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Fantasy Camp

Adventure
posted: 08/04/2003

MONDAY 6 a.m.
The clock-tower bell rings six times, echoing through the predawn mists that cling to the narrow, sloped streets of Champery, Switzerland. A weeklong ski adventure in the Alps begins today¿but I appear to be the sole member of our group roused by the bell. Small wonder: The six others sleeping heavily in homey Chalet Bergerette stayed out far later than I, at a nightclub appropriately named La Crevasse, where they fell into the depths of what promised, when I stole away at midnight, to be a precipitous mix, starting with vodka and Red Bull, moving on to Southern Comfort dropped via shot-glass bomb into some weirdly sweet and fizzy liquor, followed by tequila mixed with a strange green fluid made from hemp. Call me crazy, but that was when I slipped away.

Outside the revelry of its few bars, Champery (1,053 meters) is everything Heidi-induced Swiss fantasies weave: Chalets¿authentic and wooden, with ornately carved trim and peaked, shingled roofs¿dot pastoral, snow-patched hillsides. Cows winter in chalet basements. Every restaurant serves fondue.

But what makes Champery special is the town's swift, modern tram, located steps from Bergerette. It rises 1,000 meters over the top of a sheer mountain face to the rim of a sprawling and snow-glutted swath of the Alps known as the Portes du Soleil¿the largest ski area in the world. Not a lone ski resort but a vast ski cooperative, the Portes du Soleil's network of 220 lifts and many thousands of skiable acres (spacious bowls, rolling meadows, steep chutes) encompass 12 resort centers straddling the border of Switzerland and France. Many lifts and on-mountain cafes (buvettes) are individually owned and operated by the farmers who graze their cows there in summer.

Sprinkled about the slopes are restaurants and lodges ranging from decades-old fine-dining establishments with credit card emblems in their frosty, paned windows to low-ceilinged stone huts with cast-iron stoves for heat. This profusion prospers because Europeans ski to drink and eat. To miss this point is to miss the essence of Euro skiing entirely: In North America, skiing is an achievement-oriented sport; in Europe, it's a low-stress social activity.

So it's not surprising that most who ski and board the Portes du Soleil ride on-piste. What this means for a pack of North Americans on holiday is that the region's plentiful off-piste faces, couloirs, and basins (terrain that easily rivals North America's best) remains largely untouched. This is a bounty for those who both know where to find it and how to ski it safely.

And that's where Extremely Canadian comes in. Based in Whistler, British Columbia, Extremely Canadian runs freeskiing adventure and instruction clinics "designed for skiers who want to get a lot of mileage underfoot, ski places they wouldn't normally go, and hook up with skiers of their same level of ability," explains co-owner Jill Dunnigan. "It's all about having fun," adds husband and head instructor Peter Smart, age 33, a CSIA Level 3 ski instructor, certified sports coach, former ski patroller, and masterful freeskier.

My companions for the week are a pack of rowdy, strong-skiing businessmen on holiday: John Legg, a lawyer and venture capitalist; Chris Wood, a commerical real estate agent; Glenn Ayrton, a financial manager; and Bruce Chernoff, CFO of an oil and gas exploration company. They're all in their mid 30s but party like they're in college and ski like they feel no pain.

Instruction works its way in seamlessly and casually. By midmorning, Smart is ski-cutting virgin snow in a series of seven side-by-side chutes that stripe the 2,277-meter Pointe de Mossette, a sharp peak near the border of France. He smiles broadly as he waves us one by one into the first two chutes with instructions like "Rip it up!" and "Have fun!" Low-lying clouds swirl below us like milky soup. The famed toothy spires called the Dent du Midi tower abe.

Smart's second in command is Wendy Brookbank, 30, a veteran of six Warren Miller movies, a certified ski instructor and coach, and Canada's best-known female freeskier. Her specialty-in addition to clearly pinpointing the one thing that can change a skier's technique from good to great-is hooting with unbridled happiness, which she does today each time one of us emerges from a couloir. "Woo hoo! Yeah Glenn!" she cries hoarsely. "All right, Chris! Wooooo!"

Lunch at the busy Chez Crepy is leisurely and companionable. The guys help themselves to my frites while John Denver's voice croons "Country roads, take me home...." Back outside, we hurtle down mountainsides through shifting mists, stopping for spontaneous group silliness on an old-fashioned merry-go-round in Avoriaz, France. We ride the ponies in our ski boots, taking up Brookbank's cry: "Wheeee! Woo hoo!" On the long ski back to Champery, we stop at two different buvettes for vin chaud (hot wine), the regional après-ski drink of choice. We relax on benches under cow bells, hanging our gloves and goggles from roof beams, laughing along as a nearby table of jovial Germans breaks into drunken song.

