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Steep Thoughts

Adventure
posted: 01/22/2002

Seven thousand feet of vertical, Alpine views, and some subtle but effective coaching combine for a lesson in instinctive skiing in La Grave, France.

Sometimes everything just clicks. And sometimes you know that everything is going to click before it actually does. As I stare down the steep white stripe that is the Trifides One Couloir at La Grave, France, I can feel it in my bones.

On this cold, clear March morning, the 25-yard-wide, 40-plus-degree classic of a ski descent is stuffed with two feet of new snow, and we're the first group of the day to get to it. Standing at the top of the rock-wall-lined chute, our guide, Pelle Lang, looks back at us and smiles. He steps into the fall line and disappears into the steepness and snow, the misty cloud of his wake our only indication of where he'd been just a split second before.

I'm next in line. The snow looks slightly wind rippled, but a quick slap of my pole reveals that it hasn't set up at all. I spot a line just to the left of Pelle's that will have me skirting the vertical rock wall that creates the chute's left boundary. I square my shoulders to the fall line and flatten my skis. Click.

As my skis engage and bend, they propel me into one weightless free fall after another. With each turn, I sink deep into the snow. It pounds my stomach and chest and even my mouth and goggles as I pick up speed. As I begin to go even faster, my focus narrows. The stunning mountainscape that surrounds me fades into the periphery, and the pillowy stretch of white where I'll make my next few turns is all I see. For a few brief moments, I feel like I am flying. The snow becomes the clouds, and my up-and-down motions give me the sensation of a bird floating and diving on an updraft, effortlessly aloft and perfectly in control.

I've made 20 or so turns when I bank hard right, veering toward the other side of the chute. As I do, I cut loose a surface slough. Suddenly, the slope is moving with me, and I'm skiing in a stream of white that churns and bubbles almost up to my waist. The feeling becomes strange, and I turn hard left. The second I do, my feet are yanked from underneath me as if they've been tied to a racehorse frightened by a gunshot. As I fall, my left arm punches deep into the snowpack. It serves as an anchor, and the slough speeds downhill away from me. Just as quickly, I'm up again. My momentum was never lost, and I'm chasing the magic carpet of snow. The slough slows and stops, and I ski through it and leave it behind. My turns are still rhythmic and effortless, and my mind is empty and clear. The snow continues to make its way up my body and over my shoulders.

I lean on my poles and watch with Pelle as the rest of the group comes down. They all free-fall and splash. To their left I see my tracks -- a long, oscillating gray line etched down a wall of white. It looks as easy and perfect as it felt. The rest of the group arrives, wide-eyed and smiling. One skier is noticeably beaming: "Great job, guys!" Chris shouts. "You were really balanced, really focused. I saw some good tactics there. You're really starting to ski intuitively."

Oh...did I mention this is technically a lesson?

Chris is Chris Fellows, PSIA Demo Team member and the director and co-founder of the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC). Based in Tahoe, NASTC was started eight years ago to -- as Chris puts it -- "take ski instruction to a new level, to a total-immersion, all-inclusive experience."

I've never been one for lessons. I've always viewed them the same way I viewed attending a college class on a perfect spring day -- that is, a waste of time better spent. As a result, I'd never taken a lesson in my life until now. But if traditional ski instruction is, in fact, the equivalent of a classroom biology lecture, then NASTC's courses, even though they adhere to PSIA doctrine, are like weeklong field trips to the Amazon.

I am into my third day of NASTC's six-day AlConditions/All-Terrain Mastery Skiing course at La Grave, and so far there's been very little in the way of traditional lecturing. Chris spent the first two days letting the group get to know the mountain, watching us ski and coaching us here and there, as well as filming us a bit. He worked us through a couple of drills, but never sacrificed a good run to do so. In one case, while skiing a low-angle pitch between two steep powder shots, we practiced "finding our feet," just moving them back and forth under our hips to find a balanced stance and, subsequently, the ski's sweet spot. In another, as we traversed a steep slope to get to the Trifides, we "edge released and engaged," which taught us the important subtlety of flattening the ski and standing taller during the transition between turns. For the most part, it seems like we're just skiing with a coach.

