Friday, 13 April 2012

High and Dry (Well, Wet and Soggy) Ski Encounter

Spring Ski Holiday to St Gervais With My Friend Kim, and Our Soggy Ski Encounter

Kim didn't need ski lessons. It was her first time and I decided to teach her, but perhaps we both needed lessons in mountain weather...

After coming off the phone and logging off the laptop my sense of excitement intensified. We were actually booked - flights to Geneva, a chalet in Saint Gervais, and coach transport from the airport. I was going to get to ski in the Alps a second time before the summer after all! I suppose that’s the nature of taking up the most addictive outdoor pursuit - constantly craving it.

Anyway, Kim seemed excited and not only was I looking forward to my holiday, I was looking forward to hers. With any luck she would come away sharing my addiction to the white stuff...

After being dropped off at the airport by my cousin I was lucidly aware of Richard’s absence. How many euros should I get? Shall I use my card or get cash? Leaving behind ‘head of accounts,’ and the apple of my eye, made me feel strangely naked and slightly vulnerable.

We checked the gate number and went looking around some standard duty-fee shops before the flight. Kim picked up huge bottles of spirits, ciders and wines – lured in by the seemingly generous offers.
After pondering over a particularly crisp and clear vodka bottle, Kim turned to me suddenly and her face dropped as she said ‘oh no.’ I fleetingly thought of the passports and other serious possibilities, then she said ‘my ski jacket. It’s in your car at your cousin's house.’ Sure enough, I hadn’t seen Kim with it since we left the car. 
Following a quiet, slightly sulky (and amusing) hour, Kim stopped the ‘what ifs’ and torturing herself after a comforting phone call to her dad before take-off. It wasn’t the end of the world. Although expensive and bought especially for the holiday, the ski jacket could be replaced. We were still going on our skiing holiday and that’s all that mattered. Kim leaned back in her seat and laughed.
‘For God's sake what a total retard. When I see that coat I’m going to give it a punch!’
‘Yes that’s right – blame the coat, you need blame therapy. What an egg you are!’ I replied.
After the short flight we milled around in Geneva airport arrivals trying to find the right area for the coach to Saint Gervais, and we arrived after a 1 hour journey through the hills and mountains. 

Blinking in the sun, we stood with our bags and had no idea which direction to head in. We asked at the tourist office where our apartment was and it turned out to be a short bus ride further up the mountainside to the actual town of Saint-Gervais. 

Stepping off another bus we laid our eyes on the beautfiful elegant town full of shops cafes and stone buildings, dwarfed by towering white peaks from every angle. With aching arms from our baggage we collected our key from the agency and located our chalet on the main street – an apartment on the top floor of a 3-storey chalet building with wood-paneled walls. We were so excited about going skiing the next day, we decided to put our goggles and onesies on for some oh-so-flattering photos of ourselves. 

‘Get in ma belly’ I screeched as I finished my cereal and pulled on my layers of ski clothing. I could barely contain my excitement so I decided to go out for some fresh bread (minus the goggles) while waiting for Kim to put an end to the longest shower in the world. After the bread feast we got ready to leave the chalet to head for the cable cars across the valley.
As we walked up the main street bickering about how to get to the other side, Kim eventually found a side street that led to the bridge we needed. After dragging an already tired Kim up the hill from the bridge, and through the trees, we bought our cable-car tickets and finally sat down to watch the view as we glided up the misty, snowy mountainside. 

Kim sighed. 'Ah I'm so tired already! I need to lose weight. Don't let me drink any fizzy drinks today.'  
At the top the fog was so thick - a huge difference in the weather of the villages thousands of feet below. We lugged our hired ski equipment to a small flat slope and I gave the Kim the low-down on skiing basics. The fog pressed in from all sides swallowing up my voice in the cold fresh air. Kim learned to ski in the snow-plough position confidently and quickly despite aching legs and bad light, and in no time at all she was skiing the small beginner’s slope at a fluid pace.
Lunch was a traditional steak hache burger, very rare in the middle - truly French, and some delicious but greasy chips. Despite gently encouraging Kim to drink water, she chose cherry coke and guess what, she felt gassy afterwards...

