“Enorme”

“Enorme”. That’s a French word. And that’s how a French ski instructor described the start of this winter. He’s not wrong. It seems that it hasn’t really stopped snowing since the end of November. Cold temperatures, coupled with snow cannon operations, have given us a base of snow of about a metre lower down, and considerably more higher up.

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Local resorts opened their turnstyles early, in fact La Clusaz opened the weekend of 1st December. A fantastic marketing opportunity if ever there was one. Days skiing Les Houches, Les Contamines, St Gervais and Megève, have already given us some memorable powder days.

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In short, all the alpine ski areas are in great shape, and ready to tackle the next two weeks.

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Of course, there is a price to be paid. The avalanche risk is still considerable, and reports of deaths seem to be an almost daily occurrence. Avalanche evaluation is all about choices. However, rather than make the choice not to ski a particular slope on a particular day, it seems that many skiers choose a transceiver, an ABS airbag, a dash of blind hope, and then pray that it “won’t happen to me”. Choosing expensive technology and faith over sound judgement from experience and proper training seems to me to be a big mistake.

Only yesterday, we observed this skier-triggered full depth slab avalanche, thankfully no one was injured.

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On a lighter (fluffy powder) note, if the right choices are made, great off piste can be undertaken in relative safety. Ski hard, stay safe, enjoy!!! C’est simple (as the French would say).

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An average Saturday afternoon dog walk

It’s that time of year again. The snow’s on its way but hasn’t arrived yet. The resort is quiet, and although there are plenty of pre-winter jobs to be done, it’s important to take time out and not take for granted the stunning vistas in our own backyard. With this in mind, I set off on a hike up the Rochers des Fiz mountain chain up to the Desert de Platé, an expanse of breathtaking limestone scenery. From St Gervais, looking north towards the Fiz, it’s hard to see how a path could penetrate the vertiginous rock walls. And the closer I got, the more impenetrable it seemed.

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But as the path zig-zagged its way steeply upwards, it did find a way through the maze of rock buttresses. And even though it was a grey day, with quite flat light, the views just got better and better.

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It’s a steep walk, but one that most competent hikers should be able to handle, given the right conditions.

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Reaching the plateau at 2000m was like entering a different world.

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And with the sun setting in a hazy western sky, it was a time to savour the beauty of the mountains.

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As the light started to fade, we headed back down, with the views in all directions a feast for the eyes. The snow’s forecast to arrive in the next few days, then it’ll be time to swap the hiking boots for skis.

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Winter approaching (hopefully)!

It’s most definitely autumn in the Alps. The days are getting shorter, and the long winter nights are drawing in. The clocks have gone back, and the colours of the landscape are stunning, as trees shed their leaves in preparation for the long winter ahead.

Aiguille de Varan

It’s a perfect time for paragliding (or any outdoor activity), with clear blue skies, and gentle thermals.

Mont Blanc Massif from the air

Last weekend, temperatures plummeted, and the snow arrived, in some places as low as 500m.  Whilst this is in no way any indication of how good the winter ahead will be, it still gets everyone excited, and in the mood for skiing again. And, if nothing else, the snow will be re-filling the crevasses on the glaciers, and topping up the snow making reservoirs.

View from Chalet

St Gervais’ new bridge

 

Taking One for the Team – alpine training camp

Agreeing to participate in a UK 3 Peaks Challenge is no walk in the park. The commitment required to scale Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis, the 3 highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland in 24 hours, is not to be taken lightly. And so, with lofty ambitions, 7 intrepid colleagues from games distributor Esdevium Games in Hampshire, arrived at the chalet on Saturday, for 2 days of “bootcamp”. The weekend weather forecast was appalling, with rain, thunder and cold temperatures predicted. Still, if the chosen charity of a Malawi orphanage wasn’t motivation enough to climb a hill, then the promise of hot tea and freshly baked cakes would surely spur the 7 on.

However, a 6 hour recce, undertaken a few days before on one of the planned routes, showed that the team may encounter more than just weather.

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Shorts & flip flops weren’t the wisest of choices!

As we departed the chalet before lunch on Saturday, it was clear that fortune might well favour the brave. Under blue skies and sunshine, the team posed for photos, with the naive enthusiasm of not knowing what was to come.

