February 17, 2004

off piste

Monday I was a little weak but basically recovered, and got about six hours of skiing in at Brévent-Flégère. I hadn't been on skis since January 2002. On the other hand I started skiing when I was 5, and it is, in fact, just like riding a bicycle; I was bombing down the black slopes in no time at all. Tuesday, at La Tour, was one of my favourite ski days ever - my legs were strong, and I found one of my favourite runs of all time, "Belle Place", and spent most of the day going up and down its variations.

Wednesday, at Les Grands-Montets, started off poorly. "In French," said the man who had just recovered the poles I had abandoned about 50 feet upslope, when I hit an unexpected ice patch, caught an edge, faceplanted into the mountain (bestowing a large bruise beneath my right eye which I still proudly wear) and tumbled for a fair ways, "we call this un jour blanc". Thick white squalling snow, visibility of about 5 feet, which makes skiing extremely challenging and not all that much fun. Fortunately it cleared up at noon, and I even managed to accidentally wriggle onto a cable car i wasn't theoretically cleared for, up to a winding semi-off-piste black run called "La Tour" when ran alongside an incredibly beautiful tumbling river of crystalline blue glacier ice.

Thursday was one of my Grand Days of Travel. We hired a guide to take us down the Vallee Blanche, an alpine glacier that stretches 20 kilometres from a 3800-metre-high peak down to the Chamonix valley. After picking our way down a not-particularly-safe roped-off path above a steep icy slope that woul have sent anyone who fell skittering into eternity, we strapped on harnesses (in case you fall into a crevasse), skis and snowboards (mostly boards - I was one of three skiiers in our group, and the only fairly advanced one) and began. It was a pretty humbling day. I hadn't skiied powder for a decade, and it's a totally different skillset than piste skiing. And this powder was thick, soft stuff - at one point I fell clumsily onto my side, tried to use my poles to lever myself up, and watched with some amazement as the poles easily plunged into the snow, until their tops were below the crust, without giving me any purchase.

There were narrow traverses, there were many crevasses to avoid (the consensus favourite line from our hardcore-mountain-man guide was "Do not go to my right. And do not go far to my left either") some of the slopes we had to descend were worrying clifflike, and the air was very thin and we sometimes had to pant for what felt like minutes to recover from the effort of righting ourselves after falls, but it was terrific fun once I started getting the hang of powder again, and the scenery, jagged spires of snow-streaked rock, seams and boulders of blue ice, the elegant snow-covered ribs and crevasses of the glacier, was absolutely breathtaking.

After the lunch hut - which came none too soon, as I had foolishly taken the word of the chalet's stoner owner that it was only a two-hour trip, and had neglected to bring water - the route smoothed out into a vast near-plain that eventually came out at a grotto carved every year into the blue ice of the glacier. We unbuckled, unstrapped, hopped on board a convenient train back to Chamonix, bought our guide a few drinks, and headed home. Four of us went for spectacularly good starters at an ancient restaurant called L'Impossible, followed by a spectacularly bad game of bowling (I am pleased to report that there was no one worse than I) and a huge, somewhat sodden meal at a place called Goophie's. Collapsed around midnight, very content with the world.