Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Excess Boys 2018

Each year they come back and there is always the discussion of how long we have actually been skiing together. It seems that the core group have been back for 27 years which is a scarily long time. Mind you there are always new recruits to the group. This year the Excess Boys turned up with another candidate. A rather secretive chap who never revealed his real name. He clearly had had an interesting life. I learned that he had been the body double for Pierce Brosnan in the iconic bungee jump off the Emosson Dam in the James Bond film "Golden Eye," [not the actual jump but the Computer Generated Images, because he was the same height as Pierce.] Currently employed by the London Metropolitan Police he had recently been moved to a desk job in preparation for his imminent retirement from the Elite Police Sniper Team. This, I was told, is part of the dedicated hostage & siege unit which deals with Kidnappings and hostage taking. I learnt that the team deal with over 300 incidents a year and have the availability of six helicopters to rush them about London. It is truly quite remarkable the different people I meet through my job as a Mountain Guide. Off course the rest of the group was made up of more ordinary individuals , Chris, James, Adam, Kevin , Steve and Pete. We headed up to Le Tour , where the skiing was very good.
I also judged it was important to give everyone a recap on the use of avalanche transceivers, because even ex members of the Royal Marine Commandos sometimes need a recap. We manged to find a beautiful place to practice searching for buried transceivers. We even had the back drop of the famous Dam which you can just see in the background.
Such was the snow depth this season , we were able to ski in areas we had never previously visited and we got into some spectacular situations.
All in all the scene was very special
On the Sunday we all met at Les Grande Montets cable car station . I say all, yet we were a man down . Our James Bond extra, Police Sniper , ex mountain warfare Commando felt that the proposed days itinerary skiing amongst the seracs and crevasses of the Argentiere glacier was all a bit ordinary. Instead he decided he would be better off honing his telemark skiing technique on his own. The rest of the group may not have his killer instincts but they are as tough as nails; Faced with a queue for the top cable car at Les Grands Montets they elected to skin up instead of waiting in line with the rest of the world. This is either crazy or wonderful depending on your point of view. Their effort was rewarded because the snow conditions were such that we were able to make a high traverse through the seracs on the glacier des Rognons. If there is a more spectacular place to ski , then I haven't seen it.
The run then finishes with a ski under the North Face of Les Doites before skiing down onto the Argentiere glacier.
We then had a bit of a fail. I suggested we skin up the glacier to where there was a sunny spot for a picnic lunch. The only issue was the sun kept moving faster than we could skin. Eventually we just gave up and eat our lunch on the sunless glacier. But it was probably a small price to pay for an excellent day out.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Skiing in the Dolomites

Possibly the last time there was such a massive avalanche risk , the internet didn't really exist. Therefore I had never seen a forecast like the one in the above picture. The northern alps were pretty much in total avalanche lock down , schools were closed. At the top of the Chamonix valley people were blocked in their houses in Montroc and Le tour for several days. Fortunately I had a long term commitment in the Dolomites which happily coincided with this chaos. Instead I headed off to the Dolomites with Francis Bridgeman. The plan was to meet up with Francis extended family. Down there it was the complete polar-opposite to the northern alps. The Dolomites had loads of cold fresh snow. At night the temperature was -15c. By contrast the temperature in Chamonix was +5c. We were staying Val Gardena in an apartment opposite the World Cup Down Hill in the village of St Christina. On our first day we decided to start by doing the famous Sella Ronda tour which seemed like a good way off sussing where the best skiing might be. This wasn't great , because the weather was very windy and the visibility wasn't great. Further still the Sella Ronda tour was packed. Nevertheless we did find some areas which had fantastic tree skiing with huge potential for the following days. Basically the conclusion I came to was that the skiing is good as long as you stay away from the Sella Ronda circus. At the beginning of the week we skied from the resort of Plan de Gralba. This is truly when we realized we had hit the off piste skiing jack pot. The first clue was when people kept on stopping us and asking us why are skis were so different? No one skis off-piste. There are just acres and acres of un tracked snow in plain sight.
Plus the general scenery makes it a worthy recipient of UNESCO world heritage status.
Later in the week we decided to explore further a field and headed over to the Cinque Torri area above Cortina. This is an area I had climbed at a lot but never skied.
As we arrived we were disappointed to see that the area had suffered a hammering by the wind. But after a bit of scouting we found some breath taking good descents.
When we returned to the car park we then saw how the Italian Tax Man works . He drives into the car park and looks around for the Lamborghini's, Maserati's etc . Traces the number plates to the owners. Then he waits by the car to ask the driver how he can afford a quarter of a million euro car when he has an annual income of around 30,000 euros? If the answers in not satisfactory the Tax Man impounds the car.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A night in the Grand St Bernard Monastery

