For the preceding chapter on the Varsity Trip, see the previous instalment.
The elves are hurling t-shirts from the balcony. We are standing in the crowd below, underneath artificial palm trees. The t-shirts keep coming, along with bandannas and coloured headbands. The elves, or more accurately the Varsity Committee, in their lurid green jumpsuits, have interrupted the flow of Thursday’s ‘Mega Après’ to toss out the last of the Varsity stash into the screaming mob below. “Tell Me Something Good” is playing. Originally by Rufus & Chaka Khan and then remixed by Ewan McVivar, this song is omnipresent at Varsity, from the bizarre introduction video to every après and club sesh. I have never heard it before arriving. Now, I doubt I will ever forget it. The DJ responsible for this is not the much-promised DJ Zinc, because, as the Instagram informs us, he has “unfortunately tested positive for COVID.”
One of the elves mistimes a throw and it lands awkwardly amid the bunting and poles that decorate Bar 360. This is no deterrent to one eager Tripper, who climbs up onto a friend’s shoulders and then up the pole, dangling at ten feet above the ground, to retrieve it. Why so desperate? Perhaps because one of these jettisoned t-shirts is the much-vaunted Free Base Price T-shirt. The Free Base Price T-shirt says “Free Base Price” on the back, but more importantly, the Free Base Price T-shirt entitles its owner to a free base price, which means a refund of £399. One wonders how the lucky winner will explain the slogan of “Free Base Price” to anyone out of the loop.
In response to a comment from a nameless and famously talkative former editor of The Oxford Blue that these articles have featured “not enough après”, I have resolved to have a deeper look into Varsity event culture. After all, we come to Val Thorens for the partying as well as for the skiing. Val Thorens has a frankly disproportionate number of clubs, from Saloon to Klub Summit to the mysterious Jackie, the bizarrely named Favela (why?) and the decidedly Orientalist-sounding Le Malaysia. In my experience, none of these clubs are especially great or especially awful. A few resemble Oxford’s Plush insofar as they are underground. Meanwhile, at Café Snesko you can sample a frankly excellent playlist of classic Brit and Euro bangers. There is also an Irish pub, O’Connell’s, which serves freakishly good Guinness, the quality of which probably owes to the cleanliness of mountain water.
We have a few nights booked: Goodness for the opening night, Haute Mess, Grad Night, before finally closing with a sesh based on Park End and the now-defunct Cindie’s nights. DT and I also attempt to reach the karaoke at Favela on the first night, but Google Maps, which works only poorly in Val Thorens, leads us on a wild-goose chase directly across the piste which leads us effectively out-of-bounds. We are only saved by our Timberlands. I have a minor panic when my phone starts telling me that the USB port is now filled with snow and I fear I will never be able to charge it. We claw our way back to the road and reach karaoke as it closes, to listen to an aggressive rendition of Britney Spears’s “Oops… I Did It Again”, a song where it turns out the lyrics are nothing like what I thought they were. The karaoke singers are mostly hyper-enthusiastic freshers. This is not really our vibe. We contemplate buying drinks but it is something like €5 for a Jagerbomb.
Opening Night is more successful, though someone asks me later in the week what kind of music was playing at Goodness and I have no idea. Haute Mess is a proper highlight, during which DT and I alternate between watching the queens and exploring Klub Summit’s novel ‘smoking room’, a ventilated chamber with a glass front onto the main bar, so that it seems a little bit like a police interrogation room. Presumably this is because it is too cold and impractical to have an outdoor smoking area.
French clubs don’t require masks to be worn inside, probably, possibly, maybe. You have to put a mask on at the door and present your pass sanitaire, via a much better version of the NHS Covid app. I’m always a little amused by the in-app prompt to present “my favourite certificate”. I don’t feel quite that strongly about my Covid vaccination.
Like Plush, these clubs don’t feel especially Covid-friendly. The walls in Klub Summit weep in a way that may remind older readers (uncomfortably) of Fever. Klub Summit also has the world’s most violent smoke machine, which pumps out immense clouds of something which feels nearly as noxious as laughing gas. As for the smoking room, I’m not entirely sure that the ventilation works. After five minutes in there I feel like I’ve lost a year off my life. This is all a roundabout way of saying that the club is surprisingly excellent.
Varsity clubbing is a bit more enthusiastic than Oxford clubbing, possibly explained by the sheer number of Trippers hailing from London. The dancing is a bit more unfriendly than any standard Oxford club night, to the extent that it’s possible to be knocked over at some more violent times. I only witness a couple of examples of something like moshing (and even then that is a generous description), but it’s much more than you’ll usually get in Oxford.
