Chasing Elephants - Ski Mag

Chasing Elephants

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218 B.C.

In a desperate effort to attack Rome, the Carthagian general Hannibal exploits the element of surprise by taking an unexpected overland route. He leads an army including 38 African elephants from Spain, across the Rhone river in what is now France, and then, against all odds, into Italy via some of the most hostile terrain in the Alps. Thus starting the Second Punic War.


1999 A.D.
The exact route Hannibal took through the Alps has been a bone of contention for over 2,000 years. Our small group of American skiers heads to France with a simple goal: to find the trail of Hannibal and his elephants-and, not coincidentally, to do some skiing in an area of the French Alps less known for mega ski resorts than it is for history. That Hannibal succeeded is testament to the reckless genius that marked his military career. If we succeed, it will be a testament to the kind of foolishness an excessive amount of red wine, a low-snow year in the States, and rumors of epic powder in the Alps can lead to. Combine a little folly with the idea of breathing life into a vaguely remembered history lesson, and you've got a plan.


As the morning light floods into the deep canyon that leads to the border town of Briançon, France, photographer Randy Barnes and I rise, cold and stiff. The sun burns the peaks orange and our bodies yearn for coffee, which we manage to find, along with the other members of our group, former World Cup telemark racer Heather Paul and itinerant ski bum Joe Smith, who've been brushing up on their history:

On his father's deathbed, Hannibal, supreme commander for Carthage in Spain, had sworn eternal hatred of Rome. For Hannibal, a successful campaign against Rome would not only have brought immeasurable personal wealth and gratification, but it would have radically changed the geopolitical balance in the Mediterranean, making Carthage the undisputed power in the region. When Hannibal made the decision to invade Italy, most of Spain was under Carthage's control.

Briançon is believed to be the crux of Hannibal's route. From here, all roads lead to the plains of Italy. Above this ancient, walled town, mountains pierce the sky and glaciers tumble down from the heavens. It is a hostile and alien world of monstrous cliffs, huge vertical relief, and impossible canyons. Briançon is also the southern terminus of the massive Serre-Chevalier ski station. Gondolas and chairlifts lace the mountains. So, after a quick look at the town, we decide to forgo history and go skiing.

Skiing the southern French Alps is like discovering your own private paradise. Rich with history, mountains, and culture, this area is little known by American skiers. As with most European ski resorts, access to Serre-Chevalier is both chaotic and impressive. A large, empty tram whisks us 1,000 vertical feet to another, smaller tram, which empties out 3,000 vertical feet higher on a vast ridge. Surface lifts, chairs, and more trams climb up peaks and over ridges. It's an endless procession of lifts, servicing every kind of terrain imaginable. Steep couloirs plunge down rocky precipices, long groomers run to distant villages, and quiet paths through the trees lead to chalets with cold beer on tap and fresh baguettes to munch on.

It's impossible to ski a place like Serre-Chevalier in its entirety, but that's exactly what we attempt to do on our third day. At two in the afternoon, Heather, Joe, Randy, and I stand high on a ridge, miles from Briançon, and look down an empty valley leading deep into France. But before we can fool ourselves into thinking we've come to the end of the line, Randy spots yet another lift, reaching above the next ridge. We are not going to ride that lift, or the others that stretch deeper and deeper into the Alps. We admit defeat and turn around. Hannibal, that master of the impossible, would not be proud.

A fast descent on wind-buffed powder starts us on our way home, buwe've covered too much ground. We arrive at the poma that takes skiers back up over the ridge to the drainage that feeds back to Briançon just as the remontées mecaniques close it down for the day. There's nothing to do but follow a plunging maelstrom of skiers, all of whom seem to have been drinking wine in the sun, down to the town of Chantemerle, five miles up valley from Briançon. Fortunately, the bus doesn't run as promptly as the lifts. Cocktails on a sunny deck have made us 10 minutes late for the last bus to Briançon, but the driver's in no hurry and we catch the bus no problem.


From his 16th century chalet in the town of Puy St. André, just above Briançon, Jean Luc Charton runs a guiding business called Altitude 1515. In addition to having spent most of his life guiding in these mountains, Jean Luc has written several guidebooks and is working on a book that focuses on the history of the area. He hears of our interest in Hannibal and immediately starts pointing out different aspects of the ancient route. He points to a cleft in the valley. Black with shadow, it looks as though some sort of disaster, a huge meteorite perhaps, has taken a chunk out of the bottom of the valley, leaving nothing but a hole.

