Tremblant True Love

Features
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Features
tremblant pic A

I never thought of my parents as particularly athletic or daring. They were graceful swimmers, occasional tennis players and avid, if unexceptional, skiers. But in 1949, when they set off on their honeymoon, they didn't follow the newlywed crowds to Bermuda. Instead they went skiing at Tremblant. This may not sound terribly unusual to anyone born after World War II, but in 1949 it was today's equivalent of spending your honeymoon ice-climbing. My parents, I've come to realize, may not have been ski pioneers like Fridtjof Nansen, Jackrabbit Johannsen or Brooks Dodge. But they were part of the next wave that got the sport moving. They were first generation.

My father died 13 years ago. My mother, Susi, a retired teacher who has since remarried, announced at the start of last season that she would no longer ski.

At 73, she said she was just too old. I was sorry to hear this, but figured she'd earned the right to hang up her boots: She skied back when a ropetow with shovel handles dangling from it was considered state of the art, frostbite was as common as Gore-Tex is today, and five runs in one day was a virtual marathon. But when I invited her to Tremblant, she brightened. "Well, maybe one run."

My parents chose to honeymoon at Tremblant partly because it was far enough north that in late March, before the days of snowmaking, it was one of the few resorts that had snow. "We were supposed to fly to Montreal," she told me, "but our flight was canceled because of a storm. So we took the train from Boston, a Pullman, which was so crowded we spent the second night of our honeymoon waving to each other from opposite upper berths of the sleeper car. Then from Montreal we took another train to Tremblant, which stopped at lots of little villages along the way. It took what seemed like forever—probably six hours."

My mother and I drive up from Montreal in less than two. When we arrive, she's agog. When she was here half a century ago, the mountain was mostly treed, with 12 trails no more than 20 feet wide. Now the mountain is veined with 92 runs, some as wide as a parking lot. The base in 1949 contained nothing but a chapel, a lodge and the inn. Ski instructors lived in rustic cabins off in the woods, with no running water or indoor toilets.

Now, if you squint a little, Tremblant looks like a town someone lifted from the French Alps and deposited here whole. Unlike many recently constructed ski villages, which look as uniform and cheap as government housing, this one is built with care. When Intrawest took over Tremblant in 1991, it incorporated a variety of colors, materials and lines that disguise the village's newness and speak of quality, not economy. Since then, Intrawest has added more than 1,400 units and 75 shops and restaurants into various Versailles-style buildings, all arranged around stone streets and courtyards, with more on the way. Add this to a strong U.S. dollar, the outdoor bonhomie of the Quebecois and their near-religious respect for food, and it's no wonder that the new Tremblant is a perennial Eastern winner in SKI Magazine's annual survey.

Almost immediately after arriving we have the good fortune to meet Marc Begin, a fit French-Canadian ski instructor with white hair, pale blue eyes and a big smile, who first came to work at Tremblant in 1949, the same year my mother visited.

"That was the year Ernie McCullough," long-time head of the Tremblant ski school and local legend, "beat the whole French Olympic team," says Begin.

My mother and Marc, it turns out, are both 73. He offers to show us around, and we accept. As we stroll past ski shops and boulangeries, he points out the Cabriolet, an open lift that transports people up the steep streets of the village, and the health club where he works out every morning. My mother waxes nostalgic.

"We stayed in a little cabin, as I recall, but ate our meals in the inn, which had a large dining room. We dressed for dinner—coats and ties, skirts or dress."

Marc points to various brightly colored chalets, now housing bars, shops and restaurants. "One of these was the cabin where you stayed. Were you carried over the threshold?"

My mother laughs and shakes her head no.

He shows us the inn, which now contains administrative offices and a restaurant. It's a modest, green clapboard, two-story building with dog-house dormers and fieldstone chimneys at either end, now dwarfed by the rest of the village.

"That," he says, "used to be the big building."

"We stayed for the week," my mother remembers. "It was expensive and ultra posh. There was a real cache to saying you'd been to Tremblant."

Marc agrees. "They had the Kennedys here."

Outside my mother looks at the red mansard roofs and cranes lifting windows into yet another new hotel high above the inn, and says, "It feels so weird to think that I was here 50 years ago and since then all this has just appeared."

Marc says, "It's amazing the way things change."

"Have you changed?"

He laughs and says: "Only that I dye my hair gray now."

When my parents arrived at Tremblant in 1949, they found bare brown trails, spotted with occasional patches of snow. Fortunately it had state-of-the-art lifts: a single chair, invented the previous decade, which carried my parents up to the peak, where they could drop over the top and experience another rarity: skiing on the "north" side, just opened that season, its trails still white, serviced by a ropetow.

"In my mitts I had metal mesh to grip the rope," Marc says, "because otherwise you'd ruin your gloves. But the guy who ran the ropetow didn't like ski instructors, so when we got on he'd gun the engine. By the end of the season we'd have one arm two inches longer than the other."

