17 March 2008

Deep Snow and Inappropriate Behaviour

Really you knew it wouldn’t be a problem-free journey day – the Met Office had been issuing severe storm warnings for the previous 24 hours. But that predeparture online check of the airport status together with the Stansted Express service report uncovered no delays, so I left home thinking we’d got away with it. Naturally, my internet-enabled reassurance intrinsically lacked forecasting ability; by the time I’d got Grandad to Liverpool Street, they were announcing delays. Grandad is my ski bag, not a relative, so-named as dragging it around the world reminds me of towing a coffin on wheels. A bit sick maybe. Grandad, a friend and I waited for news. All have felt it, especially when attempting to reach London Stansted: that irrepressible realisation that it’s problematic at a far higher frequency than chance. It’s not just you, getting to Stansted is never easy. I think it has something to do with the silly train company name – One – that shares Liverpool Street with the Stansted Express. The train Gods are so ruffled by someone using mobile phone marketing naffness in naming a train operating company that they have cursed the whole station. It’s not the Express’s fault; it’s a bad karma externality spilling over from the world’s silliest train company name.

Although getting there is often a pain, I like Stansted – possibly my favourite London airport. It’s the high roof and unusual lack of BAA’s speciality: carpet in a bloody airport. Who in their right mind would ever recommend such as a useful floorcovering? But about Stansted, not all agree. Some prefer the megaMalls you find elsewhere. I once overheard a well-heeled young woman complaining to her (posh hen party?) co-travellers that she just… doesn’t like Stansted… it’s boring. More chronic Londonesque vacuity me thinks. Oh dear. Give me a boring airport any day.

Ah hah! The nice people at Liverpool Street give us 2 minutes notice that the service is restored and the train is leaving. Running down the escalator (outside McD’s having a fag you see) and on to the train with Grandad not an easy exercise, but we manage. The train, packed with anxious voyagers, is relieved to pull out of the station and escape the company of its One peers. Wagons roll, everyone checks their scheduled take off times just that 31st extra time. Relaxation creeps in. And then excretes out like norovirus: there’s a tree on the overhead lines ahead. We are herded off the train at some station ill-equipped to cope with such an invasion of passengers and luggage, never mind Grandad. A beautiful soul picks up the other end and helps me navigate the stairs to get the replacement bus. Only joking, the train is running again. Just wait until everyone is off the train flowing en masse over the stairs like a thwarted lava flow and then tell them to change direction; the ensuing chaotic mix of stress, exasperation and tangled luggage akin to a giant version of Jenga. Some get apoplectic; others resigned to yet more nonsense try and pretend it isn’t happening. It’s still not 8am. We somehow all get back on board and arrive at Stansted. Nearly 2 hours later. The tree? No, a One train has broken down ahead. If it could talk, we know what it would say.

Oh-how-we-love-your-colour-scheme Ryanair couldn’t help. Check in had closed although the plane was still on the ground for another 40 minutes. The get what you pay for lesson hits hard when you are exposed to budget airlines under conditions of duress. One poor woman was left stranded as her check in had closed despite the fact that her flight on an unspecified airline was delayed and would not leave for another 2 hours. Simply shameless and disingenuous - putting it unnecessarily politely. Others may prefer the label: dirty, cheating, lowlife, scummy bastards - up to you. How can they do that? Why do they do that? Deny boarding to someone who is (in the real world and not airline lalaland) actually 2 hours early?

When you step back and examine the evolved solution to the problem of getting people and bags on and off planes – what we know as airports – it comes clear that they are excellent at impeding those very processes. In some ways they are a perfect anti-solution. Check-ins have to close early to give you time to get through security and reach the gate. That security, which, according to insiders, is no more than theatre and regularly fails any significant test. But you still have to negotiate the terminal building and get to the gate. Next time you visit just look how much obstruction and obstacle is carefully placed in your way by retail infrastructure. It is not unusual for people exiting security to be directly and involuntarily diverted into the narrow aisles of duty free. In such circumstances, it is your duty to humanity to crash through that shop with your bags causing as much destruction as possible. Then if some Tango Man make-up lookielikie from Clinique accosts you for a multistage facial regeneration I advise you feign a panic attack and discharge on the floor. If the orange face is so shocking you can spontaneously vomit. You want to be in the airport the minimum time possible. The airport wants exactly the inverse – your unnecessary expenditure being directly proportional to the time available.

Ryanair offered us a flight the next day, for a healthy supplement. There were other, possibly orange, airlines offering flights to our desired location (well, ‘near’ anyway) the same day but of course, no, nothing could be done. Any claims would have to be taken up with the train company. We wash our hands of you. Thanks for flying we don’t care airlines. We appreciate you have an apparent choice of other similarly low cost / you’ll pay far more in the end airlines and we appreciate your custom. Goodbye.

Laptop out and we rebooked on the orange flying bus. Twice the price of the missed flight. Not Grenoble unfortunately but Genève. Same letter and same mountain range at least. Then I got onto Avis to change the car hire booking. Oh dear oh deary me: different drop-off location as we’ve changed the arrival leg airport. Equals big supplement. My, how the costs were growing. Faster than China’s GDP at this rate. Budget airline. Low cost airline. Oxymoronic Airways if you please.

But we got to Genève eventually. Even made it to the chalet just in time for a late dinner. The mountains surround, their ancient, stony majesty imparts their dominance and our earlier concerns fade with the day. It starts to snow. The growing blanket outdoors ironically exudes warmth as we drift off to sleep. Just a flicker of irritation resides: Eurostar goes to Bourg St Maurice: an 8 hour journey from London and then 10 min drive from here. We’d left Liverpool Street 12 hours before knocking on the door of wonderful Chalet No. 1. Ho hum.

