Sunday, May 1, 2011

b-log: a weekend in the Alps

For readers just joining us: no, I haven't switched hemispheres, I'm just in a blog backlog after a long winter hibernation and am only now posting about early 2011 happenings in the j'adork world.

In France, a ski vacation is considered a basic right (you know, on par with 35hr workweeks and retirement at 60). Taking off for a week to rent a wine and fondue-stocked chalet for you and your loved one (while dumping the kids in an all-day ski school program, or course) is such a widespread phenomenon that France has actually designated certain weeks for certain regions of France, to protect against over-crowding on the slopes (and presumably ensure that some French(wo)man, somewhere is still working). This year, my third winter in France, is the first time I've been able to participate in this honored French tradition.

Behold, the town of Praz-sur-Arly:
Haven't heard of it? That's probably because this. is. it. Seriously, this picture captures almost the entirety of the town, which is one of many nearly identical towns that have sprouted up at the bases of various mountains in the French Alps. (As a reference for ski enthusiasts, it's not far from Chamonix, the much flashier, pricier resort slope that once hosted the Winter Olympics.) One thing that sets, lil' Praz apart from nearby towns is that it hosts a yearly plasma physics "conference," or rather, a small esoteric gathering of scientists who discuss science from 8am-noon and 4pm-7pm, with a long midday break for skiing. (why oh why did I pick arts over sciences?) Tom was invited this year, so I took two days off and caught a midweek overnight train to join him. The spoils of my efforts were one night of free hotel and conference dinner, participation in what might have been the world's most awkwardly white scientist dance party in the hotel bar, and three days of skiing.

Here's Tom, ready to hit the slopes. He made up for his lack of proper snow bibs by strategically padding his butt with extra pairs of boxers to cushion his falls. My skis look like dwarf skis in the background (we actually had to call around to ski rental shops in advance to find the few that carried boots in his size. There was even a period where I was legitimately worried that we would have to rent in Paris and transport them there.)
I have been skiing before, but not since I was about 14, and even then not at length. In other words, I was confident I could remember the basic triangle 'snowplough' technique, but I expected to spend my first day or so on the bunny slopes. However, as soon as I had locked my boots in and had poles in hand, it all came tumbling back (well, not actually 'tumbling'. That was Tom. He put the 'ow' in snow.)

Since it was the first time in Tom's life that he had donned a pair of skis, he spent most of his time on the bunny slope, (which only really qualified as a 'slope' in the mathematical sense). Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks to being in real mountains like the Alps (compared to the 'mountains' I had experienced in the DC area) is that the jump from bunny slopes to the so-called 'intermediate' slope means a jump from this: ___ to this: \

In short, Tom was pretty much destined to remain a bunny (although on the bright side, he got away with only paying the reduced skipass rate for children). Here he is on the little between-the-legs rope tow known as "le baby-ski":
Meanwhile, I grabbed the grown-up chairlift to the top of several intermediate slope:

The view looked even more spectacular through my goofy, orange ski goggles:
Although my intermediate status introduced me to more interesting terrain than the baby-ski, there was no doubt in my mind that the Alps would have been a truly incredible experience had I only been a more skillful skiier. The runs I was doing were essentially the flatter end-sections of black and double black diamond runs, and the top of my chairlift connected to several others that pulled you up to less populated and more thrilling parts of the cliff--or even to other sides of the mountain entirely! Praz was merely one of many towns at the bottom of one of the many mountains in our particular cluster, and the networks of lifts allowed ambitious skiiers access to any of them. The only catch, as dozens of posted signs warned, was that you have to make sure you're back on your side of the mountain by nightfall, or risk a really long, lift-less trek home.

By the end of our third and final day, we had finally achieved success. Tom had made a single successful-if-slow run down the intermediate slope, while I, ten minutes before closing time, had finally mastered the technique of turning only by leaning (without resorting to the snowplough). I can't exactly explain how I made the transition between the two, but suddenly it clicked and I was rocketing down the empty mountain, going "woosh, woosh! " in my head. By the time I hit the moguls at the bottom I was screaming with happy exhilaration. I managed my momentum perfectly, making it back to the bottom of the lift line without even using my poles, only to be told that the lift was done for the day. Drat.

The lift operator looked me up and down as I began to turn away. "Wait--was that you that yelled just now?"

"Yes," I answered, a little sheepishly. She grinned, then waved me on.

"Well, all right," she conceded, "but this is the last time."

When I reached the top, the lift stopped with me. The old man operator grumbled something about the time as I slid down from the seat, but his voice was lost in the woosh of my skis through the snow.

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