The train took the strain

usnarnia

Flying out from the UK is getting to be more of a faff, what with all the ridiculous security at airports, weight restrictions, no liquids except the tears you shed waiting coatless, shoeless and beltless to be frisked by a burly officer. And don’t get me started on rip-off prices for mediocre food and dishwater coffee or having to buy bottled water because there’s nothing drinkable in the taps.

So for our ski trip  to the French Alps, we thought we’d let the train take the strain while we still have free movement to Europe through the Channel  Tunnel. There’s no  restriction on luggage and you can carry all the water  you can drink. Queues are negligible and there’s more freedom of movement and space, precious space. The faff factor is low.

Noel had always wanted to travel on the snow train,  that’s a train direct to the snow from London. He had this romantic notion of falling asleep in one country, waking up in the mountains, throwing on our ski stuff then hitting the slopes. Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

I thought we’d have comfortable beds with little curtains, maybe a chocolate on the pillow (both for Noel, sugar-free February continues). It turns out the overnighter has no beds, it used to be the all-night-booze train, but now there’s no booze, in fact alcohol is not allowed on board, unless it is bought from the bar. Not a problem for us, breweries would go out of business if everyone drank as little as we do, but the lack of bed was going to put a serious dent in the energy reserves needed to put our skis on.

It was definitely worth paying the extra for first class travel. Bigger, more comfortable seats, passable, even good food, and a sleeping kit including a blanket, eye mask, ear plugs and neck pillow, though no chocolate. And we would have slept well had it not been for Mr Tedious and his drunken friends. They’d smuggled litres of alcohol aboard in their own bellies and spent the entire journey talking complete bollocks in loud voices. We were all too British to tell them to shut the f#ck up, but if they are in the same carriage on the way back, they’ll feel the rough side of my tongue.

It turns out we were wildly optimistic in thinking we could ski straight away, but we did manage to ski after a couple of hours kip.  Meanwhile our chalet mates arrived late into the evening, exhausted after an extended coach trip from the airport. We’ll also get to ski the day everyone else leaves, that’s if my legs survive, before retiring to our comfortable-ish seat on the train.  Yes, I think we’ll do this again. Probably.

It’s turning into a bad ski season

One of us got to ski today!
One of us got to ski today!

I’ve often suspected that ski resorts have their heads in the clouds when it comes to describing conditions and potential for great skiing. Websites are snowdrift-deep in fabulous pictures of deliriously happy skiers emerging from pristine pistes covered in fine powder snow. Pictures like that would not have been taken here today. Nor yesterday. And probably not tomorrow.

We arrived in the beautiful hamlet of Gressoney La Trinite 1600m above sea level, expecting to see white everywhere. Beautiful crisp snow dusting the roofs and gardens. Maybe the odd snowman, his alpine cap tipped at a jaunty angle, his stick arms holding a ski pole retrieved from last year’s deep snow, waving at us merrily. Or perhaps icicles, carved by nature herself, teasing us with the will-it-won’t-it-fall-on-my-head game in the mid-afternoon thaw.

But nature has been having a bit of a laugh at the crazy humans who wear ultra-padded trousers and squeeze feet into strange-angled boots which creak and jangle and thrust them forward so that the answer to the question ‘does my bum look big in this?’ is always ‘yes, yes it does.’ Instead of white, the early snow is melting away to reveal brown and green and autumn’s detritus, still frozen, including the dog poo.

It’s turning into a bad ski season here, but you wouldn’t know it from the cheery websites . Of course they can’t be blamed for the snow coming, then going or the high winds which closed most of the lifts. No commercial enterprise will post a photo of brightly-clad skiers and boarders standing on frozen grass looking wistfully uphill, but a hint of less-than-ideal conditions on a given day would have been nice, especially as many or us booked in ages ago so were coming anyway.

