The Lower-Alptitude Joy of Les Paccots

Reflections on the modest (yet fantastic) Les Paccots ski area.

I’ve been extremely lucky to ski so many great mountains here in Switzerland.  Most rest in extremely high elevations. Some like Zermatt and Saas-Fee sit on dramatic glaciers. Others like Verbier and Portes du Soleil bridge major valleys and once disconnected ski areas.  Grindelwald is flanked by the mighty Eiger. skirun2

But for this first of many Swiss ski area reviews, we’re going to start small.  Some might even consider this modest, lower elevation mountain range a set of “hills” by Switzerland standards. We’re talking about Les Paccots. This is where my kids learned to ski, and it’s only 15 minutes from our home in St-Legier.  Some of our very fondest memories were shaped on this time-warped ski area that until only recently still used the “pay as you go” punch-card tickets (which you can see dangling from my neck in this photo).

skipostersSituated in the valley of La Veveyse de Châtel, this modest hard to get lost family oriented ski area is flanked by a number of mountains including Dent de Lys (2,014M), Teysachaux (1,909 m), the Niremont (1,514 m), and Corbetta (1,401 m).  The village is part of the city of the Chatel St-Denis.

The ski area goes as far back to 1938 including the well regarded ski school.   You’d think that in this amount of time they would introduce at least one chair lift, but in fact all they have are t-bars and what my kids love to refer as “butt lifts.” But for one steep, arguably difficult run, the entire ski area is intermediate or beginner — just perfect for my 5-year old twins and a 3 year old to start their ski careers.

We skied here regularly for our first couple years before graduating up nearby (and somewhat higher, and bigger) Villars. Worth adding the the ski school here is excellent (and incredibly patient), and we owe a debt of gratitude to a few of the ski instructors for nurturing our kids love for the slopes. skimap

Aside from skiing, Les Paccots is well known for a fantastic outdoor skating rink, and a local restaurant, Le Tsale, that boasts perhaps the best fondue in Switzerland.

We’ve also enjoyed several “Full Moon” snow-shoeing hikes with friends, capped off by a great meal at the outstanding (and modestly priced) Les Rosalys hotel-restaurant.  We love this restaurant so much we celebrated Christmas lunch there one year.

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From one of our “Full Moon” hikes. Thanks, Nils!

All in all, Les Paccots is a great place to put on your Swiss itinerary, whether for skiing, hiking, skating, tobogganing, eating fondue, or just plain old exploring.  Many great memories, and more to come.  Only a 15-20 minute drive from the Vevey/Montreux side of Lake Geneva. Very special place.

A Short History of “Hot Dog” Skiing

Early origins of “extreme” content. Kid you not!

Before Freestyle skiing, there was Hot Dog Skiing. It stormed into the modern ski era in the 1970s tied to great names such as Scott Brooksbank, Suzy Chaffee (aka “Suzy Chapstick”), Eddie Ferguson, and of course the one and only Wayne Wong. These ski dare-devils and innovators were absolutely nuts, and they captivated my attention and imagination growing up. 

How on earth did I get sucked into this madness?  Well, the story once again returns to my dad (the subject of my last blog article).  Turns out, Chevrolet was one of my dad’s biggest clients at the Los Angeles based Eiseman, Johns & Laws ad agency.  This means I grew up on no shortage of Chevy campaigns and ad jingles, a point I underscored in an Ad Age article about my father (Dad’s Gone, But the Jingles Survive).   Anyway, as luck would have it (to me at least), Chevrolet was a premier (and I think the first) major sponsor of the early “Freestyle Ski Association,” and, more importantly, a number of “Hot Dog Skiing” competitions held at Vail, Aspen, Waterville Valley (Vermont), Park City, and other great ski resorts.  Around that time, his agencwong2y also boasted the Vail Ski Resort as a client.

For one of the first major competitions, my dad’s agency produced a signature (dare I say “epic”) Chevrolet sponsored film entitled “Hot Dog Skiing” which featured just about every great name in this emerging sport.  It even included three-time Olympic old medal winner Jean-Claude Killy who offered commentary on the rise of this curious (undoubtedly sixties inspired) deviation from ski norms.  

For a kid infatuated with the slopes, this film was pure gold, and I probably watched it a hundred times, ritually dusting off the massive reel-to-reel sound projector every November or December to kick off every ski season.  The film also became a staple at one-a-year family ski trips to Mammoth and June Mountain (a 5-6 hour drive from our home in Pasadena) as well as for some of the legendary (we’ll keep it at that for now) Pasadena High School ski trips.  

16mm-projectorA few names really stood out in the signature film, starting with  Wayne WongHis early acrobatic tricks and early pioneering of so-called #BalletSkiing put him in a league of his own. Plus, can anyone possibly have a better name?  (Right, Al?)   A Canadian, Wong is considered one most influential skiers of the 20th century, according to both SKI and Powder magazines. He invented the so-called “Wong Banger” and starred in countless skiing movies, according to Wikipedia.

