By Michel Beaudry
There’s nothing like taking a little work trip abroad to put things in perspective. Seriously. I mean, there’s nothing like travelling halfway around the world — from the Wasatch Mountains to France’s Tarentaise — only to find that home is the only place worth skiing this year.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d still rather be working in the mountains than anywhere else. But there is nothing so agonizing as hanging out at some world-class resort without being able to take full advantage of its offerings. Mostly on this trip I skied on rocks and grass and man-made snow strewn with sharp little pebbles that leave deep striations in your base and can stop you dead in your tracks if you hit them just right in a turn. Adventuring off-piste was generally out of the question. Even tiptoeing across a traverse was iffy in the Alps. It was grim all around. And it sure made me nostalgic for Whistler.
How I missed those peak-to-valley runs in near-perfect conditions so early in the season. Stormy mornings when your tracks where obliterated moments after you made them. Dropping through the trees like it was February or March. Run after run of bottomless turns; snow down your collar, snow in your mouth, snow up the back of your shirt. For me, it was one of the most satisfying Novembers that I’d ever experienced. And I quickly came to miss it. Especially given the alternative.
Consider Utah. There was nothing but scratchy white styrofoam at Park City, but I’d heard that it had just dumped at Snowbird. I figured things couldn’t get much worse. Alas, the much-heralded storm had long gone by the time I got there and a mere dusting remained — just enough to camouflage the sharks’ teeth lurking over every break. It was profoundly low tide. Heck, even the hardcore were moaning that it was the worst start to the season that they’d ever seen. “It’s been slim pickings to this point,” local hero Jeremy Nobis told me as we waited for the morning’s first tram alongside a rag-tag army of Wasatch die-hards. “I really don’t feel like I’ve started skiing yet…”
Fortunately, another storm did eventually hit Little Cottonwood Canyon. Maybe 20 centimetres at its deepest, it was totally Utah snow. Light and fluffly and gone by midday. It was great — in the same way a calorie-free chocolate bar is great. And we took full advantage of it, sacrificing our ski bases to get first tracks down a variety of ’Bird classics. Funny thing though — everyone on the mountain insisted 20 inches of snow had fallen that day. And then it struck me. Could the American inch be going the same way as the American dollar?
The Euro, on the other hand, is soaring. Maybe that’s why things are so hot on the continent. Arrived in France’s Val Thorens — the highest resort in the Alps — just in time for my birthday. And one of the warmest and driest Decembers in history…
The fourth mountain valley in a magnificent Tarentaise interconnect called Les Trois Vallees — only the French could hope to explain that misnomer — Val Thorens is surrounded by some of the most heart-thumping, stomach-clenching offpiste terrain that I’ve ever skied. It’s a big-mountain rider’s dream-come-true. And the lift system there makes adventuring off the beaten path a pleasure. That is, when there’s snow.
This year there was nothing. Well, if you really, really stretched it, you could call the churned up ice-and-gravel we skied on snow. But you’d have to definitely be a glass-half-full kind of a guy. And it was really too bad. For Val Thorens was hosting some of the best young New School skiers in Europe for an event called the North Face Ski Challenge.
A three-day competition for kids born between 1988 and 1994, the Ski Challenge is all about showcasing young ski athletes that have chosen to pursue their dreams outside the mainstream. But from what I saw in Val Thorens, today’s new generation of skiers is quickly turning “mainstream” on its head.
And I mean that literally.
The original schedule had called for a big-mountain contest, a slopestyle event and a freeski day with the judges. The aim, ostensibly, was to reward the best overall young skiers there. “It’s all about the skiing,” said event founder JP Baralo. “We want to make sure that kids at this age know and understand the fundamentals of the sport.” But given the dearth of snow, it soon became apparent that the slopestyle course — which was superbly put together considering the dire conditions — was where the new stars would emerge.
And emerge they did — with style to spare. Competing before an eminent panel of judges — including New School icon Phil Dion and Verbier Extreme champion Aurelien Ducroz — the 65 boys and girls put on a show on the rails, hips and table-tops that had even the usually tough-talking Dion singing their praises. “I was totally impressed,” he said. “From the youngest to the oldest, these kids charged! It’s amazing — some of them ski better switch than straight on!”
Which segues nicely into my next stop: the oh-so eccentric resort of Avoriaz in the Swiss/French complex of Portes-du-Soleil. Built on the side of a cliff, and composed entirely of B.C. fir (or so they say), the village of Avoriaz is what Dr. Seuss might have designed if he’d set one of his stories at a ski resort. It’s architectural surrealism at its most acid-tinged exuberant. Weird? No question. The closest thing that I can think of is Robert Altman’s set for the film Popeye …
Yet in its own strange and kooky way, Avoriaz possesses a kind of off-kilter charm that is hard to resist. It’s a true pedestrian-only village — all cars are exiled to a massive multi-storied parking lot at the edge of the commune (only the French could sentence guests to such a lengthy luggage portage) — and the alpine views from its eagle’s perch locale are stupendous.
Because it was built so high up in the mountains — it’s by far the highest in the Portes-du Soleil complex — Avoriaz had also been able to make snow in the last few weeks. Barely. But at least we got to slide around some and admire the scenery…
Ironically, it was in Avoriaz where I heard the boss of one of France’s best-known ski manufacturers present a vision for the future that had me quaking in my boots. Given the looming onslaught of global warming, he said, and the growing power of the green lobby on the continent (he reminded us how snowmaking had become a hot-button issue in European Community politics in recent years), it was his contention that within a generation or two, skiing in the Alps would be limited to maybe a dozen high-altitude resorts, supporting a much different economy and serving a very different market. From his neo-Darwinian perspective, all he could imagine for the future was a very high-end clientele investing in very high-end products. Any company unable to adapt to these new conditions, he said, would be crushed.
And even as I listened closely to his arguments, I couldn’t help but desperately hope that he was wrong.
Which brings me full circle back to Whistler. For the last six weeks, we’ve been blessed with a surfeit of snow that has everyone in town grinning from ear-to-ear. And that’s the way it should be. For the weather gods have smiled on us with a beneficence that has not been seen here for a very long time.
But beware lest we get smug and start patting ourselves on the back for something we have absolutely no control over. (Remember the cheap Canadian dollar? We were geniuses then too). Unless conditions in other parts of snow country change dramatically in the coming weeks, we are going to be profiting greatly from other resorts’ woes. We’ll be seeing snow-starved skiers from the Alps to the Laurentians, from the Appalachians to the Tatras. And they’ll all be looking to us to make them happy.
So let’s make sure we take this opportunity to show people just how gracious Whistlerites are as hosts. We’ve been very fortunate. Let’s not get too greedy in return. Who knows? We could all be wearing gumboots and raincoats at this time next year…