After moving with Donna to Fontainebleau, I kicked off the European leg of my travels with an amazing surf trip to Spain and Portugal that I previously blogged about. Then I spent a nearly a month from mid-January to mid-February in Fontainebleau with Donna where I met many of her classmates and sampled the awesome experience that is getting a MBA from INSEAD. Living with Donna was fantastic, but I found myself restless in Fontainebleau because I felt somewhat of a lack of purpose. Originally I had imagined spending time working on business ideas and networking with Donna’s colleagues. Although I did a decent job of meeting people, mostly in very informal settings (a.k.a. partying), the reality was I was not able to get real work done in Fontainebleau. I think this was mainly because an adventure in the Alps was calling me!
The start of my month in the Alps was a weekend trip with Donna and a few of her INSEAD friends to Courchevel, France. I had never heard of this place before but quickly experienced what I needed to in order to characterize it as the European version of Vail. First off, it is very expensive. Forget about finding a hostel or any kind of cheap lodging, the best you’ll do is about €400 per night. Also the food is very pricey, pretty much every time you go someplace to eat it’s going to cost like €30 minimum per person. Ouch! The only thing that was surprisingly cheap were lift ticket prices, which rang it at only €50 per day. In fact, it seems most European ski resorts charge only about half what the big American ski resorts charge for lift tickets; I still wonder why lift tickets are much cheaper in Europe? At any rate, the well-to-do of Europe and especially Russia love it in Courchevel and one quickly gets the feeling that Courchevel is not for hardcore skiers but for those looking for a chill-out, ski a little, fine-dine a lot, and spend money kind of place. That being said, the mountain is pretty rad. Like Vail is enormous, Courchevel is really enormous. It is actually 3 entire mountain resorts all connected and accessible with one lift ticket and combined Le Trois Valleys is the largest ski resort in the world. The pistes are wide and well groomed, and there are some super legit couloirs and gnarly off-piste terrain available as well. We had rather good snow, including a dusting of fresh stuff overnight and clear skies. I’d love to head back on to Courchevel on a proper powder day!
Skiing and going out with Donna and her friends was lots of fun. On Valentine’s Day the group of us went to a fondue restaurant and I experienced my first raclette. Wow, that is a lot of cheese, only the French would figure out a way to make cheese a meal in and of itself. A few of Donna’s friends were really good skiers and it was fun to haul ass with them down the well-groomed runs. Also, one of Donna’s friend’s parents, who were vacationing in Courchevel (surprise, INSEADers often come from well-to-do international families), hired a guide and this guide showed us around the resort to the best runs. All in all it was a grand old time, I think only my wallet didn’t like the experience.
The weekend came to an end after a good day exploring the mountain with just Donna and myself. Donna cruised back to Fontainebleau in a car with some of her classmates and I caught a bus toward Chamonix. I stayed overnight at a hotel on the way and was in Chamonix by the next afternoon. I had the shuttle driver drop me off at Gite Vagabond, a hostel I had found on the Internet. The hostel was orderly and had one of the best Happy Hours in town, so it was a great place to meet people. I ended up staying there for my first 5 nights.
Chamonix was my first destination because it was the Alps location I had heard the most about through the grapevine. I knew that the skiing here was supposed to be as extreme as it gets and I was curious to see it for myself. I considered myself a backcountry skier, albeit a novice one, and my intent on coming to Chamonix was to get off-piste and see what the Alps were made of. I knew that Chamonix was a place where I could easily get into trouble, so my plan was to hire guides to show me how to approach the mountains here. The cost for a private guide in Chamonix was about €350 per day, but I found that I could contact the guide companies and join other groups and split that cost to save money so that my cost would be more like €150 for a day of guided skiing. I arrived in Chamonix on a Monday and I managed to get myself in an off-piste group for the next day, my first day in Chamonix.
That Tuesday, February 17th, was by far one of the craziest days of my life because I fell about 45 feet down into a crevasse while skiing on a glacier with a mountain guide. I wrote another blog post that describes in a matter-of-fact manner exactly what happened along with what I learned about glacier skiing. You should definitely read that blog post and watch the video, which can be found with this link. Here in the Radical Sabbatical blog I’ll write more openly about how I felt during and after the experience.
