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How to do a season. Swapping London for Chamonix

It’s autumn, and snowboarders across the land find their thoughts turning towards the mountains. For most, a brief week or two away – followed by the torture of return – is the best we can expect. Many of us have dreamt of ditching the day job for a whole winter in the snow. But what is the reality like? And does this mean career suicide? Pete Rees took the plunge.

What is normal?

I grew up in the outskirts of London and, apart from the odd pipe-dream about becoming a rock star, I’ve spent most of my 32 years imagining a future consisting of moving steadily up the corporate ladder: gradually earning more money, upgrading the house, car, possessions, and then eventually settling down in the suburbs with a wife, cat and 2.4 children.

Over the last couple years I’ve started to question ‘the norm’. Spurred on by several life changing winter trips – during which the fresh mountain air seemed to clarify the feeling that I’d been stuck in the city for too long – I’ve decided that a normal life does not have to mean following the herd. The salary, car and suburban house can be exchanged for a non-materialistic, higher quality of life. At least I hope it can, because I’m leaving everything I’ve worked for in London to start afresh in Chamonix.

London. 5th August 2008.

It’s now four months before I fly out to the French Alps for the start of the winter season. Time is dragging. I spend most of my time moaning about how much I hate city life, and especially London. It hasn’t always been this way. I used to love the endless possibilities of this city – the size and diversity of the place can be a real buzz. I once saw only exuberance – a focal point for youth culture; now, in my cynicism, I just see stress, hassle and pretentiousness. There are a large proportion of people here that wouldn’t have things any other way. They’ll be cramming themselves onto a tube train at the age of 60 and working behind a desk for 10 hours a day, happy in the knowledge that they’ve made it, even if it has been a little stressful. I realise that there will be a fair number of readers that are happy living that life, interspersed with the odd holiday, and I fully respect that. I’m not saying that my opinions are right; I’m just over it – way over it! I’ve come to the point where I’m willing to stop my life, admit that I’ve taken the wrong path and hopefully start it again in an exciting new direction.

From December 2008 I intend to spend 18 months in the mountains. If it works out, and I manage to set up a life over there, it will hopefully be a lot longer. Since learning to snowboard I’ve spent all of my holiday time and disposable income in the mountains. It’s where I really feel happy, so why shouldn’t I spend my life there? I’m not naïve enough to think it will be one long holiday, but what an amazing backdrop to life it will be. Substituting a weekly jog around Tooting Common for a few laps of the park is something I’m willing to work pretty damn hard for!

As a way of breaking myself into it, I’ll be spending the first five months working for a chalet as a host and guide. This is the ideal place to start, because everything tends to be set up for you. In most cases you have your travel, accommodation, lift pass, insurance, food and some drink organised and paid for by the company. The weekly wage that such a job pays on top of these perks is really just a bit of pocket money – enough to keep you full of beer, but not exactly providing for your retirement. It’s an ideal lifestyle for a kid just out of uni, but will be quite a change for a 32 year old who’s been working in an office for eight years. Over the course of those five months I will be scouting out what Chamonix has to offer and hopefully setting myself up with something a little more secure.

Photo - Robin Fenlon

Finding a job is easy, as long as you plan ahead. Natives.co.uk and Seasonaires.com specialise in linking up seasonal workers with jobs and accommodation, so they’re often a good place to start. I submitted my CV to Natives, who were very helpful and had plenty of suggestions, but I chose to directly approach a few chalets that I’ve visited and know have a good vibe. These tend to interview over the summer and secure positions by the middle of August, so it’s well worth getting organised early. Natives, however, tend to have roles available right up until the beginning of the season.

In my experience, my age was a real bonus. I found that chalets were clambering over themselves to get me, which was quite a new experience when looking for a job! Proving that you’re a responsible person and have good organisational skills goes a long way. I also found that looking for a job as a couple can also put you in good stead. I’m going it alone, so was turned down by several chalets who wanted to bring in a couple. I think it’s partly because they’re more reliable, but mostly because they share a bed so are cheaper to accommodate! That isn’t to say that a single 18 year old will struggle; there’s plenty of seasonal work as long as you can prove yourself worthy.

