So, I came all the way across the ocean, travelled one night by
plane, one night by train and one night (18 freaking hours, actually)
by bus to get here and the place sucks. Of the immense mountain,
only 5 lifts are opened today (3 of them are beginners pomas) due
to the high winds everywhere else. Killington winds are a light
breeze compared to this shit here. But even worse - there is no
snow down here. There is 2 meters of snow just 20 miles south at
the Deriere Pass, where we had to wait for French to clear out a
small avalanche yesterday, but there is no snow in this unholly
valley. The base is at 1650 m (that's where Killington peak is
about) and it is raining as a mofo. The slopes look like Superstar in
June. Of course I was already asking for money back (they give
money back in the event of TOTAL closure - five open lifts mean
there is no total closure - what are they owned by ASC, too?). Our
condos are 100 feet from the gondola that takes us to the top, but
isn't running today. The place looks huge, a lot of shops,
restaurants, a little city - or a village, like Otten would like to build
around Snowshed. Big, high-rise condos. La Grave trips are given
only weekdays (to prevent uber-herbs to ask for it, I guess) and of
course in nice weather, and costs 50 franks extra. Ski-snowboard
school is much more expensive than at Killington (I am bringing all
the pamphlets in English back with me). Snowboards are called
Surfs. Dollar is exchanged at an extremely usurious rate ($1=6.65
franks - and I got 8.2 franks for $1 in Croatia...). And there is no
telephones. No lines in condos. No operator. No collect calls. You
can't use your US Sprint calling cards. No coin calls, either. You
have to buy their chip bearing cards that you insert in the phone -
or you can call a scam corporation from the US that can be called
toll free from anywhere in Europe and then place a call on your
major calling card - but Indira already did that, and I am not falling
for the same scheme ($14.60 for the first minute, $3.80 for all
subsequent ones). Ok, so what if I want to access the net? The place to
check out here is GALLERIE. It looks like East Village. And there
is a place in there called Tex-Mex, affordable, with snacks available
after midnight and with LAN based Internet access (I have ethernet
card in my laptop so I am on line now). This is also the place
where most of the snowboarders (surfers, pardon) hang out AND
this is the place where everybody speaks English, which makes
my life much easier (I am becoming an American cultural
imperialist a little). The bartender is from UK, the owner is from UK
and there is a colony of English and Scottish riders who live there
and hang out at Tex-Mex. So, if I move here for good next year,
that's the place you'd find me on shitty days like today.
Bon-soire sounds like what’s up and va-va sounds like bye-bye, at least with my accent in both languages, so now I am half French. Today it was sunny spring day and no wind. Around 50 degrees on the glacier. When sun hits the slopes, the snow melts like at Killington in May. There are some serious steeps off-piste. And there are feet of snow to cushion bad landings (I am still eating it on my toe to heel transition when it gets real steep). But there are some open rocks, and I mean real rocks, not a little tiny rocks, so I got rock damage today (in a predictable place - toe edge, under back binding, that’s where I am most likely to press in emergency stopping procedure). Tomorrow I’ll take my digital camera with me to take some breath-taking pictures of nature. I miss tree riding, though. Everything is wide open. The trails suck. They are full of bad skiers, nearly flat and entirely like chalk. Those steeper are mostly soft bumps or crud bumps (depending whether they are in sun or in shade). Off-piste is generally heavy snow, and my skier friends (even my racer friend) were loath to go there, so I had to surf alone two last runs today. Well, at least they cook well. I got stuck together with four riders from Chamonix (which was closed today for severe avalanche danger) on a last run, somewhere way off, but we hiked our way out of a very, very much fun run, so here am I writing about it. Generally everybody speaks English. And ‘traverse’ means and sounds the same in both languages. Killington has way better and bigger pipe. And they didn’t even groom theirs. There is a huge big air kicker, which unfortunately is too big for my huevos, and then there is a nice park with graded jumps, and an incredibly easy bordercross course, with zillion beginners side-slipping through the middle of it. I got a picture in the park (I crashed on landing, but that you don’t see in the picture, hehehe). Park is accessed by a scary looking poma lift that makes a right turn - perhaps to weed out the park un-worthy snowboarders. La Grave costs 50 franks to go to on your own (you pay for pick-up), or 350 franks to go with a guide. The ‘European’ ski-school guy was quite surprised that I as a snowboarder would go there. He told me that there are no snowboard instructors that guide people there. I asked why, and he said that it’s because the snowboard instructors are too busy teaching lessons and have no time to serve as guides (what an a-hole answer), plus, he added with a sneer that La Grave is all bumps. This group that I am with, they are all with Croatian Ski & Surf School Yellow Cat. The snowboard dudes like the AASI manual and decided to make xerox of it once we return to Zagreb. The skiers are off course all completely speechless with my racer friend who looks really nice on the slopes, fast, short sneaky dynamic turns, looks like a PSIA model, huhuhu. Tomorrow I will spend some time with Croatian snowboard instructors to see how they work, ride and think. The local gym here looks practically the same as the Pico gym (it is beyond me what makes ski resort gyms invest heavily in the hydraulic equipment), kind of worn out. Dazzling service did not yet penetrate French mind. And unlike in Rut-Vegas there is no 24 hours open ‘Super-marche’ in Les Deux Alpes. After 8 pm there virtually is nothing open but pubs and bars. Also, there is no remorse about that. What we need, of course are freshies.
