The Cabin

Bruno Compagnet and Layla Jean Kerley tried to extend the Chamonix winter by setting a course for the Arctic Circle. In the heart of the Tamok valley, and accompanied by their Norwegian friend Thor Falkanger, they discovered a region of rugged beauty where the endless days idly bob along in a log cabin.

The landscape doesn’t lie, our perception interprets and disguises it according to our state of mind…

We cross a river that is as black as the coffee at our last rest stop. An arrangement of houses and garages seem to be looking at each other indifferently from one side of the road to the other, pretending to be a village. The village is shown on the map, which is considered sufficient proof of its existence. The atmosphere of abandon is accentuated by disused vehicles with their bonnets up and old tractors with faded paintwork, peppered with spots of rust and flat tyres that are half buried. In the distance we can see a white mass bordered by huge birch forests that sometimes give way to pine at certain altitudes and aspects.

Thor turns up the volume on the radio as if Bob Dylan had composed that music for him to appreciate that timeless moment. The rough sound of the harmonica and the poet’s drawling voice are admirable companions to this cracked, sagging tarmac road battered by winter and military trucks. But we can’t live in the song forever. We leave the road and follow a wide dirt track rife with potholes and black puddles reflecting the transparent sun. The end of the road seems to get lost, dissolving into the forest along the river. Thor turns left and stops in front of a beautiful black wooden house and a scattering of farm buildings.
Searching for lost time.

Peacefully, and without resistance, we take over the place. Thor opens a few doors and lights the fire in the kitchen. There’s no electricity but this is a minor detail in a land where night seems to be in continual hesitation between dusk and dawn. No running water either but there’s a sauna and a river running by… As soon as the sauna is hot we jump in and drink some beers while we sweat, reminiscing about the best moments of our ski days… Then we go down to the river to bathe, and repeat like this until hunger lures us away.

As the hours pass, time loses its direction, as if our watches and iPhones were heresy in this place that runs on nature and freedom. The house is cozy without any unnecessary conveniences- a wood burning stove in perfect working order and a well-stocked woodpile. The living room: a really bright space with a couch, a few paintings that catch the eye and a hearth I often ended up sleeping behind.
I had shared many great times with Layla and Thor during the winter in Chamonix. With the arrival of spring and after a pretty average season, the desire to hunt out the snow and fresh air took hold and we accompanied Thor into the Great North. We took single tickets from Geneva to Tromso to have the freedom of extending or shortening our trip at will.

Together with the mountains.

I love spring snow. Getting a long, smooth slope with just a few centimetres of soft snow, allowing you to play with gravity, has become an obsession that we’ve whole-heartedly engaged in. It’s also down to timing and experience. Some slopes are wonderful to ski for half an hour in the day, before that it’s bulletproof and after it’s too soft…In addition to the simple domestic chores that we smoothly get on with, there isn’t much to do and everyone around us seems more simple, more bearable. The air sometimes becomes incredibly bright when the final springtime clouds roll away, pushed by a surprisingly warm wind for these latitudes.

The days pass by, weaving a pattern of personal introspection halfway on the road to nowhere. Today, I put all of that away into a quiet corner of my mind where fatigue, joy, disillusion and the range of feelings and sensations that a life without telecommunication can offer us seem to just evaporate.

How can you describe that which cannot be expressed in words? When, lost in mountains wrapped in thick cloud and clattered by violent winds, run through by cold, tired and with a thousand reasons to turn around, you carry on because you don’t like to do things by halves.

