All White on the Night: The BCV 24hr Villars Ski Race
It was at this point, having dismounted the gondola at Roc d’Orsay and assumed something approaching a jog to give the cheering crowds a semblance of my racing intent, I mounted my skis and began slaloming down the upper reaches of the course, with a certain panache, I like to think. The snow here was more forgiving than the gloopy, wet leg-breaker stuff found lower down. It was then that I became aware of a certain issue. I glanced down to see what was causing the tremulous vibration in my left boot, only to become aware that my leading outside edge was busy furrowing itself into a patch of undetected slosh. My ‘noooo that can’t be happening’ moment was rapidly followed by a, ‘Falllumph!’, an onomatopoeic expression I often come across in children’s books and which is used to illustrate a dramatic, often traumatic, moment when the hero’s ill-judged plans come a spectacular cropper.
Fortunately, some twenty to thirty metres from where I’d lost company with my skis (and dignity), I regained my feet and, like said children’s book character, I discovered myself miraculously unharmed. Spurred on by the 30cl of adrenalin now mainlining through my circulatory system, I began running back up the piste to where the red flags were being waved and a kindly race steward was gathering my skis, thinking that being in the fourth decade of life, perhaps I would be better off sticking to reading bedtime stories, and leaving the silliness that is the BCV 24hr Villars to younger, infinitely more athletic people than me.
On paper, at least, the BCV 24hr Villars non-stop ski/snowboard race is, in itself, a simple proposition. Commencing midday Saturday and ending midday Sunday, the 24 hours of skiing are divided into 3 sessions, two daylights on a faster, more demanding red piste, in which anyone who regularly followed Ski Sunday gets to indulge their fantasies of being a sly exponent of the giant slalom. The more sedate night course which, while floodlit, is actually orienteering from pinpoint of light to pinpoint of light, in pitch darkness, while moving at speed in an uncertain terrain. Extremely demanding it is as well but, if you manage to survive and walk off the mountain without assistance, you do so with an overwhelming sense of achievement and pride. Last year – yes I am that foolish – a blizzard added to the entertainment, to such an extent that conditions, at points, resembled doomed historic expeditions to either Pole.
This year, the 13th edition of the BCV 24hr Villars, the weather proved even more inclement than the previous year. While the Villons-Gyron ski resort had experienced a large snowfall some days before our arrival, it subsequently rained and what was gained was quickly lost. What remained became glutinous and promptly froze as soon as night fell. The unseasonal temperatures had continued and, by the time we reached the main race area at Bretaye, via the narrow gauge railway that weaves a stately ascent through the wooded slopes, the peaks of the Vaudoises Alps were basking in crystal clear blue skies with the mercury recording a spring like 10 degrees.
At this point, you’re probably more than likely thinking, “well, why do it?” I suppose like the mountain itself, it’s there and if someone is daft enough to organise a race down it, there will always be others as equally challenged to do it. There are plenty of these vainglorious types in the gondola back up to Roc d’Orsay, who are just a little too hasty in announcing, ‘oh me and a couple of friends just came along as a laugh and now we’ve broken the land speed record’. Deflating, yes, but then they remove their ski helmets and reveal the dreaded bald spot. Yes, you know the one, the one that signals that you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, that however hard you try you’re never, ever going to get enough of it, ever again. Game Over. A male menopause if you want and, in that light, chucking yourself down near vertical slopes in challenging snow conditions makes perfect sense. Quite why the women do it – and plenty do – is another matter entirely but more than likely has something to do with raising money for charity which, after all, is the whole point of the exercise anyway.
By the time I completed the last two six km circuits of the day, the snow had deteriorated even further. I was now a suitable case for charity, myself. I had fallen several times, nothing as notable as my forthcoming Ski Sunday spectacular but, annoying, painful falls, nonetheless, on un-skiable moguls. My knees complained bitterly at having to assume the Schuss position for extended periods of time (despite being supported by the excellent Neo G stabilised open knee supports – without which, I doubt very much, I would have completed the undertaking, at all). I staggered through the timing gate that recorded each team’s speed and mounting mileage, caught the train back down the mountain and disembarked just a short walk from my hotel, the most esteemed Chalet RoyAlp.
If I’ve yet to convince you of the delights of the race, then the ace in my hand, in Villar-Gyron’s, perhaps, even in Switzerland’s, is the RoyAlp.
Informal and relaxed and offering eagle’s nest views of the surrounding mountains, this hotel has the sort of charm more associated with bespoke offerings half its size. The staff are hospitable but not annoyingly so and there’s no trace of that malaise that so often blights grander institutions, an over-inflated sense of self-worth. Likewise the guests, the underground car park revealing a mix of Maseratis and Priuses, although when the sun does shine, the RoyAlp’s spacious sundeck does tend towards euro trash, the ever-present tax-avoiding flotsam that washes aimlessly from one European resort to the next in search of a purpose.