"That," says Jean Luc, in lightly accented English, "that is where they rolled the rocks down onto Hannibal's army. Many were killed." According to legend, man and beast were crushed by the thousands by boulders tossed down upon the army by local tribes loyal to Rome.

It is also possible, though, that Hannibal never passed this way. As we eat breakfast in a cafe, a French newspaper headline catches my attention. "L'ENIGME SE SITUE DAN LES ALPES. QUE CHEMIN A EMPRUNTE HANNIBAL POUR ALLER EN ITALIE?" the newspaper asks. "How did Hannibal get to Italy?" We head to Montgenèvre to do some further investigating-and skiing.

The Col de Montgenèvre is believed by many to be the pass through which Hannibal marched his army. Montgenèvre ski resort is a mere 15 minutes from the lifts of Serre-Chevalier, but its terrain is stunningly different. Unlike the vast open expanse of Serre-Chevalier, the terrain here feels more compact, more accessible. Short ridges offer quick access to a variety of couloirs where the snow, hidden from the sun, is soft and cold, a frozen meringue pie. There are numerous hidden lines, and I quickly get separated from Heather, Joe, and Randy by turning left rather than right. I follow a long funnel of a gully that ends with a toboggan ride out onto the flats far below. We all meet again at the top and decide to head over to Italy for lunch. Two turns later, we're in a different country, making tracks for a small, funky stone cabin hidden in a valley. There we have fresh pasta with delicious homemade tomato sauce. We are in Italy, after all.

That afternoon, as Randy, Heather, and Joe shoot photos, I hike off-piste to the top of a small peak. If Hannibal did come this way, it would have been a logical choice: The valley below me delineates a natural highway through the Alps. Rusting razor wire and wooden stakes mark what was once a fortified post, and remnants of lookouts and more barbed wire are visible on nearby peaks. Hannibal and his elephants may have been the first to march through Montgenèvre, but he obviously wasn't the last to see battle in these mountains.


Historians disagree on Hannibal's route. Although the great classical historian Livy has Hannibal crossing the Alps by way of Montgenèvre, Polybius, who wrote the classic text on the Punic wars, The Rise of the Roman Empire, puts the trail on a northerly track, possibly near Mont Cenis in the Savoy. Others believe Hannibal crossed even farther north, at the Col du Petite St. Bernard, not far from the Mont Blanc Massif. Still others, such as the historian Gavin de Beer, claim that the actual route lies farther south, near the Col de la Traversette, near the Risoul/Vars ski station.

On that fateful evening of drinking vin rouge stateside we had vowed to solve the mystery-or ski ourselves silly trying. We would leave nothing to chance. Should we head north or south? A debate rages among us until a reconnaissance mission is decided upon. We will go south to Vars. Coincidentally, we've heard the skiing is good there.


The Crete de L'Eyssina, a crested peak of remarkable relief, rises like a frozen tsunami above Vars. Unlike Montgenèvre or Serre-Chevalier, Vars has a modern ambience. There are high-speed quads and first-class grooming. Goateed hipsters parade with snowboards, and condos punctuate the village. We eat crepes in a local pizzeria as we gaze at the cold, menacing wall towering above us.

The terrain here is different, too. Dozens of couloirs snake down the Crete de L'Eyssina. Do-or-die lines are interspersed with cliffs and no-fall zones. It is beautiful, and I immediately want to ski it. First, though, there is the issue of housing. We find a quaint chalet called Les Escondus, which turns out to be a fine choice. The bar is the most popular in town and attracts a motley crew of expatriates and ski bums. We meet Dave Vaille, a Californian who's in town for the local speed-skiing race. The course, a straight-line screamer down a couloir, is the home track of one of the fastest men in skiing-Philippe Billy. His top speed is 243.9 kilometers per hour. "I want to break 250," Philippe states matter-of-factly over a beer that evening. "I will do this this year."

