22 February 2010

Literary Skiers 8


Hans Castorp found that one quickly gets readiness in an art where strong desire comes in play. He was not ambitious for expert skill, and all he needed he acquired in a few days, without undue strain on wind or muscles. He learned to keep his feet tidily together and make parallel tracks; to avail himself of his stick in getting off; he learned how to take obstacles, such as small elevations of the ground, with a slight soaring motion, arms outspread, rising and falling like a ship on billowy sea; learned, after the twentieth trial, not to trip and roll over when he braked at full speed, with the right Telemark turn, one leg forward, the other bent at the knee. Gradually he widened the sphere of his activities. One day it came to pass that Herr Settembrini saw him vanish in the far white mist; the Italian shouted a warning through cupped hands, and turned homewards, his pedagogic soul well pleased.


He rejoiced in his new resource, before which all difficulties and hindrances to movement fell away. It gave him the utter solitude he craved, and filled his soul with impressions of the wild inhumanity, the precariousness of this region into which he had ventured. On his one hand he might have a precipitous, pine-clad declivity, falling away into the mists; on the other sheer rock might rise, with masses of snow, in monstrous, Cyclopean forms, all domed and vaulted, swelling or cavernous. He would halt for a moment, to quench the sound of his own movement, when the silence about him would be absolute, complete, a wadded soundlessness, as it were, elsewhere all unknown. There was no stir of air, not so much as might even lightly sway the tree boughs; there was not a rustle, nor the voice of a bird. It was primeval silence to which Hans Castorp hearkened, when he leaned thus on his staff, his head on one side, his mouth open. And always it snowed, snowed without pause, endlessly, gently, soundlessly falling.

--Thomas Mann, from The Magic Mountain, 1929


Photo credits:
Albert Meindl, Mountain Skiers, c. 1920
Ray Atkeson, Skier at Mount Hood, 1954

15 February 2010

Verbier With Mario

What's the best way to ski Verbier? With an Italian, of course.

After a few email exchanges and a missed first opportunity finally I had the chance to ski with Mario, a continent skipping Italian who currently resides in Scheveningen, Netherlands. There is a distinct lack of elevation in the Netherlands so the winter finds him racing out of country and into the Alps as often as time and work permit. He was gracious enough to invite me along on one of his "hit and run" weekends and I'm the better person for it.

Verbier is only my second major resort in the Alps that I've skied, Chamonix the first. The lift pass expense of these massive complexes (about $70 U.S. dollars) plus the driving time, tolls, gas, food, and (bien sur) après-ski activities make regular outings, with or without family, prohibitive. Special occasions are allowed, though, and a chance to meet and ski with a western Alps regular was special enough. I left home promptly at seven to meet Mario at the gondola in Le Châble promptly at nine so we could promptly be whisked up to Mont Fort (3330m/11,000ft) at the top of Verbier. Voilà!

The views of the Grand Combin, Rosablanche, and the Mont Blanc all obscured by a single jet stream:

Other than skiing, we didn't really have any objectives for the day. Mario changed all of that when he suggested skiing off the backside of Mont Fort. I hardly had any idea where I was let alone what that meant. He explained. I complied.

Skiing off the backside of Mont Fort is decidedly "out-of-bounds." It means skiing some steep northeast facing couloirs down and around the entire Mont Fort massif, a descent of about 1600 meters/5250 feet. Yes, Ma, we had our avalanche gear with us. The weather reports said low visibility, cold temperatures, and possible snow flurries. One out of three ain't bad.

Below the top couloirs were giant, bumpy snowfields, cliffs with tighter chutes, and an endless array of winter fun options. The snow was about perfect and would rival any low-moisture white fluff that Utah could cultivate.

We made the long slog around the Lac de Cleuson just as (as predicted) the clouds blew in and snowflakes started to drop. Coincidentally, we also made it out and back to the resort just in time for our first vin chaud break. Italian timing is impeccable.

From there we headed back close to the top, down a few short pistes to catch a few more short chairs - we were completely enclosed in clouds at this point and I had no idea where I was going - all in an effort to reach the Lac des Vaux and Vallon d'Arbi areas, also off-piste but this time in the trees. From there it was up and over the Savoleyres area and back down to the village of Verbier. Two runs, one fantastic day.

I like to ski with people who, like me, view skiing as less a competition and more as a lifestyle. At the risk of sounding hokey and/or overly sentimental and/or pop philosophical (all criticisms I accept), skiing, for me, is a holistic endeavor. The sum of its parts are weighed more importantly than the parts themselves (snow quality, vertical feet/meters skied, speed, etc.) and each part influences and are influenced by the other. There is no cherry picking in skiing; it is best served whole.

Maybe it's the quality over quantity idea. Maybe I'm just older and more comfortable with my skiing. It seems like we felt secure enough with each other to do things that few others at Verbier were doing that day but we did so at a nice, balanced pace. I suppose, too, we could have skied harder and faster and skipped the afternoon break and quit later, which would have canceled the second phase of our après-ski adventure. But I'm glad we didn't. The companionship, the snow, the wine breaks, the vertical meters, and the pace were just about right and I look forward to repeating the combined experience again.

With one caveat, however: next time I want in on the raclette part.

Grazie per la bella giornata, Mario! And thanks for the pictures, too.

09 February 2010

The Cooler Kids Will Live Forever

That's my boy.

