Killy's Kingdom

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If you were to create a perfect place to ski for a week, you'd want terrain so vast you'd never retrace your tracks. All around you would be stunning vistas of glaciers, domes, deep valleys and dazzling white ridged crests.

In this magic space, it is seldom bitingly cold. The lifts are cleverly laid out so that you always seem to be skiing down to a place where it's easy to find your way up to new terrain. A typical run takes 15 minutes or more...a result of jaw-dropping verticals. Everywhere are small, charming chalets operated by individual owners who serve superb French cuisine. The trails are groomed daily, yet you can access thousands of acres of ungroomed deep snow from the lifts, without having to duck under a rope.

Naturally, you'd want to give such an extraordinary place a special name resonating the best. So why not name it after the world's most famous skier? Of course, you'd have to get Jean-Claude Killy's permission. As it happens, that's not difficult. The guy grew up here.

The vast, scenic ski terrain I've described is not fantasy. Espace Killy is a five-mile-long stretch of ridges, valleys and peaks that rise as high as one vertical mile above Val d'Isère, France, and its neighbor, Tignes. These two ski areas within Espace¿each the size of a big U.S. resort¿are linked by cable cars, tunneled funitels, gondolas, detachable high-speed chairs...more than 100 lifts in all.

Right now I'm sitting in Val d'Isère with Jean-Claude, 6,000 feet above sea level, in the clubby alpine-motif lounge of the Blizzard Hotel. We're a couple of blocks away from the house where he grew up from childhood to become the world's greatest ski racer at the age of 24. Killy, now 57, drove four hours from his home outside Geneva to visit his ailing father and to enable me to interview him for this article and for "In My View" (see page 42). He would have piloted himself in his own helicopter, but the winds en route were too strong. Needing to return home the same day, he's unable to join us on the slopes.

The day before, my wife Marlies and I, with an instructor/guide, spent seven exhilarating hours skiing less than a quarter of Espace Killy's 25,000 acres¿five times larger than all of Vail. Much of it¿ungroomed, yet reached from the lifts¿lies in the Vanoise National Park.

"It's so huge," remarks Killy. "You make a mistake if you don't hire a guide to show your group around, at least for the first couple of days." Killy speaks in a soft voice, which rises only as he gesticulates to make a point. His excellent English is mostly self-taught. The sharp, sly humor is still there. He seems taller than I'd remembered him...lean, fit, seemingly without an ounce of excess weight, and not looking much older than when I last saw him six or seven years ago. He is assured, commanding, not shy as he'd been as a 20-year-old wonder, but reserved in the way that successful people are to guard their privacy.

"I hear you don't ski any more."

"It's true. I snowboard some days when the sun is shining. In the spring, I like to snowshoe or cross-country ski...a wonderful, neglected sport.

"I had to give up downhill skiing. The job of organizing the Games Killy was in charge of the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics left me with no time to ski. Seventeen hours a day I worked, for five years. I had back problems that required surgery. Afterward, I didn't return to skiing." Killy went on to another big job, running the Tour de France bicycle race and the Paris-to-Dakar auto rally¿equivalent in America to doubling as commissioner of the National Football League and the Indianapolis 500.

Killy's last day on skis was in 1988 when he was inspecting the Olympic downhill at Val d'Isère with its designer, former Swiss downhill star Bernhard Russi.

"After the classic Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel," Killy says, "it is my favorite course. From the bottom, you can see the racer come down the who of the Bellevarde Face." Some of the Olympic racers thought of it as unrelieved mayhem. Yet the wide, groomed trail is regularly skied nonstop today by good recreational skiers.

The day after I interview Killy, Marlies and I set out on a trip from Val d'Isère across the expanse of Espace Killy to the farthest end of Tignes. The trip begins with a chairlift ride up the Bellevarde face with our guide, Clare Burns. Born of Irish parents, Clare, 31, is the only American woman to have earned the demanding diploma of a French National Ski School instructor at Val d'Isère. She grew up skiing in New York's Catskill Mountains.

From the top of Bellevarde, Clare leads us down intermediate terrain parallel to the OK piste, the World Cup downhill that is raced every December. The OK is an acronym for Val d'Isère native Henri Oreiller, France's most famous speed racer in the early Fifties, and for Killy, slam-dunk winner of the first World Cup of alpine skiing.

