The U.S. is a big country. We've got some big mountains, some pretty impressive ski hills. But if you've never skied in the Alps, believe me, you don't know from big. Just talking scale now, the ski terrain in Europe is to American skiing what the Rockies are to the Poconos, what a five-course meal at The Little Nell is to a six-inch Subway hero.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking American sliding; you can have magic-epiphany days here just as easily as you can across the pond. Nor am I talking about technology, though some large resorts in the Alps probably have more trams and gondolas than all of North America's ski mountains combined.
No, I am talking here only about the scope of terrain. The scale of things over there, the vertical rise from village to summit, the shear number of lift-accessed summits, the mind-boggling expanse confronting a skier on any run on any given day; these things are so out of whack with the American experience that an honest recounting sounds to the uninitiated like fabulist lies.
What about Vail, you say, with its seven-mile stretch across the Back Bowls, or "The Beast of the East," Killington, with its 33 lifts, or "The Big One," Jackson Hole, with its 4,139-foot vertical? Let's just say that Vail would be but a spilt drop of cappuccino on the trail map of Les Trois Vallées in France. Vail claims 4,112 acres of skiable terrain. Les Trois Vallées (a so-called "ski circus" incorporating Courchevel, Meribel and Val Thorens/Les Menuires) covers over 70,000 acres, more than all the developed terrain in Colorado and Utah combined. Alberto Tomba tried to ski from Les Menuires to Meribel in 1992-to visit injured teammate Deborah Compagnoni-but made a wrong turn somewhere and had to turn back when dusk set in.
You want lifts? Les Trois Vallées are spider-webbed by 200 lifts, including nine cable cars and 28 gondolas.
Vertical? Big Sky's U.S. best is 4,180 feet. In Chamonix, the Vallée Blanche route back to town from the Aiguille du Midi drops 9,205 vertical feet over 15 miles.
Even the midsized, unknown ski resorts in Europe are huge compared to our largest. Ever heard of Les 2 Alpes in France? Sixty-two lifts, 7,700 vertical. How about Meiringen/Hasliberg in Switzerland? Listed under "smaller resorts" by the tourist office, it has "only" 13 lifts (one tram and three gondolas) on 5,396 vertical. How is this possible? The Alps (a geologically recent result of Africa ramming the boot of Italy into the European continent) are simply much bigger than any mountain range in the U.S. Not necessarily higher. With the exception of Mont Blanc, Alpine summits are not that much higher than the highest peaks in the Rockies, Sierras or Cascades. But the valleys carved into the Alps massif are much, much lower. The town of Chamonix sits at 3,396 feet. Innsbruck, Austria is a mere 1,886 feet above sea level. The loftiest base village in the Alps is Val Thorens, at 5,905 feet. Aspen, by contrast, checks in at a rarefied 7,945 feet.
This "vertical relief" dwarfs all human enterprise. And at 47 degrees north latitude (about the same as the northern tip of Maine), tree line comes at about 5,000 feet; the top two-thirds of these huge mountains are completely treeless. Thus the naked oceanic sweep of ski terrain. Other skiers working their way down the next drainage appear comme des fourmis, like ants. Indeed, one can feel like a speck, an exhilarated speck, sliding over a great, white globe.
And then there's tradition. Some Alpine villages have been continuously inhabited for a thousand years, but goat herding is less viable today than is tourism. Skiing has become a way to stay and make a living. And since most mountain land is owned by local farming co-operatives, village after village has been able to build a chairlift or a cable car and tap into the larger ski web.
In the end, numbers don't begin to tell the tale of the Alps. Maybe a story can. I was skiing alone at Val d'Isère. In good weather II traveled farther and farther away from town, over the first mountain and through the treeless white sink of its backside. Up over the next ridge, and the next, riding chairlifts and cable cars and finally the surface tows on the Glacier de Pissaillas.
There were few other skiers out this far. One graying gentleman stood out. He had old gear, Sixties style leather boots and long, stiff skis. His technique was out of the Killy era; he looked like he was opening a door with each pole plant and then slipping gracefully down over the threshold. I decided to follow him. Maybe he knew where the really good snow was, the perfect, sun-warmed corn that the French call "velour."
It was afternoon, and the need to start back, nagged just below the surface. But my man skied ever farther out, away from civilization. Every time we came to a col or pass where a decision had to be made, he turned right, farther away from town. Could I get back to a lift? Or even to a road in the valley? I didn't know, but I stuck with him, at a distance, out of a perverse faith.
Down and down we went, and just when I thought we would both be lost forever, he arrived at a series of exquisite, wave-like troughs pointing to the valley, their curving sides facing directly into the sun. The snow was perfect, the skiing effortless, like floating through the invincible part of a flying dream.
I lost my man in the shadows down at Le Fornet, a tiny stone village outpost on the road from Val d'Isère. An hour's descent together over at least four or five miles, and I didn't have the chance to thank him. I had missed the last lift, too. But there was a bus for the 15-minute ride back to Val. With the peaks lit gold a vertical mile above, it shuttled me home in the gloaming.