It is incredible to me just how close Europe is today. Halfway through February I got an itch to visit the operations I’d heard about last April when delegates from several European ski companies toured the potential ski resort west of Valemount. A week later, I had booked a plane ticket to Paris, and a three week itinerary was already filling up. Thanks to modern internet travel sites, a round trip ticket costs less than $1000 all in, and accommodation deals can be processed in just minutes.
In the completely impulsive fashion of a single young adult, I was packed – skis, clothes and camera – in less than 3 hours. A late night Greyhound doubled as a bed as I woke up in Vancouver as the sun started to rise. I had a three week window between my winter contract work in Northern Alberta and the commencement of my ongoing seasonal summer employment, and I was not going to waste one day. Europe beckoned.
Despite having grown up calling myself a skier, the Alps were but a legend to me. I had looked at maps, studied photos and listened to many a ski tale, but unfortunately the opportunity to experience them for myself had yet to open up.
The plane touched down in Paris around noon. Within 12 hours I was on a train to Geneva with a final destination of Zermatt. This is where it all started, the cradle of alpinism and mountain skiing. As I got further and further from France, the trains slowed down. A quick night in Geneva preceded another day on the train. After winding around Lake Geneva, I found myself taking in the winter scenes of the Rhone Valley. Contrary to most winter images of Switzerland, the brown snowless vineyards of the Rhone were beautiful in their own right, though I can only imagine how beautiful the valley must be when blooming and green in the spring. The town of Visp is where it all really begins. The Visp to Zermatt portion of the Glacier Express train was completed in 1891. The train is still the only way one can reach the small carless city of Zermatt. The train winds its way up 35 km of steep grades (with the assistance of “cogs” or gears built onto the middle of the track) through dozens of tunnels and huge stone arch bridges. The narrow, rocky valley is divided by a river and the occasional flat areas are populated by small Swiss villages one would see on a postcard.
My two days in Zermatt were graced by unbelievably perfect weather. The Matterhorn is incredible! It sticks up just as in the pictures. It is the centrepiece of the entire attraction, but by no means the only mountain. Zermatt is not even the end point of the “Cog wheel” rail line. The Gornergrat Bahn is truly a unique experience. The next morning, dressed to ski, I packed onto a train car with several hundred other international tourists. Starting from the centre of Zermatt at an elevation of 1,604m, we snaked our way 9km up a broken mountainside then through open alpine bowls. The terminus is at an elevation of 3085m! And there is a sight to take anybody’s breath away! The Mount Rosa Massif. From this vista, over 29 peaks with an elevation over 4,000 m are visible. Believe it or not, there is actually heli-skiing to be had in Europe, although restricted to this one mountain in the Zermatt area. It is here that your ski day begins. To ski the same run twice in Zermatt, you would have to stay at least 3 days. Up and down, up and down, across the mountain valley, you make your way closer and closer to the Matterhorn. But the real jaw dropper of the day is the Klein Matterhorn cable car lift. With no towers, the free-span tram climbs up so steep one feels like one is in a helicopter. The small dock station beckons as you approach straight up a sheer cliff! When you offload at 3,883, it feels like you are standing over thin air! A tunnel through the mountain takes you through to the other side of the peak where you can ski down the more moderate slopes of the glacier. Skier’s right takes you back towards the Matterhorn and down to Zermatt, Skiers’ left drops down into Italy to Cervinia the Italian town named after Monte Cervino, the Italian name for the Matterhorn. Unfortunately, the Italian side was all clouded in, so I settled for 1000 more stunning views of the Swiss side of the Matterhorn and several more 3000 metre vistas before skiing the “Piste” (what we would call a groomed logging road) back down to Zermatt Village. Along the way one passes several small alpine villages, exactly what one would imagine after watching a film adaptation of Heidi.
Although the skiing in Zermatt is certainly something to experience, it amazed me just how broken and unregulated it is. This is not a ski hill! It is a collection of mountains with lifts. There is no real ski patrol, and the definition of “ski run” is vague. Europeans refer to “on-piste” skiing as being within the rope- off groomed road leading safely back down to the bottom of the mountain, or “off-piste” which means everything on the other side of the rope. Runs are named, and avalanche control is provided, but there are no giant signs all over the mountain and only one ski-patrol sweep at the end of the day. As every liftgate warns “ski at your own risk and peril.” Europeans ski self-sufficiently and prepared. If they are unsure, they hire a ski guide for the day. This isn’t just for beginners. There are over 600 full-time and well paid ski guides working out of Zermatt. There is also only one way to ski back down to the village, the narrow “piste”. The other option is to take the main trams back down over the broken cliffs and chutes separating Zermatt Village from the open alpine ski slopes above. I would later discover that many mountains in France are similarly broken and lift-dependent.
