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.