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#He'll be coming down the mountain, as he comes - John C. Kirk

Feb. 10th, 2008

05:45 pm - #He'll be coming down the mountain, as he comes

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I've been on holiday in France for the last week, staying at Les Deux Alpes with some friends (susannahf, mrpj_antarctica, elvum, and terpsichore1980) to do some snowboarding. This was a fun week; I've got a few bruises, but I've definitely improved during the week.

To give a bit of background/recap, I've done some dry slope skiing in the past: once after my GCSEs (in 1990), and a few times at Beckton Alps with some Durham friends (in 1996). I had lessons, but I didn't do very well. One problem was that I kept crossing my skis, particularly on the button lift. The other problem was that my "snowplough" technique didn't seem to work, and I'd go down the main (learner) slope, up the shorter slope at the bottom, and hit the barrier that stopped people falling onto the big slope. Several people have said that it's easier to learn on snow, partly because it doesn't hurt as much when you fall over, but my friends did better than me, so I think that natural talent plays a part (i.e. I'm a bit of a slow learner).

I then went off to Samoens on company ski trips (at my last job), in 2004 and 2005. When I went there, I tried out snowboarding instead, and this went a lot better (after an iffy start); one big advantage for me is that it's impossible to cross over a single board with itself! So, since I've been more successful with snowboarding, I decided to stick with that for this holiday, although the others were all skiing.

Unfortunately, I've got a bit fatter in the last few years (I'm now borderline obese); in my case, this is because I'm a lazy glutton (i.e. eating too much and not doing enough exercise), and it caused a few problems during the week.

Saturday

We had to leave Croydon at "oh dark thirty" to get to Gatwick, but I was able to doze on the flight and the coach, so it wasn't too bad. Once we got to the village, we checked in (we'd rented a self-catering flat) and picked up our gear from the rental shop. One odd quirk of snowboarding is that I had to put down a €250 deposit on my board, which didn't apply to people hiring skis; I got it back at the end of the week, but it would have been nice to have a bit of advance warning. On a more positive note, the shop were very good about swapping equipment around when we asked them to (e.g. asking for longer ski poles).

I've had trouble in the past with boots that were too tight; I'm normally a size 9 (UK), but my feet are quite wide, and ski/snowboard boots are quite rigid, so I went for size 28.5 (equivalent to 10/10.5 UK) which worked well. I'm not sure what scale that's in (I'm about 43/44 in Euro shoe size), but I'm documenting it here for future reference.

Sunday

Time to hit the slopes! We all went to Le Viking (beginner slope), and I was a bit rusty at first, but it all came back to me fairly quickly. After that, elvum and I took a lift further up the mountain to try out Chemins des Demoiselles (a longer green slope) while the other three had lessons. As an aside, I'm quite impressed by the ski pass system that they use on lifts: it's a bit like an Oyster card, and you keep it in your left pocket, then it can be scanned through your clothing (and even through the air) as you go past, so you can pretty much forget about it and let everything happen automatically.

Anyway, the Demoiselles slope was a bit steeper than the Viking slope, so I found it harder going, and my calf muscles got quite tired because I was balancing on the edge of my snowboard all the time. It took me a while to do the first stretch, and then I saw a corner ahead which looked even steeper, so I really didn't feel confident about handling that. Instead, I wimped out and walked back to the nearest chairlift so that I could get back up the slope. (elvum carried on to the bottom of the mountain, since he's a much better skier than me.)

As it turned out, the lift I got on went a bit higher than I thought, and I wound up at the top of Crêtes (a blue slope). I did go on a blue slope at Samoens, but there doesn't seem to be any objective standard for colour coding, so it's a bit like indoor climbing walls: the rating depends on the person who rated it. In this case, I'd say that there are lots of green slopes at Les Deux Alpes which would correspond to blue slopes at Samoens, so the blues would probably correspond to reds. It would be nice to have more specifics about each slope, e.g. the width at its narrowest point and the gradient at the steepest point, but that may be impractical. (As elvum pointed out, the "steepest point" may only be an inch long.)

