The Alps, Part 2

The Alps, Part 2   I first fell in love with snowboarding in middle school and since then I always imagined how awesome it would be to live at a resort as a ski bum and snowboard everyday.   Nearly two decades later (and at the tender age of 31) I’m on a Radical Sabbatical I was able to make a mini version of the dream happen in Chamonix Valley.   As I described in my previous post, my first day ‘boarding in Chamonix was both terrifying and fortunate not to result in serious injury (or death) after I fell into a large crevasse while skiing a glacier at Grands Montets. I considered leaving Chamonix because of the incident in order to surf in Morocco, but in the end I decided to ‘get back on the horse’ and keep snowboarding. The main proponent of me staying was a French guy named Christophe who I met my hostel the evening after the incident. Christophe is a super gregarious French guy who also speaks perfect English because his mother is American. The day after my fall, when I was sad and considering leaving Chamonix, Christophe convinced me to stick around Chamonix and go snowboarding with him the next day, back at Grand Montets.

Christophe and myself

Christophe and myself

That day was another spring-like, blue-bird day and the snow was surprisingly good, becoming just soft enough by mid morning for good carving, but never becoming slushy or slow. I snowboarded hard with Christophe and a few of his French friends. When I say hard, I mean like much harder than I usually ride: we were on the mountain by around 10 in the morning and were lapping the gondolas nonstop until everything closed around 4:30. I probably did more vertical feet in that day than any other day in my life. And cruising Grand Montets with Christophe and his friends, the French “Brothers” Axle and Boris, was awesome because they knew the mountain well, taking me through on numerous runs through Grands Montets’ famous Combe de la Pendant. All I had to do was keep up with them, which was actually rather difficult because the Brothers skied fast. The younger brother, Axle, had won local freeride competitions in Chamonix and had even competed in the Chamonix Freeride World Tour qualifier earlier in the season. The Brothers were both classic French ski bums, working jobs in the off-season, saving their Euros and living in caravans in Chamonix in order to ski through the entire season without working. They had a clear love for skiing and the mountains, and meeting them assured me that I made the right decision by staying in Chamonix.

(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)

The next day I skied in Italy at a resort called Cormayuer with another new friend I also met the Gite Vagabond. Ryan is an American who traveled through Chamonix for a few days of skiing after a European business trip. We hit it off because he lives in San Francisco and works in tech in business development for a company called WorldPay. His last day of skiing was that Friday and we both wanted to check out the Italy side of Mont Blanc so we took a 45-minute bus ride through the Mont Blanc Tunnel and found ourselves in Italy.   Despite it being the middle of February, the spring-like conditions continued and we cruised the resort at a much more leisurely pace than my previous day with Christophe and the Brothers, which was a welcome change for me.   A unique feature of the Alps is that one easily ski in multiple countries since France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria are all relatively close together.   After spending a day in Italy, Ryan and I were able to make interesting French versus Italian comparisons. First I noticed that the Italians seem to have a less of a concept of orderly lift lines than the French, but both countries are much more chaotic and pushy than American lift lines. The food on the Italian side was also much cheaper than the French side. Of course the resort restaurants served pizzas and focaccia sandwiches instead of burgers and various French cuisine. Even the skiers seemed to enjoy skiing with with a different style. Generally the French resorts seemed more like what I was used to in America, but by comparison the Italians seem to generally take it easier, with the masses enjoying to soak the sun’s rays with their noses in the air during seemingly frequent breaks at the various lodges. The older Italians skied with a funny style: standing rather upright and keeping their arms up high and wide at their sides while skiing slowly and making wide turns. Ryan and I were happy to accommodate the more relaxed pace and enjoyed a long mid-afternoon break while sipping beers under the impressively vertical backside of Monte Blanc.

(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)

At this point it was already the weekend again and Donna and I were fortunate enough to be reunited again. Donna took a train to Switzerland and met up with her college friend Lauren Kwist, who had been living and working in Geneva for the past several years. I took an airport shuttle from Chamonix to Geneva and was picked up by Lauren and Donna. Yes, more good times with Donna and more new friends! Donna, Lauren, Lauren’s husband Ryan, and myself spent a that Saturday cruising around a gloomy Geneva; we weren’t bothered by the lack of sun because there was snow falling in the mountains. We had an awesome steak dinner at a restaurant near Lauren’s house that only served one dish: steak, which meant that it was done just right. And of course the wine flowed freely, as has been the case at just about any dinner in Europe!   The next day Donna, Lauren and myself went for a day of skiing at a resort at the far end of the Chamonix Valley called Le Tour. The day started off cold and foggy, but there was about 2 feet of light, fresh powder on the ground for us to enjoy. I cruised with the ladies and took some cool photos with my wide SLR using a wide-angle lens. Really, the mountains necessitate wide-angle because the landscapes are so vast that one needs a wide angle to get it everything in the photo, plus wide angles are great for selfies! Thanks to Lauren’s recommendation, we had lunch at a quaint chalet near the top of the mountain. I was blown away to be eating gourmet food in at the top of a ski resort.   Donna and I were stoked to be living the quintessential European ski experience!

(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)

The following day was a Monday and Donna had to return to Fontainebleau for school. Lauren let Donna borrow her car and Donna drove me back to Chamonix. We ate a tasty burger lunch at a spot the best burger spot in town called Poco Loco, watching out the window as snow nuked down. However, the temperature was barely freezing and the large snowflakes felt watery. Reports from a few skiers we talked to were that the conditions were somewhat miserable up on the slopes, which enabled me to justify in my mind taking the day off. After lunch I said a melancholy goodbye to Donna, but the plan was for her to return to Chamonix in less than two weeks during the break between her first and second semesters at INSEAD. We’d be reunited soon enough!

