Thursday, January 02, 2020

Skiing conditions are fantastic for the end of the year.

Florence gets good conditions on Les Grands Montets

It lashed it down for what seemed like weeks, then it snowed and everyone was happy.  Then along came the Foehn wind in its most aggressive and form.  It ripped up trees around Chamonix and even blew over the newly erected Christmas tree in the centre of town.  The temperatures were weirdly high.  I passed through Grenoble on my way back from Alp d'Huez and the car thermometer read a crazy 20c.  The meter of snow which had fallen in the garden had entirely gone.  Meteo France described it as "remarkable."  It might have been remarkable but it was also depressing.

The ski school and  the Chamonix resort were in full panic mode as Christmas and particularly New Year approached.  The ESF in Chamonix seemingly lost the plot and , sent out an order to all their ski instructors to head down to Les Plannards beginners area and help trample and pack down  what little snow they had so that they could stand a slim chance of having a patch of snow to work on.  The reason for doing this by foot and not by piste-basher was because there wasn't enough snow for it to move on without churning all the snow into mud.
Perfect Christmas Day conditions.

Yet at the 11 hour it snowed .  All was saved.  We got some brilliant off-piste skiing in Courmayeur and then the next day in heavy snow we enjoyed some even better off piste skiing in St Gervais.  Then the high pressure came along cloudless days freezing nights and perfect conditions in the Chamonix Valley and around.

Over 2 meters of snow on the roof in Courmayeur.
St Gervais powder skiing.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Dreaded Eurotest.

Andrea complete with race suit. Photo professionally taken as she travels in excess of 80kph.

In mid December I was in Alps d'Huez where a big dump of snow had made for some very good conditions both on and off the Piste.  I was there to support my eldest daughter  Andrea ,through the dreaded Euro-Test.  This is the the race that everyone must pass if they want to become a fully qualified ski instructor working in Europe.

The Eurotest is a timed Giant-Slalom race that compares competitors against the best skiers in the world. Men are required to come in within 18% of their time and women 24%.

The race organisers appoint representatives called “openers” to set the time at each race. Each of these openers must have scored sub 50 FIS points and are selected from various countries.

Each opener is calibrated and given a coefficient, this is then used to compare them to the world’s best.

For example Andrea made her first attempt to pass it exactly a year ago. She has been skiing and racing since the age of four.  Last year  she came straight from    Val Thorens where she had just won the oldest ski race in the world the Varsity, but still missed the required pass time for the Euro-Test.

This year she decided to not ski for Cambridge University, but instead sign up for a weeks dedicated race training and preparation on the same slope which she would have to do the timed race.  She worked very hard all week, through some horrible weather and viscous winds.

I was concerned that the weather was going to be against her and the race might be cancelled.  The other thing that is completely out side the skiers control is the start number you are given.  A high start number will give you the best chance on the first run, but if you don't get the time on the first run then on the second run the order is reversed and you will end up racing down a rutted course which will make it much much more difficult.  The worst scenario is a middle order start number.

The night before the race, Andrea prepared all her equipment.  She had brought two pairs of identical skis with her.  One pair to train on and one specially prepared by her coach Elly for the race and were untouched.  The edges were frighteningly sharp.  I thought you could cut your self badly just by looking at them.

The alarm went  off at 6.30am.  Andrea ate her breakfast slowly knowing that although she was very nervous it was key to fuel up.  Next there was the fight to get into her her race Cat Suit.  She then left for the morning meeting where she had to register and get her Bib with her start number. She said you could smell the fear and cut the atmosphere with a knife.  So much resting on this race for so many budding careers.  Many people from everywhere , some who had been trying for years.

I stayed in the flat to clear up and wrestle all her equipment out of flat and into the car.  It never ceases to amaze me exactly how much equipment ski racers need.

Andrea texted me with her Bib number:  It was 4.  A great number but it meant she had to go for it on her 1st run.

The weather was good.  far better than had been predicted .

By the time I arrived at the bottom of the race Andrea had run the course and her time had been written on a big white-board.

The time looked good , but until there had been a lot of people down the course it was impossible to tell and adding to the stress, the pass time had not yet been calculated.

We hung around and as more people finished it was becoming clear that Andrea's time was good.

Eventually the pass time was announced .  Not only had Andrea had got the time , she was the fastest women down the course.

If you pass the first race , under the rules you don't have to  run the second race.  It was just a question of waiting for Andrea's friend Emie to run the second race as she had not managed on the first.  Fortunately Emie got the time on her second run, which was a relief not least because it would have been difficult driving them back to Chamonix with one having passed and one having failed.

Emie & Andrea with their prized certificates.

