Heaven and hell
Mary Wakefield on the highs and lows of skitouring in the French Alps .57 a.m. I wake up three minutes before the alarm is due to go off, aware that I have slept badly: dipping in and out of consciousness. All night I've been fretting, imagining the various ways in which I might kill myself on the mountain today. I am not a good skier. I often fall over and sometimes, in deep snow, become cast like a sheep, wedged, unable to rise. If frightened I freeze, like a rabbit. Cousin Peter, my septuagenarian ski-guru, says that I'm finally ready to come ski-touring off-piste with him and his guide, Fred. I feel sick. I want to stay in the chalet and sketch, or make raclette.
7.30 a.m. Outside, the French Alps are still in shadow but the sky is brightening. Plasters, long socks, salopettes. I shuffle through to the kitchen, where cousin Peter is packing his knapsack for our day out: sun cream; goggles; hat; sandwiches, water; shovel. Shovel? 'For digging us out of avalanches,' says Peter. I am going to die.
At 8.00 a.m. Fred the guide appears — °wiz everyone?' — and we're off, in formation, past the ski-school queues of tiny, helmeted demons, down to Belle Plagne, the highest village in the La Plagne resort, under the wing of the Bellecotte glacier, in the Tarentaise area of the Savoie department of the Northern Alps. There's not much oldworld charm about La Plagne. It's all stacks of flats and crazy-paved shopping malls, but, says Peter, it has easy access to relative wilderness and to Fred, the mountain whisperer.
However fancy your ski technique, you stand a decent chance of dying if you think you can navigate unknown terrain and avoid hidden crevasses on your own. First, find your Fred.
I've never been here this early before. The lifts are just starting up, cold cogs turning, cables tightening, sending the shadows of the telecabins creeping over the hills. Other pros call over to us: 'Eh, Fred, sant!' Peter and I stand by, shy, wondering if our off-piste gear gives us credibility in the eyes of the guides, suspecting not.
On the first chair, Fred and I sit together in silence, watching the snow slide by punctuated with paw-prints and dropped gloves. I'm still scared, but now almost cheerful, resigned to my fate: oh bloody hell. Whatever.
Fred is napping behind polarised lenses, so I squint up at the Bellecote, 3,417 metres above sea level. A hundred million years ago, these peaks and precipices were all flat. They formed the floor of the ancient Alpine Tethys Ocean, a peaceful home to spiny cretaceous fish. Then, the African plate crept north and began its slow collision with the European plate, first compressing and folding the soft layers of ocean sediment, then throwing up great slaps of broken crust into the Alps. I think I remember being told that they are still growing. I ask Fred.
'Yes, but you know, the land changes in many ways every year,' says Fred, shrugging. 'Some things get bigger, some smaller. See the glacier over there?' I do, a blue glow under the sweep of snow. 'It is shrinking. The last few years I have noticed it melts very fast. Global warming. La rechauffement de la monde. When you see something every day, you notice.' But Fred is a philosopher as well as a ski guide: 'There is no point in panic,' he says. 'We must learn to adapt. You know, in some way, global warming gives us opportunities. We have to look harder for the snow, go to different countries.'
Now we've reached the top of the highest lift. We duck under a rope, past a sign saying 'danger' with a cartoon picture of a falling skier, and begin our mission. First we sidestep up the slope, then traverse around a hip of snow, then pause at the bottom of a long, white incline sweeping up to a peak. Time to unpeel our orange 'skins' from their backing, and glue them to the base of our skis. The skins' polyester hairs act like barbs, catching against the snow as the skis slip backwards, allowing us to walk uphill.
One hot hour later, waddling like penguins, panting like dogs, we approach a sort of summit Walking on skins is curiously satisfying — life is reduced to leg pain and the crunch and squeak of snow — but I assume we're near the end of our climb because to the left there's a manageable incline down, whereas to our right the mountain rises steeply up into a distant, spiny ridge.
I wait for Fred to signal left. Fred takes off his skis and straps them to his knapsack. Fred turns right, and begins to climb towards the ridge, up what to me looks like a 60-degree angle, kicking his boots into the snow as he goes. This is the moment I dreaded. On either side of the ridge the mountain falls away into cliffs and couloirs. I know Fred wouldn't lead us into danger — he's experienced (and expensive — for a small group, a guide costs roughly €100 per person a day). I also know what I'm looking at. But what can I do? I follow, slotting my feet into the holes left by Fred's toes, focusing on the back of his red boots as they make their way steadily up. After half an hour of this my fear is shot through with outrage. If I lean back a bit, I think, I'll fall. If I fall, I die. Who's in charge round here? Whose responsibility am I? My own?
Soon the three of us are on the level again, single file on the narrow ridge. It's almost more terrifying. I'm aware of the space all around but I'm not looking at the view, just at Fred's footprints, blue-grey scoops in the bright white. My knees are actually quivering. I want to sit down. Then suddenly the path widens out into a little plateau and I'm safe at last. VI va, Mary?' Fred is grinning, unwrapping a French chocolate bar. All around, a vast bowl of sunlit Alps. Was it really lifethreatening? Was there any danger at all? It doesn't matter. I have inner resources after all! I feel ludicrously happy.
After our climb we ski down the mountain's far side, out of sight of the resort, and it's like discovering a new, better side to someone you thought you knew. I've always liked skiing — the crisp air, the swanking around — but this is a dream: fields of light powder and not another soul anywhere. We glide for miles with the sun in our hair and the hiss of metal slicing through snow. Away from the piste the Alps are no longer a theme park, but proper nature. A pair of white ptarmigan sit fluffed up against a rock; chamois strike heroic poses on icy overhangs or feed in herds on patches of wet brown grass. A pair of marmots, like fat-bottomed beavers, eyeball us. I take phone photos. At 2 p.m. we stop and lean against a boulder, eating ham sandwiches, listening to the clink and gurgle of water dripping in the dark under the snow.
Later there's more walking, this time with our skis on our shoulders, past the snowline, down narrow rocky tracks into the damp fields below. Fred greets farmers in flat caps, going home for their tea. I feel like an alien in my ski gear, descending from another world. A bus ride later we're back in La Plagne, watching the crowds commuting down from the piste, jostling, hassling. I'm not sure I want to face being one of them again.
For hotels: www.laplagne.co.uk; for ski guides: www.la-plagne.com.