Sunday, 16 March 2014

All aboard the snow train!

Lunch in La Plagne
My skiing was much improved in February under the harsh regime of Sammy Ski School. After the bitter reality of Renard, how I longed for ESF and the sarcasm of Guy (are you looking for ze mushrooms Eric?) and those gentle days of Route Des Animaux.
But there's no pain without some gain and I was certainly skiing much better after February. These three days in March were something of a ski bonus brought about by Sam's misfortune with Parisian driving standards imported to Bourg Saint Maurice during Paris holiday week. Basically, don't bother looking right, just turn onto the main road and hope for the best.
Sam's car was written off, Max said he could have his old Polo to tide him over and I was delivery driver. This meant that after a quiet day on Tuesday to sort out a few jobs, we were good to go for skiing on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
The weather was absolutely beautiful. It was super sunny and around 20 deg C, which meant the snow was quite slushy in the afternoon and quite icy in the morning. That caught me out on the first day when I found some marbles - little balls of ice - under my skis. It's the motoring equivalent of a patch of ice, one minute my edges were gripping, the next I'd lost the back end, crashed onto my back, cracked my head (good job I had the helmet on) and went sliding down the slope backwards and on my back.  It was a bizarre crash, especially when I overtook Sam, sliding by like an inverted tortoise.
There was no harm done and we headed across to the south side of the mountain where there's a big bowl (2300) where I could spend some time practising my turns. Unfortunately the lift there was out of action and so Sam had to revise his plans, which meant a trip down the dreaded Renard. This reddish-blue run is getting quite familiar and it was much easier than I remembered in February. I was skiing down fairly happily and reasonably quickly, so fast that I almost didn't notice the taped-off area where someone was being treated for a serious injury and the medical helicopter parked at the side of the piste! That’s Renard for you!
It was a good day, my stamina has improved and so has my technique, although I still need to work on the speed of the turn. It's OK down most blues, but when the slope is steeper, I have to make longer traverses to keep the speed down and that often means I'm ploughing through banks of snow kicked up by those taking a more direct route. Quicker turns would mean a straighter descent and more control.
We skied a shorter day on Thursday, but the weather was glorious again. Highlight of the day was Lucy sitting down in the snow to have her lunch, but slipping and then sliding backwards downhill out of the picnic area, over a bank and onto the piste below. It was a real comedy slow-motion sequence (worth £500 on You've Been Framed) and once we knew she was all right, we enjoyed a laugh at her expense. The only thing that would have made it better was if she'd had a cheese sandwich in her hand.
I felt that I was skiing well enough to be a little more ambitious, so on Friday, Sam and I went across to La Plagne. My old work friend Chris Perera is skiing there in April and I said I'd ski across and meet him. This was a bit of a recce and to see how long it would take us to get across there.
On board the Vanoise Express.
Getting to La Plagne from Arc 1600 means a few lifts and a fairly long traverse across the mountain down to the Vanoise Express. This is a massive cable car that links Les Arcs/La Plagne. The cars are double-deckers and can carry over 100 people and it gets you across pretty quickly. The cables stretch 1,800 metres and it rides 400 metres above the valley floor. I'm not one to be concerned about such things, but there are quite a few people who prefer not to look down. Actually looking out of the thing is quite hard because, for the lift's 10th anniversary, they painted pixelated graphics onto the side of the cars, so you peer out through a spotty haze. It rather spoils the view.
Getting across the valley is one thing; getting to the resort is another. It involves three lifts and from the top of one lift, you have to ski down to the start of another. One of the blue runs was incredibly steep. I’d already fallen once – quite painfully – on the way down to Vallandry and I had three more falls during the day, including one where a 10-year-old French girl skied into the back of me! Some of the runs were quite rutted and it was still a French holiday week, so the slopes were quite busy in places.
Anyway, we managed to get up the lifts, down the slopes and skied down into the bowl of La Plagne. It seems a more compact resort complex than Les Arcs, where there are four centres and a couple of bowls. There's also a magic carpet, so I approve of that. We sat in the hot sun and had a beer and a Kit-Kat. I wasn't sure how long it would take to get back, so we didn't do Le Tunnel (the well-known blue in la Plagne, where you ski down and through a tunnel). Instead, there's a large lift from the bottom of the bowl (one of those six-seaters) where you can quickly get up to the edge of the bowl. For us, it was then a long, long blue called Mont Blanc all the way down to the Vanoise cable car. You can tell how long it was by the fact the piste post numbering started up around 150. Actually, it was quite a nice run and - apart from being tail-ended by a 10-year-old - I rather enjoyed it.
