Sportlov (part 1): Argentière, France and skiing

Last week was vecka 9 (24 Feb.- 1 March) = sportlov (sport's week) in Stockholm. So we went to Argentière, France.

A couple of notes before the post.

  • This post was originally entitled "Argentière, France, skiing, and the coronavirus." Then the post got long, so part two will cover the end of our trip and the solid emergence of the coronavirus in our near-ish vicinity (northern Italy, anyone?). 
  • This post is also about fear and risk. As Chris and I have debriefed after the trip, it is to realize that he and I experienced different trips. The Alps were steeper and with higher consequences than anything I've alpined skied before. The tricky conditions, navigating different skiing abilities and rental equipment, and different levels of comfort made for a somewhat tough start to the week (for me). This is truly a spectacular area and I'd happily go back but with eyes a bit more open to what the terrain is like (worthy of a lot of respect). 
On to the post: 

In Sweden, sportlov starts in the south and moves north. In week 8, Southern Sweden took the week off for a sport's break. Last week (week 9 of the year) was Stockholm's turn, and next week, further north gets to take a week off. Swedes quite often travel during this week-- many to go skiing. 

After talking with a number of colleagues, they all assured us that the time to go to northern Sweden for skiing was not the week of sportlov (too dark, too cold) but maybe April. If you can, they said, go south- maybe to the Alps? Starved for both sun and snow, we decided to go south.

We thought about flying to Milan, Italy and going up to Courmayeur, where Chris had skied as a teenager and loved the experience. However, we decided that renting a car from Milan, mostly skiing at Courmayeur, and maybe driving through the tunnel through the Alps to maybe see the Leys family sounded like a lot of driving; walking to skiing sounded better. In retrospect, a good decision from several standpoints to not have just visited Italy. 

In our entire lives, we've never been to France... except this year.

Our friends Annie & Colter, and their kids Carson and Fisher, had relocated from Spain to Argentière, France. After consulting with Annie and Colter, we found an AirBnB that seemed to be a reasonable walking distance from the ski resort. Parting ways with my dad at the airport, we headed to Geneva and he headed back to Oregon. At the last minute, I grabbed my snow boots from the 50 lb duffel bag of stuff Dad graciously agreed to take back to Oregon- a lot of snow predicted in France mid-week. 

As advertised, Argentière, station de ski village Vallée de Chamonix, is a ski village about 8 km up valley from Chamonix, France. It's in the shadow of the French Alps, not too far from Mount Blanc.

We arrived on Monday, 24 February, to breathtaking temperatures: 17 degrees Celsius (about 63 F). Hot, sunny... we were wearing too many clothes by far. Van driver from Hungary was plenty happy to talk with Elizabeth and I in the front seat- sun blazing, windows open, Snarky Puppy blaring from the speakers (van driver was super excited that Chris' cousin Bob plays sax periodically for Snarky Puppy). 

Shuttle full of people, up the 80+ km on the toll road towards France, past the tunnel to Italy through the Alps, and to Chamonix. We were the last ones dropped off the door to door shuttle, affording us plenty of time to get a sense of the area (and to be glad we weren't driving). No snow on the valley floor, though some visible up high. I sent a picture to a European friend- he noted that it looked like May for the Chamonix area. 
Chris and I did a bike trip 12 years ago on the Italian side of the Alps, through Val de Aosta (along with Stephen, age 2 months). Appropriately, this trip was also with Annie & Colter, and their daughter Carson (age 6 months when they started biking from Portugal towards their eventual destination in Norway). But we'd never seen the French side of the Alps. They are impressive- soaring from the narrow valleys straight up.

Found our lodging (vintage 70s, complete with incense that we buried in a cupboard), we headed out for a cross country ski, sweating as we went. Scraped by the mud patches, through the rocks... not much snow, and what little existed was mushy and a bit sad. However, the sun was glorious and the views spectacular. We were reduced to t-shirts by the end of the ski. 

