Glen Plake: Why Chamonix?

Chamonix Mont Blanc

Chamonix is a place that needs very little introduction. For hundreds of years it has been a destination of renown. I always laugh when I see a Chamonix poster hanging prominently on a wall in a restaurant or hotel in other ski resorts. (I don’t see those resort’s photos anywhere in Chamonix.) Whether it is the history of the Alpinist culture, the extravagant geography or the access to it, Chamonix is a pilgrimage. Of course, my path to Chamonix is a little unorthodox. In my late teens I was competing as a mogul specialist with my sights on the U.S. Ski Team. I was also beginning to concentrate on skiing on natural slopes, usually the steeper the better, and was developing as a ski mountaineer. At the same time, my real calling was to ski in a ski film in the footsteps of the hot doggers before me. I  grew up staring at the skiers in the ski films at the ski shops or the pizza restaurants at my home town. It was my wish and destiny to have that chance. I enjoyed competition, but the restraints put on me in order to conform to “the rules” was something I wanted to be free from. The thoughts of skiing and combining the artistry of film was appealing – freedom  to express, create and share the experience with others was what the ski film environment would allow. My chance came through friends and former competitors and my first film experience was just that, fun, creative and sharing. Our early audiences really identified with our “style” verses the typical travel log format of the traditional ski film.

A road bump

Immediately following the filming of “Maltese Flamingo” I suffered a severe fracture of my right femur while skiing with some friends. The following months would be some of the most difficult in my life.  After the accident skiing would be something that I would not be doing for awhile...or maybe ever again. Over time, the doctors assured me that my leg would heal but to what extent? I never really had any sort of career, school was not important to me and  I had quit many years earlier. I got by working construction, delivering pizzas,  or selling a little weed on the side. Which  I can honestly say lead me to Chamonix. Still on crutches, changing a flat tire on the old Cadillac I was driving, a suspicious highway patroller found some of that weed in quantities above personal use, and a  9 year voyage began.

I will tell you the first part first

I was jailed, charged, and released one month later. Court time, evaluations, counsel and legal procedures continued for the next year, along with the healing of my femur and my slow return back to skiing. I was living in two worlds at once. My skiing world was looking good.There was talk of skiing in the next year’s ski film if I could return to form, which I was doing, and also gaining confidence. The other world I was living in had nothing to do with my love and passion for skiing: it involved approximately 6 years in a state prison. Having to rely on public representation and not having formal employment, my situation in the eyes of the legal system was dark. Changing a generation  of skiing through the eyes of a camera lens and ultimately representing sponsors – and endorsing and designing their products – was a plan way to far out there. To them, I was a drop-out drug dealer. Not a skier with dreams.

Winter starts

By the time winter started, my leg was great! I was off to film a segment for Greg Stump’s Blizzard of AAHHH’S part of which would be filmed in France. I am Californian. I grew up skiing in a culture where the sport is a part of life. But I couldn’t tell you where Chamonix was on a map. Not long after I was asked  to join the French film shoot, Stump said,  »Do you have a passport?«

»No, I’ll get one!« I said. »When do I leave? Next week! OK!!« I drove immediately to Los Angeles and somehow get a passport, Thank God it was pre computer days, there were no current court records of my arrest on file yet. I sold my car on the spot and hitch hiked to LAX airport to board a plane to “somewhere in Europe.” The film shoot was to be 6 weeks long (my trip would be longer). My next court date was the same day I was to arrive in Chamonix. Asking for an extension would  have been fruitless.

I boarded the plane embarking into the unknown with no plans of ever returning to the USA. Officially in the US I was classified as a fugitive, but I had a new passport that was  good for 10 years and a ski date, I will see what happens maybe I will have to join the French Foreign Legion for a few years or?

"I didn’t know or care at the time let’s just let the skis do the thinking for awhile."

Part II

Just shy of 2 years I was able to arrange my return to the USA, europe’s’ love  for its skiers and the success for the “Blizzard of Aahhh’s” (awarded and recognized as one of the most influential ski films of all time) allowed me to return to the legal system with the prospect of a skiing career and a compelling story of my bad years I was given a chance, the details of which would require you to read alot more. I have never drank or drugged since that time, and 9 years after my original arrest I was released of all obligations from probation.... my skiing endeavors have influenced a generation, maybe even two.

My wife Kimberly and i made many trips back and forth to chamonix before deciding that because of the early years i could never get it out of me, let’s face it, iT is ‘chamonix”, and quite frankly i know the place now, and it is why i make it my european ski base.

Skiing in Chamonix

The short story is that Blizzard of AAHHH’s became one of the most influential ski films ever made. And personally, some years later, the legal system in the U.S. gave me another chance, I never drugged or drank again. With my wife Kimberly, I also made many trips back and forth to Chamonix before deciding that I could never get it out of my system, and decided to make it my European ski base.

It is ever changing, natural, wild and raw place. Because of the access the Aiguille du Midi provides to high elevation, rising almost 4000m, one single run can have perfect powder on top to the heaviest muck or even dirt at the bottom. 

I wish for everyone to have a Chamonix story (maybe not as colorful as mine) and to spend time on the granite benches in town and watch the who’s who of the skiing and climbing stroll by beside the tourists window shopping on Rue de Paccard (the 5th Avenue of alpinism) on a snowy afternoon. Take a “ski around the pond” dive down the “Valle Blanche” or even hang it out there on the “Italian side” It’s always an adventure! There are many places to choose from that will provide you with a wonderful skiing experience, but there is only one Chamonix and there is always an aspect, altitude or activity to experience. You just have to combine the three and let your skis do the thinking for you for awhile. That’s what I do. Whatever aspect, altitude or activity on the slope you choose, you will be glad you brought your Elans.