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From left: Frank, Rob, Ben, Mike, Alison, Dom, Steve, Mountain Guide Chris. And Skye the dog!

The objective of the weekend was not to simulate the 3 Peaks Challenge but to do 2 fairly strenuous group walks on mountainous ground, in order for the team to become used to walking on uneven terrain, gauge fitness levels, and assess equipment. They would then be able to return to the UK with 8 weeks or so to train; plenty of time to absorb the lessons learnt and make any necessary adjustments.

Our first walk departed from St Gervais, and meandered south up the river gorge towards the ski station of Les Contamines. Gently undulating, forested tracks with some steeper sections, were the perfect introduction to mountain hiking, with many of the team unused to this type of terrain.

With the glistening, glaciated peaks of Mont Blanc and its satellites towering ten thousand feet above us, everyone was in high spirits and full of enthusiasm. A steady pace ensued as the team settled into a rhythm, with regular stops to refuel and hydrate, essential for any day in the mountains. As we reached Les Contamines, the threatened rain arrived. Worse still, being out of season, the “ville mort” (dead town) as the locals call it, certainly lived up to its name. Nowhere was open for coffee!

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Breathtaking views

We donned our Gore-Tex to protect us from the elements, turned north, and trudged towards St Gervais. These two set backs thankfully hadn’t dented the teams’ morale. But “Brokeback Mountain” was to come. Thankfully, the rain was just a passing shower, and as we started up a track towards the hamlet of Champel, everyone was blissfully unaware of the horrors that lay ahead. 500 vertical feet of climbing over a relatively short horizontal distance, meant the gradient was intense and unrelenting. Then it got steeper. With hearts pumping into the red, lactic acid building in the legs, lungs bursting to capacity, and some insane “sprinting” by Dom, the team made it, all vowing never to return.

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Stunning views made “Brokeback Mountain” worth the pain!

This was the last climb of the day, and with the rain returning, retreat to the safety and warmth of the chalet beckoned. Hannah’s delicious, freshly baked victoria sponge cake, washed down with copious cups of tea, soon revived the spirits.

The evening menu included tartiflette, good, old fashioned mountain food packed with the energy necessary to replenish tired legs. A few entertaining games later, and joined by Mary Baker Eddy, Frankenstein, Seabiscuit (!) and a chap called Charlie the Tuna, it was time for an early night in preparation for day 2.

Sunday dawned, and it seemed our luck was in once again. Although the sky was leaden, it appeared the rain had passed through during the night, and we had reasons to be hopeful. After a hearty breakfast, and a quick “team building” exercise (involving some logs and a team expertly led by Frank!), we set off at 9:30.

Day 2 was to be intentionally more strenuous, designed to push the team a little more, and experience more sustained climbing, similar to the ascents encountered on the 3 peaks.

After a couple of hours gentle walking, we found ourselves once again, at the foot of Brokeback Mountain. Team spirits sank, mutiny was on the cards, and Chris became the most hated man on earth. But nobody said bootcamp would be easy! However, as is often the case, it’s never as bad as the first time, and with gentle encouragement, the team made it to the top, this time without any sprinting heroics! And I reckon if they returned to the Alps, they’d want to do it again!

Dropping down to 900 metres, and bolstered by the arrival of Hannah and Skye, the main climb of the day began. A steep path snaked through the emerald forests up to the hamlet of Montivon, and ascended some 400 metres (about 1400 feet), where a lunch stop awaited. Everyone climbed at their own pace, stopping regularly to let their team members join them. This will be an important element in the 3 Peaks Challenge, a endurance event as hard mentally as it is physically. It’s essential that the weaker members of any team are supported and encouraged by their stronger and fitter colleagues, so they don’t feel as if they are climbing alone.

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Steep climb to Montivon

After a leisurely lunch and a refill of bottles from the regular water fountains (a luxury that won’t be encountered on the hills of Britain), we recommenced climbing.

Reaching an altitude of 1530 metres, higher than any hill in the UK, we decided to descend back to the chalet. A few team members tried out walking poles. All agreed they played a very useful role, especially for the long descents.

