With the assistance from postcard written on January 24, 1993.
Never…never saw anything like it: A ski day that would become unforgettable twenty years later. As we are during the Holidays, a time of the year where the slopes are the busiest.
This was my recollection of my second outing of the 1992-93 season, the first being at Chamrousse. Since that first day, we visited Lyon and took advantage to be in the beautiful city to get our Christmas shopping done prior to family get-together on Christmas. A gray Christmas Eve with rain, fog and unseasonably warm +12c; I was very far from my Canadian White Christmas that I was accustomed to in Montreal or the Laurentians. I was somewhat depressed by the constant humidity and fog of this place and probably one of the main reasons why living in France would be so difficult for myself.
The French resort of Alpe d’Huez was unknown to me and I imagine off the radar of most North American enthusiasts like myself. The place was grand and so much bigger than what I was accustomed to, but that wasn’t the reason why I remember this day so many years later; it was rather my introduction to the French Holiday Mountain Madness. Let just say that it was a day of multiple happenings. After 9 days away from the mountain and snow, we got to return to the bigger and higher Alpe d’Huez also located in the Department of l’Isère. Main village is located at 1860 metres with a top elevation of 3330 metres. The lowest elevation 1120m making the 2210 meters vertical drop. One major resort connecting with 4 smaller ones with 125 trails for 220km of skiing served by 82 lifts with a 90,000 people per hour capacity.
We left in the fog for another pre-dawn morning to drive to go skiing. The drive is only 160 km; a good part of distance on the 2-lane autoroute that connects Lyon to Grenoble. Do it on a Sunday between Christmas and New Year, and you’re going to get rushed by traffic driving way faster than the 130kmh speed limit. Over one million people live in Lyon and are within day trip range to reach the ski areas above Grenoble: Alpe d’Huez one of the two major resorts with Les Deux Alpes. My wife was driving the Peugeot 309 dodging from slow lane to fast lane back to slow as she was trying to move out-of-the-way of people driving probably over 160 kmh tailgating and flashing their headlights, then put the brakes as she changed into the slow lane where two-trailer trucks are limited to only 60kmh. Although the French get minimum 5-weeks vacation a year, my experience in France over the years tell me that many city folks are stressed. The drive was only the part of the impatience of the French version of the weekend warrior mentality.
Grenoble and the valley beyond were in the dark; it wasn’t going to get interesting until we left the main highway. At that point, it would become one of the most spectacular drive and the most stomach turning ski access road until I would go to Valle Nevado in Chile 15 years later in 2007. Although many North American skiers never heard of Alpe d’Huez, cycling fans have heard of this road. The road starts climbing once you leave the main highway below in the valley and unto 15km of zigzags in the mountain along side cliffs. The perfect road for car sickness. The worst part of it is that a number of cars passed us on the switchback road even if they couldn’t see ahead. We have to climb in altitude because snow rarely makes it down in the valleys. As we gained elevation, we were suddenly out of the darkness and cloud, and greeted with blue skies. This made for spectacular scenery. The ski resort is located at 5500 feet (almost as high as Mt. Washington). The mountain summit is over 10000 feet. During the drive up, you get to pass the beautiful mountain village of Huez, located at 4350 feet (1450m); however, even if the postcard scenery has a ton of snow, the reality is that there isn’t any snow: it hasn’t snowed since early December, that is why we had to find a ski resort in high altitude or with snowmaking like Alpe d’Huez.
Mountain : Anarchy & Chaos
Unlike Chamrousse, the bottom of Alpe d’Huez is above treeline and there are lifts everythere on the lower mountain. We parked next to a road that connects different parts of the resort a few feet from the snow and the flat slope. The bottom third of the mountain was pretty flat and served mainly green skiers (beginners); the driver and myself felt a bit green ourselves, but it was mostly from the drive, maybe a bit from the altitude and the long past breakfast a few hours away. It was already pretty late, and we were in a rush to get our lift pass.
The queue or lineups are often non-existent in France; buying a lift ticket was total anarchy and chaos. There was no queue, just a semi-circle of masses squeezed against each other up to the ticket counters. It was almost as bad as the pushing and shoving I’ve experienced for concert tickets or attending general admission shows at certain rock concerts.
Once we finally got our tickets, we skied a few runs, then headed straight to the top elevation of the ski area: Pic Blanc at 3330 meters. We took two large gondolas, which got us to 2700m then hopped on the Pic Blanc Aerial Tram for the last leg to the summit. No pylons, just a base and summit stations separated by almost 700 meters and spanning 2km. As it was for the ticket window, we were crushed in a tram with over 90 people. We managed to squeeze in as the door closed and started our final climb. The slope of ascent is pretty steep at the end and height was really impressive, not good if you are afraid of heights. At this point, my girlfriend passed out and had to catch her as she slumped, her skis falling against someone’s face; the person seemed pissed off, not realizing what had happened. I was struggling to keep her from falling, and making sure our skis didn’t crash onto someone else, hoping we arrived real soon. As the tram arrived and people walked out, Caroline had regained consciousness. We seeked for help with the Ski Patrol; after a few minutes, it was determined that we needed to eat and drink water, and spend time at a lower elevation. Caroline’s hometown village has an altitude of 190 meters, so it was an over 3km altitude gain that morning. It was also decided that it would be better not to take the black run called Le Tunnel down: we were going to use the Tram back down. On the other side of the summit, there is, or at least in 1992-93, summer skiing. The skiing starts on the other side and they is a tunnel through the mountain to cross towards the resort side.
