Sitting in my friends’ flat in Geneva, with a panoramic view of the city’s lights and the dark expanse of the lake, it feels surreal that only a couple of hours ago we were in the Alps.
Skiing down the empty slopes of Les Houches, with Aiguille du Midi to our left and Mont Blanc (its very peak shrouded in clouds) to our right, brought back so many memories. Some from my childhood and some not even mine but imagined, the stories of travellers who visited the region as early as the 18th century, recreated in my head and written down ad infinitum by others and by now also by me (in Born to Climb).
I also have some strange feelings associated with the Chamonix area because of the time I spent there working for an outdoor brand. It was both a really great and a really dull period, meeting friends, losing friends, learning that being among the mountains doesn’t always mean you can actually access them. Witnessing firsthand the extent of economic privilege that is necessary for anybody who wants to enjoy themselves in Chamonix was quite the eye opener.
Even “the pioneering gentlemen” Pockocke and Windham — or perhaps especially them — were little else than elite tourists, although their 1741 expedition to Chamonix had ostensibly scientific pretences. (On a different note, it blows my mind that today we made the distance from Geneva to Chamonix in just over an hour, while for Pococke and Windham it was three days of strenuous travel.)
These days, comfortable ski lifts and fancy hotels are much more affordable than the extravagant endeavours of the early explorers, but affordable they are certainly not. What percentage of the world’s population can afford a skiing holiday? When you’re in the Alps, it kind of feels like a lot. The slopes are often busy, hotel bars and restaurants full to the brim, car parks overflowing. There’s always a very clear distinction between those who work at the resorts and those who holiday there. Somehow, I feel a closer affinity to the waiters, lift operators, and skiing instructors than I do to the minted tourists. I guess it might have to do with the fact that for the briefest of times, some fifteen or more years ago, I was a ski instructor myself. (A thing that I keep saying these days is that one of the best things about ageing is collecting enough experiences to seemingly fill more than one lifetime — was it really me teaching people how to snowplough turn?)
Working the slopes has always been the cheapest way to access the mountains. The same is true for many other outdoor sports — surfing, climbing, or diving — with kids qualified to combine work with their passion. But even that requires an enormous amount of resources... keep reading →