Mike enjoyed his little secret about our weekend destination, but it had to become obvious sooner or later where he was taking me. If you have skis, you need mountains with snow on, and detours to the gas station or to pick up a friend can only delay the inevitable realisation of which mountain is chosen. By the time we started driving upwards, I knew we were going to my favourite cross-country ski station, Autrans. Given that we had backpacks full of equipment, I suspected where we were sleeping: the refuge of Geve, beautifully isolated at the end of a plateau, surrounded by conifers and ski trails.
There is plenty of snow this year, and I was really excited about climbing the full 7 km from the village to the refuge on skis. I was a bit worried about Antonia making it, considering that she is not an experienced cross-country skier, and that we set out finally at 3pm, after lunch and shuffling with passes and car parking. I was probably right to be a bit concerned. It took her until halfway up to realise that she was wearing nordic skis instead of downhill skis. Maybe you know what happens if you try to ski down a slope in nordic skis as though they were downhills? Your heels lift up and topple you face forwards into the snow! Also, if you want to get uphill, you have to master the duck walk and dig those edges in! There was a certain amount of whining in this first half of our ascent, and the lady managing the halfway cabin was keen to orient us towards the shuttle bus to the top. I'm glad we held out, because after the halfway point, Antonia suddenly started skiing like a pro. It was quite surprising, because the light was starting to fail, it was getting colder, and the snow was becoming crisp and harder to manage. I was quite relieved to reach the refuge before it was really dark, and even more relieved that the 'bouncers' who've previously kicked me off Autrans slopes at closing time didn't seem to be around.
The refuge where we were staying has dormitory accommodation, but Mike had booked us into a chalet. It's a tiny log cabin with four beds downstairs and three more mattresses on the mezzanine, so we had plenty of sleeping space. All the facilities are in the main lodge. But the highlight of the stay is the wood-fired outdoor hot tub! It was really lovely to sit in there with snow all around and stars overhead, doing a bit of constellation spotting. Personally, I did not think it was so lovely getting out, but Mike and Julia felt that rolling themselves in the snow intermittently was the right thing to do. Antonia was keen on this idea, but I didn't want to let her.
Or maybe the highlight is the food, which is no-nonsense regional mountain cuisine, but particularly well done. Or perhaps it is the view of the sky at 4.00 am, when Antonia and I walked across to the main building to use the bathroom, with our breath freezing inside our nostrils. Or waking up in the morning to freshly groomed trails (we did hear the machines go round in the very early hours), and nobody but us to use them. An annual ski race takes place in Autrans on the weekend we were there, but somehow we always managed to be wherever and whenever it was not. The result was that the race drew most of the people and left everywhere else surprisingly empty for a Saturday. Did I mention that the weather was fabulous?
When we finished skiing back down to town, we discovered that they had filled the streets with snow so that the race could pass through. That was all over, but I had the pleasure of skiing down the middle of the main road, along with a few locals who were out for a fun evening.
I had a great birthday, and Mike had not finished with me yet. Back at some friends house we had a little party with a lot of fondue, at which I am forced to admit I drank rather too much wine. I think it will take me a few days to recover from all that.