Corona Lockdown in Chamonix — Week 1

Our little rental, ski season over, glaciers melting, and no work in sight.

Quiet in the valley, save for an occasional delivery truck, or the blue-and-white PGHM helicopters patrolling the crags and Mont Blanc.

We’re on day three of the quarantine. Boys home from school, doing Khan Academy math tutorials, Zoom sessions with the school teachers, and getting out for the allowed 30-minute walk within 2km of the house. France isn’t totally locked down, but it’s as close as it gets without being martial law. Four p.m. curfew, tickets for violating quarantine rules, no social engagements, necessary trips away from home only.

And: no free hospital beds down in Annecy, the nearest big city besides Geneva, which is in Switzerland. Weird times, especially for our first year here in Chamonix.

Now forbidden, I’m missing the awesome rock climbing just up the hill from our house.

The Quarantine

The French government declared a general quarantine last Monday — work from home if possible, bars/restaurants closed, only essential trips to the supermarket, doctor, pharmacy, and a short walk outdoors near your home.

Naturally, being in an active, some might say obsessed, town like Chamonix, a bunch of knuckleheads blew off the quarantine rules during the first days. Somebody saw ski tracks above 4000m on Mont Blanc. An unfortunate joker took a 100-foot fall in Contamines and killed himself skiing. The PGHM — Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne — the mountain police, have forbidden climbing and skiing. Medical personnel are all taken with the corona virus and there are no beds to be spared for broken, skinny-white-folks voluntarily doing high-risk activities.

Day three and Rebel is still speaking to me. A good sign! Boys wake up and do their schoolwork. We’re semi home-schooling and then relying on the hard working, capable staff from their Montessori school in Argentiere. Teachers in France had mere days to put together online curricula and figure out Zoom classrooms, all the while managing their own families and dealing with the quarantine in their own way.

They’re saying the quarantine will extend way into April now, but we’ll see.

And Work?

None. My March work first went … then spring Haute Route/skimo season, and most likely two Svalbard trips in early May. Those aren’t officially done, but with the US on the front end of the curve, I can’t imagine things are going to be anywhere “back to normal” by early May.

Norway is officially closed to foreigners at the moment. They’re closer to the US’s timing in terms of infections, so I’m expecting us to reschedule trips if possible — but no word yet.

In the meantime here in the valley, there is officially no work happening — by law. Our insurance provider has expressly stated we are not covered. The French gov’t won’t allow it, and the PGHM has suspended rescue services. At first it seemed like spring was a bust, but now I’d be psyched if we can work in July at all.

An amazing day during which we skied two steep, fun couloirs. 2021, maybe?

Italy

Italy, poor Italy. I skied over there a few times this winter, having fantastic days in La Thuile and off the Skyway. As the corona thing intensified, though, first Lombardy was quarantined, then the ski lifts in the whole Aosta valley closed down, and finally all the shops. It was sad leaving there, knowing how nervous my friends were.

And they had right to be. Italy has been whalloped by the virus. Ironically, Italy’s older population — due to people living longer, healthier lives — is one of the reasons the corona virus has hit so hard. My uncle lives on his own and he’s 89 years old. Still goes to Zurich on business, goes down to the beach by himself, etc. People like him, though, have proven especially vulnerable to the virus.

The images and stories out of northern Italy are horrifying. Doctors left no choice but to choose between patients, triaging and deciding who has a better chance of living. Heartbreaking. I read one man’s story in which he lost both parents, in their 80s, to the virus on the same day — yet he was locked down in his apartment across town. The parents died within hours of each other in their apartment, just them.

The US

And now the US heads into the steep part of the curve. I am utterly dumbfounded that kids are partying on the beach in Florida, and in Boulder during St. Patrick’s Day. I see guides and recreationalists strategizing about going skiing. The mayor and governor of New York city and state argue over whether to quarantine New York City.

All I can say is you know what’s coming and you can either be Italy or be China. China had no domestic cases yesterday. Italy over 450 deaths; its worst day to date. The curve is obvious and so is the solution, albeit economically and psychologically painful. You want no part of the Italian situation.

Summer …

Here’s hoping we can work and climb again. Maybe the huts even open. Hard to know, but hard choices now might make for an easier life later. European governments are talking about massive bailouts for small businesses and the self-employed. Sounds like the US is, too, which is great — especially for my buddies in the restaurant industry. Stay safe, everybody, and let’s hope we can do what it takes to get back to some semblance of normal.


Rob Coppolillo lives in Chamonix, France, with his wife, Rebecca, and twin boys, Dominic and Luca. He owns Vetta Mountain Guides.

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