By Ptor Spricenieks
LA GRAVE, France — Novembuary begins in La Grave. Town is deserted. The lifts are far from open. Nothing is open, nobody is around. The seasonal skiers haven't shown up yet and the local guides have run away to Greece to go climbing. There's a fresh meter in the alpine on top of a solid base and the harsh scouring north winds that appear in late December are still far off. It's not a traditional time of the year to ski here, yet, this year is not the first time big snow has come early. Why should skiing be limited to its traditional times—when it's good, it's good, n'est-ce pas?
All autumn I'd been in the process of building my house. I'd finished the outside and made it to inside work just in time for the arrival of the storms. As the jet stream vacillated overhead, I couldn't keep myself from looking out of the windows in between cuts of wood, with that same old longing and anticipation I had as a child. Cold arctic air and warm southerly moisture were clashing, alternately pounding the east window and the west window with horizontal driving rain and snow. Moments of blue sky were short lived. When the sky finally cleared and the air cooled, boulder fields had been subdued by white and the alpine was once again immaculate.
I made my buddy Charles laugh when I called him to see if he wanted to tour up to the 3200m top-station of the Telepherique and ski Les Vallons. He was all over it. My hair was still dusty from days on the table saw when I met him bright and early on 11/11. Last year on the same day, it was magic too. Setting off, it was just pure desire and love of skiing powder that overcame the dread of a five-hour climb breaking trail with knee-deep ski penetration. I had no days of skiing and touring on the legs to rely on. My only training had been hauling wheelbarrows of manure up to the garden.
It's so personal to be with one's "ski hill" before its mechanical advantage is activated. The size of the mountain returns to actual values when it has to be climbed. This day it wasn't a problem and at the top, sitting on an bench that had to be excavated by the drifted-in restaurant… a small picnic in the sun and a few "taffs" on the pipe made the tribute to solitude complete. Dropping in at mid-day on the perpetually dark north side of the mountain, there was no doubt—the light was all blue. Surface snow crystals caught the light of the blue of the sky and was further amplified by the light reflected off the snow from the sunny side of the valley. The descent was just "Flamenco Sketches" of our skiing prowess that was reawakening for the winter as we danced gingerly, trying not to dig too deep. Unaffected powder and a base to the valley made for a potent 1800m return to the bliss state.
Charles and I continued on into Novembuary joined by local tele master Nico Aubert and cameraman Sylvain Berry. Our ski days got darker, shorter, deeper, bluer. There was just no way to stop. Resisting skiing the Tabouchet Glacier from the Refuge de L'Aigle was impossible. By this time the temperature in the alpine had dropped to an arctic -30°C, so cold that with the stiff breeze I was afraid to take my hand out of my glove to take a ski picture on our 2100m powder run. Some scoffed at our audacity and others were not ready to hear about it. This run just wasn't done at this time of year. It didn't quite register to them; indeed, it barely registered to me, how good it was.
On into Decembuary the storms didn't let up. I kept working while it stormed and was ready and rested for the next window. Together we continued touring long, sustained runs without seeing another soul in a region that's usually crawling with ski-touring enthusiasts. Finally, the alpine had crossed the threshold… too loaded and dangerous as the snow built up to that critical point and beyond. With the unusually low temperatures and north wind that had finally set in, going up high was no longer an option. However, now the larch forests of the region cradled deep cold smoke as if in midwinter. Bottomless is a rare state for these parts.
Decembuary had all the shades of blue, sad ones too. A friend suddenly and mysteriously committed suicide, leaving behind his wife and two kids. An unfathomable decision for myself and I wondered if he would have made the same choice if he would have been out skiing. Personal problems and days of cold gray rain in a deserted town are not as easily digested when one's life is not organized to drop everything and go when the conditions are on.
This fall was some of the best conditions I have ever skied here in the La Grave area and perhaps they will remain as the best of the year. For myself, I was already feeling fulfilled by the time the lift opened on the winter solstice. As the sun began its ascent back up the sky, I was ready to accept whatever the mountains would give, content that I was prepared and had made the effort to realize the potential of Novembuary.