Since I wasn't even going to attempt Crêtes, I followed the signpost for another green slope, although it took me a while to realise that I was actually on it (rather than just walking towards it), since the start was fairly flat. This was Route du Thuit, and it's definitely the longest run I've ever done: I'm not sure of the distance, but it took me about 1h 15m to get to the end.

We all met up for lunch, then tried out Petit Crêtes (another green slope) in the afternoon. This was another one that looked quite steep, so I wouldn't really recommend it for someone on their first day of skiing. I got down it by doing "bunny hops", i.e. I'd balance on the edge of my snowboard (facing up the slope), tilt it down enough to slide a bit, then stop again, and repeat this process until I reached a shallower section.

Monday

When we woke up in the morning, it was snowing; ironically, this is a bad thing. elvum, mrpj_antarctica and I planned to go up to the top of a slope on the button lift, then traverse across to the main egg lift so that we could meet the other two. However, I had some trouble at the first hurdle, with the lift itself.

If you use a button lift on skis, it's fairly straightforward: you point your skis up the slope, pull the telescopic pole down towards you, then tuck the round button seat between your legs. On a snowboard, it's a bit more tricky, since your feet are perpendicular to the board. In my case, I'm "goofy" "regular" (i.e. I put my left foot at the front of the board), so my feet are pointing to the right. That means that in order to have the board pointing up the hill, my left leg is blocking the space where the pole needs to go. The solution is to twist your body round, but I found it difficult to get enough of a gap between my thighs, so that's one of the places where I now have bruises. The other problem is that you need to undo your back foot from the snowboard, so that you can use the snowboard like a skateboard to move through the queue; that means that you have less control over its movements, particularly when you come off the lift at the top.

I got most of the way up the slope before I lost my grip and came off, so I then had to walk the rest of the way to the top. All of the fresh snow was soft (rather than packed like the piste), so I sunk up to my knees, and I had to take off my goggles because I couldn't see where I was going. I finally made it up to the top, and told the other two to go on without me, since I could tell it was going to take me a long time to get anywhere. I bunny-hopped my way back down to the bottom of the slope, then met the others back at the flat for lunch.

That afternoon, I went back out on foot to take some photos of Susannah and mrpj_antarctica on the Coolidge slopes. As it turned out, the snow cleared up, so I would have been ok to try snowboarding again, but never mind; at least it gave me a bit of a rest.

In the evening, we all went out to dinner, where they served some rather unusual salads. A few years ago, Budweiser did a series of "Real Men of Genius" adverts, one of which was Mr Giant Taco Salad Inventor. ("A 12,000 calorie salad. [...] Is your taco salad healthy? Of course it is, it's a salad isn't it?") I had a similar reaction to the dishes there.

Tuesday

The snow had stopped, so the conditions on the slopes were pretty much ideal. I decided to stick to the baby slopes for a while, to build my confidence up. I think that the way I snowboard is a lot like the way I drive: I'm cautious (possibly over-cautious), and I don't mind travelling at high speed, but I want to know that I'm in control and that I could stop in time to avoid a collision if I needed to. The related issue is that if I take on a slope that I'm not ready for then it makes me worse on the easier slopes that I used to be able to handle. So, my solution is to stick with the easier slopes until I've learnt all that I can from them, before I move on.

I started out back on Le Viking, and did a few laps of that, paying particular attention to my turns, so that I could go back and forth across the slope without stopping in between. On one run, I went to the left side of the slope and turned right, then over to the right side and started to turn left. However, part-way through the turn I realised that I'd misjudged it, and that I was about to overbalance (tipping forward). That's a pity, but it's not a disaster, so I crouched down to cushion my fall with my hands (rather than sprawling flat on my face). As it turned out, this shifted my centre of gravity enough that I didn't actually fall over, so instead I did a tight turn with my fingers skimming just above the surface of the snow. This was a complete fluke, but it probably looked quite impressive, and I actually said out loud "Oh yes, who's the man?" That's the type of situation where it's actually fun, as opposed to "survival skiing"; it may be trivial to a more advanced skier, but it gave me enough confidence to shift over Le Grand Viking (a slightly steeper hill on the other side of the button lifts).

