VIEW TO THE WEST
Banking Toward the Valley
by Peter Shelton
07.28.11 - 10:21 am
I don’t know why, but the Tour de France makes me fantasize about skiing.

It doesn’t make sense. As I write, Cadel Evans is no doubt sitting up in the saddle sipping champagne as he wafts down the Champs-Élysées, the nominative winner. The Tour is coming to its ceremonial close in Paris, the overall finish order having been determined at yesterday’s time trial in which Australian Evans surpassed his rival from Luxemburg, Andy Schleck, and claimed the yellow jersey.

Maybe what triggers my skiing jones are the scenes from the Alps in the days leading up to the time trial. The last two mountain stages traversed some big passes, particularly the Col du Galibier, which, at 8,678 feet was the highest finish in Tour history. It sits just east of the iconic ski area at La Grave.

The next day’s run crossed the Galibier again, then finished with the most-feared 21 switchbacks up to the Alpe-d’Huez ski area. There was hardly any snow in the pictures. These are not the highest Alps, and the glaciers are not what they used to be.

Maybe it was the French mountain roads themselves that got me thinking skiing. My experience is not exhaustive, but I have traveled in France, in Italy, and Switzerland. And their mountain roads are beautiful. They’re narrower than ours (their cars are smaller, too), and twistier, but exquisitely engineered and maintained. You don’t see a lot of cut-and-fill, perhaps because the modern road follows an ancient track. The cut banks you do see are often supported by intricate stonework. The sharpest corners have polished stainless steel mirrors to let you know if someone is coming. If the roads cross avalanche paths, there can be kilometers of snowsheds, equally artful to look at and drive through. If this is the curse of socialism, I say, bring it on.

No, it’s not the roads but the places they go that gets my skiing juices flowing. Seeing the Tour makes me think of Les Arcs, at the end of a very windy road up from Bourg Saint Maurice. I skied there the first time as part of Le Raid Blanc, a 10-day mountaineering race in the mid-1980s. On that trip we skied too fast. But a second visit culminated with one of the great descents in the Alps: from the summit of the Aiguille Rouge, the Red Needle, at 10,584 feet, down 7,000 vertical feet of untracked powder to the micro-village of Le Pré, where we had lunch in a whitewashed stone farmhouse. For dessert they served us cheese they had made themselves, from cows that grazed the route we had just skied.

Another mountain road leads to Val d’Isere, at the headwaters of the Isere River. Jean-Claude Killy grew up there. It’s at the end of the road, too (in summer it continues into Italy). The village is a mishmash, not as pristine as the Swiss chalet perfection of Zermatt, for example, but charming nonetheless with its 17th century church and old town center. And the skiing! You could ski there the rest of your life and not see it all.

I followed a stranger one day at Val, in the spring. It was afternoon. We were out on the Grand Vallon, alone. The face is utterly treeless, a pure-white sea of rolls and waves and gullies leading – where? I had no idea. But something told me to keep following.

We glided off-piste, out of sight of the last lifts. My unwitting guide was an older guy, with old equipment and a classic “banking toward the valley” technique. He’d plant his pole as if opening a door and then ski through it. He knew exactly where the best corn snow was, the subtle aspect of the slope relative to the afternoon sun. His route choices led invariably to snow the French refer to as “velour.”

Down we went into lengthening shadows. I lost him in the satellite village of Le Fornet, where the skiing ended. I like to think he lived there and vanished up a narrow street. Luckily for me, there was a bus, the last one of the day, it turned out, to take me back to Val d’Isere.

The fantasizing carries over into my July bike rides. The other morning coasting down a straight shot on Buckhorn Road, I couldn’t resist slaloming the dashed centerline, bike tires filling in nicely for ski edges, my shadow out in front like an angulated skier.

A guy on a four-wheeler roared up in the other lane, and I had to move to my side. He gave me the one-finger wave and had a look in his eye, I think, that said he understood.
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