The video I made and put on YouTube below:
The fall lasted perhaps 5 seconds total and I don’t remember actively thinking about anything, just acting on instinct. Once I came to reset and looked around me I realized that I had broke through a snow bridge on the glacier and fallen deep into a crevasse. I looked up at the hole I had made and was shocked at how far down I was and I instantly knew that I was very lucky to be uninjured. It took about 20 minutes or so before my guide shouted at me and poked his head over the hole’s edge to see me down in the crevasse. During that 20 minutes I had moments of fear, especially when I realized that it would be impossible to climb out given I had no ice tools or crampons. At the same time I never really panicked because I felt certain that the guide would find me and initiate a rescue because that is exactly his job: to keep track of his clients. The hole was obvious and I’m sure some he must have been very much dreading to look down into that hole in expectation of seeing a very injured client!
During my time in the crevasse I tried to act logically and keep focused on survival. One of the first things I did was put on additional layers of clothing I had in my backpack. At some point I took my phone out to try to call for help (of course there was no service) and then with the phone already in my hand I decided to take some photos and the video to document the inside of the crevasse and my situation. Dark thoughts did enter my mind. I thought about possibly not being found before dark and being stuck in the crevasse overnight; chances for survival seemed grim. At the same time I was awed by the surreal beauty of the crevasse; I knew that the inside of a crevasse is a place not too many humans have seen (or want to see!). The crevasse I fell into was particularly beautiful owing to the late afternoon sun making the ice glow aqua blue. Once the guide found me it took about 25 minutes to complete the rescue. I was actually in good spirits once I was out and even snowboarded down to the bottom of Grand Montets. Every moment since then that I’ve spent thinking about the incident I have appreciation for how lucky I was to be uninjured. All of the rescuers and pretty much anyone I told the story to or showed the video to also reminded me that I was lucky to be alive.
That evening at the hostel I found myself at the hostel bar and I began talking with those around me about what had happened. Everyone was very interested to hear the story and they were amazed by the video I took with my phone in the crevasse. For the rest of the trip in the Alps my crevasse fall was a great story to tell the people I met. The people in Chamonix and especially the hardcore skiers and locals were intrigued by the story because many people are out there skiing glaciers frequently. The blog post I wrote and posted on SnowBrains actually made me a little bit of a 15-minute celebrity in Chamonix because a link to the blog post was added to the Facebook Chamonet page, so many people in town saw the story in their Newsfeed. Several people I met around town or on the slopes had already seen the post before I met them, and when I let them know I was the snowboarder who fell in the crevasse, they’d say something like: ‘Oh, you’re that guy!’
At the bar the evening after the fall I began hanging out with a French guy named Christophe who would end up being my friend and roommate for most of my days in Chamonix. He loved the video and it seemed only logical after a near-death experience to go out drinking with a new friend. I think emotionally I was still a little in shock about what had happened and having a few drinks in a new mountain town to celebrate being alive seemed appropriate.
The next day I didn’t snowboard and I really began to reflect and deal with what had happened. The main feeling I remember was being kind of sad for some reason, like wondering why I got away so easily from a crevasse fall when others had fallen to their deaths, even on that same glacier. (For example, read this or this or this). That day I hung out in a café for a few hours and wrote the blog post for SnowBrains. I think that writing helped me organize my thoughts, think about what I did wrong that led to the incident, and confront some of my feelings. Not wanting to be in Chamonix anymore did cross my mind, and I considered bailing out on the entire Alps trip to go surfing in Morocco instead. In the end I decided that it was just dumb luck that I came out OK and that I needed to get back on the mountain and go snowboarding. I didn’t want to let a bad experience ruin snowboarding for me, but at the same time what happened definitely tempered my initial grandiose ambitions with regard to what I hoped to accomplish in the Alps. I concluded that instead of spending lots of money paying guides to challenge me with bigger and bigger alpine ski objectives, I should just go snowboarding at the resorts and ease into things. In the end, this was a much better attitude for me to take because it allowed me to slow down and focus on having fun. After all, having fun is what snowboarding is all about!
The Alps Part 2 will be about the people and snowboarding that filled my days for the month that I was living in Chamonix.