Saturday, February 04, 2017

Making something out of nothing :In search of the perfect snow

The first plan was a good one . It had been tried and tested a few times. It was called a "helicopter skiing safari." We would take off from Finhaut just over the Swiss boarder from Chamonix , fly to the Trient Plateau , ski down to Champex, pick up another flight and fly to [say] the Pigne d"Arolla , ski down into the village of Arolla and spend the night. The next day , after consulting the weather forecast and finding where the best snow was by talking to the helicopter base in Sion, we would fly to another peak and so on and so forth. A great formula, but, the issue was that there was no good snow. It had all been scoured away and making skiing on the glaciers untenable. With the group arriving the next day , the plan was unraveling. I needed another plan and I needed it quickly. I opened my contacts book and started phoning around the alps to see if anyone had any snow. I was lucky , I found snow and in addition managed to rent a dedicated helicopter for our group. Monday 30th January. 6.45am. We left Chamonix in two cars . Four hours later Peter David and I arrived in Piedmont at the village of Pietraporzio where we were greeted by Analdo the Mayor of the Village and the man who can arrange the helicopter permit. [Who was also to be our local guide.] Meanwhile the other cars occupants had not arrived. They had decided not to follow us but instead put blind faith in their cars GPS. The GPS had chosen the most direct route yet it had not figured out that this involved negotiating several alpine passes, the key pass being closed in the winter. They were eventually confronted by a barrier behind which there was a wall of snow. They were forced to backtrack to Turin. At mid day our helicopter turned up piloted by Roberto and landed in the car park at the back of the hotel.
Five minutes after take off we were standing on top of a mountain looking north at Monte Viso. [See September Blog.]
We then got some very good skiing from the top of the mountain , back through the trees all the way to the valley floor, over 1600 vertical meters.
Eventually after having had a rant at the GPS Peter, Robert and Ian arrived at the Hotel. I flew back to the hotel to collect them.
We all were reunited on the top of the mountain and could start skiing as one group. We were also joined by Chiara,a local Italian ski instructor, Analdo's sister who among her many assets spoke English .
We enjoyed several excellent descents before the helicopter took us back to the hotel , for a quite superb dinner and wine. Tuesday 31st January. The weather was indifferent which made the skiing difficult , but made flying a helicopter very difficult.
While the skiing was still better than anything you would ever find in a resort, the snow did get very heavy in the afternoon, so much so that I became concerned about the possibility of wet avalanches and so I decided we should fly back to the hotel. Wednesday 1st February. The conditions , nor the weather forecast justified retaining the helicopter. Instead we explored the ski resort of Argentera. Its potential is outstanding , with widely spaced larch trees and interesting terrain, given a fresh dump of snow then it would be one of the best off -piste ski stations I had ever seen. Thursday 2nd It was now raining. We packed up and drove north to La Thuile where it was at least trying to snow. I had managed to get us a booking at Maison de la Neige which is a very good hotel and restaurant that can only be accessed by ski. Thus you get all the benefits of a remote mountain hut experience without the rest of the hut experience. All was fine apart from the weather and the skiing conditions both which were utter Crap. We went to bed not expecting very much for the next day. Friday 3rd. Life is timing , skiing is timing , being in the right place at the right time because, contrary to the previous nights pessimism we awoke to 30 cm of cold light fluffy snow and soon after that blue skies.
We continued to ski fabulous un tracked snow all day. The beauty of La Thuile is that unlike so many famous off piste resorts you don't have to fight for the fresh snow.
There were some stunning steep pitches too:
We all finished the week on a high. Without a shadow of a doubt Friday 3rd February was the best day of the season , so far, it did require a lot of effort to find good skiing , yet it was worth it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Excess Boys Return

