Friday, November 27, 2009

Are we there yet?

The drive from Chusclan to Albertville, home of the 1992 Winter Olympics, takes about three hours. Eager skiers can stop there and enjoy the slopes or continue upward into the Alps. Having found excellent deals on the necessary clothing, we couldn’t wait for the low altitude resorts to open. Mary Ann booked us a suite in Val Thorens - the highest ski resort in Europe. At an altitude of 2300m (at the bottom of the resort), it was the only resort in France to open before Thanksgiving.

Our trip to Val Thorens started quickly. We rode the Autoroute through Valence and Grenoble on our way. Just outside of Grenoble, the Alps came into sight. Towering rock massifs appeared on the horizon. The way that the rock thrust up through the earth is really breathtaking. You can tell that some serious geologic activity had been at work. Stratifications in the rock that were deposited in horizontal layers, are now found at all angles; some turned vertical.


At Albertville, we turned off the highway and began our ascent into the mountains, first through a narrow mountain pass. A few ruined castles still guarded the passage. Having climbed only moderately through the first 3 hours of our trip, we knew that a steep ascent was eminent. At the exit for Val Thorens, the road reduced to two lanes and we climbed. In inclement weather, the road signs frequently reminded that tire chains were mandatory. I’m glad we chose to take our trip into the highlands before the first winter storms hit.

The final 38 km of our journey took almost an hour. We switched back and forth incessantly. It was impossible to maintain speed going around the tight turns. Around one turn, we noticed a pickup pulled over, and the driver was waving their hand outside the window. I turned to ask Mary Ann, “what do you suppose that means.” She slammed on the breaks in response. A herd of cows were being lead up the highway! They seemed to know the drill. In all, about a dozen large cows meandered past our car. We hoped that they wouldn’t scrape the paint on our rental. Finally, two senior citizens with walking sticks held up the rear of the parade. I guess running your animals up the mountain pass daily keeps you in pretty good shape.

Cows on road

We pressed onward, slightly more cautious about what we might find behind the next bend. At last, the resort town of Val Thorens appeared at the base of the tallest peak yet. On first glance, it wasn’t so much beautiful as impressive. Miles from civilization, the town had grown several times larger than Chusclan, with several multi-story hotels and an elaborate infrastructure. Construction of the village was obviously made difficult by its location on a steep mountain slope. However, the upside to the building challenge, was the opportunity to offer real a real ski-out-the-front-door experience.

Our rooms were in the section of the development named Montana. Land of the "big sky" seemed appropriate for the high mountain location. As we waited for our suite to be assigned, I snapped a photo of the sun setting beyond the Alps. You know, they say, "red sky at night, sailors delight." I hoped that applied to snowboarding as well.
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