We've been here less than 24 hours, but I can already tell what makes this trip so unusual. I am in French Switzerland, surrounded by French language and Alpen culture, smoky rooms, and polka music, and the smell of cheese filling the air. But I am being cared for by Brits and Canadians¿English-speaking ski fanatics like me who embrace the European pace. The cultural barriers that daunt many American travelers are rendered moot (as are the anti-American prejudices that many European waiters and service people exude), leaving only the cultural sweets.

Back at Bergerette our "chalet girl," Jo Arnold, a sassy and world-wise 18-year-old British beauty, has tea and fresh-baked shortbread waiting. We gather in the upstairs living area and look over the map of Portes du Soleil with new reverence. "You could spend an entire week here going from buvette to buvette," quips Chris Wood. Or from drink to drink: Wine pours freely during Jo's steak dinner. After chocolate mousse pudding, Peter and the boys shrug on their leather jackets and head out to La Crevasse. Wendy and I opt for sleep.

TUESDAY 9 a.m.
Rain! We ski anyway. Up in the alpine, Smart and Brookbank crank things up, cleverly taking us into terrain that reveals the limits of our current techniques. The guys each bobble on a steep, icy rollover in the mouth of a wide, straight couloir. Several hit the deck. When we all reach the flats below, they look sheepish until Brookbank turns on the charm.

"Okay, here's why that happened," she says, jumping in front of them with arms wide. "You are digging into your turns like this"¿she hops into an exaggerated crouch¿"with your balance back here. But it's not supposed to be such a workout. It's supposed to be easy." She leaps into a more upright position, looking each guy in the eye, talking about basketball now, and the naturally centered and responsive stance of great players. As she talks, she moves across the snow like Kobe on the court. The guys are riveted.

In a very long, narrow couloir off a peak called Chavanette, I find my limit. The light is flat. The snow is gloppy. The couloir is one turn wide. I keep getting hung up, not able to move fluidly from one turn to the next. Turn, stop, turn, stop. It's a lot of work. On the next lift up, I tell Brookbank I know I'm turning too much into the hill but can't seem to cut it out. "That's bang on," she says. "Here's what I want you to do: One, open up your wrists and point your thumbs down the hill. Two, look ahead. That's all I want you to think about. Everything else you're doing is great."

The guys are showing signs of fatigue, but rally for another night out. They crank up on Red Bull and alcohol in Mitchell's (sleek, postmodern, and a few buildings from Bergerette), then dive into La Crevasse, which is hopping with DJ-driven dance music and drunken, pretty girls. The night ends at cavelike Min d'Or.

"For a small town," laughs Brookbank, "this place really goes off."

WEDNESDAY 9 a.m.
It's snowing! Powder! But one of our handsome lads is MIA, last seen closing a deal with a lovely, leggy lass in the depths of Min d'Or. "A lot of people have sex in the bathroom at the Min d'Or," Smart says. "There's a reason they call it the gold mine, you know."

The rest of us don't feel too deprived: The powder is shin-deep and perfect, with more falling steadily in a light, windless drift. Wendy's thumb trick is opening up my speed and quickness, but now I'm having trouble with control. Smart suggests gripping my poles more firmly and popping them into the snow more decisively when I plant. Suddenly everything clicks. I get it! I am giddy with glee. "I love you guys!" I exclaim at the end of every run, giggling. "Have I mentioned that I love you all?" They all tell me they love me, too.

After lunch (Buvette Chez Hermann) Smart leads us on a long traverse near Chatel, France, to the rim of a spacious hidden bowl unmarred by as much as a track. "This is like a heli-ski day," someone marvels. We drop in one by one, snaking through an easy 1,500 vertical feet of perfect snow, then funnel out through a grove of trees, head back up a long platter pull, and hit it again. On the way home we stop at Chez Marius for vin chaud, then race each other home, tucking down the long, snaking, snow-covered road.

THURSDAY 8:30 a.m.
Sunny and cloudless. More freshies! Our pack is complete, and we cover a lot of ground. Peter and Wendy's tips are paying off all around. The guys are skiing more fluidly, with less testosterone and longer, looser legs. On the third run we return to the long couloir where I'd met my comeuppance on Tuesday; this time it skis like a breeze. We test our mettle with more technical challenges: small cliff bands, sluffing snow, a straight-line notch. The sun makes for longer lift lines, but we still bag undisturbed powder all day. And then, of course, stop at Chez Marius on the way home.

FRIDAY 7:30 a.m.
In the van. Field trip to Verbier. The guys are worked from partying their butts off yet again. Glenn reports that he passed up sex last night for Verbier today. "I wouldn't have made it back in time to ski with you guys this morning," he explains. "I can forgo a little shagging for a little skiing. She's a nice girl. I'll see her again."