I left Chamonix at 9.00am with the intention of meeting Laura and Marco on the road to Gd St Bernard at about 10.00am. I drove up to the Swiss/French boarder at Chatelard and the conversation with the Garde-Frontier Officer went something like this:
Officer - "Where are you going?"
Me - "Gd St Bernard Monastery."
Officer- "The col is closed."
Me - "I know , Im going to go on skis"
Officer - "The col is closed"
Me - " I know, Im a Mountain Guide and I am going to go on skis"
Officer - "The col is closed."
The conclusion, I was rapidly coming to, was that I was speaking to a fucking idiot. Then the Officer smirked and decided to be a little less monosyllabic and said the Col du Forclaz was closed by a massive rock fall , which had just happened at 6.00am. [This is the final col on the road between Chamonix and Martigny.]
There was no practical way by road, so I dumped the car and took the train to Martigny which I would concede is more ecological but I am going to need incentivizing a little more than paying 40chf for the train. Basically 1chf/minute. Still needs must. Marco and Laura picked me up at Martigny station and we drove to the road head at the now defunct Super St Bernard Ski station. We stuck our skins on and headed up the track. The weather was beautiful , but like so often in this area it was windy and cold. We stopped for a picnic lunch in one of the emergency shelters.
After our picnic the temperature had dropped further and I was struggling to keep warm despite skinning up hill. Yet when we arrived at Monastery and went slightly over the col there was suddenly no wind and beautiful snow.
We headed off above the Monastery so that we might get the chance to ski the great snow.
The snow did not disappoint.
We enjoyed a very relaxed evening consuming some of the local Pinot Noir. The next day we headed out and skied across the border and into Italy. Our goal for the day was to climb Mt Fouchon. The conditions were good ,
bordering on excellent. We made the summit in about two and half hours. We then skied back more or less the same way. The snow was very good and the quality of the skiing was as good as I have had in this area. We passed the Monastery and then skied back to the car where Marco and Laura stuck me back on the train to France.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Skiing Conditions were perfect then along came the dreaded Foehn wind

Towards the end of 2016 the skiing conditions low down in the classic resorts of Megeve were perfect. On 29th December , as they have done for the 10 years Stephen Yeates and Steve Trantum joined me. It was wonderfully cold and crisp -15c. The snow was light and fluffy and it hadn't been destroyed by the wind , [which was the case in the higher resorts.] We skied in St Gervais.
Then the weather changed. Overnight there was a 20c increase. The temperature shot up and it rained. Once the rain stopped the clouds parted and it froze hard. This had the effect of creating a crust. A crust which was akin to skiing through broken paving slabs. In places it was horrendous because it was impossible to stay on the surface and you would break through and the crust would then cut into your shins. Despite this we did manage to climb to the top of le Petit Croisse Baulet high above Combloux where the view didn't disappoint.
Happy New Year 2018. On New Years Eve it snowed and got cold again. On News Years Day I was joined by Peter Whelan, for what turned out to be the "Perfect Storm of conditions. It set us up with fabulous skiing. Firstly not being hung over is good , although not as important as 30 cm of cold snow overnight. New years day is always quiet. Once we were up on the slopes the lift from the bottom broke down effectively meaning we were in our own private ski resort with all the lifts running and 30 cm of powder. The skiing in the comb Lachanel was sublime. The photo might encapsulate the saying "Life is timing?"
The day was so good that I persuaded Peter that he should delay going back to the UK. We skied in Courmayeur in conditions which were only quite good , relative to New Years Day. AND THAT WAS THAT. Next day it rained and rained and rained All the snow was trashed , the foehn kicked in , there was flooding in Chamonix and the roads were grid locked and the avalanche risk shot up to maximum 5. Even walking the dog became a potentially deadly experience
All skiing pretty much stopped , what was open wasn't really worth doing - it was like going through the motions . The Foehn continued to strip all the snow in Chamonix , not unlike last year. The only chance in these conditions is to go through the Mt Blanc tunnel and ski in Courmayeur. Charles Sherwood and I left Chamonix with an air temperature of 10c. Through the tunnel it was 0c. In just 12 km, Plus it was snowing. The skiing was okay , nothing exceptional but a thousand times better than anything in France. Mind you I have often wondered why the track down the Val Veni is not an official piste. The answer awaited us at the end of the day: A massive avalanche blocked the route and took quite a while to negotiate.