Exploring the Alpine wilderness from Méribel, France
“So you got the moves but have you got the touch?” Shania Twain
My ears tighten and my hearing fades as our transit bus winds its way up the mountain. It feels like bubbles expanding in my ears which fail to pop. I realise we are now as high as an aeroplane. The diesel engine groans round a hairpin bend and I can’t see the road beneath us, just the sheer drop. I wonder how close we are to rolling off the edge. I can see hundreds of metres down the valley, full of snow-tipped evergreen trees.
It starts to snow…
We are even higher now and snowflakes the size of bumblebees splat hard against the windscreen. The manic wipers barely keep the road visible. We pull into Méribel at around 1400m. Everyone is glad. The main street is lined with après ski options: happy hour cocktails from 6pm – they want you drinking the moment you’re off the slopes, fondue cheese nights – a local stodgy delicacy. A large PA speaker system pumps thumping tunes into the local square – dancing in skiwear is encouraged. But this is not my stop. I am to head even higher to Méribel -Mottaret.
Mottaret is much quieter, the air is a little colder and there are only three or four restaurants. Two friends Oliver and Gez expect me in our apartment block. We’ve known each other for years in film making. Both are tall and athletic, in their 30’s and have just had a magical day off-piste in the sunshine. Their faces glow. They are both passionate seekers of deep powder snow, a vastly different experience to the snowploughed piste. Off piste snow can be so soft and deep that your skis vanish. It requires a very different technique and wider skis. Oliver and Gez are both former ‘seasonaires’, – they have stayed entire ski seasons to work seriously on their technique. They are experienced at negotiating challenging surfaces. I haven’t skied for nearly ten years and have rarely skied off-piste.
My friends are curious to see what my skiing is like. I think they are worried I might slow them down.
My very first memory of skiing is in the Italian Alps as a small child. I wasn’t even three. My parents gave me cute little yellow skis but only one ski stick. My father snapped a piece off a dead branch, making it the same length as my ski stick and handed it to me proudly. I remember crying when I fell over and the freezing snow collected in my sleeves, biting into my wrists. I still hate snow up my sleeves. From age 8 I took ski lessons most years up until I was about 14, when I boldly decided knew enough.
The secret to faster skiing
Gez, judges my skiing to be ‘better than intermediate’. I can cope off piste but am clearly out of my comfort zone. However, even on piste my technique is ‘out of date’. I’m such a dinosaur that skis are now made differently from when I started. Gez teaches me a lot over the next three days. On a fairly steep and bumpy piste he teaches me to lengthen my turns by ‘compressing’ the skis for longer into each turn. He says this is the ‘secret’ to maintaining control at higher speeds. As well as controlling direction, a major purpose of each turn is to control your speed. What I have always found tricky is my urge to sit back too much. When a slope is scarily steep, part of me cowers from it. I sit back to slow down and avoid falling. But placing too much weight behind my heels has the unintended consequence of putting me less in control. Eventually I lose my agility and have to stop. The ‘secret’ Gez shares is that I can keep my weight forward (maintaining control) and simultaneously break for longer with the back ends of my skis. I have the best of both worlds when I find the sweet spot that enables me to hard break while keeping my weight forward.
In the mid 1990’s a new design of ski emerged: straight ski edges that curve inwards. This makes it easier to turn because as you lean into your ski edges, the curve turns you. This makes turns faster and enabled early adopters to win races. I still skied the old way of placing most of my weight on one ski during a turn. This makes it easy to look good with your skis close together but causes more skidding. Gez teaches me to use the curve of the ski by having me do it one ski at a time. I get the feel of how hard to press on my inner edges and at what angle to lean. This technique is for skiing on the piste. Now I place weight on both skis and I have more control round a bend.
