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Say Savoie!

“Come on Lance, let’s just hang here for a bit and work a few pics. The light on those peaks is firing.” “I know it is,” said Lance, “but we’ve got to get down to town. I’m not sure how far we have to go down the valley before we hit a road.” It was only the third day of our trip but I’d barely shot a photo and we’d just had a huge day we were about to leave behind forever.

And so it would be. Shooting photos can be a cool job, but there are times when it becomes a nuisance. To others, your loyal subjects. To yourself, the pain in the ass photographer who needs to get the shots. That’s the mistake of having it be your job, sometimes it is a royal pain in the ass. Just like any job. It would be nice to go skiing on an incredible trip with absolutely no strings attached. I’ve done it and I love it. It feels even better when you are deliberately shining a good work opportunity. Giving up becomes the giving to yourself that feels better than taking. Nothing feels better than loving and abiding by a moment so much you don’t taint it by sucking energy out of it and putting it towards a photo. But not on this trip, thinking photo was a must, we were on a trip for Outside.

One thing about being the photographer on an assignment is that you’ve gotta get the shots—if you’re on a trip and the conditions suck you still have to make it happen. The writer has so many options—take notes, talk into a tape recorder, go hit the bar and write it six months later. The writer can use editorial privilege and write whatever they want. They can manufacture something out of thin air that is hardly a semblance of what actually happened. I’ve seen stories written that made me wonder if it was the same trip I was on at all. But the photographer has to come up with something evocative on the spot. It’s now or never. The camera does not lie.

I’d taken several trips to Europe but the only place I’d ever skied in France was Chamonix. So when an invite came that would include a who’s who of French ski areas in the Savoie region it was about as simple of a no brainer as you can get. A listing of places I’d seen in mags for years but the closest I’d ever gotten to any of them was touching the paper when I flipped the page.

The best thing was that we’d go overland, carrying everything we had on our backs, moving from ski area to ski area, truly touring through the Alps. A little ride here and there, but the rest of the time we’d be hoofing it and riding lifts.

This was all envisioned by Lance, our friend who is a bona fide map freak. Probably why he ended up as a town planner. He scoped out a path which began in Les Deux Alpes and wound up at Champerey, cutting through no less than fourteen ski areas, using their lifts and terrain as part of our route. There would be a few big days where we would have to climb big vert between resorts, and a couple of times we’d have to hitch or take a taxi in places where we wound up down the road from our next destination. Accommodations would run the gamut from fancy hotels to not so fancy inns, to friends houses, to winter rooms in unattended huts. Refugios in France, rifugios in Italy. Finishing in Switzerland.

The Alps are the place for ski culture but the big problem with wanting to check them out always seems to be the crapshoot you have to play with mother nature, AKA ski conditions. Just like any ski trip. But oh, to stand among the Alps and see a few small French towns on mountainsides off in the distance, not expanding to encroach on one another in a feverish land grab prompted by greedy developers. Europeans really have figured out some things that they just don’t get here in the New World. To roll into a small Inn owned for generations by the same family. To taste the local flavors of wine and cheese and recipes passed on through the ages. And to ski from village to village and pass through it all is at one moment a savored delight and in the next the transient flash that makes the essence of our trip. A must for all travelers, to live in and fill themselves with the moment, for that moment is soon becoming the next, and the only true constant in this world is change.

After some plane, train, and bus action we found ourselves skiing Les Deux Alpes and then leaving the area and cutting across the Girose Glacier to La Grave, where we arrived around dusk, hiking down a bunch when the snow ran out. April is good time for the high Alps but down low it can be thin. Strolling up the little hill from the creek into town we found ourselves in the midst of a town revving up for the Derby de la Meije which happened to be the next day. We looked like the biggest maniacs there with our big loads among all the light and fast people, or probably more like four fools starting on a journey from whence they might never return.

BJ Brewer between Courmayeur and Chamonix MR-yes

It’s true, La Grave is it. Everything you’ve heard, the archetype of a classic small French town in the middle of awe inspiring peaks. Too bad we didn’t get to ski there besides our one run coming from Les Deux Alpes. The next day we hiked up about five thousand vert on our way to Valloire.

