Saturday, 18 April 2015

Winter Snowboarding in a campervan in the Alps - 14/15...

Queueing for the Ferry
Leaving for the Alps was a jubilant time. I'd taken on a job working nights at Heathrow airport, it paid handsomely and was the driving financial force behind building our van . Now all that work was done and it was finally time to test her out, escape and get back on that snow! We had spent Christmas and New Year at home with our families and friends and left for the alps on the 4th of January.

Learning Snow Chains fast!
The drive was pretty boring as per usual. Until night fell just as the rain started to. We were driving through torrential rain and it was nearly impossible to see more than a couple of cars in front. We decided to call it quits and hunker down in the back of our new van ready for the last couple of hours drive to Sainte Foy in the morning. The back of our van was chocka block with pallet wood, snowboard bags, water containers.... a lot of stuff. So sleeping that night involved precariously moving the larger things off of our bed and to the front of the van. We snuggled down amongst the smaller things!
Home for the Season!

The next morning we eagerly pushed forward, just wanting to be there! We drove through a tunnel and emerged in to a winter wonderland of snow. We were still a couple of hours drive from the alps but the snow was here and it was awesome. The driving was ok as the roads were fairly clear, but the scenery changed from the drab, lifeless expanse of Northern France to a majestic, interesting mix of mountain foothills and snow..... the stuff we were coming for!

It wasn't until we reached the bottom of the mountain road up to Sainte Foy Station that the adventure really started to begin. We managed a whole 20 metres of the steep incline before grinding to a halt and suddenly sliding backwards, even with the brakes on! The road had a dusting of snow on it, but that was enough for the van to loose traction and for us to slide back down the hill. I now had the unenviable, yet necessary, task of learning how to put snow chains on in minus digit temperatures! After about 20 minutes of swearing and one pair of very very cold hands, the truck had the chains on and we were off, back up the hill!

Driving in to the van park was exciting. We'd been down to the van park a few times in the two previous seasons we'd worked in Sainte Foy, and we knew a few people with vans who were already here. We soon got the van parked up and settled in to introducing ourselves and cooking our fellow van mates, Mel and James, a nice curry! We were in our new home for the season!
Mel and Canooie

It took us a few weeks but after a while we felt really at home. The sense of community in 'The Van Park' is a really strong thing. There was 9 or 10 vans parked up, most for the entire season. The majority of people were English, a mixture of couples, a whole family and singletons. Our neighbour, Elise, was a French girl. Over the course of the season we tried to teach each other French and English, mainly when very drunk, thinking we were speaking legible sentences, only to wake up hungover and sit and have breakfast and realise that neither of us had learnt anything! She had a cute little dog called Canooie who would nip around the van park, jumping triple her height and making everyone laugh.

Overall the season was fairly poor for snow. It dumped seriously only four times, and for Sainte Foy, a predominantly off piste resort, was a disaster for all us powder hounds, longing for the fresh stuff. But it didn't put a downer on the season, far from it. For instance one day we took an hour long trek through the winter wonderland to visit a frozen waterfall. I was picturing a nice little river that'd frozen over... When we got there I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the thing. It must have been over 10 stories high, we struggled to see the top.

James even took a precarious little climb up a bit of it. I, being terrified of heights normally let alone on a slippery frozen bloody waterfall, stayed firmly on the, not quite so slippery, snow.

I much preferred this type of season. Not having to wake up EVERY morning to start cooking breakfast at 7 was bliss. Instead we normally got up when we heard someone else was awake in the van park. (usually around 11am!). We'd each take it in turns to do the bakery run, where fellow Trailer Trash, Bekx, worked (free bread and pastries!). Someone would have a kettle boiling and fresh coffee on the go, then another van would heat up a pan ready to cook eggs and sausages. Utter bliss if you ask me. We'd sit in the sun, play with Canooie, scoff our breakfasts and have a proper communal natter before hitting the slopes (or the pub)

Breakie, alp style...
We rode together most days too, taking lines you normally wouldn't or going on day long back country outings, taking bags full of wine and cheese and bread.

One memorable trip out was to a nearby resort called La Rosiere. It is situated on the French/Italian. We were all proficient boarders and nipped about the mountain, taking advantage of the boarder cross tracks and snow park sections that we didn't have the luxury of having in Sainte Foy. For me the boarder cross was wicked. I got really competitive and one little mistake could make or break a win in the race. The mountain was noisy with us all whooping and laughing.

