Tuesday, January 30, 2024

50th wedding anniversary ski trip

Mt Blanc seen from col du Balme


 In this day and age being married for fifty years is an achievement in its self.  Going off-piste skiing as part of the celebration is possibly unique.

Fiona & Reuben celebrating 50 years of marriage.

Yet over quite a few years Reuben and Fiona have skied on their wedding anniversary with me and they could not see any reason to not continue in the same vein.

On our first day together we skied at Le Tour and combined this with a delicious lunch at the Cafe Comptoir in Vallorcine.  

On our second day we headed round to Les Contamines where despite the recent warm weather the snow cover was impressive- although strange to be skiing wonderful spring snow in late January.

On our third day we skied at Les Grands Montets.  The snow was firm, but because the resort faces north it wasn't icy and we did a lot of skiing before arriving at the "Cremerie"for a late lunch.

They are both an inspiration to anyone who thinks that they should retire from skiing , let alone off-piste skiing.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

End of an Era


 We traveled to Klosters to ski, but also for a "pilgrimage." We were there to say a last goodbye to the last remaining flying Granny who died in June last year. Sue Mills had skied there for over 50 years at first with friends then with her late husband and then when her daughter Jane married a mountain guide, me.

Looking out over Serneus towards the Austrian border.

It was in her 60’s that she had a renaissance and together with a group of likeminded women she formed the  "Flying Grannies."  Possibly the most famous group to ever grace the Klosters slopes.  They aquired their name because they use to do quite a lot of heliskiing in other parts of the alps too. Yet Klosters was thier spiritual home.  Mind you they were never seen on the pistes only off the  pistes.  [Pistes were too icy and there were too many people who might crash into them they said.]


My wife Jane and I drove from Chamonix and  met Bill and Henny at the famous Wynegg Hotel. The only place Sue and the flying Grannies ever stayed.  Sadly it was not possible for Mary, Sue's forth child to make the journey from Hong Kong where she lives.


This is what -Vanity Fair magazine wrote about the Hotel Wynegg:

The hotel was famous for as much for its formidable owner but also its list of famous guests.

Ruth Guler (1930-2015) was a Swiss skier and hotelier who ran the Hotel Wynegg in Klosters, which regularly hosted members of the British Royal Family. Guler was born and raised in Klosters, and inherited the Wynegg from her parents. She learned English at a British language school and found work as an au pair before taking on the management of the hotel after her father's death. 


She was the only female at the local ski school in the early 1950s, during which time she regularly participated in secret upper-class events. Guler also enjoyed watching the racing at Royal Ascot. She was friends with royalty, particularly Charles Ill as the Prince of Wales and Princess Diana who also liked staying at the Wynegg.

Guler was known for her no-nonsense approach to hotel man-agement. The playwright Robert L.Joseph described her as 'diva-like.


She kept the facilities at the Wynegg basic and ensured rigid discipline. Guests arriving with snow on their boots would be reprimanded and told to brush it off outside. On several occasions, she threw drunk guests out into the street, at another time, she refused to give a newlywed couple a double bed, saying *You are not here to sleep; you are here to ski". 


Socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson said Guler ran the hotel like a boarding school, throwing guests out of bed at 8 am and saying "Come on, get up!"

Though royalty stayed at the Wynegg regularly, she treated them no differently from any other guests, saying that "otherwise, they'd tear the place down". 



She loved the British sense of humour and the, particularly its eccentric-ity, and despite her stern demands Ruth was popular with the regular guests including the royals.


 In 2013, due to ill health, Guler retired from managing the Wynegg, leaving the running of it to three locals, a popular choice in Klosters.

She died on 10 February 2015, having never married, and without children.


«The legends of Ruth are legendary. Stavros Niarchos timidly asked for a telephone in his room. "And why would you want to ring anyone up?" In 1958 an article appeared in the Daily Mail headlined "Duke of Kent Stayed at the Cheapest Hotel in Town". So did the King and Queen of Norway, Sir Alec Issigonis (inventor of he Mini) and Tony Snowdon. They were all ticked off just the same, particularly Lord Snowdon, who chucked Peter Saunder's bedding out of the window into a snow drift.»