Each year, some might say, it becomes more difficult to shoe-horn the Excess-Team into the back of the 17 year old Land Rover Defender. At a rough estimate their combined weight now adds up to well over a metric ton. [Not including all the skiing paraphernalia.] The whole circus is rather like watching a badly choreographed group of deep sea divers trying to break the world record for how many of them they could cram into a car. Anyway,I scooped them up from La Couronne Hotel in Argentiere. I decided that with an indifferent weather forecast that we should head through to Courmayeur where we could ski on snow that didn't resemble concrete like it did on Les Grands Montet . In the morning we skied the Youla Couloir which was a million times better than this photo suggests.
In the afternoon we found some exceptionally good skiing through through the trees. The Excess Boys were not excessive on their last night in the resort. This might have had something to do with the fact that the iconic Savoy Bar in Argentiere has closed down and no other establishment would seemingly allow them to dance on the tables. The up shot of this was that they were fresher than in previous years [last year being a particularly good example of not being "fresh".] So on the Sunday we headed up La Flegere and were skiing empty groomed pistes by 9.00am. We traversed over to the summit of the Brevent. The weather was beautiful. From the summit of the Brevent we worked our way along the ridge line skiing off piste through some impressive rock architecture.
Later we skinned up over the Col Cornu and around to the Lac Noir where we had a picnic. After lunch we skied back down to the Col de la Gliere. The first bit was steep and then it opened out into the Combe de la Gliere , eventually joining the combe Lachenal and then the piste.

Friday, January 27, 2017

If you want good snow stay low.

The general view in the alps is the the snow cover has been very poor so far this year. The big problem , which seems to be more and more common is that when it snows it is accompanied by unwelcome wind which blows all the snow somewhere else. This leaves all the high resorts either devoid of snow or its like skiing in a concrete skate board park. Yet if it remains cold the best snow is in the low resorts. The only way to find good snow is to be flexible. Being pinned to just one ressort with the inability to move to where the snow is good, can often lead to disappointment and frustration. So Reuben and Fiona Berg joined me for 4 days of "low skiing." On Tuesday 24th We drove to St Gervais and skied through some magical glades.
Great skiing combined with lunch at the unique Ravoire provides for a good day. Wednesday 25th. Even better skiing in Combloux with the wonderful descent down to Geittaz.
Thursday 26th . We skied in Les Contamines. Beautiful weather although the snow at the top was wind blown yet as we skied down the mountain from the Col de Buche towards Hauteluce the snow became very good. We enjoyed an excellent lunch at the Buche Croisse Auberge. Friday 27th I skied my first day of the year in the Chamonix Valley which for a Chamonix Mountain Guide is not a good advertisment for the local conditions. Fiona and Reuben celebrated yet another wedding anniversary and we skied off the back of Le Tour. We skied down to a collection of cow sheds which in a normal season would be completely buried. Here we stuck the skins on and gently made our way to the Carrage - a fine view point up the Rhone valley. I couldnt believe my luck because as we skied down we came across an immaculate pitch of un tracked easy turning snow that just went on and on.
Just goes to show what you can find if your prepared to have a look around.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Alpine Skiing Road Trip January 2017

