the pdf


the pdf
Jean-Daniel Sudres/; Holly Junak; Amit Lennon
Where are the
Be informed. best slopes
Be inspired. (and lunches)
in the Alps? Let
Be there Sebastian Faulks
be your guide
The Sunday Times Travel Magazine
October issue £3.60 – in newsagents now
he helicopter dropped over the lip of
the mountain and
disappeared from
sight. There was a
stifled scream from
the people watching
by the road. A tense
half-minute later, the sound of
the rotors became audible again,
then grew in volume until, with
a rush, the white chopper came
back into view, rising triumphant over the distant line of
peaks. Inside, there were four of
us clinging on with fixed smiles.
Once over the ridge, the pilot,
whose name was Mike (in an
ideal world all pilots would be
called Mike), threw the little
thing back and forth a bit before
landing it — I promise — on the
tow-trailer of his van. Then he
backed it into his roomy garage.
Usually, I just take the bus.
The helicopter was the idea of
Nick, the chalet manager, who
was keen to spare us a 40-minute
drive. It was technically not heliskiing, which I think involves
being deposited at the top of a
vertical wall of ice — just a lift to
the foot of the chair at Arc 1950, a
village of Disney-like houses.
This was in February, and we
were in the valley of the Isère
River, but not staying in Val
d’Isère, Tignes or Les Arcs, the
well-run but rather charmless
resorts that dominate the skiing
at this end of the valley. Instead,
we had found a chalet in a rustic
village called Le Miroir. Chalet
Merlo belonged to a hedge-fund
manager and was fitted out as
you might expect: outdoor hot
tub, bathrooms ensuite, resident
chef, gantry of Bloomberg
screens over the bed... No, I think
I may have imagined the screens.
But there was permanent champagne as well as heated boot
racks, a visiting masseuse, extensive DVD collection and food
better than in any restaurant.
It was not always like this.
Skiing, to begin with, was about
pain: the clamp of boot, the
screaming ache of thigh muscle,
the frostbitten fingertips in
threadbare, borrowed gloves, the
trudge down tarmac roads with
skis digging into your shoulder
and the lower back always on the
verge of spasm. Learning is hard
enough, but trying to learn in
cut-price resorts with a half-hour
walk to the lift and then little
more than ice and rock at the top
was a test of one’s desire. Macugnaga, Sauze d’Oulx, Le Mont
d’Or... These are not so much
notches scored into the 1970s
headboard as war wounds that
on bad days can still fester.
Yet at some point it must have
started to become enjoyable. We
found lodgings nearer to the lifts;
we could afford to go to resorts
that actually had snow. The
Getting air in Val d’Isère,
left . Below, Chalet Merlo;
and Sebastian and friend
relax on the slopes
design of the boots became better. And finally, at some point,
we got the hang of the sport
itself. Through the 1980s a regular group of us tried different
places: Cortina, Zermatt, Les
Houches, St Anton, Arabba, Val
d’Isère, Megève...
All had their charms and their
drawbacks. For what it’s worth, I
thought Zermatt was, all in all,
the best, though the apartment I
had booked was so dingy that
two of our number checked out
on day two. Arabba had a knotty
Italo-Austrian character and
probably my favourite single run
— the Marmolada: several minutes of gently twisting pleasure.
The drawback was that it needed
two vertiginous cable cars to
reach the 11,000ft summit, and
in the second of these some sort
of decompressive altitude effect
invariably caused the less inhibited passengers to break wind.
conversations I have ever been a
party to have taken place inside a
four- or six-person bubble. Something about the mixture of intimacy and wildness — a hydraulically sealed egg chugging high
above the void — seems to provoke weird confidences. What a
delightful way of travelling —
and with such variety. The rickety two-man chair that compels
intimacy on a cold afternoon
when the sun has gone off the
mountain, the sociable fourberth, and the padded six-man
job with rugs thrown in... Then,
at the top, there is the etiquette
of bar-raising that reveals more
than a Rorschach test about your
fellow traveller: the one who
keeps the bar down till the last
minute because he fears to fall, or
the one who likes to get the bar
up early in case he is swept round
again. These are deep questions,
LIKE MANY things worth doing,
skiing has a bad reputation. The
horrible nylon clothes in garish
colours; the posh yobs who do it;
the vulgar yobs who do it; the
expense; the danger... Well, my
view is that you can’t live your
life in fear of reputation and
received ideas; and, above all, the
pleasures so reliably outweigh
the caveats.
Take the lifts — as you are
obliged to. Some of the best
“The thing my
ideal run
does not have
is teenage
Herr Doktor. I am an early raiser
myself, especially if the clearance between footrest and bar is
too short for me to have got my
knees in.
