The Grands Montets is 50 years old today, and will be hosting a big party all day – bigger than usual, that is – with raffle tickets handed out in the queue and a season’s lift pass – next season’s, presumably – the top prize for one lucky lady and one lucky gent. Skiing will go on until 8pm, with music from Gary Bigham I trust. That makes our family’s arrival in the valley poorly timed. Eta c10pm.
What were they thinking – opening a new ski area in April? I think I can answer that: the original plan was for summer skiing. “Importantes possibilités de ski d’été,” says my 23rd edition of the green Michelin Alpes which is priced at F6,30 and dated 1966. “Le téléphérique fonctionne de 7h30 a 17h30 toute l’année sauf au mois d’octobre, Prix AR F20.’ Photographs show a drag lift on the slope opposite the staircase down from the top cable-car station, La Petite Verte.
My own memories of les Grands go back to the big winter 1980/1, when the John Morgan Travel Renault 4L careered down the road from Argentière, bouncing off the snow banks like a bobsleigh. So I have known it for little more than half of its life. Until the mid-1970s the slopes were considered too difficult and attracted few customers, but by the time I arrived Argentière was already becoming a cult destination, with long haired monoskiers straight-lining huge powder fields and Bernard Garcia flapping his wings to float down the Herse three bumps at a time.
It took me a week in January ’81 to conquer my fear of walking down the steps at the top station and decide that the Grands Montets was the best ski hill I had ever confronted. Extensive ski travel since then has not changed my mind.
Those were the days of the Grands Montets Derby when iron man pisteur Roland Cretton ruled the roost. Roland set a vertical record by skiing the top section of the cable car (1260 vertical metres) non-stop from first to last lift – was it 36 times? – making no turns down Pylones to be sure of beating the cabin down and not missing a rotation. For the purposes of calculation I think we can assume Roland by-passed most of the steps at the top.
The Derby was a choose-your-own-line, top-to-bottom race for teams of three skiers who had to start together, go through Lognan mid-station together and finish on the doorstep of Les Marmottons brasserie together, and team Cretton’s best time was 5 minutes 35. The race was fairly dangerous but not nearly as bad as the preceding days, when the local hotshots were out practising. One fatal accident finished the Derby.
A bunch of Canadian ski bums were in town that winter, skiing 100,000 vertical feet in a January day, when lift queues permitted: 23 GMs, plus a couple of pistes du bas. Tim and Greg (a visiting poseur from Courchevel whose black shirt picked out with strawberries has passed into local myth) walked me round the mountain on a huge traverse from the top of the Marmottons chair lift, which was the only lift above Lognan open at the time, and showed me how to ski powder. They didn’t say much, but the lesson I learned from watching was, don’t lean back, work the knees. It worked, too.
One of the Canadian class of ’81, Mark Jones, returned later with the unlikely ambition of skiing 100,000 vertical metres in a day on the Grands Montets, starting at 6am by special dispensation. “It was before 35-heures culture came in,” comments Jean Marie Olianti, guide and former pisteur. After 57 cable rides and straight lines down the front face, failing light forced Jones to abandon.
In the days before the Plan Joran chair lift went in, the queues for the bottom cable car at high season were of epic dimension. The ‘system’ is worth remembering, because it was exemplary in its badness. Before about 7.45 you could stroll in to the cable car station unimpeded, and once you were inside the doors of the station, you were home free. At about 8 the buses from Chamonix would start to arrive, full of Swedes, and the queue – or loose scrum – would build. Once it overflowed the station hall, things started to get ugly, because everyone knew that at any minute they would close the doors and issue the fateful announcement : ‘numéros d’ordre!’ From the back of the queue you could sprint across the car park to the little hut that gave out the numbered tickets reserving a space on a certain cable car. But those at the front, just squeezed out when the doors closed, would be the last to the ticket hut, and would need to find alternative entertainment for the morning.
Nor was it finished if you secured a good position in the queue for the numbers, because there was no limit to how many tickets one person could ask for. There might be only four people in front of you, but if they were Swedish ski reps, with 50 clients each, that would be an hour of cable cars. Time for several coffees in the Savoy bar.
I once saw a woman collapse foaming at the mouth in the crush to make it over the invisible line in the station doorway. How many skiers stood back to make space for her? None that I noticed. She might have been faking.
My best memories? Being in the right place at the right moment one April morning about 20 years ago, to catch the first cable car to the top after four days of stormy weather. The official word had been that the GM might open at lunch time, but they opened it early to pre-empt the queue. I can still remember the commotion in the cabin and hear Billy the exchange pisteur from Snowbird piping up: ‘Today we have fresh snow ….’
I was with Bruno Cretton that day, and he was on telemark skis as usual. Most of the others skiers raced off to ski the Grand Mur but Bruno was in no hurry and paused at the top of the Point de Vue piste which was marked by a single line of black poles, and a single pisteur’s ski track. So we decided to ski the Point de Vue. ‘Shall we dance …?’ Bruno did not say. He went home after that run.
A good and more recent memory has me walking up from the Marmottons chair to ski the Lavancher bowl (as we call it) one snowy day when the Bochard lift was closed. My friend CB and I felt proud of our intrepid explorer selves, but these days a walk like that counts for nothing. The photographer John Norris tells me the thing he likes to do at the start of the season is walk to the Grands Montets from the top station of the Bochard, via the Col des Rachasses. Hats off.
When lucky I got to explore the GM with CB’s regular guide, the wonderfully eccentric and much lamented Patrice Bodin. ‘Anything I can do you can do,’ Patrice used to say, and we almost believed him, until he showed us the route on the Courtes that he and his brother had premiered. Whenever we ride the Herse chairlift CB and I recall Patrice taking us down through the rocks in a white-out, turning slowly on a sixpence as he loved to do. Those rocks always look unskiable, but Patrice found a way through.
But perhaps the best day of all was December 15th 1995 (from memory, but I might be a few days or even a few seasons out) when it snowed all November and I had the luck to be present when the cable car opened for the first time of the season. The snow was good, better than good in fact, but the real thrill was knowing that the slopes were absolutely pure. At least, I assumed they were (not having heard about John Norris’s walking habit).
The photo reminds me of the clear Arctic light of December and the tracks of the first skiers of the season to turn right at the bottom of the steps and take the direct line down the front face, not bothering with the Col des Rachasses. Next time round, there were about 20 tracks, and I found the courage to follow them.
Reminiscing is all very well, but now I must go and pack for Chamonix.