I feel that I have conquered the two great peaks of France since my arrival back here in the autumn. The first in November when I walked up Mt. Ventoux (Lyon 64). The second yesterday when I went to Alpe D’huez. Any keen cyclist will quickly spot what I’m eluding to.
Each year this mountain pasture in the central Alps witnesses thousands of supporters urging their riders up the iconic 14km ascent of the Alpe D’huez stage of the Tour de France. Many a tour has been won and lost on this tortuous climb and this year, for the first time, they’ll do it twice. In the same day. Four days after climbing Mount Ventoux. Which is insane. In 1997 Marco Pantini rode the final 1136 metre ascent of Alpe D’huez in 37mins 35 secs. That’s like cycling up Ben Nevis during the first half of a football match. Nobody will ever do that again. For reasons that are now clear (Lance Armstrong did it a second slower in 2004 for the record).
Compared to Sept Laux, where I went last week, Alpe D’huez is a city. Set on high level pasture surrounded by needle peaked mountains, its ugly 1960s apartments and hotels ravage the scenery as though a giant had spilt a pot of ink over the snow and not bothered to clear it up. The mechanical ski-lifts sprawl across the mountains like tentacles mining the scenery of its soul and natural wealth.
So here lies my problem. I like skiing. But I can’t help wondering, what this place looked like before the developers moved in? Probably one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Not that Alpe D’huez is that recent: I read that the resort was first built in the 1930s. But its expansion in the 60s and 70s of this modest – albeit highly exclusive – resort was perhaps an environmental price too high to provide the masses with the thrill of skiing. That sounds awfully snobbish. It is. But what you can’t afford you don’t miss.
However, like everybody else in the Western world, I’m a total hypocrite, and it was a great day skiing over desecrated mountainside. Not as good as the week before, but still good. Mainly because it was too big. As a result I spent most of my time frantically looking at my frozen piste map hoping the run I was on wasn’t leading to Switzerland. Or worse still. Italy.
It was also busy. Full of English, Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Russians, racing around the resort, red in the face, like it was their last day on Earth. At times I could hear the mountain groan, such was the weight of so many beer eating, sausage munching Northern Europeans stamping on its back. Sept Laux on the other hand was totally French. It felt better. More friendly. For those of you who have been reading this blog over the past year, this is a stark admission.
Today though. I’m suffering. Aches and pains. Back, neck, shoulder. ‘I’m not twenty anymore,’ I muttered to myself as I creaked out of bed this morning. I heard my young self scream back at me as I walked to the bathroom half bent over like an old man : ‘YOU’RE ONLY 38 YOU GREAT BIG NANCY!’
‘You should feel my shoulder, you bounder you’, I replied shaking my fist at my shadow.
He’s right though. I’m not old and felt fine after a couple of shots of morphine. All age means is that it takes longer to recover. I remember skiing in Italy with a couple of buddies I met while living in France last time around in 1994. We skied all day, smoked and drank all night, barely ate and yet every morning we were always first on the slopes. Any remnants of hangovers were blown to smithereens on the first run of the day.
Saying that, I did have a moment of immense clarity yesterday. I had taken a rough fall just after lunch and as I lay there in the snow clutching what I thought was a broken leg, I remembered thinking that at least I’m still skiing. Twenty years of adult life has treated me well. Anything could have happened. Some people I’ve known, sadly didn’t make it this far.
As I thundered off back down the slope after recovering my skis that had slid halfway down the mountain after my fall, I heard the words, ‘You’re not finished yet Oggers,’ echo around the mountain walls, just as I crashed into a fibreglass sign that said DANGER AHEAD.
Luckily, the sign was very flimsy and the danger avoided just at the last minute: a sheer drop of 100 metres into a deep ravine. Certain death. I was probably quite lucky as I didn’t recall seeing the sign at all. Too wrapped up listening to my own voice. Perhaps, in the future Oggers, you should keep your eyes open more. Keep alert. Keep alive.