Chamonix

The Alps Part 3: Chamonix Ski Touring, Zermatt and Zurich

My final two weeks of “ski bumming” in the Alps didn’t involve so much ‘bumming’. My friend TI joined me for a week of resort skiing and backcountry exploration and Donna joined us on her long weekend between semesters. Given the two extra guests, Christophe and I moved into a bigger, 3-bedroom AirBnB that was a nice upgrade from the studio we’d been at the previous week.

I thought I'd throw this photo in because I like it.  Somewhere near Flegere looking toward Grands Montets

I thought I’d throw this photo in because I like it. Somewhere near Flegere looking toward the Valle Blanche

The new apartment was literally right across the street from the old place, which made the move easy. It was a cozy 3-bedroom apartment owned by an Italian engineer. The big upgrade for Christophe and I was that it had a proper living room and we each had our own private bedrooms with great views of the Aiguille du Midi face. The comfort of this new place (and also probably a desire for some actual rest) incited a noticeable calming in Christophe, who no longer desired to be out partying until the early morning every night, instead preferring to hang at the relatively luxurious apartment. Most nights he would relax while watching snowboard movies on his laptop and smoking endless hand-rolled spliffs. He’s a classic Frenchman indeed.

The evening after I scored amazing powder runs in the Pendant area of Grands Montets with Sergei, TI arrived in the Cham. I know TI from our time studying at Stanford together and we, along with a few other mutual Stanford friends, have kept a tradition of meeting up for some skiing somewhere in the world at least once per year (the other guys were absent from Chamonix, but we would see them at Rob’s bachelor party in Park City in about a months time). TI used to be a PhD student at Berkeley, but two years ago he became a Professor of Business at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia. It is now more important than ever that TI makes trip to the mountains for some snowboard action! At the encouragement of myself and other backcountry skier friends, TI had taken an AIERE avalanche course and bought a splitboard, so the main agenda was to do guided ski touring in the Chamonix backcountry.

TI, the moment he first step foot onto Chamonix ground

TI, the moment he first step foot onto Chamonix ground

Literally an hour after TI arrived Donna showed up too! She hitched a ride with some INSEAD classmates, who had come up to join a big group of INSEADers. The ‘college students’ had rented two chalets for a long weekend of skiing and partying in between their first and second semesters. Donna was stoked on our apartment and once everyone was settled we headed into town for a few drinks and to catch up.

Celebrating Donna and TI's arrival in Chamonix with a flaming shooter

Celebrating Donna and TI’s arrival in Chamonix with a flaming shooter

Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse at this point; the next day most all of the resorts were shut down due to high winds. You wouldn’t have realized anything was amiss given the calm in the Chamonix Valley, but looking at the mountain ridges up high you could see the wind was intense because huge snow contrails were blasting off the mountain peaks. It was a bummer that all the fresh powder that had fallen the day before was now getting blown off the mountains! We made the best of the day by heading to Les Houches and I brought Donna and TI up the skin track I had discovered the prior week. It was good practice for TI who was still learning the basics of skinning.

Winds howling off the high peaks in Chamonix

Winds howling off the high peaks in Chamonix early that morning.  All the resorts except for Les Houches were closed

The view form about 1/3 up  the mountain at Les Houches

The view form about 1/3 up the mountain at Les Houches.  It wasn’t nearly as windy here!

Donna and me. Skinning!

Donna and me. Skinning!

TI selfie.

TI selfie.

Cool long exposure shot I took during the full moon that evening.  You can see Mont Blanc in the background.

Cool long exposure shot I took during the full moon from our balcony that evening. You can see Mont Blanc in the background and it still looks windy

That Friday the Donna, TI and myself, along with a British gent, did a ski tour in Switzerland. Our guide was a lady named Elodie who took some fantastic photos of the trip. It was a bluebird day and even though the winds were still blowing strongly in Chamonix, the location Elodie took us was sunny, warm and calm. Everyone was stoked. In the evening the 3 of us joined the INSEAD crew for a 30 person dinner at a nice French restaurant in town – the INSEADers know how to enjoy the finer things in life!