So, call me crazy, but I’m going full pelt into this. I’m selling all of my belongings, de-cluttering my life. There won’t be an easy way back to my career or the stage I’ve reached in my life, so I need to commit.

London. 29th November 2009.

I fly out the day after tomorrow, and feel like a bit of an update is warranted.

At the moment I feel nervous. I’m scared of leaving everything behind now. I’m worrying about my mother, her fragile health and whether I should be here to support her. I’m worrying about her worrying about me. It really is dawning on me how massive this step is. I had my work leaving do two nights ago, which was such a great laugh, and virtually everyone there was incredibly jealous and told me I was doing the right thing, and that they admired my balls for doing it. Despite all that and everything they said, they aren’t doing the same. I’m more scared now than I have been for the last five months.

Life has been pretty hard of late. I’ve been a hermit and saved, which has worked wonders for my finances, as I finally released myself from a seven year loan and reached the black for the first time in 12 years. However I have grown more and more aggressive and intolerant of day-to-day life. It has taken next to nothing to get me to snap. When I go into a shop and a till attendant doesn’t acknowledge me when they serve me, I feel like I need to give them a piece of my mind, and if they just stick their hand out without telling me how much I owe them, I honestly feel like jumping over the counter and pummelling them into the floor. Such thoughts aren’t healthy. But I can’t stand London’s rudeness. Is this because I have completely lost my patience with London, and city life? Or have I become incapable of dealing with situations like this completely? I’m sure the tester will come when queuing for a lift with loads of Frenchies pushing in front of me (or at least attempting to, while I block them off, stand on their skis and unclip their bindings). Will that sort of scenario get me down about the state of the human race like it does in London, or will I be chilled out by my lifestyle enough to walk away from it without my arteries bulging?

It does feel to me that this IS the right time to go. The country is in doom and gloom. Papers are filled with ‘recession’ this and ‘credit crunch’ that. I’m going to a bubble where I don’t have to think about such things. I’ll pick up the story in a couple of months time from Chamonix…

Johno Verity, Chamonix. Photo - Dan Milner

Bexhill-on-Sea. June 21st 2009. 22:25

… so it’s a little later than I planned…

I’m currently sprawled out on the couch at my mum’s (very homely) house in front of a 37 inch plasma TV with XXX paused on the latest Sky HD digibox. 10 minutes ago I was sat on the back step, having snuck out silently and guiltily to smoke a joint. Whilst I was skinning up on the kitchen table I heard my mum coming down the stairs; she only went to bed a few minutes before, so I’d wasted no time in getting my rebellious little deed underway. At the age of 32, I felt like a naughty teenage boy as I covered up my paraphernalia with some handy junk mail and stood in its line of sight as Mum entered to ask me another bumbled question about the workings of her computer that she doesn’t understand. She’s no fool – I could see in her eye that she knew I was up to mischief. I hate that, because I know she’s a worrier…

So, to get things underway, I feel very much like I have regressed. Tonight is no isolated incident – I’ve done the same thing on most nights since I’ve been here, and it is just one reason why I think I’m becoming a bum. This wasn’t exactly the plan when I left London last year. Instead of discovering a new direction in my life, I’ve ended up floating, not really getting anywhere but backwards. Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means in a state of doom and gloom.

Over the last six months, during the great recession (of the world economy, as well as my lifestyle), I have rediscovered a simpler freedom, one that is usually enjoyed earlier in life – by students, travellers and bums. I think I’ve found the love of my life (which is a whole other article, probably be more suited to Hello magazine) and along the way, I’ve managed to get a whole load of snowboarding hours under my belt.

When I got to Chamonix and was shown the ropes in the chalet, it felt a little like the first couple days at my part-time Pizza Express job during my university years. The job itself wasn’t too taxing. Like Pizza Express, it’s the sort of thing that you could get to grips with in no time at all, yet you still have a hefty responsibility on your shoulders. I like to think that I attacked it with the enthusiasm of a caged animal being released into the wild – or in my case, a desk-jocky cut from the chains of London and sent into the fresh mountain air. I also attacked it with the kind of maturity and experience that you wouldn’t find in many straight-out-of-college seasonal workers. I don’t want to sound smug, but I think this made me pretty good at what I did out there, and I like to think that I made a lot of holiday makers happy whilst easing the burden from my employers.

