24 February, 2009

Bristol Grammar School Backcountry & Winter Skills Course, February 2009

Pristine touring above Grimentz.

Don't know how she 'got it' so quick, but she did!

The team posing with Chantelle, the most glamorous hut guardien in the Alps!

Mountain Tracks were proud to run the inaugural Bristol Grammar School Backcountry and Winter Skills course in February this year. We chose to host the trip in Zinal (Valais, Switzerland). The Val d’Anniviers (collective name of the area) offers vast scope and potential for adventurous skiers, and I personally rate this area as one of the very best places to ski in the Alps. The area is characterised by high alpine terrain, deep valleys and charming villages.

Based in the Chalet Alpina, we skied fresh tracks every single day and never did a run twice. There were 8 participants in all, 6 students (aged 17-18) and 2 teachers, Sarah Basset and Andrew Dimberline. The majority of the group were experienced piste skiers but had little or no experience making fresh tracks. The first few days were hard, with a lot of falls in the deep snow, however slowly but surely the group began to master the powder. One group member 'Jazz' became a stylish powder skier after just 4 days, and she carved beautiful 'S' tracks on every field.

All week we were blessed with both good snow and great weather, there was even a 15cm 'top up' mid week. One of the highlights was the remote trip down to the Moirey Dam. This is a famous and beautiful trip, and to be the first after new snow, it was very memorable.

A second highlight was our night in the Bec du Bosson refuge above Grimentz. The refuge is positioned at almost 3000m and has a panorama of over twenty 4000m peaks. Even though the temperatures at night fell to -30 we were given a very warm welcome by the guardian Chantelle, who made absolutely sure that everybody had a fantastic evening with fondue and card games. The next day we completed a long ski tour during which we never saw another person and again included plenty of powder skiing.

The young people found the week challenging and rewarding and a stark contrast to a conventional school ski trip.

Mountain Tracks specialise in guided mountain adventures and run frequent off-piste and touring weeks to the Zinal area.

21 February, 2009

Breche Puiseux...classic Chamonix Ski Tour

The Breche Puiseux is a classic Chamonix day tour! Access is via the Aiguille du Midi cable car from where you descend the VB to level with the Refuge du Requin and then head left and skin for 700m up over the Periades glacier. The terrain is glacial and as the photos show there is a 300m ascent up a steep couloir (40-45 degrees) - requiring ice-axe and crampons - to the col. From the col there is a great descent down the awesome Mont Malent glacier which takes you directly under the Grandes Jorasses, one of the biggest walls in the Alps...does it get any better than this!!?

Why not join Klemen or one of our other guides during your visit to Chamonix? Contact Susie at susie@mountaintracks.co.uk or call +33 450 34 14 57.

Thanks again to Klemen Gricar for the wonderful photos :)

20 February, 2009

Off-piste skiing: the best places to learn

(Photo by Getty Images)

Check out the article by freelance journalist Gabriella Le Breton which appears in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday 21st February.

Click on Best places to ski off-piste for a cut-down version.

Last minute places are still available on Annie's alternative Portes du Soleil trip, 7-14 March. Click on Off-Piste week in the Portes du Soleil for more details or call Susie at +44 20 8123 2978.

19 February, 2009

Ski Touring above Les Contamines - 18 February

Another beautiful blue sky powder day in the French Alps and time to leave the tracked out pistes behind and head up to Les Contamines for a day tour to the Col de la Cicle. The picture don't lie...fantastic weather, perfect powder snow and fresh tracks. All this during half-term week in one of the busiest ski areas in the Alps.

Fancy some of this?! Check out our selection of ski touring trips, off-piste courses and skills weekends. Places still available! Visit OUR WEBSITE for details.

Thanks to Klemen for the great photos :)

10 February, 2009

Quality never goes out of style...

Fantastic Ski Conditions in '09

The best skiing is found where great snow and great terrain come together. That’s what makes Chamonix the legend that it is. The high, steep and complex terrain combined with a good lift system means that once we add great snow, the skiing is hard to beat.

So far in '09 we have been blessed with regular and substantial snow falls, so Mountain Tracks guides and clients have been making full use of the best conditions in years.

Berghaus have also been making use of the snow and a
sked Mountain Tracks to organised a photo shoots for their range of ski jackets. We chose the Aiguille du Midi on the first blue sky day after a storm. Enjoy these pictures and see you in the snow...