January 13th The plan was simple, to set off on a road trip skiing in a resort for a couple of days reviewing what conditions were like and moving on. John Cackett arrived from England and we set off for Zermatt. It was snowing heavily [at last] and the drive to Zermatt was not straight forward. We used the booking app on our I phones to search for a hotel and just winged it. Most hotels in the Alps always claim to be full , but in fact they are not. Especially in January. We checked into the Monte Rosa Hotel famous as the hotel where Whymper based himself prior to his ascent of the Matterhorn on July 14th 1865. . January 14th The weather was cold and blustery and the visibility was indifferent. January 15th . Very cold but now with blue skies and impressive views all around
After we finished skiing in Zermatt we decided to head for Andermatt. We drove down to Visp , turned right [East] and headed up the Rhone valley towards the Furka pass. Here we put the car on the train and went through the Furka Tunnel and were "spat out" at in Realp. Fifteen minutes later we were in Andermatt staying at the rather unique River House Hotel which had been recently gutted and then very sympathetically renovated. January 16th The weather was very cold and snowy so we decided to ski in the area of Sedrun. To get to Sedrun involves getting on a unique train with a rather fantastic bar. It was a very new concept and unwittingly we were its first ever customers. Everything was fine while we were in the station , we enjoyed some decent swiss coffee. It was still fine as the train left the station , but it was not so fine when the train engaged its cog system and rapidly climbed up the hill. It was at this point that the entire contents of the bar slid down the train and crashed on the floor! We alighted the train at the Oberalp pass. The weather was pretty atmospheric. We stumbled around in zero visibility and then rather bizarrely came across a light house !
Next we skied around a bunch of wind turbines , which should have been a clue to the fact that it was going to be windy. It was windy , the perfect place to create wind slab avalanches: It was a day of seeing lots of unusual features , before finally getting on the train back to Andermatt. January 17th. Blue skies and very cold weather. We headed to the heart of the Andermatt skiing the Gemsstock cable car. In recent years this has become the "new La Grave" It is known for serious skiers with fat skis , and attitude. Yet it was quiet, and we had the place to ourselves. After Andermatt we were unsure where to go. Our original plan was to keep heading east hoping to go to Klosters , then St Moritz , the the Sella Ronda and possibly Cortina. Yet all these places still lacked the essential ingredient. Instead we headed north the the Bernese Oberland, namely Grindlewald. We parked the car in Grund and jumped on the train to Kleine Scheidegg where we were to stayed at the Bellvue Hotel. Again this is a unique hotel , part of the Swiss Historical Hotels group. Nothing has changed since the 1930's , but it is immaculately kept and the food is as good as you will get anywhere. Here is a photo of the entrance lobby: January 18th Straight out onto the pistes with the backdrop of the most famous North Face in the world . The Eiger Nord Wand. January 19th We took the morning off from skiing to visit the Jungfraujoch on the worlds most expensive train journey. The view from the top was good.
January 20th We skied over to Murren took the lift to the Piz Gloria Schilthorn , famous for the film On Her Majesty's service. John had a very indifferent 007 Burger.
rno After that we skied the 'Inferno' Down Hill course which was being prepared for the iconic race the next day. January 21st. This was our last day of skiing and we skied on the sunny side of Grindelwald in the ski area of First, stopping briefly in the town center to look at the amazing snow sculptures of the world snow sculpting championships.
January 22nd. After another excellent breakfast John and I caught the 8.30 train back to Grindelwald Grund. It was -15c We defrosted the car and drove to Geneva airport where I said good bye to John. Not a bad adventure, especially for a man who two years ago announced he might not ski again...

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Italy still has the best snow but finally that might be changing.

David Ford joined me for three days for a mixture of off piste skiing and ski touring. This was to be David's introduction to the activity. Monday 9th January. Still no snow in the Haute Savoie this season' so we drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel to start our skiing in in Courmayeur. We started by getting use to the different type of skis and boots plus all the other equipment needed for off piste skiing and touring. We had beautiful weather but the snow was hard and unforgiving. Tuesday 10th January. Snow! It actually started snowing in Chamonix. Still conditions were far from perfect so we headed through the tunnel this time for Punte Crocce. We saw no one all day which was pretty special and the summit was very atmospheric.
Wednesday 11th. Again it snowed in Chamonix and it was starting to look like a ski resort. But it was an allusion. There was still no real snow base for skiing off piste and the new snow was coupled with very strong winds , so once again we headed through the tunnel , this time to La Thuile. we were not disappointed. We found some very good light untracked snow which gave wonderful skiing all day long. Yet the full off piste skiing experience would not have been complete without landing in a river...

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

High Pressure No Snow just weeks of blue skies

On or around the 11th November it snowed a lot. About a meter fell over night. [This was light relief because everyone needed badly cheering up after the election of Trump.] The view was that there was now enough snow to kick start an early season. But no. The foehn wind arrived and blew incessantly for about three days and nights and stripped all the snow away. So much so that I seriously thought about cutting the grass again. Then the sun came out and stayed out for two months. Not a cloud. The weather was perfect. Yet with the high pressure came the worst pollution in a very long time. Come Christmas most of the ski areas remained closed. On Christmas Day the Seaton family wanted to go for a ski together but instead we went for a short walk from Le Buet to the Buvet which was open for lunch. There was no snow. The top of Grands Montets was initially open then it closed. Yet the Mt Blanc tunnel is a mixed blessing , on the one hand it is a conduit for polluting trucks but on the other hand it allowed me to ski in Italy where conditions were just fine. Just before New Year Stephen Yeates and his nephew Chris plus Steve Trantrum joined me for an ascent of Punte Crocce which over looks La Thuile. The only issue was that it wasn't just us who decided to ski in Italy and the queue for the tunnel was horrendous. Our strategy was to go early on New Years Day and head through the tunnel and down to the resort of Pila. This proved to be an excellent plan until Steve managed to fall and bury a ski,which we never found. This was some achievement considering it hadn't snowed for two months. We managed to get Steve back to the piste and then to the bottom of a chair where the Lift Man called for a skidoo pick up.