After lunch we found ourselves halfway down a larger slope that I had managed to convince Kim to try. She stopped by some trees far behind me and took off her skis. I came to a stop and waved at her up the slope. It was no use, I had no idea what was going on so I trudged up nearer and Kim bellowed ‘I feel sick so I’m just waiting here.’
‘Are you ok - do you want me to carry your stuff and we can walk back?’
‘No, no I’ll be fine. You go and when you’re back here we can go again. I’ll be better in a few minutes. I just need to sit down.’
I skied down to the bottom to get the chair-lift up to the top of the green easy run. Once at the very top, I assessed the white expanse and the tiny dots of people sprinkled among the mountain ridges and I skied the long quiet slope back down to where Kim was sprawled in the snow.
‘It’s that burger, I can feel it in my throat, it’s not going down’
‘Yeah thanks for that detail’
‘You know – when you can taste it when you burp.’
‘Yes – that’s great, thank you…’
‘And that fizzy drink didn't help – feel free to tell me off more next time!’
We decided that doing the slope I had just done would have been ideal, but impossible when feeling sick. So we began our long trudge back up the wide, immense ski slope the way we had come. In snow boots the walk would have been mildly challenging and long, but in stiff ski boots, carrying heavy skis, this one was a killer. Having stopped over five times in one minute to look helplessly around us at the white expanse, I decided to walk ahead to encourage Kim.

Finally at the top we caught a cable car back down to town and civilisation. Kim reassured me she had enjoyed skiing but had not realised how much strength you need in your legs.
‘I’m so sorry, the burger was what tipped me over the edge.’
‘No don’t be sorry – if I felt sick, trust me the whole ski resort would know about it’
We resolved to spend the next day at the Mont Blanc thermal baths to recuperate, and to go skiing again the day after.


After a fantastic day at the pristine and truly relaxing spa, and a delicious meal out, we woke mid-morning and made our way to the cable cars once more. It was sunny and warm, and I had a feeling our ski jackets would be too much, but its best to be prepared I guess. Although prepared for what, I didn’t know – it was at least 18 degrees in town.

At the top Kim eased back into the basic technique and skied the small beginner slope again, with increasing skill. She seemed to have learned more since the day before.
We had a drink and Kim was pleased with her technique, but feeling a little exhausted and achy. In the mid-afternoon she decided to quit while she was ahead and call it a day, taking her ski equipment back down to the mid-base and returning to the top wearing her snow boots.
“I’m going to ski that top one again and try to come down that steeper area just there – I reckon I could do it!”  I exclaimed, pointing at the vast white face of the imposing mountainside, impossibly expecting Kim to know where I was pointing.
“Why don’t I record you – give me your camera and I’ll video you coming down”
“Yeah cool! I’ll wave my poles in the air when I’m up there so you know it’s me. We can go after that.”
“Oh no it’s fine, although the weather looks like its coming in a bit, we should go if it starts to rain”
I glanced up at the grey billowing clouds coming in from over the immense valley and agreed with Kim. So I set off down the long easy slope to the chair-lift area, gliding along slowly in the increasing wind, and eventually arrived at the barriers for the chair-lifts.
“Non-non, non!” I heard a Frenchman call in my direction and as I looked up I saw around twenty other skiers shuffling away from the barriers. The chair-lift had stopped moving and I had to shuffle back through the turn-style to join them. The Frenchman gabbled something about the chair-lift not running. The group of people were dissipating and starting to make their way down the nearby piste. I looked around, panicking and I noticed there was no one else hanging around. I dimly registered that there were no other slopes to choose from. I asked the man in broken French if the piste was easy. He said it was, so I asked if it would eventually take me back up to the Mont D’Arbois cable cars, where Kim was at the top waiting for me - Oh no! Kim! She will be expecting me - I thought to myself... 