The crew getting ready to ascend in Switzerland

The crew getting ready to ascend in Switzerland

Doesn't it look like she's really enjoying herself out there?  She was!

Doesn’t it look like she’s really enjoying herself out there? She was!

TI skinning

TI skinning

Conga line!

Conga line!  Thanks to Elodie for taking the photos

At the summit of ... whatever it was we climbed up (in Switzerland)

At the summit of … whatever it was we climbed up (in Switzerland)

Descending is always the fun part, right!?!

Descending is always the fun part, right!?!

Donna stoked to be crushing some spring condition freshies!

Donna stoked to be crushing some spring condition freshies!

Yea, she's stoked!

Yea, she’s stoked!

 

In general the 2015 ski season in the Alps was regarded as a bit of a dud. I had heard that the previous two ski seasons were pretty good ones for the French Alps, but this year there had only been a couple of decent snowfalls during late Jan / early Feb but nothing significant before or after. Usually late Feb / early March is the time for big dumps and snow accumulation! The area of the Alps that was getting blasted was the southern Italian Alps. Instead of the usual pattern of storms coming in from the NW bringing copious snowfall to the northern French Alps, the Swiss Alps and the Austrian Alps, this year the Alps had instead seen a number of storms approach from the Mediterranean and dump the goods all over the Italian Piedmont. Everyone around Chamonix, especially myself, would always eagerly be checking http://www.snow-forecast.com and http://www.wepowder.com hoping to see signs of a big snow dump to come, but it just wasn’t in the cards for Chamonix. I was disappointed, but then again I was also happy to stay in Chamonix instead of chasing powder around the Alps, which would’ve been logistically a pain in the butt and rather expensive. And even despite the lackluster snow year, I scored a couple of days of awesome powder!

That weekend TI and I did more guided ski touring while Donna went skiing in the resorts with her INSEAD friends. Chamonix is an amazing place full of epic ski tour possibilities, but the mountains are very intimidating and it wouldn’t be prudent to head off on ski tours without hiring a guide. Even with a guide I’d learned a few weeks prior how dangerous the mountains could be! My hope was that after a few guided days I’d obtain the knowledge to safely navigate the zones we went to on my own. With guides costing €350 per day (but at least split between 3 people) it is simply too expensive to hire them everyday, but I wanted to be out ski touring as much as possible! Donna made me promise that I’d stay off of glaciers and I happily agreed to her request, at this point admitting I didn’t have the knowledge, gear nor experience for safe glacier travel.

The first day our guide brought us to a zone that is skier’s right of the Flegere resort. We actually bought a “backcountry only” pass for €21 that allowed us to take the Flegere tram and then a chair to the top, and then we traversed under the Aiguille de la Floria and then skinned up towards the frozen Lac Blanc. Our original objective was ascend and ski down the Col du Belévdère, which looked amazing once we reached its base. We had lunch at the doorstep of Le Refuge du Lac Blanc, which unfortunately wasn’t open yet beca. Our British friend wasn’t fit enough for the big ascent up to the Col du Belévdère, so we ended up traversing far to skier’s left into and beyond the zone directly opposite Grands Montets. We kept traversing and traversing and eventually descended down to the little French town of Les Montets just before Vallorcine. The group had a beer there and then we caught the Mont Blanc Express train back to Chamonix. TI did very well on his first day of proper ski touring!

Our guide showing us the crown where an avalanche broke off a week or so prior.  You can see the crown is like 8 feet and a big chunk of snow off to the right.

Our guide showing us the crown where an avalanche broke off a week or so prior. You can see the crown is like 8 feet and a big chunk of snow off to the right.

TI practicing his kick turns

TI practicing his kick turns

Our first look at a delectable Col du Belvedere

Our first look at a delectable Col du Belvedere

GoPro selfie stick, bru!

