William Ham Bevan rekindles his love for an old French flame. Keep it a bit quiet – mustn’t tempt fate, you understand – but I’ve got a spot of good news. Val and I are seeing each other again.
We’re taking it slowly at first – spent just a week together last winter – but it’s enough for us both to realise the old spark’s still there, and I’m gradually getting to know her again. Sure, there are compromises. I’ve promised not to take her for granted, and not to slip back into the same dull old routine. In return, she’s undertaken not to keep me waiting all the time, and to tone her behaviour down a bit after a few drinks. You see, the magic fizzled out of my long-term affaire with Val d’Isère sometime in the late Nineties. There was no catastrophic bust-up – rather, it was a build-up of petty frustrations that made the relationship untenable. As a so-called ‘recreational’ skier, happy to spend most of my time on piste, I’d built up a load of favourite trails in the Espace Killy: doing short swings (remember those?) down the Face de Bellevarde; bombing down the long cruisers from the Aiguille Percé to Les Brévières; just pottering around the wide open pistes under the Grande Motte. Yet somehow the crowds and queues seemed to second-guess my plans, and follow me wherever I went. And at the worst of the lift bottlenecks, I’d wait seething in line as chair after chair disappeared up the cable carrying just one or two people, with the attendants appearing to care not a jot. What’s worse, I was also pursued by a noise: the characteristic rasp – like an oar being scraped in gravel – of an out-of-control snowboarder failing to get an edge on a hard-packed piste. Even having developed a bat-like awareness for this warning sound, I got wiped off the face of the mountain by a hit-and-run boarder on more than one occasion.
It was Val’s behaviour off the slopes, though, that was the final straw. Let’s not pretend otherwise: the place has always been a home- from-home for the sort of braying Brits once characterised as ‘Henrys and Henriettas’. There’s nothing wrong with that. Their forefathers were the people who invented alpine skiing, after all.
But towards the end of the last decade, the place was out of control. The main trawl seemed entirely colonised by stuffed rugby shirts on corporate race tournaments, tottering teenagers from university ski outings and shrieking chalet bunnies – all on a mission to get as smashed as possible, whether they enjoyed it or not. So what’s changed? Well, we both have, Val and I. The town has calmed down – in part, thanks to a crackdown by the authorities on drunken behaviour – and is no longer in peril of becoming to snowsports what Prague is to stag nights. The bugbear of crowds on the slopes has been addressed by spanking new lift infrastructure. But just as important as all of that is the realisation that I’d got myself into a rut with Val d’Isère. Seeking out lesser-known corners of the ski area has repaid the effort in spades. Having a guide – even if not planning any serious backcountry escapades – makes a huge difference.
Since getting back with Val, I’ve skied both with Tetra and with independent alpiniste Pierre Liotard. The under-used Iseran sector, above Le Fornet, was a place I’d thought of as blasted and bleak before; but in good weather at least, its long, cruising runs turn out to be scenic and soul-lifting. Then there are the ‘Naturides’ of Tignes – black runs that are now left unpisted, and swiftly end up as a giant’s bubblewrap of moguls – where some fantastic bump skiing is on offer.
I still have a soft spot for the thumping afternoon parties outside La Folie Douce. But there’s a lot to be said for seeking out quieter spots. Le Trifollet on the way down to La Daille is more reasonably priced, and the food’s almost as good.