This weekend we had the pleasure of the company of Lucy and Liam, who brought with them sunshine and blue skies for two full days. This weekend was also Chamonix’s stint as the hosts of the Freeride World Tour, a competition which brings together many of the world’s most talented off piste skiers and snowboarders.
We had hoped to watch some of the action but, unfortunately, there is so little snow here at the moment that the pro competition had to be moved to Courmayeur, an Italian ski resort on the other side of the Mont Blanc massif. This must have been a blow to the Chamoniards: although the two towns are part of the same wider ski and mountaineering area, there is a degree of rivalry between them. For example, Courmayeur wasn’t impressed when Chamonix changed its official name to Chamonix Mt Blanc in 1916, thus staking its ownership of the mountain that sits in the middle of the two communities. A local skier who we picked up hitchiking a few days ago said he had to swallow his pride when he recommended we cross the Italian border for the best skiing at the moment.
Joking aside, these weather patterns are very troubling, considering the number of people in the valley whose livelihoods depend on the winter sports industry. However, Chamonix was still set up for some festivities, and after we wound up Saturday’s skiing, we wandered into the centre of town for some restorative vin chaud and stumbled across this entertaining scene:
Hip hop blasted as teens in baggy salopettes lined up for their chance to impress the crowd with their park tricks; meanwhile, a man in a jester’s suit breathed fire, and we later saw him being held up by a couple of friends as he attempted to unicycle across a slackline…
Liam was the third inductee into Ben’s ski boot camp, so after spending Saturday on the nursery slopes at Brevent, we drove up to La Tour on Sunday, which is usually the best place in the valley for beginners, with gentle, wide, sunny pistes and a wonderfully picturesque tree run that takes you almost into Switzerland.
Unfortunately, again due to the lack of snow, the pistes were almost pure ice; not a pleasant place for anyone, especially someone new to this whole strapping planks to your feet and launching yourself downhill thing, so we retreated once more to the nursery slopes which had at least a smattering of powder. And actually, I was so glad we did; as the day waned, the piste emptied, and we could zoom across the golden snow to our hearts’ content. I adore that feeling of being out on the mountain as evening falls; the quality of the light is at its finest, and you have the sensation that your body has been well used; that your day has been a success. And, at this time of day, you might be lucky enough to see a gentle, pink mist fill the valley.
We pulled into our driveway in that very brief window, just before it grows dark, when the mountains smoulder a vivid red. I love standing outside our house looking at those peaks, the Aiguilles Verte, the Drus, the Grandes Jorasses… their very names evoke tales of adventure.
As we waved Lucy and Liam off, heading back to Geneva and London respectively, I thought of all those Sunday nights when I was the one leaving. How disheartening it always was to cycle back across London from Paddington or Kings Cross after a weekend away, that return to the pollution and the sorrow of the city.
For us, February will be a month of visitors from London. Of course, I don’t expect everyone to fall in love with this place. Some people need bars that stay open after 11pm, and museums with more on display than vintage ice axes, and restaurants serving Vietnamese food. But I hope that everyone leaves with that sense of peace that those mountain days of shifting light and colours imbue.