As I mentioned, button lifts in general can be a bit tricky on a snowboard. The extra problem on this particular lift was that the poles were all supplied from a rack on the left, which was effectively behind my back. As soon as I tugged on the pole (to get it out), that would trigger the mechanism to pull it up the slope, which left a rather narrow window of opportunity to get it all the way around my body and between my legs. The first time I tried, I didn't manage it in time and the pole was yanked out of my hand. The second time, I got it partly in place, and started to move up the slope, but then when I tried to adjust the position I lost my grip and fell over. The guy on duty let me try again at the front of the queue, but said that this time I should just tuck the button under my armpit instead. This worked a bit better, but it was also quite tiring. Typically, our legs are a lot stronger than our arms, which is why it's easier to stand up than to do a press-up, and my upper body strength isn't all it could be.

I did three "laps" of this slope: the first time I got about 60% of the way up, the second time was 80%, and the third time was 90%, but I just couldn't make it the entire way to the top. Each time, I'd use my snowboard to get back down to the bottom, so they weren't wasted trips, but it was a bit frustrating. I considered trying out the Coolidge slope, so that I could focus on the speed and lift problems separately, but I was reluctant to move on from Le Grand Viking until I felt that I'd "conquered" it.

I considered this over lunch, then went onto Coolidge in the afternoon. Funnily enough, although it was easier to mount the button lift which loaded from the right, it was easier to stay on the one which loaded from the left. Still, I got the hang of the left loader by the end of the afternoon, which is a useful skill, and I got some practice on a steeper slope.

In the evening, we tried to make pancakes (since it was Shrove Tuesday), but we were defeated by the "Hob of Fail" in the flat. Plan B: tartiflette from a nearby restaurant. Unfortunately, this being France, the vegetarian option was defined as "less meat" rather than "no meat". I think it's the equivalent of those nut allergy warnings which say "this recipe doesn't include nuts, but it was produced in the same factory as stuff that does, so some nuts may have snuck in". Ah well, never mind; I'm not exactly going to be declared "Vegetarian of the Year" any time soon.

Wednesday

I stayed on Coolidge Sud in the morning, for extra practice. I found that I could get down it fine, except that I always fell over in the same place (while facing down the slope). I'd have my board pointed slightly downhill, while I leant back on my heels so that only the edge was touching the snow. This meant that as I descended I was throwing out a lot of snow, but if I leant back too far then I'd fall on my arse. So, my main goal was to improve my balance so that I could judge how far to lean. However, when I finally made it down in one go I did it by paying attention to the slope, so that I could go the way it wanted me to, even if that took me off my intended route. After I succeeded, I tried again, to make sure that it wasn't just a fluke; this time I fell over again. I then went round a few more times, and by lunchtime I'd got the hang of it.

At one point, I was getting close to the right hand side of the slope, and wanted to turn to the left, but I wasn't sure about doing a sharp 180° turn in the space available. It then occurred to me that it would be easier to just do a 90° turn (so that I'd be pointing straight down the slope) and do a more gradual turn further down, and that did the trick. This was interesting, just as a reflection of my progress, i.e. that I was happy to travel at higher speeds.

We all met up for lunch (as we did every day), and the others had a proposed route for the afternoon which involved a new green slope, starting in the same place as Petit Crêtes. I went to take a look, but I decided against it, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there was only a short stretch visible before it went around a corner, and I was reluctant to commit to something without knowing what it was (that's what got me into trouble on Sunday). Secondly, the bit I could see was fairly flat (in the direction of travel) but it sloped downwards towards the outside of the bend, and if you went over the edge then you'd wind up on a black run. That's more of a risk on a snowboard, since you can't go uphill (skiers can use poles for this), and I saw that exact thing happen to a snowboarder on another route later in the week.

