Michael Barry takes a strong dose of après-ski before becoming a true skier
“Give me your skis, there,” George said. He took my pair and mixed them with his own longer skis so that now there were two pairs of mismatching skis before placing them on the rack along with the hundreds of others outside the “Arpette” bar/restaurant. “That way,” he continued, “when someone comes out the worse for wear at the end of the night, they’re less likely to take a pair of skis that don’t match.”
This is the kind of invaluable tip that you don’t tend to get in any travel brochure. We had just arrived at a mountainside hostelry known as “L’Arpette“. Sitting peacefully on a large level area overlooking a dramatic white valley below and with views of Mont Blanc in the distance, it’s one of the principal stopover points on the 425 kilometres of maintained pistes in the Paradiski resort.
As the names suggests, the super resort is a joint skiing paradise made up of four resorts that are linked by cable car and gondola. The well-known resort of Les Arcs with its three purpose-built villages (Arc 1650, Arc 1800 and Arc 2000) joined up with nearby Peisey-Vallandry a few years ago to complete the Alpine picture. Situated to the south of the aforementioned Mont Blanc, the resort is a short taxi-ride from Bourg St Maurice (which has a TGV train station) and about three hours by coach from Geneva Airport.
Before entering the restaurant, we took one last look at the stupendous views across the darkening valley and the last slanting rays of the setting sun. Once inside, there was warmth and noise. The unexpected sight of a large dance-floor greeted us, full with twenty-somethings getting down to the Euro-beat in their stripped-down skiing gear. A “thump-thump-thump” rhythm reverberated as we made our way to the dining area.
A large group of students from Manchester were propping up the slightly raucous atmosphere, the landlady told us, clearly glad of the business. The dining room was laid out in long wooden tables. In the centre of the room, a large circular fireplace provided a focal point and the whole huge place was wood-lined and suitably alpine in character. We were four altogether – George and I plus another two journalists from the UK (Hannah and Rob) and sat down soberly at the end of a long table and comfortably close the fire.
We were joined by a group of six French people in their late twenties – work colleagues who had organised a get-together for the winter holidays. They were a male-female mixture that all appeared to be friends but not in couples.
Everyone present, I assumed, was able to ski after some fashion. I was a complete novice to the sport. It was Wednesday evening and I had begun to ski for the very first time on the previous Sunday morning. To get to the restaurant in which we were sitting, we had taken two different ski lifts followed by a moderately difficult short ski down to our destination. I’d had to get some help from the others on the way.
When you’re learning to ski for the first time (and particular when you’re a novice at the age of 41), your nerves prevent you from really letting go as someone in their early twenties might do. I was sitting at the table knocking down my vin chaud in a nervous manner because I knew that the only way to leave this establishment was to ski down the mountain to the village (Arc 1800). The previous day, on the way up the mountain in a ski lift, I had pointed out the restaurant to my instructor and said to him that I was scheduled to go there the next evening and ski back to the village. Would I be able to do it, being so new to skiing and given that my efforts so far were a little on the little-old-lady side of physical bravado?
“Oh yes,” replied our appropriately-named instructor Bernard Blanc.
“But the night will surely involve some drinking,” I said. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to even stand in skis, let alone slide in them, if I’m drunk.”
“You will be even more confident after a few drinks,” he insisted, with reassuring toss of his head. He then went on to say that a friend of his who was an Olympic downhill silver medallist used to take a very small glass of red wine before hurtling himself down the mountain at over 120km/hour; just to relax his nerves.
I had had about four glasses of wine and the crack was getting up to 85 or so. On my way to a brief toilet break, I thought for a moment that I’d walked into some sort of happy dream when I came across a group of attractive young women with Northern English accents who seemed to be dressed only in their underwear. Meanwhile, word had reached us from across the room that one of the male Mancunian scholars had allegedly vomited spectacularly onto his table and had then proceeded to consume his food ‘re-heated’, as it were. I tried not to think about it. The French group at our table – with whom we were getting on very well – were fairly aghast.
“Why do British people always go so crazy with alcohol?” one of the French ladies – a Breton – asked me earnestly.
“I don’t really understand them,” I replied jovially. “We’ve been trying to for 800 years.” She was a little perplexed and, mindful of the fact that my own colleagues were all Britons, I decided not to go into a history lesson just there and then.
