It is a truth universally acknowledged that the European snowsports industry is built on the blood, sweat, tears and other bodily fluids of the staff that keep it ticking along – the brave souls that often sacrifice dignity and financial solvency in order to ride every day of the winter. Even the most sheltered middle-Englander has an idea of what the life of a resort skivvy – be they barman, chalet host, holiday rep or transfer driver – entails, but the only way to fully understand it is to experience it first-hand. A relative latecomer to the shred, Kieron Black had never done the seasonaire thing before an invite to stay amongst the locals of Val Thorens (aka ‘The Estate’) unexpectedly came up. With diary and sketchbook in hand, he jumped at the chance to see how the sausage is made…
February 9th – Transfer Day
Conor and I are met at Geneva by Jimmy, who has ridiculous trousers and is in dire need of some shampoo. I like him immediately. We climb into the back of his borrowed Renault Trafic. “Banging," he says. I have no idea what that means. I notice what looks like dog hair trapped in the seat backs. It is familiar to me.
“Do you have a Dalmatian?" I ask.
“What? Fuck no," replies Jimmy. “Why?"
I point out the hairs. “No," he says, “A fucking punter and four Russian prostitutes. Rough as fuck, the lot of them."
What kind of place are we going to? For the rest of the transfer I close my mouth and open my ears. It is most edifying.
February 10th – Bare feet, cold vomit.
I wake with a thick head, dehydrated through a combination of altitude and last night’s alcohol. I make for the sink, stumbling over sleeping bodies, when my bare foot slides in something cold and slimy. Turning on the light (a mistake), I discover it is a pool of partially-digested tartiflette. I try to wake Conor, prostate upon the unfolded sofa-bed. Matching vomit is caked on his beard and shirt. And fills the gap in the sofa. He opens one blood-shot eye and I suggest, politely, that he should assist me in cleaning so that I might make a cup of tea unhindered. He declines, hotly denying having anything to do with the cold yellow mess before passing out once more. I ride my first day alone.
An extra from The Lord of the Rings wanders in and orders a pint (yes, a pint) of G&T. No one but me thinks this is unusual.
February 11th – Guesty Exposed.
We make it up for first lifts in bluebird conditions, and I am introduced to the crew by way of smiles, handshakes and fist-pumps. We have two Danes, three Northern Irishmen, two Englishmen and a Welshman. Immediately I am blown away (and left behind) by the standard of riding. They roll down the mountain like a Mexican Wave, all punter activity ceasing until they have taken their rodeos et al safely down the hill. My guesty skillset is woefully inadequate, but I throw down what few tricks I have and do my best to keep up. The crew is patient and encouraging, and the stoke remains high.
Later in the apartment I find the boys happily cooking hash browns, bacon, and beans, so we have breakfast. At 9pm. We cannot finish the hash browns, so for some reason the rejects are delegated to the hall where they slowly cool on top of a stained electric oven.
February 12th – The Split
We go to the park, where I suddenly have to learn about red kickers. I suck it up, do my best and slowly, incrementally, my best gets better. Better yet, there is a mellow halfpipe that ensures my years spent surfing and skating aren’t going to waste on a mountain.
There is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in the park – fascinating if you are about to throw something epic that involves inversions and spinning on several different axis, not so much if you are (like me) still working on entry-level shifty airs. But I respond to the group energy and throw what my experience – and age – will allow.
I notice there are two people riding with us today who do not try to throw anything at all; I know they are well liked, but they seem excluded somehow. I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t laughing in the sunshine on the top of a mountain. Each to their own.
February 13th – The Long Lunch
It’s a whiteout, and although we battle valiantly for two hours it’s just too grim, so we take a long lunch in a pub that smells strongly of the wrong end of a dog. The burgers are good though. I meet Big T. He works in a bar, has the least-used lift pass in The Estate and is loved by everyone. I want to ask about his hill time (or lack of) but he is in stinking form having failed to properly upgrade his pass for a mission to the next valley. Getting home was a hassle and he doesn’t look like he wants to answer any of my stupid questions.
