Chamonix in may

October 13, 2022
Skiing grippy, compact powder

In the garden outside my giant luxury chalet, a hot tub was percolating, and I was determined to sit in it with a drink and soak up the view. I got into my swimming trunks, poured some local white wine, opened the sliding glass doors and walked outside into the wind-strafed garden. As I lifted the lid of the hot tub, it reared up, smacked me in the head and went scudding away across the lawn.

No matter. Not a drop spilt. I climbed into the hot water, settled back and feasted my eyes on the scenery. It was dominated by the massive bulk of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, with a long, blue, rumpled glacier descending its flank and dense pine forests lower down. Next to it was a fantastic spire called the Aiguille du Midi, the Needle of the South, or of Noon, and the surrounding peaks pierced the sky like fins and arrowheads, their dark granite streaked with ice and snow.

The wine tasted of lemons and honeysuckle, the jets massaged my back, I felt delighted to be alive, right here, right now. Meanwhile, the wind was ricocheting around the valley, gathering force. I heard branches snapping. Leaves, twigs, grit and other debris rained into the hot tub. Water exited in a fine stinging spray. I thought of my father, whose mood invariably sours and darkens in presence of rain, wind or cold. Perhaps in reaction to him, I've gone the other way. I'm a lover of storms, blizzards, heatwaves and downpours, a man who can sit happily in a hot tub in a gale-force wind.

When the wine was gone, I retrieved the hot tub lid and weighted it down with four heavy wooden garden chairs. I got dressed and walked into town along the river. Unusual objects floated past me: a shop mannequin, a blue rubbish bin, a cloth cap, a drainpipe. In the town centre, where vehicles are banned, I wandered with other windswept pedestrians along streets lined with cafés, bars, fondue joints and adventure-clothing and gear shops.

Chamonix is known as the "death sports capital of the world". The mountaineers, ice-climbers, extreme skiers and paragliders drawn there have been joined recently by high-altitude slack-liners, who walk loose tightropes in improbable places, and wingsuit base jumpers, who leap off clifftops and fly long distances in bat-like suits. But in this wind, not even the golfers were out.

I watched a 10-year-old boy turn a corner and get knocked down. A set of loose shutters banged three times and then splintered. When wooden tiles started flying off the roofs, and the first big trees started coming down, I hurried back to the chalet for shelter. The lid of the hot tub had scattered its chairs and travelled 40 yards into a hedge.

Soon afterwards, I heard an almighty crash and rushed to the window. The wind had ripped off one half of the neighbour's tin roof. It had sailed through a tree, knocking it down, and was now on the lawn next to my hot tub. Andy, Andie and another Englishman named Andy were out there looking astonished, talking on phones, as the other half of the roof flapped crazily in the wind, tethered by a chimney. We piled rocks on the roof that had landed, to prevent it getting airborne again, and watched with our hearts in our mouths as reckless French firemen scaled the neighbour's pitched roof and wrestled with the bucking, rearing sheet of tin. Eventually they prised it loose and tied it up with ropes.

When a wind blows at 73 miles an hour, it has officially reached hurricane strength. That night, the wind in Chamonix was measured at 110 miles an hour. The power went out and I wandered the chalet using the torch function on my phone, nervously drinking wine, stoking the wood-burning stove and looking out of the big windows. The night was full of rending, ripping, crashing, howling noises, and civilisation seemed like a puny, temporary thing. It was hard not to think of the wind as a fury, or a punishment, rather than air moving at freakishly high speeds.

The next morning, the power came back on and the wind was merely brisk. Across the street, a four-storey tree lay across the crushed roof of a house, and walking through town I saw many more uprooted trees and at least a dozen roofs that had come off. There were cars with crushed roofs and smashed windscreens, but, miraculously, no one had been killed or injured. Nor had anyone slept, and this added to the sense of camaraderie in the streets. We had come through something extraordinary together.

I bought a baguette and a local saucisson flavoured with hazelnuts, and went walking in the mountains. I climbed into the Aiguilles Rouges on the other side of the valley from Mont Blanc. It was hard going, with steep slopes and many downed trees that had to be clambered over, and it was intensely beautiful. I passed through loamy-smelling forests and meadows full of wild flowers and birdsong. I startled a deer.

When I got hungry, I sat on a boulder and ate, gazing across the valley at the fairytale peaks and glaciers. Here was the Chamonix experience I had come for: springtime in the Alps with no one else around. I hadn't seen another human being in hours.

Then it dawned on me. There was probably a good reason why no one else was here. Look at all the downed trees. There were probably hundreds more loosened by the storm, and poised to topple with the next big gust of wind. I made my way back down, and the sound of chainsaws and hammering rose from the valley to meet me. Chamonix was putting itself back together again.

In a few weeks, the summer hordes will start arriving. Traffic will crawl, queues will form outside restaurants, profits will accumulate. After a brief autumn respite, the winter season will begin again. In a few short years, the massive windstorm of April 30 2012 will be largely forgotten, although not by me.

PS: A day or two either way can make all the difference in off-season travel. Immediately following my departure, the föhn wind died away completely and Chamonix basked for a week in calm and glorious sunshine – a reminder why travelling out of season, with Lady Luck on your side, can be such a joy.

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Flying the Vallee Blanche - Chamonix - 30 May 2010
Flying the Vallee Blanche - Chamonix - 30 May 2010
Late May snow in Chamonix
Late May snow in Chamonix
Kilian Jornet:Courmayeur+Innominata+Chamonix..
Kilian Jornet:Courmayeur+Innominata+Chamonix..
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