GoPro selfie stick, bru!

and some action

and some action, with TI not far behind

Looking across the valley at Grands Montets.  It doesn't seem quiet as grand when it fits all into one frame!

Looking across the valley at the end of Valle Blanche and Grands Montets. It doesn’t seem quiet as grand when it fits all into one frame!

Trippy looking snow in this spot

Trippy looking snow in this spot

 

The next day TI and I ended up skiing with our guide in Les Balme. We spent the morning doing some gravity accessible off-piste runs and then we were invited to have lunch at our guide’s house at the base of the mountain. After lunch we went up the Vallorcine gondola, did a short hike farther up, then traversed toward a long 800m couloir that would bring us into Switzerland. Getting to the couloir was tricky and involved hiking up a steep, snowless face and then carefully getting into position to ride down the couloir. On the way down my binding broke but fortunately I had spare parts in my backpack and was able to fix it in the middle of the 40- degree couloir! The incident slowed us down and we barely made it to the bus on time; we were literally sprinting to catch it before it left. It was an awesome experience, though, and TI was stoked on his first legit couloir experience – this was REAL Chamonix!

Just before hiking up the crux to the couloir

Just before hiking up the crux to the couloir

Baked by the sun all day, this aspect had no snow at the top, but the couloir was filled with snow because it was in the shade

Baked by the sun all day, this aspect had no snow at the top, but the couloir was filled with snow because it was in the shade. This hike in snowboard boots was way sketchier than it looks in this photo.

The couloir that drops down into Switzerland...where a bus will happily take you back to France.

The couloir that drops down into Switzerland…where a bus will happily take you back to France.

That evening Donna had to catch a ride back to Fontainebleau with some of her classmates. I said goodbye – again – but I knew I’d be seeing her soon enough. Of course we did some flaming shooters to commemorate the farewell.

The next few days TI and I rode Grands Montets with Christophe, Sergei and the Brothers. Good times.  TI and I also took a trip up the Aiguille du Midi so he could check out the amazing vistas up there.

At the top of the Midi

TI and myself at the top of the Midi

This shows the arete you must walk down to get to the beginning of the Valle Blanche.  Fall off the north end and its 2500 meters of sheer cliffs to the valley floor!

Taken from the Midi tram, this shows the arete you must walk down to get to the beginning of the Valle Blanche. Fall off the north end and its 2500 meters of sheer cliffs to the valley floor!  A fall off the other side of the spine might not be fatal, but no fun at all.

On TI’s last day in Chamonix we decided to mount a return to the Col du Belévdère. Sergei came along for his first ever day of ski touring. Also joining us was Brett, who we met during our first guided attempt at Belévdère. Brett is from Australia and has a pretty cool job: he’s a pilot who flies the double-decker A380 superjumbo for Qantas, including the 17-hour route from Sydney to Australia which is the longest commercial flight in the world. Brett’s wife is from Norway and their family has a place in Chamonix, so he is fortunate enough to spend lots of time skiing here – a smart guy for sure!

Brett the Australian A380 pilot

Brett the Australian A380 pilot

Anyway, the day had beautiful spring-like conditions and the ascent went smoothly. Being a pack of 4 dudes, we joked along the way that it would be fantastic if at the top of the Col there would a bunch of topless babes ready to give us massages… and then when we got to the top, we found not quiet that… but something I would’ve never expected. There was a pack of 5 Norweigen girls sunning themselves and eating lunch! It was a Yhatzee! moment for the single dudes, TI and Sergei, who chatted them up and I got a fantastic photo of Sergei with the pretty ladies. We skied down the sun-softened with the girls and of course the female presence had the guys blasting airs off wind lips and crashing ridiculously. Good times!

At the top of the Col du Belvedere

At the top of the Col du Belvedere

'Twas an amazing day

‘Twas an amazing day

Me, at the top

Me, at the top

This DOES NOT happen everyday.  Sergei , stoked on life.  He got 2 of the 5 girls to give him their number.

This DOES NOT happen everyday. Sergei , stoked on life. He got 2 of the 5 girls to give him their number.

