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.