Snow patrol in Val d'Isère
Getting reacquainted with a snowboard after 11 years is no easy task, writes Eoin Burke-Kennedy
Highlife Chalet Morelle, Val d'Isère
Highlife chalet bedroom
Has snowboarding lost its edge? The last time I was on the slopes, albeit 11 years and three kids ago, boarding was all the rage.
Beanie hats and ill-fitting pantaloons were de rigueur. Words like biff (wipe-out), jampiece (perfectly cool) and goofy (riding right foot forward) were part of the lingo.
It was skiing’s version of grunge; youthful, irreverent but above all spectacular. Aerial tricks, half-pipes, deep-powder descents; it made skiing look positively pedestrian. Even gold-medal winning snowboarder Ross Rebagliati seemed to thumb his nose at the establishment by testing positive for cannabis at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
The judges initially stripped him of his medal but later reversed their decision, presumably when they realised smoking a spliff before bulleting down an icy slope at 145km/h (90mph) wasn’t exactly performance-enhancing.
My brother, an avid surfer, was instantly hooked. He convinced me to bypass conventional skiing for its newest offshoot, insisting I’d learn quicker and be that bit cooler. So essentially, I never skied but it didn’t seem like I’d ever want to. Snowboarding was taking over the world. It was everywhere: magazine covers, catwalks, music videos.
It had transformed the ski slopes of Europe and north America in less than a decade. In some resorts, boarders were said to be outnumbering skiers.
Fast forward 11 years and things have changed. For a start, everybody’s wearing helmets, a wise move no doubt, but all the cool kids are back on skis. What happened to the revolution?
I’m in the French resort of Val d’Isère, just 5km from the Italian border and deep in the Alps. It stands out as an attractive blend of traditional chalet architecture and modern high rise.
The guy in the ski hire place tells me snowboarding is not as popular anymore, and accounts for only a fraction of his business. He says many older boarders – I try not to take offence – are opting for new, easier-to-ride skis to preserve their ageing bodies. Young people are also more likely to be drawn to skis because of advancements in ski shape and design, he says.
Modern skis are fatter and curvier, built for descending backwards or forwards, just like snowboards.
Three hours later – with the ageing body comment still fresh in my ears – I limp off the slopes. It has not been a good reunion.
From the knees down, my legs are inflamed, swollen, engorged; or a combination of all three. My feet feel like they’ve been manipulated on some sort of medieval rack. I could have just run four miles in a pair of stilettos. It also seems I’ve acquired a new way of falling which involves using my coccyx as a landing pad.
At the après-ski drinks, I’m forced to sit on the very edge of the seat to protect my bruised rump from too much contact with the chair.
Maybe I am too old for this lark? Maybe I should have listened to the guy in the shop and slipped on a pair of comfortable skis? I berate myself for refusing to age gracefully. My hosts, Highlife – the Irish ski chalet company – are, however, well-versed in dealing with first-day aches and pains.
Sensing I’m not feeling the love for the slopes, they whip me back to our base camp, the elegant-looking Chalet Morelle, located in the nearby hamlet of Le Fornet, and plonk me in a newly installed hot tub.
Chalet accommodation, even in exclusive resorts like Val d’Isère, used to be fairly basic – essentially spag bol and bunk beds – but it’s gone upmarket in recent times.
Highlife operates 10 luxury chalets in three French resorts: Val d’Isère, Méribel and Morzine.
Each chalet has its own chef whose sole task is to dish up local delicacies and prepare sumptuous three-course evening meals. Drinks, including a good selection of French wines, are part of a complimentary bar which saves you from being fleeced downtown.
I while away an hour or so in the bubbles, picking over the carcass of my lost youth, while my swollen legs and feet revert to size. How could I be this unfit? I curse The Irish Times for making me such a sedentary and desk-bound drone.
After a delicious meal and a heavy Alpine air-induced sleep, I wake revived and determined to force myself back out onto the slopes.
Val d’Isère is really a skiers’ paradise. Combined with its neighbour, Tignes, there’s about 330km of piste to explore, with plenty of steep red and blue runs that are perfect for skiers of all levels.
The resort is ranked among the world’s best year after year for two principle reasons, as far as I can make out: the snowfall, which is heavy and consistent; and slope accessibility, which is modern, swift and highly mechanised.
There’s an underground funicular and powerful Olympique gondola both from the centre of town, and the ski runs are littered with drags and chairs, all of which means little or no queuing, even at the height of the season.
Highlife has laid on a snowboarding instructor in an attempt to reverse my fortunes from the first day.
He quickly pinpoints a number of flaws in my technique, all of which relate to posture and flexibility, and warns me these deficiencies will leave me brutally exposed if I venture higher up the mountain.
I try to explain that sitting at a desk all day has reduced my level of flexibility to that of piece of plywood. But telling this to a man who spends his days thousands of metres above sea level carving pretty S-shapes in the snow is pointless.
Nonetheless, he gets me snowboarding again and I’m beginning to remember what makes this sport so goddamn enjoyable.
My feet are still sore, but manageably so. I have age-related fallen arches – the lay term for plantar fasciitis, but it’s not exactly a conversation starter in snowboarding circles so I keep it to myself.
No trip to Val d’Isère would be complete without a ride on the Leissières Express – an “up and over” chairlift with a steep rise as you approach the top of the main ridge, and a gut-churning drop on the far side.
We rise and descend, discussing the differences between the French and the Irish, agreeing that the French are natural born malcontents and prone to giving out about almost everything, while, for the Irish, admitting unhappiness is tantamount to failure.
Après-ski is a big part of the skiing experience and the aptly named La Folie Douce is undoubtedly one of the cooler places to bring your ski-weary body at the end of the day. The bar is located on the piste at the top of the La Daille gondola. And it is advisable to take the lifts down after a cocktail or two as alcohol-induced wipe-outs tend to be more extreme.
Highlife likes to encourage the bonding aspect of skiing, laying on lavish nightly feasts at which guests are invited to sit around and chat and, most importantly, tune out of their busy work lives. The company only grudgingly equipped its chalets with wifi. It’s an admirable ethos in a world saturated by digital communication.
Anyway, by the end of the trip, I feel I’m finally getting the hang of this snowboarding thing again. Wipe-outs are down; turning and carving is better; leg pain is decreasing, albeit with the help of some sneeky Solpadeine. My planned defection to skiing is on hold for now.