Another summer day. And I nearly died on my first run. There was some real mean bumpy steep bowl. From the lift I saw nice snow on its skiers right. One just had to pass between some cliffs. But I got a little carried away in the nice snow and missed the turn to get between those cliffs. The trail, or rather, the path got steeper, until I was surrounded by rocks. They were in front, below, behind and above me. I couldn’t see what was underneath the rocks below me. I saw that the trail is eventually there, about 20 feet down. Anyway, not being able to see the landing and with the crudy snow I experienced earlier on that trail, I was definitely not inspired to jump. So, I had to hike out. To hike out I had to take the snowboard off. And I was with my toe-edge in the snow, standing nearly vertically with my knees and my hands in the snow. To take it off, I should roll over to my heel-side. But to do that I would have to release the toe edge, which did not look opportune at the moment. It started to dawn on me that I was kinda fucked there. My troubles were plainly visible from the chairlift. Some French jokers cried "plonge, plonge!" but I was thinking, you go ‘plonge’ your mother-in-law. Ok. I managed to traverse all the way to one enormous rock and hook the nose of my board into it. I unstrapped my front foot. This was perhaps one of the scariest decisions in my life. I drilled holes with my fists in the snow and pulled myself up behind the rock, where there was a little less steep (Skyehawk grade). There I kind of boxed out a hole in which I rolled myself from my knees to my butt, turned the board around, unstrapped the back foot, rolled back to my knees and started hiking. But of course the snow there, unlike on the ‘piste’ was light and fluffy and I slid back several times, using the board to self-arrest. Obviously, I succeeded. Because, otherwise I might not be in shape to write about this now. By the time I realized that I had to kick my feet in the snow until I made enough hard-packed snow to step on it, and that I had to move the board up after every step, a ski patroler showed up.
No, he was not there to clip my ticket. I did not duck any rope, after all. He was very happy when he realized that I am going to make it up by myself. I was about half-way up to where he was standing at the time. He did not show any intentions to go anywhere lower than he was standing. I asked him could I go further down from where I unstrapped. He shouted "impossible" (which again is the same word in both languages), and encouraged me to continue hiking. Once I got up to him, he took his skis off and walked around the cliffs to see where can we go through (he had an advantage having a radio, and a guy down at the bottom of the lift was telling him what is underneath where he was standing). Eventually, he got the way down for us. He asked me whether I was a beginner (i.e. would I be able to get down the ensuing bumpy trail). I told him I’d be fine (and I was: their bumps are soft and small compared to the ugliness of Outter Limits). Gee, if that happened in the US, the tourist would probably sue the mountain for the mortal peril in which he was put by taking a wrong turn - because there was no sign: NOTHING. But in France, he said, people look from a lift at the slope to find where they would go. Still, this, where I went, on usual year, when the snow is deeper, is, albeit perhaps a tad above my abilities, a doable drop - the really impossible passages that end up in deep out-of-bounds Martian canyons where nobody ever goes are roped off with three rows of metal wire or with a 6 feet wooden fence, just so somebody don’t get any ideas. When I got down I took the same lift up, and saw my track. There was 20 feet near-vert of solid rock, with sharp, outward pointed, blood-thirsty edges, underneath the place I unstrapped. The landing was merely covered. I took a picture (unfortunately the batteries died - I will have to take another piture another day - I am sure the track will still be there unless we get some fresh snow on top - nobody else would follow that track...). Just to remind myself from time to time that I do get lucky in my life here and there. In the end I got a good work-out and, also, I learned that there are paths a snowboard can’t take.
On the lift I met the Chamonix riders from yesterday. They saw my ordeal. And they asked me whether I would hike with them - since I obviously don’t mind hiking and going down crazy steep off-piste slopes. Of course, being locals they knew places where we could get down without helicopter rescue. So, we went up the ridge of the Pic Du Diablo (another word that is the same in both languages). The patrol dropped a TNT charge from the helicopter in the morning and there was this big hole in the middle of the pristine powder covered slope, like somebody hurled a huge ball with a sling-shot, meaning the slope was safe. This was simply beautiful. Like surfing down the 300 feet tall wave. Again I lost my skier friends (they wanted to stick with trails saying that it was easy for me to go off-piste, since I could always roll back on my feet if I sketch out, which they could not, hehehe) and stuck with that riders pack. Green and Blue trails here are every day like the Great Eastern is on a busy Saturday afternoon. Not at all appealing. And the same terror is present: I took a picture of an instructor with a group of Ministars slowly wedging their way down a bumpy blue square full of out of control skiers and riders. I found a funny tablecloth that depicts those horrors. And at the Jandri Express (20 person gondola) I said that this looked as Jurassic Park, and everybody laughed - apparently another phrase that’s same in French as it is in English.
