Spring Snow In Late Autumn (Or, A Geriatric Account of A Week In Meribel)


by Peter Jordan

'Savoie en Fete' proclaim the red and white posters in Chambery airport. It had been an exiting landing, coming in with a big circle between the peaks and then over the lake. There had been a foretaste of it in the warning that came with the tickets. Luggage per person: 15 kilos maximum - tour operator speak for runway too short.

As had been my habit over the past fifteen years or so, I had delayed booking until a fortnight or so before intended departure. It's the only way of being fairly sure that that all mechanical parts are in as reasonable a condition as can be expected in a model of that age, and there is usually a discount. As it happened, my physiotherapist had only just finished work on my good knee, the one with a kneecap. After a few none too hopeful phone calls, Snow Line came up with single male share, Crystal, Chalet Thelene, Meribel, 1 week, 18 March. Five days before departure there was a phone call: the computer had misinterpreted a half-landing for a bedroom, but I could have a twin room with private facilities to myself at the Club Chalet Neige et Soleil at single rate. I accepted.

About half of the forty-two or so guests consist of a party of gynaecologists. They seem too young; most of them could be my grand children. The food is as good as can be expected from the motley collection of staff that the operator has managed to gather together. Personally I prefer a small chalet with a girl who has learned to cook from her middle class mother in the Home Counties.

There has been a sprinkling of new snow overnight and it sparkles in the morning sun. What system of communication do the molecules in the water vapour employ to create an instant symmetrical pattern, different from the myriad others? On the way up to Mont de la Chambre, the new snow once again confirmed my previous observations, that small mountain mammals, hares, foxes, marmots, (shouldn't they be fast asleep?), make their tracks only directly under uphill transport, never departing more than a few meters to either side of the overhead cables. The only tracks parallel to the contours join or depart from this vertical stampede. What are they up to?

I stumble down the clanging steps at the top of the Cime de Caron cable car together with the hundred - or is it two hundred? - others, and I remember when my father and 1, after a few hours climb got to the top of the Brauneck or the Rothwand or the Karwendelspitze, and there'd be just the two of us there.

My table companions, not the gynaecologists, who like all medics prefer their own company, decide to play games after dinner. I don't want to be seen as too much of an oddball and politely join in. A pack of cards is placed on a wine bottle and cards have to be blown off by each contestant in turn round the table. The loser must empty his or her glass to the raucous rendering of 'Drink it down you Zulu warrior, drink it down...' After a while Fred suggests that the ladies should be excused the alcoholic penalty. I object, hoping that the demise of one of the females would bring the game to an early end. But Fred has let it be known earlier that he collects vintage claret and is therefore accorded respect. At last the others tire of the game, but only for it to be replaced by a round of 'varieties'. The penalties are as before. At last, at 11.30 Angus decides that it is time to go to the pub. I politely decline.

A few hundred metres above Saint Martin de Belleville I go off-piste to the left and I make my way through the rowans, the firs and very thorny mountain roses. After a while I wonder whether I've taken the right direction, but then I glimpse it through a gap in the trees. For 20 minutes I sit in awe under the fresco-covered dome of Notre Dame de la Vie. Until last year this magnificent 17th century pilgrimage church was marked on the piste map. Now it seems that it's detrimental to the spirit of Savoie en Fete, or perhaps not millennium compatible. Perhaps it was in the same spirit that they decided to omit 'VETERAN, 75+' from my free ski pass this year.

Courchevel 1850, polka dotted by piddling poodles. I have an expensive coffee with some of their fur-coated owners, hoping that their husbands will leave behind their mistresses in Paris and join them for the weekend. I am dubious.

At teatime David, our handsome Australian cook questions Angus, who had evidently emerged from the pub the previous night with more than a hangover. 'How' he asks, 'taking into account that most feral males and females share a room with a friend of the same sex, how are such assignments arranged?' I prick up my ears; it is a question I had pondered on. However, my hopes are dashed. Angus shrugs it off by simply saying that such things can be arranged - yet another alpine mystery unsolved.

Late in the afternoon, fortified by a vin chaud and 400mg of Ibuprofen, I start the last run on the last day from Tougnete. There is now complete cloud cover with very poor visibility, there are pockets of granulated rice pudding even at the top, and my knees hurt like hell and refuse to flex. I am reduced to descending in a most inelegant manner. Then far down below I glimpse a girl in a yellow ski suit. As I get nearer I recognise her and some of the other gynaecologists. Slowly I overtake them and leave them behind.

Well, if I can still overtake gynaecologists young enough to be my grandchildren there might be another season left in me yet.