So it is now on to the next stage of the Ski Instructor programme, where they will learn about off piste skiing , navigation and avalanche awareness.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Rock Climbing Masterclass

In the weekend that spans the start of December and with snow on the ground in Chamonix I joined  a group of my colleagues from the British Mountain Guides in Finale Liguria for a Steve McClure Master Class.
Steve McClure is considered one of the top rock climbers in the world having climbed  sport routes of 9b.  Plus traditional graded British climbs of E11.  Equally important he has gained a reputation as a renowned climbing coach.

Yet I was more than slightly sceptical that as a confirmed Alpinist straight from the school of anything goes as long as it's up I might be out of my depth.

The mover and shaker and general all round motivator for the trip , Mike Turner [Twid] said I would be just fine, and would learn a lot and it would improve my climbing technique and make me better able to coach climbing movement at all levels of ability.

Four of us drove down to Finale on the Friday evening and as we got closer we started  getting very excited about the beer and pizza's we would soon be enjoying.  This was not without factoring in the collapse of the autostrada this time  just out side Savona.  We arrived three hours later than planned.

Friday night in the piazza.  about 30c below summer temperatures.

The next morning all 14 of us convened for an introductory talk from Steve  where he was keen to state that unfortunately there would be no "Silver Bullet" in terms of a short cut to higher climbing grades.  I was disappointed to learn this so early on.  Anyway we then all headed out to one of the many local crags Finale has to offer.
Steve Mcclure
The aim of the day was to watch us all climb and then to give feed back individually.  While this , for me, was quite intimidating it was also illuminating.  The key things for me was I climbed too quickly and appeared rushed- The aim should be to slow all the movements down, try and be  a lot smoother and enjoy the movement of climbing.

Cathy Murphy climbs into the sunshine.
We climbed to about 5.00pm forgetting that in November it gets dark at around 4.30pm.

On the Sunday the weather was not Mediterranean.  It was lashing it down.  So we had to do what you would do in the UK - head for the climbing wall.

In fact as it turned out this was the ideal place for Steve to deliver his seminar and drill down on a lot of the coaching techniques.

In the morning Steve devised several different boulder problems.  This was probably the most eye opening part of the whole programme.  The group of Mountain Guides had some very talented climbers, climbers who operate at the cutting edge of the sport.  Even the best could not do all the problems.  Steve could do all the problems in his training shoes...

The afternoon was dedicated to profiling and isolating our strengths and weaknesses in an objective quantifiable set of tests.

These started from simple  things like press ups, then tests for finger strength with on arm weighted hangs

Tests for shoulder strength

Tests for maximum endurance
Leg strength and flexibility
Plus a load of other tests such as weighted pull ups.  ie what is the maximum amount of weight you can carry while  completing  a pull-up?

This information was then used in a feed back form that identified if you want to improve your grade to say 7a then you need to work on XYZ.

So for me the tests revealed that although I was quite strong, in the sense I could carry bags of coal, I was comparatively "climbing weak" and I would have to work on climbing specific strength training starting with my finger strength. Plus a list of other stuff which was rather too long.

It was a fascinating couple of days . More information about Steve McClure coaching can be found on his website.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Chestnuts Anyone?

Aiguille Dru .
This year the British Mountain Guides held their Annual General Meeting in Chamonix.  My good friend Alan Kimber, Britains longest serving active Guide attended too.  It was an opportunity to catch up and potentially enjoy a couple of days climbing together.

Alan was keen to go high in to the mountains, or find some valley based Ice Fall climbing.  Non of these options were available .  In November all the lifts and infrastructure is closed.  Neither was there any ice to climb.  We were sort of caught in the situation where it wasn't cold enough for ice climbs to form but it was too cold to rock climb but we thought we would give it a go anyway.
Alan Kimber on Tommy 6a+ Val d"Aosta

So we headed down the Aosta valley to climb the famous 15 pitch route Tommy.  Unsurprisingly we had the place to ourselves.  Getting to the foot of the route was difficult because the path had been covered by waist deep chestnut tree leaves which we had obliterated any clues to where the path might be.

Where ever there are chestnut trees  there are chestnuts and these acted like marbles under our feet.  The irony of a  potential  stupid accident involving two Mountain Guides was not lost on us.  The climb its self was fantastic. Granite slab climbing, nicely sustained [apart from the overhanging bit in the middle.] .

All was good a part from the black clouds that came rolling in.   In the summer they could be the sign of an impending rain storm.  In November they brought snow.  Not huge amounts , but still ...

