How hard can skiing be?
I, a moron, thought before agreeing to a skiing adventure in the French Alps’ Three Valleys. I’m very much a believer in the power of mind over matter. However, it wasn’t until our bus weaved through the icy, winding roads up the mountain to our resort that it dawned on me.
There’s something about having your inner ear sloshing around your skull that makes you realize the combination of a fear of heights and the balance of a poorly assembled canape could actually result in death on the ski slopes.
As our coach pulled up to the hotel, I looked out at the beautiful mountains and gulped. Could I do this?
Location, location, oh beautiful location
The Three Valleys are stunning. Staring at them is one of those joys that reaches into your soul and shakes it awake. It’s divine. It’s sublime. There’s no real way to describe it without just showing you photos of the mountains and shouting ‘See!’
The chalet where I stayed, Hotel Alba, really wins on location alone. Every morning while waiting for the free bus down to Meribel, I stood at the edge of the slopes and just absorbed it. When the sun rose above the mountain behind us and illuminated the valley to the distance, I realized why the Romantic poets didn’t stop banging on about nature.
Alba, on the other hand, doesn’t really want to compete with the landscape. Instead, it settles on a traditional chalet design, with a wooden exterior and even more wooden interior.
The communal living room was cosy, complete with a bar, games, a wonderful fireplace and sofas so sinkable the only way I could be more comfortable is if I snapped off my aching legs. This is next to the dining room, where a pretty good buffet breakfast and dinner is provided every day but Wednesday.
The rooms are simple. The bathrooms could probably do with some updating, but the jacuzzi in the basement of the hotel does everything you need anyway. Each room has its own balcony, with all of them on one side providing a view of the towering mountain behind the chalet. Mine was of a road and footpath, so the only view people got in the morning was of a very hairy, very sore man in his boxers.
Gearing up and facing the mountains
A quick 15 minute free shuttle bus into the town of Meribel later and we were ready to face the slopes. We rented our gear from Sport Boutique. The huge clamps of the huger snow boats constricted round my feet and I hobbled the short walk to the first green slope like Iron Man on a budget.
The slope was gentle but that didn’t stop my heart from racing. My travel companions were pretty much all expert skiers, and all swished away, an army of Stupid Sexy Flanders’. This left just me and one person kind enough to coach me down.
It turns out that snow ploughing – the very basic ski move that prevents death, known as ‘pizza’ on South Park – all the way down a hill is hard on your legs. It’s also much harder when your snow boots are the wrong size. Anna, my skiing messiah, tried to help me as much as she could. But by the time I reached the bottom my feet were crushed into a pulpy juice – and along with it, any confidence about setting out onto the slopes.
Yet this was where I learned my first lesson. Skiing is an activity best done in a group, because they can pick you up when you slump the hardest. They also knew enough to tell me the boots were the wrong size.
And they were right. I swung by the shop and changed them for a bigger pair. My feet breathed a sigh of relief.
The group split off to tackle the pistes at various difficulties, leaving me with an instructor.
However, the encouragement was all I needed to get going again. My ESF instructor took me up one of the many ski lifts from Meribel base camp. Our one landed in a crossroads of various green runs – the easiest difficulty – though the others would let you explore blue, red, black and diamond, if you don’t care about living. The sheer variety of runs is the selling point.
The instructor’s patience was as infinite as my incompetence. I used brute strength to keep me on my feet, but once those muscles waned I fell into the powdery snow at the slightest imbalance.
Eventually my confidence grew enough, so my instructor took me to the children’s area, Yeti Park. Fair enough, I thought, as my masculinity cried icy tears.
There were tunnels to ski through, mini-slalom races, and objects to bat as you ski by. I didn’t have to imagine how much fun these tracks would be for children. They were wizzing around me with no ski poles, flying the snow into my face like the bullies in a high school comedy, except I am an adult man and they tiny kids.
I got through one tunnel and fell so spectacularly that the ski literally cut through my skiing trousers.
Eventually the fear began to subside and my arrogant mind started to believe I could ski. Then he took me to a blue run – the second easiest difficulty.
