Fires, skiing in France
Ski club handles crisis as Chamonix hotel burns down

Teresa Spatt
Contributing writer

***image1***There were myriad places that I could have chosen to take my husband to celebrate his birthday. However, there is one place that I can’t bring up without causing him to recant an experience long past when he was traveling across Europe by rail – France.

The single stain on his memory of that trip occurred when the train he was riding stopped at the border of France heading into Spain. Following an announcement made in French, several passengers took their bags and left the train. The remaining passengers waited for an inordinate amount of time until one of them was able to discern that the train was going no further because the track gauge between the two countries did not match. By this time, they had missed a bus that would have taken them to the next station and they all had to pile into taxis and race across the border to catch the connecting train just in the nick of time.

The cab ride ended up costing the equivalent of $100 and, my husband still carries a frustration that has left an indelible mark on his feelings about France.

This in mind, I knew I was tempting fate when I suggested that we travel to Chamonix, in the French Alps, and hit the slopes with the Kaiserslautern Ski Club. I sold him by playing up the fact that we could see the famous Mount Blanc and that Chamonix had hosted the first winter Olympic Games in 1924. I also pointed out that we would be traveling by bus with our ski club friends and that no trains would be involved.

Beyond the modest accommodations, meager meals, and logistical challenges, my husband finished the first day with an unintended triple back flip that I rated as a 10 on the Olympic scale, but left him unable to ski for the remainder of the trip. He spent the next two days nursing his sore back alone at the hotel while I took the children skiing and pondered how I could ever turn this misadventure into a positive travel article.It was then, that fate stepped in.

***image2***As our tour bus departed the slopes on the last day, there was a huge cloud of dark billowing smoke rising from the direction of our hotel. A moment later, our trip captain received a cell phone call and announced that dinner would be delayed because our hotel kitchen was on fire. Everyone laughed and then reality set in. Our hotel really was on fire!

In one moment everything changed and I witnessed first hand the beauty of a group trip amongst a military community. Everyone shifted into emergency management mode and the power of “group think” was at work. Head counts were taken to confirm that all members were safely evacuated.

The logistics experts tackled the problem of procuring new room and board for the night. The doctors compiled lists of medications, contacted a local doctor and pharmacy, and made arrangements to ensure that no one went without required prescriptions. All of this was accomplished from the “command center” of our bus, parked about a half mile away from the blazing hotel, out of harms way. The trip captain and a member who had driven his van proceeded to the hotel, where they picked up the remaining group members.

What could have been a devastating and overwhelming ordeal if we had been traveling individually went smoothly and calmly due to the combined talents and power of the group and the reassurance of knowing there was someone “checking your six.”

The upside to this experience was that we spent the final evening of our trip in the very comfortable Hotel Mercure Chamonix, which is located conveniently right beside the train station and close to the best shopping in the heart of Chamonix. The rooms were very reasonably priced at €150, with balcony and mountain views, and the restaurant offered a generous buffet breakfast and dinner to quench the hearty appetite that skiing brings.

Aside from our hotel burning down, the skiing was superb. There are several gondolas in the area that transport you to the slopes. I would recommend the L’Aguille du Midi location because it offered a large parking lot, and the ski school registration and rental shops were in one central location. I also gave the restaurants a higher rating for food quality and atmosphere; however, there are fewer beginner level slopes on that side of the mountain.

Beginners would be more comfortable at the Brevent lift, but should expect longer waits and a less convenient arrangement for rental and lessons.

In all, we enjoyed skiing, gained a new appreciation for group trips, and I gave my husband the best birthday gift of all – a better story to tell about France.