Sunday, March 28, 2010

spring is here

that beautiful layer of snow is melting
'off piste' in some places is no longer the inviting option it once was
freshly groomed but with the consistency of wet sand
Vanessa and I in our fashion outfits
sparse snow on the lower slopes

The white, white, white view from Chalet Lou Rider has gone.  The trees have lost their dull grey green colour of winter and are starting to glow with the flush of new growth.  There are patches of dirty off white snow here and there, but not huge amounts at this altitude.  The grey of the grass between them is also lessening as new, green shoots push up through the old faded mat of foliage from last year.  And that is on the shady north facing side of the valley.  It has been too warm for a while now.

On the sunny south side the grass appears green from a distance, clusters of small yellow flowers have emerged and the buds are starting to burst on the tree outside.  Lush new grass and weeds are pushing up through gravel on the path bringing a new colour to the landscape.  Down in the valley the pastures look lush and green and there is a feeling of spring in the air.

This is all rather scary as the resort is still open and is expected to be operational until after Easter.  That is another two weeks away.  The warm ‘foen’ wind has been blowing from the south again, the wind that makes the Pyrenees less popular as a skiing destination and is warming everything through.  The nights have been cloudy, keeping the warm air in and it has rained for most of the weekend.

Further up the mountain things improve a bit.  There is plenty of exposed ground, scree slopes, large areas of grass that provide grazing during the summer months, clusters of low growing junipers and myrtle bushes amongst the trees down by the lake.  The shadier slopes are still covered with a thick layer of snow, although it is turning that funny grey brown colour that always comes with snow that has lain for a long time,  I expect that it is dust and dirt and fine particles of soil that have blown in and are becoming concentrated on the surface as the icy layer slowly melts.

The ski slopes remain in tact, a bit thin in places, but open none the less.  Where areas have become too thin, the maintenance crews spend the night redistributing snow from drifts and banks to fill in the patches and keep everything running smoothly.  There must be some sort of gauge in their monster piste bashing machines that measures the underlying depth of snow as they seem to be able to scrape away all but the thinnest layer, leaving a protective layer over the rocks and vegetation below, there are a few scuffs here and there but probably no more than the hooves of a herd of cattle roaming the hills in the summer.  

Skiing itself is quite a different experience now, it is much warmer, so less clothes (until the sun goes in), there is hardly anyone out and about, so much more open runs and absolutely no queueing for the lifts and very different under foot.  Gone is the beautiful, soft powder that I wrote about earlier, gone are the crisp, frozen ridges of a groomed slope in freezing temperatures and in its place a thick, sticky, slushy surface that grips the soles of your skis, reducing your speed,  gathers up in solid mounds that catch skis and tip you off balance.  It is wet when you fall and far less supporting when you try and stand on it.  All in all a different kind of experience.

I disliked this new snow intensely after having such beautiful freezing conditions for so long, but now I have become accustomed. I have modified my technique and reduced my speed and am still loving being out in the mountains.  The views continue to be immense and the thrill of being on skis does not seem to diminish over time.  I think that this is probably the best way I could have spent winter 2010 in the northern hemisphere and I give thanks for that.

I do, however, have my fingers crossed for at least one big dump of snow before I leave here for pastures new.

Yes, it snowed again over the weekend, and although the air is still warm the conditions have been great for the most recent guests and the slopes a pleasure to ski once more.  

Monday, March 22, 2010

Amusing ourselves

Over the weeks we have amused ourselves by playing board games an extraordinary number of times.  Risk was a favourite for several weeks although it became a bit repetitive after a while.  

Ring of Fire was a resounding success, although not a board game, a great way to pass an evening and to consume an inordinate amount of alcohol at the same time.  A pack of cards is arranged, face down, in a circle on a table and players take it in turn to choose a card and reveal it.  Each card has a nominated challenge, sometimes involving the whole group and other times just that individual player.  We amended the forefeits for maximum fun and included ‘fuzzy duck’, blowing cards off a bottle, ‘one frog’, ‘I went shopping” as well as quick one or two shot rounds.  The whole game takes ages and becomes more fun as the participants become progressively drunk.  Not a good one for the person on early shift, of if there are loads of guests staying.  No doubt it will reappear in March when things quieten down a bit.

