Rekindling an Old Love

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Skiers suffer a curious seasonal dysfunction. Spring is the time of year, the poets tell us, when we are supposed to come alive with nature. But for skiers, spring is actually the beginning of the end and our spirits lie torpid and dormant through the sultry summer months.

It’s now, as the green grass of the mountain pasture withers and the marmots burrow deep, that a skier’s sap starts to flow and we poke our heads out of the dangerous summer slough of despondency.

But I have to say, it’s getting harder. In this post-modern, deconstructionist era of global warming, rekindling the passion every autumn is becoming more of an effort.

In the ’60s when I was a kid, the skier was an icon, the epitome of cool. I lived far from the mountains and never had a chance to experience it for myself. But Ernest Hemingway told me there was “nothing better” than skiing in the Alps.

As a struggling young journalist, Hemingway used to steal rides on the dawn milk trains running up to farming villages in the Italian Dolomites. Without standing in a queue or paying for a lift ticket, he would then storm down the open pastures.

Decades before the telemark revival of the 1970s, Hemingway described the perfect turn in an early short story:

“George came tearing down in a telemark position, knees crouched, but with one leg forward and bent and the other dragging behind. His poles hung behind him like a pair of thin insect legs, and whirled up small clouds of snow when they touched the snow on the ground. And fi nally, this half-kneeling fi gure with the trailing poles made a beautiful right turn, crouched over, got the skis in the right position—one forward, the other back, while the body provided the right counterbalance for the turn, and the poles indicated the curve as two luminous points—all in a whirl of snow.”

I wanted to do that. Finally, at the advanced age of 32, I quit my job as a CBC reporter in the Middle East and moved to the Dolomites. Living in the medieval walled town of Brunico, I taught myself to ski, throwing yard sales every single day and loving every single minute of it. That season it snowed hard on the first of December and didn’t stop until the lifts closed in April. I was ready to sell my soul to the powder devil, and vowed never again to leave the Alps.

Two seasons later I moved to a rustic cabin at 1,750 metres high above the Swiss resort of Verbier, where I was promised deeper snow, steeper chutes and a longer season. Twice that year my cabin was buried, resort roads closed by police worried that avalanches would sweep into the town centre. On the last day of April I skied down the southern exposure to my house in deep (albeit somewhat wet), soft snow.

Alas, it hasn’t snowed like that, anything like that, since. That first season in Verbier is now 22 years in the past. To mix metaphors horribly and with apologies to the author of The Old Man and the Sea, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m not flogging a dead fish, trying to live this dream life in the Alps.

Are the bells tolling for the deep snows of yesteryear? Where the hell are the snows of the Klein Matterhorn? Will the sun also rise again on the Alps buried up to the eaves?

We had two glorious weeks last winter when the powder cascaded down, temperatures plummeted to -20 and you could ski 2,500 vertical metres down onto the valley fl oor. But there was scarcely a snow ake for the first two months. And by early March the southern slopes were like Hemmingway’s Green Hills of Africa.

And yet, the pistes (as opposed to the couloirs and snowfields beyond the ropes) throughout the Alps were generally in good to great shape right through the season. European resorts, always the leaders in lift technology, are finally mastering the art of snow management. This means making more snow at higher temperatures, transporting it across the slopes to where it’s needed and grooming all night long. But none of this helps the off-piste skier searching for powder.

It’s a new world now for the skier with a powder jones. There’s no single mountain, whether in the Alps or Alaska, where you can just hunker down in your cabin and wait for the big snows to sweep in.

In these days of indifferent and erratic snowfalls, mobility and meteorology are the keys to fi nding the most exquisite fl ake for the most exigent skiers. And Gavin Foster, inventor of the heli Haute Route, is marshalling the two in a new “Secret Stashes” off-piste program that shoots out from Chamonix to microclimate snowfields in three countries.

Gavin’s Ski Weekend (, despite the name, is actually the most ambitious and evolved hardcore skiing operation in Europe. But he’s found that his A-list skiers are too often disappointed with conditions on Mont Blanc, the highest and most snow-sure peak in the Alps.

Chamonix, Verbier and the cult hideaways of La Grave and Alagna are where skiers who watch extreme videos want to go, up on the glaciers and down the couloirs. But when it’s wind-scoured rock and blue ice in a famous couloir at any of the above, it’s often light powder across the river and into the trees at one of dozens of tiny, uncrowded and inexpensive areas an hour’s drive from Cham.

The secret is knowing temperatures and wind conditions at different altitudes and exposures, then to know all the hidden snow pockets and sheltered forests. I don’t know that, but this movable feast for powder aficionados is the trip I’m most looking forward to this season. Maybe Gavin can teach an old snow dog new tricks.

Doug Sager
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