My last run of the season in Maine was a wet one, in the pouring rain, on the Lower Narrow Gauge at Sugarloaf. Its vast system of trails and lifts were reduced to one lowly chair and two runs. The weather rather matched my mood as I contemplated this rather inauspicious end to an epic year. Tons of snow in Maine made for reliable snow nearly every outing. And my dear wife and I went to Vail for our first trip out West. Fast runs down the China Bowl and Blue Ski Basin were revelations. And the crowning event - a week at Deer Valley where runs down the Daly Chutes were heart pounding and swagger-producing.
But on that late, wet April day, my birthday, in fact, I could feel the shadow of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) setting in even as it was passing for other no-snow-going folks. I consoled myself to the computer and the world of Bears.
And then I saw a message posted by a fellow who described a ski camp in the French Alps including six days of training, lodging, two meals per day and lift pass all for not much more than what I paid to ski at Vail. Called up Rick Schnellman who turned out to be a really great guy. And I signed up me an my ski bunny.
Anticipation mounted as I began to obsess over the weather reports at Les Deux Alpes (LDA). Rain, rain, rain. Just what we were getting in Maine in what was one of the wettest June's on record. As late as two days before we left, the forcast was dismal. Whatever it was, it could not be any worse than that April day at the Loaf.
On the plane from Boston to Lyon, France on June 25. Early arrival the next morning. Collected the two duffels and the mighty ski bag that contained my wife's Volkl Luna's and my never before skied Blizzard Supersports.
Getting to Lyon proved easier than getting to LDA. It may be only two hours away, but as an American with questionable French skills, the trip is much longer. Caught the Sato bus from the airport to Grenoble then attempted to navigate the Byzantine French bus schedule from there to LDA. Spent about two hours trying to find the bus number. Then found it (3030), and discovered when it was supposed to leave. But it never showed on the screen. About 5 minutes before departure of the mystery bus, we figured out that you actually have to take the 3000 bus from Grenoble to Point Info and then change to the 3030 bus there. Who knew? Did I mention the surly ticket seller who refused to make change from a 10 Euro note so that I could pay the 50 centime balance for the tickets? A nice lady spotted me the cash. Beinvenu a France!
The trip from Grenoble to LDA is one of distance and elevation. As we drove higher, the
road narrowed. We bisected sheer cliffs and dove into mountain tunnels only to be
rewarded with stunning vistas. As the air thinned, my mood soared. It looked
something like this
The scene inside the bus was uniquely French as well. The young couple sitting across from us were exercising their countries penchant for public romance. The front of the bus was like a cafe. Old folks chattered and bantered with the bus driver who had one eye on the road and another on his copains (pals). It was quite a wonderful experience - a bit different than my trips on the DirtyDog.
Eventually we got to Point Info and found the 3030 bus which took us the final 30 minutes or so to LDA. The roads were filled with cyclists on fancy road machines. But not a speck of snow to be seen....
At least there was no rain either. Arrived in LDA about 4.5 hours after leaving the airport. Pretty well played by that time, having traveled around twenty hours. Found the Berangere which looks something like this
Checked in with the hotel staff. Was already with my French when what greeted my ears was an accent far more British than Gallic. Turns out that this property, perched on the hillside is owned and run by the Mark Warner, a British travel company. We were the first to arrive. To the room and a blessed shower.
In time, our six companions arrived - all Brits, although there was a fellow who is an American citizen who spent 40 years in England. A great group of folks. While the skill levels ran the gamut, we shared the same passion. Met Rick and the other instructer Charlotte that evening as well. They scoped out the week. Basically, we would be out the door every morning at 6:40 am to catch the tram to the glacier - a 25 minute ride. We would train from about 8:00am to 12:30 or 1:00. Beyond that was impossible because the lifts close at 12:30. It all sounded great.
I was a bit worried about the altitude. I live at sea level. In fact if you want to see my front yard, check our DonDenver's images of Eggemoggin Reach (the picture with the brige in the background). That is where I live. At Vail, I had a bit of a head ache and slept like crap. And that was at around 8000 feet, as I remember. The top of the LDA glacier is 3600 meters - just under 12,000 feet. Turns out no trouble at all - perhaps because it is no where near as dry as Vail - no dehydration issues.
So early the next morning, up, ate and went out the door for the 15 minute walk to the tran station. It looked something like this
And we looked like this (your truly with stash)
And the angry hoards waiting for the first tram up looked like this
And beleive me, they were angry. You see, the glacier at LDA is one of the premier summer training areas for racers from World Cup level on down. They are as competitive in the lift line as they are on the course. We got to bypass the line given our ski camp status - to the jeers and whistles of the unruly hoards. But you had better have sharp elbows and a stout stance if you want to get in the tram. We would put the smaller members of the group in front so that we could block those intruding from behind. At first it was bizarre. We do not do that sort of thing in Maine. And then it was great fun.
