I was out of control, tearing down the ski slope. The skis, on top of which I was a hapless passenger, seemed determined to break the sound barrier and all I could do was lean forward to keep my balance as the French countryside dissolved into a blur.
Crash, party and play seemed to be the mantra on this skiing trip in Val D’Isere.
This village in the French Alps boasts spectacular slopes, lots of activity and a rollicking apres-ski scene.
Freewheeling in France
It was my first day on skis since 6th January 1996, and I was buoyed by the adage that ‘you never forget skiing once you learn it’; I’d done a few runs on gentle slopes and then tried a steeper gradient. Patrick, my coach, skied alongside me trying to keep up, all the while yelling, “fall, fall!” and asking me to lean towards the side and take a fall to stop. I was in a collision course with an outdoor cafeteria at the bottom of the slope, and as my speed went up and the distance to table number 23 shortened, Patrick’s yells became heartfelt pleas.
I finally threw my selfover to the side and crashed in a tumble of poles and skis.
After I had sorted myself out and the inhabitants of table no 23 had settled down again after their hurried evacuation, I realised that the knack was to always keep your skis in an inverted ‘V’, as this gave some modicum of control over the speed.
I had arrived in Val D’Isere, in the Rhone Alps region of France for a weekend of skiing as an escape from the searing Indian summer, and though this was the very end of the ski season, there was more than enough snow to give the entire village a white-washed look and ensure that its slopes were busy with skiers.
The village, comprising of its cozy chalets, restaurants and ski equipment hire shops, seems to exist in harmony with the magnificent snow-laden countryside that surrounds it. Standing out of my chalet balcony that looked out onto the street, it was immediately apparent that this place was a very famous ski resort. Almost all pedestrians were on their way to or on their way back from the ski slopes. They had their skis slung over their shoulders and were strutting about in their ski shoes. Not because of some over inflated ego or precipitous pride, but rather because the stiffness and inflexibility of ski shoes will make you strut, never mind that you may be as timid as a mouse. Val D’Isere and its hamlets are strung out along the valley at a 1850m altitude under the imposing Bellevarde Mountain.
Each hamlet has its share of chalets and chapels—free shuttle buses link them to one another—and each one can also be reached on skis via the slopes.
Romancing the slopes
On my first walk around the village and the ski slopes, what struck me as fantastic was the incredible infrastructure. The sky was crisscrossed with ski lifts attached to cables taking skiers up huge slopes. Yet it didn’t seem to give the place an untidy look. Because of the sheer number of slopes and ski lifts, the mountainside seemed to be buzzing with skiers taking advantage of the lovely weather. And for those who had had their fill, cafeterias and snack houses provided a welcome respite, with outdoor seating that looked out at the slopes.
The next morning, fortified by a breakfast of French rolls and various kinds of cheese, I hopped onto one of the free shuttles and headed out to Le Fornet, one of the last hamlets. I was certainly the odd one out because everyone else was either carrying skis ora snowboard. And while they hopped off the bus and onto a huge cable car that would take them up the slopes, which they’d come tearing down, I set off on the snow covered walking track gradually going up the mountain.
I spent a fantastic hour on the mountain that morning—the white snowscape contrasting the rich blue sky—and while I saw pugmarks of the native chamois goat, I didn’t actually see a specimen.
What I did see were my fellow bus passengers whizzing down the steep snowy slopes, and each time they swerved, their skis kicked up clouds of powdery snow. The fluidity made it look so simple—and it was not—as I was soon to find out.
But before getting onto the slopes, there was the battle of the boots to be won. Jean Sports on the main street is one of the many places where you can hire skis, boots and poles. After I had loosened the clips, stretched open the neck of the boot and fought my foot into it, my first impression was that it was caught in a trap.
Being a ski resort doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do in Val D’Isere once you’re done skiing. There are fine restaurants serving the best of French food, and an especially fine one was La Fruitière.
There is absolutely no flex, but it is this quality of rigidness that protects the ankle joint while skiing, especially on that ‘lean forward’ stance while coming down the slopes.
Getting onto the skis and snapping your boots in is all very simple when you are on flat snow. But on an incline it gets a little intense, with the skis seeming to have a mind of their own. Patrick, who taught skiing as a hobby in winter, first had me go through the regular motions of getting used to having extra long and narrow feet.
After about three hours of fumbling and falling, I managed to get the skis under some control and they started behaving in a more disciplined fashion.
In fact, except for that one wipe-out that I mentioned at the very beginning, the rest of my time on the slopes was uneventful and my other crashes weren’t all that spectacular.
Being a ski resort doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do in Val D’Isere once you’re done skiing. There are fine restaurants serving the best of French food, and an especially fine one was La Fruitière, halfway up the Bellevarde—one of the most imposing peaks in the area. We’d gotten there by gondola, and what followed was a lively evening fuelled by delicious canapés that went sublimely with champagne.
I’m not even going to start describing the three-course dinner, but if you’re guessing slow-roasted shoulder of lamb accompanied by fantastic French wine, then you’re indeed hovering around the same frequency.
In addition, there was the live jazz band, Vitamine playing, the members of which blew their trumpets and trombones with enough enthusiasm to whip out taut and foot-tapping tunes. And as if that wasn’t enough, the management even encouraged guests to dance on the tables! All this undoubtedly ensured that the evening was a complete blast. In fact, they had to literally shoo us out, and by the time we were done I realised that it had gone dark and the mercury had come crashing down to minus two degrees Celsius; even the Gondola had closed for the day. Most guests were going to descend on skis, holding lit torches. This is a common thing to do in Val D’Isere, and is popularly called the ‘Torchlight Descent’. From the town, it makes a spectacular site to see a line of lights zipping down the mountainside.
Joining the joyride
But that was only for experienced skiers, and I had this horrific image flash in my mind—one of me flying off the edge of the mountain, desperately out of control.
So instead, I decided to ride a snowmobile—sort of scooter with skis, what the locals called a skidoo—down the mountain.
Because of its surefootedness, it would turn into corners as sharply as an auto rickshaw and “zis can topple you overe”, Frenchman Freddie told me. I had decided to follow him down because he knew the route, for with a white blanket of snow and pitch darkness, you really do need to know where to go. For the first few corners Freddie held back his horses, and then once I had gotten the hang of it, he let loose and I followed him. All I remember was a white blur rush past as I concentrated on keeping to his line. I briefly remember a red fox dart across the road, but otherwise I was completely enveloped by the thrill of blasting that snowmobile down the Bellevarde. It was a huge adrenaline rush—never mind that my nose, hands and ears were almost falling off from the cold when we got to the bottom.
All said and done, I spent an extended weekend in Val D’Isere, a ski resort, and didn’t run out of things to do even though I didn’t know how to ski all that well. Of course, if you do know how to ski then this village will enchant you. And even if you don’t, it’s a good place to start, for there is a lot more you can do to keep yourself entertained and occupied.
Accommodation The region offers accommodation to suit various budget ranges, and a good chalet to put up at is Les Sorbiers: www.hotelsorbiers-valdisere.com
In April the temperature is around four degrees, but in the height of the winter (and the ski season) it usually plummets to -15 degrees and sometimes more, so warm clothing is a must.
Text & photographs Rishad Saam Mehta