Yesterday was challenging enough, with high winds not only making it draughty round the houses but whipping up a frenzy of spindrift activity and forcing the closure of the telecabine, our stress-free escape route. So we had to go with the stress option, where the optimistic description of the piste as a ‘cruisey red’ should be changed to ‘terrifying ice-riddled steep piste with no toilet stops’. But I’m sure they wouldn’t print that either. The one consolation was that as the last folk on the mountain, the rather dishy doe-eyed Italian ski patroller coaxed us down, Rachel and I that is, the boys didn’t need help. Nor were they impressed with our description of said patroller. Noel said he was only helping us so we didn’t die on his bit of the mountain. But he called us ‘miss’ and didn’t snigger out loud as I skied like the worst beginner in the history of skiing.

So today as we piled off the bus and waddled our way to the lift, we were just in time to see it grind to a halt and a little man put up a ‘chiuso’ sign.  The electronic board featuring lots of little mini lifts went from green to red. If the high winds that forced the closure were forecast, they weren’t on any of the sites we saw. There was nothing for it but to head back and drink coffee, which is never a bad thing, particularly in Italy which has splendid coffee.

At least one member of our party did get to ski today, though. The nursery slopes are kept going with snow brought down from on high and four-year-old Matilda showed us what it was like to have fun. Maybe I’ll send that photo to the websites.

Something beginning with C

Deux chevaux et une caleche (two horses and a carriage)
Deux chevaux et une caleche (two horses and a carriage)

Holidays are great. They are what we work for, what we look forward to, and what we plan for, sometimes to the minutest detail, it’s part of the fun. They take up a disproportionate time to prepare for, especially if there’s air travel. Especially, in our case, if Chambéry airport is involved.

I’ll skip over the seven-hour wait on the tarmac at Manchester Airport while the fog at our destination cleared. No, dammit, I won’t skip it. What were Jet 2 thinking of even boarding us when they knew Chambéry was closed? We were there so long the plane had to be moved to a garage forecourt just off the M60 and topped up with Esso Unleaded because we’d used so much fuel just keeping the toilets flushing. At least they didn’t run out of food, because they didn’t give us any, though water was available, I’m just not sure where they got it from. Zero out of ten, Jet 2.

Still, all this was soon forgotten when we arrived in the mountains, skis twitching to hit the snow, legs just crying out for that quadriceps burn, lungs expanding to grab the scarce oxygen at altitudes of 3,300m.  Yaaay, it’s holiday time!

But with the best will in the world, no-one, not even Noel with his ski instructor badge and certificate, can ski all day and all evening. Eating, drinking, shopping, hot-tubbing and sleeping aside, there’s still time to do stuff, useful stuff, holiday stuff.

Holiday minutes are precious and not to be wasted, so this week I’ve set myself a task, a creativity task. Not the kind of creativity where I make original shapes and art forms with my flailing body as I hit various obstacles on and off the piste and part company with the ground, skis, poles and, on occasions, backpack and goggles. Some people pay good money for that.

No, this week’s challenge is photographic, alphabetic and French. Each day I have set myself the task of finding and photographing something beginning with the letter C. I chose C because we’re in Courchevel, it’s as good a letter as any and gives me plenty of scope for another 26 holidays. And of course my words have to be in French, just to make it a bit more challenging. So far, I have café (of course), citron, clef, chaise and cheval, with the added bonus of a calèche (carriage) in the photo too. Well, it keeps me out of trouble.

Ooooo, it’s a bit steep

Steep stuff in the Alps

The last thing that Noel the Ski Instructor wanted to hear from his not-so-prize pupil as she teetered on the edge of a steep ice-sheet that was pretending to be a piste was: “I’m not going down there.” But that’s what he heard.

Seriously, it was a like a frozen waterfall, I’d visions of flying without wings or brakes and landing in a heap at the bottom, all skis, poles and broken bones. No, I was not going down there. No way.

In hindsight, the clue should have been in the name, Le Mur, French for wall. But we were on a high after gnarling down other icy slopes. So what to do? Stubborn as a mule, I flatly refused to go any further. I couldn’t make out Noel’s expression, hidden by helmet and goggles, but I put money on his teeth being gritted. No matter, I just wasn’t doing it and that was that.

There were no real alternatives piste-wise, so we set off in tracks of others who I assumed had had the same reaction to Le Mur. And if someone else had done it, then that made it all right. Ever the professional, Noel led the way, I think he was singing, he was certainly making some sort of rhythmic sounds, the words all began with an ‘f’.

