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The International Writers Magazine: Night Time Skiing

Amanda Callendrier
Most residents of the Alps eagerly look forward to winter filled with snow and its activities-skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, sledding.  Regrettably, I am not part of this group. 


I’m an indoor kind of girl, and my attempts at skiing and snowboarding have been disastrous.  I made an effort when I first began visiting this region, but I’m too old now to slide down a mountain on my ass, in wet ski pants.  I have accepted that there are some people who are simply best suited to drinking hot wine at the lodge, while braver, hardier souls hit the slopes.

This is why when my husband announced to me that a club he belongs to would be doing a night-time hike followed by sledding, I was less than enthused.  By less than enthused, I mean paralyzed with fear.  I didn’t actually agree to go, but I didn’t say, “absolutely not” either, so the date approached, more or less with my assent.  I do like to sled, in controlled conditions, and I reasoned, who knows, maybe in a group it could be fun?

A few days before the event, my husband announced the list of “supplies” we would need for this adventure, which included a frontal head lamp.  Frontal. Head. Lamp.  Clearly, I did not own such a thing, nor could I conceive of any reason why I should do an activity that required this object, not having an interest in cave exploration, or mining.  I had imagined us sliding down a lit ski slope.  Why then did we need headlamps? In response to my look of horror, my husband said that we could probably make do with one.  One?  Who would be allowed to light the way, and who would be stumbling around in the dark?  Fine, he said, go buy two.

I was still in denial the day of our nighttime adventure.  It was the beginning of ski season, and we hadn’t unpacked all of the equipment yet.  Even if you don’t ski, there are days when you need a ski suit in the Alps, for getting the mail and such. I bought my pants in 2000, and they were small then.  It’s never fun trying to squeeze into them after a holiday filled with eating.  I dutifully tried them on, and was almost able to button them. I began unearthing our ski gloves and hats.

The snow started early that morning and didn’t let up in the afternoon.  Up to 20 centimeters was predicted.  Oh, thank God, I thought.  Surely, we would not be hiking in a blizzard.  Of course the thing would be rescheduled, but maybe I could find some sort of excuse by then.  Nevertheless, the evening came, and nothing had been cancelled.  It was time to get a headlamp.

I went to a sporting goods store and wandered around in confusion, past skis and poles, backpacks and cables – foreign objects that had nothing to do with my life.  I found the lamps and was surprised to find a wide range of choices in a substantial display.  There were many sizes and prices.  I didn’t want to spend a lot on something I intended to use once, but on the other hand, I didn’t want the thing to go out mid-hike and be stranded in the dark.  A salesman walked by, having overheard my heavy sighs and groans.  He assured me that the cheap model would be just fine for the evening, and I left with two, still petrified, but at least not blind.

Our babysitter arrived, and I hugged the children more tightly than usual.  “You know Mommy loves you, right?”
They looked at me strangely.  “Yeeesss.  Mommy, you’re hurting us…”

Off we went.  Driving was difficult because of the falling snow.  I tried to not wring my big puffy gloves.  We drove up, up, up, and finally to the parking lot of a familiar ski slope. Except I had only seen it during the daytime and now, it was pitch black.  I mean, DARK.  There would be no floodlights, and the need for the headlamp was now clear.  The whole thing was so absurd that I finally just gave in to it.  Might as well enjoy my last evening on earth.  At one time I had been an experienced runner; I could do a little hike.  And surely, if we were all together while sledding, it would be fine.

The guy in charge of this expedition unloaded the sleds from a van.  Correction, they were not sleds.  They were what is called a paret . Even many of the native mountain folk, like my husband, had never seen one before.  It looks like a child’s toy, and in fact, they were once used for school children to travel downhill to school.  The paret was wooden and tiny, with two boards making a 45 degree angle, and the bottom one shaped like a small ski.  You sit at the lowest point, and there is a round handle at the top, for balance and steering.  Locomotion for Santa’s elves.

I was there and (somewhat) accepting, so I hauled my paret on my back and began the hike with the group.  Thank goodness for that headlamp.  The view might have been beautiful if we could have seen more than three feet in front of us, but as it was, there was only fog, falling snow, and a dozen tiny pinpoints of the other headlamps.  The forty-minute hike was short and refreshing, and the paret, to defend it, was very lightweight to carry.

We were rewarded for our efforts by a little chalet and a prepared Savoyard dinner.  This area’s specialties are cheese, potatoes, ham, and cheese, in that order, and in various configurations. Savoyard specialities are comforting and hot after a day in the snow, and everyone looks forward to their first cheese fondue of the season.  By the end of the season, you usually feel like a wheel of cheese and look something like a potato, but I digress.  After a hike in the dark, it was most welcome.

The meal was excellent and long, beginning with a much-needed cocktail. There was some debate about the descent, and whether it was best to drink a lot, or not at all, to enable us to pilot our parets.  Everyone else was inexperienced too, and no one, not even me, seemed particularly worried.  The conversation was loud;  no one heard when the button of my ski pants gave up and flew open with an audible pop.  We finished up somewhere around midnight, and it was time to return to our little parets.

The men were enthusiastic.  Some of them had had too much to drink, and flying down the hill and falling off was great entertainment.  The women started more slowly.  Somewhere between the dark parking lot and the tenth serving of cheese, I had lost my fear, and become more preoccupied with controlling the thing than my impending death.  It was unwieldy at best, and the recent snow complicated matters.  There were parts of the slope that were easy going, and other parts where I was forced to use my feet, like Fred Flintstone driving a car.  It was too much work to worry about being afraid.

The handle was utterly useless.  In the beginning, I clung to it for life, which halted all forward motion and sent me careening into a ditch.  The less I clutched it, the faster I seemed to go, so I tried to release as much as possible.  At the moment when I seemed to have gotten the hang of it, the slope became more level, and it was almost impossible to keep going forward.  Many of the group members had given up, thrown their parets over their shoulders, and started walking.  I did the same.

The real danger over, I began to contemplate it.  One side of the slope was part of the mountain, a wall of snow, and the other side was a significant drop off.  The margin for error was really quite small, and it was a good thing we weren’t going too fast.  The snow continued to fall, and the beams from the head lamps were short.  You could see the people behind you, but not in front.  I had gotten separated from the others, but I could hear voices in front and see the lamps behind.  I could now see how important it was to stay together.

We arrived back at the parking lot, which now seemed like a haven of safety.  The adventure had reached its conclusion, and it certainly had been interesting.  My husband tried to get an admission from me that I was glad I had gone, headlamp and all.  All I gave up was a little, “Mmmm hmmm.”   But if they go again next year, and it’s not snowing, maybe I will come along.  I almost understood how to steer that paret and not fall off.  After all, I have my own headlamp now.

© Amanda Callendrier Feb 2010

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