High upon the Grandes Platières ski-lift, the French resort of Flaine recedes quickly behind us, the colour of the concrete fading fast into the grey of the rocks, and the outlines of the Bauhaus school buildings blending with the cliff faces just as architect Marcel Breuer had hoped that they would.
It was two Swiss friends who discovered the delights of the Flaine bowl whilst ski-touring in 1954, eventually recounting their find to geophysicist Éric Boissonnas in 1959.
And it was Boissonas who took the bold step of commissioning Breuer to design a ski station in its entirety, that brief encompassing everything from the village layout to the hotels, and even all the furniture within them.
It was a huge undertaking, which had to begin with the blasting of a switchback road out of the mountainside just to reach the site. But by the end of the sixties the resort was essentially complete, and love it or hate it, Flaine is listed as a site of architectural interest today.
The gondola door finally opens, and we shuffle through a dark and unpromising corridor, accompanied by the drone of machinery and a weakly yellow electric light which melts hopelessly into a gloom as dark and dismal as the depths of any factory.
A few seconds later, we emerge into the dazzling sunlight, and the world is transformed. A vast snowfield drapes before us, swallowing all perspective of distance in a dream of cream-dripping curves, cornices and crevasses. And beyond, right in front of us now and almost touchable, stands the 4 800 m high outline of the highest mountain in Western Europe, towering smoothly above a vast range of the spikiest and craggiest peaks to be seen anywhere in the world.
It’s twenty years since I first saw this mountain. We’d left the sublime shores of Lake Lugano behind that morning, breathlessly conquered the mighty Simplon in my tiny Fiat, and driven pantingly down the arrow-straight Rhône valley into the afternoon sun all the way to Martigny. We’d traversed the winding staircase of the Col de la Forclaz rising out of that Swiss city, and crossed into France. Suddenly, near the border, looming behind the mountain pastures, rose the strangest of apparitions – round and smooth, and simply – white. It soon disappeared behind the hillside, so that for a while it was hard to be certain that we’d seen anything at all.
Another half hour passed before we reached the Chamonix valley, where finally the skyline opened up once again. We almost gasped then, as the trees parted to reveal a jagged river of silver, the Glacier des Bossons, running almost right into the town itself. And there, floating impossibly high above the pines, lay this one huge snowy peak.
We struggled to find a campsite that night. I rejected one unsatisfactory pitch early on in our search, on the reasonable grounds that it lay sloping and sandwiched hopelessly between four other tents, and right underneath a washing line. But after a fruitless search of four further campings, finally we returned shamefacedly to set up our tent at exactly that spot, just as the snows of the peak were turning to pale orange.
Somehow by chance, we’d managed to stumble into town on its busiest day in 200 years – the exact bicentenary of the mountain’s first ascent on 8th August 1786 by Jacques Balmat of Chamonix and his friend, the doctor Michel-Gabriel Paccard. On such an anniversary it was a minor miracle that we’d found anywhere to camp at all.
I’ve glimpsed Mont Blanc many times since then. From a hundred aeroplanes flying into Switzerland, and on the thrilling ascent out of the tiny airport at Bern when I lived there. As a vision of white rising above the cool waters of Lake Geneva from the Pont de Mont Blanc, or from a high-speed train slicing through the vineyards near Lausanne.
And always in Flaine. No matter how many times I return here for ski-ing, this view won’t cease to amaze me.
A famous fourteen kilometre ski run starts from here, through emptiness and forest to Sixt, the tiny Savoyarde village where Balmat eventually died in 1834. And although I’ve skied here many times, that route has never been open before. It’s April already, and late for the Alps. But this year the snow is better than I can ever remember. And we ski that run.
Just one hour of a morning, when we don’t see any other people. Just one hour to follow endless carved ski tracks through the silence, stopping only for photos and great gulps of mountain air. One hour to cover all the types of snow I’ve ever skied – white powder, crystal crust, death cookies, silver granules, white pack, grey ice, blue ice, white sugar, brown sugar, artificial snow, dirty treacle with rocks. And finally mud. For the last 200 m to the café, there’s no choice but to take off our skis and walk. But it doesn’t matter, because we’ve done it.
A blissful café au lait, a chance to relax on the ski bus, and a rest on three more chairlifts. But then it takes an age of edgily scared ski-ing finally to bring us to the kids’ ski school just five minutes late. And late in the afternoon, as I pull on my trainers after three more hours ski-ing, I know that my legs are well-beaten. Hal Higdon advises against ski-ing whilst training, and I’m certain he’s right. And yet almost every year I do it – because I just can’t keep away from the snow.
It’s not hard to find a running route in Flaine – there’s still only one road. 100 m of climb from the Forum round the hairpins to Flaine Forêt, a fast 200 m of descent to Front de Neige, and then a final 100 m climb back home. Say it quickly, and it sounds easy enough – but this year it seems hard. Run for a minute, gasp and walk for a minute, and then run for one minute more. Two five milers are dispatched in mid-week, and after lugging all the skigear back to the shop on Friday, it’s very tempting to sleep for an hour before dinner. But I know I should run, since any meagre gains the altitude might lend me can only help in London. And so it’s a tough twenty minute lung-burner which I stagger instead.
Back in England on Sunday, my beaten-up legs feel very stiff. I struggle with that lumpy and wobbly gait which always comes after ski-ing. My knees will be shot all week, I know, and my shins still sore from the fit of my ski boots. But at least my twelve miles feel easy, and although the last of those is uphill, I barely notice the incline today.
I do run a little faster. Maybe I am fitter, even if somehow I doubt it – I feel more tired than altitude-trained, really. But there is something different – something fleeter and faster within me this evening. Because as I run through the grey English drizzle, I can imagine I’m still chasing ski-tracks through a morning of sunshine.
And I can still see that mountain.
118. The scales of truth
79. In sickness and in health
56. Paris – a view from the Champs de Mars
119. Schönbrunn, Vienna
63. Henry VIII’s consumption and the rocky road to running ruin