It’s late afternoon, the sun is out and the horizontal light traces every tiny contour of the piste with its unique tiny shadow. The texture is rich: it’s like I can feel the snow before I run over it. The long flat piste stretches for miles back down to Mottaret. Much of the way ahead is wide open with white fields. Some are narrower roads. On most of it I can practice my carving. It’s perfect conditions for high speed carving
I calibrate how far I place my weight forward, how deep an angle I lean to the left, then right. I feel the curve of the skis as I push into both edges and wait for them to do the turning for me. Now I’ve picked up quite some speed and my extra momentum makes it even easier to push my weight into the curved edges. With very little effort I can place my weight into the apex of my ski edges. It’s exhilarating to feel the g-force of the turn, like cornering a sports car. My skis are slicing their own rails. I still skid when I need to brake hard, but needn’t do that so much.
It’s been snowing hard all night so we get up early. Oliver says it’s ‘sacrilege’ to not catch the first lift on a powder day. Powder snow is what off-piste skiers crave. It is the fluffy free flowing stuff that that moves like some kind of liquid once you pick up speed. Travelling over it at speed reminds me of water skiing, the bumps of soft stuff hit you hard. But this is snow, a different kind of water.
Gez, who knows where to go off piste, recommends we try Mont Vallon, one of the highest peaks above Méribel at 2952m. This requires particular knowledge of the mountain. Skiers die every year from getting too ambitious off-piste. The conditions can change from soft powder to slippery ice within a day. Avalanches are common but we choose routes where they are unlikely. We often hear loud echoing cracks bounce between the mountains. This is the sound of avalanche control, inducing small avalanches on purpose before too much snow collects.
It takes over half an hour of lifts to reach the top of Mont Vallon. As we near the top of the final ‘bubble-lift’ my ears pop. We peer through the dark tinted windows at the endless mountains around us, peaks in all directions. Eventually the safety door of our capsule opens and I walk out in my clunky boots, restricting me like two plaster casts from the knee down. If I lean forward enough onto my toes, I can walk fine. Even the piste has deeper snow now. It squeeks like fluffy talcum power, and I wonder how water can be so dry. On each step I kick my toes deeper to make the rodent-like squeak sound louder, each step pleases me like I’m popping bubble wrap.
My soles are caked with compressed snow and I can’t get my skis back on until I remove it. We pole push ourselves past a bright yellow ‘X’ sign designed to deter most skiers from continuing. ‘Danger of Avalanches – Ski at your own risk’. I never ignored such a sign before but I know I’m in good hands. Gez has worked as a ski guide here and has checked the daily avalanche risk rating.
Just a few metres after the sign we reach the edge of a steep, largely untouched slope, and the beauty hits me. A deep panorama of fifty or more peaks lie beneath us as we stand on top of the world. Bathed in a stunning cobalt blue ski, I am unaccustomed to standing such a horizon. There is barely a breath of wind, just a kind sun cooled by the gigantic space of mountain air.
Gez studies the path ahead and points out a route that traverses hard to the left – we want to keep our altitude while we select the nicest snow. We’re off. After 50metres of traversing, Gez veers hard right, down the mountain and we follow. Some drifts between protruding rocks are very steep but Gez’s is unphased. He oozes perfect symmetrical curves, left, right, left and his speed is fast yet controlled. I am reticent and tentative but I’m smiling at the snow. There is something about its free-flowing texture that is so satisfying to cut through. Like running your finger through condensation on a misted window pane, a blank canvass records your mark perfectly yet impermanently. But even better, I’m deep in nature – I feel the texture of the snow through my whole body, and every movement I make is an exact response to its consistency and inclination.
We are much further down and my momentum carries my weight up a large hillock. I slow up as I cautiously follow Gez’s tracks . From 50 metres away I hear the urgent chorus of both Gez and Oliver. “Stop!!! Go left. Go left!!!! Henry go left!” The vastness of the empty space around us makes all sound seem feeble, engulfed by the vast emptiness. Although the noise is so clear when clothed in quietness. I can’t see over the summit and here, looking before I leap could be the difference between life and death.