I turned to George to ask him for the umpteenth time that night whether or not he thought I’d be able to ski down the mountain. He assured me (yet again) that I’d be fine, as did my other two friends from journalism trade. They were all black-run-level skiers who had been doing it from an early age and they reminded me, furthermore, that they would be behind me watching me all the way. The other complication was that this was a torch-lit descent, but I had already decided that I would need both hands on the poles so I was happy to leave the flaming torch work to everyone else.
“In any case,” said George, “if you really, really can’t do it, you can always take the piste-basher… but you don’t want to do that.”
The piste-bashers are fearsome-looking machines that roam the pistes after the ski-lifts have stopped running, smoothing out the bumps and chunks from the days skiing and ensuring that the snowy highways are in pristine condition for the following day. There’s room on board for possible 20 nervous pathetic babies who are too afraid to return to base the proper way and I was determined not to be one of them. At least I think I was.
I decided to put aside my worries for the moment and had some more beer. I always fancy myself as a wonderful singer after a few beers and I do a half-decent impression of 70s French disco king Claude François. Our table seemed to become the centre of the universe around which the room began to revolve slowly as we chattered and sang our way through the courses of salad, meat and melted cheese (you need your proteins when you’re at 2,000 metres) – all cooked with carefree gusto on a hot stone.
During a solo performance of “Alexandrie, Alexandra!” while standing on the chair in order to project my voice that little bit further, I noticed that some of England’s finest young students had decided that it was so warm, they might as well take everything off. The women were disappointedly still sticking to the underwear, though.
It seemed to be the cue for festivities to come to a close and suddenly the food was gone and the doors were open, letting in a sobering chill breeze. We quickly finished our drinks and put on our jackets. Outside, mayhem reigned in the crowded ‘ski-park’ and there seemed to about ten times as many people outside than there had been inside – all fully clothed by now. There was much laughing and falling over already and George’s cunning ‘mismatched skis’ plan worked a treat.
Flaming torches look the epitome of romance and glamour when seen from a distance as they glide over and back on the dark slopes. Up close, they’re essentially sticks with a little metal bucket of flaming liquid on the end of them. If I had been in any doubt about taking one, that had settled it. We said our goodbyes in cheek-kissing Gallic manner and the other three got their torches ready.
“Look,” said George. “There’s the piste-basher.” The machine was pulled up outside the restaurant, with drunken revellers clambering onto it like a rag-taggle band of war-weary soldiers getting a lift on the last tank from the battlefield.
“Peuh!” I shouted, adding an obscene French gesture with my arm that I’d learned not twenty minutes beforehand and turned and began to slide down into the first of many chicanes down the mountain.
What followed is not the clearest 15 minutes of my life, but they were possibly the most exhilarating. Skiing, it turns out, is quite simple. The basic skills of how to turn, how to slow down and how to stop are simple enough. Once you’ve learned them all, it’s just a matter of putting them into practice. And on that helter-skelter tun from the Arpette down to Arc 1800 that night, all those skills and more were called upon in a manner that left no room for fear, hesitation or error. I’m not a man of science and I don’t have an explanation for it, but even though I had difficulty standing, my body and my brain had decided that I needed to concentrate all of my remaining brain cells and energy levels into getting down that mountain to the relative safety of the almost flat wide bit at the end.
I pushed my foot into every turn and bent those knees like they were Swiss-engineered pneumatic digger-arms. There were people everywhere – some swished by me on snowboards or skis only to fall over afterwards. I kept going, avoiding the fallen, the teetering and the human pile-ups of laughing students, skis and poles strewn about the piste. I assumed that the others were still behind me and I wondered if they could keep up with my apparently blistering pace and avoid all the obstacles. But I couldn’t look around. I had to keep going. My grimace was literally frozen to my face as I rounded the last bend and found myself in the wide floodlit soft slope at the end – the one that was for beginners and that Mr Blanc called the “bébé” slope; the slope that had seemed like the North face of the Eiger to me at the beginning of the week. It was almost flat!
I started laughing uncontrollably and promptly fell over. George, Rob and Hannah arrived at my side almost immediately and helped me up, asking me if I was all right. I certainly was. The sense of achievement was infinitely more intoxicating than the alcohol. I got to my feet again, picked up my warm Munster hat, balanced it on my head and punched the air. What a sense of achievement! What a laugh! I had gone up the mountain a boy and had come down a man!
It was time for a drink.
Michael Barry travelled with Directski (www.directski.com).