In my group for the week are Doug, a ski instructor from Tahoe; Carlos, a lawyer from Mexico; and Waldemar and Pancho, owners of Rio y Montaña, an adventure-travel company based in Mexico City. Last night, we watched a video of ourselves skiing that had been shot that day, and it is clear that the pointers that accompanied the viewing session have hit home. Take Carlos: For the first two days, he struggled in the powder. He was leaning back on his skis, waiting until the last possible moment to begin each turn, which he did with a giant stepping motion. Everything was disjointed, and Carlos wasn't very happy. During the video session, Chris called Carlos' problem "skiing sequentially" and suggested that Carlos focus on moving his hips over his feet earlier in the turn, which would keep Carlos centered during the transitions between turns. And it's working. Today, Carlos is skiing much more fluidly -- and having a lot more fun. In fact, everyone is skiing markedly better today than they did on day one, myself included.

Our post-Trifides revelry subsides only when Pelle poles off toward the next descent. We traverse a section of the mountain that looks big enough to swallow Vail's China Bowl in one bite, and then ski a section even bigger. The bowl isn't as steep as the Trifide, but it's wide open and blanketed with the same fresh snow -- a little less than two feet at this elevation -- and not an inch of it has been touched. With no rock walls to worry about, everyone opens the throttle. We make 30 or 40 big turns each before Pelle traverses to some trees. He tells us to ski left and right of his tracks, but not to lose sight of them, and, as we all already know, not to ski below him when he stops. We fan out, and I arc GS turns through the perfectly spaced trees.

After maybe a minute, I see Pelle stopped about 30 yards in front of me. As I make a wide, sweeping turn toward him, preparing to stop, I hear him yell, "Keep going!" And just like that, I have the whole forest to myself. I can see by the absence of tracks that no one is in front of me -- and no one is going to catch me. I feel like I'm in a BMW ad. Warning: professional driver on a closed course.

The slope isn't super steep, so I don't need to load my skis as much to control my speed. My movements become even subtler, and I stand taller. My stance is perfect -- my shins leaning into my boot cuffs, my back aligned with the angle of my shins. I'm not thinking of all the things that Chris has been telling me, but at the same time I'm acutely aware of them. My skiing is still in the realm of the instinctual, but my instincts are better informed than they were just two days ago. I've never felt so still while skiing, and I'm skiing perhaps faster than I ever have. Remember in Return of the Jedi when Luke is being chased by Storm Troopers through a forest on those Imperial Speeder Bikes? Well, it's a lot like that; I'm expecting an Ewok to jump up any second now.

We reconvene at a traverse that will take us back to the lift. As we're standing there, Carlos can't contain himself: "I don't know about you guys, but this has been the best ski day of my life!" Carlos' glee may be particular to the fact that he's made the biggest leap in his skiing since day one. Still, no one argues his point.

After the roller coaster of a traverse, we're back at the téléphérique -- a pulse lift consisting of six small gondola cars that travel up a cable in unison. It starts at 1,400 meters and has stations at 1,800, 2,400, and 3,200 meters. The ride from the bottom of La Grave to the top takes 42 minutes. A T-bar gets skiers up to 3,550 meters atop the Dome de la Lauze, a glacier with pitches in excess of 55 degrees. Skiing La Grave top to bottom nets just over 7,000 vertical feet. That makes Whistler or Jackson or Big Sky look puny.

Yep, that's right, this place -- a place that could absorb a few Squaw Valleys with room to spare -- essentially has one lift. But there's a lot that's atypical about La Grave. For one, there's no ski patrol. There's also no avalanche control to speak of. There's no trail map. In fact, there are no trails. You buy a lift ticket, you ski the mountain. I would estimate that every third or fourth skier at La Grave is a professional guide, and their services are all but required. The rumble of avalances is as common here as is the hiss of snow guns at Sunday River. And the views...the views, the views, the views.

We ski some more, and then we ski some more. When we finish, we drive through the tiny Alpine village of Briançon and head to Les Glaciers Bar -- the locals call it Marcel's -- to sip an Amstel or two. I'm standing with Pelle at the bar. "You know how you heard people saying that today was the best ski day of their life?" he asks. "Every week I hear someone say that."

