I'm sure everyone reading this is aware that I spend a lot of time skiing. A lot of days, a lot of years, at a lot of resorts and so the scenes of a season kind of all run together like a travel video. Of course, I can pick out a resort and some features, or trail, or great views, stand out from a day but rarely does one whole day take center stage.
Rare is that one day, beginning to end, that long after I still remember pretty much from walking to the lift to hoisting my skis on my shoulder and walking home into my long, end of day shadow.
One of those memorable days happened when I went with Marty Heckelman to ski La Grande Motte glacier on the l'Espace Killy above Tignes and Val d'Isere, France. I had never skied a glacier before, I had seen one or two when traveling, but never up close and personal.
Marty Heckleman runs the web site www.skitips.com and is the author of one of the best learn to ski books around - The New Guide To Skiing. He is also the the originator, demonstrator and presenter of the "SkiTips" video & DVD series. The 5 DVD set is classic of fundamentals that cover all aspects and ability levels. My favorites are the Moguls and the Powder video - learn these skills and they last a lifetime of skiing.
After reviewing The New Guide to Skiing Marty and I e-mailed a few times back and forth and agreed to meet up if I got to Val d'Isere.
Sure enough, when I found myself heading off for a preview of the World Championships hosted by Val d'Isere I got in touch with Marty and we made arrangements to meet up and ski around.
On to La Grande Motte
My first day in Val d'Isere I asked Marty about summer skiing on the glacier and he suggested that he show me winter on the glacier.
As the day to meet Marty dawned it was clear, calm and crisp. We met post breakfast - not too much is rushed when skiing on a European schedule - and Marty found the day to be so nice we would forgo the Gondola and start our ascent in the chairlift.
Don't even try to compare this to much of any lift system in the states. If you have never been to ski the high Alps believe me the snow, the marked trails, the off piste ski tracks and the lifts go on and on - as Marty loves to say about the l'Espace Killy - "10,000 hectares, Mike - that's 25,000 acres - now where did you want to go?"
La Grande Motte
The Funiculaire Grande Motte, a mountain subway that rushes you up to the Grande Motte tram is a thrill ride in itself. Whizzing up to near 10,000' altitude so fast is a real brain rush and, upon arriving it takes a few minutes for the body to catch up. But at the top station it plops you right in front of the Grande Motte tram.
After the Funiculaire experience the tram ride is short but long on views as La Grande Motte gets closer and closer. It wasn't just the altitude that was setting my heart beating - the views were incredible. As I said there was barely a cloud in the sky and the plume blowing off the top of La Grande Motte was exactly what you see in photos of some Himalayan peaks.
We emptied out the tram building and to the immediate right was a three foot wide and ten foot long banner stuck on poles. the banner read "Danger Crevasses" in four languages and a triangle and slash on a man falling backward into a hole in the snow. About 50 feet beyond the banner was a lone backpacked skier with touring bindings poling calmly away.
And Then Down
From the tram station to the top of La Grande Motte was probably the better part of a half mile and Marty pointed out various terrain where he filmed his instruction videos. In particular, he pointed a spot where just as his videographer yelled "ski" the glacier opened behind him with a booming slash - the camera got all the "ski" it could catch as Marty barreled out of there.
In fact, the whole left face of the upper mountain was a series of huge open crevasses where gravity pulled down on the ice. Marty skied a short distance from the station and beckoned me over to say that, a few months earlier, right where we were stopped, was a 5' wide and 12' deep crevasse that the snow cats filled in with snow.
There's not a lot to see up there but nature in the raw, which is beauty in the basic. On a bluebird sunny day I could only imagine what it would be like there in a hell raising storm.
As I mentioned about the skier touring off by himself you can pretty much ski what you see. However, there are several safe routes down that are marked by poles with discs identifying the difficulty of the terrain and the distance to the bottom. Marty and I followed the black run which like all the terrain was pretty wind blown and hard.
An hour and half after leaving Val Claret for La Grande Motte we skied back into the village found a restaurant favorite of Marty's and broke for bread and cheese. Not only did I get chance to rest but Marty introduced me to Jean Claude Killy's brother - a very nice man and successful businessman in his own right.
We got our second wind and headed back toward Val d D'Isere. This was a long and enjoyable on-piste, off-piste adventure in itself, where Marty led me to safe stashes with few ski tracks and pointed out some couloirs above, that, had we the time would have a made great climb and ski - easy, powder-choked lanes well skied out but still inviting.
If you catch the X-Team videos of skiing the l'Espace Killy, they feature Marty at Val d'Isere and in essence, the reference to Mr. Ski Tips is to Mr. Val d'Isere.
If, and I hope when, you visit Val d'Isere don't miss a chance to see and ski La Grande Motte - and when you see Marty, which I'm sure you will, say hi for me.
More of: Val d'Isere