Max is a Rosignol rep from Chamonix. A Rosignol rep on a Ride board with Burton bindings and Vans boots. Hmmm, hmmm. He really liked the goggles wiper feature on Burton AK-s (that his Rosignol gloves did not have), and the pass holder on the Burton jacket (that his Rosignol jacket was missing, too). Eventually he admitted the inferiority of the Rosignol ski company snowboard line of products. He was there with his younger brother and his two friends. Then his friends left, tired of the hike. We stayed together the whole afternoon. On the top he rolled a cigarette spiced with some nice stuff from Morocco. France is fascinating in that respect. Everybody smokes. Les Deux Alpes employees freely smoke cigarettes. And nobody is inclined to check what’s inside of them. People smoke on the slopes. Like we sat down after we got off the lift and smoked. And a skier dude (that we never saw before) passed by and asked if we would mind if he bum a puff from us. We didn’t. People were mingling around minding their business. We were jibbing around until the lift closed, which here is at 5. The best was riding the ridge on the west border of the resort (kind of a local version of Coopers Cabin). There really is steep desolate terrain, with drops scarier than the one I nearly went over, beyond that point and it leads to a deep canyon presently uncovered with snow far away from the village, but there are no signs. No, yellow rope or red tape. Ok, there is a small yellow plaque at one place along the ridge that says in three languages (French, English, Italian) something like "Attention!" and no way back if you go beyond that point. I guess the French resorts have better lawyers on retainer. Or maybe French tourists still retained some common sense.
I learned from Max that albeit everything else in France seems far more relaxed than in the US, the military service (until just recently when Chirac ended the compulsory service) reigned very strong. People who claimed conscientious objection were for example excluded from government jobs and had troubles establishing credit. So he drove a tank when he was in army (he still uses tank-driver goggles for riding, they are the best, he says). And he went awol for five powder days. His superiors were crazy. The prosecutor asked for 40 days, but he got only three. Well, three days of prison for five days of riding powder, worked fine for him. Plus, he got those indestructible goggles for free.
In the evening we went to the Rodeo Bar. It is advertised as a ‘bar du snowboard’. And it is nuts. Ok, there are museum snowboard decks on the walls. But all male waiters and bartenders are dressed in drag. There is no cover and beer is moderately priced ($3). DJ seems to be intentionally ignorant about the sequencing of his eclectic choice of music. There are two pool tables and a hydraulic bull in a corner. You jump on the bull, grab a penis-like handle covered with duck tape, and a waiter manipulates the bull in the rhytm of music until you eventually get thrown down on the cushioned floor. Hmm, hmm, I saw more young prospective Croatian ski instructors at 1 am dancing in the Rodeo Bar, then I saw them at 11 am on the mountain. One girl was particularly sweet: she said that she hurt her knee dancing the first night we came here, so she couldn’t ski all this time. Still, with five ibuprofens in her, she came to dance again, regardless that dancing was the principal cause of her injury.
As for the snowboarders, well... First, Croatia is a place with no snow-sports history or tradition. There is a total of 14 ski lifts in the entire country. And they operate rarely, since there is no snow-making and natural snow is sporadic. Janica Kostelic's this year's victory in the World Cup is a miracle that could be surpassed only by Iceland becoming a major exporter of bananas. It is a testimony to her talent, dedication and discipline (and near-fanaticism of her brilliant father and coach). Still, she is rather a precedent. I mean, Croatian skiers and riders train in Austria, Slovenia, Italy and France. Even the ski school programs - as the Yellow Cat one, that I joined - are organized abroad, for the lack of domestic resorts. The exorbitant prices associated with such aproach unfortunately make nearly impossible for all but the most talented and dedicated to achieve anything beyond the tourist mediocrity. There is a total of maybe a few hundreds snowboarders in Croatia and the best kids were at junior championship in Austria, so at Les Deux Alpes I ruled the slopes. Of course, that makes them victims of constant teasing of their a tad more experienced and better rounded skier friends. Coach Kostelic calls snowboarders 'the world championship in tied-up legs,' for example.