Passing the snowboard terrain park, we reach Tommeuses, a busy junction of lifts coming up from La Daille. From here, we begin to head in the direction of Tignes, riding the Tovière lift. On top, we stop for mineral water and coffee. Inside the mountain restaurant, guides and clients are raptly watching the world championship women's downhill from St. Anton, Austria, live on television. In America we prefer to ski rather than watch races; at Val d'Isère, a favorite resort of hardcore skiers, the priorities differ. Val regulars are serious skiers and serious race fans.

Now, we spin long arcing turns down a marathon intermediate run to reach Val Claret. It's the highest of five mini-villages that make up modern Tignes. (The original village of Tignes lies at the bottom of a reservoir created by a dam built 50 years ago.) Treeless and facing the sun, Val Claret was the venue for the freestyle competitions during the 1992 Olympics. The hotels and condominium apartments are sleek and contemporary in architecture.

From Val Claret, a long high-speed chair ride takes us to the bottom of the funitel that goes up to the Grande Motte. We're in luck! Just 20 minutes before, the cable car opened. The wind has died down. The day's first skiers are on the way up to 11,400 feet, and soon we are at an elevation equal to the top of Vail Mountain. The difference is that we're 2,000 feet higher above our hotel room than if we'd been at Vail. The conditions look perfect.

The trick to skiing Val d'Isère, Killy says, is to be in the right place at the right time. Because we're in the mountains and the terrain is so vast, weather in one part of Espace Killy can be sunny, while in another part it can be snowing or blowing.

"It's all linked to the sun and the temperature and weather, visibility, type of snow, the time of the season¿whether December or March or May," Killy says. "Some days you should be the first on the lift in the morning; other days it pays to wait."

We're fortunate. The previous night, 3 inches of moderately light powder fell on the Grande Motte glacier. Outside, on the terrace of the cable car's upper terminal, we view the mountains studding the far horizon. East is a string of jagged, black and ochre peaks in Switzerland and Italy, striped with brilliantly white glaciers and snow. Behind us, unseen, are the Trois Vallées of Courchevel and Méribel, an even larger lift-connected assemblage of resorts. And to the north we can spot the spectacular Grand Jurasses and the white crest of the Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco, the highest mountain in Western Europe, looming above Courmayeur, Italy.

To prevent the fresh snow from blowing off the treeless piste, grooming machines have rolled it to the smoothness of a merino wool blanket. Our skis turn effortlessly. It's one of those magical moments in skiing, known to aficionados as "going on automatic pilot." The shaped ski's sidecut, edged on the forgiving snow, allows the skis to turn themselves. Clare floats down the mountainside like a character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We're dancing on top of Europe.

On and on our skis spin in wide arcing turns, past the entry to the cable car, down and down, 4,000 vertical feet back to Val Claret. And so the day proceeds. We're lifted up to the Col du Palet, and after a short ski down, we find ourselves at the Grand Huit lift. I look up and see the track of a snowboarder. Below it is the debris of a massive morning avalanche that carried tons of snow off a cliff, scraping it bare.

People waiting in the liftline discuss what must have been the unknown rider's close brush with death. His track indicates he had luckily veered off to one side above the slide, probably a split second after he triggered it.

Such incidents are not uncommon in Espace, where you are free to ski wherever you want¿down couloirs, across snowfields, into ravines¿at your own risk. If the patrol is called upon to help, you must pay...from a couple of hundred francs ($30) for a toboggan rescue to a $1,000 or more for a complex helicopter evacuation. For that reason, everyone buys the Carte des Neiges, an insurance card offered whenever you buy a lift ticket. It covers the cost of carrying you down when injured or rescuing you if stranded off-piste.

The Grand Huit lift carries us to the Aiguille Percée, or Eye of the Needle, an unusual hole piercing a jagged limestone arête (a narrow ridge). We follow a route behind the Aiguille, a descent of two-and-a-half miles down 4,000 vertical feet. We transition from powder to wet spring snow before arriving in the old village of Tignes les Brévières, the lowest point of Espace Killy.

Since morning, we've skied for four hours across half of the six-mile breadth of Espace and worked up a hunger. Clare leads the way into La Sachette, a low-ceilinged restaurant with dark and honey-colored beams and walls. Swiss Heidi would have felt at home. I order a Salade Savoie¿melted cheese on goose gizzard on a bed of fresh green lettuce dressed with balsamic vinegar. I end the meal with an Irish coffee. It's 2:30 in the afternoon, and the place is empty.

