Last year, October was a great month for alpinism with steady settled weather right the way through. The Jorasses in particular got a hammering as folk ran up things like the McIntyre Colton.
I was big walling in the States last year so missed all the fun. I was really looking forward to staying at home, saving some carbon and doing some Alpinism, but winter has arrived early! We have 10cm of fresh here at 1140m, so winter has most definitely arrived. The weather lore experts here all predict a cold spell from now on - lots of myrtilles this autumn, the size of the potatoes in Lavancher (seriously!) - whether it's wishful thinking or based on aeons of tradition, we can all start to get excited about the ski season.
......now the rain has gone. I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshinin' day.
Anyone ski touring during the month of April may recognise a certain degree of irony in this blog post header, and anyone apart from the team skiing with me last week in the Silvretta may wonder what a Jimmy Cliff song is doing there. To answer this latter point first, on the 1 good day last week, we were skiing off piste and caught a few tracks of main man Jimmy, playing live next to the piste in Samnaun.
Jimmy clearly has NOT been skiing with me for the last month. The weather for April has been fairly challenging - cloud, snow, rain have been a constant feature. Navigation with altimeter and compass has been an almost daily ritual, and the GPS has made a few appearances too. with all the fresh snow, some fine judgements on the avalanche front have been called for as well. It's almost as if the mountain gods are making us pay for April 2007, when every day was bright blue sky, frozen hard in the morning, spring snow at 11, slush by midday and beers on the terrace in the sun by 1.
April 2008 couldn't have been a greater contrast. It started for me with a traverse from Simplon to St Gotthard, south of the more popular Tour de Soleil, with a strong group from the Eagle Ski Club. Just a few hours into the trip, we were in a cairngorm blizzard on a col which showed nothing special on the map but turned out to steep terrain with chains and ladders, followed by a ski down in zero visibility on horrendous breakable crust, with poles stowed, a compass in one hand and the GPS in the other. That kind of set the tone for the rest of the week: exploring new areas is one of the great delights of guiding, but when you can see nothing but grey, it can pall a bit. One of the days we had to drop right down to 1200m to avoid an avalanche prone col, so had to walk up a road for 400m to the hut, fortunately with a great welcome and one of the best hut meals I've ever had. I think the guardian could see we needed physical and moral support as well as a thorough drying out!
Click here for a photo gallery of this great adventure with a fine team of ski mountaineers.
A tour around the Otztal followed, again the first time in this area for me, and with some very interesting navigation, especially over the col where Ötzi the Ice Man was found. It's no surprise he got lost up there and froze to death. No GPS technolgy in 3300BC to help you out... Once again, the welcome in the huts more than made up for the intermedaite weather and difficult snow conditions. Huts with private rooms, some of the best pasta and tiramisu in existence, free showers....even a sauna! Marvellous.
The second half of April was spent in Silvretta, trying to repeat the success of last years trip, and get up Piz Buin as well. Both teams managed that, but both times in terrible weather, a testament to their determination and fortitude! The first trip started and finshed in the vilage of Scuol to the south of the massif in the Engadine, with a mellow finish from the Tuoi hut. Quite a bit of poor weather but some quality snow which deserved (and got) some quality skiing from the team.
A final week started well with Jimmy, but after the first day, the weather was unremittingly poor - trail breaking in calf to knee deep snow and snowploughing on a compass bearing can lose its charm after a while! Once again, the quality of the team, put together by John Stafford, made the whole experience a great adventure, and climbing Piz Buin in Scottish rime conditions was a great buzz. The gnomes in the Montafon where we finished this 4 week stint were top notch too.
Auf wiedersehen, aund bis dem nächsten Mal in Österreich!
Anyone watching the snow reports over the last week will have seen the Easter bunny bringing a huge dump right across the Alps. I've been getting emails from clients as far afield as St Moritz and Val d'Isere on what a fantastic time they've had.
Yesterday in St Gervais was breathtaking, literally. On several occasions the depth of the powder required snorkels! I was going to go ski there for myself, but a call from Robert and Gillian meant I could go there and enjoy the experience with them, along with Henry and James. The pictures say it all.......
I've just skied for a couple of days with Mark, Brook and Tim from Utah. They flew in from a weeks surfing in Hawaii, with the airline having lost their skis and then had their jet lag exacerbated by drunken guests in their Chamonix hotel. A tough start and not a great intro to the Euro experience for them.
Meeting Mark on day 1 , he revealed that he works for the winter as a heli ski guide for Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing in BC. It got me thinking again about the differences between the European and North American ski experience, given the perennial debate about which is best.
To me, it's not a question of one being better than the other: they're just very different. I ski every year in Breckenridge Colorado at the start of the season in late November. The snow quality is fantastic, even in November: light and consistent. The lifts are well organised (when are the Euro lift companies going to put in singles lines?) and of course the level of service is super high.
In Europe, the big plus factor for me is the vertical interval. I often find North American clients are blown away by both the area and the height differrence in alpine resorts. But above all, the spectacular scenery of skiing in the Alps in general and Chamonix in particular is unparalleled.
On Friday night I got back from one of the best weeks of sking I think I've ever had - 6 days travelling from Verbier to Zermatt on safari with a team from the Ski Club of Great Britain. The Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were the icing on the cake: perfect powder every day, with all the logistical arrangements slotting into place like a well oiled machine (something that is crucual on safaris where we're using taxis, uplift, post buses and even a bit of skinning as well).