So naturally this is where we stayed.  Mind you the new owners have made some changes.  Like rewiring the whole place and sympathetically making renovations.  It also now has the best restaurant in Klosters.


Yet the most important reason for being in Klosters is that it has the finest lift accessed skiing of any resort in the alps and possibly the world.  It is consistently , significantly better skiing  than anywhere else I have ever skied.  Partly  because the best off-piste is hard to find without a Mountain Guide who knows the terrain well.




Once again it did not dissapoint.  On our first day the snow was good, but then it snowed overnight and the skiing the next day was sensational.  We opted to ski Sue's favourite run through the widely spaced trees in the Chalbersaas woods on the north facing slopes above Klosters.  We saw no one and enjoyed untracked powder snow.




  Sue would have been delighted that we were able to replicate her perfect skiing.

Jane Bill Henny emerging from the Chalbersass woods



We were also lucky enough to explore the whole area and enjoy wonderful skiing.







Saturday, January 13, 2024

Fresh Tracks Everyday


Annie,Jimmy,Eathen,Mark,David all complete with their "Batons d'Allain"


 When the group have  come all the way from Boulder Colorado to ski with you, the bar of expectation always seems to be set slightly higher.  Its made more so when its the teams third consecutive trip. David and Mark returned, this time with their children.

Blue skies don't generally give good off-piste powder snow, and  its just as well because we had a forecast of fog.  On our first day, Saturday, in an attempt to gain some visibility and ski in the trees, we headed through the Mont  Blanc Tunnel to Courmayeur, where there was no fog, just sunshine and very good snow conditions, the only down side was it was quite busy, it being a Sunday and the tail end of the New Year skiing.  This did not stop us enjoying an excellent lunch at La Chaumiere. 

The off-piste run back to the car was sublime.

On the Sunday the high season crowds were going home . But the fog was still around - so we headed down the valley to tree ski in  Combloux.  The skiing was absolutely fantastic.



Quiet unique and beautiful.

On the Monday the weather was clearer and we skied for the fisrt time in the Chamonix Valley, this time at Les Grands Montets where we had good conditions, no one around and a magical lunch at the Cremerie.

High above the clouds at Les Grands Montets

Tuesday we skied at Le Tour.  Due to the fact the top lift had been closed for several days due to a malfunction, we found our selves with lots of still untracked snow to ski.  When we had used this up we went on a 30 minutes ski tour across the border into Switzerland which opened up further swathes of fresh snow, and gave us fanatstic views up the Rhone valley.
Looking east up the Rhone Valley


The barrage d'Emosson



On our final day Wednesday we returned to Les Grands Montets with the aim of climbing up and over the col du Rachasse so that we could ski down onto the Argentiiere glacier- one of Chamonix's most  iconic ski descents.
Team coming over the col du Rachasse.

All was going fine until we actually got over the col, because as we did the light went flat.  Although you could see the mountains in the distance , it was very difficult to distinguish the immediate ground in front of your skis.  This is quite problematic when your on a glacier dealing with concealed crevasses.

In the end having seen over the course of the previous four days that the team were made up a very good skiers, I decided to give it ago and ski down onto the glacier.  At first the skiing was made even more difficult because there were was a crust.  Yet within about a 100 meters vertical descent the light improved and so did the quality of the snow.  We eneded up with a wonderful descent and an awe inspiring ski down the side of the Argentire glacier, all the way to the Chalet Lognon where we had an excellent late lunch.

Big Seracs on the glacier du Rognan



Mark & David about to thread their way down the side of the Argentire glacier.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

My first ever November ski tour.

 

Gd St Bernard Monastery.


Its not even December yet and the snow is plentiful- above 1800 meters.  A short  weather window materialised and Harvey and I took the opportunity to visit the Gd St Bernard Monastery.

We drove  from Chamonix around to the parking at the now sadly defunct Super Grand St Bernard ski station and left the car at the road head.  I sort of assumed that in late November, we would be alone.  But this was wrong - I reckon there were over 70 cars already parked.

We put the skins on and headed up the snow covered road.  Instead of going directly to the Monastery we headed up a parallel valley, the Combe de Barasson and then up to the Swiss Italian border at the west col.