Where we found ourselves on a peak called Argentiere, not to be confused with the town by Chamonix’s Grands Montets. After a crack of dawn start we got to a lake half way up, where we snacked some lunch, ringed by incredible French magnificence. The rest of the climb was tough, a lot of it up a big ramp of firm and steep, ski crampons getting put to use for the only time of the trip.

Exhaustion for the long climb was paid off with six inches of pristine cream in a perfect north facing couloir. Which brings us to the spot in the beginning of this story, where Lance tells me we need to move along. Coming out in the valley below we were once again hoofing it but the day was one of classic memories. Which weren’t really caught on film, we got spread out on the upper part of the hike up, and were in the shade and in a hurry on the not so sick photo op ski down. I did get to see BJ cartwheeling for the first time ever, in the apron toward the bottom above a fat cliff on the way down. Similar to the one I performed with a heavy camera pack in Andermatt a couple of years earlier that he bore witness too.

There we were in one ski area after another, cruising around, leaving at the end of the day, skiing on to the next place. Oh yeah, there was that $ 85- taxi ride. Oh that’s right, I almost forgot. And the fanciest place we stayed, right at the base of Val Thorens, the highest base elevation in Europe—they offered Story some champagne and then he ordered up a bottle of vino after looking at the wine list (French), yup, that’s right, 140 Euro, I don’t think Outside will be paying for that one buddy.……it was me who paid for it when he conveniently said he didn’t have his wallet when we were checking out. Most expensive bottle of wine I’ve ever bought.

About halfway into the trip I hadn’t gotten much in the bag photo wise yet, the snow had been unexciting, and the heavy packs made for conservative skiing. I didn’t want to sweat it and tweak myself so I just kept thinking that over the course of our trip something worthy was sure to come. Somewhere. After all, these are the French Alps. We were not to be disappointed.

In Val Thorens we were booting up a high ridge to ski down the other side while a spring storm moved in. We watched guides and clients retreat while we continued into the mist. Electricity so thick in the air that our hair stiffened and we could feel the buzz between lightning rod skis on our packs. I’ve never felt electricity in the air like that, it made a noise that sounded like a squeegee scraping against the sky. While Lance and Rob yelled for us to lay down I had Beej walking up the ridge so I could get some shots of his misty mountain hop and the craggy peaks in the background. Score one for the photo geek.

 

Courchevel is a place for the French jet set. There are ritzy high-end jewelry, lingerie, and haute couture shops here, and an Aspen-like place to be seen vibe persists. At the end of the day cabs and drivers fill the circle waiting for their passengers. We asked tourism if we might leave our heavy packs with them for a few hours so we could ski around a bit. They gave us a flat out no, but as we were walking off the woman came outside and said, “We will do it, but this is an unusual exception.”

We got in a bunch of laps off a tram which gave incredible access to a series of rocky chutes right off the top, very Snowbird-esque. Taking a break at the Cape Horn restaurant the patio is crowded and teeming with energy, right next to it is the airport, its super short runway sloping slightly up before it ends at the edge of a precipice. We drink beers, people watch, and see private jets coming and going. James Bond would have felt right at home here.

The rootsiest tourism guy we met was “Alain”, a patrolman from La Plagne, who was appointed (by tourism) with the task of showing us around. He took us to the end of the road, into the national park and showed us the Bouquetin, which resemble what we know here as bighorn sheep. It was around sunset and we drove along the windy snow shedded road to its end in the shady valley above while the sunset glimmered on the mountaintops. A historical footnote and testimony to the heart of the people in the Savoie occurred in March 1944, when a large uprising of the French Resistance against the Vichy government was viciously crushed by crack German forces which treated the rebels as terrorists.

In Belle Plagne we found ourselves in a family style resort village, so after watching a bunch of Euro ski school rock stars jam in an alley we wound up at a pizza place with a bunch of pics of Van Gogh on the wall and some absinthe posters.….yes, we drank more than our fair share of absinthe. Story’s head began to move around and look like Van Gogh’s, his ear awaiting mangling.

The next day we skied the Bellecote, a run so spectacular that when we moved on to Les Arcs for we rode eight lifts back to access the hike so we could rally another variation of its north facing 6500 vert of carvable styrofoam. When we hit it the second time we skied a different line off the same north face, only this time there was a short exposed awkward down climb, the touchiest spot of the trip. Falling meant the razor sharp jagged rocks would make shards of you if the impact didn’t finish you off in the first place.