"I'm kind of ashamed to say that I mostly stayed on the Sissy Schuss," my mother says over cups of tea in the base lodge. "Remember, it was my honeymoon, so lots of new things were happening. And I completely lost my nerve."

"Well, there was no grooming then," Marc says. "They'd hire a bunch of farmers in snowshoes, 20 across, who would walk down the hill, and that was grooming. In those days you'd ski in loose snow, ice, whatever was there. Today it's so smooth."

"And the equipment was totally different."

"Totally different. My ski pants were gabardine. We weren't allowed to wear warm-up pants. They said it didn't look professional. We had to look tough!"

"My first pair of skis," my mother says, "were wood, brown, with a ridge down the middle. No metal edges. I learned to ski, if one could call it that, by climbing a hill in a local park in Buffalo and then trying to get down, usually without turning because the skis came off in a turn."

She eventually took lessons at Black Mountain in New Hampshire and bought a better pair of skis in Boston. They reached her upraised palm. She also bought metal edges. They came separately, for about $4, and had to be specially installed.

After lunch my mother decides she's not interested in skiing at all. Fine, I say. The new village contains so many shops, restaurants and activities, from a swimming pool to dogsled rides, that you never need your car. Marc and I head for the slopes while my mother and stepfather set off in search of the pool. It's a beautiful day, warm and windless, the mountain covered with deep, light snow, the sky indigo.

Like my parents had done 51 years earlier, Marc and I pop over the top and ski the north side. Most of the trails are black, some in the trees, some loaded with bumps. Then back to the frontside, where even late in the day I find secret stashes and a few narrow, winding, old-style trails. Marc proves to be a fast, tireless skier, wearing me out. What made me think I could keep up with a guy who not only works out an hour every day, but still competes in Masters races?

The next day, over flaky croissants, my mother announces that she will take one run at Tremblant after all, partly for old time's sake, partly to have skied in two different centuries.

"After that," she says, "I'm not sure I'll ever ski again."

We ride up in the swank new gondola, she pops into a pair of rented carving skis and off she flies down not some green groomer, as I'd expected, but the solidly blue upper Nansen. She displays the same competent Christie she mastered 30 years previous. The snow is still pristine, the temperature in the low 20s.

My mother's mother was Swiss. When they wanted to tell secrets about us kids they spoke German. Christmas meant cookies from the old country called Baseler Leckerli and Braunekuchen. As a kid on the ski slopes, I knew my mother was having fun when she started to yodel.

Well, I don't hear any yodeling today—perhaps because I'm too busy finding powder on the trails' sides—but at the bottom she clicks out of her skis, and rather than heading for her room as I expected, she reboards the gondola. She takes four more runs that day. And four more the next.

Over an excellent dinner at La Forge one night, my mother tells me another old Tremblant story. "At one point during our honeymoon, Daddy and I saw this great ski family: a couple seated in the lodge with their children and grandchildren, all of them red-cheeked and happy from a day out on the slopes. We looked at them and said to each other, 'That's what we want our family to be like. That's our dream.'"

The following week my mother and I join my three skiing sisters, their spouses and kids. Thirteen of us extended Reades, ranging in age from 9 to 76, travel in a pack, make turns through a foot of new powder, then laugh over lunch at the lodge. Unbeknownst to most of us, we are quite happily living that dream born at Tremblant in 1949.

My mother notices this, too. She looks around at her red-cheeked brood and says to me, "Maybe I'll ski next year after all."partly to have skied in two different centuries.

"After that," she says, "I'm not sure I'll ever ski again."

We ride up in the swank new gondola, she pops into a pair of rented carving skis and off she flies down not some green groomer, as I'd expected, but the solidly blue upper Nansen. She displays the same competent Christie she mastered 30 years previous. The snow is still pristine, the temperature in the low 20s.

My mother's mother was Swiss. When they wanted to tell secrets about us kids they spoke German. Christmas meant cookies from the old country called Baseler Leckerli and Braunekuchen. As a kid on the ski slopes, I knew my mother was having fun when she started to yodel.

Well, I don't hear any yodeling today—perhaps because I'm too busy finding powder on the trails' sides—but at the bottom she clicks out of her skis, and rather than heading for her room as I expected, she reboards the gondola. She takes four more runs that day. And four more the next.

Over an excellent dinner at La Forge one night, my mother tells me another old Tremblant story. "At one point during our honeymoon, Daddy and I saw this great ski family: a couple seated in the lodge with their children and grandchildren, all of them red-cheeked and happy from a day out on the slopes. We looked at them and said to each other, 'That's what we want our family to be like. That's our dream.'"

The following week my mother and I join my three skiing sisters, their spouses and kids. Thirteen of us extended Reades, ranging in age from 9 to 76, travel in a pack, make turns through a foot of new powder, then laugh over lunch at the lodge. Unbeknownst to most of us, we are quite happily living that dream born at Tremblant in 1949.

My mother notices this, too. She looks around at her red-cheeked brood and says to me, "Maybe I'll ski next year after all."