Yep, after only three lessons in Austria, the little guy is straight-lining like a pro, making graceful, arcing turns, and stopping on a dime. For the most part, anyway. We spent the afternoon at one of our local hills, Les Jouvencelles, in the Les Rousses complex of the French Jura. The boy had a great time.

To be fair, it wasn't all smooth sailing. We spent the morning listening to him moan and cry about how cold it was going to be and that he hated skiing and that he hated when he went too fast and that skiing was boring. Everything changed when skis were snapped onto his boots.

He took the first run without problems and from then on everything was bliss. On the second trip up we reminded him of the difficult morning and how next time he should remember how much fun he was having. "Yes," he said. "The next time you ask me to go skiing I will say: I love to ski. It is so much fun." Then he squealed with laughter as the chair bumped us off at the top.

The only thing we weren't able to do was to get him up and running solo on the platter lift, an absolute must for skiing smaller resorts in Europe. Practice makes perfect so we'll try it again next time. One major crash was enough.

We skied for half a day and decided to end with an early dinner. Après-ski might have some of its origins in the French Alps but rural French villages don't seem to care much for the after skiing crowd or even the idea of hospitable service, for that matter. I was in search of raclette and a traditional, oxidized Chardonnay from the French Jura but we were forced to settle on Swiss fondue and a Fendant from the Valais. We survived.

One of the great lessons Hank hopefully learned this weekend (besides that skiing is fun) is that skis react differently to different snow conditions. In this second clip we see some of the same kick-ass technique as before. The end, though, turns into one of those home movies that show up on the news channels as the last accidentally recorded moment just before an impending disaster. Here, the disaster is that Hank leaves the smooth, compact snow of the groomed run and turns into a powdery section to avoid some people. What isn't seen are the skis popping off and the face planting in the snow. Warning: there is some seriously shaky filming as I tried to keep up with the speedster. Also, I suggest turning down the video volume (which is nothing but the aggravating sound of wind) and, instead, listen to the Bobby Goldsboro tune below. Start the song and then at the 1:20 mark start the video. If that doesn't warm your heart, nothing will.

Decide now!

Decide now before you continue.
The list is complete without your permission.
I finally know how,
I finally can't quit,
And ancient ideas are on fire, my love.

Completely the rope has been severed.
The night screams for contact and clue.
I must keep a journal,
I must boast a victory,
And the hellfire is dying around you, my love.

Around you, my love.

03 February 2010

The Coldest Month

It's been a helluva January. One strep throat, three stomach flus, one wrecked car. The weather was cold but there wasn't much snow to accompany. January seemed much longer than the thirty-one days allocated to it. 2010 started with a stumble or two.

Difficulties aside, I still managed a few days on skis. All in the Jura Mountains. Until the middle of the month the snowpack was thin at best and until the second week of the month the snowpack was nonexistent. That is what rock skis are for and my hammered pair of Karhu Kodiaks were ready to go hunting for more. They performed admirably and they found quite a few. The constant possibility of a rock or two is only a reminder that skiing is a privilege and nothing worth its weight comes free. It's been a hard month but even a few low snow, low angle, flat light ski tours help make the daily struggles distant and insignificant.

The Jura Mountains aren't known for their steeps and deeps. They make up for their lack of life-affirming verticality with their beautiful views, easy access (twenty minutes from home!), and an abundance of wildlife. The La Dôle, La Barillette area is some sort of designated refuge for a large herd of chamois. This is strange only because the same area is a popular weekend destination, the backside of a ski resort, and the site of a dog-sled track. Space is a premium in western Europe and even protected animals gotta take what they can get. Even if it ain't much.

The Jura Mountains bear little resemblance to the Alps on their east. They are older, probably wiser; their edges are more soft and round with age. Its villages are more quiet than those in the Alps. Very little appears to happen in its forested valleys. The combination of the opportunity to drive less and ski in relative solitude are often reasons enough for me to stick close to home. Chamonix isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

The French villages in the Jura are interesting in a no-nonsense kind of way. They, too, are far from the postcard perfection of Swiss, Italian, and Austrian mountain villages. More working class, they seem to have a life of their own outside of their prettiness. And unlike mountain towns in the western United States - and the Alps, for that matter - the graying, smoky, often dilapidated villages in the Jura are affordable. Wherever possible, T-bars, rope tows, and ancient chair lifts spring from the village centers and rise a few hundred meters above town. Lift tickets are cheap, snow-making is non-existent, and these community run operations become social meeting places for weekend locals. It's nice and I only wish that real estate speculators and property development ventures didn't kill off some of the same, local places I knew when I was a young skier. We should all be lucky enough to learn how to ski at places like Idlewild in Colorado and Lélex in the French Jura.

And the skiing? Well, it's good enough. Skiing in the Jura reminds me of skiing in the Bear River Mountains of northeastern Utah. It reminds me a bit of Idaho's southern Pioneers. Though both ranges are (much) higher in elevation, each are as pretty, as quiet, and are close enough to bigger destinations (Salt Lake City's Wasatch Front and Sun Valley, respectively) that most people choose to bypass these places on their way to fame and glory.

The same goes for the Jura. It's easily skipped by those who choose Chamonix, the Portes du Soleil complex, or the endless resorts in the lower Valais and Haute-Savoie. And all with good reason: the skiing is bigger and better, the snow more dependable. But the Jura is the perfect remedy to convalesce after a busy week or a difficult month. Plus, there are enough short, secret, sneaky stashes to kick the heart and body back to life.

I think February will be a good month.