Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2017
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I prescribe a trip to La Grave

"Une avalanche, une avalanche!" our alpine guide, Bernard, shouted. A billowing cloud of snow raced down the icy couloir, emptying onto the slope below. It was late afternoon, and the hot March sun had been warming that part of the mountain all day. Now, the snow was damp, heavy and prime terrain for a disaster.

We had been crossing the previous day's avalanche debris all morning. One by one, the five of us on this guided excursion had skied tentatively across the slide-paths, feeling for the "wumph" of settling snow that would warn of an avalanche-prone layer below. We wore avalanche beacons, and carried shovels and probes, but that might be small consolation if we were caught in a slide in this remote valley of the French Alps. We were relying on the firmer snow of the early morning, and Bernard's expertise.

Getting a 17-year-old boy out of bed before noon is a challenge on any day. I only managed to wake my son Daniel around seven, and we had to get to the guide office in La Grave by quarter to nine. We were headed for an "off-piste" ski adventure.

No one else was down for breakfast yet when we stumbled into the dining room. We were staying at Le Chalet Mounier (tel: 011-33-4-7680-5690; fax: 011-33-4-7679-5651; www.chalet-mounier.com), a small alpine hotel in the village of Les Deux Alpes, an hour by bus from Grenoble. One of the original farmhouses in the valley, the old farmstead is now a charming family-run chalet.

The resort town of Les Deux Alpes isn't very well known among North Americans. In fact, the only one we met was a Montrealer who was working there. If you're travelling with family members who prefer groomed slopes, this is the place to stay. It has more tourist facilities than the town of La Grave, which is on the other side of the mountain. Adventure-seekers can get to La Grave by a series of ski lifts and a short ski jaunt, or by taxi.

La Grave is an unspoiled alpine gem, kept that way by the townsfolk. There are a few small hotels and chalets, but most of the village is made up of the original buildings. Original, that is, from being rebuilt of stone after fire destroyed the previous wooden village -- twice.

To save time we took the 45-minute taxi ride, which wound down the narrow alpine road full of mountain tunnels hairpin turns -- and few guardrails -- to La Grave. As we waited outside the guide office, other skiers arrived with alpine touring gear and self-rescue hardware for glacier and mountain travel. On the mountain, there are few marked runs -- and no ski patrols. It is a true high-alpine environment with steep couloirs, cliffs, glaciers and crevasses. You are entirely on your own and skiing with a guide is highly recommended.

Fresh Air Laissez-Faire
Our guide Bernard greeted us outside the office along with Thérèse, a pediatrician from Switzerland and Maurice, whose most salient characteristic in my mind was that he lived outside Marseille "à 100 mètres de la Méditerranée."

Avalanche transceivers were strapped on and avalanche shovels stuffed into backpacks. Curiously, no instruction was given about their use. My son and I are both experienced backcountry skiers and have used this equipment many times. Even so, in Canada, at the start of every backcountry trip, we routinely check that all equipment is working, and we do a short practice session, burying a transceiver in the snow then locating it using a coordinated search pattern and hand-held transceivers.

The French attitude toward risk and personal responsibility was quite a contrast. At the guide office there were no waivers or releases to sign; competence and awareness were assumed.

This attitude was typical of what we encountered during our trip. On the gondola ride towards the summit, Bernard jammed his ski boot between the doors so they couldn't fully close. Once the car was away from the station, he pried the doors fully open for "fresh air," leaving little between us and a freefall.

The gondola rose in two stages from 1400 metres in the village up to about 3200 metres. Then two T-bars took us to the top at 3550 metres, with the jagged summit tower of La Meije soaring above. The 360-degree view revealed mountains and glaciers stretching out across the Alps as far as the eye could see. After the requisite picture taking, we traversed a narrow ridge and looked down a steep bowl -- our initial route of descent.

