Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Off Piste Adventures week

This week I am skiing with a group from the Eagles Ski Club. Based in Bozel we are travelling wherever the snow might be good, and where we can get away from the crowds.

For the first 2 days we have been exploring the hidden sides of the 3 Valleys, finding good chalky snow on high North facing slopes:

Good spring snow with a light dusting on South facing slopes:

And some 'interesting' crust too!:

Yesterday we made our way right across the Caron/Brequin ridge to the summit of the Mont Brequin. Phil, Susi, Dan & Rob on the summit:

The West facing slopes from here down to the Col de la Vallee Etroite gave some great skiing, with soft snow on a firm base:

Hard to believe it hasn't really snowed for 2 weeks (barring last Thursday's dusting):

More soft turns!:

The rest of the run down to the Lac du Lou was more challenging, but worth the effort for the god turns up high...

Today we headed for St Foy, and the magical North Face of the Fogliettaz did not dissapoint, and delivered the goods yet again!

On the short skin to the Pointe de Fogliettaz, Mt Pourri & Aiguille Rouge behind:

Slightly 'cheeky' entry to the face:

Dan shredding some powder:

Alison picks a tight line:

And opens up the throttle lower down:

2 more days to go, what other adventures can we find?

Friday, 21 January 2011

Off Piste Introduction 2011

A tough week last week for this winter's first Off Piste Introduction week. Wildly varying temperatures, and a mnix of snow & rain in the week preceding the course had left large quantities of crust off the beaten track... At the very least this provided 'educational' snow for everyone to test themselves out on!

As always though there was some good snow to be found, and a trip into Les Avals revealed not only some good spring snow, but some soft powder very low down (inbetween quite a bit of crust!). Peter, Andy & Sarah enjoy the view:

Lesley nearing the Merlet shoulder, great views behind:

Lunch with a view above St Martin. Some firmer 'spring' snow on this side:

A trip from Olympic down to St Martin gave some reasonable skiing on firm refrozen spring snow, a bit rattley, but better than crust!:

Finally a flurry of snow on the Thursday afternoon turned into the jackpot of the week, with a descent from la Masse into Les Encombres on 10-15cm of good powder on a reasonable base!

Peter testing out his Flyswatters:

Andy shreds the soft stuff:

More powder anyone?:

Plenty of space for fresh tracks when you are first in:

800m of good powder to the valley bottom:

On the way out to Chatelard, for a great lunch at the Auberge Chantacoucou:

Well done to all the team for coping with the challenging conditions! Great to see everyone's skiing coming on throught the week... here's to next year!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Early season steeps

With a couple of days off remaining before a big stint of work, and word on the street of good conditions on the Argentiere North faces, Ross & I caught first lifts at the Grands Montets yesterday and headed off up the Argentiere basin:

With a fair bit of snowfall in the last week all the faces were looking very white, with the Courtes & Col des Courtes both looking as snowy as they ever get! Not wanting to tempt fate (& snow stability) on properly steep slopes we headed for the Col des Cristaux, a 5.1 rated descent with 400m at 45º:

With so much snow the boot-pack up the face was always going to be hard work, even with our 'secret weapons' the going was tough:

We finally ground to a halt about 100m below the ridge - the top layers of snow were denser and more slabby, and the general feeling was that the nearer to the ridge we got the more risk there would be (lots of South wind a few days back).
Contemplating the scenery:

First turns - feeling the snow...:

Good 'semi-heavy' powder, great to ski, with not too much sluff to worry about:

Ross wishing he had his Kuros:

Ross lower on the face:

Perfect early season training:

A few more turns before the bergschrund:

Setting off on the long slide back down the glacier:

End of playtime now... Saturday evening sees the start of the first of this winter's Off Piste Introduction courses. There are still spaces left on some courses later this winter - check out the offpisteskiing website for details.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Magic Tunnel (part 2)

After a sociable evening drowning my sorrows over Tuesday's ski incident plans were made for another foray through the tunnel on Wednesday, for some powder action in Courmayeur. Ross kindly sorted me out with some Sanouks (a classic 'early' fat ski, complete with swallowtail), and Jonny & fellow ex-Fort Williamite Rob Jarvis completed the all-star line-up.

The snow in Courmayeur didn't dissapoint - a 10cm fall overnight had filled in alot of the previous tracks, and we found ourselves once again skiing up to 50cm of beautiful fresh powder.

Ross charging into the Dolonne:

Rob enjoying some deep powder:

Ross at Mach 3 on his Kuros:

"Ground control to Major Tom" - Ross goes airborne:

Happy days, back in the bubble for another lap:

5 hours of non-stop powder hunting followed before we collapsed back into the car with aching limbs...

The Magic Tunnel

With a bit of time off this week, I made tracks for Chamonix to catch up with some friends, ski some good powder and try out my brand new Salomon Shogun skis. With a recent series of Southerly weather systems the South side of the Mont Blanc range was definitely the place to be, so on Tuesday we headed through the ("Magic") Mont Blanc Tunnel to the Punta Hellbronner cable car.

Possibly one of my top 3 'lift systems' in the Alps, the 3 stages of the cable car gradually get smaller and more rustic, with the last being a 6-man sardine can...