I'm tempted. And I think I'd be telling the truth, but it's only the third day, and I'm feeling good about tomorrow.

It turns out that I would have been right. Looking back on my six days at La Grave, day three really was the best -- and probably the best ever for me. My skiing continued to improve over the next three days -- as did everyone's -- and we skied some truly life-threatening terrain, including a descent that involved a 40-odd-foot rappel down a cliff. But something happened for me on day three. It was an alignment of my newfound abilities, of the people I was with, and of the mountain itself. Something just clicked.

The 2002 NASTC week at La Grave is March 9-16; $3,035 includes ground transportation from Grenoble, lodging, six days' lift tickets, instruction and guiding, daily breakfast and dinner, video sessions, and NASTC sweatshirt. NASTC offers similar ski weeks at Chamonix, France; Portillo, Chile; and Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C., as well as shorter courses in the Tahoe area.
(530-582-4772, www.skinastc.com)

Skiers can also spend a week at La Grave at the Skiers' Lodge, co-owned by Pelle Lang; 907 Euros ($840) per person includes breakfast, dinner, six days' guiding, avalanche beacons, local transportation. Lift tickets not included.
(33-4-767-99-028, www.skierslodge.com)

know about you guys, but this has been the best ski day of my life!" Carlos' glee may be particular to the fact that he's made the biggest leap in his skiing since day one. Still, no one argues his point.

After the roller coaster of a traverse, we're back at the téléphérique -- a pulse lift consisting of six small gondola cars that travel up a cable in unison. It starts at 1,400 meters and has stations at 1,800, 2,400, and 3,200 meters. The ride from the bottom of La Grave to the top takes 42 minutes. A T-bar gets skiers up to 3,550 meters atop the Dome de la Lauze, a glacier with pitches in excess of 55 degrees. Skiing La Grave top to bottom nets just over 7,000 vertical feet. That makes Whistler or Jackson or Big Sky look puny.

Yep, that's right, this place -- a place that could absorb a few Squaw Valleys with room to spare -- essentially has one lift. But there's a lot that's atypical about La Grave. For one, there's no ski patrol. There's also no avalanche control to speak of. There's no trail map. In fact, there are no trails. You buy a lift ticket, you ski the mountain. I would estimate that every third or fourth skier at La Grave is a professional guide, and their services are all but required. The rumble of avalances is as common here as is the hiss of snow guns at Sunday River. And the views...the views, the views, the views.

We ski some more, and then we ski some more. When we finish, we drive through the tiny Alpine village of Briançon and head to Les Glaciers Bar -- the locals call it Marcel's -- to sip an Amstel or two. I'm standing with Pelle at the bar. "You know how you heard people saying that today was the best ski day of their life?" he asks. "Every week I hear someone say that."

I'm tempted. And I think I'd be telling the truth, but it's only the third day, and I'm feeling good about tomorrow.

It turns out that I would have been right. Looking back on my six days at La Grave, day three really was the best -- and probably the best ever for me. My skiing continued to improve over the next three days -- as did everyone's -- and we skied some truly life-threatening terrain, including a descent that involved a 40-odd-foot rappel down a cliff. But something happened for me on day three. It was an alignment of my newfound abilities, of the people I was with, and of the mountain itself. Something just clicked.

The 2002 NASTC week at La Grave is March 9-16; $3,035 includes ground transportation from Grenoble, lodging, six days' lift tickets, instruction and guiding, daily breakfast and dinner, video sessions, and NASTC sweatshirt. NASTC offers similar ski weeks at Chamonix, France; Portillo, Chile; and Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C., as well as shorter courses in the Tahoe area.
(530-582-4772, www.skinastc.com)

Skiers can also spend a week at La Grave at the Skiers' Lodge, co-owned by Pelle Lang; 907 Euros ($840) per person includes breakfast, dinner, six days' guiding, avalanche beacons, local transportation. Lift tickets not included.
(33-4-767-99-028, www.skierslodge.com)

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