Opinion » Alta States

Of Mountains And Men – Random Thoughts For A New Year



'Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.'

- William Shakespeare

It still amazes me, you know, how the very same conditions can mean ecstasy to one person and tragedy to another. Last month's epic snowfall in Europe's Southern Alps brought that home to me yet again. Literally.

And it kind of freaked me out. You see, while I was following the powder-riding antics of my good friend Dédé Maszewski at France's Les 7 Laux (amazing what GoPro cameras and the Internet have wrought), another friend and colleague, hutmaster/guide Lionel Blanc, was at home in Courchevel, skinning his way to...

But no. That's not the way to tell this story. Let's start at the beginning.

December offered slim pickings in the Alps this year. Even slimmer than usual. The cover was minimal — even in the high country. There hadn't been a storm of any significance since November. Hmm, how can I put it? Let's just say there was a lot of dirt 'midst the modest white patches. And with Christmas coming, well, things didn't look good for the Euro snowsliding business.

And we're not talking Mickey Mouse stakes either. Consider: France's Tarentaise region — roughly analogous to our own Sea to Sky in terms of territory — boasts eight Whistler-sized resorts within its boundaries. Eight! And then there's Chamonix and the Mont Blanc region, Grenoble and the Oisan Valley resorts, the Chablais and Portes du Soleil and... the list goes on. Big numbers indeed. And big consequences if the snow doesn't come.

But then, it's always iffy over there at this time of the year. For whatever reason — population growth, global warming, industrial development (or a combination of all three) — the European Alps (both north and south) have been negatively impacted in recent decades... especially early in the season. Old-timers from the Aosta Valley to the Arlberg all agree: It just doesn't snow in the Alps like it used to. I don't think anybody expected that pattern to change this year.

And then WHAM! Out of the Atlantic came this monster storm system that dropped anywhere from a metre to two metres of snow on the Pyrenées Mountains and the Southern Alps during Christmas week. Game on! Winter was finally here. And from France to Switzerland, Spain to Italy the familiar battle cry was heard: POWDER!

Ah! But there's the rub. For all that new-fallen snow had nothing to adhere to. It was like dropping a bag of feathers on a carpet of marbles... one false move and the whole thing could slide. It was a powder Damocles' Sword.

But that didn't stop enthusiasts from taking to the slopes. Au contraire. Given the unprecedented boom in the sale of backcountry gear on the continent (the tired cliché that 'Europeans don't stray off-pistes' needs a serious revision), the long-suppressed hunger for fresh-snow turns among its youth, and the region's incredible network of mountain lifts, there were probably more powder amateurs exploring the Southern Alps' nooks and crannies last week than at any other time in snow-play history.

And no, I'm not exaggerating. As I've written many times in this space, the snowsports world is changing. And in some places, it's changing fast. Given fat skis and avalanche airbags (now ubiquitous in the Alps), Euro youth are now venturing into mountain places that their parents and grandparents would have never even dared to think of. And for the most part, they're getting away with it.

Besides, when it's good there it's really good. Hard to believe, I know, but when Ullr blesses the Alps with fresh pow, it makes Whistler Blackcomb look rather modest in comparison.... especially when it's struggling through a snow drought of its own. But I digress...

Dédé Maszewski is one of the most passionate mountain players I know. A former snowboard world champion — and now an avid freerider — the fortysomething father of two is also a gifted photographer and filmmaker. We struck up a friendship a few years back while working on a new ski-design project together.

Dédé, I soon discovered, thought I was the luckiest guy in the world to be living in B.C. "Ah," the Frenchman would sigh. "Wheestler... deep snow... powder every day. Your home is like a dream for me. One day, I will go there..."

Meanwhile, there he was, living in Aix-Les-Bains, in the very heart of Savoy, mere minutes from some of the most striking alpine country in the world. Dédé, I would counter, had nothing to complain about. "So what's the point of living by these beautiful mountains," he would retort, "if there's never any snow on them?"

Well, last week he got his snow. And the pictures and film sequences he posted online featured his mountain playground at its best. Sure, I could have been envious of his good fortune. But the images were so beautiful, the environment so spectacular, that I couldn't help but be happy for my friend and his snow-starved cohorts.

Picture it: bluebird day, feather-light snow — nearly waist-deep in spots — and a whole mountain domain to write powder poems on. Dédé and crew took full advantage of the conditions... And their ear-to-ear smiles said it all. It's not like they weren't careful. I'm sure Dédé and his buddies refrained from venturing into big-time exposure. Still... given what we now know about that snowpack, every off-piste run they did during that period was a snow-play version of Russian roulette.

You probably heard murmurs of the Alps' Christmas death toll. By New Year's Day it was twelve victims from ten different avalanches and still climbing. Wherever the storm had touched down, wherever skiers and snowboarders could access the goods, that's where the slides occurred. And they didn't discriminate. Male or female, expert or neophyte, it didn't matter. If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you didn't stand a chance...

Like my friend Dédé, Courchevel mountain guide Lionel Blanc was born and raised in the French Alps. A near-legendary character throughout the Trois Vallées (the Tarentaise mega resort that encompasses Meribel, Courchevel, Les Menuires and Val Thorens), Lionel was highly regarded for his level head and calm demeanour. No one knew the local high country better than he did. No one had a better feel for the local weather and/or the snow conditions.

I met Lionel a number of years ago while judging a big-mountain contest in neighbouring Les Arcs. He was a friend of a friend — and, he told me with a straight face, a big fan of Canadian skiers — and he invited me home to his refuge (the high-mountain chalet his family owned and managed above Courch) to sample the local fare. Like many of his ilk, Lionel was a man of few words. But when he spoke, you listened. I still remember how impressed I was by his maturity... he was barely 35.

But that was then. Last week, the 44-year old guide did the unthinkable. In the very heart of the storm cycle — at a time when the avalanche risk was at its highest — Lionel Blanc decided to ski-skin up to his refuge (along with his 11-year old son) to make sure, I suppose, that the chalet was weathering the tempest okay. He never made it.

On the last pitch of the climb, just below his home, the veteran guide triggered a massive slide that buried him under three meters of snow. Did he let his guard down? Was he a victim of his own hubris? Or was it just a freak occurrence. No one knows. His son, fortunately, was out of harm's way, and immediately set off for help. But the rescuers were too late. "We were able to revive Lionel momentarily," one of the pisteurs said, "but by the time we got him to Grenoble, he was dead."

The news of his passing sent shockwaves though the tight-knit Tarentaise mountain community. How could this happen? How could such an experienced mountaineer meet such a bad end? "He's not the first, you know," said one grizzled guide, "and he won't be the last. That's just the way of the mountains..."

From ecstasy to tragedy; from Les 7 Laux to Courchevel... Such a small distance to travel for such dramatically different outcomes. Makes my head spin just thinking about it.

And maybe that's the biggest lesson to extract from all of this: In the end, it really doesn't matter who you are or how much you know. Nature will always be bigger than humans. And please — take heed. There is a very unusual (and potentially dangerous) snowpack developing in our Coast Mountains this winter. Tread softly out there.