The morning sun had created spring skiing conditions. With Bernard leading the way, Thérèse and Maurice carefully but competently picked their way down. Daniel and I gave them a long head start then came soaring down for 1000 vertical metres, first side by side, then linking "eights." If we spotted a small cliff or ledge, Daniel would swoop over and "huck" the jump. I watched enviously as his 17-year-old knees ate up the landings on the firm snow. He even threw a 360 off one jump -- spinning in the air like a helicopter blade, then landing and skiing on.

 

My Boots Aren't Made For Walking
After descending the steep upper slopes, we entered a long, narrow valley. A thin ribbon of snow along one valley wall formed the ski trail. Below us, the icy river rushed and tumbled. Rock, snow and ice cliffs towered above. We alternately skied nervously through avalanche debris, jumped rocks, hiked then skied again. Our objective was the small alpine village of St-Christophe.

As our side of the valley became steeper, we ran out of snow and were forced to cross the river. Strapping our skis onto our backpacks, we climbed down the riverbank and hopped from rock to rock as the water swirled around our boots.

For those who have never hiked in ski boots, let me explain a few of the difficulties. In order for the skis to clear the ground, they tower over your head. With your centre of gravity riding high, you are suddenly much less stable.

To complicate matters, the tails of the skis are now just behind your knees. Too big a step and the skis catch on the back of your leg. This pitches you forward, headfirst down the trail. Fortunately, we were all able to cross the river right side up, dry and with our dignity intact. Stepping back into our skis, we quickly reached the end of the snow and the one-lane road to St-Christophe.

Hiking down a mountain road in ski boots is no picnic. However, flipping the switch on my lighter, more flexible alpine touring boots to "Walk" mode, I was smugly able to out-distance my son as he laboriously trudged along in his stiff downhill boots. We descended through fields, past stone farmhouses and finally into the narrow lanes of St-Christophe.

The town itself is a postcard-perfect alpine village. Its few short streets are perched high in the valley with sharp, snow-covered spires rising all around. Several ski routes intersect here, and the local café is a favourite lunch stop for expeditions.

We placed our equipment along the line of skis and snowboards leaning against the café's stone walls. Lunch was a leisurely affair with simple and hearty regional food -- slices of ham and roast beef with mustard, fresh potatoes and a small glass of local red wine.

Mind The Gap
The next part of our trip became a multisport adventure. More hiking, a local mountain bus, then a series of gondolas and T-bars brought us to the Dôme de la Lauze at 3568 metres. We could almost look down to where we had started our descent that morning.

However, Bernard had a few more surprises in store for us. Instead of skiing down to that ridge and completing our descent to the village of La Grave, Bernard shouted, "Non, venez ici!" He waved us off the main trail, skiing rapidly towards a horizon line that looked suspiciously like the edge of a cliff.

Following like sheep, and already tired from what was becoming a long day, we came to a stop beside him. We were now standing at the top of a large glacier, fractured with crevasses. The cliff edge was on a solid cornice looking down onto steep glacier walls. In order to avoid the crevasses, we had to drop through an opening in the cornice and then cling to the wall along an exposed, steep pass. Although technically not that difficult, the exposure gave us the sense that the slightest slip would have us hurtling sideways among the yawning crevasses.

Despite our trepidation and shaky legs, we made it through. Some fast skiing with soaring grand-slalom turns down a series of moderately steep slopes ended with a traverse high up onto one side of the valley. Below us was the opening to a couloir, a narrow chute of snow between high-walled bands of rock.

It was late afternoon. We stood on the shaded side of the valley where the snow was still firm. Suddenly, Bernard called out, "Une avalanche, une avalanche!," and pointed to a couloir on the opposite sun-exposed slope. Thankful to be under the expert care of our guide, we skied safely down with shouts and whoops of excitement and relief.

We continued our descent towards the lowest gondola station for the ride back to La Grave. Two weeks earlier, there had been enough snow to ski right to the village, a descent of some 2200 metres. As it was, it had already been a long day of skiing and alpine touring. We were happy riding the gondola down, sitting in an exhausted but satisfied silence as the light faded and alpenglow lit the surrounding peaks.

 

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