CHALET GUY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MORZINE CHALET PROJECT
More geezonaire than seasonaire Chris Tomlinson ditched his 'proper' job as Social Media Consultant in the UK to work winters in Morzine. So is he now 'living the dream'?He launched the Morzine Chalet Project, experienced seven winters, entertained (and tolerated) many chalet guests and has written two books about skiing with 'demons'. We meet Morzine's chalet guy, Chris Tomlinson and discover his demons, skills- and possible seven year itch.
Q. What made you decide to give up a 'proper job' seven years ago as a Social Media Consultant in Sutton Coldfield in the UK to work in the mountains during the winters? Was it a midlife crisis?
I don't think anyone who works in marketing can claim to have a 'proper job'. Clearly 'Social Media Consultant' isn't one. I remember sitting in a meeting discussing how to promote a brand of pre-washed lettuce and thinking, 'there has got to be more to life than this.'
You can call it a midlife crisis if you like (I do)
The Chalet Project, my plan to escape the rat race, was hatched shortly afterwards. My objectives were to spend more time doing something I enjoyed (skiing) in a place I loved (the Alps) and to end the relentless and mostly unrewarding pursuit of wealth - it turned out to be a highly successful plan!
You can call it a midlife crisis if you like (I do) but once more of your life is behind you than in front, and you're dissatisfied with the view in both directions, you've got to do something. Irrational actions are often the result of desperation.
Escaping the rat race turned out to be a highly successful plan
Q. So what in marketing terms, is your USP, for The Morzine Chalet Project i.e. unique selling point, the reason why we should come and stay with you in Morzine?
Along with the affordable, yet luxurious, accommodation, the good food, the inexhaustible supply of wine and let's not forget its charming host (mostly), The Chalet Project has one big USP - it offers short ski breaks in a chalet.
Like a lot of skiers, I love staying in ski chalets, but don't always want to stay for a week (Saturday to Saturday). I don't want to eat a three-course meal with the same, potentially odious people, every night either – even if I did bring most of them myself.
I now have a lot of returning guests who know how I roll
However, I've discovered the reason nobody else offers such a package is because it involves a lot of room changing and doubles the number of guests that need breaking in each season. It's also very hard to make the USP work financially because I often have empty rooms midweek. Fortunately, I now have a lot of returning guests who know how I roll and presumably like my setup - or maybe they think everyone deserves a second chance.
Chalet Frombroise, current headquarters for The Morzine Chalet Project
I let guests treat the place as their own, with full access to the kitchen and, more importantly, to the beer fridge. Guests can also enjoy the on-piste services I offer that I can't call 'guiding' or 'ski-hosting', because the French don't think I'm qualified enough. I offer exceptional après-ski guiding too – an activity for which my qualifications are impeccable.
Q. In your book Skiing With Demons what are the worst 'demons' you've had to deal with? And do you still ski with any of them?
Most of the Demons in SWD1 are not specifically skiing ones. The title was meant to imply I skied with a lot of baggage in my head, rather than I went skiing with malevolent entities – although some of the guides, instructors and guests I have skied with might qualify.
The ski demons are the voices of self-doubt most of us have in our head. They are the demons that most of us battle with daily – desire, regret, gluttony, ambition, hubris and fear. They just seem to appear more often in a ski resort.
Sometimes the fear is emotional
The worst is fear. Sometimes the fear is rational: fear of injury or death. Sometimes it's primeval: fear of heights or being trapped under the snow. Sometimes the fear is emotional: fear of failure, fear of embarrassment or a fear of fear itself that makes us catatonic.
I no longer ski with as much fear, I'm more confident in my ability to cope with tricky skiing situation and experience has made me much better at avoiding getting into them. I mostly ski well within my abilities these days too – probably out of laziness.
Q. You've obviously gained an enviable lifestyle doing winters in Morzine but what have you lost?
Not sure enviable is the word. The more analytical observer will see the stress and the fatigue generated by being at the beck-and-call of strangers, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for three months. Although the stress is usually self-generated by my own anxiety that everything is perfect for my guests.
I lost a wife, a house, a flash car and other trappings of wealth. I gave up financial security and going on actual skiing holidays. But you can't have change without loss. Most people who desire change never calculate the cost – I didn't.
Q. So entrepreneur or ski bum? Can you earn a good living or just enough to go skiing?
I just about break even each season after feeding and 'watering' myself. I get a free season ski-pass and accommodation with my job too. So, it's a subsistence lifestyle that has perks.
A hard day at the office? For Chris Tomlinson (right) life has its 'perks'
I wish I'd bought/financed my own chalet when I started. I could have paid off a significant amount of my own mortgage by now, rather than that of my landlord's.. 'Property is theft' and all that. Sorry, I've been reading too much Sartre.
Q. Can you explain what you call 'Après Alien Abduction' in your book?
Most aliens return their abductees to the place and time from which they were taken, conveniently explaining why nobody noticed their absence. Most abductees, despite being able to recall prolonged ordeals, usually involving humiliating medical experiments, discover that on their return no actual 'earth-time' has passed.
Abductees are returned to seemingly random places
Après Alien Abductions are different. Abductees are returned to seemingly random places often some distance from the après bar from where they were abducted and usually quite a lot of earth-time (of which they have no recollection) has elapsed.
Their medical experiments usually leave the subject with severe dehydration, nausea and a headache. The abductee is often left locked in an existential prison of paranoia (a subject covered extensively in SWD2).
