A View You Wouldn't Forget
We spend a day on the peaks of Chamonix with champion snowboarder Mr Jean-Baptiste Charlet
Mr Jean-Baptiste Charlet is trying, not very successfully, to describe the view from his father’s window in Chamonix. It’s not the language barrier that’s holding him back; the 37-year-old former world champion snowboarder speaks perfect English, even if he does so with a distinctive French accent. It’s just that words, in some cases, can only take you so far. “Do you have an iPhone?” he says. “Maybe it’s easier if I just send you a picture.”
The image that arrives a few moments later is impossibly picturesque. It could almost pass for one of those desktop backgrounds that come pre-loaded on a new computer. Out of the window, starkly white against a crystal-clear blue sky, is the jagged peak of the Aiguille Verte (Green Needle). Even if it weren’t dusted with the first of the winter’s snow, the mountain would hardly merit the name. There’s barely any green on the peak itself, which rises well above the tree line to a height of more than 4,000 metres. There’s plenty of it down in the valley, but it’s slowly draining to reveal an autumnal palette of gold, ochre and rusty brown.
If you live in the city and your screensaver is the closest you get to nature, it’s easy to forget just how dramatic the changing of the seasons can be. There’s little chance of that happening in the mountains, where nature paints its canvas with broad, brazen brushstrokes and each new season announces its arrival with all the subtlety of a klaxon. Three months ago, the slopes surrounding this small mountain town, one of the oldest ski resorts in France, were dotted with summer wildflowers. In another three months’ time, they’ll be covered in half a metre of snow. “It’s a powerful place,” says Mr Charlet. “I grew up here. I come back every year and still I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
Men such as Mr Charlet – and his family, more of whom later – defy easy categorisation. If you had to put a label on him, it might read “professional thrill-seeker”, although even that seems a touch reductive. In the 1990s, he was one of the best freestyle snowboarders in the world, winning the junior world championships in 1994 and going on to compete in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics before an injury in 1999 spelled the end of his competitive career. He spends less than half the year in Chamonix now, returning for the ski season to run the resort’s only dedicated snowboard school, which he co-founded with his childhood friend Mr Lionel Binet (the duo refer to themselves as “Bins & Babs”). The remaining months of the year are spent in Hossegor, a resort on the southwest coast of France, where he indulges in his other passion, surfing. By this point, you may have Mr Charlet down as a footloose, itinerant kind of guy, at home everywhere and nowhere. But don’t let this free-spirited lifestyle fool you. Mr Charlet’s roots run deep.
Mounted on the wall of his father’s office in Chamonix is a photo board that reveals the extent of his Alpine pedigree. Entitled “Un Siècle De Glisse” (A Century Of Skiing), it displays the names and pictures of past and current members of the Charlet family: Georges, Jean-Paul, Jean-Franck, Jean-Baptiste. Next to each name is a winter sports accomplishment: Champion De France Cadet, 1921; Champion De France, 1969; Champion Du Monde, 1994. And the list continues to grow. Mr “Babs” Charlet may have effectively retired, but his younger brother Jonathan, aka Douds, is still a competitive freerider (type his name into YouTube and you’ll find videos of him leaping out of helicopters, hurtling down vertiginous peaks and carving lines through waist-deep powder in the alpine backcountry). The Charlet family has a long history as mountain guides, too. Mr Charlet’s father Jean-Franck, a professor at Chamonix’s École Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme, leads expeditions in the Himalayas in the off-season. Perhaps a more apt way of labelling Mr Charlet and his family, then, is mountain men, for it’s hard to imagine a group of people more at home on the peaks.
With the Alps teetering on the brink of two seasons at present – winter up on the summit, autumn down in the valley – Mr Charlet showed us around his hometown, a notably different Chamonix from the bustling ski resort that springs to life in mid-December and shuts up shop at the end of April. This is a place that has one foot planted firmly in the past, where, at Rabbit on the Roof, it’s possible to buy a pair of traditional hand-shaped wooden skis – and where, at least among some of the town’s more conservative residents, snowboarding is still regarded as something of a lesser pursuit. Joined by Mr Charlet’s brother, we took a ski lift up the mountain, across the Italian border and back into France, where the two Mr Charlets – dressed in some of MR PORTER’s latest ski and performance gear – took us on a tour of their natural habitat.