Spring Skiing in the French Alps: Adrenaline with Dividends
Motley Crew ski Chamonix
By Sony Stark
The credit crunch got you down? Need a break from bailouts? Spring skiing should do the trick. It’s the same rush as playing the stock market but much safer. My favorite picks: Val d’Isere and Chamonix, two of the best resorts in the world, both that stay open long after the closing bell.
Gains Made at Val d’Isere
There are no losers at Val d’Isere, only winners. This mountain is built on the backs of a long list of champions like Ortleib, Jean Claude Killy, Oreiller, Goitschel, Bozzetto and more recently, Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn of the United States.
Vonn won the World Championships Super-G with a time of 1 minute, 20.73 seconds in February at the FIS World Alpine Ski Championship this year. With 154 trails, that’s 186 miles of skiing; it’s surprising the races aren’t held here every year.
Together with Val d’Isere and neighboring Tignes, the mountain is aptly called L’Espace Killy. The height of L’Espace Killy gives the advantage of rarely being short on newly groomed trails, all 1850 meters or 6,069 feet of them.
There are bumps, humps, slopes and bowls all over the place. And, with stunning views and warm temperatures in the springtime, it’s even manageable for green carvers.
Analagous to Suicide
I hit the high speed gondola L’Olympique to climb straight to the top of Bellavarde face. The pros worship Bellavarde because it’s a 1,000 meter vertical drop with challenging hairpin turns and precarious ridges. It’s analagous to suicide in the winter but in the spring even I can play brave.
Mont Blanc, Chamonix
Maybe the bright monochrome blue sky encourages risky behavior. I make it to the bottom of Bellavarde feeling like a million bucks. But, oops, I forgot to invest in a trail map and compass and I lost my crew.
With the help of two French journalists I found my way to the stone chalet called Les Chochetons. It’s only three miles from the Italian border in the Manchet Valley. Friends were waiting and waving from a bright open terrace when I arrive.
There is a smorgasbord of hearty haute French cuisine here but I was in the mood for a Savoie staple called Tartiflette. It’s a combination of yummy unpasteurized cheese called Reblochon along with crispy bacon, sweet onions and boiled potatoes.
My driver told me all about it on my way in. He even passed along a bumper sticker that read “In Tartiflette we trust,” which I took to mean that calories of this rich dish can be trusted to keep you alive even in avalanches. I was sold.
After eating our hearts out I was ready for a long overdue nap. But with this much sunshine it would be disrespectful to slow down so I lost myself in the clouds.
Skiing is the best barometer to measure this mountain, but there are other activities too, like winter parasailing, snowshoeing, hiking, ice climbing, ice-skating even dog sleigh riding. Around 5 pm I break to discover the alpine village.
Outdoor market in Val d’Isere Village
Shopping in Val d’Isere
Val d’Isere offers no fewer trend-setting options than NYC. Roxy, Billabong, Northface, Quiksilver, Columbia, Nike, even a tongue-in-cheek apparel shop called Boobs provide fashion-conscious skiers infinite choices.
Thick mantles of snow weigh down stone roofs, old church steeples and wooden homes. It’s truly beautiful. Also, it’s a relief to rid myself of heavy ski boots and walk the town feather light.
As I’m wending between shops are boulangeries (bakeries), patisseries (pastry shops) and piping hot cafes, an outdoor wine and cheese fair under a series of tents catches my attention. I bargain for a round block of cheese called Tamié.
Since the Middle Ages the monks at Abbaye of Notre-Dame de Tamié have been manufacturing Tamié. Every day monks collect the milk from 14 farms in the local valley and sell this mild mountain-air cheese to locals in town. I convince myself that the cheese will last the trip home but it’s consumed long before that.
Dinner on the Slopes
I barely give my boots rest enough to dry before I swing them over my shoulder to the top of Espace Killy again. This time it was for a one-run torchlight descent — right after dinner in an old farmhouse called La Folie Douche – La Fruitiere.
First we partied to the sounds of a pink-dressed swing band called Vitamine on the open-air deck.
Owners at La Fruitiere specialize in merrymaking and offer up plates of cheese and spicy sausage while we wash down shots of a favorite called Génépi. As the temps drop the owners wrap us in large green army blankets to keep us warm.
