Le ski: It’s all downhill from here

Ski tips above the cloudsI grew up in a country where snow was abundant. Even in the southern-most climes of Canada, we have plenty of the white stuff every winter. What we don’t have is mountains. The biggest ski hills in our parts have a vertical drop that’s less than the average apartment building.

Still, I learned to snowplow and do the herringbone at an early age and became a competent if not adventurous skier. The biggest resort we went to back then was Blue Mountain. We would line up forever for the lift, then come zipping down the slopes in two minutes to do it all over again.

None of these things prepared me for skiing in the French Alps. The vertical is, well…vertical. Chair-lifts can feel more like elevators. And most of the pistes require a level of skill that is beyond my comfort zone.

My first experience of skiing in France was at Les 3 Vallées, a massive domaine skiable that claims to be the world’s biggest ski area. I don’t know whether that’s technically true but it certainly felt that way to me on the day I got lost in a blizzard somewhere around 3,000 meters.

My husband learned to ski at Les Ménuires, one of the resorts in the 3 valleys area, shortly after learning to walk. He loves the snow and anything to do with mountains. The higher the better. He was keen to show me around its highest peaks. It was un grand moment in our marriage. Right up there with learning to drive a standard and arguing our way around French Polynesia.

The first shock was the accommodation. The resort was above the tree line, with forests of high-rise buildings perched in a lunar landscape. We stayed in a borrowed apartment that managed to squeeze 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and kitchen-living area into a space about the size of a walk-in closet. I felt claustrophobic from the start.

“Don’t worry, it’s the altitude. Just wait until you get on top of the mountain and see the view,” reassured my husband, ever the optimist.

I have only a vague memory of that first day’s skiing together. So the details are blurry. But I’ll never forget the name of the place where I lost any remaining illusions about my spirit of adventure: Cime de Caron.

To cut to the chase: I lost my way down whatever slope we were on and became immobilized with fear in front of a piste noire (black run for expert skiers). My husband disappeared into the white-out and I ended up, shaking with fear and cold, in some sort of refuge with a snack bar until someone took pity on me and showed me the way to the nearest lift down.

I learned a few important things from that first ski trip:

  1. Always check the plan des pistes (map of ski runs) before you go up to make sure you can get down
  2. Avoid going anywhere with the word ‘cime’ or ‘col’ in the name. It will probably end in tears, or a nosebleed. Or both.
  3. If all else fails, head for the bar

Oh, and one more: never trust my husband if there’s a mountain involved.

I still enjoy skiing from time to time. But I’m a fairweather skier – the conditions have to be just right. Mostly I stick to the blue runs. I can manage the reds if I have to – even if it means sliding down part of the way on my derrière. But there’s only way I’m heading down a piste noire:

How to descend a black run

Et toi? Are you a snow bunny or a lounge lizard? Schuss or snow plow?

Tempête de neige

Snow covers a Metro sign and tree branchesHow five centimeters of snow turn the fearless French into a bunch of sissies

My belle-mère (mother-in-law) called early one morning in January with the breaking news: “’Have you seen what’s happened in Paris?” she demanded. “No,” I replied, imagining a terrorist bomb or worse, a train strike.

“They’re completely snowed in. At least ten centimeters.” In France, snow in Paris is major national news. Next thing you know the army will be called in to rescue stranded commuters.

“Imagine,” I said. “Snow, in January.” This prompted a diatribe about how it was all very well for Nordic countries, but in France they’re not equipped for snow, at least not in the city.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Canada. As a citizen of the great white north, it takes more than a few flakes to keep me down. But after a few years in my adopted country I have begun to understand that snow in France is different.

The French love the snow. In its place, on the ski slopes in the Alps or the Pyrénées. Everywhere else it is that most detested of meteorological phenomena, the one that knocks this country firmly on its derrière.

Every winter all eyes turn to Météo France with the announcement of the dreaded tempête de neige. A state of ‘vigilance orange’ is declared, sparking off a series of measures designed to protect the French from the evil frost. Snowy weather bumps all other news stories. Schools are closed, people are urged to leave their cars in the garage and if possible, to stay home.

It may be for the best. For all their machismo behind the wheel in most weather, the French have little clue how to drive in the snow. A couple of centimeters of white stuff on the ground is enough to cow most drivers. They reduce their speed to a crawl, brake constantly or stop by the side of the road to put on chains.

I have never seen anyone in Canada do this, at least not in the city. Chains and studs are illegal in many areas as they quickly destroy the road surface.

Much as I hate to admit it, my mother-in-law is right: France is not prepared for snow. They don’t salt the roads enough for one thing. And for another all those country roads with the signs that say ‘verglas fréquent’ do ice up surprisingly quick when the temperatures fall below zero.

I cannot help but chuckle when I see my proud compatriots taken down a peg or two in wintry weather. Most days driving in this country is not for the faint of heart. A simple lane change can feel like a game of chicken – it goes against the very fiber of the French to let you in. Driving at the speed limit is grounds for obscene hand gestures and appels de phare as other drivers recklessly pass. Heaven help you if you dare to drive in the left lane on the motorway.

So forgive me for enjoying my day in the snow. Bonne route!