Alta states 

Seeking Mountain Satori – Exploring the edge with Nathalie


Just do it. Interesting, isn't it, how some people are okay with standing on the sidelines while others leap into the churning stream of life and start paddling away like it was the most natural thing to do. Consider Ottawa's Nathalie Gervais. Barely 27, the young mountaineer has experienced more alpine epiphanies than most of us could imagine having in a lifetime. And yet, in her eyes, she's barely scratched the surface...

"I was a ski racer until I was 17," she tells me. "I loved it. But then things just got too expensive." She sighs. "I mean, it got to the point where it was like 'Hey dad, I need another $2,000 to get through the month.' I just couldn't justify the costs anymore..."

We're sitting at a modest little café in a tiny medieval mountain village deep in the French Alps. Nathalie is nursing a Weiss bier while I negotiate a coke. We've just finished what many around here consider to be the best big-powder day of the season. Eight-thousand foot descents and waist-deep snow, sphincter-puckering lines and great company. "You're a lucky guy," she tells me. "You timed your arrival here perfectly..."

But this story isn't about me. It's about the dynamic, young woman with the million-dollar smile I've been skiing with all week...

So where was I? Oh yeah. Like many frustrated eastern racers, Gervais decided to head for real mountains the moment she graduated from high school. And like so many before her, she didn't have a clue what she was getting herself into. "I moved to Banff with slalom skis," she says with a self-deprecating grin. "I thought I was such a good skier. But I couldn't ski powder to save my life." She takes a breath; her eyes crinkle with amusement. "Finally I figured out that powder was all about hucking. That's when I started having fun." Another long pause. Another burst of happy laughter. "I couldn't land anything of course. But it didn't really matter. I was having a blast."

After spending the next fall and early winter touring around Europe - "but not skiing!" she says - she returned to Banff for the 2002-03 season. And promptly tore her ACL. "So I went back to Ottawa for surgery." There was no way she was going to stay in Ontario for the winter however. "So I went down to Mexico for five months," she says. "I volunteered for an eco-tourism project there to see if I'd like to pursue that kind of thing." She sighs. "I realized I wasn't ready to change the world; I wanted to have fun..."

That realization marked a major turning point in her life. Instead of enrolling in architecture and environmental design, Gervais opted for a nine-month long mountain skills training course at the College of the Rockies in Fernie. "That's where my love affair with climbing started," she tells me. That's also where she discovered the esoteric pleasures of ski touring. "It was a pretty lousy snow year," she says, "so we really had to hike for our turns. My touring went from nothing to BIG TIME."


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