Then the tracks ran out, they had reached the slopeside airport where the Russian oligarchs land their helicopters en route to their exclusive chalets from there they can hit the pistes with their Swarovski-encrusted skis. This was no place for a coward who couldn’t face an icewall. So it was off with the skis and taking a hike to the nearest snow bank which, after we’d clambered over it, turned out to be a piste. Nice and flat, we were safe.

Today’s skiing was much less dramatic, the sun shone for the seventh day running, the snow was crisp and the conditions perfect and we managed to avoid any piste featuring the word ‘mur’. A great holiday, we’re already planning the next one!

The picture above if the off-piste from Les Menuires to Orelle, the Fourth Valley in the Three Valleys ski area. Next time, next time….

Slight navigational mishap

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How many skiers does it take to navigate a mountain when there are big, obvious signs everywhere? Well today it was three, but mostly it was me, but I can explain and it turned into an adventure – and a proposition…!

The skies here in the Trois Valleés are sapphire blue, the snow is deep and crisp and uneven and we’re skiing our legs to stumps. Today Noel was doing his ski instructing bit, so Simon and James ‘volunteered’ to ski with me and keep me out of trouble.

Simon started the whole getting lost thing by heading off piste, he had a great time, James ended up in the trees and I found myself at the top of a steep mogul field. I got down, but with absolutely no style or grace.

Then James veered off, when he said he was going down the piste called Anenome, he really meant he’d point his skis down Renard. As we pointed out when we eventually got to the bottom, with friends like James, who needs anenome….

But top prize went to me with a faux pas at the sniggeringly-named Coqs. We were supposed to meet up there, but I missed the big obvious turning and ended up at the bottom of the mountain. Fortunately I fell in with a group of jolly Brits who implored me to join them for vin chaud and cordial company. One older fellow was particularly keen to get to know me better. I politely declined – and made my way solo to Coqs. There Simon and James were waiting for me with a coffee and plenty of comments about navigational cock-ups. Guilty as charged. Still, that’s not likely to happen again, is it?

Getting knitted out for the slopes

What to do after a day of hard skiing? The chalet will be warm and welcoming, though the only screen will be in front of the fire and won’t have a channel changer. Books are for bedtime and can be a tad anti social and I for one will be in danger of falling asleep and embarrassing myself in front of the six strangers we’ll be staying with, by either drooling, or snoring, or both.

So, inspired by a trip to Texere yarns, a converted mill in Bradford city centre housing an explosion of coloured knitting wool, I bought needles and enough coloured stuff to knit an apres ski scarf. Now, I’ve not picked up knitting needles for ages, years, decades, so the predicted two days estimated to finish it may turn into 20. But still, if it keeps me from snoring, it’ll be a relief to the rest.

Coffee and knitting and coffee

So off we trot to the alpine slopes where there’s been so much snow they’ve closed most of the lifts. A great end to a week where I was thrilled to be chosen as Eccleshill Road Runners’ Member of the Month.Gosh!

The things you hear on a chairlift……..

Chairlifts are always an opportunity to get five-minute histories, compare spectacular tales of skiing derring do and play 'guess the accent'.

I've travelled in the west and mid-west USA quite a bit and my northern English accent always confuses the locals. No, I say politely, I'm not Australian. So as Noel and I sat on a chair with a Utahn and the question of provenance came up – he hedged his bets.

"I thought there was an accent, but couldn't make out whether it was Brit or Aussie. They kinda sound alike," he said apologetically

At this point, the fourth person on the chair piped up

"They sound nothing LIKE Aussies!" And he should know, an Aussie and a cricket fan to boot. Oh dear, another chance to discuss the loss of the Ashes…….. Our American seat-fellow was tickled pink and couldn't wait to get home to tell his wife!

Another rather spaced-out Californian was awestruck.

"Gee, you come from ENG-land?" he drawled

"Isn't that an EYE-land?

"Don't you feel kinda, shut IN?!

Er, well, it's quite a large island – 60million of us………

"Oooo, I couldn't go THERE, so SMALL……."

The conversation petered away from there………….

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