Running with a Fast Crowd

In Heli-Ski
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Words by Kevin Brooker

DOES ANYBODY KNOW the French ambassador to Canada?” In two decades at the Gothics, lodge manager Claude Duchesne has seized on some odd themes for a post-dinner speech, but never quite as weird as this Tuesday. “There’s been a hold-up at the border,” Duchesne continues. “Some of our gang here”—he motions to a table of burly, hooting Frenchmen, whose dinner attire, for some reason, consists of nothing but their white bathrobes—”they shipped a few boxes of some special food from back home in Toulouse—the finest cassoulet, I’m told—and it’s supposed to be here by now. But the customs people apparently think that packages which come from the south of France are suspicious. We may need intervention from a higher power.”

Higher power? Well, how about that dude sitting over there eating sushi and wearing a smile wider than his head. That’s right, it’s Luc Alphand, one of the greatest ski racers of all time who then became  one of the greatest rally racers of all time. He’s the special guest who’s teaching us how to tear apart big mountains, when to dance shirtless on a tabletop, and, in short, how to have more fun than any man  in his 40s has probably ever had. Does Luc have to sort out those customs knuckleheads too?

Memo to anyone trying to talk their buddies into rounding out a posse for a CMH trip: Merely invite a living legend who has reached the pinnacle in at least two of the world’s sexiest sports and preferably one whose athletic career is still on the rise as he embarks upon a third. That’s pretty much all it took for Thomas Leufen of Destination Poudreuse, CMH’s Paris-based agent that has been re-educating French skiers about where the world’s greatest skiing is for over 20 years. “As soon as we announced that Luc was coming,” says Leufen, “the trip filled up.” Which is how 32 of Luc’s new best friends (a 33rd was forced to bow out; please don’t let him read this article) now find themselves smack in the middle of the last, and maybe even the best week of the 2011-12 season.

You could see that right from day one when Duchesne tells the group, “I think this is the fastest Saturday we ever got a group in, fed lunch, and ready to go skiing.” And why not? Duchesne points out that this is the first bluebird day after a month of steady snowfall. “It’s April, it’s -5 degrees, there’s powder everywhere. It just doesn’t get much better.” A half-hour later, the marquee group is about to catch his drift. They’re clicked in and poised to drop in on a perfect, sparsely treed Monashee slope when the man himself makes a shocking confession. “Actually, it’s my first time Heli-Skiing,” Luc offers casually, the last thing you’d expect from a guy covered in sponsor logos and rocking a super-fat pair of next year’s Dynastars. But any thought that he’ll be less than a mind-blowing skier is instantly dispelled as Luc blazes down on Duchesne’s tail, railing monster turns in knee-deep cream before launching an impromptu jump and jibbing artfully off a huge snow mushroom.

It’s like someone shot off a starter’s gun. The rest of the group charges forth, thoroughly giddy as they too braid their way like rock stars through this jaw-dropping terrain. It sets an upbeat tone that will last the entire week: Never have fewer skiers fallen, or flailed awkwardly, or complained about sore legs. “I’m skiing with a World Cup champion” is well on its way to turning into, “I’m skiing like a World Cup champion.”

“It’s April, it’s -5 degrees, there’s powder everywhere. It just doesn’t get much better.”

A few hours later the spring sun is still high in the sky, and on the warm terrace, skiers are getting to know one another over frosty beers. More than a few are already saying, “Best runs of my life.” Luc, meanwhile, is holding court in the hot tub. At one point, though, he steps out of the pool for a roll in the snow. Except the slushy surface is too firm underneath for that, so Luc merely lays down in a fetal position, rubbing his paws softly over his face like a kitten. He then strolls back into the hot tub. “If there is a heaven,” he announces matter-of-factly, “this is it.”

When it comes to a glittering alpine tradition it’s hard to outdo the nation that produced the dashing Jean-Claude Killy plus the “ski extrême” of Patrick Vallençant and a host of daredevils that followed. Indeed, the French Alps can boast every feature you’d wish for in a mountain range with one notable exception: they don’t have Heli-Skiing.

No wonder those members of the group who have Heli-Skied before—about a third—possess such diverse travel resumes. Take Didier Caillol and Lucile Brugede, who live near Marseille. They’ve Heli-Skied over a dozen times, as far afield as Kazakhstan, Utah and Greenland, plus several visits to CMH. “It’s nice, for a change, to be in an all-French-speaking group, especially one this sympathique,” says Caillol, who admits that France hasn’t been as diligent as other European countries in teaching kids English.

As for the mainly anglophone lodge staff, they’re trying to do their part as citizens of a bilingual nation. At first dinner they all introduce themselves in varying facsimiles of French, though not quite as good as, say, guide Pierre Hungr, who happens  to be fluent, thanks to growing up in French immersion school in Vancouver and his time spent guiding in Chamonix. Even chef Yoshi Chubachi emerges from the kitchen to bid the guests bienvenue in elegant, if slightly Japanese-accented French.