"Maybe it will fill up later with guys," Clare remarks. "You walk into some bars around here and wonder if you're in a gay place! But no, you're not. It's just that the ratio of men is so high. If you're a single woman in Val d'Isère it's a paradise¿but only if you're a good skier."

A legion of jocks¿Scandinavians, Brits, Aussies, a scattering of Yanks¿save enough money to spend the winter skiing and snowboarding Espace. A few wealthy guests do the same, staying in a four-star hotel, the Blizzard or the Christiania, and skiing with a guide each day. In their different styles, rich and poor share Espace Killy.

About half the skiers around Val d'Isère are French. One in four is British. Liftline behavior, compared to other European resorts, is surprisingly civil. Lift attendants are young and cheerful. Killy explained it to me: "We went to the States to see what you were doing. It took us 20 years to catch up; same thing with snowmaking and grooming."

The trip back to Val in the afternoon proves shorter, and, wonderfully, Clare never lets us recross our morning tracks. By 5:30 we're back in our hotel, the Blizzard. The hotel proprietor's Labrador retriever and a couple of the guests' dogs are sniffing about the four-star's lobby.

In the comfortable, warmly lit lounge, I meet guests from Toronto, who've been Clare's clients. They should have kept her. Michael Waring wiped out on the Bellevarde Face and sports an ugly bruise over his eye. He wears his wound proudly, like a Purple Heart. "If I skied as fast at Whistler or Vail as I do here," he exclaims, "I'd get my ticket yanked."

I order a glass of champagne and chat it up with Waring's buddy, Eric Feige. Val d'Isère, Feige observes, "is the kind of place North turn themselves. Clare floats down the mountainside like a character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We're dancing on top of Europe.

On and on our skis spin in wide arcing turns, past the entry to the cable car, down and down, 4,000 vertical feet back to Val Claret. And so the day proceeds. We're lifted up to the Col du Palet, and after a short ski down, we find ourselves at the Grand Huit lift. I look up and see the track of a snowboarder. Below it is the debris of a massive morning avalanche that carried tons of snow off a cliff, scraping it bare.

People waiting in the liftline discuss what must have been the unknown rider's close brush with death. His track indicates he had luckily veered off to one side above the slide, probably a split second after he triggered it.

Such incidents are not uncommon in Espace, where you are free to ski wherever you want¿down couloirs, across snowfields, into ravines¿at your own risk. If the patrol is called upon to help, you must pay...from a couple of hundred francs ($30) for a toboggan rescue to a $1,000 or more for a complex helicopter evacuation. For that reason, everyone buys the Carte des Neiges, an insurance card offered whenever you buy a lift ticket. It covers the cost of carrying you down when injured or rescuing you if stranded off-piste.

The Grand Huit lift carries us to the Aiguille Percée, or Eye of the Needle, an unusual hole piercing a jagged limestone arête (a narrow ridge). We follow a route behind the Aiguille, a descent of two-and-a-half miles down 4,000 vertical feet. We transition from powder to wet spring snow before arriving in the old village of Tignes les Brévières, the lowest point of Espace Killy.

Since morning, we've skied for four hours across half of the six-mile breadth of Espace and worked up a hunger. Clare leads the way into La Sachette, a low-ceilinged restaurant with dark and honey-colored beams and walls. Swiss Heidi would have felt at home. I order a Salade Savoie¿melted cheese on goose gizzard on a bed of fresh green lettuce dressed with balsamic vinegar. I end the meal with an Irish coffee. It's 2:30 in the afternoon, and the place is empty.

"Maybe it will fill up later with guys," Clare remarks. "You walk into some bars around here and wonder if you're in a gay place! But no, you're not. It's just that the ratio of men is so high. If you're a single woman in Val d'Isère it's a paradise¿but only if you're a good skier."

A legion of jocks¿Scandinavians, Brits, Aussies, a scattering of Yanks¿save enough money to spend the winter skiing and snowboarding Espace. A few wealthy guests do the same, staying in a four-star hotel, the Blizzard or the Christiania, and skiing with a guide each day. In their different styles, rich and poor share Espace Killy.

About half the skiers around Val d'Isère are French. One in four is British. Liftline behavior, compared to other European resorts, is surprisingly civil. Lift attendants are young and cheerful. Killy explained it to me: "We went to the States to see what you were doing. It took us 20 years to catch up; same thing with snowmaking and grooming."

The trip back to Val in the afternoon proves shorter, and, wonderfully, Clare never lets us recross our morning tracks. By 5:30 we're back in our hotel, the Blizzard. The hotel proprietor's Labrador retriever and a couple of the guests' dogs are sniffing about the four-star's lobby.