Current favourite is Pictionary, there is a french version that has been translated, a good way to improve vocabulary too, especially if the teams are a mixture of nationalities.  The one minute rule goes very fast when you have to look up every guess in a dictionary....  We got through loads of paper so have changed to using little chalk boards and chalk which increases the challenge somewhat, easier to start over though.  I think this one will run and run.  Can you guess what we have been drawing?

answers on a postcard please

Thursday, March 11, 2010

first on the slopes

First on the slopes, it had been planned that way the night before.  We had seen the forecasts, three of them, all promising fresh snow in relatively calm conditions and a clearing sky in the morning.   The ideal conditions for the most amazing ski on fresh powder, slopes that people dream of skiing.

We got up, straight into our ski gear and had a quick breakfast, it’s great when work doesn’t start till 6 pm, and out of the front door just before nine.  Hardly anyone about, the weather was still looking a bit threatening with heavy cloud down the valley and no view of the peaks, the car park still nearly empty and just a few keen souls sorting out their gear from the backs of their cars, changing into outdoor clothing, stuffing sandwiches into backpacks and squeezing feet into cold boots, Joe and I were on our own mission, to be first.  We could probably have left earlier, but our timing was perfect, the whole area around the lift station had been freshly groomed and a light layer of snow had fallen since, providing an untouched surface to cross. No other skiers had used the lift yet.  There was just one set of footprints as we neared the departure area, that of the lift staff,  a smiling Altiservice employee welcomed us and told us we had to wait for the “conductor”, he was a short way behind us with coffee and croissants for their breakfast snack.  

The chair arrived and the snow was brushed off before it swept round the end of the carousel to pick us up.  We slid out on our skis and board and waited on the line for the chair to arrive, it reached us, and, as we had done hundreds of times before, sat ourselves down just as it hit the back of our knees as it scooped us off our feet.  As the chair gathered speed, it was one of those modern ones that slows to pick up its passengers, we reached up and lowered the safety bar and settled ourselves for the ride up the mountain.  Something we had done plenty of times before, but different this time, because we were the first.

It was still snowing a bit, just lightly and falling almost straight from the sky, no wind, even better.  We hoped that the cloud would clear as we rose up the mountain and it did.  We crossed from one lift to the next and the visibility was still pretty poor, though it soon changed as we sped, on our swaying chair, suspended from its trusty wire, further up the mountain.  We got a cheery ‘Bonjour’ from the second lift conductor and a thumbs up, still definitely the first ones on the pistes.  

Looking down from the lift, the visibility cleared beautifully and we could see the terrain below.  Mirabelle, always dotted with other skiers and often packed, completely clear, the ridge in the distance, where the ‘eggs’ arrive, where people stand, packed like penguins waiting for their friends or a ski lesson to begin, completely empty, the ‘eggs’, a four man telecabin takes longer to get to the top that our route,  all still wonderfully devoid of life.  We had done it, first on the slopes.

As we rose again, on a second chair lift, the discussion began in earnest, where should we go first?  The Mirabelle, before it got too busy?  Our favourite, Pyramide? down into the gully, a cool, natural halfpipe, where we love to practice our tricks and jumps? or over to Izard, the big wide red, great for speed and seldom busy?  Maybe Teranere, the old favourite black?   Which would be the best run to leave the first marks of the day on?  We didn’t decide until we had nearly reached the top.

MIrabelle first and then Pyramide, we figured that if we were fast enough we could do both before anyone else got there.  So we flew.  Joe managed to fasten his boots to his board before we got off the lift and there was no stopping after that, safety bar up, touch down and away, round the corner without putting in a turn, straight to the top of the slope.  A quick pause to momentarily take in the view then over the edge in silent speed, so different to the normal hiss and scrape of a groomed run, the soft snow absorbing the sound and speeding us on our way, it was like floating down the mountain, fast and effortless, large sweeping curves leaving tracks in the powder, the only sound was from the wind blasting our faces, otherwise the mountainside was silent and still.  It didn’t feel that way, hurtling through the landscape it was fast and invigorating, cold air bringing us alive, a fresh blanket of snow to carve whatever shapes we desired.  Down the straight, over the mound, knowing that our path was clear, no lumps and bumps that are usually there to catch us out, just clean smooth powder, fresh from the heavens, waiting for our skis.  Speeding wide round the corner into the bowl, big swooping turns, using the slope to its maximum extent whilst maintaining an incredible speed, flying onto the final straight, our destination approached far faster than ever expected, the smoothest stop in a huge cloud of ‘dust’ and then we were still again, sitting on our lift chair waiting in anticipation for the next run.