The other interesting facet of Varsity clubbing is something pointed out by DT, which is that it is much less oriented towards ‘pulling’. Whereas you can expect to see couples and newlymets necking it on any decent Parky or Bridge night, this is comparatively rare on Varsity. Most people are more concerned with having a good night out with their friends than in trekking through freezing cold Val Thorens nights to the shared accommodation of their one-night stand and fucking uncomfortably on the couch. The exception, perhaps, is Grad Night. You may infer that grads are unusually horny. If you want to. Grad Night moves from Saloon to Klub Summit and we stay until around 3am. The official Varsity night ends around 2am, and the club is invaded by French locals, including some stereotypically swarthy and unsavoury-looking elder gentlemen roaming alone. This might not seem like an issue, but – given that NUCO do not inform anyone of this – one has to wonder about the safety of certain vulnerable Trippers, particularly members of the LGBTQ+ community once the Haute Mess safe space is invaded by groups of men who don’t hesitate to catcall the queens, who respond, of course, with remarkable nonchalance. Indeed, this will be borne out by the reports of drink spiking later in the week, where young women are targeted.
Although we do not attend, we hear stories about the fabled Blues’ Bop. Most of these stories are very concerning. Le Malaysia sells water at £3 per bottle to Trippers who have become extraordinarily inebriated at the promise of the week’s best party. People are passing out in the queue. There are rumours of people having seizures and of severe injuries.
These are only the night-time parties. The daily après ski at Bar 360 features live music, food, drink, and stash collections and giveaways. But après often leaves you feeling a bit shortchanged. On the second day, we go early to pick up stash that we ordered back in Oxford. We are informed by one of the elves that we were supposed to be given said stash in Oxford: our college rep, until whom we were not aware actually existed, has apparently failed in his most important task. Someone I don’t quite recognise informs me that Wadham College’s stash collection is also “fucked”. At least we’re not alone.
A Committee member is standing on top of a podium surrounded by a million cardboard boxes and occasionally lobs a T-shirt or an Oddballs beanie at someone. He is almost insultingly unhelpful. We abandon our quest for stash to indulge in the free barbeque. This is confusing, to say the least, if inevitable. The burgers and sausages are hot but are covered in a layer of frost. The salad looks like it has had a recent encounter with a cryogenic freezer. The lettuce is concerning crispy. The vin chaud is good, but at Thursday’s Mega Après it goes from being free and actually chaud to lukewarm and €7 a cup. And DJ Zinc has Covid.
About a week before Varsity, my friend Russian David informs me that there is another, more unofficial après at La Folie Douce, a short ways down the Plein Sud blue run. This looks quite fun, but unfortunately I never visit, so cannot say anything more. You can also get refreshments in a few places, such as at the top of the Deux Lacs lift, at the Chalet du Thorens. A hot chocolate costs €7.
NUCO, apparently, stands for “Not Under Corporate Ownership.” The more you know.
At the top of the Peclet gondola, there is a little café with a sign outside which reads “Welcome Varsity – we have fish and chips.” Food is an interesting subject on Varsity. From what I can gather, most people choose to cook for themselves, with varying rates of success. We actually do pretty well, from pasta to Thai curry to a risotto. We get through an inordinate amount of bread and cheese and Orangina, which, according to Louisa, is now almost impossible to get in the UK. At the time of writing, going into the final day, we still have quite a few things left over: two-thirds of a jar of Bonne Maman raspberry jam (having gotten through an entire jar in the first few days), the bananas we never ate, some tinned tomatoes, and about half of the cheese DT and I bought in a frenzy at the supermarket on the way up when the NUCO rep told us cheese would be pricey in Val Thorens. This much is true, at least. There is a supermarket in our accommodation, four floors above us. It is called Huit á 8 because it is open from 8am to 8pm, and it is on the eighth floor, making this a multitudinously banal pun. The supermarket is convenient but it also encourages us to be a bit lazy since everything is so close by. It is more expensive than the SPAR in the town centre, as well as being a thoroughly strange place in its own right, with the most upbeat tunes I’ve ever heard in a supermarket.
On Tuesday, DT and I treat ourselves to a meal at the Chaudron Magique, a Savoyard restaurant adjacent to one of the hotels. We share a raclette, a huge quarter-wheel of cheese which comes to the table on an intense-looking contraption configured to generate enough pure radiant heat to melt the cheese into delicious, blobby puddles. There are cold meats and cornichons and unlimited potatoes. Whenever we ask for more potatoes they come in a different bowl. I ask the waiter for wine recommendations in bad French. We drink glasses of an exceptionally light and subtly sweet Chignin. I am unsure which language to communicate in. I ask for a table and order in French and ask for potatoes in English because I think nous voudrions des pommes sounds rude.. The waiters mostly reply in English. I think they want me to stop trying.
The raclette was genuinely one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. I say that as someone with a mild lactose intolerance which, to be indelicate, tends to be triggered by vast quantities of dairy; for example, half of a quarter-wheel of cheese. Was it worth it? Yes. What did it cost? Well.
