Saturday, February 7, 2009

Getting a lift in the Alps

We went skiing last week-end at the Alpe d'Huez in the French Alps. The resort offers a variety of runs in amazing settings. The view from any run is breathtaking...

Something I really liked about the resort, and that not many travelers or snow sport aficionados think about, is the variety of lifts the resort offered. This is about the 4 different kinds I saw.

In the majority of resorts I've been to during my childhood, there is only one type of lifts, not that commonly found in the United States: the "tire-fesses", or "pull-butt", translated literally. Quite an appropriate name, since it's a pole at the end of which is a disk. You take the pole when it's your turn, and place it between your legs. The pole pulls you forward at varying speeds, up the slope.

The difficulty is that the speed of pull is not constant, and that the skis/snowboard remain in contact with an uneven slope at all times, which means a lot of beginners fall, in snowboard even more than in ski, especially at the very beginning of the pull, where the pull of the pole tends to be the strongest and most sudden.

The Alpe d'Huez offered the faster "tire-fesses" for the more experienced skiers and snowboarders, but it also offered alternative lifts for pedestrians and beginners.

For the first leg, a slow and rather narrow lift I'd never seen before takes travelers from the "Maison du Tourisme" (Visitors' Bureau), where you can purchase day passes, to the actual foot of the main runs. These lifts are made out of metal, look like cages, and hold about 4 batches of 3-4 people (standing) at a time, provided they didn't have too much gear to haul. My brother-in-law found that for that portion of the resort, it's actually faster to walk than to take the lift, but if you want to stare at the landscape on your way to the first run, it's a great way to do it.

A more common type of lift was offered after the first leg of the resort, in direction of more advanced runs. The open-air "telesiege", or "bench lift", scoops up to 3 people up onto a metal bench, off the ground. This lift is pretty good for beginners as well, because the only challenge in using it comes at the exit, when you have to stand up and glide out of the lift's way. For beginners, it's recommended to stay away of the middle spot in this bench-lift, as it's usually harder to get out of the lift's way - there are people on either side of you trying to get out, in addition to the continuous movement of the lift.

The fourth type of lift offered at the Alpe d'Huez came in 3 flavors - small, medium and large. The small "cabine telepherique" or "cabin" is seen here. In these lifts, you actually gets to sit. In the small ones, about 4 people gets to sit across from each other, 2 on each bench. In the medium (up to 15 passengers) and big (up to 40 passengers) versions, the edge of the "cabine" has half-size benches, at bar-stool height, while the middle of the "cabine" has poles. About 25% of the passengers get to sit, while the others stand. The average lift ride was about 20mn, but could extend to 30mn when going to the top-level runs, which got you to the very top of the mountain. The high level runs actually started very steep, but you enjoyed a panoramic view of the chains of mountains around you.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dashing through the snow....

Ever thought of skiing by night? In the French Alps, it's possible. The Alpe d'Huez offers night rides, and every night of the week is just a different theme. Saturday happens to be sled night...

Where to rent good gear in the French Alps

I spent this week-end skiing at the Alpe d'Huez resort, a beautiful resort in Northern Isere, in the French Alps.
We were blessed with incredible weather and perfect snow - and bonus, not a lot of people on the slopes.

Although we had free lodging (my brother-in-law's parents owning an apartment there), we did not have any skiing or snowboarding gear. I started skiing at the age of 2, so that's what I was going for. B., on the other hand, had barely snowboarded 4 times in his life, and hadn't skied. The easiest solution was for me to go skiing with my sister, and for him to snowboard.

My sister recommended Alain Sports as being a great rental place. The shop is small, but the selection is wide, and the owners were very nice. I leave in the morning with a pair of skiing shoes (my sister lent me a pair of skis), and B. got a pair of snowboarding shoes, and a board.
Off we went to wonderful snow and weather. After a long morning of enjoyment, we came back for lunch (cold cuts, bread, wine). In the afternoon I decided it would be nicer if I tried snowboarding too - this way I wouldn't mind being on beginner runs, and be with B. a little more. We went back to Alain Sports, and the owner was very accommodating - I switched to a pair of snowboarding shoes and a board.

Come the evening, we got back at 5:30pm, and returned the gear. The owners asked how the day went, and if we'd want to keep the gear for tomorrow. Hearing B. in pain for an afternoon made the decision simple: we'd just be walking around tomorrow. The weather forecast wasn't so good anyway.

Came time for the bill - and both of us were floored: 39 euros. Yes, that was the total for a day. The owners didn't count my using ski gear for half a day, and just smiled. So if you're ever at this great resort - the runs are 38 euros a day (very cheap considering how large the resort it). It provides for an amazing variety of runs for all levels, and covers a very large space (the longest run we did was 25mn, but the average skier would take about 45mn), and is very beginner friendly. There are beginners-only slopes, and lifts that make it easy to just hop in and out, even if it's your first time on a snowboard.