A day in the life of quarantine in Chamonix
The Quadruple Clooney gets me out of bed in the mornings. I can’t ski, no climbing, mountain biking interdit, and a stern gendarme two days ago warned me, “No trails, only walking on the road.”
And there you have it: life under quarantine in the “death-sports capital of the world,” Chamonix, France. Walking on the road, no speed, no gravity, no carnage, no fun. Dr. Doom would be horrified at the eunuch I’ve become while living in his former stomping grounds.
And that, my friends, leaves me the Quadruple Clooney — four shots of Illy espresso run through my compact Nespresso machine. George Clooney is nowhere to be found, but he endorses Nespresso in Europe, so I refer to the coffee maker as “The Clooney.”
And it makes pretty frickin’ good coffee, I must say. Fourteen days into lockdown, I might trade the thing for a pow day in La Thuile or a skimo mission off the Midi, but I’m not sure. Talk to me in another two weeks, though. I might give you a different answer. Or I might be mumbling incoherently, unshaven and delusional, curled up in the basement … but hey, at the moment I’m caffeinated, healthy, and typing away here in a quiet, gloomy Chamonix.
I’m being a wuss. Most people have it far worse, so joking aside, the update from Chamonix is fairly rosy. Sure, we miss climbing, skiing, driving over to Verbier, grocery shopping through the tunnel in Italy — but these are skinny-white-guy gripes in a country with (approximately, at the time of writing this) 40,000 cases of corona and 2600 victims. France finds itself somewhere between Italy (over 10,000 dead) and South Korea (158 dead) in terms of “managing” the situation. Let’s hope I’m still singing this tune in a week or so.
Our lockdown started two weeks ago, after several days of recommended “physical distancing.” We no longer say “social distancing,” people, because that might lead to more psychological trauma. Or so says the World Health Organization.
The initial suggestion to physically distance ourselves here in Chamlandia was met with as much compliance as the Colorado one seems to be eliciting. Packed trailheads and parking lots, groups of skiers, long-winded social media posts about how soul-shredder solo missions in the backcountry were the best physical distancing possible, brah. It wasn’t “me” bending the rules, just the non-local clueless noob from an adjacent community fiddling with his tech bindings. Punter. #vanlife #dirtbag #morelocalthanyou #faucioverreacting #iknowmyrightsman
The French, kinda like Governor Polis, eventually shut it down because we couldn’t get the message. In the Haute-Savoie, where we are, they eventually tightened the noose even more — we must stay within 1km of our home; no more than 100m elevation gain above the house; you can leave the home solo, once a day, for a brief exercise, but no mountain biking, no skiing, no climbing, no parapenting, no, no, no!
We can of course visit the local supermarket, the doctor, the pharmacy. We print out a page and list our home address, time of our departure, and the reason for being out of the house. The gendarmes stop people at intersections, walking in town, or like me, out for a run. You produce the papers; you’re left to the whim of the interrogating officer.
“Have you been in the mountains,” the cop asked me.
“No, ” I responded.
“Why do you have trekking poles,” he countered.
“I walked down the path over there, to the Hotel Lac Vert,” I say.
Within a kilometer of my house; I’m within an hour of departing; I am solo; check-mate!
“No trails,” he counters.
“Rien sentiers?!” I exclaim.
I recall no such prohibition in the decree from the prefecture, but then again, I speak French poorly, so I probably missed it somewhere, but then again, I am white, American, skinny, wearing tights, and yes, I have a Strava account. Uh, there’s been a misunderstanding, monsieur, the rules do not apply to me.
“Stay on the road, no trails,” he says.
Now I feign the good-natured tourist. “Oui, monsieur, bien sur, pas de probleme.”
Facecramp, WhatsUp, Xoom
Daily whining sessions, sharing of articles, endless scanning of the latest news, all shared on various techy outlets — this is the new normal. A healthy swath of the American guides here; as well as two detainees over in Italy, Mark Puleio and Mikey Arnold; have a WhatsUp (a.k.a. Whatsapp) group going. Being paranoid and a liberal elite, I try to avoid WhatsUp because it’s a Facecramp (a.k.a. Facebook) product, but there it is.
Everyone from neophyte guides like me to valley-local crushers like Kathy Cosley are in the group. We share recipes, cop sightings, deranged rumors, macabre observations, dozens of articles from (mostly) reputable sources. Dylan Taylor understands some dark art known as “statistics,” so he translates the curves, graphs, stats, and suppositions with the cool, detached wisdom of an incarcerated professor. He also walks his newly adopted cat on a leash and posts videos of it. Lockdown does take a toll on the psyche.
Who knew this Xoom thing would become a part of our lives? Yes, I know, it’s Zoom (Xoom is some banking scam that Zuckerberg insists on trying to sell me). The guides keep doing happy hours on Xoom, but I haven’t attended yet, mostly because I’m self-conscious and I think I annoy many (most?) of them, but partly because we have nine-year-old twins who need feeding, washing, scolding, and back-tickling during the late-afternoon-into-evening hours.
Yes, we’re all doing more tech time than we should during these trying times. Our boys have watched “Gladiator,” “Talladega Nights,” “Mission Impossible,” ”Spellbound,” “Les Miserables,” “Castaway,” “Liar, Liar,” “Captain Phillips,” and two seasons of “Next in Fashion.” Luca keeps asking to watch “The Shining.” So much for the United National 2020 Home-Parenting Award.