So, I parted company from the others and tried out Petit Crêtes again. I was much better at it this time, so my practice on the smaller slopes had paid off. I noticed that the snow isn't as smooth as it looks, i.e. you do get small ridges and dips, so touch is as important as sight: listen to your feet! This probably doesn't apply to dry slopes, which I'd expect to have a more uniform surface. Speaking of feet, this is another area where snowboarding is a bit like climbing: the tighter the straps that hold your feet on the board, the more control you have, but the more it hurts. So, I wound up taking a five minute break each time I got to the bottom, just to unstrap the board completely and give my toes a chance to recover.

I met up with the others again later on, and we went down this slope together; I was quite glad that I was able to keep up with them, since I was a bit worried that their abilities were too far ahead of mine for that. We took the chairlift back up, but it's easier if everyone on the same chair has the same equipment (skis or snowboards), so this meant that I always travelled up separately. At the top, the others traversed to an egg lift, but that's another thing which doesn't really work on a snowboard: without poles, the only way to move along on flat ground is to bounce up and down with the back foot, which is a bit labour intensive, so it was easier for me to take the board off and carry it over.

Meanwhile, I made an important discovery about my trousers. Since I'm fatter than I used to be, I can't fit into my old leggings (base layer) anymore. I bought a new pair (XL rather than L), but they didn't really fit either, so I just made do without. I wasn't cold, but I think they might be useful for reducing sweat. As a related issue, I didn't bother with a middle layer on top, e.g. a fleece, because all the activity kept me feeling hot with just a base layer and jacket. Anyway, I can still (just about) fit into my old ski trousers, and I was reluctant to buy new ones (in the hope that I'll slim back down). These trousers have braces attached, and they're permanently attached, so you put the trousers on then hook the braces over your shoulders. There's also a belt, and if I adjusted it to its widest fitting then I could squeeze in and out of the trousers. Then (half-way through the week) I realised something else: the belt also had a squeezy thing to undo it in the middle, which made the whole process a lot easier! Ah well, live and learn.

Thursday

I did the tourist thing by sending a few postcards. At least one of them has already arrived back in the UK, which I'm impressed by; assuming that it was delivered yesterday morning, it beat me back. I did have a bit of trouble buying stamps, since I've forgotten most of my GCSE French, but luckily the woman in the post office was able to guess what I wanted.

Then onto the slopes. Although I was now comfortable on Petit Crêtes, I decided to warm up on the slopes at the bottom of the mountain. I went to Le Viking, but I found myself echoing Susannah's reaction that it's flat; that's a sign of how I'd progressed since the start of the week, and I didn't even bother using it once, because it no longer had anything I needed. Instead, I went straight on to Coolidge Sud again. However, I found that the snow wasn't very good there: it had thawed and refrozen a few times, so it felt as if the slope was covered in pebbles, which aren't very comfortable to slide on. I went down this slope once, then up to Petit Crêtes for the rest of the morning.

We met for lunch at Toura, which is further up the mountain (2600m), so this involved a new lift: a standing cable car. It's designed to take 75 people at once, and they really do like to pack everyone in! Still, it's worth the trip. The views were spectacular from up there, particularly when you're at eye level with the tops of other mountains.

After that, the others decided to try out a blue run: I think it was Grand Nord. The snag about that part of the mountain is that there are no green runs starting there, so you either have to use a more difficult slope or take the cable car back down the mountain. There were a few different ways to get onto this slope, but the route elvum and mrpj_antarctica had done earlier looked pretty steep. There was another entry point which wasn't quite so bad, and the rest of the slope looked pretty flat (although part of it was obscured from view by a rock outcropping), so I decided that it was time for me to try out a blue slope. mrpj_antarctica took a few photos of this, which I'll hopefully post later.

