After three glorious days on the mountain at Chamonix, I set off on my own. Leaving the crew is bittersweet: the dual emphasis on skiing by day and socializing by night has been even more fun than I expected — and I expected to have a blast —but it’s been taking its toll. I look forward to a quiet night, and then a peaceful day of skiing, in Verbier.
As the crow flies, the journey from Chamonix to Verbier is only about 40 kilometres. As the dude drives, it’s closer to 70 kilometres, including some mighty tight zig-zags and switchbacks. It’s a beautiful drive, packed with jaw-dropping mountain views. Of course, most routes in these parts are scenic — it’s The Alps, after all — but one of the true highlights is the Great St. Bernard Pass, which you pick up soon after crossing from France into Switzerland, and which has roots back to the Bronze Age, making it the oldest road in the Western Alps. You can get a glimpse of it, both pastoral and epic, in Jacques-Louis David’s early 1800s painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps.
I feel grateful to have left Chamonix as early as I did: Under the low light of dusk, The Alps look all the more majestic; silent sentinels standing watch. Night falls only as I pull up to my hotel, the cozy, 15-room Hotel Mont Gelé. I drop my bags in my room and head down to the lobby, where the wine is flowing and canapés are circulating. I indulge but don’t stay long — I want to turn in early.
I awake refreshed from the exhaustion of from a few hard days in Chamonix. At breakfast, while reading a story about the Euro crisis in Le Monde, I spot a familiar face across the room. It’s Sam, a silkscreen artist I’d met a few months prior at a bar in Falmouth, Cornwall, in the Southwest corner of England. I’d been on a weekend with my girlfriend, he with his; the four of us hit it off and promised to keep in touch. We didn’t. But here he is.
Less than an hour later, Sam, his pal Ryan and I are in a gondola, rising to the top of Mont Gelé. My day of solo riding is looking like a bust, which is a good thing: It’s not prudent to ski Mont Gelé alone. It’s a rare beast of a mountain in that it has no piste runs whatsoever. The off-piste in Verbier is legendary — and Gelé is most renowned of all — but it’s notoriously treacherous. Avalanches and crashes claim fatalities most years.
Sam is equipped with an avalanche beacon and has a shovel on his pack; he’s ready for a serious day. I’m simultaneously reassured and terrified, but one short hike to our first run dispels all stressful feelings and thoughts of danger. We enter a massive bowl, and we can count the number of people who’ve skied it on two hands. And we’re wearing mittens.
I feel like I’m in a Warren Miller movie (though I surely don’t look it), laughing and whooping as I float down the mountain. We meet at the bottom and repeat, spending the entire day discovering new, virtually untouched runs, and revisiting favourites. It’s a dream. It’s a privilege.
By 4 p.m., we’re on a patio back at base, raising a pint. Ingrate that I am, I can only think one thought: I could really go for a Bloody Caesar right now. If that’s the biggest “complaint” I have about Verbier — and it is — then I am a very lucky man. And I am.
Image courtesy of VERBIER St-Bernard.