There is another great advantage to hosting an all-Gallic crew.  Like many CMH guests, they tend to bring various delicacies from home for sharing. In this regard, the inventors of the word gourmet are—quelle surprise—in a class of their own. This week nobody is more popular than Rodolphe Peters and Stephane Billiot, principals in rival Champagne houses. They are spectacularly equipped with numerous magnums of their vintage sparkling wines. At one point, Peters narrows his eyes at Billiot as he refills glass after glass for his grateful countrymen. “They make theirs with Pinot Noir grapes,” he growls, “while we use only Chardonnay. We should be mortal enemies.” But then his face lights up and the pair slap hands in an exuberant high-five. “Instead, we’re best ski buddies!”

And what is wine without cheese—eight large wheels of premium Saint-Nectaire, a classic semi-soft from the volcanic region of Auvergne in central France that everyone agrees is the perfect mealender. The benefactor is Francis Charbonnel, who owns several sporting goods shops through which he’s come to know Luc socially.  For a guy like him, who’s already skied 60 days this season, making this trip along with some chums was a no-brainer. France, he confirms, is a sports-mad nation, and he’s not surprised that, in addition to being strong skiers, this group contains a host of experts in tennis, cycling, motorcycling, climbing and sailing—in short, people a lot like Luc Alphand. For his part, Charbonnel’s status as a former competitive speed-skier is on full display up in the mountains. And as a part-owner of a helicopter touring company, he just came up with a new goal: “I think I’m going after my helicopter pilot’s license when I get home.”

Then there are the manly hunks of Team Cassoulet, as they are being called, despite the fact that their highly prized tins of haricots, pork and sausages are still a no-show. These dozen-odd copains are veteran but still very fit rugby players from Toulouse—or more precisely, Saint-Girons, a nearby town about which they sing with lusty reverence. In fact, the Cassoulets will burst into full-throated song at a moment’s notice, ably led by their smallest member, a booming tenor named Hubert de Thoisy who blushes when asked if he’s a professional opera singer. “No,” he laughs, “I actually run a shoe factory.” He also once lived in New Zealand, which is how he came to teach the Cassoulets a French version of the haka, the Maori war chant made famous by the All Blacks rugby team. That, too, they’ll break out at the drop of a beret, and fortunately, de Thoisy has one

As the week tumbles along, it becomes increasingly clear that there is only one problem with hanging around Luc Alphand: It is difficult for mere mortals to keep up. This is a very strong group, both at the bar and on the snow, but when the last guy on the makeshift dancefloor is also the first guy in the stretching room next morning (though after, bien sur, his dawn run), your work is definitely cut out for you. Jagermeister shots? Luc’s in. When the video geeks cluster around the GoPro footage after each day’s skiing, guess who’s in the front row. Billiards? Table tennis? Victory is surely his. And don’t even think about beating him to that super-steep couloir over there.

“More than a few are already saying, ‘Best runs of my life.'”

On the other hand, with his twinkling eyes, permanent smile and volcanic enthusiasm, he’s everything you’d want in a ski buddy. So when a warm front passes through late in the week that makes the skiing less than appetizing, Luc takes it cheerfully in stride. And so, of course, does everyone else. It helps that Claude Duchesne has the brilliant idea of airlifting the entire circus up to a nearby mountain for a festive barbecue lunch. “It’s not exactly standard operating procedure,” he tells the gang, “but we can’t be sitting around the lodge. We need to get out and have some fun.”

Even the helicopter pilot, Roger Hoogendoorn, gets in on it. While everyone else is downing burgers and beer, he grabs a shovel and builds a big jump up on a steep slope. Turns out he’s brought along those plastic sliding carpets that kids use, and the next thing you know he’s rocketing down the pitch on his belly and demonstrating that his superb flying skills do not require heavy machinery. Four or five human missiles follow before Luc, broken back and all, sets the distance standard. The ensuing barrage of flying Frenchmen lasts over an hour, but it will take the aerodynamics of a hulking rugby forward stripped down to his underwear to eclipse Luc’s mark.

Just then Duchesne takes a call from the lodge over the radio. “Hey guys,” he calls out, “the cassoulet just arrived!” Cue Hubert; this calls for three or four celebratory songs from the Toulousains. Sure enough, on the final night of the season, the entire lodge finally gets to eat what several Canadians describe as “the best thing I ever ate from a can.” There are even a few magnums of champagne left to toast a week that won’t be forgotten for a long time. Someone asks Luc, “Do you think you’d like to come back again next year?”

Silly question. “Absolument,” he replies. Without hesitation.