The Frenchman seemed to be saying the slopes were all linked somehow, and he didn’t elaborate. He didn’t speak English either. My options seemed to be running out, fast. I glanced around the deserted area. Trees, snow, wind, and it had started to rain a little too. I thanked the man, and set off down the unknown slope.
After a few minutes winding down the gentle piste it started to become slushy. The slush made the skis sluggish, like riding a bike in sand. My legs were beginning to shake. There was no one to be seen and I had no idea where this piste was taking me. Finally I was at the bottom - aching, panting and wiping the drizzle from my goggles.
There was still no one around. However behind some tall pine trees was another chairlift, this time it was working. I shuffled through the barrier and clambered on to the empty chair as it scooped me up and lifted me into the damp air above the trees. The mountain ahead looked like the one facing the cable car area where I needed to be. I’m heading in the right direction, I thought to myself…
I unfolded the soggy ski resort map to work out that the cable car was taking me closer to where I needed to be but there was no route directly to it. From what I could work out I would need to ski an easy piste to get to another cable car which would take me back to Kim. Thinking absent-mindedly that she will have worked out there’s a problem by now, I relaxed a little and glanced behind me, making the cable car sway a little, and I noticed a man sitting on the chair behind me in the distance. Another human being! I felt instant relief.
Upon leaving the chair-lift I shook out my map in the now quite heavy rain, and glanced two men huddled together doing the very same thing. Ah! More people! I skied down to them in the slush and tentatively asked in French if they were lost. It turned out they were beginners too, and lost, and could only speak French. I managed to ask if there was an easy piste to the cable cars. One of the men said he thought the only way down was a difficult piste as the easy one was closed.