A certain approach

Thor’s big silhouette is etched onto a badly defined ridge, a blurry, imprecise boundary that’s continually running down our path ahead, shrouded in fog. I have a soft spot for this guy. His approach and way of skiing denote a strong character despite his young age. His skiing is a long way off the standards set by modern ski porn. There’s a lot of grace in his skiing. He doesn’t seek ease but does seek feeling. He crafts turns with the patience and precision of a kendo master. Thor is able to listen to the Doors, the Floyds or Dylan on repeat. Groups and vibrations from a different time that only serve to reinforce my belief in the deep connection between music and skiing.
Behind us there’s a horizon of sea and mountains and the sun is dipping between two clouds. Layla soars onto a slope with fresh snow, licked by a soft golden light. This brings the best response possible to my lack of tact in recent days when I could feel her enthusiasm bowing to the unfavourable conditions and to our sickening stubbornness. This modern young lady has a strong connection with the past herself. Maybe Gary Bigham was on to something with those retro sessions at Grands Montets…Her artistic training and spheres of interest far away from skiing give her skiing a light, feminine touch that can almost look fragile. But this does nothing to stop her riding faces where making mistakes or falling is just not an option.
Later on, the snow and cold that follow the rain make our Gore-Tex shells crackle. It must be around 23h30 and our descent smacks of retreat. The ascent of Mt Jiehkkevari (1833m) pushed us back into the trenches. We put down our arms after about ten hours of combat, with two spent down a hole. Slabs and snowy tongues give way to chaotic boulder fields, moraines where our steps resound like a prisoner’s chains. Physically and mentally tired, I dream about a beer and a sauna. But before reaching the road and the car, we still had to cross the icy, spongy turf bogs and another birch forest where, exhausted, we’d all go our separate ways. no longer worrying about anyone else.
The animal

After the weeks spent in bad weather, on all sorts of remnants of wind-affected snow and with big temperature variations, so far removed from our goddess of powder, we are no longer totally human. Quietly existing in the heart of the boreal forests like snow animals driven by a primary instinct, we follow the course of a stream twinkling like steel mesh while the wind whistles through the trees that ring out with solitary bird calls. Once you are in front of this wall of snow embedded between austere walls of black rock along which formidable white dragons slide and bounce, intelligence no longer has any significance. The superfluous has stayed down in the valley; anything that’s not indispensable can be harmful. Animalistic nature comes to the surface, gradually taking over your whole being. It’s this kind of experience that pushing yourself skiing in the mountains can bring you. Whatever the conditions you get something out of it.

And yet, in some moments all you see is perfection in these isolated mountains…The wind blows and the sky clears, giving birth once again to a light full of hope and joy. A fleeting, miraculous moment that we are incapable of fully appreciating, cornered by our need to take photos.

A day dream.

The fox approached gently and his presence perked me up. I watched him with close attention until I could perceive the magical energy that is specific to his species.
As he stayed put, as if waiting for something, I tried to make contact with this noble character of fairy tales and shamanic legends.

“Do you know anything about skiing or about skiers?”

“One or two things maybe…But it was originally just a means of transport for hunters and herdsmen of the snow people…Water has flown into the fjords my friend.”

“Is free rando just a marketing thing? Another category for magazine ski tests?”

“These days skiing is above all a competitive sport and even people going into the mountains have an eye on the clock…Since the Go Pro era began, the wider public has got used to more and more powerful visual stimulation. Look at freestyle, backcountry, how some people are engulfed in steep skiing…Perhaps it’s a certain wisdom that leads you to appreciate the mountains in a simple way, to look for more mellow slopes and good snow, although this won’t bring you as many likes as risking your life on slopes that aren’t in condition…Or you have to fly, this is less hard on your knees, all the old crows know that…In the current so-called ski culture with its addicts of performance and thrills, who’s going to be interested in stories about people who went into the mountains for the pleasure of spending time together and sliding in harmony?”

After the national day

The snow melted more and more and there was only a bit of pale residue that the warmth of the air eventually chased off.

Most of the time we don’t do anything but offer our face to the sun and let bliss reign over us. I watch nature decomposing before it is reborn again out of the rot. The muddy, fertile ground gives off a strong smell of spring. The atmosphere teems with the joy of having survived another winter. Like after a night of partying and debauchery, when the day arrives too soon, you have to get back to the ground, go home and rejoin the fray. Thor would soon take his hammer back onto the rooftops. As for Layla and me, this means returning to Chamonix. We silently drive the road that leads to Tromso after cleaning and closing up the cabin. If you’ve ever left a place that’s bursting with happiness without being sure you’ll ever be back there, then you can understand our feelings.

At the end of the day

I would like to thank Bente and Peter for their kindness and hospitality. Without their support I don’t know if we could have pushed our folly in the mountains so far. Having a real refuge, a cozy nest to come and relax in, get warmed up, dry off and regain our strength was the key to this trip. I always say that the basis for human relations often starts around the table…Thanks you two.

Bruno, Chamonix, September 2016

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