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Rush Hour

Features
posted: 01/18/2001

Reflections on subterranean ski transportation, the European way.

Greetings from 30,000 feet. As I type this, I am pondering one of life's little mysteries. Does the air in jet cabins really contain 30 percent less oxygen than the air in Newark?

Well, anyway, I am returning home from beautiful Tignes, France, my first ski trip of the year. At the invitation of the good folks at K2, I participated in their fall training. Training? Oui.Our goals? To ski on the Skis of the Future. To consume the all-you-can-drink red wine at the Hotel Diva. To be clear yet inscrutable when describing the performance characteristics of said skis. ("Strong underfoot...Precise...Avuncular...Holds an edge like David Hasselhoff.") And consume more wine. "Vin rouge pour les Cocoa Krispies, monsieur? Ah, bien sûr!"

If the destination was worthy, the voyage was Gilliganesque. Our merry band was originally bound for Saas Fee, but much to our dismay, we discovered that Switzerland was closed. So en route to la belle France,we survived mudslides. We survived flooding. And we survived ski god Mike Hattrup recounting his visit to a medieval torture museum in Italy. ("There's this really long pole. It's sharp but not too sharp. And what they do with it is...")

But before I could arc those first magical glacier turns, I had to surmount one final hurdle: La Funiculaire.Picture a subway that runs up instead of out, right through the middle of a big, bald monster of an Alpine mountain. Built at a reported cost of $100 million. (It would have been more like $60 million, but the drilling crew -- undoubtedly from Newark -- took a wrong turn.)

As I entered the line, and I use that term very loosely, for my chance to ride this marvel of modern resort transportation, several thousand Lycra-clad Euroskiers crushed in around me as if we were the proverbial sardines in light oil. These young skiers clearly had not read the brochure, which clearly states that "Tignes is a Zen resort." And by their Zen-as-Jesse-Ventura behavior, they seemed to be violating virtually all the tenets of "Operation Cool It."

While I had not done so much as a single dryland squat to train for the skiing yet to come, I was ready for this lift line: I have ridden the D Train to the Bronx at rush hour. The PA announcer mumbled something in French that I didn't understand, but from the reaction of the crowd, it must've been something like, "Pearl Jam has taken the stage." The crowd surged forward, and my thorax was compressed like the cushions in John Goodman's BarcaLounger. I remembered the inflatable avalanche vest featured in the pages of this magazine. My only protection was a CamelBak filled with Gatorade. Or was it red wine? My thoughts turned to my wife and small children. ("Did I mow the lawn before I left?")

The moment of truth came as the human wave rushed toward the turnstiles. When a sneering bleach-blond ski racer named Francois tried to invade what was left of my personal space and/or crush my sternum, it became a matter of national pride. I would not take this sitting down, which of course assumes that I could've.

"Cochon,"I snarled, forcing a shoulder under his armpit. That means "pig." "Merde,"I sneered, as a snowboarder crowd-surfed over my left ear. That means, um, defecation. "C'est le foie, come toujours,"I spat, as I waited for the human wave to break. That means "It's the liver, as usual," and it's the only other thing I remember from two years of college French, except that I got an A.

I wiggled an elbow free and squeezed through the gate ahead. But Francois had the last laugh. He had, I discovered later, stolen a bar of Swiss chocolate from the outside packet of my Mountainsmith backpack.

But once inside the glass doors, the hurrying up, I found, was over, and the waiting began. Les gens,who only moments ago competed for my very last breath, were now sprawled out onn the floor. If I had had a picnic lunch -- "Pass the foie gras, s'il vous plait"-- I could've eaten it. If I had had a Gauloise, I could've smoked it. Le moshwas over, but the Funiculaire had not yet arrived.

But when it did, the crush began again in earnest. This time it was more like running with the bulls in Pamplona while wearing ski boots. Not that I have. (Note to self: Run with the bulls in Pamplona. Wear sneakers.) Grown men cried. Clomp, clomp, clomp. Women fainted. Clomp, clomp, clomp. Small children tried to hurl each other onto the tracks. Clomp, clomp, clomp. Eventually, I piled into the neon car. ("We all ride in a Yellow Funiculaire, Yellow Funiculaire..."). As I looked for a strap to hang from, all I could think of was John Rocker's twisted version of the 7 Train -- it was hot, it was crowded, and everyone was speaking a foreign language. Francois' coach looked familiar. Bernard Goetz? No, it couldn't be. The only thing missing: the billboards for Dr. M.D. Tusch. "FIX MY HEMORRHOIDS...."

I looked to the front of the car, and as it hurtled through the bowels of the mountain, it reminded me of nothing so much as that scene in Being John Malkovichwhen John Cusack takes a trip through the thespian's, um, gastrointestinal system.

In any case, Cusack got spat out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Le Funispat me out at the foot of a glacier. Now, I could tell you about the spectacular open bowls, the pluperfect packed powder, the Machiavellian rebound of a particular short slalom ski, but the captain has turned on the seatbelt sign and I need to make sure my carry-on luggage is securely stowed beneath the seat in front of me.

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