mardi 28 février 2012

Where we ski, Les Grands Montets

The Mont Blanc and Chamonix from Bochard, alt 2765 m

This is where we ski, Les Grands Montets in Argentière in the Chamonix-Mont Blanc Valley, and this has been an incredible start to this year's ski vacation, our 13th or 14th here. I have finally stopped counting.

We began to come here in 1999, making the trip from Greenwich, Connecticut, a single mother and architect and her 7-year-old son. Or, maybe it was 2000.

I marvel that I can begin to forget these things.

Single mothers who practice architecture for a living, and who do not have trust funds into which to dip, are not as a rule who you find on the slopes of any of Chamonix's four principal stations, Brévent, La Flégère, Les Grands Montets, and Tours, but I had my priorities in order: food, shelter, clothing, transportation and skiing. It was a decision I had to make as my son came frighteningly close to passing an honorable age at which to learn to ski, especially for a mother who can still recall her first pair of skis.

They were wood slats with a toe clip and springs that wrapped from the front of the boot around the backs of the heels and held my tiny winter boots in place, the heels free to lift, like a telemarker's. The poles consisted of wooden dowels, pointed at the end that went in the snow, with red-painted disks of wood to keep them from sinking forever into the snow that never stopped falling in Central New York State. I was 2, and my father was pulling me through the snow in the side yard. The next year, I graduated to something more sophisticated than wooden toys, and my father installed me between his knees and the J-bar towed us up the bunny slope at Song Mountain for my first slightly vertical ski experiences.

It took.

I lived to ski, whatever the weather, and weather we had, being in the path of the Lake Effect, the Canadian winters blowing down from the northwest across Lakes Superior and Huron before achieving their full glory, sweeping across Lake Ontario and straight through our region. I skied with sharp snow stinging my cheeks and couldn't have been happier. Nothing was more beautiful than the trees covered in inches of snow and the ski lodge, the wooden floorboards beaten and sodden from dripping ski boots, the kind that were made of leather and laced up with no thermal qualities whatsoever, benches covered in jackets, mittens, hats and the behinds of skiers drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows and soup from the steaming lidded vats.

My little sister, however, had other ideas. On one of the worst weather days that Canada to the north could sling at us, my 5-year-old sister walked out the ski lodge, felt the sharp, frozen needles pierce her face and made the simplest declaration of independence in the history of human volition.

"No," she said. "I am not skiing ever again," and turned and marched back into the ski lodge. She has held good to her word, only recently fixing a snowboard to her feet.

I assume that someone, like our mother, for instance, was there to look after her because my father and I put our skis on and headed for the chairlift. Then again, it was 1969, his last year with us, although we didn't realize that yet, and a time before childnapping and molestation was a national preoccupation, and it's possible that my sister was perfectly fine with a supply of hot chocolate and a spot on a bench at the long wooden tables, while we skied. In fact, I think I remember him getting her a foam cup of the stuff. I am not sure leaving her there caused our father a lot of parental anxiety. She certainly was happier.

At some point, my mother faded from the ski trips, too. Her sister borrowed her seldom-used skis, and that was the end of that. I think my mother only ever minded in principal that she never saw those black Head skis again. 

Song Mountain Ski Resort, Tully, NY

Those gentle, wide hillside slopes are a far cry and a long way away from the pistes we ski now at Les Grands Montets, considered the most challenging and the highest altitude skiing in Europe. My son's first ski experiences were on similar gentle hills, grandiosely called "mountain" at Song Mountain, at Mount Southington, only somewhat more modestly named. I decided that my fondest memories were of weekend afternoons and evenings after school skiing with my father, in the years before he was with his other family, when I'd wait from the time the school bus brought me home to the moment he walked through the door from work and said, "You ready? Let's go," and I determined that money to spend on skiing or no, we weren't going to miss out on that.

It began inauspiciously in the winter he was 7. He cried, and I thought all my time spent debating the issue was a loss. He'd move a few feet, fall down, get very upset with me, himself, and everyone in the world, and I'd stay calm -- this was really important to me--, pick him up and try to tell him that he was really just about to have a lot of fun.

