Mom and me in Chamonix
I was 12,600 feet above sea level in a whipping wind, clinging tightly to my skis and a fixed rope. As I moved across the ice, my ski boots twitched on a steep slope and then disappeared over a precipice as I tried to regain my footing.
I was roped to six other people, who froze and held tight as best they could when my feet went out from under me and I fell, threatening to pull them with me over the edge. Although I knew I was safe, harnessed to my strong and capable guide, it was damn hard to regain my footing on that frozen wasteland.
I thanked God my mother decided not to come along.
It was the last day of a weeklong mother-daughter ski trip in the French Alps. I had thought, somewhat naively, that skiing in Chamonix with my mom would be a good way to bond as we haven’t done in years. As an adult, spending significant time with a parent can be trying ” especially since we see each other maybe once a year ” but perhaps sharing a beloved activity would divert some of that familial crankiness.
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It was a nice thought.
We quickly discovered that, like most traveling companions, my mom and I had entirely different agendas. As a 61-year-old who has had plenty of adventures in life, Mom now only skis a handful of days each winter and wanted a relaxing vacation. She was content to ski the groomed runs, to have long lunches and to get down the mountain in time for a coffee and an afternoon rest.
On the other hand, I’m a 30-something mountain-dweller looking for a new challenge. I had just forked over more than I make in a week to get to Chamonix, and I wanted to ski my butt off in six short days, especially on the famed off-piste slopes of alpinism’s birthplace (the first ascent of Mont Blanc was in 1786).
And that’s how I came to be roped to a group of virtual strangers, making my way down an ice-covered granite knob while being blasted by minus-22-degree winds. That’s the only way to reach the pistes of the Vallee Blanche ” probably the most famous of Chamonix’s alpine experiences ” a 12-mile, 7,000-vertical-foot descent of a massive glacier named the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice).
My mom, meanwhile, took the day off and probably sipped coffee while quietly contemplating the same dramatic, forbidding peak that I almost fell from.
Skiing is fun
What prevented the near-inevitable mother-daughter meltdown on this trip was Chamonix Ski Fun Tours, a guide service recommended to me by a Colorado friend. The brainchild of lifetime local and ski instructor Eric Tholiere, Ski Fun explores both in-bounds and off-piste areas in the Chamonix region. Certified mountain guides, Eric noted, are the ones that go up; “Nous sommes les guides qui descendent (we’re the ones that go down).”
“We’re just skiing with friends this week, so please join us,” Tholiere said when I met him one night at the central guides/ski school building in the center of town. How could we refuse such an invitation?
Every day of the week, Ski Fun visits a different local mountain. They offer a daily menu but go where the conditions are best and accommodate guests’ desires. During our stay we skied Brevent and Flegere (two once-independent ski areas now connected by lifts), les Grands Montets, Courmayeur, Italy, and (me, at least) the Vallee Blanche. Mom was happy as a clam to be guided around, make new friends and show off her perfect 61-year-old form. I would have my anticipated off-piste experiences, make new friends and appreciate the time with Mom a little more.
A few words about the European ski experience: It’s not just about the skiing. Taking in the dramatic views, enjoying sumptuous alpine food and drinking a glass of good local wine are all part of the day. And the Ski Fun guys ” all born-and-bred Chamoniards who are 100 percent French in a charming, funny, easy-on-the-eyes kind of way ” knew how to take the experience to a new level.
There were little touches, like a belt of Chartreuse and Swiss chocolates to start out the morning (the guides pick you up at your door too), the good-natured ribbing between the guides and the clients that shortened the van rides to the lifts, and the apres experiences. One night they took us to the charming Chalet Le Cerro for a fondue dinner ” an off-the-beaten-track mountain hut run by friends.
La vie est belle
Aspen and Chamonix are sister cities ” they sponsor exchange programs between schoolchildren and ski patrollers, for example ” and many Aspenites know Chamonix well. Between the contacts at Aspen’s Sister Cities program and the large number of locals who had been to Chamonix, I had accumulated a wealth of advice for our sojourn.
But the European Alps are an altogether different universe than our comparatively neat and compact Rockies, and consulting a Chamonix trail map proved futile. Carved by ancient glaciers, the massifs are craggy and dramatic, the runs steep and hard, and the out-of-bounds skiing both hazardous and thrilling. On these immense treeless expanses, it was impossible to gauge in advance the steepness of a run or its snow conditions. Venturing into ungroomed terrain (there are no boundary ropes), my mom and I would quickly lose sight of each other, and navigating from one side of the ski area to the other resulted in many a bicker.
So when we hooked up with Ski Fun on our third day, it alleviated the pressure of blind exploration. Plus, we weren’t stuck talking to each other on the lifts, and disagreeing about where to go.
With Ski Fun, we casually explored more of Brevent and Flegere than my mother and I had skied at a near-frantic pace the day before. The skiing was spectacular, as the cold weather that week kept the snow firm and dry, and our guides brought us to terrain ranging from groomed and casual to steep and tight. The other clients, mostly Brits ” we always joined the whole group midday ” provided comic relief at lunch with the five separate flasks they plunked on the table.
Some of the best skiing advice I’d ever had came that day from our guide Lionel, who said in a typically French, nontechnical way: “Catherine, you must read the snow. Feel your line.”
