ยป Gallery / 2005 /

Chamonix, French Alps – March 2005

Series Final: Alps 3, Chuck 2

Continental Airlines Can Go to Hell

The Best-Laid Plans

This trip was arranged by Mark and Carol Stucky and included a number of old friends in a sequel to their successful Alpine adventure back in 2000. Melanie’s busy with work this time of year so I flew solo – I planned to spend a day in Geneva kicking the jetlag and exploring a bit of Switzerland for the first time. The “road crew” (Dennis Ruth, Eric Ney and Tom Burcham) were going to spend some time in Amsterdam up front, rent a car, and speed across Germany to meet us in France. John K planned to fly into Lyon and take the train to Chamonix.

I booked my flights, printed up a few guides to Geneva and packed the cameras.

Why Continental Airlines Can Go to Hell

I’ve heard the cautionary tales about missed connections in Newark. I thought twice about my itinerary as I booked it – an hour on the ground seemed awfully tight – but the connection was simply an extension of the same flight, CO80 Washington to Geneva. All we needed to do on the ground would be to walk over to a bigger ocean-going plane. Surely they would hold the second leg of the flight if the first leg landed a little bit behind schedule. I had no worries as we sat on the runway at National waiting for the winds in Newark to die down.

Oddly the flight crew had no information about connecting flights while we were in the air. I’ve never seen that before – don’t they always have a radio in the cockpit now? The crew assured us there would be an agent at the gate to help with connection info.

As the plane taxied to the gate an hour and a half behind schedule I phoned Melanie who informed me that CO80 part 2 had left for Geneva a half hour prior to CO80 part 1 landing.

There was no agent at the gate. We were all waved to the line at the Customer Service desk.

Having sat at the back of the plane I found myself at the end of a long line of irritated fellow travellers. At the other end of the cellphone Melanie was able to glean from Continental HQ that I had been routed to a Lufthansa flight through Frankfurt. She found this out as the Lufthansa flight was closing its doors. Perhaps an agent at the gate could have pointed me toward that plane in time. As it was, the five service agents at the counter dwindled to two as I stood in line for an hour. The couple in front of me rushed off to catch the last Virgin Atlantic flight to Heathrow. I was denied a boarding pass for the same flight a few minutes later, as Virgin has a “strict one-hour cutoff” at the gate. The service agent was professional but very cold toward me. Apparently she was doing me a favor putting me up for the night in Newark. The next available flight would be CO80 in 24 hours. Forehead on the counter I stuck my hand out for the hotel voucher – bound for the Newark Airport Howard Johnson’s.

Had Continental sent an agent to the gate, or had the agents at the counter stuck around until the line of passengers was cared for, I probably would have been able to spend some time in Geneva before heading for France.

For what it’s worth, the Newark Airport Howard Johnson’s does not have a liquor license.

I took my time getting my things together in the morning, then hopped the NJ Transit line into Manhattan for lunch. I popped my head above ground for a few minutes before skulking back to Terminal C.

Okay, So I Was Hardly the Only One With Travel Woes

Pretty much everybody had trouble with the inbound trip. A freak snowstorm in Amsterdam fouled up the Stuckys’ connection; to make things worse the bag with their skis and outerwear ended up in Frankfurt, forcing them to rent skis and buy jackets in Chamonix. The road crew got caught in a mountain snowstorm and had to back the car downhill into a little town to buy chains. John K never made it to his stop in Lyon, and somewhere along the line his digital camera was lifted from his luggage.

Actually, only John Conrad had an error-free journey and he had to put up with the rest of us complaining about our woes for the rest of the trip.

Chamonix is wedged in a narrow valley between two Alpine ranges. Here’s a map. The mountains tower ten thousand feet above the town – from most places in the village it feels like you’re inside a deep, cold box.

The eight of us stayed in the two apartments at les Terrasses des Glaciers, a nice house situated about a ten-minute walk from town and across the valley from Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi gondola station. The Gattinis are gracious hosts and speak enough English to get Americans settled in. I tried out my limited French and was treated to a fusillade of information from Jean-Claude, in French bien sur… I nodded a lot, smiled and pretty much figured out where the washing machine was located, though I’ll be danged if I ever figured out how to really run the thing.

The Many Moods of the Aiguille du Midi

Our chalet sat on the north side of the valley floor, across from Mont Blanc proper. We could see the peak clearly but our attention was captured by the Aiguille du Midi, an old weather station sitting at 12600 feet above sea level, about 10000 feet above us and roughly 3000 feet below the peak of Mont Blanc.

I spent a lot of time running to the balcony to grab photos as the light changed.

Day One: Le Brevent

I started out fairly strongly on the first day but about halfway through I got cocky and fell a few times, the second time jarring my trick shoulder. This put The Fear into me – after dislocating my shoulder at Vail and having to pop it back in on the trail I’m leery of hitting the ground, and for the rest of the day I skied scared. I had a tough time bringing myself to point downhill on the steeper red runs. I worried if I’d be able to get my form back in time for the planned Vallee Blanche run at the end of the week.

Advantage: Alps.

Day Two: Les Grands Montets

I started out the second day much as I’d ended the first, skiing off balance in an effort to protect my shoulder. It didn’t help that we started off in the howling wind at the top of the Bochard gondola. The morning went poorly for me, but after lunch I got some good advice about my posture, threw my shoulders forward and started biting into the turns. I hit the steep slopes I’d originally avoided and turned the whole trip around. This came late however, and on the balance the mountain owned most of my day.

Advantage: Alps.

Day Three: Courmayeur, Italy

My best day skiing was on the other side of Mont Blanc. It’s a quick ride from Chamonix via the reopened Mont Blanc tunnel. The weather was a little warmer and I was excited to be back in Italy again after spending two weeks there the previous summer. I managed to dust off a few phrases and order un caffe espresso in Italian.

I built on the improvements I’d made the day before and enjoyed a full day of confident skiing.

Advantage: Chuck.

Things were looking up for the Stuckys as well, as their skis and jackets finally made it to Chamonix via God knows which airports.

Day Five: Les Grands Montets again

As the rest of the crew slid across the icy Argentiere glacier on the backside of the mountain I faced down the Bochard run that had ruined my previous visit – it took me a couple of runs but I conquered the trail by lunchtime.

Apparently the Argentiere was a pretty tough run. Had I tagged along I might have thought twice about attempting the bigger Vallee Blanche…

Advantage: Chuck.

Series MVP: My iPod

I packed my iPod and a headphone-to-RCA connector figuring I’d be able to plug into some sort of stereo while in France – I didn’t want to be at the mercy of the Europop radio stations after two weeks of that in Italy last summer. The little boom box in our apartment became a beacon of classic rock and Taj Mahal blues; the iPod resolutely satisfied every drunken request for good tunes.

Advantage: Everybody.

The French ask that you cover your feet.

I kept it close, but in the final analysis the Alps got the better of me. Not much of a shocker – I’ve only been skiing for a half-dozen years or so. Maybe in another five or ten I’ll return with some moguls under my belt and take the Vallee Blanche for all it’s worth.