Sunday, 12 January 2014

Alpine adventures to start a new year...

There can't be too many ways that are better to start a new year, than by being out in the mountains, with bucket loads of fresh snow, sunny, clear, cold skies, incredible views, and days filled with adventures shared with like-minded new friends. Where the hardest decision of the day is whether to put some fresh tracks in this untouched vast expanse of deep soft "hero snow", or the equally attractive looking section of slope just over there...argh....such a difficult decision! ;-)

Fresh tracks coming down the Gros Rognon onto the Vallee Blanche
After an epic 19 hour solo drive to get there, I arrived in La Grave early on a Sunday morning, to meet Lucy and Jake, and lots of their friends, apparently just in time for some incredible conditions. The night before I arrived the snow gods had obviously decided to be kind, and dump a much needed fresh load of silky soft powder in the French Alps. There had been tales of bare, patchy snow cover, and normally well-covered rocks poking out to trash the bases of your skis and provide additional hazards to avoid throughout December, so I had definitely arrived at the right time. Even better, the skies had cleared and for most of the week we were treated to cold, sunny, alpine conditions, keeping the fresh snow soft, and making for the kind of weather you wish for when out in the Alps in winter.

Lucy and I opted for a chilled out first day at Monetier les Bains, part of the Serre Chevalier ski area, and some fab lift-accessed off piste in the trees. Most people there were predominantly skiing on piste, so we were treated to run after run of soft light powder and fresh tracks with no-one around, a great way to find my ski-legs again after a couple of years off, and to get the first couple of crashes out of the way and start to relax a bit! The benefit of powder is that at least it’s soft when you land!

Sunshine and snow = big smiles

Lucy at Monetier

La Grave is famous for it’s classic easy access (ie roadside) ice climbing, but also amongst skiers as some of the most easily-accessible and varied off-piste terrain in the Alps. One very long lift system (plenty of time to eat your sandwiches, faff with kit, discuss the state of the world economy etc etc) takes you up to the edge of the glacier, and a multitude of options for descending. There are no pistes, no marked runs, and therefore no inexperienced skiers. This is big, serious, mountain terrain, where without good mountain sense, you could easily find yourself in trouble. There are steep, narrow couloirs, cliffs, ice falls, dense trees, rocks and other hazards lurking under the surface of the snow, variable snow conditions, and of course the risk of avalanches. It’s also North facing, so whilst you can see the sun on the other side of the valley, it never touches you on the hill, and it can therefore be bitterly cold. It can feel an intimidating place as you step under the rope at the top for the first time! But the skiing is totally awesome. I was lucky to be surrounded by a group of people who have been visiting the area for a long time, and had an in depth knowledge of the layout of the mountain. 

Welcome to the La Grave adventure playground....

Hilda enjoying the awesome terrain 

Ruth heading down on a slope that's steeper than it looks!

What followed was an epic day…one long run followed another, deep snow, great skiing, a tricky, steep, rocky and icy couloir entry, a beautiful run of fresh tracks in “hero pow” on the glacier…and just when I thought my legs couldn’t take any more, I seemed to find myself in the last group of 4, where an executive decision was made to race half-way down the mountain to get the last lift back up from the mid-station. My thighs were screaming, the thin, cold air was making my lungs burn, but I still didn’t know the mountain well enough to make my own way down, so I had to try and keep up! We reached the lift just in time, and I was promised more stops on the last run down. From having got on the first lift at 9am, we skied non-stop, and finished that last run in the dark, discovering what the term “combat skiing” really meant on the way. Tight trees, stream crossings on tiny snow bridges, icy narrow tracks, traverses above big drops, rocks and bare earth…not easy to negotiate your way around when your legs feel totally destroyed! Needless to say, I slept pretty well that night!
New Years Eve we awoke to another day of weather that Dave aptly described in his best French accent as “Grand Uber Beau Temps”. A leisurely tour up from Le Chazzelet took a big group of us up to above a vast untouched snow field of an aspect and angle that were a good option, given the current high avalanche risk.

We're going on a pow hunt....

Touring up to the pointy peak top left to find some fresh tracks!
Touring up from Le Chazzelet

Sunny skies and freshies :)
Unfortunately, the snow pack throughout the Alps has been pretty unstable at the start of this season. Put simply, due to the conditions and temperatures in December, there is a very weak, unstable layer in the snowpack, which after a whole load of new snow falling on top of it, means the chances of natural and human triggered avalanches occurring are very high on many slopes. There have sadly been a lot of avalanche victims already, and a great deal of caution, knowledge and careful conditions and forecast studying is needed in deciding where and where not to go. I’ve been very lucky to be skiing with, and staying with and near friends and others who are guides, instructors, or locals with a good knowledge of the area, and so have been able to ask questions, learn a lot, and add to the general snow safety knowledge I’ve built up over the years I’ve spent in the mountains. Every day’s a school day and all that….

We saw in the New Year in one of the bars of La Grave, and despite feeling that ever present sense of sadness that it was the start of another year without Gareth, and remembering all the New Year’s Eves we’d shared before, I was surrounded by new like-minded friends, and know that he would have thought that being in the mountains and having fun, was an awesome way to start a New Year. I didn’t really feel happy and excited enough to get involved in dancing, but there were plenty of people to talk to, and adventures for the following day to plan!

1st January 2014...a good way to start the New Year
Whilst most of the group had decided to take a rest day to recover from hangovers, especially as the forecast had been uncertain, it was just Jon, Rachael and I who headed out on a bright and sunny New Years Day, to tour up from Le Chazzelet, and go in search of more untouched “neige de hero” and freshies in the pow…and we certainly found it!

