Words and Photos: Darcy Bacha
I woke up at Eric Jackson's house in Bellingham, ready to start my season. In the driveway, my truck sat packed with everything I'd need for a winter on the road. It was early January, and until now my plan was to drive north with my snowmobile and burn fuel in pursuit of perfect pillows and jump landings in British Columbia. There was just one problem. The Pacific Northwest was experiencing one of the driest Decembers on record, and the forecast was as bleak for January.
One year earlier, Europe was in a similar drought. Hardly any snow fell at the beginning of the season, and the trend continued for winter's duration. Victor Daviet, accustomed to the colder months being spent hiking his ass off in the Alps, made a big leap. With these dire conditions, his only hope to ride powder was via a plane to North America. Jumping on a flight was easy; hopping on a snowmobile was something different.
Over the ensuing months, Victor learned, as we all do, the pros and cons of snowmobiling. The terrain explorable at the push of a throttle is mindblowing, while the effort getting your sled unstuck equally magnificent. Victor crashed his twice in the six weeks we shot together—once going full speed across a field, knicking a rock, the other trying to take a video while following me and kissing his headlights against my rear bumper. With repairs in the thousands and rentals totaling even more, he would have been financially better off buying a new sled at the beginning of the winter. These two factors aside, there's another irritating variable snowmobiles introduce. The vastness of the backcountry shrinks with the sounds of hundreds of two-strokes ripping apart the perfectly manicured snow. Within a day, hundreds of miles of pristine snowscapes are ravaged with trenches and shithooks from all the motorheads getting theirs.
So there I was, hanging at Eric's, drinking too much coffee, wondering what the hell I was doing. The mountains were a frozen tundra, and I'd spent more time standing in rivers waiting for a fish to bite my fly than on my snowboard. About to hop in my truck and head north to Revelstoke despite conditions, my phone rang. "Victor Daviet would like FaceTime." Turns out, he just called to say hello, but when he mentioned current conditions, my mind started racing. The Alps had received over two meters of snow, and a high-pressure system was set to open up around Italy. Maybe it was the coffee, or maybe it was the fact that the words "powder" and "sun" seemed more foreign than the destination holding such conditions, but without blinking an eye I told him I was coming. I poured a cup for the road, backed my truck out of the driveway, pointed it south to Portland and caught a flight to Italy the very next morning. The next 36 hours were a blur. Then I arrived in Milano, Italy. Thomas Delfino picked me up from the airport, and we started our adventure into the mountains to meet up with Victor Daviet and Victor de Le Rue.
Within minutes, I brought up snowmobiling. The crew erupted with laughter. They had a bet going to see how long it would take for me to mention sledding in a conversation, and their American stereotype was spot on. I was in a new world. The next morning we got first lift up in Monterosa Ski Resort. We found our route into the backcountry and began our tour. The sun was shining, but the high-pressure brought a cold that burned our lungs when we walked. It didn't take long to find ourselves alone in the backcountry.
"You hear that?" asked Daviet.
The only noise was generated by our breath. Braps and burning fuel were thousands of miles away, and during the following days, smells, sounds, and the lack thereof reminded me of this.
These Frenchmen are not only different in their way of backcountry transportation but in the way they look at the terrain. Without the option to travel over a hundred miles in a day, they are especially opportunistic in their approach. In a feature that a North American would rip past, the Frenchies see promise. Of course these guys are incredible snowboarders, but they're also the best walkers I've ever seen. They hike a jump in almost the same time it takes a snowmobile to double-up to the top. As a cameraman, I'm at the same mercy to the mountains as they are. If I want an angle, I need to work for it and commit. Everything is well thought out, because a mistake might mean a half-hour walk for nothing.
After three beautiful days in Italy, the weather took a dramatic change, and soon our cold, sunny days turned warmer and damper. While we waited for conditions to improve, we found to ourselves eating smelly cheese and aged meat, drinking wine with Daviet's friends in his hometown of Annecy, France. Canals weave their way between shops and apartments, fed by the lake of the same name that the city is built next to. There are no skyscrapers here, only ancient castles, brick alleyways, pastel buildings, and a culture as rich in life as its food is in flavor.
When the clouds parted, France had surpassed its snowfall accumulation record. We set out on a new adventure to explore a cabin in the French Alps. Seeing the equivalently awestruck reactions of my French counterparts validated how special this scenario was. The humid winter storm that preceded our trip stuck snow on the rocks like I've only witnessed in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. None of these guys, in all their life, had seen their mountains like this.
Arriving at the cabin, we got our first taste. The dwelling was buried up to the attic. We had to dig down in order to uncover the door so we could enter.
After settling in, we went for a tour to get a closer look at the terrain. With avalanche risk high, treading was done lightly. The landscape was pristine. Sounds and tracks came from birds, rabbits, a fox or two, three French snowboarders, one Argentinian filmmaker by the name of Grego Campi, and myself. That's it. We had a paradise in the mountains that felt like our own. The claustrophobia created by the noise and smell of burning two-stroke was replaced by an overwhelming sense of space. As far as the eye could see, nothing was manmade except the cabin we resided in and the features we built. The prospect of crossing the valley was an expedition, not a push of the throttle. In the days we spent here, wind was the only element transforming the landscape, slowly pushing snow into moonlike craters. In between, fox and rabbit tracks constantly moving towards and away from one another.
I love that there's more than one way to appreciate the backcountry. If snowmobiles were allowed in the Alps, it would take a specific experience away from this cherished area. In the States and Canada, the use of snowmobiles opens up options that might otherwise be impossible. My experience with my French friends opens my mind to terrain and places where engines are forbidden, and silence is encouraged.
"You hear that?"