I said I couldn’t do it. My instructor said I could. I started skiing but immediately my legs tangled into each other. Through my eyes, the slope looked almost vertical. I lost my stomach and my heart and I remembered about death.
I stared at my instructor with the obstinance of a toddler as toddlers expertly swerved around me. The only way I could get down was for my instructor to grab me by the hands and ski backwards. Reaching the bottom, my pride was crushed into small powdery snow. All that and I croaked when the going got tough. This was the kind of regret only a beer could solve.
Putting the Après in Après Ski
Our first stop was lunch. The food at Meribar just feet from base camp is basic and the waiters all wore a permanent apology on their face as they put the food down at different times on every table. The happy hour is cracking though.
Le Rond Pont offered everything I wanted. Not only was it literally outside the Hotel Alba, the food was great. The portions are massive wherever you go, because everyone is burning more energy than a Bitcoin miner. However, the steak I ordered was tender and delicious.
Stay a bit later, though, and Rond Pont really shows its true colors. They bring out a live band, the pints and shots are poured, and everyone loses their mind. People are standing on tables and dancing with each other. Everyone’s singing at the top of their lungs. There’s a slide down to the toilets. A slide!
Once the sun goes down, venture into town. If you aren’t planning on partying, you have to eat raclette at La Kousina. The restaurant is traditional in the most touristy possible way, even down to the waiters wearing cute hats. Get over that novelty and you can tuck into the huge wedges of cheese, melted on your table, which you spread across dreamy charcuterie and new potatoes. I ate so much I nearly burst.
La Taverne Bar’s live band and decent craft beer collection kept the Après feeling flowing. It got a bit first week of university when a particularly loud group of twentysomething straight men in novelty Hawaiian shirts stole the dance floor.
In what is perhaps the openest goal of all time, the band played Mr Brightside and suddenly everyone was possessed by the ghost of their own heterosexuality. As they screamed and hugged each other I prayed to the Greek gods for making me gay.
The bar that stays open latest is the imaginatively named Pub. It has a similar young vibe. If you don’t take it seriously, these places are good to let your hair down. There are dozens of other bars scattered through town if you’re not into partying-partying, like Le Bar Fifty 50, where I got to pet a gigantic dog while drinking wheat beer.
Prove to yourself
However, La Folie Douce, found in the mountains, is the place to experience true Après goodness. A live band with a saxophonist plays on a stage overlooking the outside area and lines of tables brace themselves for snow-booted drunkards to dance on them. Deep sofas wait for those with weary legs inside. It’s an apres ski Valhalla we needed to visit.
It snowed gently when we skied down from the lift.
Unfortunately, the weather put most people off. So rather than sing on tables, we drank a few beers, listened to a few songs, and decided to ski down to our resort.
When we stepped outside we were confronted with a blizzard. My heart sunk. I’d drunk two beers and my last attempt at a challenge resulted in someone holding my hands down a hill. All the doubts came flooding back.
But there was no other choice. I needed to get down. Gently, we began our descent. We tried to stay as close to each other as possible, because even a few yards away my friend’s bright pink jacket disappeared into the white mist. My feet kept slipping on the ice that encrusted the snow.
I wondered what people would tell my mum: he died as he lived, stupidly attempting something he was incredibly ill-equipped for.
I couldn’t give up. There was no way to give up. So I skied. I skied like I’d never skied before. I snow plouged, then paralleled, then snow ploughed. When my legs wobbled; I adjusted my weight. Eventually my brain was too busy to think about falling to my death into the valleys.
Despite the ice, despite being blind, despite my fears and despite the self-doubt, I fought through. I arrived at the hotel and realized why people love skiing so much.
Sure the scenery and the drinks are one thing. What truly gives skiing its shine is the challenge: of doing well and staying alive, yes, but also of proving to yourself you can do it. Most of us spend so much time believing we can’t do things. Sometimes we just have to throw ourselves down a mountain to prove we can.
Ski Total (www.skitotal.com / 01483 791 935) is offering seven nights at Chalet Hotel Alba in Méribel, France from £674 per person. Price includes flights, resort transfers and chalet catered accommodation with wine. For more information on visiting Méribel, go to www.meribel.net and to book lessons or guides, go to www.esf-meribel.com.