The dish of choice here is the famous foie-gras and au-gratin soup. I’m not a fan but the creamy polenta is to die for!
After stuffing the mug, pushing back the plates and kicking off the shoes, we jump on the tables in glee. It’s time for more dancing! One giant rowdy affair, 100 of us singing and swaying with Vitamine round out the evening.
But there’s more… Upon working up another appetite we’re escorted to a secret cellar dining room for cheese tasting. Thirty varieties on a long wooden table entice us with dessert. Rows of glass doors refrigerate bigger blocks of cheese for paying customers of larger parties.
Sober enough souls opted for a death-defying torchlight descent back to base camp after dinner. This is not for the faint of heart and buddy Kent bailed, wisely may I add, about a quarter of way down.
Skiing blind with only a small torch to lead the way
To be candid, facing a dark icy abyss on skis is absolutely terrifying – there’s simply no easy way to couch my fright for this experience.
Gusts of wind pick up and blew out my torch light just as I lose sight of my intrepid pack ahead of me. I pray for the Mountain Gods to magically part the thick skies so that a full moon can come to my rescue. It’s not to be though.
I navigate with care, snowplowing and slipping sideways as distant snowcats spray light in my direction. In short, my journey was not pretty and perhaps it’s something I could have managed more elegantly HAD I drunk more Génépi!
Digs in Val d’Isere
There are no shortage of slope-side accommodations at Val d’Isere. Private rentals, tourist residences and hotels offer over 27,000 beds. Some are so close to the ski lifts that it’s tempting not to keep the boots on during the night.
My digs include the L’Aigle des Neiges or Snow Eagle Hotel. It’s decorated with funky tree stumps, candle-lit hallways and cozy stone fireplaces. A piano player belts out American classics in the lounge at night.
Skiing Mont Blanc
The next day we hit the road for a two-hour drive to Chamonix. It too is part of the Savoie Mont Blanc region and shares the sporting scene. The very first Winter Olympic Games were held here and it’s home to the world famous off-piste ski run, Pas de Chevre.
Skiing and videotaping on Mont Blanc in Chamonix
Glacier and helicopter skiing is also popular among adrenaline junkies. There would be none of that after last night’s torchlight terror though. I was ready to play it safe.
Good intentions were to ride one of highest cable cars in the world to the top of Aiguille du Midi and take photos with my video camera. My legs still ached and I didn’t feel like penning my obituary instead of a travel article.
But somehow, don’t ask how it happened, I was plunging my way down Grands Montets strapped to skis again.
People brag that if you can ski in the Northeast, because of the ice, you can ski anywhere. That’s true for corduroy, where I can rip it up at mock speeds but staying afloat on fresh powder is not my thing.
As at Val d’Isere, Chamonix has a ski culture of packed powder and virgin fluff soft as an angel wings. Reaching the summit of Mont Blanc is as foreign as being on the moon. The horizon stretches indefinitely in all directions and it’s hard to know where to ski first. My buddies aim for the rolling skyline. The name of the run escapes me now, but I take a deep breath and launch.
Baroque church in Val d’Isere Village
I maintain a steady rhythm with each turn, feeling strong and graceful and keeping up with pros. As landmark trees flash past my lids, I feel invigorated. Then I remember that I can’t ski powder. Down I go, rolling through a series of belly flops landing in a bed of white untouched flakes. Other than my ego nothing is broken or bruised or lost — whew!
Digs in Chamonix
Slopeside accommodations are ideal but a Savoyard-style chalet is the best alternative when your body has had enough spills and chills. My time for dry land comes when my legs go mushy with exhaustion. Chalet Valhalla offers a soak in a bubbling hot tub and a stone fireplace to roast my toes.
It sits on the outskirts of town within walking distance of some fabulous après-skiing nightspots, museums and restaurants. Communal living is easy here, plenty of private baths and bedrooms to go around and a catered chef to prep breakfast in the morning.
Owners local mountain guide Jean-Marie and Colleen Olianti visit frequently to check up on the comforts and pop a champagne bottle or two. Their company, Collineige, offers other fabulous luxury resorts in the winter, spring and summer at great rates, special offers with last minute reductions too.
So, don’t hemorrhage cash in the stock market when you can save your cents (and sense) and ski the French Alps.