Being ‘quite good’ had its downsides at times, especially at first. With it came greater responsibilities and longer hours, which cut into the all important time on the mountain. The first couple of months at a chalet are hard work. You scramble to learn your job while dealing with the busiest period of the year – Christmas and New year – and get to experience far less of the good stuff than you’d expect. Time on the mountain every day isn’t guaranteed, so you try and snatch hours where you can. Most feel that the excessive working hours without much snowboarding isn’t what they’ve bought into. And when you combine the long hours with all the night-time boozing and socializing which comes with getting to know a whole new circle of friends over a festive period, you start to get massively drained. It’s no surprise that many seasonal workers don’t even get to see the end of January before they’ve given up and gone home. Thankfully I was prepared for this, having known a lot of people who have been through the same thing. I rode the early season mayhem, as I did the mid-season blues, fully prepared for all of the negatives that a season away can throw at you.

David Melancon finds himself a secret stash. Photo - Geoff Andruik

When February arrived we had all started to get pretty slick at our jobs. Morning clear-ups, preparations and guest shepherding were taking far less time than before, and we’d be up on the mountain with a full day in front of us. Evening preparations and meal time barely raised a sweat either, which meant we’d be off to the pub while the night was still young. Unfortunately, with February come the crowds that pollute your precious slopes, as wave upon wave of holidaymakers swarm the lift queues during the French and English half terms. That’s one thing that did catch me off guard: circumstances are never perfect for you to have your dream life in the mountains. Sods law rules in Chamonix. When conditions are best and the slopes are empty, chances are you’ll be working 14 hours straight on change-over day. Then, when you’ve got free time and energy to burn, every last trace of powder has been transformed into rock-hard moguls and you spend your time weaving in and out of one-piece Bettys and Hooray Henrys, or having Arrogant Thierry push in front of you in the lift queue. Moments had to be snatched. Flat light days can sometimes become your saviour. Often that’s the only time you’ll get to ride freshly fallen snow – while the punters don’t have the vision or inclination to.

That aside, I had some amazing and memorable days on the mountain. Doing laps on the Argentière Glacier with a queue-skipping guide – each time finding sections of powder filled with rooster tails, face shots and more than a few “whoops”; sessioning cat-track drops into slush and landing my first big, smooth 360; walking across a ridge 3,800m above sea level before cruising down the stunningly beautiful (if a little flat) Vallée Blanche. And if you’re in any doubt as to whether that made the bad stuff worthwhile, all you need to do is see the ice-encrusted grin I was pulling during that day on the Argentière Glacier (see below).

Moments like this make it all worthwile

In addition to the good times on the mountain, there’s another very important thing that lights up your world over the season – family. Not the ones back home, but that little circle of friend you punished yourself to socialise with during the festive period from hell. You go through so much with the people that you work with. You live together, work together, ride together, drink together and face significant hardships together. Somehow (and I’m sure every seasonaire knows the feeling) this created some incredibly strong bonds. At the end of the winter, as I said goodbye to my dear Antipodean friends Matt and Jacqui, I fear I came across as unemotional. Looking back at that I cringe. It’s like a teenage boy who’s just missed a nail with his hammer and flattened his thumb, but stands straight chested fighting away the tears because he doesn’t want to look like a numpty in front of his mates. For me, I think I just didn’t want to deal with the enormity of the moment. These guys were my family and, since they were returning to the other side of the world for ever, I was pretty sure I’d never see them again. As melodramatic as that sounds, I can’t play down the strong bonds that I’ve made.

So, this gets back to why I’m so late finishing this article. Simply: you don’t have any free time in a season. If you do happen to find yourself with a few spare hours spare away from working, riding or socialising, you’ll be enjoying the peace – you won’t be sat in front of a Word document trying to be creative. And yet… That doesn’t explain why it’s taken me a month in the UK to get round to it. To be honest, I couldn’t be arsed. I’ve been enjoying the break before heading back out for the summer. I think it’s the incident with my mum in the kitchen that has got me thinking about my current state of being and encouraged me to pick up the quill again.

