C’est la vie in a snowy paradise

An encounter with snow and ski life in the beautiful French Alps will leave you wanting to return to this heaven on earth.

September 17, 2010 12:52
French-Switzerland alps

French alps 311. (photo credit: Amir Mizroch)

SOUTH-EASTERN FRANCE – It was the first time I’d ever seen real, actual snow. Not the measly trickle that covered Jerusalem a few years ago, but heaps of it, meters of thick, soft, powdery white stuff as far as the eye could see. It was everywhere – under my boots, on the roads, on roofs and all around the mountains along the France-Switzerland border. Especially on top of the mountains, where whiter-than-white peaks seemed scarred by an assault of brown and gray rock protrusions underneath their snow.

I felt like an (Israeli) astronaut discovering a new, white planet. And the planet was not devoid of life forms. Whenever I looked up at the mountains, I could make out, from a distance, dots of unlikely downhill movement; lone figures snaking down snowy slopes, some gently waltzing down in long, lazy turns; others thrashing sharp zigzags through the snow at impossible speeds. These creatures probably once had knees, I thought to myself, but must have evolved out of them as their mode of transport down steep mountains demanded extreme elasticity and suspension.

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It was a bustling planet with tens of thousands of inhabitants wearing peculiar, shiny, full-body costumes and jackets. On their faces most were wearing goggle-type coverings over their eyes, helmets, gloves and scarves. Their arms were holding onto long, pointed sticks which they would jab into the snow, and on their legs were heavy boots attached to long, smooth and narrow planks on which they moved their twisting bodies.

The faster and flashier ones made a mockery of the mountains’ menacing gradient. Everything here looked outlandish to me: the clothes, the manner in which their bodies moved in twists and turns and the fact that, despite it being very cold, they all looked to be extracting an immense amount of pleasure from their activity. Fascinated, and eager to try something entirely new; not to climb and conquer the mountains, but to move through them, to experience a new way of moving that seemed bizarrely natural to this setting.

I was out in strange and beautiful terrain, on a mountain range in the French Alps, knee-deep in that sparkling, other-worldly material called snow. Despite the biting cold and wind, the sun was out, the strangeness was inviting and even though I’d only previously seen it on TV, I couldn’t wait to strap on skis and hit the slopes.

BUT BEFORE you can ski, you have to learn to walk in the snow. And before you can learn to walk in the snow with skis, you have to walk in big, uncomfortable ski shoes. With big, thumping strides I felt like a caricature of John Wayne, strutting down the road toward the ski area as if I were making my way down a dusty street to a high noon shoot-out.

Once I got the actual skis on, things didn’t get any easier. Walking, or should I say ski-placing sideways up a gentle slope, I learned that skis are primarily instruments of inertia, of resistance to gravity, and that skiing without skis would still get you down the mountain, but in a much less graceful and infinitely more painful manner.

Before you can learn to walk on snow with skis, you must learn about mountains, about their slope, about gravity and about how snow reacts to a person’s weight and motion. But above all, you need to learn control. And the first, second, third and fourth lessons on control, as I was about to find out, were all about a technique called “snowplow,” which has you bringing your skis together at their top front, while you bend your knees and move forward (down) in a slow, controlled descent. Snowplowing takes a lot of practice, and it is advisable to get that one down pat before you hit the slopes.

I’d never skied before, but people I have spoken to say that Les Trois Vallées (Three Valleys) region of the French Alps is one of the world’s best ski areas. L’Espace Killy, at Val d’Isère, comprises some 300 km. of pistes (trails) at high altitude. The pistes make up only 5 percent of the mountain range, and from time to time you can see experienced skiers above the tree line exploring new, uncharted routes (called off-piste). There have been many ski competitions here, including the Olympics and World Alpine Ski Championship.

Thankfully, L’Espace Killy, named after Jean- Claude Killy, a legendary French alpine skier who dominated the sport in the late 1960s, has many “green” pistes – gently sloping trails for beginners, families and those just wanting a gentle jaunt down the mountain. More experienced skiers usually ride the red and black pistes, and there are quite a few adventurous ones that go off-piste, which really is an extreme sport.

THE SCENERY all around is majestic, with grand mountain ranges and quaint villages nestled into valleys. The ski resorts I visited in the Les Trois Vallées region, Méribel and Val d’Isère, were bustling with skiers from all over the world exploring the area’s combined 600 km. of snowy terrain. There is a guarantee of snow from November to May with 85% of the ski area above 1,800 meters and many slopes equipped with snow-making facilities (the best of which were designed and manufactured by an Israeli company that specializes in low-water usage). The area boasts 25 summits accessible by 174 ski lifts. With a ski pass, you can go up and down almost any slope around the range.

Most of the resort hotels have a ski shop where the staff fit you out with the equipment you need, and then, what to a stranger is an utter miracle, you can just ski out of your hotel and onto the slopes. Méribel is not cheap and doesn’t pretend to be. It is an exclusive resort catering to people who can afford to spend a few thousand euros for the experience.