07 February, 2009

Kashmir vs Hokkaido no contest...

I've always thought "poles apart" to be a rather odd expression, of course it's a long way between the Antarctic and the Arctic and one has Polar Bears and the other Penguins but face it that's where the differences end... Japan and Kashmir however now we're talking, find me two more contrasting places on this planet, poles apart more like light years I'd say! 

If culturally my senses are being swamped, then thank goodness for one consistency... powder snow. I knew skiing in Kashmir was good, but as I'd had some of my best skiing ever there last January my expectations were high. However, I'm delighted to report that despite overall warmer temperatures Aperwhat Mountain yielded some outstanding skiing to without doubt re-confirm, in my humble opinion, its position in the 'White Planet' premier league.

My concerns about skiing in Kashmir, the few I have, centre not on the security situation but on the popularity of Gulmarg outstripping the Jammu and Kashmir government's ability to develop the resort. Not surprisingly, with the effects of the credit crunch kicking in and the tragic events of Mumbai, visitor numbers this winter are lower but this is artificial and before long curry powder hunters will exceed the gondola's capability to move them up the mountain. There's talk of development plans afoot; a new chair onto Mary's shoulder and a Kiwi heli-ski operation out to the beautiful Sunshine Peak range. I watch this space though with trepidation as more lifts and helicopters, whilst bringing greater opportunity, will of course change the flavour of Gulmarg. A dilemma I'll just have to deal with if and when it happens.

For Mountain Tracks considerable operational improvements have taken place since last year. Most notably at the Highlands Park Hotel where its dynamic owner is making great strides to deliver top quality comfort and amenities to his guests, whilst retaining the hotels fantastic 'Raj' character and position as the resorts leading hotel. So an end to hot water problems with fully functioning en suite bathrooms complete with Italian baths! No fruit shortages and excellent Indian wines at the bar. Yes, alas, wireless technology has arrived though I'm not convinced it isn't hand powered such was the connection speed?! The hot tub arrives next year!

On the mountain, improvements are harder to spot, though to be fair the gondola was working reasonably well most of the time. It wouldn't be Kashmir if issuing the tickets wasn't a highly complex game of guesswork every day! Without doubt the success of getting the mountain (and the lift) open is down to the tireless and often thankless work of the Chief Snow Safety officer Brian Newman - this year ably supported by Jamie Owen - keeping up the pressure to see that the other parties: the Army (for explosives), the ski patrol and the lift company all deliver their part. Thanks Brian I hope you can be persuaded to stay on next year?

Fascinating as Gulmarg is, culturally it is still a cotton wool Kashmiri experience for us tourists, so its great to try the fully immersed version that hits you in Srinigar. This bustling city of five million souls cluttered around the clear expanses of Dal Lake is Dickens' London on curry if it weren't for the motor car and their horns! Away from the chaotic streets, paddling around the lakes in a 'shikara' bartering with the floating jewelers, flourists and papermache merchants and indulging in the faded oppulence of the house boats is a 'must do' part of your holiday. 

If there's one thing that I dread about India its the endless game of tipping, so the first most refreshening thing I learnt about Japan, as I waited to board my flight from Delhi to Tokyo, is that you don't tip in Japan... phew!  I like the place already! I think I'm one of those people who like to be tidy and organised, full of good intentions, but when it comes to it I never quite fulfill the wish. So coming to Japan is scary and oh so good for me. I could fill this blog quite easily with endless examples of how clean, organised, efficient, polite, disciplined etc this country is. Quite frankly I'm impressed, after Kashmir (love the place as I do), its a wonderful breath of fresh air.

So Japan works but what of the skiing 'cus thats why I'm here? Well you can believe the hype, it's official...the snow is everything you may have heard, deep and light, best powder ever, period! Fortunately the powder makes up for its one downfall; the runs are considerably shorter than we are used to in Europe (and Kashmir) and a lot of the terrain is quite flat. It's so deep that anywhere else if the snow wasn't 100 times lighter than cotton wool, you wouldn't be able to move! The bottom line is you with snow this light you can forgive all shortcomings. In every other way it matches up superbly; beautiful views, paper trees par excellence and a lift system bordering on Huxley's new world.