After a 25 minute ride, with one transfer at 2600 meters you are delivered to the foot of the glacier - at 3200 meters if memory serves. It is a bit disconcerting as you go higher and see no snow. I wondered what it would be like as I could not find any images that really showed what we would be on. And there it was. Magnificent!
This is basically the view straight up the glacier.
And this is the view off to the left in the area called the Dome - where the GS courses were set.
And this is the ski storage room where we kept out boards. Is this a candy store or what. I can not begin to describe the vapor that rose from the steamy boots of a thousand hot footed racers....
So what was the skiing like. Different from anything that I had ever experienced. Think of it as an entire season five hours. The first run at about 8:00am was rock hard. See the pic above, and this one of frozen corduroy on the Signal trail were we spent the morning.
With each successive run, the snow softened. By mid-morning, the Signal was mashed potatos. And we would move up the glacier. Below is a view from the chair
over Signal looking over to the Dome where they run GS.
We would move up the glacier which was serviced by T bars. It is a huge expanse up there - perhaps 1/2 mile across. As impressive as the view is, the real spectacle are the skiers. I have never seen so many world class skiers at one place at one time, and I am unlikely to again. The national teams from Spain, Italy, Andorra and assorted other countries were there. Kids from ski academies all over the world mingled and raced. They would set courses all over the hill - without much concern for the liability issues that a US hill would face. You go up the T bar, and there are slalom courses set on either side of the T bar track, with racers just an instant away. Those that were not running gates would be drilling - the same drills that we were doing. One ski carving. Balance exercises with poles or no poles. But always a break neck speed. I am not comfortable on a busy slope. Well, you have to get over that pretty quickly and claim your line - like your place in line. But the skiers are so competent, you feel less discomfort because they can ski around you with eyes closed - and probably did.
Every day was the same - glorious. Sunny. Up to 60-70 degrees on the glacier and up to 80 degrees in town. Fighting your way on the lift in the morning. Scoping out your place on the slope and fitting in the flow of traffic. It became routine.
And you take the time to look around, this is what you see.
Not a bad view.
Or this (I have to break that habit of looking at my skis - but they were so wonderful)
And from the village
And the portrait of the artist as a young skier
How did this guy from Lyon get in here
As soon as people were off the glacier, huge dump trucks and snow cats would go to work reconstructing worn places
An enormous amount of work goes into keeping this place going.
So enough about the skiing. I have saved the best for last. The training. Three companions (including my wife) were under the guidance of Rick Schnellmann. He was a world class downhill racer turned race and recreation coach. He has a website with a series of discs demostrating his training approach. But we had him live. Let me begin by saying that I have been skiing a long time. And I have been told that I am pretty good. I can get down most anything, and enjoy it. What I came to realize right out of the gate is that I am a fine skier in what the other coach called that "passe style." True enough. For as long as I can remember I have been skiing like Stein no longer skis. So the entire week for me was a journey into the 21 century of ski technique. And I can not imagine a better guide than Rick. His approach is elemental - or a spiral as he calls it. You start with the basics. We drilled for hours perfecting stance, balance and ski feel. This approach gets you way in touch with your skis and the physiological and physical dance of human, ski and gravity. We did drills with all foward stance, and then centered and then all back. We did all manners of slide slipping to learn edge control. And once that was done we moved on to the dynamics of turn shape - wide and narrow track. And then to angulation and proper knee position, and then counter drills and finally ILE (Inside Leg Extention). Video replay at night told all.
Four and a half hours of this every day for six days set me on quite a diffrent ski path than the one I have been on for over four decades. Some bad habits were remarkably easy to lose. Once I felt what correct angulation felt like in the obliques, my chronic inside shoulder dip went away. Others were more difficult to break. I just can not seem to keep my feet apart or get that inside knee tipped as far as it should. It is that old wedelin default. But I am getting better at it. I learned most of all to feel what the right technique feels like. To feel the ski geometry as it takes you around the turn, rather than vice versa. It has changed my approach to a fall line. I used to stick to the edge, making scarved turns all the way down. Now I realize it is probably because I was not comfortable at speed with my feet so close together and center of mass not stacked properly. I came away from the camp with a new appreciation for the long turn dictated by the geometry of those wonderous Blizzard Supersonics. Utterly killer skis and the perfect sibling to the mid fat Cronus's that I have been on for a couple years.
So, a trip and ski experience of a lifetime. I am greatly indebted to Rick for his extraordinary skill as a coach (he crafted a drill on the spot for me), for his unflappable good nature and for being an all around great guy. He revolutionized my wife's skiing as well - which would have been enough for full points from me. I should also mention that the program was hosted by Charlotte Swift (Easiski) a British instructer who has made LDA her home for the past 17 years. She clearly made this happen and at an extraordinarily reasonable price. They both got about half the numbers they expected but each gave us 150%. I am not sure if they are running the program next year. If they do, and if you want to have about the best 6 days of your skiing life, give it a go.
(PS: Thanks to classmate Rachael for some of these images)
Edited by deliberate1 - 7/16/2009 at 09:22 pm GMT
Edited by deliberate1 - 7/17/2009 at 01:18 pm GMT