In the comfortable, warmly lit lounge, I meet guests from Toronto, who've been Clare's clients. They should have kept her. Michael Waring wiped out on the Bellevarde Face and sports an ugly bruise over his eye. He wears his wound proudly, like a Purple Heart. "If I skied as fast at Whistler or Vail as I do here," he exclaims, "I'd get my ticket yanked."

I order a glass of champagne and chat it up with Waring's buddy, Eric Feige. Val d'Isère, Feige observes, "is the kind of place North American heliskiers would enjoy. It combines the ambience of a sophisticated upscale European ski resort with the rugged off-piste experience of a Whistler Mountain."

Before dinner, I interview Barry Stone, Olympic fund-raiser from Burlington, Vt., and a Stowe skier. "I'm a powder hound, and Val d'Isère is definitely the best in Europe," Stone says. "You can clearly see 75 percent of the powder possibilities when you're riding up the lifts. You look at a single bowl and realize you could fit four Stowes into it."

A frequent Espace skier, Stone cautions, "If there's a whiteout or a snowstorm and you've never been here, no matter how strong a skier you are, unless you plan to stick to the groomed pistes, you don't want to be without a guide. Never follow a set of tracks if you don't know where they lead."

We eat in our hotel with Marty Heckelman, Val d'Isère's resident American expatriate, ski video producer and instruction author. Heckelman arrived here from Brooklyn 20 years ago and never left. He invites us to ski with him the next day. He wants to take us in the opposite direction from our Tignes trip with Clare, aiming to explore the terrain above Fornet, at the other end of Espace Killy.

Promptly at 10 in the morning, Heckelman meets us at the Rossignol demo center, located on the huge rectangular snow-covered square that joins the center of town seamlessly with the slopes. After a short bus trip to Fornet, we ride the cable car and then a gondola that takes us to the 9,115-foot Col de l'Iseran¿in summer one of the highest automobile crossings in Europe. The road descends to Bonneval, near the Italian frontier. In winter, on a day when conditions are good and there's no avalanche threat, Val d'Isère guests ski over to Bonneval and helicopter back.

With Heckelman, we explore the intermediate Pissaillas terrain, a summer skiing venue. I can see that the instruction author is making mental notes of my flawed technique. Clearly, I offer a rich case history of common errors that could be fodder for his next book. So be it. The weather is sublime. The snow, phosphorescent, sparkles in the glittering sunlight. It's a day, I imagine, when Henry Kissinger or even Puffy Combs could manage a smile.

Suddenly Heckelman does a hockey-stop turn and whips his cell phone out of his parka pocket. "I'm calling Le Signal restaurant to make a lunch reservation," he explains. "It's just a couple of kilometers away, at the top of the Fornet cable car. In my opinion, our best mountain restaurant."

Le Signal does not disappoint. I order rognons (kidneys) blanketed in a rich wine sauce, perfect to go with a bottle of Gamay, the inexpensive Savoie red that most locals drink. Marlies orders the restaurant's prize specialty¿a half-round of the famous Savoie cheese, Reblochon, placed on egg yokes, coated with crumbs and fried, then set on a bed of potato salad with onions, lettuce and tomatoes. Heckelman chooses salmon. Dessert is Tarte Tartin, an upside-down apple carmelized on crisp pastry with vanilla ice cream. We end the meal with small glasses of Genepi, a digestif distilled from a local mountain flower. For three of us, the bill comes to $55.

Fueled by the lunch, we ride the gondola up, then take an unusual up-and-down lift over a sharp ridge to Solaise, a ski area within Espace Killy that's about the size of Snowmass, Colo. By five, we're back in our hotel, with time to rest before dining with Squaw Valley Olympic medalist-turned-travel-packager Penny Pitou. She's leading 40 Americans and Canadians on a ski week at Val d'Isère.

Pitou recalls that her sons and Killy's had been students together at the Holderness School in New Hampshire. I remind Killy of the fact when I meet him the next morning. During the discussion, I learn that Jean-Claude donated the site of the children's ski school in Val d'Isère to the town. In Europe, gold medalists are typically given a piece of land by the village where they live. Killy gave his land back to Val d'Isère¿an act of generosity unmatched, I suspect, by any ski champion.

"In Austria, you could have used the land for your own gasthof," I remark.

"Yes, the Karl Schranz gastfhof," he laughs, referring to his longtime Austr