Skiing at Chamonix

by Rob Tiller


As I write this, Sally and I are on our flight back from Geneva, after a week of skiing at Chamonix, France.  The Alps in that area are spectacularly beautiful — craggy, jagged, and huge.  

The week we were there, the snow was not so great — icy in places, getting thin in places, with rocks showing through, crusty in places, and mushy at times.  That said, all the 56 lifts were operating, and for stretches the snow was perfect.  Most of the time the skies were blue.


We skied mostly on the black (advanced) runs, and didn’t encounter anything terrifyingly beyond our ability level.  Mostly we felt challenged in a good way, absorbed.  Our skiing was happy — relaxed and free. There were, however, two difficult episodes.

On day two, we skied at Les Grands Montets, and late in the morning decided to go all the way up to the top to try Point de Vue, a long black run down the side of a glacier.  On the way up, the sky changed from clear and blue to gray pea soup.  Soon we were working our way slowly down very steep, icy, moguls, barely able to see where the next bump was.  I fell and lost a ski, and with the ice and the steeps, it was really difficult to get the ski back on.

After numerous tries of various approaches, I finally dug a level platform for the ski, which worked. This all took perhaps 20 minutes.  The combination of exertion, thin air, and stress hormones left me shaky, and at the bottom I proposed we take a break for some hot chocolate.


On Friday, the conditions were snowy, windy, and with very poor visibility.  We skied at Le Tour, where (as elsewhere), the trails (or pistes) were marked with colored poles on either side.  In places we could see only one pole — not the next down the hill, and not the one across the slope.  Then there were no poles anywhere, and we realized we were off the piste.  

We went for a while to the left, then to the right, and saw no piste markers.  It was quiet, except for the wind.  I was starting to wonder if we were going to have to make our way on down off piste, almost blind, on difficult terrain — or worse.  Just then, a snow boarder came by above us, and we realized we just needed to climb back up 30 meters. Which was challenging, but whew!  


Very few skiers were out that Friday, but there were a lot of them most of the other days, including the two days we skied Brevent Flegere.  It was a school holiday week, and there were lots of families skiing with young children.  I enjoyed watching the little kids, though there were times on narrow slopes when there were just too many people.

At the end of each day, we found a place at a sidewalk cafe in the charming ski village and had a beer.  It was pleasant to be surrounded by the French language.  My student French was pretty rusty, but it got better as the week went on, and people mostly understood what I was trying to say.  If they or I had no clue, no problem — most people in the hospitality line spoke serviceable English.

We stayed at a small hotel called La Vallee Blanche, which was located within an easy walk of lots of restaurants and bars, and about 4 blocks from the bus to the slopes.  Our concierges, Maria and Margo, helped us get reservations at enjoyable restaurants.  Our favorite was an Italian place called L’Impossible, which had home-made cannelloni to die for.

At dinner, we talked about family, politics, and skiing.  Sally and I were pretty much on the same level, and both still working to get better, so we talked about things we’d learned from our various teachers or were trying to figure out.  At one point I asked Sally what she wanted to improve, expecting her to say something like moguls, trees, or maybe carving.  

But her reply was more interesting:  she said she was hoping to overcome more fear.  And on reflection, that’s fundamental.  At some point, on some steep, all skiers find there’s a thing that says, don’t go, don’t point the skis downhill.  And then you’ve got to find courage.  So we try to cultivate a bit more courage, and face down fear.