"I'm totally in love with Whistler. The snow, the forests, the people - I love it all! The soul of this place really speaks to me. I just can't get enough of it..."
- Chamoniarde Sam Bernos
The first time I saw her ski I thought she was a boy.
It was April of 2008. We were high above France's Trois Vallées - scoping out a new venue for the upcoming North Face Ski Challenge (Europe's top junior freeride event) - when I caught sight of a young athlete picking his way through a rocky, nasty stretch of Val Thorens real estate. And he was doing it with verve, flowing from turn to turn with grace and power. No wasted motions. No self-aggrandizing theatrics. Just solid self-assured skiing. He made the difficult mountain terrain look ridiculously easy.
I was impressed. "So who's the kid over there," I asked Chamonix coach Greg Liscot. He beamed with the pride of a new parent. "She's my top girl," said the usually gruff-voiced freeride vet. My face must have betrayed my surprise. You mean...? He just laughed. "Quite the skier, eh? And she's just 18! Her name is Sam Bernos and I think she's gonna make some waves on the pro circuit..."
Imagine my surprise then when I received a Facebook message from Sam this past fall. "Salut Michel," she wrote. "You won't believe where I'm gonna be skiing this winter. I'm coming to Whistler! I'm so excited, I can hardly stand it. Can't wait to make some turns with you."
Intriguing message. Would the young Chamoniarde like Whistler? Would it live up to her expectations? And how would it affect her views of Canada? Of skiing? Of life? By mid-February, I figured she'd been in Sea-to-Sky country long enough to know. Would she be willing to do a little story with me on her Whistler experience now?
"Bien sur, Michel," she said in her lilting Savoyard accent. "I'd love to. Let's get together and chat." So that's what we did.
Like Whistler, Chamonix is considered something of a cultural hub for global Snoweaters. But while hordes of riders from various countries call La Vallée du Mont Blanc home, few have had the good fortune to be born there. And even fewer have had the kind of insider's access that Sam Bernos grew up with.
"My dad's a mountain guide and ski instructor," says Whistler's newest Gallic 'gap-year' visitor. "My mum is general manager at the Hotel Albert 1er." She chuckles at my stunned expression. The hotel - and its celebrated Michelin-starred restaurant - is one of the most respected in the region. As for being an accredited alpine guide in Chamonix - need I say more? "Yeah," she agrees. "I guess you can say I had a privileged upbringing - at least as far as the mountains go."