From there, it was a case of being back on familiar territory. I wanted to go on the top deck of the Vanoise on the way back, then it was up one lift and back on my old friend Foret, along Maitez and we were back in Arc 1800. I was pretty weary by this stage and so Sam took pity on me and allowed me to go up Chantelle and back along Golet.
This was my longest day skiing and the most distance I've ever covered. I really enjoyed it; it felt as if I'd been skiing with a purpose (to get somewhere, rather than just pootling about up and down different runs). However, I was pretty weary (a real weary, weary-woo) and very glad of a second beer and a cheese and ham galette in 1600.
Sam and Lucy were getting ready for the coming week, when Laura Bell (her good friend and bridesmaid at her wedding) was coming to stay. In fact, on the Saturday while I was killing time waiting for my train, Laura would have been on the long drive down from Calais. She was coming with one of her friends, whom Lucy had met before, and her friend's brother. There was a new skier (Laura), someone who had skied a couple of times (the friend) and a snowboarder (the brother), so a real mixed bunch.
On Saturday, we went down into Bourg where it was market day, with a collection of stalls top and bottom of the main street. I bought some farmhouse reblochon for a tartiflette treat back in Blighty and a Christmas tree ornament. I was going to buy some cheese from the farm next-door to Sam's chalet (they have a stall in the market on Saturdays) but it was very busy, there was a long queue and I didn't bother.
I did buy some sweets from a charity stall that was rescuing unwanted farm animals. They needed money for vets' fees and had a couple of little pigs in some straw on top of their stall. Margaret would rather like a pig and this pair seemed very cute, although rather intent on finding some lettuce hidden among the straw of their pen. It's unexpected to find the French trying to help (rather than eat) animals, so this was worth supporting.
Sam with the cute pigs on Bourg market.
I was a little worried about the 10.15pm snow train. When I've got Eurostar back from Brussels there were huge queues at the Midi station and once I almost missed the train. The Eurostar booking site said that I had one of the last eight seats on the train, so I thought it would be really busy.
In actual fact it couldn't have been much easier. There was a tiny queue, but we were through passport and baggage in 15 minutes and on the train. The biggest problem was than my carriage was right at the front and these trains are really long. There were only about eight people in my carriage and I was thinking that Eurostar was trying to make me panic buy a seat when we pulled into Moutiers ...
I had expected to go straight through to St Pancras, But at Moutiers, hundreds of people piled on board and the carriage was full. I was hoping that I could have stretched out across two seats, but now I was locked into position. The seats are quite comfortable and I did get some sleep, but there were two or three really loud snorers on the train, who disturbed the peace somewhat.
At Albertville, the train pulled into the station, waited for about 10 minutes and then set off in the opposite direction. It meant I was travelling forwards rather than backwards. You couldn't see much out of the window except darkness and the odd light flashing past. We stopped in one station for about 30 minutes (I think it must have been near Paris) and then I dozed off again and woke as we were entering the Channel Tunnel. In Kent, it was light and there was something to look at; we stopped at Ashford and then St Pancras.
It was just after 7am (GMT) and bang on time. It's an impressive service, if not the most comfortable journey. I guess the daytime train would be more pleasant because you would be able to stretch your legs without disturbing others (who were asleep) and there would be something to look at.
I had to queue for passport control at St Pancras, which is always annoying having done it at Bourg Saint Maurice, but I had lots of time and was even prepared for some light banter with the over-cheerful chap at border control. There was time for breakfast at King's Cross and a nice journey (via the Hertford loop) back to Peterborough, where Margaret and Holly were waiting for me outside the station. I got back to Peterborough about 10.15am, making it 12 hours in the clock and 13 hours with the switch from CET to GMT.
Sam and Lucy at the picnic area in Les Arcs - that's Mont Blanc just to the side of Sam's ear.