I course down to the left side where I can see what lies ahead. My feel for my weight placement off-piste is improving. I can’t move my skis much individually (they are often submerged in the snow) so it is even more about holding my weight in response to both the incline of the slope I and the stickiness of the snow. Also, similar to what I do on-piste, I can lift my body weight up and down between turns, so that my upward momentum lifts my skis a little out of the snow at the moment of each turn.
‘Committing to your lines’
Gez, reminds me I ‘have to commit!’. Skiing steeper scarier slopes is a good metaphor for ‘committing’ to any action in life: there are moments when we are faced with the choice of doing or not doing, and anything in-between is futile. If you do not whole-heartedly commit your body weight to that steep slope, if you try to tentatively give it just a little of your weight, you are less in control, not more. Your intention to keep more control through caution amounts to less control in practice. On the mountain I visualise my non-committal skiing like hiding in the back of a fighter-jet with no-one in the cockpit. To seize control of my metaphorical vehicle I have to climb hard against the g-forces up to the front of the aircraft, confront the enemy fire and climb into the pilots chair, exposed. Only from there can I take control and choose the course I desire.
The steepest slope is only vertical
The next day the weather is less clear so we decide to hit the snow park, a man made construction of jumps and other contraptions for performing stunts. I already have some experience of jumps: once airborne, there is little you can do to change your orientation. You therefore have to choose how to place your weight in relation to the landing slope before you take off. This principle became even clearer to me when I entered the half-pipe, which is like skiing inside a giant pipe that had the top half removed. It’s about 80metres long, ten metres across and carved out of the mountain with a giant metal crescent-shaped machine. The ‘slope’ left and right of the ‘pipe’ is completely vertical by the time you near the top edge. The length of the pipe also runs down the slope like a piste. As you reach the vertical part of the ‘pipe’s’ face you will jump vertically if you have enough speed, before re-entering the pipe. You need to turn a full 180degrees or gravity will drag you backwards or sideways down that vertical ice-face. This is great training for leaning to the correct degree into the steepest slope, whilst taking the sharpest turn.
Gez enters the park via a vertical drop of about 10’ with a curve at the bottom that looks close to a right angle. There is an easier route to the entrance of the half-pipe but Gez is egging me on to take the 10’ drop. Gez just rode it like it was any slope, his skis vertical for a split second. To me it looks like a vertical drop. I’m not sure how my skis will be find their way back to horizontal!
I try to ‘commit’ my weight to the vertical ‘slope’ and fail. I fear my weight placement is too far forward. I try to turn too early to avoid the horizontal that I fall towards and I crash to my side in a mess. I’m not hurt just a little shaken.
The scary thing about the half pipe is that it sends me faster and faster after each turn. It is designed to launch you higher and higher, where you might perform spins. I’m not at all ready for that so steer away once fast enough to go airborne. I am satisfied with practicing the sharpest turns on the steepest slope there is. I’m no longer scared of vertical drops down the mountain side, as long as they curve out at the bottom and are not a lot larger than the half pipe. I have learnt that committing my weight into the drop enables me to steer my way out of it. I am surfing the wave rather than fighting it. The drop that Gez and Oliver begged me to avoid no longer looks challenging. It was less of a drop then the half-pipe. The snow was much softer there too – I wouldn’t have hurt myself had I fallen. Gez was probably more worried about having to fish me out of a trough and the time this might steal. It can take half an hour to regroup your equipment and crawl up the hill in deep snow.
Beyond the half-pipe lie six large jumps, each higher than the previous. Each has a tailor made ‘landing slope’ to make 1) the landing softer, and 2) your jump longer (if you reach it). It takes some courage and practice to become airborne at the right speed. Too fast or too slow and you will miss the landing slope. Too slow is definitely more appealing than too fast so I take some extra turns on my approach. On the first three jumps I reach the landing slope. On the larger set of jumps I am even more cautious. A twelve year old does a back-flip over the jump just before me and I feel inadequate. I don’t quite make the landing slope on the first and I have my weight too far back as I land. The shock of the thud propagates up through my legs to my lower back and I feel a tight band of pain above my coccyx. No more jumps for me today.