Over in Italy we sat down for a massive group meal. I had to go native and have a Calzone. When we went to order wine the patron of the restaurant said he'd a red that was on offer. It came in huge 3 litre sized bottles and we all delved in. On the chair lift back up to the peak where we would ride back to France we were all starting to feel pretty drunk. It wasn't until we tried to ride out of the chair station and down the mountain that we realised quite how drunk! People were catching edges, catching falls, riding things they shouldn't and generally having the best time, drunk, on snowboards. We must have looked a right sight, 20 odd people charging around the mountain.

The Pistaires (Mountain Security) kindly invited 'The Great Unwashed' (us) to one of their candle lit descent evening. We all caught the last chair lift up the mountain at the end of the day and was treated to a BBQ feast. It was such a good evening, chilling on the top of a freaking mountain with the sun setting down the Tarentaise Valley.

Everyone helped build a mahoosive bonfire with old piste markers and pallets. It was lit just before the sun dipped out of view and we huddled round, tunes blaring. Some torches were scattered liberally amongst the group and lit off of the fire as it died out. Then the hairy process of snowboarding with 60 or 70 other people, some holding flaming sticks and all wearing polyester.... in the pitch black. It was a truly bizarre feeling, not seeing too well infront of you, knowing where the dips were, what terrain was coming up. I could just hear the scrape scrape scrape of boards and skis on the piste. In front was a gentle swishing of twinkling flames swaying from side to side as people ski'd down. It was an unforgettable experience and I felt very privileged to have been invited by the locals.

One lazy day (could have been a Sunday, but every day was just a Funday) Kerry and I were taken along to an abandoned hotel perched just above the main town in the valley. It was being built on top of a rare hot spring, and was to use the spring water in it's swimming pool complex, however, during construction the spring was ruined and the flow of water was reduced to a trickle. The project was abandoned and the building left to ruin.

There were a couple of French Graffiti artists throwing up some pieces when we got there. The pool was nearly finished, complete with precariously crumbling diving board. The main building was in a bad way. The steel reinforced stair case had crumbled away so much that even Canooie started to shake with fear as Mel started to walk up higher than the fourth floor. She got really spooked and wasn't right until we got back down to the road and put her on the floor.
We found where the hot spring used to run in to the nearby river. It must have had some sort of metals in it because it had turned the surrounding banks and water a deep red colour. I did feel it and it was marginally warmer than the glacial run off of the river, but I wouldn't want to bathe in it!

The 'piste de resistance' of the season by far for me was the 'Jardin Party'. Everyone in the van park wanted to throw a huge end of season party for the resort, inviting everyone and anyone and generally getting funky in the Alps.

We all clubbed together and had a whip round, amassing 400 Euros in total, which was spent on BBQ food, salads, breads, cheeses etc as well as a trolley load of beers, wines and spirits. I was in the van park when Warwick's Toyota 4x4 rolled in after being to Super U. He opened up the back door to present a trolley full of booze, complete with the trolley!

The community pulled together and really made a go of it. The girls got arty and fabricated signs and banners, James got on unscrewing everyones speakers from their vans and making a pretty wicked sounding, pallet wood DJ desk. I was tasked with lighting and with the help of Hanz strung up his snowboard between two vans and lit it in LEDs as a sort of chandelier. Warwick even made up a professional looking flyer and Hanz and I spent a drunken afternoon postering the resort, making our way from pub to pub to pub (because there's only 3)

Decorations were dotted around, ranging from the typical, ski's and snowboards then on to bicycles on vans, christmas tree decorations and even a kids tractor. A few rugs and carpets were found and a chill out area constructed under tarpaulins.

The party was wicked. Shed loads of people came, from Pistaires to local workers, seasonnaires and quite a few holiday makers who'd seen the flyers up in resort and come along. We all took it in turns to man the bar or the BBQ, handing out sausages and chicken in buns.

James and a few of the other lads got he tunes going and everyone was merrily drunk in no time. It was an awesome party. The funniest thing for me was that everything, the lighting and the music, was powered from everyones solar panels and batteries. We had a mini rave thanks to the sun! and the batteries lasted until 5am...

We had a donation box floating around and was astounded to find that there was over 350 Euros in there when we cracked it open the next day. The party had cost us just 5 euros each!

 I loved my winter season in the van. Yes it was cold at times, yes it wasn't luxurious but the sense of freedom, to do as we pleased, to mingle, to eat every meal with an amazing bunch of people, to be a mini community, smack bang in the middle of the alps... that'll stay with me for ever... I'll miss those meals, I'll miss pizza night with 10 people crammed in the one van with an open, I'll miss sneaking in to the spa for a dip in the jacuzzi, I'll miss waking up to someones van door frozen shut, I'll miss the bongo playing at 3am, I'll miss the journeys back from the pub where you think 'should I really have survived that?'.

Thank you to everyone who made it such a wicked winter...

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