Most of the chalets, guest houses and hotels are made of wood, and their atmosphere is inviting and warm. During the day the resorts are quiet, as many of the occupants are off gallivanting on the mountains. But at night they come alive with the bustle of restaurants, pubs, shows and parties that last into the early morning.

My ski instructor was an old hand from the Ecole du Ski Français, which employs hundreds of experienced instructors. They speak a variety of languages (if you can get through the thick French accents) and are very patient and thorough. What you want to get right at the beginning is a set of good skiing habits, including the correct techniques, body positioning, a respect for the mountain and a calm, relaxed attitude. This last element is important, especially for a beginner, who will likely experience some stress when losing control while heading down a mountain (a perfectly natural response).

When you begin to lose control, your natural instinct is to crouch into a ball as close to the ground as possible and try to slow yourself down. This, however, as one quickly learns, only makes you careen downhill faster. While your natural instinct is to try to stop or stall the inevitable disaster for just a few more seconds in the hope of some divine intervention, you will eventually fall, tumble, roll, flay and come to a grinding, embarrassing halt, most likely spreadeagled on your belly. And while spitting snow out of my mouth, I started to laugh. A full, giddy, rolling laugh. That fall was fun beyond belief. I wanted to do it again.

My first few falls were quite spectacular-looking, and not at all dangerous (it looks so much worse than it feels). Losing control, gaining speed, barreling downhill and being terrified and elated at the same time are all part of the learning process. But once you can bring yourself to stop looking down at your skis, and instead raise your head, lift your eyes and take in the wondrous environment surrounding you, your body relaxes into the almost natural rhythm that the mountain invites, and before you know it, you’re enjoying yourself, really enjoying yourself. The views are breathtaking, and the thrill of skiing down a mountain surrounded by snowy splendor and crisp air is worth every cent you spend getting here.

While many ski aficionados say the best après ski (after ski parties) are to be found in Austria, the French resorts can’t be that far behind. It’s quite common, in the early evening, to see skiers swish down a slope, stop at the entrance to a bar or restaurant, take off their skis and helmets, and begin partying as if they had just parked their cars and arrived at their closest nightclub. There are outdoor pubs dotted all over this mountain range, and it’s quite common to see revelers dancing in not much more than T-shirts and shorts, despite the almost freezing weather. How these people ski back down to the resorts after drinking and eating so much I still haven’t figured out, but I guess that comes with experience and a certain laissez faire attitude, c’est la vie.

During my three days of ski classes, I stopped regularly for hefty lunches of rich meats, fresh fish, delicious desserts and lots of superb wine. And to my credit, I didn’t let those meals stop me from putting my skis back on and heading down some more green slopes.

BUT IF skiing is not for you, or you like variety, there are dozens of other activities to keep you busy in this snowy paradise. Apart from staying in spas the whole day (of which there are many here) one can ride snowmobiles, take helicopter rides, learn how to drive on ice, learn how to drive a dog sled or a Segway, take long treks through forests in snowshoes, hike, mountain ice climb (don’t try at home), paraglide, take cooking classes with master French cooks or enjoy an igloo evening on an isolated mountain.

This last experience is a real thrill. My group was flown out on a helicopter from Val d’Isère onto a clearing at the top of Tourrier Peak, one of the highest points in the Three Valleys, where staff were waiting for us with champagne. There were two structures in this clearing, an igloo and a Mongolian-style tent called a yurt. We started off in the tent eating thick fondue made from three regional cheeses cooked in white wine. After a hearty dinner, and more wine, we had dessert inside the igloo, which was carved out into the snow by a local adventure company.

Moving away from the group for a moment of reflection, I walked to the edge of the clearing and watched the sun set over the Alps. In the distance I saw the famous Mont Blanc, and taking it all in, I checked a mental box, saying to myself, “I’m so glad I’m here.”

After dinner, wine, dessert, wine, dancing and singing, and wine, we headed back down to Val d’Isère on snow machines. It was pitch dark as we barreled down the mountain on the roaring metal monsters, holding on to our guides, and each other, for dear life. When we finally reached the bottom, our hearts were racing, some were screaming in terror and all of us wanted to do it again.

What would a visit to the French Alps be without experiencing the great food the area has to offer? From the Méribel resort, we donned snowshoes and headed off on a 90- minute trek with an experienced and jovial guide. Compared to the swish of other skiers and the sound of the wind as you ski down a mountain, a night trek on snowshoes through forest is a quiet, eerie and magical affair. The high altitude and thick snow make for a good workout and build up your appetite.

As we reached Le Blanchot restaurant, a large cottage hidden within dense forest, the dim lights we saw inside only invited more hunger. French food is rich in meats and cheeses, and the desserts are exquisite. Just what your body needs to warm up from the snowy cold outside.

The best time to go to Méribel and L’Espace Killy in Val d’Isère is from November to May.

The writer was a guest of Atout France (www.il.franceguide.com), Méribel Tourisme (www.meribel.net), Office du Tourisme de Val d’Isère (www.valdisere.com) and Air France.

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