So for me, I can only see what the near future holds. I’ve got a bar job in Chamonix for the summer and I’m currently trying to hook myself up with a winter job. That aspect is quite stressful. In this seasonal lifestyle, I’m always going to be losing my job and will always be worried about where the next one will be coming from. So far it’s worked out for me, but I’m not sure how long it can go on for. But these stresses I talk about aren’t the same as what I was feeling back in London last year. I have chilled out. Although life has been exhausting at times, it has been a more laid back and manageable than city life.

The Aiguille Du Midi at its most epic. Photo - Patrik Lindqvist

Getting back to the paused plasma TV. I’m in a house full of the latest mod cons and it’s blindingly obvious how far away I am (financially speaking) from having that kind of luxury for myself. I waved a long goodbye to that when I downed tools last November. Instead I have chosen a different luxury – that of freedom and the flexibility and time to enjoy one of my biggest passions: snowboarding.

London seems a very long time ago now. My hopes and dreams haven’t formed exactly how I expected them to, but the reality ain’t so bad. I haven’t formulated the master plan that will allow me to spend the rest of my life in the mountains, with a face shot around every corner, but I am living in the moment, and the moment is pretty good.

Pete Rees is a former marketing manager for Factory Media.

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How To Do A Season
Want to make the dream a reality? Here’s how to do it right…

1. Pick the right job for you

Chalet work will set you up for a season by providing everything that you need (accommodation, insurance, lift pass, beer money) but you need to be able to deal with early mornings and late nights six days per week – you won’t be getting first lifts on a powder day! Bar work will allow you to get morning riding in whenever you chose, but you’ll have to organise and pay for everything else yourself. Natives.co.uk is a good place to start looking.

2. Apply for jobs in advance
If you’re hoping to work for a tour operator such as Crystal Holidays or Inghams – or even one of the independent chalets – it pays to apply early. Recruitment begins almost as soon as the winter ends, so check their website for details and get your CV in around April/May. The more you apply to, the better your chances.

3. Can’t cook? Don’t worry.

Chalet cooking is a deceptively easy game – anyone can pick up a week’s worth of recipes. You’ll be amazed how many people go out with zero cooking experience and are happily serving meals to 20 people by Christmas (I know one guy who didn’t know how to boil rice and went on to win Chalet Boy of the Year). If you’re really worried, some of the holiday companies offer cookery courses, which if you pass successfully will also guarantee you a job. Worth the investment. And if you’re really shit, ask about being an ‘EPH’ (extra pair of hands) in one of the bigger chalets.

4. No job? Head to resort early
If you haven’t lined up a job in advance, try to get out there by the start of December when the bars and businesses will be filling up their last remaining positions. And have enough saved to see you through till end of January at least, since lots of people will drop out through homesickness and injury and jobs will come up.

5. Take gaffer tape
Your clothes take a real beating over the course of the season and gaffer tape is perfect for patching up rips and warn-down areas. Buy it in the UK, because if you’re lucky enough to find it in resort it will probably cost more than a new item of clothing.

6. Get a transceiver, probe and shovel
If you’re planning to ride powder (and who isn’t right?) these are a must – even though they’re often overlooked because of their cost. The good backcountry riders won’t like taking you to the best spots unless you’re tooled up and know what to do if the worst happens!

7. Don’t forget the teabags
Good old English tea bags and Marmite are like gold dust in resort – in fact they form their own currency and can be exchanged for pretty much anything (think cigarettes in the Big Brother house).

8. Prepare for a hard start
The busiest time you’ll have at work will be within your first month, which is tough when you’re still trying to learn the ropes. Don’t let it get you down, mid January will be epic!

9 Be careful, you’re in a small town
You’ll be surrounded by the same people day in day out for 5 months and word travels around town pretty quickly, so try not to do anything too stupid too regularly. And generally ‘don’t screw the crew’ is a good rule of thumb!

10. Don’t take it for granted
You may end up feeling constantly knackered, living in a shit pit and riding equipment that’s falling apart, but always remember how lucky you are to be snowboarding every day. You’ll look back in years to come and wish that you could do it again.

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