Mar 28, 2010

Altaholic Unleashed

On a January morning in Chamonix, I loaded onto the Bochard gondola with thoughts of Alta. It was a typical Chamonix January day. Cold. Blue sky. Hard pack.

What I wanted was a typical January day in Alta. Cold. Powder. Lots of powder. On powder days at Alta, there is no such thing as friends, only first chair and first tracks. It is a revelation to realize that you are running on skis across a traverse to beat others to untracked powder, say in East Greeley or Devil’s Castle.

It’s not that I do not like Chamonix. Chamonix is a sort of mecca to skiers, especially to those skiers who grew up with Greg Stump’s movies. It was Stump’s Blizzard of Aahhhs where we were first introduced to Chamonix and the hard core culture of climbers and skiers, long before Chamonix had a Chanel store. Glen Plake, the mohawked fixture of Stump’s early films, told me that he’s been a permanent resident of Chamonix since that film and he actually lives across the street from the tourist office, next to the Hotel Chamonix.

But I spent a long time skiing Alta and the “faithful snow of Alta” (as Snowbird owner Dick Bass was quoted in said film) is truly like nothing else. Alta receives roughly one third more snow than Chamonix and the snow is perfect fluff, a curious effect of the Great Salt Lake and the funnel of Little Cottonwood Canyon. You can be skiing Alta in early November and continue through April.

So on that January morning when I wanted Alta and had Chamonix and boarded the Bochard gondola, it put me into giggles when I saw an Alta sticker stuck inside the gondola. Here’s the picture of it.

That blue dot or snowflake sticker is a common sight around Salt Lake City, although I preferred the white-on-red “Alta is for skiers,” which got me a lot of honking horns and flipped fingers, punks mouthing “fuck you.” Snowboarders are not allowed at Alta and they resent it. (Old joke: How does a snowboarder introduce himself? “Sorry, Dude.”) Funny thing that day at Les Grand Montets because I started to notice snowflake Alta stickers everywhere. First I noticed someone had plastered those stickers on a lot of the Bochard gondolas. I started to keep a mental note of car numbers and know there are at least ten stickers on that gondola.

Then I noticed that someone had plastered the Alta snowflake on both the Lognan and Grand Montets trams. All four tram cars.

The Aiguille du Midi is the centerpiece of the Chamonix Valley, sitting underneath Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps and the EU. The Aiguille is a sort of half-way house for climbers summitting Mont Blanc and the top of the mountain for skiers on their way down the Vallee Blanche. It is an incredible man-made needle (the word aiguille means “peak shaped like a needle”) structure:

You have to use two trams to get to the Aiguille du Midi: Plan de l’Aiguille and Aiguille du Midi. All four tram cars have Alta snowflake stickers on them, too:

Recently I took my four-year old son to the top of the Aiguille station and found yet another Alta sticker at the base of the actual needle on top:

I started to trawl around to find out who has been placing these stickers. No luck there. But I did find other people’s pictures of similar sticker placings in Chamonix. This guy found an Alta sticker on his apartment door in Chamonix.

But my favorite comes from an interview with the aforementioned Glen Plake in Powder Magazine: “Don't be stickin' your frickin' Alta stickers all over Chamonix, France.” Interestingly enough he was talking about the Alta avalanche threat: “Even though I'm in Chamonix, the center of the universe, I still think that, um, we might need to learn a little about the avalanche procedures that the Wasatch people have to face.” No one can deny the power of Alta powder.