Oh God! My heart was pounding and my skin was beginning to feel chilled. What would happen to me if the only way down was impossibly difficult? In my panic I was vaguely grateful for the protection of my ski jacket. The wind and rain were biting cold and although I could do with a warm fleece underneath, I was at least protected from the pounding sleet. How was I going to get down? My helplessness was made worse by the vastness and unfamiliarity of my surroundings. Mountains and trees that had seemed so beautiful and inspiring only half an hour ago, now seemed strange, foreboding and dangerous. 
As I stood there trying to comprehend to the Frenchmen talking about their descent, some more people joined us from another piste. They stopped abruptly, huddling around us, still jabbering in French. Panicking that I was going to be left stranded I piped up ‘I’m lost and I’m a beginner, I don’t know how to get back to the top – my friend is up there.”
One of the new group  was a young woman with blonde hair tied back from the blustery wind, and expensive-looking equipment. She looked kindly at me and said in English “Can you speak English? You can come with us if you like.” Her kind smile meant safety, and I instantly felt warmer.
The lady said the way down would have to a difficult one, confirming to me that the easy piste was indeed closed. My panic was kept at bay by her reassurance and although I could think of nothing but the fear of what difficulty lay ahead, I managed to thank her profusely. She said she and her husband were from Paris, and through my adrenaline-fuelled disjointed thoughts, I heard them say that they would help me and wait for me. 
I followed the group down and around the trees at a faster pace than I was used to. We skied down the widening and narrowing slope, between the rock-faces, with the lady and her husband looking back at me encouragingly every few minutes.
My legs began to ache and I wanted to stop to recuperate but the group glided on and on… Grow a pair, I said to myself. Suck it up. It's ski fast and stay with the group or ski alone and get lost, You choose.
The wind was howling and the sky had turned a brooding dark grey. The lady and her husband stopped at a crossroads to plan the best route down. I told them about Kim at the top of Mont D’Arbois, the panic in my voice evident.
“Ah, you want to get up to the top, to get her?”
“Yes, she’s still up there waiting for me.”
“The eggs are closed because of the weather, are you sure she’s still up there?”
Oh no – what?! Do they mean the cable cars? Where will Kim be? Whilst the lady and her husband were talking I took the opportunity to ring Kim on my mobile. Thank the lord for Nokia! She answered and I could immediately hear the strain in her voice. She was still up there and the cable cars had stopped. No one was around except the staff in the cafe and no one spoke English. Oh how I knew she would hate that... I told her to wait in the warm and I shakily said I would get to the cable car entrance down at the resort and tell someone she was up there. I had no idea when they would run again but I knew she would be safe. I reassured her that they wouldn't leave her up there.
Soon enough we had to get moving again. The snow was becoming unbearably slushy and it had started to pelt it down with rain.
Abruptly I stopped at an extremely steep part of the piste, sliding sideways in the slush to avoid the unexpected gradient - it was like a wall. I was panicking about my lack of control. I looked up at the lady expectantly, needing guidance, needing anything to give me the nerve to just do it. It was the only way down.
“You need to do this with your skis straight to build the speed to get over that hill” she said, as she pointed to where the slope evened out at the bottom and rose sharply. “You can’t try to slow down on the piste or you’ll end up walking up the next bit and we don't have time, just watch me and then follow."
I hesitated and slid about, finding my balance and feeling worse the more I thought about it.
“Don’t worry, you will be fine just do what I do. Bend your knees.”
I did exactly as I was told. It was exhilarating to fly down and despite my shaking legs, my fear subsided enough for me to briefly enjoy that moment. At the bottom of the next slope and after God knows how much more skiing around bends, through trees and slushy patches, I glimpsed the civilisation of the mid base resort far below. Relief exploded in my stomach and although the slope to the area was steep, slushy and uneven, I felt solace in the fact that I knew where I was. The lady and her husband traversed the most even areas of snow and I followed.
Once at the bottom I couldn’t believe my luck. Looking around, I could see groups of people milling about, families clonking trivially in ski boots, buying refreshments and stowing their skis on the roofs of their cars. In the safety and civilisation of the mid-base area the drama of the afternoon seemed to diminish visibly - perspective falling back into place, making me feel like a prized fool feeling so scared and dramatic just moments ago!
“We need to find out where your friend is”
“Ah, thank you so much for your help, you really don’t have to.” I knew Kim would be okay, if a bit miffed at having to try and speak some French!
“Let’s go in here” the lady smiled at me and pointed to an archway by one of the cafes and inside was a reception desk. She asked if I could have help finding my friend. They already knew Kim was up there! The lady at reception showed me a CCTV screen - they could see Kim - in her turquoise ski trousers in the cafĂ©, what a relief! They kindly put me on the phone to her and reassured me that the cable cars will run at 5:00pm to take the staff back down so she can go with them. I passed this info on to Kim who was only too pleased to hear it.
Back outside I thanked the lady and asked her what her name was.
“Aurora” she replied in her thick accent
Who would have thought my guardian angel would have been named after my favorite and most poignant experience - the polar lights in the sky!
“Ah that’s lovely, thank you so much Aurora, for all of your help, I don’t know how I would have done that without you!”
“No problem, I hope your friend makes it down soon! Bonnes vancances!”


Kim’s ordeal had made her very anxious, especially being so isolated linguistically. After all this is a person who gave up 'speaking French' after one person in a cafe didn't understand her when she asked for 'chocolate ice cream!' 

She had made it down in the cable car about half an hour after me, but it felt like ten! My thoughts were racked with concern over how distressed Kim must have felt - I knew she was way out of her comfort zone. However once safely back down the mountain and into the miraculously sunny weather (which made me question whether I dreamed the whole thing) Kim was back to her normal self.
Thank goodness for crepes and waffles!

(For more info on skiing and ski resorts in Europe visit my Alpine Skiing in Europe Guide):

Text and Images Copyright © Lise Griffiths, 2012
All Rights Reserved

Skiing holiday St Gervais France, learning to ski,

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