As you may know, snow and I are not exactly strangers. So the fact that I still get that childlike thrill when rising to see a new, thick white blanket through the window is priceless. The others had arrived – admittedly with problem-free aviation compared to us. We shared a lovely breakfast in the charming grange, seasoned with the excited anticipation of a snowsport trip’s first morning. Day one and still one down from the full nascent team, we stayed close and drove up to Sainte Foy Tarentaise. Sainte Foy’s a lovely little place to ski. Only 4 (chair)lifts and admittedly 3 of those are so slow I can develop a temper, but the area is superb, the runs fun and the offpiste fantastic. It’s a gorgeous place to ski for a day or two. If you are tired of the big boys of the Tarentaise, St Foy is the perfect antidote enneigée.

Next night and the team is complete - completion being more hazardous than I’d conceived. Living in London I effect a good 99% of my journeys by bicycle, so I allowed myself a carbon splurge with a big fat 4x4, for once appropriate as we were staying up a steep, narrow mountain road (yes, we know Hampstead is hilly, but really). Besides, it was diesel. And only 2 litre. But carbon footprints weren’t all I should’ve worried about with such a vehicle. Rearward visibility was a more pressing issue. Setting off to pick up team mate number four, I reversed over a small car. Worse, at the sound I thought it was just a cardboard box. Ok, I exaggerate slightly as the result was just 2 shot bumpers. But I permit myself some indulgence as I had to interrogate the entire restaurant to identify the driver whose vehicle I had just violated.

Over the next three days we completed something of a Tarentaise Marathon, sliding and carving, sometimes tumbling, down the mountainsides of Val d’Isère, La Rosière and Tignes. It’s not the most faffless way to ski; you don’t just walk to the closest lift and you have to buy a day pass tous les matins. And clever us hired equipment in 2 different resorts, so returning everything on the last evening engendered logistics reminiscent of Challenge Anneka. Time and resource scarcity can also lead to inappropriate but unavoidable urination in underground carparks (sorry). But this flavour of winter holiday is undeniably fun, interestingly varied and it’s a cool way to check out places to ski again.

Our day in Val d’Isère was embellished with hurricane force gusts at the top of Bellevarde. But our team, not to be disheartened, braved it all and we got our lesson in. Having feasted at the unbeatable Dairy (La Fruiterie), we had more than a fair allocation of calories to burn. Burnt they were, all in beautiful piste-bound powder, although admittedly most of the time we couldn’t see the ground. Visibility’s for lightweights apparently. But weight did become an issue later in the day. Desperately trying to get the last run in, as you do if like us you feel a sense of achievement if you board the first lift before 11, we exited the too-good-for-words Funival mountain tube train up in the storm. Peering out through the station exit tunnel’s aperture had an ethereal cinematic quality. The storm had strengthened significantly and the opening resembled a windtunnel observation porthole. Thinking (hoping) it was a gust, albeit a worrying one, we pierced the wall of wind. Defiantly trying to gain some anchor and attach whatever equipment, we grew more concerned by the sub 5 metre visibility. Witnessing a light member of our party being lifted off the ground like a sweet wrapper and transported a metre or two decided our immediate future: back down in the lift. Relieved and full of giggles. Thank god.

Another day, another weather. Fresh powder everywhere, blinding sunshine radiating from a brilliant sky. A toothpaste stripe day: deep blue ciel hugging a clean white montagne – the cherished prize rewarded after a few days of mountain storm. Up in La Rosière, la domaine straddling the Franco-Italian border, nothing but La Poudreuse. I love the way that cross-border ski areas (I much prefer that adjectival use, rather than the more personally-familiar cross-border finance) make a mockery of national boundaries. It’s one of those precious frontier turn-a-blind-eye grey areas escaping any notion of control: fingerprinting, iris scans or other superfluous agents of oppression. One just skis across, literally free as a bird. No security and definitely no duty free. My very-keen intermediate group of ski buddies being ever prêt pour tout, we agreed it was time for a deep snow baptism. La Rosière, on the right day, is near perfect for such an initiation. Medium gradient, relatively obstruction-free slopes abound between the pistes, on that morning all supporting a nice new half metre of deep-snow. The transition from the edging, carving feel of on piste to the floating lift of deep snow takes a while. The inevitable stalls, face-plants and near-total burials mark necessary milestones along the way. But the group did me proud and after a while looked like they’d been at it for years. Surfing in freshly-fallen snow; arguably superior to sex. Such a wonderful sight to behold. I’m not sure the buggers should’ve got it for free.

La Fin


Since my time as a ski gumbie, I’ve been a huge fan of Tignes, Val D’Isère’s partner in the Espace Killy. One important point though: avoid
Le Palet mountain restaurant, at the top of the Tichot chairlift. They tempt you in with an inviting terrace. But then get you with a near indigestible mockery of an elsewhere delicious Tartiflette for near €20. Better light lunch and then feast yourself down the valley at the Savoyard gastrodome of Chez Marie, Le Miroir, St Foy Tarentaise.

For a multi-resort ski trip I can’t recommend Chalet No. 1 more highly. Lovely owners, wonderful staff and less than 30 min drive from Val D’Isère/Tignes, St Foy, La Rosière, Les Arcs, La Plagne, …, … And remember Eurostar may be quicker than the flying bus.

Someone has read my mind: One Railways has just become National Express East Anglia

No comments: