slope was currently green and grassy – I hoped there would be good snow at the top.

The ride was breathtaking, with gorgeous views of the Chamonix Valley and snowy cliffs in the distance. Soon enough I was standing on top of a similar cliff, as I prepared to ski Flegere.

I decided to start with the beginner slope, as I usually do – better safe than sorry while I get my “ski legs” back. At the top of one of the two beginner slopes on Flegere, I found a very narrow trail that required some careful maneuvering as I went around the twisty turns – but then it opened up into a wide flatland even easier than the beginner trails at home. After a quick chairlift back up (no line at all!), I decided to try the other beginner trail for good measure. This one was a little bit more steep, but I’d still classify both of them along the lines of “way easier than even the j-bar bunny slopes at home.”

Next, I headed for a chairlift that would take me to the intermediate/advanced slopes. I studied the map carefully to figure out my route down, then headed up. Again, the views on the lift were incredible – skiing in the Alps was probably the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life.

But when it came time to come down, I discovered that you really had to earn those views. This trail was tough! While it was about the same slope as the intermediate trails I’ve skied back home, the conditions made it really icy. That wouldn’t have been so bad, except it was incredibly narrow (about 10-15 feet wide) with a big drop on one side – and no real guard to keep you from going over. I was pretty scared and tried to take my time as much as possible, but even with the not-too-steep slope, the narrowness of it required you to stay absolutely in control – just one skid on the ice would send you over the edge. Yikes!

Just before the bottom, it opened up into a big wide area more like American ski slopes… but unlike the American slopes, which taper into a long flat section before reaching the lifts/lodge, the French have designed their trails so that the lifts/lodge are only about 20 feet from the bottom of the slope – again, meaning you’d better stay totally in control or you’re going to get hurt. Each time I went down, I was very worried I wouldn’t be able to stop in time, but by aiming for the very side of the slope right as I reached the bottom of the slope, I could then turn the other direction and ski across the bottom to approximate my own long flat section to slow down that I’m used to.

Despite being pretty scared on that particular run, I decided to go back up and try another intermediate run – maybe that one was just not a good one for the current icy conditions. This time, I truly experienced the French way of skiing: going “hors piste.”

Hors piste (or sometimes “off piste”, to combine French and English) means going “off trail,” and in the US, it’s something that’s really only done by the super advanced daredevils who want to blaze their own trails through the woods. Chamonix is well known for its off piste skiing, so much that at the rental shop, I was asked whether I wanted to include a transponder in my rental gear. Its purpose? To sound a siren if you go off piste and get caught in an avalanche. Being a not-so-adventurous skier, I passed on the offer, figuring I’d be fine since I was going to stay on piste the whole time. As it turned out, that was next to impossible.

See, while in the US, trails are clearly marked and there are usually only a few tracks of crazy skiers going off the trail, most skiers in Chamonix seem to go off piste. So then you get a situation like what happened to me on my second run from the real slopes. I’m skiing, skiing, thinking I’m on the intermediate trail, panicking a bit with how steep it is and thinking “this can’t really be the intermediate trail, can it?”, and then I see some red trail signs (indicating that I was on an advanced trail). How could that be, I wondered? No matter – at home, I was fairly comfortable with advanced trails, and while it was a bit icy, I should be able to manage.

I started chanting to myself for courage: “you can do it. You can do it. You can do it,” and my chant was actually somewhat successful. I found that the slope was too steep to ever pause to catch a breather – turning sideways just resulted in me sliding sideways without being able to catch an edge and stop, so the only real choice was to keep going. I saw an uphill coming up soon anyway – that would provide a good stopping point. Until I saw what was at the bottom of the downhill leading to the uphill: a big yellow sign that read “Peril! Dangereuse!” WHAT?!

I nearly peed my pants as I soon realized I was, in fact, NOT on a trail anymore. I had gone off-piste and now there was something “dangereuse” enough ahead of me to warrant a big sign alerting me to my brush with death. I stood there for a minute with no idea what to do, and then saw someone ski by me, right past the “peril!” sign. “Excusez-moi, est-ce que vous pouvez m’aider, s’il vous plait?” I called out… with no response. But SHE had just gone over.. maybe this was what I was supposed to do?

I cautiously skied forward,and found that the other side was not a cliff; it was just a very thawed out, rocky stretch – with a blue trail just below. Thank goodness! I braced myself and went for it, somehow managing not to hit any rocks or my head on anything. After I reached the base, it was back to the beginner slopes for me!

I braved various intermediate/difficult trails a few more times, with about the same level of success. The one other cultural difference I will note between American skiing and French is that in the US, if they close the easy trails that take you from halfway down the mountain, they warn you at the top (so you don’t get halfway down and then get stuck on an advanced trail). Not so in France! The mountain I was skiing, Flegere, is connected to another mountain, Brevent, by cable car, which again had some gorgeous views.

But when I ventured over to Brevent to try an intermediate slope, I found it closed about halfway through so I was stuck on an advanced! I managed to make it down, but gave up on Brevent after that and headed back to Flegere for a few more easy runs and to call it a day.

As I headed up the lift for my last run, I got a bit careless, letting the safety bar swing down on its own instead of guiding it myself. Big mistake – my knee was in the way, and it clocked me good! I fought the urge to cry, and pondered whether it was possible I had broken my kneecap – I had really hit it hard! By the end of the chairlift, though, the pain had started to subside, and some test bends of the knee proved to me that I was probably going to have a nasty bruise, but would otherwise be okay.

Just in case that was a sign of more bad things to come, I simply skied down to the lodge and called it a day. I didn’t want to actually injure myself! The ride down the cable car to the base was gorgeous, and I figured that would give me tons of time to get cleaned up and then go check out the Microbrasserie de Chamonix.

Bring on the biere!


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