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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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…