Four Thumbs, Ten Rides, Two Trains, and One Monster Pipe

by Anna Packham

If the snow won't come to the girls, then the girls go to the snow. Which is how we found ourselves hitching through the French Alps in January. It was lucky we didn't think much about it before we left; if you thought too hard about every kicker, you'd never jump.

I lived in an old French farmhouse in a tiny little village near the slopes, with an amazing patisserie that delivered fresh bread every morning. Life was cozy nights in front of the fire, afternoon adrenaline hits, and windburn from being out on our snowboards. Lucy and I should have been in heaven but we weren't. It hadn't snowed for four weeks. Every day was a gray one in the Three Valleys and our moods were even worse. Lucy had even managed to derail her favorite snowboard when a parapenter dropped out of the sky on top of us.

Early morning is a magical time in the French ski resorts
Early morning is a magical time in the Alpine ski resorts

We got so bored we spent a whole day hiking to "Notre Dame de Neiges"--Our Lady of the Snow--the white chapel the other side of the valley. We arrived at sunset, in time to watch the sun impale itself on the mountains in the glorious way it does. Looking across at our cluster of twenty houses, I realized that what we'd been feeling was claustrophobia. There were acres of Alps out there, but as the snow receded, our bit became smaller every day.

So we decided on Switzerland. It had snow, and Laax has Europe's biggest monster half pipe. Our plan was to go by way of Chamonix, checking out the infamous home of Mont Blanc. We thought we'd hitch, we did it all the time around our local resorts; it seemed it's what you do in France. We realized this wasn't true, when one by one each car stopped with Gallic laughter and the shout of "Faire du stop?" which means "Hitching?". Uh, well not sticking my thumb out for fun.

By 11am on the first day we were in Albertville and it had only taken three rides to get there. Albertville is squarely rural France and we were two girls who had taken the unwise decision to travel in our all ski clothes, sweaty boots, 'n all. No one would pick us up. One leathery dude was grinning as if he'd won lotto until he saw the boards. He sped off. We walked A LOT. For every 300 cars that passed, two might stop and of those we'd be lucky if they were going our way or could even fit us in.

We tried every stance, every thumb combination, all known facial expressions. Attempts to emit positive energy and Oscar winning smiles were useless. It was entirely random. Younger guys and fellow boarders would stop. We got a lift to Megeve with Jacques the professional Kayaker from surf Mecca, Biarritz, and then got a ride all the way to Chamonix with the two students from Paris in their father's SUV. I know what you're thinking. Danger! Rape! Murder! You may be right, but I estimate that the chances of stumbling across Hannibal Lecter are rare as rare (he doesn't ski). I still wouldn't recommend it; it pretty much sucks. You stand for hours, everyone ignores you, you start to take it personally, you get dusty and dirty, there are no toilets or retail outlets on the roadsides, and you have to make pointless chatter with strangers. You get so desperate for a lift that if Lecter did stop, you'd get in the car just to be put out of your misery. It took ten long hours to get to Chamonix, a journey that should take two at the most, and although it cost zero dollars, it was expensive to my self-esteem.

People ask how I can ride a snowboard with the number thirteen plastered all over it, but it has never bothered me. I'm really lucky; in fact I named my board Lucky (Lucy names her boards too). My luck didn't seem to be in this time, however. We had arrived during one of Chamonix's regular snowboard and music festivals and there was not a room to be found in all of Cham. We wandered the streets dejected, tired, hungry, and regretting our ambitions. Finally a friendly backpacker haven said they could fit us into their attic, where we slept with the jade green tip of Mont Blanc winking at us through the skylight.

Chamonix has the distinction of being a mountain resort with the buzz of a city. At one point that night we were in the tiniest club you've ever seen, nearly sitting on the lap of the female guitarist, twenty seriously attractive Swedes practically dancing on us. I hear the snowboarding's not bad either, although we never got to experience the pleasures of the famous Le Tour, because we were too busy getting killed.

We couldn't get a bed for another night and neither a snow hole, nor getting friendly with the locals appealed. We opted to leave after our big breakfast, and plodded bravely on, calling ahead to reserve a room in Laax Flims. We simply had to get there.

We were not far from the Swiss/French border when an orange VW van full of dreadlocked boys stopped for us. Everybody knows that when walking through customs, you avoid the old ladies and walk behind the Rasta, or failing that, a load of dreadlocked boys. So we waved them on and sure enough they got pulled over and we waltzed through.

"Let's wait for them," I said when we were on Swiss soil.

"No," Lucy immediately said. Ever since the flying man hit us on skis she has been cautious.

But if anyone was going to give us a lift, it would be these guys, and they did. This turned out to be one of my worse ideas (worse than margaritas the night before). They were stoned, playing dirty techno, and slamming the brakes on every mountain curve. Lucy was ghost white clinging to her vinyl seat and we laughed at her until it wasn't funny anymore. The van had picked up speed, the bends got sharper, the techno pulsed on and none of us had belts; we were jumping beans in a jar. Twenty long minutes later, we were down the mountain. It was only then the driver told us the brakes had burnt out halfway down.

Our next ride was a train. Lucy went to Information to get a road map. We had thought we'd hitch again, but through the glass I could see the guard laughing at her, then papers flying, and then she was running away from me screaming "RUN!". I ran after her like a loping monkey, carrying her board and bag as well as my own. She vaulted the stairs to platform 4 and jumped on the train, so did I, and a few seconds later it was pulling away.