A buzz from the speed, a glow from the icy air and an exhilaration that I have rarely experienced before, powder is amazing.  Skiing is great fun and I love it, but that run was absolutely sensational, none of the usual scraping and vibration from my skis on the snow, no noise from those patches of crusty snow and ice, just smooth silent, flowing movement it was almost as if it were a dream, unreal, except for the fact that I was most definitely, completely 100% there.  

That was only the first run.

There were other people on the lift ahead of us, where were they heading, could we still reach Pyramide first?  Would we alter our course?  Could we get there any faster? What course would we choose to take on the next run?  Questions bounced about in my head and between us as we headed up the mountain again along with exchanges of the amazing descent we had just experienced.

Just in time.  There were a couple of sets of ski tracks in the snow down the adjacent red runs but none on the blue.  Yes, yes, I know that blue is easy, but this one is loads of fun when you include the banks and contours on either side and the gulley, that I have already mentioned, at the bottom.  You get the whole valley to ski down not just the piste between the poles.

It was, (in young speak,) immense, a pristine blanket of fresh white snow, like a beautifully laid duvet, smooth and flat, without creases or folds, stretching out across the landscape, covering all those bumps and ridges, tufts of grass and scraped areas where the snow ploughs had gathered snow for the piste in the past, hugging close to the outcrops of rock and rolling on, out of sight, down into the valley.

The light was perfect, not bright, sunny and glaring but clear enough to see the contour of the ground without glare or distortion, to pick out the fall of the snow and choose a path across this winter wonderland.  This time we did stop to enjoy the view.

Not for long though, there was always a chance of being overtaken, but a decent pause to realise how amazing nature is and how privileged I was to be there.  The perfection would be spoiled at any moment but will be replaced during the next snowfall.  

This second descent was more measured and relaxed.  Time to absorb and enjoy the experience in a different way.  The silence and smoothness of movement over this duvet embraced us again.  Slowly we went, to make the most of it, to make the moment last, well, slower than last time anyway.  We  still covered the ground fairly quickly, it would have been difficult not to, a certain amount of speed was needed to stop us sinking too far in whilst passing over the deeper snow and to keep the momentum up for finishing our turns.  I have no idea how it looked, but I imagined myself like the skiers on promotional film footage, carving beautiful turns through virgin snow.  It felt good too, so good that for a few moments I decided that I would only ever ski on powder again. (Yeah right, wait for fresh snow before putting on skis again!!!  that might be weeks or years away!!)

It was difficult to distinguish what was piste and what was not.  The poles denoting the boundaries of the groomed slope stuck out through the new blanket every few meters but the surface of the snow did not alter at all.  The prepared route was somewhere underneath, along with the lumpy edges, those tufts of grass, shrubs and rocky patches that were visible, and had to be avoided yesterday, were gone.  We could go anywhere in the valley and we did.

From high up on one side we swooped down and across the valley, rising on the far side as far as gravity would take us, using the last ounces of momentum to turn and descend again.  A couple of times the snow was so thick that it stalled us and we struggled to balance and turn on the spot.  Skiing on powder is so different, it requires a gentle, more deliberate movement; stronger, persuasive and continued pressure on the skis, no abrupt changes or late decisions, else it gains control and tips you mercilessly to the ground.  A very different feel to that of the previous day and even the previous run.  They can’t have groomed this run last night for there to be so much powder here.  I struggled and fell a few times whilst adjusting to the deeper snow and its new requirements.  Joe did too, both of us laughing and enjoying the experience, covered from head to foot in the white stuff, noticing the impact now from the darkness of being submerged in soft snow rather than the usual thud and smash of landing on a hard, groomed surface.  It was almost a treat to tumble again. 