It's easy to see why skiing fast is the reason people come to Vars. Aside from the Crete de L'Eyssina, the rest of the terrain is open, has few bumps, and the couloirs empty into gigantic bowls. Oddly enough, the snow is better, too, even though we've headed south. Vars' steeper terrain and new snow combine for the best day we've had so far. We spend the morning inbounds, skiing smooth fluff and bombing impeccably groomed runs, then take a break to watch Dave and Philippe train. The wind makes a low moaning sound as the racers, wrapped in skintight super-slick speed suits, slice through the air, gliding effortlessly on their 240-cm speed skis.


Although Hannibal's route remains a mystery, it is known that he descended from the Alps, after a journey of almost five months, to defeat the Romans at the battle of Cannae. But after that, with depleted forces and inadequate support from Carthage, he achieved only minor victories; he never marched on Rome itself. Ultimately, after Carthage and Rome signed a treaty-frustrating his entire life's objective-Hannibal poisoned himself in 183 B.C.

Some two thousand years later and with goals not quite as lofty as Hannibal's, Joe and I succumb to the pull of the Crete de L'Eyssina. A short afternoon hike takes us to the top of the ridge. Beyond us, ridge after ridge of steep, technical lines beckon. As we look down the throat of a massive couloir, I realize that the historians must be wrong. Hannibal and his army never marched here. The mountains are too bold and jagged. Impossible for elephants; perfect for skiers. I look at Joe and smile. "You first," he says, "chase those elephants."rs ski station.

On that fateful evening of drinking vin rouge stateside we had vowed to solve the mystery-or ski ourselves silly trying. We would leave nothing to chance. Should we head north or south? A debate rages among us until a reconnaissance mission is decided upon. We will go south to Vars. Coincidentally, we've heard the skiing is good there.


The Crete de L'Eyssina, a crested peak of remarkable relief, rises like a frozen tsunami above Vars. Unlike Montgenèvre or Serre-Chevalier, Vars has a modern ambience. There are high-speed quads and first-class grooming. Goateed hipsters parade with snowboards, and condos punctuate the village. We eat crepes in a local pizzeria as we gaze at the cold, menacing wall towering above us.

The terrain here is different, too. Dozens of couloirs snake down the Crete de L'Eyssina. Do-or-die lines are interspersed with cliffs and no-fall zones. It is beautiful, and I immediately want to ski it. First, though, there is the issue of housing. We find a quaint chalet called Les Escondus, which turns out to be a fine choice. The bar is the most popular in town and attracts a motley crew of expatriates and ski bums. We meet Dave Vaille, a Californian who's in town for the local speed-skiing race. The course, a straight-line screamer down a couloir, is the home track of one of the fastest men in skiing-Philippe Billy. His top speed is 243.9 kilometers per hour. "I want to break 250," Philippe states matter-of-factly over a beer that evening. "I will do this this year."

It's easy to see why skiing fast is the reason people come to Vars. Aside from the Crete de L'Eyssina, the rest of the terrain is open, has few bumps, and the couloirs empty into gigantic bowls. Oddly enough, the snow is better, too, even though we've headed south. Vars' steeper terrain and new snow combine for the best day we've had so far. We spend the morning inbounds, skiing smooth fluff and bombing impeccably groomed runs, then take a break to watch Dave and Philippe train. The wind makes a low moaning sound as the racers, wrapped in skintight super-slick speed suits, slice through the air, gliding effortlessly on their 240-cm speed skis.


Although Hannibal's route remains a mystery, it is known that he descended from the Alps, after a journey of almost five months, to defeat the Romans at the battle of Cannae. But after that, with depleted forces and inadequate support from Carthage, he achieved only minor victories; he never marched on Rome itself. Ultimately, after Carthage and Rome signed a treaty-frustrating his entire life's objective-Hannibal poisoned himself in 183 B.C.

Some two thousand years later and with goals not quite as lofty as Hannibal's, Joe and I succumb to the pull of the Crete de L'Eyssina. A short afternoon hike takes us to the top of the ridge. Beyond us, ridge after ridge of steep, technical lines beckon. As we look down the throat of a massive couloir, I realize that the historians must be wrong. Hannibal and his army never marched here. The mountains are too bold and jagged. Impossible for elephants; perfect for skiers. I look at Joe and smile. "You first," he says, "chase those elephants."

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