He wasn't having any of it. I suggested lunch.

That did it. The afternoon went far better, and he wanted to come back and do it again. We were mother and son skiers. We graduated to trips to Gore Mountain in the Adirondacks, stopping at his grandparents' on the way up the night before, and then I'd drive back down after a day skiing, lids heavy behind the steering wheel in the dark. It was worth it, but everyone was talking about Colorado, the powder off-trail at Vail, and a friend was building a house in Beaver Creek. Fabled names that I had long known as way out of my league and reach, but the siren song was strong. I began to research ski trip budgets to Colorado, and then, somehow, France proposed itself.

"Why not Chamonix?" asked the woman on the other end of the phone, when I mentioned it.

Why not indeed? I compared the prices, adjusted for exchange rates, and the answer was obvious: Chamonix. Airfare to Geneva, ground transport, hotel, meals and ski passes in a world-class resort, home to World Cup downhill racing and the 1924 Winter Olympic Games, the first ones ever, came in at less than a trip to Colorado. Plus, I'd get to use my French, take my son back there, and drink good wine at reasonable prices with 3-course dinners.

One overreaching decision for a single mother architect became a love affair, in more senses than one, since on our second trip, I saw he man who would become my husband, an old friend, and, maybe, just possibly, something more, again for the first time in 6 years on February 22, 2001 (which he considers our true anniversary), when he came to see us in Chamonix, and it was the waiter at the hotel in which my son and I stayed who blurted out our last evening at table "Vous faites un si beau couple! Tout le staff le pense. Il doit y avoir un endroit l'où vous pourriez vivre entre New York et Paris!" and our fate, after many ridiculous years and a couple sorry stories, was sealed.

On the plane ride over, I said to Sam, "On this trip, you're going to meet an old friend of mine, and if things turn out the way I think they might, we might be moving to France."

"Cool," said Sam, and returned to The Hounds of Baskerville.

We married on September 28, 2002, only the waiter couldn't make it, and we live closer to Paris than to New York;  a lot closer to Chamonix, but not close enough.

Sam and I have since returned solo, mother and son skiers, since Chamonix overreaches my husband's ski skills, and is likely to continue to do so for the remainder of his natural life. Sam, on the other hand, sprang ahead of me in skill and courage, and I have been doing my level best to keep up, which is a very good thing. Today, my skills grew like the Grinch's heart on Christmas Eve, three sizes, as I flew somewhat less flamboyantly down the slopes and over the red jumps in the ski park after Sam. I must credit the conditions hors-piste over past the black trail, Remuaz, for some of that improvement.

The first two days were January snow with April temperatures, the sun warming the restaurant terrace at 1972 meters to 18° C and the top of the "eggs" at Bochard, altitude 2765 meters, to 14.1° C, but the plummeting temperatures the second night froze the snow rock hard, leaving the bumps covered with snow "stones" that roll under your skis and on down the 60+° face of the mountain in some places, places we ski. We tried once, and swore off until today, when we thought it might have warmed up enough to give it a go.

We ought to have taken the absolute absence of skiers as our first clue.

We did not, needless to say, and skied on down through the first bumps to a rock outcropping and then down into a narrow bowl of bumps at an angle that matched the steepest inclinations of my architectural triangles, back before CAD. I slid along, perpendicular to the descent, and came to a stop, several meters behind and below Sam, who was up on another outcropping.

"Sam?" I said in my very calmest and most controlled voice. He turned to look at me, sitting, fatally, against the mountain on a very precipitous perch.


"I am a little scared. It's mental. I mean, I know I can get up and move. I know I can make it down, but, I'm a bit scared right now. My head isn't quite ready to accept that I can do this."

I looked around me at the sea of hard-crusted, rock-solid bumps, and wondered if I believed myself. Sam slid back down toward me, turned and negotiated a few of those mini-hillsides, coming to a rest some 20 meters below me and fell over sideways.

"That wasn't very reassuring, Sam."

"Just get up," he said, "You can do it. Then turn, and ski back across. You'll make it."

