Everybody remembers the moment when they first managed to properly link their turns in deep powder snow – an altogether unforgettable and highly exciting rite of passage.
As a recent graduate from Exeter and unsure of what I wanted to do with life I was working a ski season. This one (my second) was for Bladon Lines in Meribel as their MBO (maintenance and building officer). I had to change light bulbs, replace blown fuses, mend broken beds (!!) and generally make sure that the luxury ski chalets of the day were fit to receive guests each week.
My first winter season was taken on my gap year after leaving school when I ‘pot washed’ for a small hotel in Sauze d’Oulx, Italy (well… we all have to start somewhere). Although great fun I didn’t manage too much skiing during that first season – the working hours were somewhat draconian and there was no day off during the week.
First Off-Piste Days …
So back to Meribel, February 1988…
I used to ski more or less on a daily basis with a small band of fellow seasonaires. We were the type who took their skiing seriously. Sure, we liked to party but we never missed a ski day and a powder day was something to get very excited about. Since the beginning of that winter we had been trying to crack the deep snow thing but it was harder than it looked – these were the days of skinny 2 metre skis don’t forget. The Rossignol 4S were pretty good on piste but like any skis of the day they took some not inconsiderate skill to master off-piste. Since December we had been dabbling with the off-piste beside runs but had yet to venture further afield. However, that day in February was different, and it was to change the course of my life.
As early as we could we took the Creux Noirs chair to the ridge that divides the Courchevel and Meribel valleys and then we climbed and walked and stepped our way South East along the ridge line for about a mile. For the first time ever we were a long, long way from the nearest piste or lift. There was no turning back – the only way was down.
The Aiguille du Fruit is an imposing cliff face that rises to a height of 3,000 metres. Immediately below the cliff face and facing due West is a mile long perfect even steepness powder pitch which ultimately leads down through the Plan de la Tueda Nature Park to the back of Meribel Mottaret , some 3 miles away.
It had snowed a lot that night, two feet or more, but the sun was out and our spirits were high. Of course we were a little scared too – could we? Should we? Dare we? However, like I mentioned it was too late for questions. We were going to ski this slope and that was it. So the four of us made the long traverse through the knee deep snow from the ridge line to the foot of the Aiguille du Fruit cliff face where we stopped and spread out. We were the first skiers there that morning and what lay before us is not experienced that often, even by experienced skiers in Europe. A mile long slope of untouched, pure and pristine deep powder lay before us.
It’s hard to put into words the feeling of one’s first proper fresh tracks powder run off-piste. However, I do remember whooping a lot and I also remember my mate skiing beside me saying ‘hey! Simila’ – you got it!’. And get it I did.
Since that February in 1988 there has been no looking back. Off–piste has been the only way to go. I have been lucky enough to complete two further seasons since that one and have taken countless ski holidays around the world over the subsequent two and a half decades. I have been to Alaska twice and also to most of the other off-piste meccas (St Anton, Engelberg, Alagna, Andermatt, La Grave, Verbier, Val ‘Isere, Steamboat, Klosters etc).
I have skied steeper and faster since that day in February 1988 but I will never forget that first time!