The closest restaurant off the base of the Tram was at Le Plat des Marmottes at 2300m. We needed to ski down a blue run called Le Couloir where at one point it became le Boulevard des Marmottes, mainly a traverse across the slope with a few small cliffs on the uphill side. All of sudden, I heard a crash behind me and saw that a skier had suddenly tumbled down a small cliff. I turned around, and rushed to see if he was okay. After a few minutes, I headed back towards our restaurant. That running and the altitude had made me woozy also. There was a nice restaurant with lawn chairs on the snow; however you needed to pay or buy something to be allowed to use them: a foreign concept at the time. I can’t remember if we had a lunch or we bought some food to eat? I just know that I had a sore stomach with bad cramps and needed to go to the W.C. like they say in France. I can’t remember either if you had to pay to use the toilet, but what shock when I opened the stall door: there was no toilet to sit on. WTF? It was what they call a Turkish Toilet (known as Squat Toilet). Now imagine my discomfort when you have ski pants and ski boots and you really need to go.
Image of a Turkish Toilet (Wikipedia)
Minutes later, I came back to finally manage to eat some food. It was possibly past noon before we started really skiing, when we weren’t waiting in line. We skied down, but wanted to stay above the chaos of the lower slopes, so we headed towards to bottom of the Lievre Blanc double chair at 2100m. The liftline was another example of frustration as people didn’t leave anyone any elbow room, constantly stepping on your skis and your tips; I really can’t stand when that happens. Almost felt like doing as hockey players do, and dropping my gloves. Merry Christmas to you to…get the F*@! off my skis!!! You couldn’t move, and everyone tried to move ahead of you, regardless if you were there before or not. A few people couldn’t take it anymore and removed their skis, I did the same… but some of them actually had the gall to actually walk ahead of the line. At the end of the day, everyone in line had removed their skis then re-putting them just before getting on the chairlift. The person in charge sat in his cabin; no liftee to hand over the chair. The only thing he did was looking if people had passes or stopping the lift. A number of chairs were going up empty as people weren’t all expert in stepping in their bindings; the efficiency of the experience was mind-boggling. We did just a few 450m runs on the chair, skiing mostly artificial snow towards the bottom of the serviced trails. Gondolas and Tram had huge lineup, like a farm animal being coraled into a meat processing plant.
Peace and Steep
We did find some peace, skiing great short and steep runs above the Lièvre Blanc lift. There was the tiny Clocher du Macle double chairlift reaching up to 2780m and under the summit ridge. There was two short 250m runs serviced by that lift and a long secluded descente in La Combe Chardonnière down towards to bottom of the resort. The snow was firm edgeable snow and was great to ski on, similar to skiing on chalk and the stuff I’ve skied at Mammoth of Chair 23 in mid-June 2005. Even if they were short runs, the runs on Balcons were definitely the most memorable skiing souvenir from Alpe d’Huez that I have twenty years later. It was probably one of the steepest runs I had ever skied at a ski resort at that time. I remember having to give pointers to Caroline as she was intimidated by the slope.
That lift no longer exists and the quietness of the place has probably changed. The location has been serviced since 2000 by first, a two-stage 6-person gondola (Mamottes 1 and Marmottes 2), the last stage connecting Plate des Marmottes with Clocher de Macle at 2800m. In 2004, there would be a third stage: a 33 place Funitel Gondola (Marmottes 3) connected Clocher with the Glacier above the ridge at 3060 meters.
As the day ended, the last long run of the day was another memorable one. A long winding descente with steep terrain with gullies. We had a few slow skiers struggling in a steep section ahead of us and the patrol closing the trail behind us wanting us to move. The trail mellowed at the end; snow wasn’t as good as we approached the zoo. Not sure which trails we took as it was so long ago; it was probably The Balme red trail which was a nice 4km descente away starting off at Le Plat des Marmottes, but not impossible that it was the even more secluded and longer La Combe Chardonnière. I remember wanting to do it, but don’t think we made it.
What a day, I was somewhat disappointed we didn’t get to ski the top off Pic Blanc and Le Tunnel, but it turned out not so bad after a bad start. I would probably return someday before leaving France at the end of January. We were about to leave for a few days and New Year as we were invited by a university ski team friend that happens to be from Paris.
Lessons of the day:
– eat a good breakfast,
– try to acclimatize yourself to the altitude
– drink plenty of water
– and avoid Alpe d’Huez during the Holidays
Note: that was my observation twenty years ago, the first three-point still definitely apply, not so sure on the fourth one.
Details info on current lifts from the remontees mécaniques website : www.remontees-mecaniques.net
27 décembre 1992 : Alpe d’Huez