L'Esprit de Chamonix

Beyond Dimension
  |  Gorp.com

The town was still a tangle in the morning. We hauled our gear from the Gustavia to the downtown bus station and, not particularly caring which area we rode at, hopped a bus heading to one of Chamonix's largest areas, Grands Montets, at the northern end of the valley. The terrain throughout Chamonix is primarily above-treeline glacial expanses, and to get to the base of most of the resorts you have to ascend 3,000 vertical feet out of the valley. We rode a tram to the bottom of Grands Montets, then rode another tram 4,300 vertical feet to the summit. We were deposited atop a giant snowfield, Glacier de la Pendant, hemmed in on three sides by a granite cirque. The sky was cloudless, save for a stack of lenticulars forming a circumflex over the summit of Mont Blanc. It was jacket-around-the-waist warm. We were in the heart of the Alps, overlooking a world turned jagged. The surrounding peaks mimicked the up-thrusting barbs of a raging campfire — if ever a mountain range should roar, this was the one to do it. But the monoliths greeted us with nothing but stone silence. I strapped on my board.

I'm not quite sure how I got this into my head, but I somehow assumed that all Europeans were wonderful skiers. I figured we had them beat on snowboards, but what with Jean-Claude Killy and Alberto Tomba and such a long tradition of World Cup dominance I imagined every two-planker on the continent flying nimbly down the steeps.

I was wrong. A thin, groomed path zigzagging across the glacier was packed with people, half of them sprawled on the snow. They skied fast and terribly — it was as though they'd watched Tomba on TV but hadn't given much thought to actually practicing on snow. The rest of the glacier was empty. (Chamonix experts, I later discovered, prefer the backcountry.) Since there is no such thing as out-of-bounds in France, Anne and I promptly headed into our own private kingdom.

The Grands Montets trail map has 11 labeled runs. This is a sly joke. Ski hills in upstate Connecticut claim 25 runs, but you could stash one of those New England areas on Glacier de la Pendant and nobody would notice it for a month. A"run" in Chamonix often means an entire glacier. Some of the runs at Grands Montets are the size of Vail.

Riding in vast, treeless expanses toys with your ability to calculate dimensions. Distances across glaciers are nearly impossible to estimate. I carved 40 wide arcs and thought I'd made it halfway down the hill. But when I looked up, the base lodge seemed no closer than it had at the summit. Forty more: same effect. My mind suddenly recalibrated to Chamonix parameters and I felt vulnerably tiny, and more than a little agoraphobic. I had to stop and meditate for a minute to settle down.

Except for the groomed strips, runs in Chamonix are wholly unmaintained. We rode a few feet from the lip of a hidden crevasse that appeared deep enough to swallow a skyscraper whole, yet there was nary a warning sign. We played on the edge of a snaking, wind-sculpted swale. We had to make our own decisions about avalanche danger. Riding in Chamonix, it was clear, is treated as a mountain experience, complete with consequent dangers and euphoric highs — a direct counterpoint to the often sanitized and predictable feel of U.S. resorts.

It took almost half an hour to reach the bottom. The sun had heated the top layer of snow into mashed potatoes, which was settled atop scratchy hardpack. Each turn was a small puzzle: difficult but solvable. I enjoyed the challenge — the chance to ride the snow exactly as nature dropped it — and promptly got on line to take the tram again.

I must register one trifling complaint here. People in France, for reasons beyond my comprehension, wait on lift lines in a manner reminiscent of bulls in a rodeo pen. They'll stomp on your board, poke you with ski poles, elbow you till your torso is black-and-blue. The lift attendant, if there is one, seems not to care. I've witnessed calmer behavior in a mosh pit. This was the first trip I've ever been on during which my snowboard received more gouges in the lift line than on the hill. When the tram finally arrived we stampeded aboard, jostled along by the crowd. We were back on top in five minutes.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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