The Mountain Tracks inaugural trip to Japan is based in Furano on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, in my next installment I'll go into more detail of where we've been and what we've been up to in the meantime enjoy the pictures...  Nick

Powder eruptions in Japan!

05 February, 2009

Hokkaido Powder Skiing...Konnichi-wa!

This week sees our first off-piste and backcountry trip to Japan. We've teamed up with Chuck Olbery at Hokkaido Powder Guides to explore the best off-piste terrain on offer across Hokkaido.

It's an 11 day trip with 8 days of guided skiing. Our team is made up of 9 skiers from the UK and 2 from Tasmania! The group will be led by Nick Parks and Chuck.

I am waiting for the first trip report from the group, so here in the meantime are a few photos sent over by Nick on Monday.

01 February, 2009

What we did on our holiday!

When you work for a season in the Alps it’s a common misconception that you get to ski in lots of places. The key word in the previous sentence is work and therefore you tend to do most of your skiing in and around the same resort. So when you get the opportunity to explore it’s a real bonus.

Annie Donovan and I had planned for ages to visit Zinal, Val d'Anniviers in Switzerland. There is talk of running courses there and neither of us being familiar with the area we thought it was a good idea to go and have a look. It didn’t start well! I had left my stuff with Annie and when we met in Evian she had brought all of it. Well almost all. My ski boots were still in her kitchen, too far away to go and get them so I will rent a pair.

A look at the map showed the nearest of the 5 areas in the valley is St. Luc/Chandolin on a sunny west facing shoulder above the valley. I got a fetching pair of orange head boots from the ski shop, got our tickets and went exploring.

For an area we had never heard of it was surprisingly big. The two areas are separated by a rocky ridge from which there are a number of steep gullies on the Chandolin side and a good selection of more open bowls and easier angled slopes on back into the St Luc pistes. The areas are connected by a 3-person chair running onto the ridge from Chandolin and by a series of drag lifts on the other. A word of warning, if you don’t like button lifts and T-bars, you won’t like it here!

On the far right, (south) side of St Luc is a 2k poma lift, the Pas de Boeuf. The variety of skiing here is vast with much to keep skiers entertained both on and off piste. We really enjoyed this area and felt it would be great for entry level off piste and there are extensive pistes to cater for all abilities as well as for teaching.

We found accommodation right at the end of the valley beyond Zinal at a small Auberge. It is a peaceful place or it would have been if not for the group of school kids who were letting off fireworks late into the evening!

The following morning was another blue sky, sunny day and we were on the Zinal cable car straight after breakfast. At the top station a bowl opened out and the off piste possibilities are endless. We worked our way to the top of the hill at almost 3000 m and looked west over the ridge into a massive off piste area. Looking down to a large lake with a big dam dominating the valley, a big slope at a reasonable angle with very few tracks drew us to explore further. It was a little windblown as we left the ridge but the snow quickly became excellent and we enjoyed a great descent with fresh tracks all the way to the dam 1300m below.

The track to the village of Grimentz took us over the dam and down a track on the left side of the valley. The south facing slopes above had slid quite dramatically in places so we didn’t hang around. Grimentz is the main village of the upper part of the valley and the old part is beautiful and exactly my idea of a classic alpine village.

The ski area of Grimentz s really interesting with many folds, gullies, ridges etc giving lots of good piste skiing and more off piste opportunities than we could count. A quick lunch in the village and we jumped on the bus for a 15 ride back to Zinal. Back on the cable car and straight back up to the summit ridge, followed by a descent down the Chamois bowl. There is a black piste down the bowl which zigzags past the steeper area at the top but the gullies through the rocks were tempting and in great condition and the powder fields below were fantastic.

Rejoining the piste you have the option of returning to Grimentz or taking the track right to Mottec where you meet the bus for a 5 min trip back to the cable car at Zinal.

The bus system was superb, swiss efficiency I suppose, but both buses we went to met were bang on time and would allow easy exploration of the various ski areas.

At Mottec we took off our skis at the road side beside the bus stop nest a chalet which is being renovated by Eric and Penny. They swear it’s going to be ready by March and when it is its going to be a fantastic base for this great ski area.

The term "hidden gem" is becoming overused and the expression “call a place paradise and kiss it goodbye” could apply here but...this might be the best ski area you never heard of!