Verbier is covered in both powder and clouds. We make the best of the minimal visibility, skiing alongside boulders and trees for more definition, getting only occasional glimpses of the magnitude of Verbier's terrain. At Pub Mont Fort the guys slump listlessly over après pints. "I'm entering a state of physical nirvana verging just short of total exhaustion," John Legg admits. "It's excellent."

That night everyone sleeps.

SATURDAY 8:15 a.m.
The fog lingers but a fresh dusting of snow covers Bergerette's backyard. At the very top of Mosette, we pop through the clouds. The sky above is brilliantly clear, the world below thick with mist. Wendy and Peter lead us to a nose that juts out precipitously over a steep face. The snow twinkles with diamonds. The drop-off is blind. Brookbank grins and waves us closer.

"This is a huck lesson," she says. "When you decide to huck, then go for it, okay? The worst thing to do is huck halfway. That's when you run into trouble. So grip your poles hard and as soon as you do that, you'll notice you clench your teeth a bit too. Say grrrrrr! It's like going onto the fighting mat. Once you go off the edge, punch your arms forward and pull up your legs. That will keep you in a tight position. As you come down for the landing, let out your legs a little bit, which will happen naturally because of the distance of your jump. Absorb with your legs when you land. And you'ive into La Crevasse, which is hopping with DJ-driven dance music and drunken, pretty girls. The night ends at cavelike Min d'Or.

"For a small town," laughs Brookbank, "this place really goes off."

WEDNESDAY 9 a.m.
It's snowing! Powder! But one of our handsome lads is MIA, last seen closing a deal with a lovely, leggy lass in the depths of Min d'Or. "A lot of people have sex in the bathroom at the Min d'Or," Smart says. "There's a reason they call it the gold mine, you know."

The rest of us don't feel too deprived: The powder is shin-deep and perfect, with more falling steadily in a light, windless drift. Wendy's thumb trick is opening up my speed and quickness, but now I'm having trouble with control. Smart suggests gripping my poles more firmly and popping them into the snow more decisively when I plant. Suddenly everything clicks. I get it! I am giddy with glee. "I love you guys!" I exclaim at the end of every run, giggling. "Have I mentioned that I love you all?" They all tell me they love me, too.

After lunch (Buvette Chez Hermann) Smart leads us on a long traverse near Chatel, France, to the rim of a spacious hidden bowl unmarred by as much as a track. "This is like a heli-ski day," someone marvels. We drop in one by one, snaking through an easy 1,500 vertical feet of perfect snow, then funnel out through a grove of trees, head back up a long platter pull, and hit it again. On the way home we stop at Chez Marius for vin chaud, then race each other home, tucking down the long, snaking, snow-covered road.

THURSDAY 8:30 a.m.
Sunny and cloudless. More freshies! Our pack is complete, and we cover a lot of ground. Peter and Wendy's tips are paying off all around. The guys are skiing more fluidly, with less testosterone and longer, looser legs. On the third run we return to the long couloir where I'd met my comeuppance on Tuesday; this time it skis like a breeze. We test our mettle with more technical challenges: small cliff bands, sluffing snow, a straight-line notch. The sun makes for longer lift lines, but we still bag undisturbed powder all day. And then, of course, stop at Chez Marius on the way home.

FRIDAY 7:30 a.m.
In the van. Field trip to Verbier. The guys are worked from partying their butts off yet again. Glenn reports that he passed up sex last night for Verbier today. "I wouldn't have made it back in time to ski with you guys this morning," he explains. "I can forgo a little shagging for a little skiing. She's a nice girl. I'll see her again."

Verbier is covered in both powder and clouds. We make the best of the minimal visibility, skiing alongside boulders and trees for more definition, getting only occasional glimpses of the magnitude of Verbier's terrain. At Pub Mont Fort the guys slump listlessly over après pints. "I'm entering a state of physical nirvana verging just short of total exhaustion," John Legg admits. "It's excellent."

That night everyone sleeps.

SATURDAY 8:15 a.m.
The fog lingers but a fresh dusting of snow covers Bergerette's backyard. At the very top of Mosette, we pop through the clouds. The sky above is brilliantly clear, the world below thick with mist. Wendy and Peter lead us to a nose that juts out precipitously over a steep face. The snow twinkles with diamonds. The drop-off is blind. Brookbank grins and waves us closer.

"This is a huck lesson," she says. "When you decide to huck, then go for it, okay? The worst thing to do is huck halfway. That's when you run into trouble. So grip your poles hard and as soon as you do that, you'll notice you clench your teeth a bit too. Say grrrrrr! It's like going onto the fighting mat. Once you go off the edge, punch your arms forward and pull up your legs. That will keep you in a tight position. As you come down for the landing, let out your legs a little bit, which will happen naturally because of the distance of your jump. Absorb with your legs when you land. And you're still gripping those poles, so you're ready to continue down the hill. Okay? But the most important thing is that right off that edge, you're being aggressive. Go for it. Okay?"