Former Olympic Alpine Racer Suzy Chaffee (often known via a famous TV ad as “Suzy Chapstick”) also figured prominently in this first “Hot Dog Skiing” film, especially her ballet skiing skills.

A year after the first film, my dad’s agency produced a sequel entitled “A Hotdogger in Vail.”  Not nearly as good as the first but thoroughly entertaining, chronicling a goofy yet cool hot dogger skier’s curious travails around Vail.

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Suzy Chaffee

I’m convinced that if social media existed back then, most of the footage from these two films would easily have topped the YouTube charts.  Long before Red Bull, Chevrolet was on to something really big.

Damn Litigation:  But all good stories must come to an end.  As far as I know those were the only films produced, as liability issues (e.g. one of the skiers broke his back, or something like that, inevitably triggering a costly lawsuit) officially brought an end to Chevrolet’s sponsorship of the early competitions (hence my dad and his agency’s involvement).

And quickly thereafter the name “Hot Dog Skiing” quickly evolved into the name “Freestyle Skiing,” which in turn not only graduated into more formal competitions, but also made it all the way to the Olympics.

Somewhere in my Cincinnati storage garage, gathering more dust, sits those classic Hot Dog Skiing films. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find even a clip from these films on the internet, but I did find few clips on YouTube that nicely capture the spirit (and madness) of this priceless era in ski history.

BTW, I couldn’t resist putting my son Liam’s jump-pic next to Wayne Wong in my opening graphic.  Fatherly pride, I guess. He’s getting there, as you’ll see in this video we produced (aptly) entitled Ski Tricks Your Mother Won’t Like.

Rest assured, the Hot Dog madness continues.

My (Figurative) Climb Up the Matterhorn!

A Personal Trail Map to MyAlptitude.com

This site, MyAlptitude.com, represents a bit of an extended thank you letter to my father. He passed away many years ago, but I still think of him constantly, especially when I hit the slopes here in Switzerland where I’ve lived the last six years.

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Bill Blackshaw

William J. Blackshaw — or just “Bill” to friends, family, a colleagues — absolutely loved skiing. Every slope. Every turn. Every place.  And perhaps a few too many of the mountaintop sweets. He instilled in most of his children (seven of us in total, one deceased) a love and fascination for the sport and related mountain adventure that persists to this day.

The funny thing is…my father stumbled into skiing. He wasn’t borne into luxury or privilege, and he certainly didn’t come from a family with the means to take ski trips.  The story actually begins with World War II, where my dad served in a combat-free capacity in Africa and India as part of the Air Corps  (now the Air Force).  He was among millions of recipients of the GI bill, which in turned opened the door to his attending St-John’s University in New York and many other opportunities.

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That’s me! 

While he ultimately settled into the advertising industry, he flirted with a career in professional photography.  In his capacity as amateur photographer, he took several trips to Europe in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.   There he discovered the great Alps and many of the legendary ski towns and areas that captured my fascination as young child.  Endless snow fodder for greater storytelling. And beyond perfect in black-and-white.

If there was a single icon that captured my imagination as a child, it was the Matterhorn.  In my father’s large darkroom, which adjoined the room I shared with my brother John, he housed a small library of black and white photos and negatives of this majestic peak.  His pics were priceless. In our private darkroom lessons and tutorials, he taught us to “see” things in composition, light, subject, and to keep iterating the process until we found the “magic” of what people care about. Long before Instagram, he mastered the analog art of “filters” to add texture, sharpness, and extra exposure to black and white photos.  Long before Pinterest, he kept piles of magazine photo clips to use as inspirational (even “aspirational”) reference points.  Long before Facebook, he used the darkroom feed to power “urban storytelling” (as my sister Anne’s put it) about our family.

But back to the Matterhorn.  Compounding my fascination with this peak was an almost fanatical obsession with Disneyland as a kid.  I pretty much had the entire park — only about an hour from my home down Interstate 5 — memorized. I knew every detail, turn, and side attraction of the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride.

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Classic “View-Master” Reel

Curiously, long before the the rise of the internet or social media, I was totally hooked on the 1970s version of Oculus Rift: the infamous View-Master. This captivating device allowed me to step into entirely new worlds with 3D like imagery.  Thanks to my mom’s generosity (or deft deployment of pacification techniques…you choose) I had hundreds of these reels focused on National Parks, Wildlife, and of course, Disneyland (including The Matterhorn).

Net, you had a perfect storm of the real (Dad’s dark room photos), the not-so-real yet captivating mountain down the road, and a trusty View-Master to bring it all to back to life (on demand).  All powered a still-continuing fascination with that very-real hill down the road of my present domicile.

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Dad’s final gift.

Interestingly, only a month or two before my father died, he gave me a beautiful black and white framed print of the Matterhorn. The photo was time stamped 1960, and it prominently sits right above my desk. You can see it in the photo above.  Just perfect!

The (welcome) irony here is that mid-way through my professional career I found myself right smack in the middle of  the Alps.  The bummer is that my padre never lived long enough to know this.  Still, I figured I’d memorialize these experience — which initially started as a series of “branded” kid ski videos — in this  MyAlptitude.com blog.  Thanks, Dad!