Columns, Letter from the Alps, Travel // October 14, 2011 // By


Grumpy Old Men

from Fall 2011 issue

The other day I was out on the
balcony of Mike’s $99-million chalet
just blowing smoke with my buds.
From the 4,314m summit of Grand Combin on
the Italian border, across to our own local petit
Combin (3,670m) and over to the Mont Blanc
massif in France, the mountains were painted
white down to 27000m.

Below us the cows were scarfing up the
last of the autumn grass, thinking of heading
down-valley to the little barns they’ll soon be
warming. The sun poured pink through flattened
scales of scalloped clouds, as it only does this
time of year. I pulled up the zip on my fleece.

“Winter’s coming, ” growled Steve.

“That means we’ll have to go skiing,” Mike
said in tones of resignation and resentment.

We all groaned, except Bob, who asked, “Any
more beers?”

What spoiled, burnt-out old buggers. We’re
all in our early 50s or 60s, with almost two
centuries of skiing among us. We had all come
to the Alps from Canada or the U.S. and all
made a career, of sorts, out of skiing.

Mike (not his real name) had been big in
Japan, spending winters where he was a ski model
making movies for the Descente clothing brand,
back when you didn’t have to add “clothing
brand” after Descente ” because everyone knew
what you were talking about. But he didn’t
make his millions until he dropped the ski
industry for the America’s Cup yacht race racket.

Steve is one of the most famous ski-
action photographers in the world, with more
magazine covers than anybody. But that
business is not an f-stop of what it once as.
“Little glory left in it and even less money,”
complained Steve. He didn’t want me to use his
real name, either.

Bob is the last of the ski bums, around
here anyway. He skis well over 50 days a
year, on 220-cm downhill skis fitted with
telemark bindings. In the off-season he goes
snowboarding in Antarctica, ski touring in
Morocco, climbing in the Himalayas, whatever,
wherever.

They all ski better than I do, but none
of them as had two-million vertical feet of
helicopter skiing. They don’t know Whistler,
Aspen, La Grave and Alagna the way I do. They
haven’t been to anywhere near the 200+ ski
resorts I’ve been lavishly entertained at. At the
end of the day, you just can’t compete with
a ruthlessly freeloading ski writer.

Let the grumbling begin. What’s the
worse thing about skiing? Without question:
having to pay for it. Steve and I still receive
complimentary passes, but as my computer-
terminal hunched back and carpel-tunnelled
typing fingers will attest, we have to put out
for them. There’s no free lunch. Bob and Mike
are forced to pay $650 for their November
through April season passes. For Bob that
amounts to more than four dollars a day, almost
the price of a six-pack of local suds!

Everything’s a hassle these days. It takes me
hours to assemble my ski gear. I have to keep
updating stuff even when secretly I still love
my old 207-cm straight skis.

It’s a smack in the face, reminding you how
old you are, when you find neon and pastel
skiwear in the back of the closet. What do you
do with all this crap? Last winter I finally found
a use for those old powder cords. But we both
promised we would delete the photos and never
speak about that.

My mates concur that the quality of skiing
and quantity of snow have both deteriorated.
This is not just “good old days” claptrap. I
have photos of snow over the roof of my cabin,
and of metre-high snowbanks outside on my
birthday at the end of April. Steve explains
why he thinks he’ll never again ” get to ski
the dry high-altitude powder that made Verbier
famous. First of all, we almost never get those
kinds of dumps like we did in the old days,” the
curmudgeon grumbles,“and then when it does
snow hard they close all the upper lifts.”

This s a little-observed fact: across the
Alps, resorts have become more conservative in
avalanche, or rather people, management. The
big buzz back in the day was: there are no rules
here, no boundaries, no ropes.

Ha! in some parts of Italy now I’ve heard
you can get arrested for skiing off-piste without
a mountain guide, fined by speed-gun-toting
carabinieri for skiing too fast on-piste, not
having your children wearing helmets or eating
non-durum wheat pasta. While it’s still true
European resorts regard avalanche fatalities
with philosophical attitude, which in North
America would border on criminal negligence,
it’s nonetheless now the case that you can’t
always ski here you want to.

Blame global warming. (We all get a chuckle
out of that one.) But in recent years there have
been seismic shifts in skiing patterns in the
Alps. As Steve notes, many resorts now close
all the upper lifts anytime there is significant
snow. This is more to stop people who read
Swedish ski magazines from attacking the most
extreme upper couloirs, sending slides down on
unsuspecting intermediates on the groomers
below, than it is to save the lives of the
aforementioned Swedes.

In resorts like Verbier, Chamonix and St.
Anton the hundreds of kilometres of piste
(marked and groomed runs) is actually quite
limited (compared to Whistler or Vail, for
example), and relatively quite uninteresting. The
real appeal of the actual skiing, of course, is the
almost endless variety of treeless slopes, couloirs
and open woods down to valley floors—to say
nothing of the villages in those valleys.

By now, a monster mothership lenticular
cloud has settled right over our grand combin .
Red streaks light up the sky.

“Looks like it might snow,” Mike says,
kicking off discussion on how many powder
days each of us has skied in past years between
resort opening day at the end of October and
Christmas. (I win with 30.)

But Bob comes back reminding us of his
all-time record of having skied every single day
one season, ending in thigh-deep powder in
the couloirs of Mont Gele one May 5th. Indeed,
we were all there to bear witness.

More beers and more true tales: epic rides
and careening crashes, week-long ski safaris
from one side of Switzerland to the other and
across the Italian Dolomites, sailing across the
Haute Route in sizzling sunshine and scouring
snowstorms alike… You can spend a century
skiing in the Alps and you’ll never come close
to seeing, much less doing, it all.

“Well, you know the lifts are opening this
weekend,” Steve points out.

“See you all at 8:30 sharp,” we all say
quietly in unison. Another season has begun.

Grand-Combin, Switzerland