While most people cook on Varsity, they don’t do so with equal facilities. We are privileged to have the supermarket, apparently. This is a feature of Tier 1 accommodation. On Varsity, accommodation is available in one of four tiers: Standard, and then tiers 1 (£59 per person to upgrade), 2 (£129), and 3 (£219). At Tier 1, you get the benefit of having actual beds instead of convertible sofabeds, and separate living and sleeping areas. At Tier 2, it’s common to have access to a pool. At Tier 3, that pool becomes a spa and sauna. This is alongside general polish and improvements to décor. In Tier 1, we allegedly have a gym (and the website claims a sauna), but it is hidden behind what look like cargo bay doors. Our hotel has the same mechanical attention to interior design as a submarine.
My good friend Russian David lives in Tier 3 accommodation. On Wednesday afternoon, when it is snowing too heavily to do any proper skiing due to impeded visibility, he very generously invites me to the spa in his hotel. The hotel reception has faux-zebra rugs and throws. It has very obviously been put together by an interior specialist who was probably paid an obscene amount of money to choose inoffensive shades of ochre for the pouffés. The walls are black slate. Russian David pokes out into the snow in a white robe monogrammed with the hotel’s insignia and matching slippers. He leads me through a series of pristine corridors and elevators which, I am convinced, are designed to hoodwink the uninitiated. People are wandering through the hotel in their monogrammed robes and slippers.
At the spa, I have an electronically-controlled locker. Russian David shows me how this works and directs me to take one of the bright white spa towels. The changing room is pristine and private and minimalist. There are lounge chairs around the pool in orange neon. Unfortunately the wet sauna is broken today, possibly because some Spanish tourists had a party in it last night, says Russian David. No matter. There is still the pool and the steam room. I can also opt for an eighty-minute massage, if I have a spare €130. At the end of our spa hour, when we have discussed future doctoral applications and Russian David’s dim opinion of the city of Manchester, we watch a man in his sixties leave the spa by a glass side door and jump, almost naked, into a freezing cold snowdrift. We are taken aback.
The spa is open until 8pm for adults and until 7pm for children under 15. This prompts two questions. One: where are these children who require a spa? Two: what is happening between 7pm and 8pm. The fabled Tier 3 orgy?
My time in the spa is enjoyable. Russian David and his friends are extremely gracious hosts to this visitor from Tier 1, who has come in with eyes as big as plates, pretending not to be fazed. I am being a little facetious here, of course, but to make a point: do I feel like there is a hierarchy here? Perhaps, in the same way that the University of Oxford fosters a financial hierarchy which places Christ Church and Jesus College above St. Peter’s and Mansfield. Just as I do not get the £600 Varsity subsidies that were reportedly offered to Jesus College students, I do not get Russian David’s monogrammed bathrobe and slippers. Varsity does, like Oxford, have its own hierarchies: its inaccessible perks and secrets. Access might be a little less obscure than at the university, though. You just have to pay for it.
I do have the option to take one of the plush white towels from the spa. Obviously, nobody will miss it. Except I don’t. My parents taught me better than that.
On Thursday, we go out as a group: me, DT, Louisa; our friendly next-door neighbours Max, Gemma, and Jake; and a couple of others. Jake has the most unique ski clothing I’ve seen on Varsity, consisting of a huge grey poncho thrown over a chequered puffer coat, with emergency light strips attached. We joke that his outfit looks a bit mass-murdererish. In the afternoon, Max puts on a leopard onesie to ski. I make a point of not noticing. At the top of Plein Sud, he passes round giant Toblerone and the most delicious bottle of water I’ve ever tasted: pure mountain. The descent is peaceful and lovely. The sun is falling behind an arc of cloud, and bleeds out subtly from behind it, like golden blood pouring from a wound in the sky.
We wend our way down to the ‘Mega Après’. I leave early, and set out across the plateau towards Val Thorens. Between Bar 360 and Val Thorens there is a stretch of the Deux Lacs green slope where the incline flattens out and skiers are invariably forced to walk. ‘Forced’, however, is a misnomer here, because ahead of me is the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen in my life.
A while ago, in a different context, I had a conversation with one of Varsity’s elves over a bottle of dry white wine. He told me, in essence, that these exact same alpine skyscapes convinced him that it might, after all, be better not to stand by and watch our glaciers and mountains be swallowed up by the oceans and our earth be turned into a raging ball of red hot gas.
This view is as good a reason as any.
The Alps are the deepest, coldest white, searching infinitudes of mountain and sky. The setting sun nestles in the gaps and crevices and in the long golden shadows. We are all slowing to see it. Someone helps their friend stomp excess snow off their bright green boots. A trio of French skiers slow to a halt and take out their camera phones. My fingers are freezing from holding my cold vin chaud at après. But I must have my panorama, so off come my gloves. We stop, stand, and take our pictures together.
For the final instalment, follow this link.