And what's more, I even got a few pictures of myself skiing, something that's a rarity, and even then only from above. However, last week we were aided and abetted in our consumption of fun units by Stuart Macdonald, an aspirant guide in his final stages of training before he gets his own badge to polish in just a few weeks.
As you can see, Stuart takes a pretty mean photo himself!
Day 1 with Dave, Ben and James on the Vallée Blanche - this was their 5th attempt, having been foiled by weather and conditions in previous years. This time we finally got there, though not without queuing for Britain. A queue for tickets at 8.30, to get on a cable car at just before midday, then a pleasant ski down via the Gros Rognon with some great powder for a few hundred meters.
Just before arriving at Montenvers, I had noticed a helicopter hovering at the cable car, and my incident antennae started to twitch. Walking up the steps from the ice grotto, I could see a PGHM mountain rescue policeman administering CPR. A heart attack had happened just half an hour before. Unfortunately the victim did not recover...... We later learned that in another incident, a skier had died in a crevasse fall near the Gros Rognon. The glacier really is in a very delicate state just now..
The queues and the fatality definitely put a damper on what should have been a great day.
By contrast the next day was at the other end of the scale - no queues in Vallorcine in the morning, a lovely quiet skin halfway up to the Col des Autannes, some great skiing on grippy carpet back to charamillon, and spring snow down the Combe de la Vormaine, and an afternoon ski down to Trient in Switzerland with no one else around. I was sat on a chair lift listening to two British skiers commenting how small Le Tour is, and that tomorrow they would be off to the Grands Montets. As far as I'm concerned, the more folk are of that opinion, the better. It leaves the great little resorts quieter for the rest of us!
I thought I'd been as wet as I could possibly be in Scotland.... WRONG!
Wednesday in Les Contamines was the wettest I have EVER been on skis. Even the contents of my rucksack weere soaked. Zero visibility above treeline, slush below, snow rain limit at 1900m. SO WHY were we out there at all? A good question......
Alastair Lee of Posing Productions, makers of Psyche, Set in Stone etc., is looking to turn his talents in an alpine winter direction. He needs to move around on snow, but allegedly skis like Frank Spencer. He does, however, snowboard more than adequately, so a split board solution was finally reached after much internet shopping.
3 days of training in Chamonix followed, with the result that if Al can move around in weather and conditions like that, then when the weather is good enough for filming, it should be straightforward.
On the last day, we had a drier and more scenic day on Brevent, with Al showing what a true pro can do with a camera:
Plus we have some fairly outstanding "making of" footage too....
I just spent the last 4 days ski touring with Peter and Mike. Originally the idea was to prepare for an ascent of the Piz Buin in April by doing some work with crampons and ice axes. In the event, we had quite a bit of snow, so apart from a short section of ice on a footpath in Les Contamines, the pointy things stayed firmly in rucksacks.
We had a couple of days in Les Contamines when the weather in Chamonix was a bit too cloudy to do the kind of tours we were interested in. Even in Contamines, I had to get the compass and map out a few times. It was almost like being back in Scotland the previous week (!), though not as windy or wet!
The Thursday and Friday were based in the Western Bernese Oberland, where on Friday we skied down a totally deserted valley for a vertical interval of 1500m. I had (partially) been joking with Peter that skiing or skinning in someone else's tracks is somehow a less pure experience, and disturbs my "Zen feeling" in the mountains. However, this season I seem to have managed to have quite a few wilderness experiences with nobody else around, something that is very special. It means that I make decisions based 100% on the mountains and not infuenced by what anyone else is doing.
PLUS we had powder every single day :)
Having just spent a week based out of the Stronlossit Hotel in Roybridge, I can once again confirm that Scottish winter mountaineering is the toughest work I do as a guide. For the last 7 years, I've climbed with Darren here in the same week, more often than not in perfect weather with good to fantastic conditions. This year was the payback: two severe weather warnings in a week for gales with 100mph winds, and global warming restricting ice formation to the final few hundred feet of Ben Nevis. Despite all that, we had a very productive time, with Smiths Route on Gardyloo being the highlight of the week. Nevertheless, it required some lateral thinking and a flexible approach to get the best results.
One thing that struck me while we were fighting our way down the Carn Mor Dearg arete was that, far from being outrageously bad, this was just normal for Scotland - high winds, poor visibility -though it would be considered poor to Armageddonesque in the Alps. It just goes to show that, if you can climb well in Scotland in winter, you can climb well anywhere!
PS: Thanks for the photo of character building conditions on Fiacall Couloir, Darren:
While the crowds seethed in Chamonix and the queues on the Midi arete got longer, I've just been away for the week in Switzerland. We had fresh tracks every day , with some sublime powder despite it not having snowed for a week. We saw chamois just a couple of hundred meters away from a piste, and put up a brace of blackcock just meters away on one memorable off piste run. The most common comment from our group is that they were amazed by the lack of people, despite it being a UK half term week and also for the cantons of Vaud and nearby Geneva. On many runs we were totally alone!
I'm not going to say exactly where we went, as that would spoil it all for next year, but if you're smart you can get an idea by checking out my Calendar. Or you can test your knowledge of the alps by trying to recognise the photo to the right. Answers to me on a postcard (or a contact email!).
It just goes to show that, with a bit of intiative, you can get a wilderness skiing experience with no skinning or helicopters required!