11 March 2011
Seven Days at Alpe d'Huez
The calendar that determines the ebb and flow of the European masses, otherwise known as Spring Half Term:
At some point between the end of January and the beginning of March every school child will receive, free of charge, one week off. This Get Out of Academic Jail card tends to impact the entire extended family who are more than eager to sign up for the Spring Half Term themselves. During this time period, every Citroën, every Smart, every Porsche Cayenne is packed full with life's essentials and heads for one of any number of European Alpine resorts. During this time, every chalet is booked full, every hostel is packed, every restaurant filled, and every piste dotted with the good, the bad, and the ugly of the European ski set.
Note that the United Kingdom is not listed on the calendar though they constitute a substantial population of the Half Term skiers. Switzerland doesn't appear on the calendar either because, well, apparently they're not European.
This year we chose Alpe d'Huez as our place to go a little insane for a week. Located deep and high in the Rhône-Alpes, Alpe d'Huez is probably more famous for the twenty-one steep and narrow hairpin turns on the road leading up to the village rather than the village itself or the skiing it provides. The road is a very popular stage in the Tour de France and its history boasts many a dramatic race.
As for skiing, Alpe d'Huez holds the respectable honor as the site of the very first Poma surface lift installed in 1936. These days there are something like 85 lifts and 250 kilometers of ski pistes. The place is huge. It also includes supposedly the longest black run in the world, the sixteen kilometer Sarenne piste. That, sadly, will have to go unconfirmed as the Sarenne was closed due to low snow conditions.
This brings me back to the matter at hand: our trip and the snow conditions. In a word: good. In two words: pretty good. In a more descriptive word: variable.
Like most of Europe, Alpe d'Huez has suffered from a decidedly dry year. The resort is fortunate, though, in that the relative elevation is high, maxing out at 3,330m/10,925ft on Pic Blanc, and it has invested heavily in snowmaking equipment. We were also fortunate to receive over the course of the week the first new snow in roughly seven for a grand total of about 25cm/10in. Not sufficient depths to warrant snorkels but at that point 25 centimeters felt like, and might as well have been, two and a half feet.
Day One, from the top of Pic Blanc, looking at the Aiguilles d’Arves:
Back down in the clouds, looking for some depth perception, among other things:
One of the goals of the year is/was to put the dude on skis as much as possible thereby making him more and more comfortable to slip around on snow. What this means was a week's worth of ski lessons, his second week of the year. And here at Hank's ski school is where the story begins.
With enough grommets to fill a football stadium the Ecole du Ski Français was bursting at the seams. Fifteen kids in Hank's class were paired with one typically crusty, rigid, and unforgiving instructor responsible for beating each and every one of them into French-style skiing submission. We resigned early to the idea that, in fact, we had not just spent a whole bunch of funny money to help Hank learn how to ski, but rather to be babysat until after lunch when we could ski with him and try to improve on everything he didn't learn during his previous lesson.
It is my new mantra to lose, to burn, to destroy any and every expectation that might surface before it influences my emotions. Without expectations I cannot be disappointed. And I wasn't. And if Hank learned one thing during the week at ski school it was to use his poles. And that was good enough.
So there were a few hours to kill in between the time Hank was dropped off at the babysitter and the time he was picked up. And with new snow, variable conditions, and a giant mountain to explore, the pleasure was all mine. Like the ski school, the hordes were thick. But as long as you could avoid places like this:
you had your pick of places like this:
I was surprised at how alone I could find myself. With a little effort the rewards were plenty.
The famous and very strange "Le Tunnel":
The tunnel gives you the option of (A) 300 meters of chest-high, hard-packed moguls or, with a short and high traverse, (B) 400 meters of open bowls, narrow gullies, and short but steep chutes. I chose Option B time and time again. And I was a happier skier for it.
But the Spring Half Term ski break is meant to be a holistic experience. A morning of hard, energy depleting skiing deserves a balance of warm food and cold drink. Like skiing, once you find that sweet and somewhat secret spot you should glean from it every last tasty morsel until it becomes, in effect, a part of your very being.
Andouillette baked in cream, gratin dauphinois, and a bottle of Apremont (made with my current fave grape, Jacquère):
Then after a tipple of the local digestif it was back up high for another round or two before sailing down the entire mountain to pick up the dude. Don't kid yourself: Chartreuse and piste hors skiing most certainly do mix. You just gotta know when to say when.
The cycle continued that way for a full week with only slight variations on the theme. A little sun here, a few clouds and fog there; some new snow, some pockets of old windblown; melted slices of cheese, cups of heavy cream; Chartreuse one day, Génépi the next. It was a good pattern, one that made for scenic, active days and tired, happy bodies.
I like Spring Half Term, crowds and all. As a gringo I like especially that Europeans carve long and frequent chunks of time into their equally busy schedules to spend with family and friends participating in specific activities that unify them not only as families and friends but also, I would argue, as nationals. When else, for example, would an enthusiastic family of skiers who have the misfortune to live in a place like Lincoln, Nebraska have the time, other than the Christmas holidays, to travel to a place like Colorado or Utah with the sole purpose of skiing?
The continent of Europe enables a mid-season road trip and I like that. I like that because I'm a skier and I like that because I have my own family of skiers. Mostly, though, I like that because I believe it encourages the cultural welfare of many different but united nations, a practice I also believe would benefit the all too often dis-United States of America.