Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ski Ze Alps

You may be aware that Europe is currently experiencing a continent-rocking wave of cold. Even in sunny Marseille, the temperatures have plummeted and last week it snowed like, 3 or 4 times! None of it stuck to the ground, but it was enough to totally disrupt life and freak everyone out. It is legitimately cold though. Add in the wind from the Med with the cold temps? Brrrr.

So when it’s cold, what’s the only logical thing to do? Drive two hours north and hit the slopes! The French Alps are not far away, and together with a couple of friends I took a Saturday run to the mountains for some crazy skiing fun.

I ski on average once every two years or so. I’d previously only skied a few places in the US (Lake Placid, Breckenridge, and a couple mole hills in Indiana and Ohio). I don’t really know what I’m doing on the mountain and I’m just good enough to get myself into situations that I probably shouldn’t. I love that point of being just slightly out of control. So I figure that pretty much makes me an expert.

This was my first time skiing in France. First time in the Alps. I’d like to make some observations. Yes, I only spent one day skiing, and yes it was only one small location. But just as stereotypes always prove true 100% of the time, I will assume that every experience I had on Saturday holds true for all skiing in all of France.

Here are my observations on skiing in France:

-The French really like those T-bar lifts. You know, the ones that take you up one person at a time? A bar hangs with something like a metal frisbee on the end, you hold it between your legs and lean back on the metal frisbee, then stand and get pulled up the mountain. In the States, I’d only ever seen and used them on the bunny hills. Here, they are everywhere, and the only way to get anywhere. In all, this 2-peak ski area had 3 chair lifts and 15 T-bar lifts. In fact, the lift to each peak is one of those things. Near the top, there are signs noting that they are difficult lifts, with inclines over 50 degrees. I hate them. I like to sit and rest on my lifts. And enjoy the scenery. I don’t like clinging to a cold metal pole and losing feeling in my fingers. It also didn’t help that I fell off those silly things 3 times. I get bored and distracted, then fall.

-Great Britain doesn’t have mountains. I’m sure I learned that once in school or sometime, but I don’t ever really learn anything until I experience it first-hand. And I experienced it first-hand this weekend when all around me I heard British accents, in the French Alps.

-General winter gloves are not ski gloves. I thought I could get by. Bad idea. Skied the last few runs like I was drinking tea in Britain: pinky out. That was because I’d lost all feeling and couldn’t wrap all of my fingers around my ski poles.

-Higher elevation is colder. Up top, coooooold. And did I mention how awful those metal pole pull lifts are?

-I keep a list of things that are cheaper in (south) France than in the US. It goes like this: Wine. Olive Oil. And... I’m done. Add skiing to the list. 20€ for a day’s ski rentals and 25€ for a lift ticket. Not bad.

-When I’ve skied in the US, I’ve always noticed that people relished the opportunity of being covered head-to-toe and whipping down mountainsides as a great time to show off individual style. Crazy headwear, bright patters or colors, tons of brands and fits and accessories. In the alps, I think I saw all of about 3 different pairs of pants all day. All black. As to coats, I could count the brands and styles on one hand. Everyone basically looked the same. My French friend with me pointed out a couple times skiers passing us wearing the exact same coat as him. When we did see a hint of individuality, it was always accompanied by a British accent. The only real style I saw all day was a 30/40-something woman wearing a pink and teal jumpsuit and a beltbag, traveling about 2mph on a snowboard with both arms outstretched like a 64-bit nintendo character. Sweet.

-Colorblind skiers are not welcomed in France. In the US, the level of difficulty of each slope is noted with a shape and a color. Green circles are the easiest, then blue squares are moderate, with black diamonds hardest (adding diamonds for added difficulty). In France, the slopes are marked with colors, Green, Blue, Red, and Black. No shapes. At the start of each run was a circular sign, and the color of that sign told you how difficult the drops and turns ahead would be.

-Lifts and ski trails make even less sense in France than the roads do. There were not good central hubs from which to choose multiple lifts. There were not long shot lifts to the top. In fact, to get to the top from the base, allow me to describe the path: You start off by riding a short T-bar to the top of the bunny hill. Then you ski down and across to catch the biggest, longest chair lift. At the top of the char lift, you ski about 500m across mostly flat ground to a long and steep T-bar. Take that up, carefully choose the right trail that comes down and across to a zig-zag of trails which leads to a couple of T-bar lifts. One of those goes to a run with jumps and half-pipes, one goes to the top of the lower peak. Once at the top, take a path in the right direction and ski across and downhill to another chair lift. Take that chair lift to where it drops off, ski some trails in the trees to a somewhat hidden small T-bar lift which takes you to a chair lift which takes you to two T-bar lifts, and one of those two lifts will take you to the top. Assuming you are an olympic Super-G skier, and assuming you began your ascent at the start of the morning, you should have just enough time for a descent before darkness falls.

My day in the alps. With this expert information, you are now set to make the transition to skiing in France. Come on over!