The others started on a third entry point, but I said I'd meet them a bit further down, on the basis that they could handle more difficult routes than me. So, off I went to my chosen slope. I'd seen it from the restaurant, but as I approached it on foot I couldn't actually see the slope down until I reached the edge of it. I was a bit nervous about this, but I pressed on, and tried to ease my way down by doing bunnyhops. I had to stop for a rest after a couple of minutes, while I was only part-way down, since it felt a lot steeper than it had looked. (I'm glad I went to the toilet beforehand...) By this point, I could see that it was a long way down, but it was also quite a long way back up: I'd be dubious about climbing it, even if I could get my snowboard off, so I was basically committed to this. I continued downwards, and at one point a huge shadow passed over the snow. This seemed to trigger some "small furry mammal" part of my ancestry (predator!), so I had to resist the urge to dive flat on the snow. I thought it was a parachute at first, but it turned out to be the cable car.

I eventually got down that slope, and made my way across the flatter section to meet the others. They then pointed out that the slope they'd used was somewhat shallower than the one I'd used; d'oh! The next bit wasn't too bad, until we got to the section that had been hidden from the top, which also turned out to be rather steep. I'm not sure whether it was any harder than Petit Crêtes, but at this point my confidence was pretty shaken, so it took me a while to get down there.

By the time I reached the end, I'd had enough, and just wanted to get off the mountain. I parted company from the others, and followed the end of Route du Thuit (the long green run I did on Sunday). On the whole, this went a bit better than before, since I was able to keep my snowboard pointed forward rather than doing bunnyhops. However, I did swivel the board round to stop every so often (to stop myself going too fast), which caused a bit of trouble. I got knocked down by another snowboarder at one point, and another time I had to fall over to avoid turning into the path of a skier who was overtaking me on the inside. I'm not quite sure how the rules apply here. The standard ski guideline is to give way to people who are ahead of you, or to shout "Attention" (a-tonn-shee-on) if you're crossing someone else's path, and I think roller bladers do something similar (e.g. to call out "passing on your left" when you overtake someone). On the other hand, apparently you're not supposed to stop on a flat(-ish) slope, because other people need to maintain their speed. Either way, this didn't do much to improve my mood.

When I got to the end of that run, I could have used the same route home as on Wednesday (i.e. down the end of Petit Crêtes, up the stairlift, down the red egg lift): it's a good run, and winds up just round the corner from where we were staying. However, there's also a relatively steep bit just before the stairlift; I'd done it before without any trouble, but at this point I really didn't feel up to it, so I took the longer route (less snowboarding, more walking).

Back in the flat, I sat down on my bed. I was in a bunkbed: I'd initially tried the upper one, but it was creaking a bit, and one of the slats came out while I was crawling around to put the sheets on, so we agreed that I'd be better off on the bottom. However, this time I managed to knock out one of the slats just by leaning on the mattress too heavily. I don't think that's a defect in the bed (it's my own fault for weighing too much), but it was an extra hassle to fix it.

Friday

This was our final day on the slopes, so my goal was very simple: get back to the stage I was at on Thursday lunchtime. To that end, I did a brief warm up on Le Grand Viking and Coolidge Sud, then spent the rest of the day on Petit Crêtes, focussing in particular on sharper turns at higher speed. The hardest part of a turn is when I put the board flat on the snow: after that, it's easy to tilt it either way (right or left), but I have to surrender some control when I take it off the edge. Overall, I think this worked out ok; I'd say that my confidence is back to where it was the previous day, and my ability may be slightly higher.

While I was there, I made myself useful by helping out a small child who'd gone off the side of the piste. There's a small downward slope (in soft snow), then a fence, so she wasn't in any danger, but she'd dropped her poles. I couldn't see her parents/teacher/whoever around, so I figured that I ought to lend a hand. I took off my snowboard, retrieved her poles, and held them together by the pointy end so that she could grab the handles, then acted as a counterweight while she pulled herself out. Once she was back on the piste, I supported her (by putting my arm around her from the front) until she'd got her balance. I'd be a bit more cautious about doing that in England, but luckily France doesn't seem to have the same paranoia about child molesters; she was clinging on to me more tightly than I was holding her, so I took that as tacit permission (in lieu of a common language). Something similar happened on a previous trip.