Hoping the weather predictions were accurate (40 cm of snow by Wed. night), we rented alpine skis for the week from a ski shop in Argentière- friendly Swedish guy who had come to ski 20+ years ago and stayed-- hard to define what our ski ability level was for purposes of the French Alps. Hindsight being 20-20, we were beginners (at least at the start of the week, maybe better by the end).

Views from our very short walk from our abode to "downtown"-- really a strip of shops along a very narrow street. Upper left picture includes a cat on the upper balcony, stretched out and enjoying the sun. Bonus points if you can find it. 

The kids appreciated this photo in the ski shop-- they wanted to know if they could dress up like this for Halloween.

Found a grocery store (learned that going shopping at 6 PM in a small ski town when the grocery store closes at 7:30 PM is a recipe for madness), enjoyed the views of the mountains, took some downtime. 

Line at the grocery store= 40 people long? 

Met part of the Leys family for a late night dinner at a creperie (Annie and Carson were having dinner next to us with other friends of theirs from Salt Lake). Amazing crepes; Fisher & Stephen both appreciated the flambe version for dessert (hard to capture flames in a photo and Fisher looks less than impressed here- he was happier when his own flames arrived).


Tuesday dawned clear and the mountains looming large. Skied for the day at Grand Montets, one of the 8 resorts in the Chamonix Valley. After eventually getting our ski passes, finding a locker for our street shoes (Chris discovered that if one asks the same question 4 times, one will eventually get an answer), we took a telecabine (gondola) up to the resort.


Finally on the telecabine. Looking down... and down...

Next stage: a lift even higher up.

I'm not sure what it was, but the skiing didn't come easy. My skis felt about 2x wider than I was used to. Chris felt like his skis wouldn't turn unless he forced them to. Stephen's ski kept popping off until a random person also riding the gondola fixed it a bit for him (kind helper says "it's my job- I'm a ski tech"). Elizabeth snow plowed the first run. Splendid. After a couple of runs of feeling like klutzes, we got our feet under us a bit. 

We eventually met up with the Leys family and ventured into the higher lifts. Peered over the edge of a sheer drop off/view point- not for skiing, but an indication of how steep the terrain is (and how sudden the drop offs). Gorgeous views, snow was a bit icy and hardened into half skied moguls. Colter managed to talk Elizabeth and I down a black diamond run, one icy turn at a time.

After racing down the timed course, jumps and rollers galore, we stopped for lunch at a raclette shop on the slope- yum. We ordered and split a few sandwiches- gone quite quickly. Figured the next time, we needed the full meter of bread & raclette (melted cheese). The clouds had started to build up, the sun to disappear... and the snow to start falling that night.
Race pace: Colter in the lead, followed by Fisher & Stephen (photo above)
 Chris leading and Elizabeth valiantly following along (photos below)
 Raclette & reclining = a good combination.
A little late afternoon chess while Chris traded out his skis for a more forgiving pair, followed by dinner in our 70s apartment (thin wall) & a kid party such that two sets of neighbors asked them to be quiet. Whoops. Should have sent them out into the snow storm sooner than we did. 

Next morning (Wednesday, 26 February) dawned snowy and loud. The sound of snow cannons going off all around. The promised snow had arrived, our weather in the valley shifting from rain to snow, then a lot of snow. 30-40 cm in the higher elevations (above about 2,000 meters, or 6,000 feet). Awesome to have snow, but given the terrain, the avalanche danger had also gone up: to 4 out of a possible 5 (high). Ski area openings were postponed as ski patrol blasted potential avalanches.

Then the electricity flickered, went out at our apartment. Whatever. We didn't think about it too much- went out and caught the bus up to the ski area, but it turned out the power was out up and down the valley. Whoops. Headed back down valley, stopped to visit the Leys. After a bit of pondering, the power flickered on. The app showed all lifts closed.