We order coffee. An extra from The Lord of the Rings wanders in and orders a pint (yes, a pint) of G&T. No one but me thinks this is unusual. Welshy bemoans the quality of his facial hair - too thin on the cheek and too bushy on the underbeard, apparently. I realise that I am the only man here with a mortgage, and wish that I had his problems.
It’s still a whiteout by the time we leave the Dog’s Arse, so we session the eighteen-foot boulder in the centre of the village until something deep in my upper left arm separates with a sensation like that of a string breaking. Stupid old man.
Back at the apartment I notice the hash browns now sport a dirty snowboard sock and a couple of pubic hairs. I am hungry, but pass.
February 14th – Valentine’s Day.
The day begins far too early. On a toilet run at 4.37 a.m. I become entangled with the clothes-horse and my companions are awoken to the curses of a half-naked Irishman wrestling with a dozen pairs of merino socks, thermals, and assorted smalls.
We still manage to catch first lifts. Ninety minutes later the snow assumes the surface texture of a child’s wax crayon, so the boys borrow a bungee from the local shred shop. We build a kicker over the fence of a local bar and beef out a landing into the adjacent playground. I have never seen a bungee outside of a snowboard video, and the trial runs are terrifying – on release the handle snaps into the fence like something from an Afghanistan news report. Still, I tell myself that I may never be in this situation again, and give it a go.
It takes three men to run the handle out to me. I grasp it tightly in both hands, and they let go. I am drawn smoothly forward but my wounded left arm can’t handle the strain and so I can only use the right. This initiates an unwanted rotation into a slow fence-stall-to-face-plant in the playground. I survive, but my arm is destroyed, so I get out the camera and begin filming instead.
The boys show me how it is supposed to be done. We gather quite a crowd, including the homosexual Swedish ginger DJ from the club whose plaza we are currently occupying. His orientation would not warrant comment were it not for the blatant sexual assault he pulls on Mark while he recovers from a hefty slam. It seems sex pests are not exclusive to the hetero community.
We finish with the elastic band of death and retire. At around 3am the door to the apartment bursts open and in the dark we hear two voices – one male, one female – and a lot of giggling.
“Do you want to fuck me in my manager’s room?" asks the girl.
The guy grunts something unintelligible.
“You do? You do. Dirty boy. Go on then, fuck me in my manager’s room."
He does. We are treated to two-and-a-half minutes of skin-on-skin slappage that increases in frequency before ceasing altogether. A moment later we hear the male voice exclaim, “Ooh! Hash browns!"
February 15th – Back Door Man
Conversation over morning tea revolves around our nocturnal visitors. Two hash browns are missing. James, a manager, is less than impressed with the not-so-stealthy fornicators. I wonder at their sheer brass-neckery and suspect the line “fuck me in my manager’s room" was not so much a request for intercourse in a kinky locale but a command to service an alternate orifice from the usual during the encounter. My theory causes James to spit his tea across the room.
“Big T works in a bar, has the least-used lift pass in The Estate and is loved by everyone"
We shred all day. Later we are fighting for arse space on the (still vomity) sofa-bed when Rich, who earlier had supplied us with our passes, arrives. We pay, jovially complaining about the price while Rich sympathises with a practiced air. I tell him that my wife won’t be happy when she hears how much a full pass costs.
“You’re married?!" cries Rich, astounded. I am not sure if this is a compliment or an insult, and so decide not to mention that I have a daughter too. The age gap yawns.
February 16th – Blown Out
Welshy finds he has only one functioning knee, and we suspect the bungee sesh may be to blame. He takes a day out to shadow James and his girlfriend as they run chalet checks. They leave Welshy in the car while they “check the linen store." They are gone some time and Welshy phones James to find him vague, breathless and distracted. Later James confesses he was being fellated at the time of the call, and found it extremely difficult to concentrate on what Welshy was saying.