He said it very kindly, I have to say. He's seen me in these predicaments over the years. He was in nearly a worse one just the day before, so perhaps he was thinking of that, too.

"I know. I know I will, but I'm just a little bit blocked; I'm afraid that if I try to stand, I'll start to slide down and backwards, and I don't really know how far I'll go and how much speed I'll pick up over those bumps," I said.

He looked at up me where I sat, talking. If I talked enough and calmly enough, I would surely become calm and manage to get down off the mountain and see my dogs and husband again.

"Just push yourself up. You'll be alright."

"Yes, but I don't really have any purchase here where I am, like you have there. I mean, my ski could slide, and I'm a bit blocked mentally. I'll get over it. I will."



"You can do it."

"I know."

I looked at the beauty of the mountains around me and my son below me, and I steeled myself to stand.

"The worst that can happen is that you fall, like I did."

That didn't seem like the worst. Not to me. I took a breath, tried several places to put my hands and poles, and pushed myself up. I did not slide. I stood there, leaning into the mountain, my tips pointed, unfortunately for me, uphill.

"I don't think I can turn."

"You can."

"No, I don't think I want to," I said, adding hastily so he wouldn't, "but I know I have to."

"You can just ski a little forward and then turn, there, where it's a little flat."

"My tips are pointing up the mountain, I said."

"Then slide back." I did. He waited, patiently. I stood there, helplessly. "Just count to three, and on three, do it."

It sounded so simple. I searched for the alternatives, and there were, sadly, none. I looked at him, counted and pushed forward to turn, and the next thing I knew, I was facing in the other direction, my downhill ski had held! I was moving across the bowl of bumps in the other direction; I could turn again, and again, and I could make it back to the groomed black trail, and when I did, what had seemed a challenge the day before was child's play. I had made it down from my own little hell on the face of the mountain, and suddenly everything was an hundred, a thousand times easier.

I was liberated. I flew like the Grinch in his sleigh down to Whoville and got the chairlift back up with Sam.

"Thanks," I told him before we skied back down to the village later in the day. "I think I made a breakthrough today, thanks to you for being there and teaching me. It was like play today, more fun than it's been since I was little."

It was true. I had begun skiing again after many years too poor to ski, too far from skiing in my mind to make it back to the slopes, and I had started again for my son. Meanwhile, the equipment had changed, the techniques had evolved, the destinations had made an exponential leap in difficulty, and I was not 18, but 37, and now older still. If I had coped with a morning of tears, Sam had tolerated years of a mother, finally struggling to keep up with him, offering criticism, advice, and encouragement. I watched him ski, and I realized that I didn't want to one day look back and think, "Too bad I never tried that."

That's what I thought at the top of the snow park, looking down at the red jumps. I had tried the blue ones. I could do them; nothing fancy; no tricks, but I could land them.

"Sam, do you want to do the red jumps," I asked him. "I think I want to try them."

He nodded, and took off for the first one, executing a decent iron cross. I watched him reappear beyond the jump and pushed off, slowed myself a little, approaching the point of no return, felt myself go airborne and then bump to the ground on my right hip, my left ski coming to a halt two or three meters above me in the middle of the backside of the jump. That was the only time I didn't land a jump on the reds.

"Did you see that, Sam?! Did you see that last jump?" I asked, coming to a stop next to where he was waiting for me. "I got some decent air! How far above the ground was I?"

"Not that high. Maybe 20 or 30 centimeters, though."

"That's fine with me," I said, feeling awfully proud of myself.

"Yeah, and I don't see that many moms doing the jumps, either."

"I think I'd like to try the blacks before we leave." He looked askance at me and drew his eyebrows together.

"You travel pretty far in the air before you land them, you know," he cautioned.

"We'll see," I said, gazing back at them. "I wouldn't like to not try."

The black, red and blue jumps,
Snow Park, Les Grands Montets

And these are my most precious memories with my son. I know that I have made the chain from the best thing my father could offer to me to my son, and I know that he will make that commitment to his own children. Already, he points the little ones with "swagger" out to me, and marvels at their ease and ability.

I like to imagine that he is seeing his children, one day.

Tonight, my knees hurt, just a little bit.

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