We decided to go see ourselves- back on the shuttle bus (amazing transportation system-- highly recommend this for crowded ski regions), up to the mountain to Balme (near the Swiss border). One telecabine (gondola) open, along with 3 little rope tows. Upper mountain = closed (too much wind, no visibility) The app still showed everything closed so we had the run to us and a few others. We had traded ice for deep power, blue sky for periodic white outs. Our ski style had to change too- leaning forward to leaning waaaay back and floating through the fluff (with periodic ice underneath).

Photo below: peering into the snowflakes and bouncing down the powder. We took a few runs down the more groomed trails, then the more intrepid skiers found their own routes through the snow.

[Chris in red. Colter in green. Carson with the pink pants. Stephen with the retro 80s green & blue. Fisher in brown & white stripes, and Elizabeth in white. Annie somewhere in pink!]  
Crazy change in conditions, and a challenge to figure out how to adapt (at least for me). Happy to have snow though. Colter and crew intrepidly led Chris and Stephen down the powder runs- picking their way down to avoid routes that could dead end into terrain traps. At one point, Elizabeth and I stayed on the groomed trail, waiting at one point for 20 minutes for them to re-emerge. In the category of things you don't tell your parents (who are reading this blog), it's moments like these that get long... however, a lot of delay was caused by Stephen's ski coming off repeatedly.

Another evening, not a bad view from the grocery store (earlier to avoid the crowds). Someone happened to look at Stephen's boots over dinner. Realized he had two different sizes, 10 mm different. Might explain why his ski kept coming off.

The next day, Thursday, 27 February dawned still snowing. We stopped at the ski shop, swapped out Stephen's odd sized boot. Hopefully his skis would stay on. Down the valley to our 3rd ski area: Flegere. Telecabine up to the base of the ski area (a new experience to have to take a lift to the ski area)- breathtaking but hard to see views.

My ski buddy for the day as the others played in the deep powder and kept disappearing in the periodic white outs. 
The picture below is a half hearted attempt at a "don't go past this sign" for avalanches (PERIL!).

Colter said that French have a different approach- really just a way to warn you that if you do go past the signs, you are on your own. Of course, we'd already seen plenty of ski trails that headed near drop offs. in the back country (away from ski areas), Colter noted that one followed others' tracks carefully- people sometimes skied off the cliffs with parachutes on (but you don't know that if you are just skiing along). Skier beware.

I didn't take a picture of the much more adamant sign that hollered: avalanche danger. Do not pass (of course written in French). A few of our party (to remain nameless to protect the innocent) enjoyed the powder beyond the sign. Gulp. Others of us got hot chocolate and lunch.

I offer you instead the serene picture of the church by the bus stop as Elizabeth and I skied for a bit more then headed home.

Friday, 28 February dawned bright and clear again. Much improved snowpack compared to when we had arrived. The picture below is the view from our kitchen window (as long as you got down low, you could see out).

Waited for the bus to come- figured it would be quicker than slogging around in our snow boots. 12 buses went up the hill. None came down. Turned out that the roads were still slippery and cars were everywhere. Walked instead to Grand Motets, the first place we'd skied.

 What a difference snow + sun + functional skis made. 
Turns out that I like powder + visibility + decreased avalanche risk. 
Black diamond runs? No problem. Elizabeth tore down some crazy slopes too. 

The pictures below are later in the day after the powder had been skied up quite a bit. Couldn't be bothered to take pictures when the snow was so good. First picture looks north to Switzerland.

This may be my favorite photo of this trip: 

Took one run from the very top lift to the very bottom-- maybe 45 minutes to get down?

The reward: a stunning view and 2 meters of raclette. One meter of bread & cheese was gone in about 5 minutes. The staff at the raclette place were a little astounded by order #2.

Elizabeth and Chris took the shorter route home, and Stephen and I went to the top for the full run again. I think I finally felt relaxed enough to ski... Stephen noted "Mom- you can ski moguls!" (not really, but I can fake it in some powder). I have no photos to document this. 

Quick shower and a bus down valley to take the Aigulle du Midi Cable Car, one of the tallest cable cars in the world and quite something.

I'll break here for part 2- France, skiing, and the coronavirus coming soon.