Sniffing powder

Delving deeper into my journals as we move slowly through this period of quarantine I seem to be drifting away from the original purpose of this blog. What the hell – this blast from the past was so much fun!

In at the deep end again – photo Gary Bigham

From my Journal, Feb. 24th. 2010

Nowhere beats Chamonix for steep, deep and just the best skiing atmosphere anywhere. There are a lot of great skiers here but the mountain humbles us all. Having skiied in so many resorts over the years one thing I notice is that what defines Chamonix is the skiing. Not the equipment, not the clothes, not the style, not the cute mountain restaurants or the great sunsets from a mountain top deckchair. People come to Chamonix to ski.

I was staying with Gary Bigham; film maker, photographer, musician, a Montana mountain man who’s skied with Plake and Saudan and is one of the biggest characters on the mountain. Gary lives with Ana in a chalet that sits on a snowy lane with a path cut through high snow banks to get to the front door. Most days I shower outside, butt naked with spindrift coursing off the roof of his porch.

“In every shower with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”. – John Muir (sort of).

Absolutely hacking it down outside. A light wind blows swirling the light crystals skywards again before they touch down on the heaped banks of snow surrounding the chalet. Gary’s great chunk of translucent cocktail ice hacked from the Glacier d’Argentiere slowly collects a mound of fresh snow threatening to bury it once more. Today we skiied off the Grands Montets in an almost white out skirting a couple of big crevasses. Occasional clear patches gave us a glimpse of translucent ice below. We made some nice turns in about 30cms. of fresh powder then bottomed out on top of the glacier itself. “Here my friends” says Gary “is where I  carved out that huge lump of cocktail ice”, his deep Montana drawl bouncing off the clear blue glass walls, “20 kilos straight into my backpack – makes the best damn Mojitos you’ve ever had”. 

Gary’s winter wonderland chalet

One afternoon on the mountain we meet up with Marcus and Emma and they invite us to their chalet in the valley. The night before there has been a decent snowfall.

It turns out Marcus’s chalet is in Lavanchet deep in the valley, shielded from rolling avalanches and the peaks above by dense larch woods. There’s no piste to get there so unless you really know where you’re going (navigating in snowy woods is notoriously difficult) it’s a no no. So it’s back up the Bochard and a stack of great turns through rocky gulleys still finding fresh snow. Big smiles all round, Gary snake like through the snow, Marcus bouncing his way down, Emma and Ana really holding it together. Me, well I’m just cruising, this is the most fun I’ve had in a long long time. 

We’ve dropped 1,200m. from the top and finally it’s into the trees.  If that was fun up top, down here it’s just hilarious. Untracked, we blast off snow topped tree stumps, crash through spruce branches, snake around trees scrabbling for the next turn before we catch a tip. With not quite enough room to make some of the turns we are all trailing bits of broken branches and swiping fir twigs off our hats. I get the sting of some high speed wispy snappers across my face, snow blasting up from my ski tips clouding my vision as I swerve to avoid some rather solid spruce trunks. Gary takes the lead, “I think this is right”, he says, “Hell if it ain’t we just walk. Walkin’s good for you isn’it?”. 

Through the trees – photo Gary Bigham

I keep blasting on, a tight one and a half turns, scrappy snow here, not sure whether it’s hard wood or soft stone under my edges. Whoah! – got to avoid Marcus who’s suddenly pulled up, no way I’m going to miss him without taking that snow bank fast… “Catwalk!” shouts Gary. Oh no – shit! Too late I say to myself as I fly off the snow bank half skidding and drop down 3 metres hard on to a flat icy trail. “Hey James…”, says Gary in his smooth tones, looking over the snow bank “… looks like you found the trail. You alright down there?” I smile with a grimace rubbing the shoulder I landed on “Just fine Gary”, I reply, “ just fine. Great ride by the way. Aren’t we near the valley now?”

We all slide into Lavachet, breathing heavily, sweating under many layers, but deeply happy. Everyone’s smiling. We push our way across the valley floor, past farmer’s wooden houses, past chalets with toboggans piled up in front, past an elderly couple taking a coffee on their verandah enjoying the afternoon sun. A fat hairy dog runs out and barks at us, two kids snowballing playfully send a few our way. We pull up at Marcus’s chalet, kick our skis off and collapse onto a long wooden bench carved with hearts, aces and spades in the Tyrol fashion. “Marcus”, say Gary laughing, “Bring on the beer. You made it look so easy we’ll just sit here and wait for ya to bring it to us”.’