Looking down the Aosta valley from the top of Stage 2:

The top cable car at Punta Hellbronner:

I was playing catch-up with Ross & Jonny, having left Bozel early in the morning, and they had already had a warm-up run on the Toula. Ross was keen for the Passerelle couloir, which starts imediately on the left as you exit the lift station, and had only had 2 skiers down it that morning (any more than this & it gets too scraped-off to be any fun to ski...).

First turns of the day on brand new skis down a 45º couloir? Why not!
Ross in the top of the Passerelle:

And halfway down:

Looking back up the couloir:

I got used to this view... having skied the couloir proper, I started to open the throttle on the slopes below, and my right ski pre-released on a small bobble of firmer snow. With steep slopes and soft powder there was nothing for the brakes to get purchase on , and the ski was last seen heading towards Courmayeur at 50 miles an hour...
After an hour of fruitless searching I gave the ski up as lost, and battled on down on 1 ski to the Pavillion through 50cm of powder (you definitely get more impression of depth with only 1 ski on!). A few coffees and a panini helped soften the psychological (and financial) blow, and the news later that day of 4 people killed in an avalanche in Val D'Isere helped put everything into context... the day could have been a whole lot worse.

On a side-note, apparently the Hellbronner cable car is being replaced next summer, by a 2 stage system which will leave from Val Veny (near the cable car into the Courmayeur lift system). End of an era for the sardine cans, and also (possibly) for the cafe opposite the current bottom station, which must take a huge amount of passing trade from skiers/climbers/sightseers heading up the cable car.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Hidden couloirs

I met up with Al Hutchison today for a ski in the 3 Valleys. The original plan was to head high to get above the 'rain zone' of 2 days ago, but with clouds above 3000m and a worsening forecast we postponed our objectives on the Aiguille de Peclet and stuck closer to home.
Having met at the top of Burgin Saulire it seemed quite obvious to head up the ladders to ski the Couloir de L'Echelle, dropping onto the Meribel side of the ridge. Funnily enough the last time i skied this line was with Al about 6 years ago!

Looking up from Meribel - Couloir de L'Echelle (or 'Death Couloir' as it is sometimes known) on the right, Couloir de l'Antenne on the left.

Despite relatively thin snow cover and a scratchy first few metres, the skiing was actually quite good, with some pockets of soft snow on a firm base.
Al jumping them round in the narrow upper couloir:

Opening up the curves slightly in the lower couloir, snow a bit variable down here:

We then headed for the Mont Vallon, where the gazex couloirs gave a couple of good runs on varying snow - again some nice patches of smooth chalky snow, and the odd pocket off soft powder.
After a lunch stop to catch up with some friends i found myself back at the top of the Saulire and needing to get back to Meribel, so the Couloir de l'Antenne was next on the list. A bit of "ski-rock climbing" for the first 10 metres gave way to some more good chalky snow lower down.

Conditions on the whole are quite spring-like at the moment due to the very warm temperatures. Skiing down into Meribel was more reminiscent of April than January! Meteofrance are calling for 10cm of snow tonight down to 1000m or so, so here's hoping!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Into the wild

Mont Brequin to Orelle - the Integrale (almost).

I was stood up by clients in Val Thorens today, and with good visibility holding out felt in the mood for some adventure.
The Mont Brequin was beckoning and from the Cime de Caron it looked like the whole of the far side of the Combe Sans Nom was still untracked:

A mix of traversing, sidestepping & hiking takes you along the ridge to the Pas de la Masse. Passing the Pierre Fendue:

At the Pas de la Masse I decided against going right to the top of the Brequin as the 45/50º couloir was looking a bit thin - alright to climb but not great for skiing:

A traverse just below the summit took me onto the wide open slopes of the Combe Sans Nom, not a track to be seen over this side, any previous skiers having taken the first entry at the very start of the ridge + the short exit at Plan Bouchet. Slightly wind affected snow, but great powder nonetheless:

And some more powder:

Lower down the snow was a bit more variable, but a long traverse into the Combe Noire gave yet more powder turns:

And then some more:

Heading towards Notre Dame des Anges the snow was thinner, but still just as soft:

Decision time - cut out here & skin back to Plan Bouchet, or head ever downward to see if the snow would hold out all the way to Orelle. With no-one else in tow to complain if things went a bit pear-shaped there was only one obvious option - downwards!

Approaching the Traverse of Doom, with the critical footbridge below (miss this & you get wet feet!):

The Traverse of Doom - I had to admit defeat just round the corner and take the skis off for 10 yards as the snow had melted & the path was only 3 feet wide):

Traverse of Doom from below:

Huge surface hoar flakes in the valley bottom:

A scratchy ski down a path gave way to a very snowy road down to Bonvillard:


Below Bonvillard the skis came off for 5 minutes bushwacking through some trees & scrub, before the road emerged again at La Fusine, with its typical Mauriennais stone-built houses:

Below La Fusine the skis went back on for some careful turns down to Francoz, where the bottom of the lift finally came into view:

An epic descent!! 2200m of vertical, with powder turns all the way down to the bottom of the lift (with some interesting conditions in the middle, admittedly). After a drink in the café it was time to head back up the lifts for some more powder-hunting. Looking back across at the Mt Brequin complete with one solitary ski track - I wonder who that could have been!

The afternoon was filled up skiing lines off the Cime de Caron, amazingly, despite being in full view of the lift, there were still swathes of powder to be found in the Caron couloirs... Happy Days!