Saturday

We flew back to the UK, and I collected my hamsters. (shuripentu and gaspodog kindly looked after them for me while I was away.) It seems as if they recognised me, since they apparently came to my hand more quickly than to anyone else's, so that's nice.

General thoughts

On the whole, I think the week went well. Snowboarding itself is inherently a solo activity, but I was able to spend time with my friends in the evening, and I definitely prefer the quiet companionship of reading together rather than going clubbing.

Health-wise, I think it's done me good to be out in the open air all day, and to have early nights/mornings, rather than sitting in front of a computer until 4am and sleeping until noon. This holiday has drawn attention to my size, so I definitely need to address that; my weight is the same as it was when I left, but my body fat percentage has dropped to its lowest level in 5 months, so that's encouraging (I'm hoping that I've replaced some fat with muscle).

As for the snowboarding itself, there were a few ups and downs, but I've improved over the week, and done some things that really were fun. I think that I'd benefit from taking some more lessons, but some instructors are a lot better than others (as per Susannah's post) and there's no way to know how good your instructor is until you've already paid for the lesson(s).

More generally, I wonder whether I should give skiing another chance. The main advantage of snowboarding is that I now have about two weeks' experience, so it makes sense to build on that rather than starting from scratch with something else; also, there are some similarities between snowboarding and surfing. On the other hand, if all my friends prefer skiing then doing that might make it more of a social activity (assuming that I could keep up). Maybe snow blades (short skis) would be a good compromise? Ah well, it will be at least a year before I go off on another winter sports holiday, so I don't have to decide anything immediately.

Comments:

[User Picture]
From:stagknight
Date:February 10th, 2008 06:19 pm (UTC)
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The other problem was that my "snowplough" technique didn't seem to work, and I'd go down the main (learner) slope, up the shorter slope at the bottom, and hit the barrier that stopped people falling onto the big slope.

Yeah, that happened to me, too. :(
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[User Picture]
From:totherme
Date:February 10th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
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In my case, I'm "goofy" (i.e. I put my left foot at the front of the board), so my feet are pointing to the right.


Dude, I think that's regular.
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[User Picture]
From:johnckirk
Date:February 10th, 2008 07:34 pm (UTC)
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Ah, fair enough - I recall Bob saying it was the other way around. That "get someone to push you forward" test sounds useful, although not necessarily something where I want a horde of volunteers :)
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[User Picture]
From:pozorvlak
Date:February 11th, 2008 12:18 pm (UTC)
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As elvum pointed out, the "steepest point" may only be an inch long.

This is actually part of the problem on climbing walls too. If the French system (3, 4, 5, 5+, 6a, 6b, 6c, 7a etc) is used, then the grade only refers to the difficulty of the hardest move, not how sustained or exposed the route is. But you're right, it depends on who set the route too.

On outdoor routes, the grade is initially set by the first ascentionist (who also names the route), but is often modified later to reflect the opinions of subsequent ascentionists and guidebook authors.
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[User Picture]
From:pozorvlak
Date:February 11th, 2008 12:23 pm (UTC)
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More generally, I wonder whether I should give skiing another chance.

I've been thinking that the next time I go skiing, I'll probably try snowboarding. My legs aren't as good as they used to be, but I was lucky enough to be taught to ski on technically demanding terrain as a teenager, so the kind of skiing I like to do consists of ticking off black runs and interesting-looking bits of off-piste I see on the way. Bumps'n'rocks'n'ice :-) Snowboarding would bring the challenge back to easier routes, and let me challenge myself while staying with my friends.

Then again, if I go skiing with my Scottish friends, they'll probably all humiliate me with their elegance, poise and technical accomplishment on near-vertical ice :-)
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