We decided to bail. Several rappels put us back in the waist deep leaves.  As we slid and stumbled down the slopes we decided to "harvest" the chestnuts by stuffing them into our pockets,  After all the Christmas Markets charge an absolute fortune for them.  Back home in Chamonix we emptied our pockets in to a big bucket.

Jane , my wife had a brilliant simple recipe for them :

  • Cut the top and cross the bottoms of the Chestnuts.  Then put them in boiling water for about two minutes.  Then take them out and peel them.

  • Boil sprouts 

  • Fry bacon bits .

  • Then add the chestnuts and sprouts to the bacon and toss in the pan to let the flavours mix.

All washed down with a few bottles of rouge.

Bon Appetit .

Sunday, October 20, 2019

October? Is it the new August?

The Aiguille Dru .
Fabulous October weather coincided with Reuben and Antony arriving in Chamonix.  Antony reminded me he actually hadn't been rock climbing for 12 years and so we warmed up by climbing the Voie Princess above Les Bois.
On our second day we drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel, zoomed up the always impressive Sky Way cable car, enjoyed the obligatory cappuccino and climbed the Aiguille Marbre.

East ridge .
Father & Son on the summit of Aiguille Marbre
 On our third day we rock climbed at Les Cheserys .  Possibly the best mid altitude crag in the Chamonix Valley. Certainly it ticks all the boxes as  a wonderful destination in October. 
We climbed the mellow Voie Jaune.  This was all the time Antony could afford and he flew home in the evening.

On our fourth day, Reuben and I decided to return again to Les Cheserys because it had been so good, fabulous views amazing position and warm autumn sunshine which allowed us to climb the immaculate route the L'EMHM.

The view towards the former Le Tour and Argentiere  glaciers from Les Cheserys.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Rocky The Avalanche Dog.

Back in 1983  I was one of  the first people to be employed on the  “Night-Watchman” scheme at The Scottish National  Outdoor Training Centre- Glemore Lodge. 

Essentially the job was an opportunity to gain qualifications to become an outdoor instructor.  Over the last 35 years the scheme has evolved and been the launch pad for several other  British Mountain Guides.  The scheme has developed since then and it's now called the Instructor Development Scheme.

Nevertheless back then the job was quite basic. I was paid £10.00 per week, plus my board and lodging. In return for locking the Center up at night and being on call in the event of a center emergency, I could join most of the courses.  I was also expected to work two days a week with the maintenance team.  In effect I was at the bottom of the pecking order and given the worst jobs and was generally treated like Black Adder’s Baldrick.

One day in January there was to be a demonstration of how quickly dogs find people buried in avalanches. I was volunteered to be the victim. I was to be buried in the snow in a coffin like cave.  The dog would be set off and would come and find me.  [It is worth noting that still the fastest way, bar non, of being found quickly in an avalanche is with a trained dog.]

In essence it was all quite simple, apart from one major issue which was Rocky the giant Search and Rescue Alsatian.  Seemingly everyone at Glemore Lodge knew about Rocky except me.  The thing was Rocky had two jobs .  His principle job was breaking up fights in the "pint and a fight" bars of Aviemore.  In the 1980’s there were more fights than avalanches. Rocky was exceptionally good at his job. Equally scary was Rocky’s  handler Sergeant Jimmy Simpson a formidable Highland Constable.

As the day for the search demonstration approached people who already knew Rocky and Sergeant Simpson took delight in winding me up. Yes Rocky would find you but he might equally rip you to shreds.
As far as my preparation was concerned I had borrowed a giant green industrial chemical rubber suit  to protect my self from being savaged.  I had last used it when it had been my  my job to swim around the Glenmore Lodge’s septic tank sporadically performing duck-dives in a reckless  attempt to unblock it.  

The day arrived . Just before I headed out of the door, Marilyn [who worked in the kitchens] pressed a bag into my hand. “Sausages” she said with a knowing wink. It distinctly  felt like I was being led off for an imaginative North Korean Style execution.  We drove  up to the Cairngorm Ski area car park.  Not far away, Scotland's foremost expert on avalanches, Blyth Wright, had prepared a roughly 100m2 area to look like the aftermath of an avalanche.  My coffin had been dug just to  the middle of the area.

Sergeant Simpson duly turned up in his blue Ford Escort police van.  On the sides of the van were stenciled "Highland  Police Dog Unit."  The van throbbed and  rocked  as something very boisterous  bounced off the walls.  When Sergeant Simpson let Rocky out my worst fears were confirmed .  He was without doubt the most frightening thing I had ever seen.  Rocky immediately jumped up and put his paws on Sergeant  Simpson shoulders and gave him a big kiss.  They clearly loved each other.