Watching the snow come down at Poco Loco

Watching the snow come down at Poco Loco

For the meantime I made arrangements to share an AirBnB place with Christophe. The Gite Vagabond was a lively hostel in a good location and a great place for meeting people, but €40 per night had 4 people, inevitably skiers with copious smelly ski gear, crammed into very small dorm rooms with two bunk beds. Worse yet, there was no common kitchen for meal preparation (although the bar was excellent). This wasn’t conducive to any kind of privacy or relaxation or the ability to save money by preparing my own meals, and I felt I could do better on AirBnB. Sure enough, I found a studio nearby with two beds for only €50 per night and Christophe agreed to split the cost with me.  In this way I came to be living with my new friend Christophe.   During this week living with Christophe in the small studio I really began to feel like a ski bum. Each day there was only one thing to do: go snowboarding. Christophe was full of energy and most days made sure that we were up early and on the bus to Grand Montets in time to be among the first up the gondola. His energy level shocked me: despite being up at dawn and on the mountain all day, he would still go out trolling the bars nearly every night until past 2am, always trying to implore me to come out with him. I usually declined his a requests and when I did go out with him, I would bail early because he never seemed to have enough of a late evening. The bar scene in Chamonix is typical of most mountain towns, where the ratio is like 4 dudes to every girl, except in Chamonix everywhere seems to be overrun by British tourists – not my scene at all. But living with Christophe was great. Him being French, he knew where to go for what and could easily ensure everything we needed was taken care of. After a day a day of riding we would usually swing by a grocery store and buy some food to make for dinner as well as some wine, cheese and sausage to enjoy while leisurely preparing our evening meal. Often I would eat so much cheese, baguette, and sausage that dinner seemed almost unnecessary! Christophe was stoked to demonstrate to me the French way of life, which he explained meant doing things at a relaxed pace while talking and generally enjoying the company of friends and family.   The skiing itself that week was pretty good, definitely better than the previous week. The high pressure that induced spring-like conditions the week prior had broken down and fresh snow fell for a couple of good powder days. There were several highlights. First was doing laps at a run Christophe showed me called the “Magical Forest” at Grands Montets. On many days when it is snowing in Chamonix the resorts are foggy with clouds, so finding good tree runs like the Magical Forest is the best option. On another day I went without Christophe to Brévant because Christophe pretty much only goes to Grands Montets, because “it’s the best”, and I couldn’t convince him to stray from his favorite mountain. At Brévant I was able to find fresh lines for an entire bluebird morning.   I was on the first tram up to the very top, which hadn’t opened the previous day, so it was completely fresh. I watched as most of the gnarly dudes (and a few ladies) on that first tram headed off the tram to the famous Brévant Couloirs. However, now respecting my limits, I along with a few others went down the safe way back toward the tram, all of us hurling full speed on fresh, untouched powder while hooting the entire way down. By midday the face I skied was completely tracked out – this is why “First Bin” matters! I explored more of Brévant after that and met ended up meeting a Scottish guy named Daniel on a chairlift.   It turns out he had seen my crevasse video and this became the first of a my “Oh, you’re the guy who fell into the crevasse” moments. We cruised together until early afternoon when the bright sun had baked the powder heavy and not nearly as good. A final memory worth sharing was a day I was with Christophe and the Brothers when the clouds formed up only through the mid-section of Grands Montets, which created some epic views from the top that made the mountains look like they were floating on the seas of heaven.   I later relayed these views to my mom and she told me that when she skied Chamonix back in her college days she remembered the same thing happening in Chamonix.

(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)

On the not so good snow days I still found ways to keep myself stoked. I had brought all my splitboard gear to Chamonix but after nearly two weeks I still hadn’t used it, so on a warm day I went to Les Houches where they have a skin track that you can use to go up to the top of that resort. I ascended the mountain in about two-and-a-half hours and then took a rather horrible run down. The exercise and views were great though! On another day I again hired a guide and practiced some mountaineering techniques right in the middle of Grands Montets. We short-roped up the top of a ridge a few times and were able to get good fresh tracks! Originally my plan was to try and learn a lot of mountaineering while in Chamonix, but the crevasse fall kind of tempered my mountain ambitions. Nonetheless it was nice to reinforce some of the skills I had learned in the mountaineering course I took the previous December.   My most favorite runs went down at Grands Montets with another new friend named Sergei.  Christophe and I met Sergei at our favorite apres ski spot in Argentiere, which is the small town adjacent to Grands Montets.  Sergei is only 22 years old, but carried himself as a dude who is much older.  His uncle owns a huge chalet in Argentiere but lives in London and Sergei was living there by himself.  Anyway, I skied with Sergei on a few occasions and we lucked into 2 sweet Pendant powder runs.  It had been nuking snow all day to the point where like 50cm had accumulated, but the whole day was completely foggy, almost too foggy even for the trees, so you really couldn’t enjoy the powder.  I mean, what I really want to do in powder is haul ass, but if you can’t see more than 10 feet in front of you, it’s impossible to unleash.  Well, on this day I was riding with Sergei and then at about 3pm the clouds suddenly lifted and we found ourselves in Pendant with good visibility.  We nuked four runs in deep, fresh powder hauling but and shredding, it was the best hour and a half of resort skiing I think I’ve ever done.  See the below gallery for the GoPro selfie evidence!   OK, originally I planned to write one post for all the time I spent in the Alps, but at this point I still have about 2 weeks more to cover and I’m already at 2,200 words, so I’ll cut it short here. In the next post I’ll write about my friend TI joining me, Donna coming for a long weekend, and my final days skiing in Zermatt!

(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)

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