Despite the beautiful view we didn't hang around because there was a bitter wind.

Harvey at the col with Mt Blanc in the background.

We then skied back down to rejoin the main path at the entry into La Combe des Morts and then headed up to the Monastery. We arrived at about 3.30pm - at this time of year the days are short.



Despite all the cars at the car park, there were actually only 6 people staying the night.  Dinner was excellent and very socialble with interesting conversation.

The next morning dawned bright. I have been lucky enough to visit the Monastery may times over the last 25 years- but I have never seen it look better than this.

Looking out or the Monastery window 8.00am

But it was windy...At first I just assumed it was at the col, but I was wrong.  The wind proved to be quite challanging all day.



Harvey Sturgess on his 1st Alpine peak


We eventually managed to battle our way to the summit of Mt Fourchon where surprisingly  the wind seemed to be a little less strong.  

The ski down was fine.  Not great because the wind had compacted the snow but the snow cover was extraordinary.


Heading back up the road.




Monday, November 13, 2023

A suprising early start to the Skiing season. November 12.

 

La Flegere.


The weather had been shocking. Torrential rain, rivers bursting their banks, mud slides.  But above 1800meters it has snowed.  Not just a sprinkling that barely covers the rocks, but meters and meters of untracked white stuff. Not unsurprisingly the avalanche risk was high.  

These conditions are ideal for refreshing snow-science skills because there is lots to see and learn. Plus there is no better time to review avalanche transceiver protocols for the forth coming season.  Mind you the slight snag was that there was only one lift open- The gondola at La Flegere.  Once you were at the mid station it was a question of using skins because all the chair lifts were not open.

Harvey and I were not alone.  It was a Sunday and the first day in a while that had been half reasonable.


It was crazily busy as we walked up the main piste.  Nevertheless there was so much snow that there was plenty for everyone.  We found a quiet sheltered area and did some avalanche transciever training.  Then we dug a huge snow pit and looked at the different layers and made some asseessments of how stable the snow pack was.



Harvey Stugess 

The ski back down was wonderful and I didnt touch one rock - remarkable for November.




Friday, October 20, 2023

Aiguille du Midi Ridge: Beware it's not always straight forward.

 


The entry into the Vallée Blanche.

Despite having lived in Geneva for the past fifteen years and despite having climbed Mt Blanc with me in 2016, plus numerous ski mountaineering excusions Catherine had never actually set foot in the Vallée Blanche.

Last week that was all about to change as we entered out of the Aiguille du Midi  ice cave and onto the ridge which leads onto the glacier and then the Vallée Blanche.

There is always a wow factor at this point- It is one of the wonders of the world, yet today there was an unexpected frisson of excitement:  No one had been down the ridge since the previous storm and it was knife edge like and corniced.   Fifty meters further all the snow had been scoured by the wind and we were left with smooth boiler plate ice which just laughed at our crampons attempt to grip it.  We really, really had to concentrate and work very hard to avoid a slip which would't have stopped until Chamonix high street.

The arete du Aiguille du Midi

It was a salient reminder that climbing up and down this ridge hundreds and hundreds of times over 40 years, counts for nothing.  But knowing your clients and the clients knowing the Guide does count for something.

Of course it was worth it - we had the whole place to our selves.  We headed over to the Point Lachaneal.  At first the wind-blown snow supported our weight and we could just skip along.  Yet inevitably the snow changed- it no longer supported our weight and each step meant I crashed through the crust past my knee.

Clearly the solitude is marvellous- but having no one-else around to forge a track is the price you pay.

The summit is a great view point.  To the east you can see the Matterhorn. To the south , the Grand Paradiso.  Behind you have the mighty face of Mt Blanc du Tacul. To the north the Aguille du Midi from which we came.

Aguille du Midi

Point Lachaneal.

We returned the way we had come.  Still we saw no one.  It was odd to retrace our steps and still see our earlier foot prints.  Fourtunatley the ridge had no new surprises.  We seemingly delighted some tourists who were waiting for us at the top. We were the only Alpinists that day.  We had a novelty value.  One of them even "air-dropped" a photo of Catherine and me :

Catherine&Me heading over to point Lachanel 

The next day again  we did something else Catherine had never done before we went rock climbing.  At this time of year Les Chéserys above Argentiere is perfect because it is bathed in Autumn sunshine.