Q. What is it like 'living the life' as a 'geezonaire' (a seasonaire over 50 years old)?
It's cyclothymic. There are great highs and deep lows. When everything is working well and you're skiing in perfect conditions with like-minded people, you feel euphoria. When you wake up with a hangover to find the diesel has frozen in Landie (again) and someone is complaining that the milk isn't the right level of skimmed-ness, then the main fuse box blows because four people turned their hairdryers on at the same time, then the gas bottle runs out in the middle of cooking breakfast, it's not so euphoric.
Chris with Landie, his beloved 26 year old Land Rover Defender
By my definition, a seasonaire does one season. If they return the next or never leave, they become a ski bum. I find the geezonaires (as you call them) hangout in different bars and move in different circles to the classic seasonaire. A lot of Geriatric Ski Bums (as I call them) are actually retired or well-funded and don't have any other agenda but skiing and socializing - so it's a very different lifestyle to that of a stereotypical seasonaire.
I suspect I have more of a gritty experience than that of most geezonaires
Having to make the Project fund itself, it essentially becomes a job, so I suspect I have more of a gritty experience than that of most geezonaires. It all depends on definition; there are many sub-categories of geezonaire and a myriad of ways to live in the Alps.
I know 20-something gap-year seasonaires experience highs and lows too, but for them it's a transitory experience and they are more physically if not mentally resilient. Like other working geezonaires 'living the life' can sometimes feel like you are 'living a nightmare', one where your career/life has gone horribly wrong and you've ended up in a low paid menial job and you ask yourself 'why'? The next day, you're having a boozy alfresco lunch on the mountain with entertaining guests and life has never been better.
Q. What's the most rewarding part of running a chalet for guests in Morzine?
The diversity of people you meet. I get to ski/eat/drink with folks from very different socio-economic backgrounds to my own. Some are fascinating - and not always for the right reasons. You get a brief insight into their lives and often, given the choice, I'd mostly choose my life over theirs – which is very reassuring.
Q. And the most annoying?
Making small talk with strangers. I find myself having the same conversation with each newbie to the Project. I answer the same 'groundhog' questions every time. 'Where are you from?' What did you do before this?' 'Got any kids?' 'Why Morzine?' etc. etc. And worse of all 'What do you do in the summer?'
Alcohol accelerates the familiarization process
With returning guests the conversation can move on from simply firing salvos of questions at each other. More interesting subjects can be approached and a greater disclosure of opinion and emotion can be achieved. Fortunately, alcohol can be used on newbies to accelerate the familiarization process.
Q. How much has your skiing improved by doing seasons?
Initially, I saw a great improvement. There is no substitute for miles under the skis. Anyone who wants to improve their skiing needs to spend more than one week a year in the Alps. However, I often end up skiing with intermediate guests and seldom push myself. I'm thinking of doing my BASI level-2 next season to get off the skiing plateau I seem to be stuck on.
Q. And what else has improved?
My cooking and general domestic skills have gone from zero to acceptable. My mechanical knowledge of a Land Rover Defender has also improved. I think I now have a better understanding of human nature and what it means to be French.
Q. So is it 'no guests on a powder day' as well as 'no friends' i.e. can you shred the powder on a bluebird day?
Sadly, unless the guests are powder hounds, I miss out on some of the best snow conditions. Despite paying homage to the 'Powder Day Ten Commandments' (documented in SWD1), I'm not a true powder hound. I find all snow conditions equally enjoyable - sometimes perversely.
Having said that, I've had three awesome powder days this season and I've made my share of fresh tracks. If the chalet is empty, I often relish a lie-in more than a bluebird day. I guess I'm spoilt and think there will always be another powder day around the corner.
Making his fair share of fresh tracks
Q. Apart from skis, what is your most valued/essential possession for doing seasons?
My slow cooker. Once it's loaded and switched on in the morning, I can forget about dinner and enjoy après with my guests. A slow cooked dinner can't be ruined by lack of attention or tardy guests.
Q. So okay it's your most dreaded question that every guest asks but what do you actually do in the summer to earn a living? Presumably writing books for one thing?
This is the BIG question that I hate being asked because I haven't got a respectable answer. Writing is now providing me with beer money, but unless I start writing about sex or cooking (maybe both?) it's unlikely to provide a comfortable retirement. In the summer I go on lots of hiking holidays and run a mini 'Dales Project', where I invite friends to hike around my favourite part of England – the Yorkshire Dales.
Inbetween holidays, I try to make myself useful around my girlfriend's house and generally be the best supporting actor in the drama that is her life. Behind every great woman there is a great man, I tell her.
Q. What advice would you give to others who want to 'live the dream' and do winters in the mountains?
Read my books first and be careful what you wish for – the reality seldom lives up to the dream.
Q. So 8th season coming up. Seven year itch? Time to move on, go back to 'reality'?
Every January, when the living is hard, I declare 'this season will be my last'. In February I tell my friends that if I start muttering about returning to Morzine in that bloody Land Rover again, they are allowed to punch me. In March, when the living is easy, I start to reassess. After a few months back in reality (suburban England), I panic and start looking for a chalet to rent for the forthcoming season.
Seven seasons is probably enough – well, maybe eight.
Q Or will you be living the dream till your knees give up and your teeth fall out?
I look at other geezonaires with 10 plus seasons under their salopettes and know Morzine is a hard drug to give up. Most are forced into retirement through failing joints and other health issues and I'll probably go out the same way. I now have more friends and more roots in Zine than any other place - if I missed a season, I'd miss them and it wouldn't be the same just coming here on holiday.
I might reinvent the Chalet Project, or refine it to make my life easier. It has already evolved since the SWD1 narrative ended. Or I might simply find another dream to chase. Your dreams change as you get older - right now I'm dreaming of a rural life in the North of England, somewhere off-grid, far from Sutton Coldfield - which might possibly involve sheep.
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