Chilling at the end of an amazing day

Chilling at the end of an amazing day

The below is a video… check it out!

 

That evening TI left and the next day was time to check out from the apartment we’d been staying in for the last week and a half. Sergei let me stay in his place for two more nights and tried to convince me to chase a storm that was going to dump (again) on the Italian Piedmont. These southerly storms would oftentimes fail to break across the high peaks of separating Italy from Switzerland and France and Sergei was hungry for powder. However, I had business to attend to: first I was going to go to Zermatt for 2 days of skiing with Lauren (Donna’s friend) and then I needed to head to Zurich to pick up an expensive small package…

My final day of skiing in Chamonix was a tour with Brett. We returned to Flegere and bought the 1-way pass up the mountain. We followed a popular tour that took us up and over the Col du Crochues, then traversed for a few kilometers around the cirque until another ascent brought us to the Col de Bérard. Then the descent flat out sucked, horrible, icy snow pretty much the whole way down and this was followed by a super long traverse along a river that was a huge pain in my snowboarder ass. But I made it and at the end of the day both Brett and I were still stoked on just being out in the mountains!

Me about to make it over the Col du Crouches

Me about to make it over the Col du Crochues

The backcountry heaven behind Col du Crouches

The backcountry heaven behind Col du Crochues

This is the 2nd half of our (shitty) descent, and you can kinda see how it all flattens out and became a living nightmare for me as a snowboarder!

This is the 2nd half of our (shitty) descent, and you can kinda see how it all flattens out and became a living nightmare for me as a snowboarder!

By late the following day I was in Zermatt and in sight of the glorious Matterhorn. Switzerland is super expensive, especially after the Franc appreciated thanks to the SNB releasing the Euro floor peg, but I managed to find a cheap hostel and get moved in. I had a nice dinner with Lauren, Ryan and Ryan’s cousin Chris who was joining them from the West Coast. When you hang out with foodies like Lauren and Ryan you eat well and spend lots.

My first real glimpse at Ze Matterhorn

My first real glimpse at Ze Matterhorn. My hostel was just up this street.

the alps part 3-38

More Matterhorn

The two days of skiing were pretty fun. Zermatt has wide, well-groomed pistes that are super fun to haul ass on. The resort at Zermatt is huge and it is even possible to go down the back side to an Italian ski resort. The first day I was with Lauren and Ryan and we ate yet another awesome meal right on the mountain that Lauren claimed “was the #2 restaurant on a mountain slope in the world.” It was fricken’ good. For our last run we went up the tram to the highest possible point and we could see the storm clouds that were dumping snow in Italy spanning the horizon to the south. Yet nothing was falling in Switzerland! The next day it was just me and Chris because Lauren and Ryan left and the storm did manage to drop some freshies on the upper Swiss side. Chris and I put a few tracks on a particularly tasty slope we found and then went to the Italian side, which had tons of wet, heavy snow and was completely foggy. No good at all! Jeez, finding good powder is way tougher than it should be! Nonetheless the days were fun times.

If you are in Zermatt, look this place up and GO HERE for lunch

If you are in Zermatt, look this place up and GO HERE for lunch

The meal in action

The meal in action

From the top of Zermatt you could see the system that was nuking snow all over the Italian Piedmont.  It literally stopped right at the ridgeline and barely dusted Switzerland at all.

From the top of Zermatt you could see the system that was nuking snow all over the Italian Piedmont. It literally stopped right at the ridgeline and barely dusted Switzerland at all.