I think we all dread the twoman hook or T-bar, the nearubiquity of which at Klosters is a
serious drawback to that resort. I
know that the key is to relax, not
pull; but with certain partners
(no names) it inadvertently
becomes a trial of strength that
can only end one way: a bailout
of Brownian proportions. Then
there is the one-man drag or button that on certain steep sections
strains not just the forearm but
also the soft tissues of the backside. Not for nothing is it widely
known as the Fister.
Afterwards, there is lunch, a
feature that has grown so much
in importance over the years
that it’s possible to view a short
December day as little more than
a complicated series of lifts and
descents to and from the chosen
restaurant. Once, it was a sandwich prepacked at the hotel in a
paper bag, though to be honest
that was never enough, being
disposed of by 11am and supplemented from a self-service at 1pm.
This year I had perhaps the
best ski lunch I’ve ever had, at La
Fruitière, a stylishly converted
dairy in Val d’Isère, though at
that price, one’s hopes were
pretty high.
Really, I prefer small huts that
take navigational mastery (not
mine: that of our regular Austrian navigator, or Fahrtmeister)
to truffle out — hidden in some
rocky cleft, a short and nasty
schuss off the beaten piste. They
offer little or no choice, but provide good wine, strong meat and
a startlingly handsome waitress
who looks as though she has
never seen a city type before.
If you can’t be bothered to
search for such treasures, go
to L’Alpette, at the top of the
Rochebrune cable car in Megève,
and have the boudin noir et ses deux
pommes. You don’t even need to
ski to get stuck into this fabulous
dish. The restaurants in the
resort itself are often not as good
as those up the mountain; or
maybe one just has less of a sense
of achievement after walking 100
yards along the street.
In Le Miroir this year we had a
gifted Scottish cook called Fiona,
who had trained with Alastair
Little and was happy to accommodate the Fahrtmeister’s desire
for offal at every meal (we even
had a pig’s-ear amuse-gueule,
which was a bit cartilaginous
for me; I can’t imagine the late
sow had very sharp hearing; a
blessing if her husband was a
boar) and, at the same time, the
request of others for fresh fish,
which I imagine is not easy to
find in the Alps.
2 miles
Le Miroir
Val d’Isère
And occasionally, when the
lifting and the lunching have to
stop, you do ski. Over the years
your style becomes self-parodic
as you give up trying to look good
and rely instead on those movements that have served you well
up till now. Thus one of our
group is known as Reg Varney,
since the burly arm movements
of his turn look like a man
steering a double-decker into a
narrow high street; one is Man
Friday for the way his stick, a
long time raised then suddenly
jabbed down, suggests an island
native spearing fish in shallow
water. Another is Le Saucisson
Bleu. How an upright skier can
look like a blue sausage is hard to
explain; but take it from me, you
almost want a nibble. And one is
Deputy Dawg, but that’s because
of his succession of ear-flapping
hats. I don’t think I have a ski
nickname; my suggestion of
Killy didn’t seem to catch on.
MY IDEAL piste is long, with
some hefty moguls at the top, an
exhilarating schuss at one point,
a steep and narrow black part (to
sort out the style queens) and a
long, unwinding red section
through forests of firs whose
arms hang limply at their sides.
It has a river in flood by the narrow part and it has sun on the
lower reaches where those of us
(not me) who have a fancy hip
wiggle can show it off before the
final schuss down to an empty
chair where an autochthonous
mountain man serves free grog.
I haven’t found it yet, but I’ve
come close. The Marmolada (see
page 6) has the length; the riverside run of the Madrisa in
Klosters has the trees and the
water; pistes in Verbier whose
names I can’t remember have
the moguls; the mighty Aiguille
Rouge in Les Arcs has the additional pleasures of snow buntings and white ptarmigan.
The things my ideal run emphatically does not have are
teenage snowboarders, making
that grating icy noise behind
that lets you know they’re not
quite in control and, if they cannon into you and break your legs,
they won’t stop to help. Nor does
it have Volvo skiers, who go very
slowly across the whole piste in
front of you, giving every appearance of being about to turn right,
then, at the very last second,
bottle out and turn left again.
Nor does it have ice or bare rock;
nor that flat light that makes it
hard to tell how the land lies.
I skied well just once in my
life, at Cortina. I don’t know
why, but the skis just refused to
be parted; they made the faintest, unfamiliar wooden clacking
all week long as they stuck
together. We took a chair up a
steep couloir and at one point a
sign said “If you are not a brilliant skier, get off here”, or words
to that effect in Italian. I was
chuckling away at the very
thought of jumping ship when I
looked across and saw that my
friend had done just that, leaving
me alone. Shoot.