February 17th – Old Man Hits Wall
Important lesson learned: in whiteout conditions it is unwise to be the only guesty in a crew of seasonaires. Where did everybody go? Also, is it illegal for seasonaires to stop and eat before at least 3pm?
I catch up with everyone in the Dog’s Arse (where else?) and try to get some specifics on seasonaire life in The Estate. There follows an avalanche of adjectives relating to your average seasonaire; broke, awesome, useless, dirty, hungover, stressed, single, chilled, hiding, prick, loud, and drunk to quote but a few. I am told in awed tones of the lucky few who have married, settled in the town, bought a house, raised a child and made a life. It is a short list, however, with most inevitably burning out in this strange French social experiment and leaving to start a more conventional life elsewhere.
February 18th – High on Life.
It has been dumping, and the unseasonal, shitty, wind-scoured surface is hidden under a fluffy layer of fresh that covers the rocks that only yesterday stuck out like old teeth. Conor tries his luck and fails spectacularly. So does the light. Back to the Dog’s Arse, where someone mentions the length of pipe we found in the playground during the bungee session.
We begin shaping, still burping our blue cheese burgers, and soon the session gets going. It is a great vibe and super mellow, but there are bags to be packed and eventually we trudge reluctantly home.
“Here, I see my friends every day. Weird shit happens. We drink, have a good time, and I hang out with my friends. It’s what I live for.’ I have no answer for that.
Shower, pack, eat. We reconvene at the Dog’s Arse and after a couple of drinks I suddenly realise I am surrounded by friends… friends I hadn’t met nine days ago. Big T nudges my elbow and points to a girl at the bar. “Manager’s room," he says, and we laugh. The girl, Christine, notices our mirth and joins us. She is young, attractive, and not in the least bit embarrassed that we were witness to her fornicating. “We tried a room on nine but found a French girl inside, uh, receiving oral pleasure?" she laughs. “She was screaming ‘Oui! Oui! Oui!’ but when she saw us she started shouting ‘Non! Non! Non!’ – so we had to come to your apartment."
I ask if she enjoyed the hash browns. She makes a face and moves on. Big T buys me a drink. I ask how many days he has ridden this year. “Three," he says, “including that bloody farce a couple of days ago."
“So what keeps you here?" I ask. “If you’re not riding everyday, is it not just work and going on the piss?"
He smiles. “Maybe. But there’s more to it than that. My friends at home all work ‘proper’ jobs, and have kids. We’ve no common ground – I never see them, and when I do it’s the same old questions, with the same old answers. Here, I see my friends every day. Weird shit happens. We drink, have a good time, and I hang out with my friends. It’s what I live for."
I have no answer for that.
February 19th – Homeward bound.
Steve drives us to Geneva. Hungover (again) we watch the valleys give way to the lowlands, chatting about life here and at home. Steve tells us he going on holiday the following week and we laugh.
“Are you not on holiday now?" I ask.
“This is different," he says. “It’s in a chalet in the next valley with some friends from home."
“Punters?" we ask.
“To the core," says Steve. “Rugby shirts and novelty hats."
“That’s going to be fun," says Conor.
“It’ll be good to see them," replies Steve, “but it’s a very different vibe to riding with seasonaires."
The phrase ‘riding with seasonaires’ has a new resonance now. I think about the trips I take with my family; Trip Advisor, nice hotels, clean sheets and buffet breakfasts. It’s still fantastic, but I know that I am, and shall remain, a guesty – and the closest I get to the likes of Steve and his crew on those occasions is the red-eyed waiter who serves me my coffee in the morning. I say something to this effect.
Steve smiles. “Not any more, Kieron. You survived nine days in The Estate. That makes you an honourary seasonaire."
That’ll do nicely. Time to go home.