The "r" word is in the air. We have overcast. And it is around 40 degrees on 10,000 feet, in the bottom of the glacier, with South winds. We got some sleet, and one detachable chair went out of service - of course, the one I was waiting for at that time. Lower portion of the mountain has one functioning trail (Combe Valentin), which is steep and bumpy and looks like Superstar in mid-May, so I feel like home. On each lift station it says in three languages that off-piste is not recommended, so everybody stays on-piste and trails are downward ugly. Off-piste is actually nice if you are able to remember the way down from what you see from the lift. Still, the cover in places gets so thin that my base is suffering. I took the funicular railway today. The top of the glacier has deep cover, but it is Snowshed mild. I found a nice, steep powder run on the right (that ends at the bottom of that chair that broke down today). The only thing beyond that is La Grave, which faces north and ends up in the other valley (the one that has deep snow cover). But, for La Grave there are avalanche warnings. Probably, they’ll let people go there on Friday. But it is a maybe. There is a 50 franks surcharge for going to La Grave, but if you want to go with the guide than you have to pay between 300 and 500 franks per person to be in guided group of 4-10 people.
I talked with the owner of Primitive School today, who of course promised me a fun ride down, if we hire them (him). He also asked me to describe to him that ski instructor who told me that no snowboard instructors go there, just in case he might want to kick his ass. Generally, the friendly rivalry is present as it is in the U.S. Today, I was in the pipe. It is really much smaller. I have no troubles clearing the toe side wall. But it is ONLY for snowboarders. It says on the sign in front - in French and in English. And there was a ski instructors with kids on the right wall of the pipe and some kids were sticking their heads in the pipe, while some guys were riding, so the local Rosey had to go out of his cabin and shout some tasty obscenities towards the instructor. Hmm, it is different to be instructor here. I asked Guyetaine what do they pay him, and he was like ‘what do you mean?’ - because Primitive School are three guys sponsored by Nitro who charge what they think is fit and then pay their own advertisement (their friend, a local pro rider, is on their posters 40 feet in the air over the peaks of the Alps), and they pay European Ski School to do the administration for them. All snowboard schools are very busy, and maybe some of us should move here and establish an "American snowboard school"?! There is 8.5 months of schools operating here. Max came in the evening with his bro and a joint. We scheduled next day at 10 am to go all the way to the top and do Glacier Mon De Lans off-piste, that still looks like having decent snow cover. Sisko made a nice dinner with pasta and 'poulle' followed by the plenty of strong French red wine, to stack some good vibes for tomorrow.
10 am. It is pouring rain. All the way to 2100 m (approx. 7000 ft). And the high winds prevented lifts from operating above 2450 m, so we have only 350 m vertical (1200 ft) of mostly green and blue terrain available today. Mon De Lans will wait until pm if the winds calm down and the lifts open. The guest services are also not sure about La Grave trip any more. They asked me to check back in the afternoon. They also promised a voucher for the next year. After today’s rain it would probably be impossible to get down from the mountain without taking a gondola. At 2:30 pm, however, the rain turned to snow. Here when it snows it dumps. It snowed until 10 pm. We got about 2 feet down in the village. A meter up there. Finally.
Still, La Grave is closed. Avalanche danger is at 4 (of 5), so they are not letting people in. Sucks. However, we had some epic off-piste in-bounds (Glacier Mon De Lans, La Chalance). And one skier died - he got himself in a similar situation I did a few days ago in a different place: I unstrapped and hiked out, he slipped, cracked his skull open and died. Helicopters were busy picking up injured skiers and snowboarders from the mountain today. My friends, although with more skiing experience than I have on snowboard, chose not to follow me in the steepest parts: a proof that ‘le surf’ is clearly superior tool for ‘le puff’ - they were discouraged with sights of skiers using avalanche probes to find their skis in deep powder and shoveling them out, and there was at least one skier in this situation on each trail, and many more between the trails.
Rains again. Third day in a week. There is no rain but also no visibility at the top. Killington cloud followed me to the Alps. Going off-piste from a double black run, I lost sense of the slope gradient, since the sky was the same color as the ground, and eventually I found myself stuck in the flats in the shoulder deep pow. Swam out. Some heavy, heavy snow on the lower elevations. Tiring for my back leg. The place where that skier went off the cliff (and where I nearly did the same) was marked with big bright orange phosphorescent arrows today. No rope, though. Those who are foolish enough not to follow directions on a day like today maybe deserve their fate. There is no help from a helicopter in this visibility. You fall. You stay there until the snow melts, quite possibly. AT 5 pm we left. We passed the Vallons de la Meije (the bottom of La Grave) - no snow there. La Grave had snow but had also huge spots of blue ice visible from the bottom up. Scary. But the other valleys, closer to the Italian border (Serre Chevalier, for example, with the great tree riding) were covered excellently, 6 feet at the bottom. It escapes me why Les Deux Alpes which are at the higher altitude had such a miserable weather. I got a three day voucher for the next year out of it, at least.