These inherited men and man-made women are best viewed from the balconied rooms which, along with the surrounding scenery, offer pleasing views of Villars, a picture postcard resort nestled in wooded Alpine isolation. The spacious bedrooms are set back by corridors and walk-in closets, perfect to undertake the lengthy ritual of preparation for a day on the slopes. The bathrooms are similarly grand, white marble with chrome fittings, his and her sinks, a separate shower closet providing rain forest-like deluges of hot, steaming reinvigoration, although the possibility of soaking, aching limbs strangely disregarded by the inclusion of corner baths-cum-jacuzzis.
Fortunately succor can be found in the ‘Le Spa’, a Bond-esque warren of treatment rooms, located in the hotel’s lower levels. This labyrinth of soft-lit, horn-piped corridors apparently hides the secret to eternal life or, as the brochure puts it, ‘the Science of Staying Young’ which may or may not have something to do with the dark arts of phyto-cosmeceuticals – but for how many more decades do these people want to avoid paying taxes? Along with the atmosphere of the slightly surreal, Le Spa does offers an extensive menu of relaxation more familiar to us mere mortals and expertly deployed it is too, for without which I suspect my continued participation in the BCV 24hr, would have been in serious jeopardy.
As it turned out the continuation of the entire event was in a similarly perilous predicament. The night course’s frozen state was deemed far too hazardous to ski, so the organisers shortened the scheduled night session so that it ended at the slightly more agreeable time of 9.45pm which, while allowing the competitors to enjoy the event’s organised festivities (massive, unheard of French Pop stars), meant they were sent back out to ski the day course again. This solution proved far from ideal, however, as the day course was unlit, the competitors having to make do with head torches and the light of the stars, skiing in conditions that had been challenging enough during the hours of daylight. The captain of our team, much to his wife’s reported displeasure, managed to pierce his upper lip with the end of his ski pole. He’d been skiing the lower section of the course, which other than a couple of tight turns, consisted of one long schuss but had not registered a sharp descent in the darkness and consequently lost his balance. and, nearly, his top lip. Fortunately, the foreshortening of the night’s racing meant that my considerable talents were not required and I headed back to the hotel to enjoy some much needed traditional cheese fondue at the RoyAlp’s Grizzly.
If the RoyAlp does have one failing, other than the fact it tended to be overheated – the room’s having no apparent thermostats which meant sleeping with the window ajar – it was the food. While it is pretty much impossible to mess up a Traditional Swiss Cheese Fondue, the same could not be said of their breakfasts. Quite why the Soviet-style buffet breakfast has proved so popular throughout the esteemed- and not so esteemed – hotels of the world, is utterly beyond me. I’m guessing it’s an accountant’s wet dream. Lunch proved equally unimpressive, although several members of my team swore by the hotel’s burger and our one foray into Villar’s eating establishments was, likewise, forgettable.
But don’t let the failure of Villar’s restaurants to raise the gastronomic pulse put you off. The resort is picture perfect, is centralised and many of the hotels can be skied into, weather permitting. Its other great draw is that it can be reached by train. Admittedly, this takes a couple of hours longer than taking a scheduled flight to Geneva and getting the RoyAlp to send you a car but only a couple of hours. Personally, I’ve always preferred my travel to be something more akin to a Phileas Fogg adventure, admittedly one taken in first class but not the type that means passing the considerable barriers presented by airport security or for that matter, unassigned seating.
So it was that after the final laps of the BCV 24 hours had been completed, on Sunday morning, I waved goodbye to my teammates and headed off to Villar’s narrow gauge railway, the very same one that carries you up to the ski resort of Bretaye and caught the train the opposite way down to Bex. From Bex, I took the commuter train along the shores of Lake Geneva, before disembarking at Lausanne and catching the excellent TGV Lyria to Paris’ Gare de Lyon. Admittedly, unless one has a car waiting for you in Paris, you then have to brave the horrors of the RER D Metro to Gare de Nord, but it is only two stops and then straight onto the Eurostar back to St Pancras International. Of course, I travelled in First Class all the way and got the concierge service, Total Access, to arrange the whole thing, but I think Phileas would still have been proud of me.
The film from the ski marathon is available online (lussoluxury.com) or on the iPad edition available now from the Apple App Store. The trip was organised by concierge company Total Access (totalaccess.co.uk). Whilst participating in the BCV 24hr Villars ski marathon (bcv24hvillars.com) the team stayed at the RoyAlp Hotel (royalp.ch). More importantly, whilst competing, our Editor’s legs were held together by Neo-G’s knee braces (neo-g.co.uk).