We started with the Voie Jaune 4b. A classic climb and the perfect introuduction to multi pitch climbing.


Followed by a multiple rappel


Next we headed over to the famous Aiguillette d'Argentiere 4b 




This climb is the classic of the area.  Not difficult but clearly quite exposed...

If there is a better place to start your rockclimbing - show me it!




Tuesday, September 19, 2023

What to do with an unsettled forecast.

 The rough plan for the week was to spend as much time at altitude as possible  so that Charles would be well acclimatized for his forthcoming trip to the Himalayas.  Yet not for the first time the weather forecast had other ideas.  It was mixed without a period of two consecutive settled days, which makes planning for  climbing big mountains difficult.

We decided that the Gd St Bernard Col would be a good place to go.  Thanks to the recently published guide book- Entremont Escalade there is a wealth of fine rock climbing.  Plus there are good hotels which are at an altitutude of 2400 meters.  Which means that if the weather improved we would have all ready aquired some acclimatisation.

We drove over the col du Gd St Bernard, but road over the pass was closed for some resurfacing work.  We had to drive through the tunnel and approach from the Italain side which added an unwanted 40 minutes.  It started to rain.  Rather bullishly we set off for our climb anyway. The Grande Chenalette. 5b.  It stopped raining and the sun came out.  All was good.  Then the sun went away the dark clouds rolled in and it started to hail.  Hail is better than rain because it just bounces of you without soaking you.  Well upto a point... It wasnˋt much later that it looked like snow.  Fortunately near the top of the ridge we found a cave to see out the worst of the storm. 

Weather looks better than it actually was!
Charles on summit ridge.


We finished the climb on wet rock, but it  wasn't too difficult.  This was followed by a walk off [again in the rain]. Back to the col and then a kilometer drive to Italy where we checked into the delightful Hotel Italia .


The next day it was raining so we escaped it bt driving all the way down to Aosta where we found a dry crag with some excellent single pitch rock climbing near a village called Fenis.  [It has a sign-post that is always having the F changed to a P  by someone who thinks this is hilarious - which it probably was the first time.]

 We spent a good portion of the day there until the rain caught up with us again, so we retreated to the center of Aosta for some cappuccinos, before returning to the Hotel Italia.

On our third day the weather was good.  We climbed the route Zucchero on the east ridge of the Pain de Sucre. 5b. It is the undoubted classic of the area. Never difficult but it’s long. We shared the route with a Swiss Guide and his client plus three female members of the Italian Alpine Military brigade who were climbing the route in full combat gear including leather army boots.

Knife edge summit of Pain du Sucre.


The Pain du Sucre is a fine summit.  2900m.  The descent is a contrast to the line of ascent, because it is a walk off, albeit a tricky one to find the best line and avoid all the loose rocks and scree.  Yet all in all it was just over an hour back to the car park- so pleasantly quick.

Another night at the Col, but this time in Switzerland at the Auberge du Gd StBernard, where we enjoyed an excellent beef fondue.

On our fourth day it was again raining.  We had aquired a lot of solid acclimatisation, but the weather was not allowing us to exploit it.  The road was now open so we headed back towards Bourg St Pierre.  Fingers crossed that lower down the valley  we would find something to climb.  We did!  The Entremont Escalade guide book saved us and we climbed the immaculate route called *Sisyphus heureux TD 6a+ on the Trappiste cliff.  [ We did have to wait a while for it to dry out.]


Charles leading the first pitch.

On our 6th day together, now back in Chamonix again the weather forecast was not looking good.  Okay in the morning but the decidedly indifferent for the afternoon.  

We decided to try the spectacular route called La Piste Oubliee 6b+ on the Brevent.  Our insurance was to climb the route using double ropes in case we needed to escape, if the rain came  faster than forecast.

The route gave five pitches of magnificient steep technical  climbing which had to be read carefully.  The climbing was totally engrossing so much so that I forgot to take any photos of the climb.  

We were lucky with the weather because just as we finished it started to rain again...  But what a route to finish on.

* Le Mythe de Sisyphe par Albert Camus.