Our hidden valley :)

Jon breaking trail

Rachael's first ski tour...I think she'll be hooked :)
Dropping into a hidden valley, we were treated to incredible soft, forgiving snow, and a sense of total remoteness in a beautiful area. Thick, fresh snow, glittering in the sun just seems to make everything clean, and kind of softens the sound around you too, making it seem completely peaceful and still. It was staggeringly beautiful, and a fantastic way to spend the first day of 2014.

The following day was Snowmageddon. There’s something that still makes me feel as excited as a small child in a sweet shop when I wake up in a morning and see big snowflakes falling from the sky, and this was one of those days. In fact it snowed heavily all day, and a group of us spent the day shredding deep powder in the trees at Monetier. Unfortunately, if you crash in deep soft snow and lose a ski, it can take a loooooong time to find it, as unfortunately Jon and Lucy both discovered, as well as the phrase “No friends on a powder day!”…but they did both eventually find them thankfully!

Silky soft snow in the trees at Monetier

Lucy gets her request of only wanting to ski in fresh powder!

Jake dropping in 

As I don’t ski often enough to warrant or afford to have several sets of skis, mine are a do it all, one ski for touring, freeride, piste and off-piste kind of ski….which whilst I love them, means when it’s a powder day and everyone has their super fat powder skis out to float on the surface of the deep stuff, I’m more ploughing through it with my skis several feet under, or leaning way further back than I want to to stop my tips from burying themselves…oh well…when I win the lottery…;)

Les Drus in the sun

Staring at giants
Following New Year week, I drove with Lucy to Chamonix….ah Chamonix, it’s always good to be here J The drive up the Chamonix valley always fills me with excitement and awe as you look up at the towering giants of mountains around you. It’s actually the very first place I skied as a four year old in the Panda Club in Argentiere, and after so many amazing summer trips here, I’d been really looking forward to spending some of the winter here. Jim and Alison kindly let me stay with them for a few days until I could move into my rented flat in Les Houches, and it was lovely to catch up with them both, and to get out skiing with Jim, Ian and Lucy over the next few days.

It’s now a week since it snowed, and in fact it’s been sunny, warm and clear blue skies all week, but thanks to the opportunities to get up high on the glaciers, we’ve been finding soft powder all week!

The first day here we spent skiing the deepest snow I’ve ever been in from the top of the Grands Montets lift, down onto the Glacier d’Argentiere. Snow so deep that sprays of powder hit your face on every turn, making you feel like you’re a skiing goddess in a ski movie…”neige de hero” indeed!

Thanks to James Thacker for the above photos and somehow making me look like I knew what I was doing!

Then it was through the tunnel to Italy and Cormayeur, where it seems there was even more snow than on the other side of Mont Blanc. With the top lifts only having been opened that day for the first time since the fresh snowfall, there were endless opportunities for freshies, and ear to ear smiles…I was beginning to think I’d now only been able to ski in deep powder!
Jim shredding it through the trees

Sunshine and snowy trees :)

Since then we’ve had 2 days up on the Vallee Blanche, one purely gravity assisted descending, and the second a bit of touring up towards the Dent du Giant to find more fresh soft snow. At this time of year the walk down the snow arĂȘte from the Aiguille du Midi Cable car is not equipped with ropes, and so it’s an airy traverse with crampons and an axe to get down to skiable slopes. Slightly intimidating, but it has the benefit that fewer guided parties are on it!

Lucy descending the snow arete from the Aiguille du midi
Although the skiing is not difficult, it’s amazing how the fact that you are on a glacier, with crevasses all around, some hidden, some exposed, makes you tense up and ski completely differently to how you would on a slope with less inherent dangers. Wearing a harness, and carrying a heavier pack than normal, and knowing you have to ski in control and not fall
 all add to this!

Big crevasses on the way off the Glacier d'Argentiere
Skiing down from our tour up to the Dent du Geant
It’s quite a long time since I’ve been on the Mer de Glace, and I’d forgotten how far it feels like you have to walk up the hundreds of steps to get from the glacier to the bubble lift that takes you up to the Montenvers train. It definitely felt like there were more steps up than I remembered….and there were. On the side of the steps are markers showing the level of the glacier at various years. When I first climbed in Chamonix in the summer of 2003, the glacier was 75m higher than it is now….that’s a lot more steps they’ve had to build each year. Even more staggering, is that I know my Mum and Dad skied the Vallee Blanche the year I was in Panda Club, which must have been about 1986, and at that time, they must have pretty much just stepped onto the train! The glacier is retreating currently at a rate of 30m a year…that’s a huge and very visible amount….I wonder if I’ll still be lucky enough to be skiing or climbing in another 30 years time, and how different the Mer de Glace will be then?

Lucy heading down towards the Mer de Glace
So, today’s a rest day, after a tour part way up the Glacier d’Amethystes and the Col de Tour Noir yesterday made me realise how tired my legs were! After only ever really having had a week or two to ski each year, I’m used to skiing every day and not taking any rest days because I don’t want to waste any precious skiing days. But I’m slowly realising when you’re here for over a month, you do occasionally need to stop and recover! Still, it’s sunny, clear and cold, there’s a superb view of beautiful snowy mountains from my apartment balcony, and though I wish I were sharing it with Gareth, there aren’t many other places I’d rather be right now J

Sunshine lights up fields of super soft powder :)

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