The Last Supper

Standard

20130407-203400.jpg

You wouldn’t know it – the snow is still packed and light in places, spraying upwards when I push the toe edge of my board into the steep bits to break my speed – but the winter season is coming to an end.

It rained yesterday afternoon, for hours. On some lower pistes the dark earth is a shadow beneath a sugar coating of crystal snow and snow streaks from the peaks down the rugged striations of rock like tears.

20130407-193512.jpg

The slopes above St Martin

I have even taken to skiing in the worst weather; soupy mist and snow so wet that your trousers cling to you. Rain is forecast for this week, up to an altitude of 2650 metres. Soon the snow will be gone and in just over 10 days time so will I.

Looking back – as we are prone to do – the passing of the season has been so quick. That’s not how it seemed at the beginning, but now it appears that existing in a season is like living in compressed space and time.

The sun was at its brightest at the top of the Thorens lift, the Glacier Du Bouchet visible beyond the bowl behind us, when a Blazing Raisin* (one of ours) slid by, refusing to wait for us, masked face intent on the piste ahead. “Don’t worry,” called Jamie, the chef, from his position on the snow behind me, “he’s on borrowed time.”

I giggled and feeling the cold radiance of the snow beneath my bum I continued to casually ratchet my snowboard binding tighter; if I’m in borrowed time then the debt is massive.

So, some say you can borrow it, others that it is precious (although this is misleading, because surely they mean the moment, not the measure of the moment). Others believe it is an illusion with no value at all while there are some who think that we are stuck in it. Can all of these be true?

I recent years I have heard writers talked of the multiple and layered nature of time. Never are we in one place in time. Walking the street we are remembering an event, feeling it, perhaps oblivious to eyes that move over you, a child that falls across the road, or an item dropped, more intent we are on the past or the future. In which case, perhaps all those things can be true.

Four months, 17 weeks, the passing of winter. It is not long, whichever way you look at it. At the beginning, ready to be trained, among 50 strange faces and having endured 28 hours on the same coach with them (making them none the less strange) one season seems a long time. Because while time is a completely inadequate measure of the unknown experience to come, it is the most common.

After training, when we arrived in Reberty, still unsure of each other, testing, wary, hesitant, we unwound the place. Dust was cleared from furniture, cling film peeled from plates, mugs, bowls, pans, cupboards stocked with food and boxes of wine stacked beneath the stairs. Leaflets were laid out, chalk boards drawn up and through sweat and sneezing (dust snd chemical induced) the place was unfurled, spread out like a carpet for our first guests. Work and snowboarding lay ahead.

When the guests arrived the routine began. Days were marked by meals, cleaning and snowboarding. Slow at first, the cogs of my clock clunked as i struggled with nine bathrooms, determined to catch every last hair yet anxious to catch my colleagues before they headed to the slopes. Christmas and New Year, our customary landmarks in time, passed with little celebration. It was all about the snow and welcoming the New Year by being on it. Yet, each outing on my board was an ordeal, my heart and the fears of a life time were in my mouth, while my legs burned. I despaired, but eventually improved, skimming the contours of the snow instead of fighting them. And time sped up too.

The guests, the alliances and dramas with colleagues stained time but do not slow it. Some marks are heavier than others; two religious groups; the one which held services in the dinning room, the other that tried to convert us; The Johns, jovial, funny, wise; The Academics, tentative and kind; the girls who received the romantic attentions of The Chef.

And now time turns back on itself. The cling film is wound back over the kitchen goods, the cupboards are sparse, the cupboard under the stairs is empty. And colleagues begin to wander away; some physically, others have already left in their minds and all that is left are the motions.

During a season you are contained, perhaps more visibly and completely than in everyday life. Imagine a snow globe; conveniently it is not unlike this. By mountains and an electronic lift pass you are held in a scene. You live in a picturesque chalet, from which you walk out into this scene and every so often some one tips the globe and a load of white stuff is dumped down on top of you. At one moment all you have is the plank you strap to your feet and your scenery to explore on it. And then you have neither. The glass cracks, the liquid leaks away and the snow turns to mush. You are free.

The other night I served my last supper and in the morning hugged the three of my colleagues goodbye, preparing for them to be strangers. The first trickle through the cracked glass.