It has been interesting watching the corona thing unfold through the screen. The Mont Blanc tunnel and massif give us a physical and mental barrier from the worst of it in Italy, but talking to cousins in Milan and Bergamo brings it home. We are a three-hour drive from hospitals where people as young as 65 have been sent home to die, 30-year-olds “survive” with 25-percent of their lungs permanently lost to scar tissue.
I thought Wasatch skintracks sucked before, wait ‘til I’m doing ‘em with a third of my lungs gone. We started self-quarantining almost a week before it was mandated. Friends in Italy encouraged us to do it and once Italy and Switzerland closed their ski lifts, the Chamonix valley had an influx of visitors. That lasted a few days before the French shut down their lifts and eventually the no-ski/climb/ride/fly order dropped.
The guide syndicate here in France officially shut down work after conferring with its insurance provider — Allianz — and determining that we weren’t covered in the event of an accident. The mountain rescue organization also decreed “no more rescues,” so that ended guiding work indefinitely.
The States, according to those in the know, is a few weeks behind Italy and France, so I’ve watched in slow-mo as ‘Murican skiers negotiate the vague suggestions that seem poised to become actual lockdowns. Can I ski? What does an “adjacent” community mean? From the outside, it seems like Governor Polis is doing a pretty good job, but yeah, the decrees are tough to interpret, especially with a case of Mad Pow Disease and our usual armor of biases.
The Chamoinx valley feels quiet, but having only a small clinic here, anyone truly sick goes down the hill to Sallanches or Annecy, where the hospitals are full. North of here, in Mulhouse and Colmar, the French have built field hospitals on soccer (football!) fields.
Between the Facecramp onslaught of information, talking with friends, my own absurd desires to sweat outdoors, it is tough to make sense of the pandemic.
Uncertainty. We are swimming, maybe drowning, in uncertainty these days.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a backcountry skier. We all manage uncertainty, every single tour we take. Well, most of us manage uncertainty, though we’ve all toured with the guy (it’s usually a guy) with more answers than questions. This slope will slide, that one won’t, and here’s how faceting changes if RH is above 50%.
But if you’re less experienced like me, you spend a lot of time in the backcountry uncertain about a lot of stuff — weather, snowpack, that weak layer that is 70cm down in the next drainage over. And how do we manage uncertainty? More snowpack tests? Reading Staying Alive again? Sure, we have bunches of strategies to manage uncertainty. What happens, though, when the problem itself is characterized by unmanageable uncertainty?
Deep-persistent slabs. They often (usually?) do not react to explosive control, skier traffic, and are near impossible to forecast at a slope scale. Continental snowpack readers can attest to the difficulty of recreating with a deep problem in the terrain.
Many of us throw around the term “spooky moderate;” that is, a relatively low hazard but one which is almost certainly lethal if you get tangled up with it. I don’t care for the term. It suggests or hints at an important conversation without really having it — that is, that not all avalanche problems are created equally.
I’d much rather tour with a high rating with wind slab as the main problem, rather than low or moderate with a deep slab. You probably would, too. Wind slabs are more predictable and identifiable and avoidable; deep slabs are unpredictable, unseen, fail in surprising ways, trick the ski patrol and forecasters on occasion, produce larger and more destructive avalanches.
Why am I blathering on a topic that’s barely within my knowledge base, for which I am no expert?
Uncertainty. We manage it all the time in backcountry skiing, so why is it so hard for us to apply those decision-making skills to corona virus? Corona, for most of us, is a deep-slab problem: low likelihood of having a problem, but high consequence if you do.
Does anyone here have true expertise with viruses, pandemics, and epidemiology? When confronted by profound and potentially lethal uncertainty in skiing (deep slabs), the smart among us just avoid that terrain altogether. After initially bemoaning my shrinking menu of outdoor activities, I finally clicked into low-probability/high-consequence thinking — the pandemic feels like a deep persistent slab, so I just chose to quit going out. Trails behind my house, solo, wide berth to others on the trail.
So that’s my life, in addition to home schooling our punks, hanging with the wife, and spending too much time looking at ski videos, gear reviews, and the quiet, deserted Mont Blanc massif.
And so passes the morning, copy/pasting photos into this thing, rewriting a paragraph or two. Now I’ll get warmed up and hangboard a bit, do some push-ups, pull-ups, and work on hip mobility in anticipation of Slaying Next Season. Because this ski season is over for us here in France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Norway, and beyond. Are we overreacting? That’s a debate for the next decade of academic articles and Ted Talks.
After damaging my tendons indoors, we’re going to walk — the whole family plus two dogs, because those living together can take a walk together, but not shop — over to look at a potential house we’ll rent in June. I met with the owner yesterday and we agreed to speak (in French and for me, poorly), but her on the balcony and us down on the street. There’s my manageable mitigation plan.
Whatever it is, I sincerely hope it works and you account for huge uncertainty in your plan with a sane strategy and margin for error. I’m banking on turns and a return to semi-normal in 2021. Hope to cross tracks with you!
Rob Coppolillo owns Vetta Mountain Guides and is an IFMGA mountain guide based in Chamonix, France. His new book, The Ski Guide Manual, is due out in November, 2020. Read more of Rob’s WildSnow writing.