The prospect from the top was
not great: it was close to vertical,
pretty bare and only about 20ft
wide. But luckily I spotted the
Daily Telegraph’s Russian correspondent, who had recently, if
unjustly, been expelled from
Moscow for spying. He was a
resourceful ally in such a tight
spot. I don’t remember much
about it, but we got down somehow. The next year at St Anton
I skied like a beginner again
Continued on page 8
Centaur by John Updike. And,
ah, the rapture of the slow
Occasionally, as I get worse
and worse at it, I have toyed with
the idea of not going skiing any
more. But it only takes two or
three runs to remember not just
the exhilaration but the uniquely
calming and mind-clearing qualities of the sport. When the masters of Zen were looking for a way
to reach a higher mental plane,
they didn’t suggest lying on a
beach, covered in oil, rotating
like a chicken on a spit. This was
Continued from page 7
and have never recaptured that
week-long knack; I sometimes
think I only dreamt it.
At the end of the day, there
remains one difficult question to
sort out. Tea, bath, book and deep
sleep are given; but in which
order should they be taken?
There is a certain kind of densely
written, high-quality but faintly
soporific novel that is ideal in
these circumstances, and I think
one would have to go a long way
to find an apter book than The
The wintry charms of Le Miroir
Holly Junak
not only because it’s so boring
and uncomfortable and gives you
skin cancer; it’s because if you try
to think about nothing, you end
up thinking about everything.
No, the key is to think hard, but
about one single thing. With
meditation, it is a mantra; with
skiing, it is about trying to stay
alive at high speed. Nothing else.
Soon your mind empties of all
other thoughts and a vacuous
smile comes over your face;
songs you hadn’t thought
about for 20 years form on your
chapped lips.
Perhaps it was in this state of
calm that a friend of my sisterin-law, taken short after too
much water at lunch, dropped
her salopettes and knickers to
squat in a wood beside the
piste. A well brought-up young
woman of impeccable manners,
she alas forgot the vital thing: to
make sure the tips of her skis
were pointing up the mountain.
Some minor movement caused a
loss of grip — and then a frictionless glissade from between the
sheltering trees and back onto
the piste, which was crowded
with postlunch revellers. And
thus, unable to snowplough
with ankles roped together by
her underwear, she made her
unusual, though nicely parallel,
Sebastian Faulks was a guest of
Chalet Merlo and Eurostar
Travel brief: Chalet Merlo (0845
324 3521,, in the
village of Le Miroir, sleeps up
to 12 and costs £6,150 to £16,790
a week, half-board, including
wine, champagne and daily ski
With Eurostar (0870 518 6186,, rail returns from
London St Pancras to Bourg-St
Maurice start at £149.
Snowjet ( flies
to Chambéry from Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Stansted
and Gatwick, with return fares
from £58.
For something approaching
the Le Miroir experience at a
lower price, try the small, quiet
Ste Foy, a 10-minute drive away.
Peak Retreats (0844 576 0170, offers twobedroom self-catering flats sleeping six from £969, including
Eurotunnel crossings for a car
and passengers.
Booking a whole chalet
with friends this winter?
Then read this first.
1 Ask for discounts. Tour
operators who sell their
properties on a room-by-room
basis love it when someone
wants to fill a whole chalet
with a single group, so you’re
in a good bargaining position.
They’ll almost certainly offer
a discount as a result. For an
overview of what you can get
from whom, talk to a
specialist travel agent such as
Ski Solutions (0207 471 7700,, which
sells chalets from lots of
different companies.
2 Ask for floor plans. The
smaller, specialist chalet
operators usually provide
these as a matter of course.
They’re a valuable tool when
it comes to working out who
sleeps where, and you’ll save
yourself a lot of holiday
tension if you sort this before
you travel, rather than letting
the first people through the
front door grab the best room.
3 Work on your guest list.
First-timers and nonskiers
will darken the atmosphere
if they’re on their own, so
make sure they have
company. An all-children or
no-children policy is essential,
too. And don’t let anyone bring
a hot date — if it doesn’t work
out, you’ll all share the gloom
and probably end up playing
relationship counsellors for
the rest of the week.
4 Book early. After last year’s
blood-letting in the ski
industry, a lot of operators
have cut back on their chalet
stock this season, so if you’re
looking for a particular
resort, get in fast. Good
specialist companies include
Scott Dunn (020 8682 5000, and YSE
(0845 122 1414,
for upmarket options; and
VIP/Snowline (0844 557
3119,, Ski
Beat (01243 780405,, Le Ski
(01484 548996, leski.
com) and Ski Total
(01252 618333, skitotal.
com) for keen prices.
Win a chalet holiday
for two people in
Méribel with
Inghams — see
page 34