VAL D'ISÈRE, France - Watching skiers cut through the icy crust of hard pack on the opposite piste, or trail, ties my stomach in knots. My anxiety is sharpened by the scraping sound of their metal edges rising up from the natural amphitheater surrounding the valley floor. This isn't like me. On the first run of a new season I normally feel like a kid seconds before he gets to open his Christmas presents. But this is anything but business as usual.
I'm in Val d'Isère in the Savoie region of the Alps, the Holy Grail of French skiing thanks to the ultra-high altitude and steep terrain. Mountain peaks average 11,000 feet, and the region is home to a couple of enormous ski domains - Espace Killy and Paradiski, each offering more than 185 miles of runs accessed by a sophisticated network of funicular trains, cable cars, and speedy six-seater chairs. That means lines are nonexistent, and you can ski all day and never negotiate the same terrain twice. Many of these same lifts offer some of the most thrilling off-piste terrain in Europe. For experienced skiers, the Savoie is the ultimate candy store.
That's all good. However it's been 18 months since I had reconstructive surgery on my right knee, and three years since I put skis on. Will I be able to ski like I used to? I slide my Salomon GCs back and forth on a lip of snow, pondering the possible outcomes from atop the Bellevarde Express. Below, the bottom section of the Olympic run spreads out before me like an empty canvas.
I rewind to a conversation I had yesterday with Christophe on the drive from Bourg-Saint-Maurice, a rustic town that serves as a gateway into the Savoie. Christophe, a taxi driver who spends his summers in Corsica, lives according to a simple principle: "Live for life." He is one of hundreds of seasonal workers who descend on Val d'Isère each winter when the population balloons from 4,500 to 20,000.
The visitors, mainly French, British, and Russian, come here for Espace Killy, a ski domain of 138 runs and 90 ski lifts shared by Val d'Isère and its sister village, Tignes. But the two alpine villages are as different from one another as fish to fowl. Val d'Isère is a traditional alpine village built in the old Savoyard style with timber and stone fronts decorating most chalets. The chic factor is high here, with upscale hotels, spas, and restaurants dominating the social scene. Tignes, on the other hand, is a child of the swinging 1960s, dominated by mid-range accommodations that cater to serious snow hounds who want to test their alpine skills against some of the most challenging downhill terrain in the world.
Back on the hill it's an awesome day for skiing. A bit chilly at about 14 degrees, but blinding sun and clear azure sky make me think it's spring. With a sharp downward kick of my reconstructed knee, and hard thrust against my aluminum poles, I launch myself down hill. A few things are working in my favor. Unlike in North America, hills are groomed to perfection here, usually by snowcats in the middle of the night. Also, shorter parabolic skis make me feel as if I'm driving an automatic transmission, unlike the old-school, standard-shift beach plank I have sitting at home.
After carving five or six turns I come to a full stop. So far so good. Much to my surprise, after three or four descents on the Olympic run most of my old form is back. The knee is stable. The brain remembers. The muscles remember. The countless hours of therapy were worth it.
Next morning I tackle the Coupe du Monde. It's the same run used by the men's Alpine World Cup each year, and I chew up its 3,400 feet of vertical with gusto. I didn't expect to ski like this in my first season back. Is this fool's gold? All I know is my skis are running well, sharpened metal edges spraying packed snow left and right as I thread my way through imaginary gates.
Lunch is at the family-owned restaurant Le Trifollet, located midway down the mountain. No burgers and beer at this mountain chalet. It's gastronomy all the way, so I start with a glass of kir - the definition of civilization at this altitude - followed by scallops wrapped in bacon with pesto sauce and spinach mousse. I finish with a snifter of génépi, distilled from a white alpine flower of the same name. But after a rich meal washed down with generous digestifs, charging a mountain is no longer important to me. What I need now is a nap.
At 6:30 on my second morning in Tignes I'm awakened by cannons firing on the mountain. Because it has snowed more than 1.3 feet in the last two days, ski patrols are forcing avalanches in trouble spots before allowing people up. I throw on my gear, and meet Anthony Swallow, a local ski instructor from Aberdeen, Scotland, who works North Sea oil rigs in the off-season. Anthony has come equipped with a radio transmitter in case one of us gets buried. So in keeping with the Tignes spirit - a majority of clients are single males 25 to 35 years of age looking for extreme-ski experiences - I suggest we ride up to La Grande Motte, the highest peak of Espace Killy, nearly half the altitude of Everest at almost 12,000 feet.
We are greeted by white-out conditions. I can't see much farther than the tips of my skis, and what little is visible cannot be judged in this flat, gray light. We turn on our transmitters and take a straight line down the glacier.
The powder is knee deep. It's a treat to ski despite poor visibility and a deep crevasse on the left that claimed two lives a year earlier. As I pass a Day-Glo sign showing a skier plunging headfirst down an abyss, the unexpected happens. The powder rises up to my waist, then up to my shoulders, and finally it shoots straight over my head like an ocean wave. I'm entirely enclosed by powder, as if in a cocoon. I can't breathe. I can't see. I'm careening down the mountain like some giant human snowball. Half force of nature, half skier, I hardly need to turn because the powder holds me back, regulating my speed against the pull of gravity.
This is my moment of glory in the French Alps. If I'm not skiing champagne, the term used to describe the best possible powder because it contains tiny, round snow pellets resembling carbon dioxide bubbles, I'm at least skiing an excellent chenin blanc. I haven't felt this alive in ages.
The same afternoon I drop through a hole cut in the frozen surface of Tignes-Le-Lac, and pop back up like a buoy. Without thought of regaining solid ground anytime soon, I push myself under a foot-thick shelf of ice. Were it not for my dry suit and scuba gear, I'd be in for some serious trouble.
The fact is that Tignes likes to pride itself on being a destination for adrenaline junkies, so options for pushing the envelope here are numerous. In addition to scuba diving under a frozen lake, there is paragliding from mountain peaks and heli-skiing on the Italian side of the border. (Heli-skiing in France is not allowed because the government has decided it stresses wildlife.)
Cruising on my back under Tignes-Le-Lac, the air bubbles I exhale appear to morph into liquid icicles. Now and again I gently kick up against the ice ceiling with a flipper and sink 6 to 10 feet. Meanwhile Alban Michon, my dive buddy, is scanning the surface with an underwater light. It's over all too soon, but as I lie face up on the snow-covered ice, snug in my dry suit, I think that life is good in Savoie.
I've tested my brand new ACL, and it passed muster. I've been reborn as a downhiller.
If the weather clears tomorrow, I'll try tandem paragliding on skis.
Erik Heinrich is a freelance writer in Toronto.