Smart goes first, launching a good 20 feet then straight-lining it to the bottom of the bowl. We take shorter drops, growling like Brookbank as we huck. Everyone sticks it. Wendy brings up the rear, catching nearly as much air as Smart. She lands solidly then tears down the mountain at full speed, hooting all the way. "That really got me going!" she says, flushed. "Wow! Woo hoo!"

"Hey," says Bruce. "Wendy's finally showing some enthusiasm!"

Everyone laughs.

That night we engage in a fierce match of curling before Jo's farewell flourish of roast duck and crème caramel. We dance on the chairs after dinner then head, of course, to the bars. On our way to La Crevasse, I hear the clock tower chiming, echoing through the streets as it has for 200 years. Later Glenn proposes a toast. "This is a great way to spend a Saturday!" he says, raising a Red Bull mixed with something scary. "Here's to the best Saturday ever!" Not everyone hears him, though. They're too busy dancing their asses off and sidling up to pretty girls.


DESTINATION: OFF-PISTE
Extremely Canadian: Each February, Extremely Canadian Adventures leads up to eight skiers on a guided adventure through Portes du Soleil's fantastic array of off-piste terrain. Extremely Canadian also leads weekly clinics at its home base in Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia and offers Champery-style adventures in Verbier, Chile, Argentina, and diverse locations around Canada.
Price: C$2,695 (about $1,850 U.S.) for seven days (everything except lunch and airfare).
Info: 800-938-9656; www.extremelycanadian.com

Piste Artiste: In Champery, Extremely Canadian partners with Piste Artiste, a local hospitality service specializing in carefree ski vacations. Piste Artiste offers no off-piste guiding but otherwise takes care of guests from arrival to departure, including transfers from the Geneva airport, one hour away. Piste Artiste's English-speaking staff cooks, cleans, provides daycare, shows guests the least crowded slopes and best restaurants, orders off lunch menus in French, and leads everyone home at the end of the day. Our digs, the Chalet Bergerette, is one of several run by the company. Chalet lodgings are comfortable but generally consist of single beds (the European standard) with shared phones (rotary, with no Net plug-in) and shared baths.
Info: 41 24 479 3344; www.pisteartiste.com
Getting There: Swissair and other airlines fly into Geneva, one hour away.you're still gripping those poles, so you're ready to continue down the hill. Okay? But the most important thing is that right off that edge, you're being aggressive. Go for it. Okay?"

Smart goes first, launching a good 20 feet then straight-lining it to the bottom of the bowl. We take shorter drops, growling like Brookbank as we huck. Everyone sticks it. Wendy brings up the rear, catching nearly as much air as Smart. She lands solidly then tears down the mountain at full speed, hooting all the way. "That really got me going!" she says, flushed. "Wow! Woo hoo!"

"Hey," says Bruce. "Wendy's finally showing some enthusiasm!"

Everyone laughs.

That night we engage in a fierce match of curling before Jo's farewell flourish of roast duck and crème caramel. We dance on the chairs after dinner then head, of course, to the bars. On our way to La Crevasse, I hear the clock tower chiming, echoing through the streets as it has for 200 years. Later Glenn proposes a toast. "This is a great way to spend a Saturday!" he says, raising a Red Bull mixed with something scary. "Here's to the best Saturday ever!" Not everyone hears him, though. They're too busy dancing their asses off and sidling up to pretty girls.


DESTINATION: OFF-PISTE
>Extremely Canadian: Each February, Extremely Canadian Adventures leads up to eight skiers on a guided adventure through Portes du Soleil's fantastic array of off-piste terrain. Extremely Canadian also leads weekly clinics at its home base in Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia and offers Champery-style adventures in Verbier, Chile, Argentina, and diverse locations around Canada.
Price: C$2,695 (about $1,850 U.S.) for seven days (everything except lunch and airfare).
Info: 800-938-9656; www.extremelycanadian.com

Piste Artiste: In Champery, Extremely Canadian partners with Piste Artiste, a local hospitality service specializing in carefree ski vacations. Piste Artiste offers no off-piste guiding but otherwise takes care of guests from arrival to departure, including transfers from the Geneva airport, one hour away. Piste Artiste's English-speaking staff cooks, cleans, provides daycare, shows guests the least crowded slopes and best restaurants, orders off lunch menus in French, and leads everyone home at the end of the day. Our digs, the Chalet Bergerette, is one of several run by the company. Chalet lodgings are comfortable but generally consist of single beds (the European standard) with shared phones (rotary, with no Net plug-in) and shared baths.
Info: 41 24 479 3344; www.pisteartiste.com
Getting There: Swissair and other airlines fly into Geneva, one hour away.

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