20130407-193443.jpg

A last outing

* A Blazing Raisin, a term found in the ABC of Snowboarding Dictionary to describe an old(er) dude, made raisin-esque due to time served in the sun, who canes it down the mountain like his life (and everybody else’s) depended on it. Here in Reberty, we had two.

RIP Steve, who left for Gatwick car park last Sunday.

20130410-104548.jpg

Advertisements

My Itinerary

Standard

In the beginning, or somewhere thereabouts, I wrote and posted an itinerary; a detailed list of my travel plans until September. That was what I understood an itinerary was; a list of travel plans and places to visit. Another meaning of the word is the record of a journey. This is my record.

Over the last months I have come to realise the word means more. While an itinerary to me is a list or a record, on a mountain it is a physical route, a line of travel, down. An itinerary is not a pisted, tended run, but there is a way down for you to find and it is away from the bashed motorways of piste ridden by every other skier, boarder and their family; your own way.

20130307-173342.jpg

This is Le Masse, the summit I can see from the chalet window. Down the back of Le Masse runs an itinerary. To get there, turn left at the goat (strictly speaking, an ibis)…

20130307-173813.jpg

…(goat riding before committing is optional), follow the ridge, negotiate the rocks and undulations, bend around the mountain and finally into the crevice that scars the left hand side, can you see it?

I was scared at first. For off-piste skiing (or snowboarding) you should carry full avalanche equipment (transceivers and spades) and be insured (in France a Carte Neige does this). We left the top of Le Masse with no equipment and no insurance and my inner risk assessor screaming worst case scenarios. But there were five of us and the pow was thick* with limited tracks (the lines cut by skis and boards) running away over the blankets of undisturbed snow beneath us; we had to go. And to explain the ‘why’ you have to understand the feeling of swooshing through light powder, it is like no other…or you could say it is like floating and floating is something I do not do particularly often.

Contrary to the effortless implications of floating, pow is hard work. Stand back, use your back leg to turn, lean back to make sure the nose of the board does not begin to dip into the pow or so will your face. By the time we reached the edge of the first ridge Steve, Alix and I (the uninitiated) were panting; as much with fear as with exertion; where were we going?

But, as we followed tracks from ridge to ridge, between outcropping rocks and along traverses that hugged the mountain our breathing slowed and our confidence grew. In the distance was a hut, ‘we’re going that way,’ our leader said. And we did, onto a track that traced the scar of the mountain, taking us back to the piste. Smiling, relieved – because we had done it – we were back on safe ground. We had traced our own itinerary down the mountain.

The next time was different. A week or so later, with no fresh snow and blue bird skies blazing with spring sunshine, the undulating passageways had become hard, and deformed by moguls. The ridge that we followed, left of the goat, was striated with hard humps of snow. Needless to say I fell, I got up, tried to turn on one of the sun blasted humps and fell again. Then, as my companions slid further into the distance my fear returned, both a fear of the mountain and an older, latent fear that has lived in me for a long time. It became stronger with each fall, with the scrape of the hardened surface against the board edges, the impact against my legs as I hit the snow, sliding over a mogul, down with my heel edge fighting for purchase. I could not do it. A helpless child’s cry welled up inside.

By the end I was sweating. I had made it but my left leg was throbbing and I was angry, gripped by a fear that belonged in another time and place. I had made it but as I chuntered at my companions, fighting for control, I knew I needed to make that journey again.

I have done that; twice since then, each time with focus, rather than fear. Not necessarily with much greater skill but perhaps I make one more turn with each new journey. My journey; my itinerary.

And during this time my itinerary, my list of places, has changed. In the beginning I was not not staying for the entire ski season but would move on on 15 March towards Asia. Instead, I will be here in Reberty until the slushy end. This can be little more than a month away now: the lower slopes have turned to mush and the chalet roofs drip constantly onto the now exposed Tarmac.

When I move on I would not say I have a route, a line of travel, beyond that list. England seems a world away (wages, taxes, shopping and TV), like a pisted run I was brought up to travel on. I want to make my own line of travel, like dropping off the back of a mountain which you have been told is passable but you have no idea how until you get there.

* I have learnt over the last three months that all ‘pow’ (fresh powdery snow) must be shredded (ripped up with fresh tracks). This is known to some as ‘shredding the pow’ and is typed by this 33 year old with the greatest irony.

20130308-172332.jpg

Tired and grumpy having shredded people who have shredded the pow.