The next day I discover it hurts too much to let my weight sit too far back. Perhaps I shouldn’t ski at all but I do. Then I realise it doesn’t really hurt if I hold my weight forward enough. The shocks of the undulating terrain are absorbed in my knees instead of my lower back. ‘Perfect’ my inner psychologist muses. This is like ‘operant conditioning’ in behavioural psychology: a negative or positive consequence to a behaviour can reinforce or discourage a behaviour. If pain won’t force me to keep the right posture, what will? Three days later, my pain has gone but my improved posture remains. It should also prevent further injury. I return to the snow park and reach all six landing slopes, though I am still uneasy with the weightlessness and that I can’t see where I am heading at take off: the ‘take off’ slopes seem nearly vertical too, pointing you into the empty blue sky.
Gez leaves the mountains for work. Oliver and I stay four more days and are still chasing the powder. We head over to one of the highest peaks at the other side of the three valleys: Cime de Carron at 3200m. It’s so high our ears are popping again and we follow skiing strangers sneaking under a bright orange net fence, the kind used for warnings. Many skiers are taking this route so we assume it’s not too dangerous. They quickly vanish out of sight, we don’t know where to go but cautiously follow their tracks. Around the cliff edge a huge open valley unfolds before us. At its far end we spot untouched snow waiting for our lines. We traverse hard right for quite some distance. The crisp cutting of my blades keep me high along our bumpy rocky ice-white path. We must keep altitude if we are to enjoy the virgin snow. Three minutes later we arrive and it is fluffy and delicious. We are so high up that the snow hasn’t melted at all even though it fell two days ago and we are well into April. After lounging for a few moments just the two of us in the echo-y peace, our bodies cushioned by the softest memory foam snow, we stand up and commit.
Weight placement (Dancing)
I hadn’t skied for ten years but I had danced a lot during that time. My sense of weight placement was better than on any previous ski trip. Both skiing and dancing require a great sense of balance. To lean just one centimetre too far in a chosen direction can make the difference between elegance and falling on your face. It’s likely my dance-developed felt-sense of weight placement helped me improve my skiing more quickly. One dance instructor had us brush our teeth every morning standing on the ball of one foot – just to improve this balance sense.
On this trip I expanded my repertoire of ski modes. I hadn’t previously realised how much the skiing conditions varied and how fundamental reading the snow this was to skiing. It reminded me of switching between different languages, or registers of a language depending on the context. My skiing repertoire became richer and broader: Off-piste fresh powder, off-piste half melted powder (sticky and changes your degree of leaning), Off piste refrozen powder (requires aggressive turns to smash through the thin ice layer, beneath in which you find traction), High speed carving on flat piste (almost even weight on skis), bumpier piste carving (70% weight outside ski), Large moguls (jump over them and plot route using flatter turning spots). On a single descent I might switch between all of these. Getting a feel for each, I could then practice switching more seamlessly between them.
Technique versus context sensitivity (Behavioural psychology)
Learning a technique is one thing, using it appropriately is entirely another. In Behaviour therapies we love to point out the perils of rigid behaviours that are unresponsive to changes in context. Something that works well in one context might be disastrous in another. For example on-piste skiing technique will cripple your enjoyment and speed if applied off-piste. After six days in Méribel I had a feel for different skiing conditions and techniques. The next three days there I needed to practice juggling them, sensing the snow visually and kinaesthetically, moment to moment.
When attempting a particular type of turn I was prone to attempting it in isolation to the next turn. The following turn wouldn’t transport me as smoothly as the previous. A multi-skill set needs to be integrated. With practice I learnt to integrate the balancing of the current turn with the positioning of the following turn. The next turn was partially present in the preceding turn because the first turn affected the execution of the second turn. Until that moment I had the moves but I didn’t have the touch. And in my head Shania Twain sang “That don’t impress me much!”
Once you’ve ‘got the moves’ remember to develop ‘the touch’. It’s easy to overlook because it’s almost invisible. Hopefully with enough practice you will feel it, even when you can’t see it.