Chris Mangano

Chris Mangano

This was by far the longest poma lift I'd ever ridden. Because the tram was closed, we had to take this thing for like 30 minutes to get to the Italian side, which was completely foggy anyway, with wet snow to boot

This was by far the longest poma lift I’d ever ridden. Because the tram was closed, we had to take this thing for like 30 minutes to get to the Italian side, which was completely foggy anyway, with wet snow to boot

Chris and I did 3 laps on this face, which had about a foot of freshies deposited all over it

Chris and I did 3 laps on this face, which had about a foot of freshies deposited all over it

action shot 1

action shot 1

the alps part 3-49

action shot 2

A screen grab from Chris' helmet cam as he descends the powder face we milked 3 runs on

A screen grab from Chris’ helmet cam as he descends the powder face we milked 3 runs on

I hoped on train to Zurich, where I spent less than 24 hours. I went to Zurich (instead of directly to Paris) for one purpose: to get the engagement ring for Donna from the FedEx location I had the ring mailed to. I thought the customs process would be confusing and paperwork heavy but to my amazement getting the ring was a piece of cake: I literally walked in, signed for my package, and that was it! No customs forms, no duty payments, nothing! Gotta love Switzerland! Chalk up one for Brandon, who successfully avoided paying any kind of sales tax on his engagement ring! (If you work for the State of California revenue department, please ignore this.)

Whoa, on the train to Zurich I finally made it to Part 2 of Don Quixote!

Whoa, on the train to Zurich I finally made it to Part 2 of Don Quixote!

Upon arriving in Zurich I checked into a hostel for the night in order to give myself plenty of time to figure out the alleged customs procedures, but it turned out I was done after only 45 minutes. I found myself with the rest of the day to spend in Zurich before I’d leave for Paris the following morning. I am no tourist and I am not usually interested in seeing the sights of a city and Zurich was no exception. So instead I hung out at my hostel and met a few interesting people.

the alps part 3-46

The FedEx spot that was my main mission in Zurich

Good things come in small packages

Good things come in small packages

Pound for pound, the most expensive thing I will ever buy

Pound for pound, the most expensive thing I will ever buy

I overhead two young guys talking about computer science and artificial intelligence and joined their conversation. Howard was all of 20 years old and a computer science major from Cornell. He had spent the previous summer working for Jane Street, a high frequency trading firm, but was going to spend this summer working for a data science company called Palantir in New York City. Claudio was 25 years old and an economics major from Chile who had recently graduated and taking 6 months to travel before working. I gave them my background and we had a nerdy but cool conversation for some time before I suggested we take downstairs to the bar in order to resume over beers. Before heading over I asked the ladies staying in my dorm room if they might join us, and two of them did. Inez was a 21-year old dancer from Brazil who had gone to school for 2 years in San Francisco and was currently traveling through Europe auditioning for various dance schools. Sally was a 33-year old Ph.D. in materials science who was in Zurich interviewing for a post-doc research position. Whoa, this was definitely one of the most eclectic and intelligent groups of people I’d ever met in a random city hostel! We all talked for about 2 hours, discussing life and the opportunities and decisions everyone had to make in the coming months. As I fell asleep that evening I reflected that this meeting of diverse and interesting people in transitory periods of their lives is one aspect of traveling that I enjoy so much.

Since my mission was accomplished I got on a train back to Paris. That weekend Donna and I would be heading together to check out Istanbul and I had some important business to attend to…

 

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Categories: Chamonix, Zermatt, Zurich | 2 Comments

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)

Categories: Chamonix | Leave a comment

The Alps Part 1: Wow, was I lucky

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!

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Donna and the INSEAD crew on Saturday

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.

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Donna and I on Sunday, when just the two of us explored the resort of Les Trois Vallees

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.

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View from the top of Valle Blanche just after emerging from the Aguille Midi station.  This was my first run 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!

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Photo of me getting pulled out of the crevasse taken by the rescuer who descended into the crevasse to assist me.

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Also a photo taken by the rescuer as he was being dragged out of the crevasse showing exactly what I fell down.

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A photo of the hole I created when I broke through the snowbridge. There was no way I could have easily known beforehand I was riding on a snowbridge!

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.

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The American couple who was with me on the guided tour when I fell into the crevasse. They were from Reno and the woman worked for Patagonia. Needless to say, they were rattled by my experience too!

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.

Categories: Chamonix, Courchevel 1850 | 1 Comment

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