All of the little ridges and drops that we had come to love had disappeared, no jumps and tricks today.  The entire area had been transformed into a new playground and we used that slope to the limits.  It had the same general contours, yet all the details had been erased and replaced by a fluffy marshmallow coating that enveloped our skis and board and let us glide and turn through its surface with the greatest of ease.  To stop and look down and see skis and boots was the norm, here there was just snow and more snow, rising slightly as the skis tucked themselves underneath and breaking like a bow wave over my boots or round my legs if I slowed too much.  

The trick is to keep looking ahead, planning the route, where to turn next and let ones legs cope with the conditions down below,  knees bent to absorb any unforseen irregularities in the terrain, leaning further back than usual to keep the skis on or close to the surface, making it easier to turn, the rest of the body in a relaxed skiing pose and awareness open to the wonder of it all.

We carved huge swoops and turns in the duvet, up and down the valley sides, dropping swiftly over the steep sections and wider where the sides allowed,  the cloud obscured the view into the distance as we descended, concentrating our vision on the immediate vicinity and the opportunities it held.  Over another mound and dropping nearly vertically onto the cushioned surface below, sinking in a huge cloud of powder, at speed, and on and up the other side of the valley, pausing momentarily to catch breath and reflect on how great it is to have skid this run so many times in the past, I would have been a lot more cautious otherwise.  

The top of the gully was ahead of us and waiting.  It was my usual place to be a bit fancy, to turn incorporating 180’s or zig-zag backwards and forwards till it got too fast in the hope that one day they would open the half pipe again and I would be able to get a proper go at it.  Not today, I would have been face down at every attempt so I took a different approach.  Just to get the most out of these great conditions in one hit.  The gentle, determined approach proved to work so I went with that, nipping out at the last minute so as to get a decent run onto the slow blue liason route that continued back down to the lift.  

Buzzing with exhilaration we sped out of the bottom of the gully onto the flat, taking a corner short cut over some steeper terrain to gain some speed, mission complete.  There were tracks on the ground and a small crowd of skiers gathering by the lift station.  We had the rest of the day to enjoy the mountains and the powder but we had done it, once, been first on the slopes.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

holiday ski pics

welcome to the queues and crowds of the holidays

French queueing involves not looking at anyone, especially if 
you bump into them or tread on their skis and
 getting to the front first.
Chalet Lou Rider is in the centre of the photo partly
 surrounded by trees. So close to the slopes
Ski bin.
Don't leave cans on the top of the fridge when it is -15 outside.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Xynthia passes through

The local forecast predicted a bit of a storm and there was one.  It was rather windy in the valley and the resort closed 10 minutes after it opened, just to get its statistics up.  It has done this on several occasions during the season so we thought little of it.  We were kept busy with changing room and serving customers through the day and heard the occasional howl of a mighty gust of wind, but nothing much.

Some guests arrives back later in the day, having been delayed on the way up the mountain by fallen telegraph poles and told us how they had escaped being flattened by a falling tree.  their car had been parked in an unsecure place and they thought they should move it, had a look on foot, found a place and went back to get the car.  By the time they had returned, a couple of minutes later, a tree had collapsed right across the parking place and completely blocking the road.

The papers are full of pictures of the devastation, boats resting on harbour walls, trees down, houses destroyed and over 45 dead across France.  It looks terrible.  Cable car carriages blown off their wires, lift buildings destroyed, a couple of Pyrenean resorts have now closed for the season because of the damage.

The fire service called round late last night, a courtesy call, just to check that all was OK and that their assistance wasn't needed.  It wasn't and they left to continue their rounds.

Fortunately there has been no damage to the chalet and minimal damage to the resort here.  Again they reported a 90% opening of the resort today, but in reality it was more like 30%, not bad, and under calm sunny skies I skid all morning before returning to do the afternoon shift in the chalet.

It's taking some time to relocate ourselves back into our original rooms now that the overbooked guests have gone.  The speedy packing is taking its toll now and we are all missing various belongings as not everyone has finished unpacking.  My phone has died and the charger has not yet come to light so I am unable to text or call anyone.  Hopefully it will turn up soon.  Email if you feel the need.

I hope that you are all safe and well and that the weather hasn't affected you in any way.