The “Cog Wheel” train from Martigny over the “col de la Forclaz” into France is just as spectacular as the Glacier Express into Zermatt. I was now on my way to Chamonix, the mountain capital of the world. I was making good on an offer by Benoit Robert, one of delegates who toured the Premier Range a year ago to learn more about the Valemount Glacier Destinations Ltd. project. It was a short-notice trip on my part, but luckily as a career French mountain guide, Robert has spent much of his life in Chamonix, and he was vacationing with his family at the same time of my visit. The history and spectacular views from Chamonix are impossible to understate! But of course what everybody really comes there for is the Aiguille du Midi, the jaw-dropping tram that takes you from 1035m straight up to 3842m. To put it into perspective, imagine a tram taking you from Kinney Lake straight up to 100m shy of the summit of Mt. Robson. The top station is a double granite spire. Just like in Zermatt, tunnels take you through the spire to the other side. Unlike in Zermatt, this is the end of the ride for anybody other than those equipped with crampons, crevasse rescue gear, and means to call for help. Mt. Blanc rises up another 1000m to 4810m. The highest peak in the Alps and Europe outside of Russia. What is most amazing is that this wonder of mountain access was built in 1955.
If I had more time, I would have headed for the summit, but this was a ski trip. The Vallée Blanche is over 26 kilometers long. It consists of the glacial tongue “Mer de glace.” By far the longest ski run of my life, it more or less took all day to get back to Chamonix, with a detour up and over a side ridge to ski part of an adjacent glacier on the way. The weather was spectacular, and one cannot imagine so many granite spires poking up over a 30 km area. It was difficult at times to keep my eyes on my skis.
What was most incredible to me was just how many people were ski touring. At 7 am in the morning, the first cable car leaves the base station. I was on it, packed with 150 other ski tourers and mountaineers. Everyone was wearing a harness with crevasse rescue gear, and everyone had touring skis. It really set in later on the glacier just how popular alpine culture and sport is in France. I most certainly have never had to wait 15 minutes in a traffic jam of climbers just to use a rappel anchor before in my life! And at the toe of the Mer de Glace, I stood in amazement watching several hundred ski tourers put their skis back on for the long ski road back to Chamonix. Despite the entire ski run being completely out of bounds, it was a highway of skiers. The next day on Les Grands Montet, a smaller less popular version of the Mer du glace, I watched as grandparents and kids alike skied right down the middle of a crevasse, of course on a well-packed ski trail. A rescue is only minutes away (cell coverage everywhere) and if you are already wearing a harness, the vast majority of rescues are little more than a lift out of a hole. Barring a broken bone, it is really a non-event.
Over the next few days, my trip continued on to Les Arc and Les Deux Alpes. Unlike Zermatt and Chamonix, these are ski areas developed primarily for skiing. Here the runs are more defined and the areas are designed to filter skiers all back down to a base area, but still there is far more broken terrain and much dependence on the main super lifts, trams and gondolas spanning distances over 7 km at times! I met the operators of such super lifts, one of whom has been operating the same lift for over 22 years and is a highly valued technician. I ate incredible food served by the most professional waiters one can imagine, and tipped them accordingly. There is no way around it. For the French and Swiss, skiing and mountain tourism is not a seasonal occupation for ski bums and young globe trotters. It is an industry, one that accounts for 10 percent of the GDP of France. There are no “lifties,” only well-paid highly skilled technicians. On-slope real estate is highly regulated and “cold beds” or “absentee landlords” are treated as a problem and minimized. There is no underclass of operating staff working for just enough money to pay rent and party. For sure there are parties, but there are many more families and multi-generation staff running operations they strive to make the best in the world. After all, as one of my hosts explained, “We are competing with Austria, Italy, Switzerland as well as with hills in Eastern Europe. The only way we can ensure repeat visits is by making sure our guests get exactly what they want.” This explains why despite being technically in competition with each other, all French resorts subscribe to national planning programs and seek to specialize in what they are best at, while letting other French resorts specialize in their own advantage. The result is impressive for sure. I highly recommend anybody who enjoys skiing or even just mountain sightseeing to visit the French Alps. Chamonix is certainly an experience of its own, and unlike Zermatt, the prices will not dull your appreciation of the mind-blowing setting.
It would be impossible to write of my entire trip in less than 20 pages, but what I can sense is that those who experience the French Alps are rarely disappointed. Even if the snow or weather is not the best when you visit, you will be distracted by no shortage of art, history, food, wine, service and sights. Zermatt was equally impressive, but the prices were nearly double those in France. Despite this price difference, French resorts are rarely posting losses, and the infrastructure is certainly not sub-par. It is pretty hard to complain about a one-way ticket on a mega tram which carries you from 1000m to 3500m elevation for the price of only 22 euro! Especially when it takes you all day just to do one run. The French are certainly doing something right. I for one will most certainly be a repeat visitor.
By Joe Nusse