The wind was howling. Again.
I looked up from my Quiche Lorraine to see a group of deflated, harness-clad skiers sulking in front of the steamy bakery windows. Outside, a large sign above the queue for the Aiguille du Midi read: Fermé. Vent fort. Closed. High wind.
Frustrated skiers were strewn about the plaza, climbing helmets askew, ice screws clanging at their waists, looking like kids who had just been told Santa Claus wasn’t coming. Stony-faced mountain guides maintained their expert aloofness, reactions hidden behind the glacier glasses welded to their stiff, leathery cheeks.
I was wearing ski boots, but only half heartedly. It was day five of the same story. Wake up, head to the bakery, slam an espresso, scarf down a quiche and stuff a croissant and a piece of chocolate cake in our packs for later, only to face another wind closure at the Aiguille du Midi.
Is this what they consider the pain cave in Chamonix? Max Ritter photo.
My ski pack was propped up against my seat, an ice axe carefully fixed to the back, rope slung over the top, and a week’s worth of stale croissants inside that I’d optimistically planned to eat in the high alpine. I hadn’t unzipped it since I’d packed my bag our first day here.
Chamonix in the spring can be a pivotal part of a ski mountaineering career (I’ve heard). A place to challenge yourself, put your pointy accessories to use, and ski the steepest shit imaginable. all while feasting on well-earned cheeses, baguettes, and pastries (that part at least we took care of).
But in reality we had dragged 50 pounds of gear halfway around the world just to loiter in bakeries wearing ski boots. Instead of skiing couloirs in the French Alps, we had located the best macaron in Chamonix, spent a full day in a fancy spa, and sipped espresso until we were certain our heads would explode. A non-skier would consider it a great vacation.
I turned my attention back to my cheesy, egg-filled pastry and began to eat with less haste. As I savored my quiche, appreciating how the buttery crust so perfectly complemented the salty ham and creamy eggs, I wondered why I’d chosen to dedicate my life to a sport so inherently unpredictable. The only thing grounding me was the consistency of a Quiche Lorraine within a five-minute walk of my bed each morning.
In this case, our enemy was the Foehn, a warm, dry, down-slope wind that wreaks havoc on high peaks in the Alps and is known to cause closures that can last for days or weeks at a time. We’d lined up our 10-day trip in perfect timing for a week of hot malevolent wind to tear through the Chamonix Valley.
Just indulging in the finer things in life amongst the great French culture. Waiting. And Espresso. Max Ritter photos.
But our battle with the wind during our time in France wasn’t unlike any other setback we’d had in the backcountry. Getting shut down on a ski trip or expedition that you worked, trained, and travelled for is frustrating. But that’s part of being a skier.
To be a skier is to inevitably experience a letdown at some point, whether it’s turning around from a summit, getting snowed into a hut, a road closure, high avalanche conditions, or even a cancelled trip because the whole world is quarantined. It’s all part of the game.
To be a skier is to continue on. Not to push through dangerous conditions to ski what you want, but to continue to dream and to prepare for the next opportunity. To appreciate where you are and how hard you’ve worked to get there, and to let that momentum carry you through to the next trip or summit push.
I spent another 30 minutes sitting on my stool at Le Fournil Chamoniard, the bakery responsible for my thought-provoking quiche, watching skiers come and go from the cable car station, arriving with an eager spring in their step before grumbling through the bakery doors moments later to seek solace in the form of powdered sugar and puff pastry. Some things are just instinct.
Over a second quiche—this time filled with gruyere cheese and spinach—I thought about all the lines we’d meticulously planned out and realized that skiing wouldn’t be near as rewarding without the uncertainty. The excitement of not knowing. Summits wouldn’t taste quite as sweet if they happened all the time. Part of the fun of nailing an aesthetic line is the challenge it takes and the hope of it all lining up. In a sport that depends almost entirely on weather, we have to turn over a huge part of our certainty and control to Mother Nature. Some would say it’s even a bit like gambling, which would explain why it’s so damn addicting.
We left the bakery in no particular hurry, dragging our heels alongside the rest of our comrades in Gore-Tex, preparing for another afternoon of refreshing the weather forecast between sips of 2-euro wine.
Skiing can wait. Max Ritter photo.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel disappointed. The silhouette of jagged spires above us looked cruel, taunting us from the valley floor. But the beauty of the mountains is that they don’t always let you in. We’ll just have to try again next time.