 Our last stop in France before heading into Italy for a little bit is Rosiere, a place none of us had ever heard of that was undergoing a face change unlike anything we’d seen. It looked like an old smaller area that was being jettisoned into an American type stage of real estate development. We ride a few lifts and ski across the unmarked French-Italian border and stop at a little ristorante, plying ourselves with coffee and baked delights, the flavor now distinctly Italian. With the day getting on we ascend the long valley, getting to the pass as temps drop and the snow starts to harden. Skiing down the other side it is still soft though, and as rain clouds and darkness move in we ski a mile or so down to Rifugio Elisabetta, a beautiful stone building set in the shadow of Monte Bianco. Not a soul in sight but the winter room is open and the bunks and blankets are more than enough. We melt snow with the tiny Giga stove, it kicks ass, and refuel our bodies with potato soup while doing shots of water. The hike up the valley and over had been miles and we’d barely eaten. In the summer Rifugio Elisabetta is on theTour du Mont Blanc circuit hike and is packed. To have the winter room (it’s only a small part of the building) to ourselves was unreal, we settled back and played cards, went out on the deck and watched clouds and rain moving across the valley that we’d take down to Courmayeur. On the way out the next day we hike up Glacier Miage to check out a 3000 foot couloir Lance had researched but it was too warm, and we were late, so on to Courmayeur we went, stopping at a delightful little bar to wet our whistles as we re-entered civilization.

Heading to Chamonix from La Palud we run into our only fresh snow with blue sky of the entire trip. At the top of the third tram is the door from Italy back to France. We take a little hike on the glacier to see if we can farm a few photos with a big background. There’s about four inches of fresh snow I am so grateful for. We knock a few pics out and head down to Cham and take the bus up to Montroc to Gary Bigham’s cozy Vitamin Ski chalet. I’d always heard Gary was kind of crusty and Story was scared shitless that he’d be catching some heat over something he’d written a few years before (this comes up fairly often with Rob when he runs into someone he has written about) but it was glossed over and Gary was the biggest love child ever, straight out of 1969. He and his daughter Guri spoiled us with delectable feasts for two nights, digging into his personal wine cellar and regaling us with tales of his long and storied past. It was the only stop on our whole trip we did a layover.

After Bigham’s we were heading onward out of Flegere first thing in the morning. Riding a few lifts and then taking a steep skin track which zig-zagged to a notch. On the other side two off piste routes looped back to Chamonix. Instead of taking either of those north or south we left the beaten path and headed due west, traversing as high as we could, all by ourselves once again. After several miles we connected with the top of the drainage of another valley coming in from the south. It was already warm and we proceeded up to get over the top in increasing warming hazard, beneath a huge, somewhat terrifying cornice, finding a slot we could posthole our way up. On top there were some grassy knolls and we kicked it for about an hour, recharging and celebrating.

This was also a culmination of sorts— the end of the frenzied pace, the rest of the trip was relaxing. This was the spiritual peak, on top, heading to Refugio D’Anterne, when we sat on the top on a grassy knoll, looking back at where we’d come from, taking an hour to chill out and let the last two and a half weeks settle in. Reveling in the best view of the trip, a different look back at Mont Blanc and the mountains above the Chamonix valley. Story and I engaged in a thousand dollar bet about some lyrics from a Van Morrison song and he still owes me to this day.

 On the way down to the refugio we were parched and drank feverishly from a high mountain creek rushing through a snowfield, laughing hysterically about the giardia we’d have in three weeks as we filled our water bottles. At Refugio D’Anterne we were again the only ones, again in the winter room. A neat little building nooked into the pastoral French countryside. A couple of days later were sitting in Champerey waiting for the train back to Geneva.

In the end Outside only ran four photos and two of them were going to be from train stations until I got pretty worked up about it. And no, I did not get any real sunrise or sunset pics. Nor was there any great pow for us to rip through. But we did get to cavort in the Alps for almost three weeks, skiing some great stuff we would never have gotten on if it had been dumping. Traipsing across the Savoie was a treat, each and every spot. Although it might not have been what I’d originally imagined in the end what unfolded made perfect sense. It couldn’t have been any other way. You may not always get what you want, but, as the song says, you just might find, you get what you need.

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Lee Cohen

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