Landing Softly in Les Houches, France

Ella HallDecember 16, 2020

Moving abroad during the best of times can be a challenge. Doing so during a global pandemic is at best, a questionable decision, at worst, a disaster. Thankfully my experience thus far has fallen mostly under the former category. At the age of twenty-two, after eight months of living at home in the Methow Valley with my parents, when the opportunity to move to France presented itself, I seized it. After a frantic month of visa applications, numerous COVID tests, and endless paperwork, I landed in Lyon on October 18th. This would provide a time-cushion before beginning my job as an English teacher at the Université Lumière Lyon 2 in November.

Things did not go as planned. 

While I struggled through making coffee orders in rusty French (Je voudrais un café au lait, s’il vous plait) and attempting to understand the exhaustive requirements of opening a French bank account, COVID cases in France and throughout Europe were climbing. Within a week of my arrival, there were rumors of a second lockdown. Ten days after I had landed the country entered its second confinement. President Emmanuel Macron announced the lockdown at 8 pm on Wednesday, October 27th, saying the restrictions would begin the following day at midnight. 

For me, the intervening 28 hours involved shedding tears, multiple frantic phone calls, a falling out with my Airbnb host, a four-hour train ride, and the lucky chance of finding an apartment in the village of Les Houches located in the Chamonix valley to endure the lockdown.

Thanks to some good friends and a fair bit of good fortune, I arrived in Les Houches on Thursday afternoon, immediately awed by the cracking glaciers visible from my doorway, the unlikely cable-car to the summit of Aiguille du Midi (12600 ft) and the formidable massif of Mt. Blanc. 

The view from my driveway looking east. From left to right: Aiguille de Midi, Glacier de Taconnaz, Montagne de Taconnaz (foreground), Mont Blanc.

Growing up in the foothills of the North Cascades in Washington state, I feel most at home in the mountains. If I was to spend a month or more on my own in a foreign country during a global pandemic I wanted it to be somewhere I was comfortable and happy to be. As an outdoor enthusiast and a lover of great views (who doesn’t?), this proved to be an excellent opportunity. 

Les Houches is a small community located just 6 kilometers from Chamonix-center. Interestingly, it is “twinned” with the Russian villages of Sochi and Krasnaya-Polyana and thus was chosen to help with the organization of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Looking down on the neighborhoods of Les Houches and the Chamonix valley.

For the first month of lockdown, the restrictions were similar to those of the spring, though I heard from several locals that this time around things were much more relaxed. To go out required an attestation, either a physical piece of paper or a digital version with your name, address, and one of six or so selected reasons to leave, detailing your destination and time of departure. Exercise was limited to within a one-kilometer radius of your home and not to exceed one hour in duration. Upon initial exploration, I believed I could not have found a better one-kilometer bubble to be confined to. It seemed that any direction or turn I took led to some new trail or pathway that criss-crossed the hillside and provided ample views and exercise opportunities.

In little time, I felt quite comfortable in my little bubble and found it easy to stretch the rules here and there. However, I was stopped by the gendarmes to present my attestation towards the end of a run in mid-November which provided a bit of a wake-up call though thankfully I was not in violation of any rules at the time.

The one-kilometer radius from my apartment. The blue pin shows my apartment location, the red dashed lines show trails and the brown dashed lines show dirt roads.

The month of restrictions proved effective at curbing the spread, and COVID cases declined, yet the threat of upcoming holidays coupled with increased travel proved daunting. As restrictions loosened, the government deicided that alpine ski areas would remain closed until January 2021. Naturally, there are numerous implications for resort towns such as Les Houches or Chamonix but not all of them may be negative. 

When one hears “Chamonix” thoughts initially jump to feats of alpinism, luxury hut tours, and over-priced hot chocolate. Generally, Nordic skiing is not top of the mind. For a nordic-lover such as myself, however, the news of closed lifts did not deter me and despite the official end of confinement on December 15th, I chose to remain in the valley through the end of the year. 

Arve river, en route from Les Houches to Chamonix.

Ready to give my shins a break from the pounding of daily runs and always eager to glide on snow, I ventured to the Chamonix Nordic Center as soon as I judged there to be sufficient snow for grooming. With snow-making to augment an initial one-kilometer groomed loop and natural snow on the outer trails, I first skied on December 6th. I have since gone skiing as often as possible and each time more trails are groomed and I see more skiers out on the tracks.

Since I am solo, I enjoy people-watching while out and about. It seems that the composition of nordic participants here in Chamonix is not so different from what I might find on my home trails in the Methow Valley. I’ve spotted instructors giving lessons to young and old skiers alike. I’ve seen the Club de Ski Nordique de Chamonix out for afternoon practice. I’ve seen some shufflers on classic skis and some tippy skate skiers. I’ve seen some folks out for a quick round of exercise during lunch and others out for a long weekend tour. 

It is comforting to know that while I may be 8,324 k from home, I can still encounter familiar scenes out on the ski trails. For now, I plan to ski as much as possible before heading back to the city in January. But, as we have all learned this past year, nothing in the future is certain so who knows what might actually happen. If I end up being here longer, I won’t complain. 

Can’t complain about the view from my doorstep. Looking NE at sunset.

Ella Hall

Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.

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