I took the sausages and shoved them up the sleeve of my green suit. I was then led off to be buried. My cave was closed in and I was wished good luck by my sniggering “Mates.”

Silence.  I just lay there clutching  the sausages in my hand. Suddenly there was this big monster panting and spraying spittle in my face.  It did not appear to want to kiss me.  I rammed the sausages into its mouth and during the momentary distraction I made my escape.

I was quite pleased with myself. I had gotten  away without being eaten by Rocky. Sergeant Simpson on the other hand was not pleased with me, not pleased one bit.   Although wrapped up with lots of expletives the general gist of what he had to say  was that if I ever fed his dog sausages again , he would turn me into dog food.  [Reasonably the dog should not expect to receive rewards like that when he rescued real victims.]

It was several weeks later that I learnt that there was to be another dog avalanche search demonstration for a bunch of dignitaries.  Rocky was again to be the star and he was to try and find the same victim.  My argument was that it was not realistic for the dog to find the same victim [because the chances of the same dog finding  the same avalanche victim in a completely different avalanche  were remote] fell on deaf ears.

This time sergeant Simpson got out of his police van, took one look at me and said “ Just remember wee laddie…You will be “Pedigree Chum” if you play the same trick again.”

Having suspected as much, not only did I have my big green  chemical suit but I was also wearing 1980”s  Koflach indestructible plastic climbing boots with Berghaus red and blue Yeti Gaiters.  To top the outfit off I wore a full face motor bike helmet  complete with visor.

Everything pretty much went as before , until the point that Rocky found me .  This time he uncovered my boot first .  Maybe he was disappointed to not find sausages but he sank his teeth into my foot and then proceeded to pull me out of my cave and drag me down the hill side like a rag doll.  To my mind it took rather longer than necessary for the command  “Leave” and for Rocky to return to his Handler.


Rocky and "Jimmy the dog Simpson" were famous throughout the Highlands . Not long after my dealings with Rocky there was the incredible story of Jimmy and Rocky out on a rescue when Rocky was blown over the Cornice on Corrie An’t Sneachda in the Cairngorms. He was blown off the plateau on the search for  two missing climbers. Rocky was located next day by Jimmy after a terrible night on the hill, outwardly unharmed but covered in ice. However Rocky had been traumatized and he never worked as an attack dog again and by all accounts became quite docile and never again ate anyone he saved.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Autumnal ascent of Italy's highest mountain the Grand Paradiso.4061 meters.

Always a trick question but the highest mountain entirely in Italy is the Grand Pardiso.  Just like the Aiguille Verte is the highest mountain in France .  Both Mt Blanc and the Dufourspitz share their boarders with other countries.

Anyway the goal was to try and climb the Grande Paradiso in the Autum.  Meaning after the refugio had closed for the season...

The trip was organised by Rob Jarvis a fellow BMG Guide who runs a Company called High Mountain Guides.  We had six very enthusiastic clients with us. Malene from Norway,Isabella from Poland, Rodrigo from Spain, Nick from Yorkshire and Ryan and Alan from England.

In order to give them some acclimatisation and some training we spent the night in the Refugio Torino, [which was still open.]

On our first day we went on a glacier hike to the col d'Entreves.

La Vallee Blanche
On the second morning it was very cold and windy, but we found a protected scoop in where we could run a detailed session on crampon technique,  which would latter  prove to be of the upmost importance.

It was then down the Sky-Way cable car from where we drove around to the road-head for the Grand Paradiso , but not before stopping for a spot of lunch.

We all walked up to the Refugio Chabod or rather the winter refugio.  We were the only guests.
 The view from the door was exceptional straight on to the north face of the Grand Paradiso

Dinner was a simple affair of dehydrated something or other.  Not actually sure what mine was. Still the candles made it all very atmospheric.
Candlelight Dinner
Chamonix Crevasse rescue training
Big holes as dawn breaks
Breakfast was at around 4.30hrs and we were away by about 5.30hrs.  At this time of year there is a lot more walking in the dark.  When it did eventually become light we found ourselves in quite a situation as we had ascended up through some complicated glaciers.
Above these big holes the glacier mellows out a bit to where the route  joins the route coming up fron the Vittorio Emanelle Refugio.  Here we stopped to put on some more clothes before the route steepens up considerably.  In the conditions we found the slope it was hard water ice in the track.  Higher up the ladders across the bergschund had been somewhat un helpfully removed the day before by the local Guides.  Instead  the previous days new ice climbing skills had to be employed in order to get on to the final rocky summit ridge.

The Madonna awaits on the summit

Then the long return in the beautiful autumn afternoon.

Nick Chambers makes his way down to the Refugio Chabod