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Scam,Starve,Sleep on Couches.How to Win at Life.

Dropping in
posted: 11/05/2003

The heart of skiing is huddled in a dark flat, cantilevered over the narrow, twisty streets of Le Chable, Switzerland. Here, eight guys from Colorado (plus one Danish girl) are sleeping foot to jowl, blissfully ignorant, for the moment, of each other's endless snoring and flatulence. ¶ They could use the sleep. After topping a full day of off-piste traverses with a communal curry dinner and a sudsy poker session, the Coloradans are exhausted. They'd crash till nine were it not for the Aggressively Meticulous Swiss Plow Driver, who barrels down the lane outside the window at dawn, battering blade against tarmac.

The plow and Switzerland's ubiquitous church bells make a deadly effective alarm clock. The flat starts to reverberate with groaning, yawning, chortling, Advil gulping, Müeslix slurping, Fastex buckles clicking, coffee water boiling, chairs scraping, and transceivers beeping. At first, conversation is a Neanderthal series of grunts and snorts. Only when someone points outside and cries, "It's puking!" do the Coloradans (plus one Danish girl) truly wake up.

Suddenly, there's a whir of activity between the numbing, unheated bathroom and the cramped living room where boot liners dry atop every available radiator. The group-two snowboarders, three telemarkers, and four alpine skiers-miraculously gets geared up and out the door in a half hour. This must be a record of sorts. You'd expect crack military units to mobilize quickly, but ski bums are about as straight and rigid as SpaghettiOs.

Only powder can induce skiers to rally like Marines-and the slopes looming above Le Chable are wallowing in it. A dry blizzard dumped throughout the night, delivering a full meter. (Or three feet for those of us who dislike the metric system, and, for that matter, soccer.) A yard of snow! The Coloradans rip run after run through nipple-high drifts, and too-good-to-be-true turns.

Late in the afternoon, the group has split up, and I'm skiing with one of the Coloradans when the storm abruptly halts and sunshine washes over the untracked. Now that conditions are ideal, we make an impromptu decision to ski to another village, Sembrancher, far below. Because we're in the Alps, we can ride a train back to Le Chable.

Only two other tracks have preceded us to town. We ski cream down alpine bowls and through widely spaced larch glades. Euro euphoria. As we're walking to the train station through a cobblestone alley-a newly purchased three-dollar six-pack of good beer and some fine chocolate in our hands-the Coloradan says, "When the sky opened back there, it was like a sign from on high that we should ski down here. The whole day's been a religious experience, and I don't say that too often. I only get a sign from God every 10 years or so."

One can acquire beer, chocolate, and religious experiences in the Appalachians or Cascades, too, of course. But they're just not the same on our side of the Atlantic. The Alps embody skiing like nowhere else on earth, what with the relatively cheap lift passes, the gargantuan vertical drops, and the deeply ingrained ski culture in which children slap on climbing skins to commute to school.

In the evening following our religiously fluffy day, we reassemble in the flat for beers, wine, and pasta. There's room for two people to eat in the kitchen. Everyone else grabs his plate and worms his way into the living room, holding his elbows in tight to avoid collisions with narrow door frames or a buddy's skull. We're more or less legal aliens here, but we're living a life most illegal immigrants to the U.S. would recognize: crowding many more people than allowed into a small apartment, without the landlord's knowledge, in order to taste the fruits of a foreign promised land.

It'd be tough to live this way forever. But even spoiled First Worlders from the roomy homes of American suburbia can adapt to Euro clusters for a few weeks. You don't really need to bother with the hassles of work permits annd visas and official paperwork. International ski bums without much money can and do thrive in this coveted resort in one of the least affordable nations on the planet.

One day at a weathered on-slope brasserie colloquially known as the Z.Z. Top Café (it's officially named Café Nendaz but plays "Tube Snake Boogie" a lot), I ask a Coloradan how he manages to linger here for four months (which he does almost every winter). "Everybody cuts angles," he answers, sipping a beverage that the cashier had believed was coffee. She charged him three Swiss Francs. "I try not to spend a lot of money." He paid the three Swiss Francs, though he'd actually filled his cup with two espressos. Retail price: six francs. By cutting such corners, a person could spend four months in the Alps for $4,000, assuming they cooked almost all their meals at home and slept within earshot of their roommates's bodily functions.

During my days at the flat in Le Chable, we never eat out, buy souvenirs, or indulge in any of the multitudinous off-slope delights advertised in Verbier's brochures. Our only splurges occur at the Mont Fort Pub-and even then only at happy hour when the bar offers two-for-one prices, which allows us to purchase a couple of giant steins of Cardinal beer (enough to choke a 300-pound Milwaukeean) for less than four bucks. Happy hour beer also makes one sociable and slightly unaware-good mental conditions for sharing cramped housing.

Privacy and closet space, after all, hold negligible value when compared to skiing the vast snowfields and corkscrewing couloirs of the Alps. In yet another reflective moment, the Coloradan with whom I skied to Sembrancher admits, "It is foolish and hedonistic that we spend most of our life just pursuing powder turns. Sometimes it feels like we're cheating at life. We're winning and everyone else is losing."

Neutral observers might argue that cramming eight people into a cheap, down-valley flat with an icy-tiled, shrinkage-inducing john isn't exactly "winning at life." To them, my partner replies, "They're not skiing powder. I am."

Still, what kind of person both lives in the mountains and takes vacations there? Shouldn't ski-town dwellers haul their alabaster bodies to the beach instead? "Some folks are desert people or beach people," he shrugs. "We're mountain people."

Another Coloradan chimes in with more keen skier logic: "I come here, and I don't feel like a tourist," he says, peering around the Gore-Texed butt of another Coloradan in order to make eye contact. "I feel like a tourist at the beach. I went to Mexico before I came here, and to tell you the truth, I was bored. I just sat on the sand and thought about skiing."

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