I'm in a rumbling SUV on an icy highway somewhere in the French Alps. Margot, a pig-tailed PR rep, is behind the wheel. She navigates a series of high-elevation twists and turns like a veteran fighter pilot. The daughter of an Olympic freestyle skier, she seems to know every inch of pavement between Geneva International and our final destination, Hotel Le Paquis in the village of Tignes le Lac.
Margot's in a hurry because a group of buff athletes visiting from Russia are scheduled to jump in the village's ice lake as part of an initiation ceremony. Twenty minutes from now, they'll strip down to their undies and she doesn't want to miss out on all that rock hard man-flesh. With one eye on the road, the other on her mobile and an iron foot firmly on the accelerator, she's telling me about a recent blizzard that left her stranded at her office. "It was like the movie, you know, The Day After Tomorrow. Oh, there was a huge avalanche too. Very scary. Argh, only nineteen minutes now!"
I've ridden roller coasters on three continents but my body is no match for Margot's driving. I struggle to hold myself together as we blaze along slopes worthy of the Expedition Everest ride at Disney World, expecting falling snow to knock us off a cliff at any second. We take a sharp turn and, twenty seconds later, I'm regurgitating my lunch all over a scenic turnout. The view, which overlooks the blue waters of Lac du Chevril, is gorgeous.
Needless to say, we didn't make it in time to see the Russians in their skivvies
NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART....OR STOMACH
In recent years, the five ski villages of Tignes have become a hot spot for thrill-seekers from around the world in search of non-traditional winter activities like ice climbing and paragliding. Popular among young tourists and "xtreme" sports enthusiasts alike, professional athletes also come here to train. The thin-air boosts their red blood cell count, which allegedly improves their prowess.
An immense fresco of Hercules greets visitors as they make their way towards the villages. It was painted on the side of the Barrage de Tignes by artist Jean-Marie Pierret to help celebrate the 1992 Winter Olympics, which the resort co-hosted. It's now quite sun-bleached. Despite repeated pleas for Pierret to touch it up, he's refused. The artist wants the painting to fade away "like a butterfly."
The next morning, I'm all set to begin the first of three trials. None of them are as daunting as the twelve the legendary Greek hero once faced. Still, I feel like I'm about to endure feats worthy of a nine-headed hydra. I'm introduced to Olivier, a tough-as-nails ski instructor who looks like Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Outside, a storm is dumping tons of new snow on the slopes but he's determined to spend the next few hours breaking me of all my bad ski habits.
Over the years, I've developed a sloppy but effective method to survive a day on skis. Olivier urges me to "unlearn what I've learned" and becomes so flustered by my stubborn over-reliance on my poles that he forces me to leave them behind after a few runs. I manage to make it to the bottom of a slope before spinning backwards and falling on my back. He rushes over to help me up, not an easy task for a guy easily 30 centimeters shorter than I am. With the storm picking up, we immediately cancel plans for a final run and spend the rest of our time together talking about bowling and California.
A NEED FOR SPEED
Two hours and an escargot pizza later, I'm off to Circuit Glace, an ice track near Tignes les Brévières. After meeting the staff's adorable trio of St. Bernards, I hop into a rally car with a former professional racer named Eric. I hit the gas and barrel along the circuit's 800-meter course. Despite having seen plenty of episodes of Top Gear, I still lack the skills to properly hog the turns. I take my foot off the accelerator and ease into them, earning plenty of guffaws from my passenger. On my final lap, Eric cheekily expresses his disdain for my cautious driving by snatching the wheel from me. We skid into a sharp, right turn before plowing into a snowbank.
Determined to show me how's it done, we park the car and trade it for a high-powered Subaru GT. With Eric behind the wheel, we're racing down the track right proper. He bombs through the turns, smiling like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining. As I hang on for dear life, the car's tires send snow in all directions. Eric chuckles like a madman and performs maneuvers best described with words like "acrobatic," "extraordinary" and "completely insane."
QUITE NICE UNDER THE ICE
I've now survived two of my three trials. After dining on foie gras and kangaroo steak at the exceptional Le Clin d'Oeil bistro back in Tignes Le Lac, I'm up early the next morning. My biggest challenge awaits: a twenty-minute dip in an alpine ice lake.
Unlike the Russians, I'll be using a full-body scuba suit provided by the team at Ecole de Plongée Sous Galce, a local diving school. It takes about fifteen minutes to squeeze into all the gear I'll need to survive this foray. As I struggle to get my head through a tiny opening in the top of the suit, the instructors start cracking wise. "There are sharks in there," one tells me. "They do not bite. Much."
They lead me to a cordoned-off area on a large, frozen lake. While one instructor fiddles with my air tanks, another tells me to spit in my face mask and swirl the saliva around. This will prevent it from steaming-up, supposedly. A few minutes later, I'm floating in 3 C water beneath a thick sheet of ice. Below my flippers: a bottomless, pitch-black void.
For claustrophobics, ice diving is an activity that would guarantee an instantaneous anxiety attack. Oddly enough, I find it relaxing. Despite the frigid water, the suit keeps me perfectly warm.
I run my hands across the ice overhead as a diver pulls me along like a chihuahua on a leash. Without him, I'd probably get lost in the darkness and wouldn't be seen again until spring. The dreamlike experience is halfway between a return to the womb and a Radiohead video.
Then panic sets in as my mask starts filling with icy water. I frantically try to remember which hand sign to flash in case of an emergency. My instructor quickly leads me over to a nearby hole. After some adjustments topside, we're back under the ice.
Ten minutes later, I'm walking back to the team's wooden cabin to remove the suit. Three British ski bums wander over to take photos of my ridiculous get-up. "What did you see down there," one asks.
"Sharks," I respond. "Lots of 'em. They didn't bite. Much."