Mom and I had plenty to talk about that night when we went out to explore the charming old town and enjoy a typical Savoyard dinner. She even agreed to check the nightlife ” and we had a couple drinks at a smoky, crowded bar where they played techno-music and showed ski flicks. By the time we arrived at our rented apartment, we both fell asleep quickly despite having to share a tiny European double bed (the result of a reservation mixup).
The next day we skied Les Grands Montets, sometimes called Argentiere (for the village at the base), where a Colorado friend had told me I could find some sick off-piste terrain. Perched on the steep, treeless flanks of an immense mountainside ” marked by what looks like a huge meteor crater ” les Grands Montets boasts about 6,000 vertical feet of wide-open skiing, flanked on each side by the Argentiere Glacier and the Mer de Glace.
It was 3 degrees that morning, and windy. Troubled by a nagging cough and tentative on her newfangled shaped skis, Mom stuck with the intermediate group for the day. I headed off for a memorable adventure with guide Pascal Dufour, a fourth-generation Chamoniard who helped establish Snowmass’ snowboard school and whose eyes gleam when he recalls dangling in a crevasse by the length of his snowboard.
On our first ride up the tram to the 10,700-foot summit, the tram stopped for a half-hour just short of the top. During the delay, the 70 Europeans jammed into the car, accustomed to crowds and delays, began singing “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” The tram operator, sweating profusely while punching buttons and pulling levers, joked that we would only be delayed for two or three days. When the tram had to be manually pulled to the top station, he said it was due to “10 Englishman pedaling as hard as they can.”
The trauma was soon forgotten, when Pascal led us on a glorious descent of the Argentiere glacier. We followed Pascal’s graceful carving turns and stopped often to take photos. At one of those stops, a group of foreign visitors asked him for advice. He replied, “We are in France, a country of freedom,” then shook his head sadly that they hadn’t hired a guide for this immense, crevasse-studded descent.
We were a tad late for our lunch meeting with the rest of the group, but it didn’t matter ” Mom was chatting away happily with her new friends.
Our second run from the top took us past warning signs on a rarely skied line into the Vallee Blanche called the Pas de Chevre (Goat’s Step). Pascal had suddenly offered us the option when told by another guide that conditions were uncommonly good. The pure, knee-deep powder we encountered several days after a storm proved that few had ventured into the area. The afternoon ended with a harrowing descent, sans skis and grasping Pascal’s climbing rope, of a rocky, muddy face dumping into the Mer de Glace. The others were duly impressed that night at dinner.
The following day we adventured at Courmayeur, on the Italian side of Mont Blanc in the Aosta Valley, where many of Aspen’s original settlers hailed from. Once again led by Pascal, we took a lift operated only for guided groups to a wide-open, off-piste bowl that narrowed into a couple of chutes (where someone, not in our group, triggered an avalanche that thankfully didn’t do any damage).
For lunch, Eric had secured a room big enough for all 30-some of us at a mountain restaurant. There we stuffed ourselves with three rounds of pasta, and passed around the traditional grolla ” a hot coffee and grappa mix served in a large wooden container with numerous spouts. Bad luck falls on the unlucky drinker who puts it down before the last drop is drained. Each pass to a new drinker is accompanied by a blessing and response, which toward the end of the lunch became blurred and mangled.
“La vie est belle,” Eric kept repeating that day, referring to the Roberto Benigni film, “Life is Beautiful.” I had to agree.
My mom and I had dinner that night with two Chamonix Sister Cities officials, Jacques Tomei and Jany Couttet, and Aspen ski patroller Deb Curtis, who was spending the winter there on exchange. It was fascinating to learn about all the similar issues Aspen and Chamonix share ” locals being pushed downvalley because of escalating real estate costs, the dependence on tourism that drives nearly 100 percent of the businesses ” while offering such distinct cultures.
One of Aspen’s native sons, Robey Albouy, had started Sister Cities, Tomei told us. For Tomei, the program is “a way to discover and learn another civilization, to erase the differences between people.”
So perhaps it was appropriate that I ended the week at the Vallee Blanche, one massive run which is skied or snowboarded by up to 2,500 people per day from who-knows-how-many nations. When my mom skied it some 30 years before, there was no rope to hold onto, or half-carved steps, to the 12,600-foot summit. Nor was anyone roped to each other ” it was each to his or her own devices. But maybe Mom got the same simple advice from locals as Pascal gave us: “Don’t fall into a crevasse. Ski in control.” And when she was there last, the glaciers reached much farther into the valley. Glaciers advance and recede ” the Mer de Glace moves at an average speed of 328 feet per year ” but last summer, during France’s record heat wave, the glacier retreated more than it had in the 10 previous years.
During our week together in Chamonix, Mom and I talked about our lives, trials and tribulations, hopes and dreams. But mainly, we just enjoyed the skiing, and hanging out in the mountains together.
Mom and I discovered that we have different ideas on skiing, and don’t quite have the touchy-feely mother-daughter bond that some families have. But that’s OK, because we were in a beautiful place, enjoying a sport we both love. And we’ll always have the memories.
Catherine Lutz is assistant editor of the Snowmass Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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