"You can't drive, hitch, or catch a bus to Laax!" she screamed.

"Of course you can!"

"I knew you'd say that and there was no time to argue so I bought two tickets"

It turns out this was the last train through the Alps that day and "everyone" knows the Alpine road passes are closed in winter. Lucy was right.

Valleys of cloud and pristine snow entice the winter sports enthusiast
Valleys of cloud and pristine snow entice the winter sports enthusiast
The Swiss Glacier Express is one of the World's most incredible journeys and although our train didn't have the oak paneled dining car, it took the same route. We were soon staring slack-mouthed at the awesome views. I felt like Frodo journeying through Middle Earth. If hobbits, not to mention elves, exist at all, they exist here, deep in the land you can only reach by train, among the ancient villages in the ancient mountains and the amazonite green lakes, waterfalls and rivers of Switzerland.

We had to change at Zurich. Waves of black suited business people swarmed past us in our full boarding gear. We both felt bewildered. When you're living in the mountains, even at peak season, you get used to all the space, so the city felt too contained, too landlocked, and full of too much energy, or not enough.

By the time we got the next train, it was dark, and we couldn't see the mountains at all. When we reached Chur and caught the connecting bus to the resort, we had become convinced that there were no mountains, convinced we were headed to the wrong Laax, or that Laax was a myth, a big practical joke we'd been a victim of. We knew no one who had been there and we couldn't see sign of any snow or anything that indicated winter sports. When some people did get on the bus with ski gear we decided that they were being ironic. But Laax did exist. After we signed in at Backpackers Deluxe, we tentatively asked, "How's the snow?"

The guy laughed. "Not so great." Our hearts began sinking, until he said the magic words. "But the pipe's just been cut."

We spent our whole first day in the park. All the reports had been right; it was a monster and I felt like a hobbit trying to ride it, I was worn out from travel and it was twice the size of what we were used to. I hovered there at the lip, and was taken back to childhood looking down the aluminum glare of a death slide at the fair. This was worse. You had to drop down the vertical wall, no time to think before riding straight up the other wall and coming down backwards, faster than I'd ever had to ride before. I couldn't help nipping on the brakes--a little safety net that made my attempts to ride halfway up the other wall pathetic. I swore at myself over and over but as soon as I took off, I scrubbed my speed again.

A fellow girl boarder laughed with me. "You just have to go really, really fast," she said, flying out the top with perfect 360 spins.

None of the locals seemed to struggle. The girl boarder turned out to be a sponsored rider, and she told me she had made Laax her home because it boasts the best riding in Europe. She would be happy if French resorts were buried forever. I was surprised to feel strangely homesick as I defended the alpine charm of France and its amazing backcountry.

On the second day and last day, we went and explored the beautifully named Crap. Crap is the main ski area with 220km of varied terrain and without it Laax certainly would be. The pistes were wide, giant fields of snow, big rollers over which Lucy showed off, and it wasn't long before we were hopelessly lost, in a gully with no way out except a massive hike or tackling one of the evil drag lifts. These are giant T-bars, impossible to straddle on a snowboard by yourself, so you have to catch one with another snowboarder and each sit on either side of the T, one of you riding backwards. These things are fast too. We couldn't time it well enough for both of us to get on before it dragged us up the mountain. I was permanently flat on the floor eating snow. The growing line of people behind me was menacing, as only a line of people can be. I was bright red, angry and sweating, and poor Lucy had to be the one to ride switch as we both held onto each other tight as possible the whole way back up. I would rather have eaten my boot inners than fall off and have the torment of climbing back on again.

To say we slept well at night would be a vast understatement. Our exit strategy was to hitch to Zurich, catch a train to Geneva Airport where we hoped to meet a friend of ours who ran a bus transfer service to the Three Valleys. He owed us from crashing at our farmhouse for longer than he was welcome. We had a miracle stroke of luck hitching out of the resort. One ride in a Mercedes with two very cute musicians who bought us snacks and took us right to Zurich train station. The magic held all the way to Geneva airport where we ran straight into our friend who fed us the latest gossip all the way home. It's amazing what qualifies for gossip when you're isolated; there was a new puppy in the village, oh and the patisserie was already full of Easter eggs.

Two girls and their boards find hitching to be more difficult than they expected!

In our little village of La Nouvaz, all was pretty much the same. Notre Dame de Neiges keeping us in our place from the other side of the valley, our housemates joking in front of the fire, Lucy's board still broken, the snow just as icy. All that had changed was us; we were not the same. We had knowledge now. In our mind's eye we could fly west, right over Mont Blanc, take the path of the Glacier Train, and ride the monster pipe. I felt more space around me, more distance ahead of me, more ambition inside me. There's a whole world of mountains out there and when one winter ends, somewhere, another one begins. Next time though, I won't scrub my speed.

Further Information:
Information on Laax
Information on Chamonix


Anna Packham taught herself how to hold a pen because she was so anxious to get writing. She still is. She lives in Brighton, England, but dreams of owning an eco-chalet in the mountains. You can contact her at Visit her website at

© Anna Packham, 2005
Photos © Chris Hopkins, 2005

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