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The Team

More cups of steaming tea, Hannah’s delicious and nutritious banana cake, an early pasta supper, and it was time for the team to return to the UK. One can achieve a lot less in 30 hours. I have no doubt that with a little more training, this team can complete the 3 Peaks Challenge with aplomb. They showed a good base level of fitness, excellent mental fortitude, a willingness to help each other out with encouragement when the going got tough, and most importantly, a more than liberal sprinkling of good humour.

And we ended up with a happy but very pooped pup.

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In terms of numbers, on Sunday we ascended from the valley at 900 metres to 1530 metres, a vertical distance of 630 metres. Add the 150 metres of vertical for Brokeback Mountain, plus about 200 metres of additional climbing during the day, and we reach a total of 980 metres. For climbing Snowdon, the team will have to ascend from the Pen-y-Pass car park at 360 metres to the summit of Snowdon at 1085 metres, a vertical of 725 metres. Ben Nevis has a vertical distance from the visitor centre of over 1300 metres. And for Scafell Pike from Wasdale, about 900 metres.

Well done to the team from Esdevium for a magnificent effort, it was a pleasure to spend time with you all. Good luck in July, I know you’ll be fine. I hope the weather is as kind as it was the last couple of days!

The team at Esdevium Games will be participating in the 3 Peaks Challenge on 6th & 7th July 2012, and raising money for the Toy Trust’s Malawi Orphanage charity.

Please feel free to contact us for more information about alpine training weekends, for walking, mountain biking or road biking.

Spring in the Alps

It’s almost April, and February is a distant memory. Inevitably, thoughts are now turning towards the summer; to biking, paragliding & climbing. But there’s still plenty of skiing to be done, the snow is still in fantastic shape, and the days are long and warm. Just over a week ago, the pleasant, sunny weather was punctuated by an icy blast, which yielded a good 40cms of fresh powder. After an early start, and the rare experience of queueing for the telecabine at Les Contamines, we realised that this was one of those mornings where everything just fits into place.

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The snowfall the day and night before was a given, but the cold temperatures had given it that perfect, feathery soft feeling. The clouds had cleared, yielding a deep, blue sky. The British Army’s REME had closed off a piste for their downhill race course, which deterred the casual skier from accessing the best, east facing powder. Undeterred, we ducked under their ropes, and assured them that we wouldn’t be going anywhere near their precious piste. Why would we want to?! We rotated the old, slow, three-man Roselette chairlift a number of times, and found untracked powder each time.

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By lunchtime, the snow had softened up somewhat, and it was time to head. But what a great morning, in a season of superlatives.

Back in the valley, and it felt like Spring again. The young deer descended from the forests to forage in the garden, and paraglider pilots were soaring in the thermals above.

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As for biking, training for this summer’s races has already begun! Some tough climbs to get the ball rolling, but nobody said it’d be easy.

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Empty Slopes in February

These photos speak for themselves. If you have a bit of local knowledge, you can ski empty pistes during the February holidays.

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There’s still some fresh powder to be had, but I’ll be keeping that location to myself!

February Holidays

Today heralded the beginning of the February holidays. It’s a time of year that local people dread; after all, these are local slopes, for local people. It seems the whole of Europe descends on the Alps for a month, ski slopes become desperately crowded, and locals stay at home, waiting for the respite that March brings. But it’s not that bad. If you know where to go.

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For sure, there’s many a resort where avoiding the crowds is almost an impossibility. Val d’Isere, Morzine & Courchevel are three which spring to mind. Even Megeve and St Gervais suffer to an extent, but they don’t receive nearly the same traffic as the “big name” resorts. This week, it’s the French zone A areas who kick off the madness, including Lyon, Montpellier and Toulouse. Next week, they’ll still be here, this time joined by the dreaded Parisian skiers, and the UK half term crowds (who also arrive today), alongside representatives from a host of European nations. Hell on skis, when worlds collide as frequently as skiers, and the “perfect storm” of so many revellers packed into too small a space, becomes a nightmarish reality. However, with a little local knowledge, almost empty pistes can still be found.

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I shall still be skiing this month, but I’ll be taking my clients to areas a little off the beaten piste.

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