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The longest “permanent” course on the continent, the start of the Val Thorens track is at a lung-churning 10,000 feet of altitude. But the view of the Tarentaise Mountains that surround it — particularly the Peclet Peak that looms above the course — is stunningly beautiful.
Unfortunately for me, I’d just arrived in the Alps the night before, and had virtually no time to acclimatize — or even familiarize myself with the course. I was supposed to get two runs in, but of course I misunderstood when the start time was, overslept and arrived at the event tent mid-way through the race.
“If you really push it,” said Baralo, drawing a big sigh at my tardiness, “you can make it for the second run. But you can’t dilly-dally. You’ve got to pick up your sled and helmet, sign the release form and zoom up to the start zone pronto.”
Helmet? Once again, I started to doubt the wisdom of my decision. But it wasn’t too late. I could just sit back, have a glass of Savoyard wine and watch the second run. Couldn’t I? “But why would you ever want to do that?” asked Baralo. “You’re going to have a great time. The sun is shining, the track is fast and everyone here is expecting you to race. You keep talking about mountain culture. Well, this is a true celebration of mountain culture, Tarantaise-style. How could you not participate?”
Oh well, as they say, when in France…
Minutes later I found myself sitting in my very own little red sled, sliding down the hill at way too fast a pace, totally out of control, and wondering how the hell I’d gotten myself into this. And I hadn’t even gotten on the lift yet.
“This thing is a lot harder to control than it looks,” I thought to myself as I tried to correct my over-steering and suddenly discovered how easy it was to go backwards. “Damn,” I thought, “I can’t even make this thing go straight on the flats. What’s going to happen on the course?”
As I fought my way through the Sunday crowds and into the Val Thorens Funitel — a kind of super-charged gondola that only the French could love — I also realized just how funny I must look to conventional skiers. Here was this middle-aged, silver-haired guy carrying a little red sled and wearing a too-big helmet that kept dropping over his eyes. Decidedly, this day was shaping up to be quite an adventure.