17 December, 2010

First Run of the Season on the Grand Montet

By Olly Allen
It's that time of year for me when cranking overhanging rock gets usurped by snow. Besides the climbing wall and a few brief forrays into Italy through the winter its ski, ski, ski for the next 5 months. Last weekend Matt and I headed out to the Grand Montet in Chamonix with some mates and my new toy, a head cam. The first day on skis off piste is always a killer with maximum thigh burn and ski's feeling like they're running away with themselves. We were both plesantly surprised by the excellent level of snow cover above 2000m.

The poor weather through the autumn has done a great job of filling everything in. After a few warm up runs down the Lvancher bowl on the Grand Montet we did a brief tour up to the top station at 3000m and descent down next to the glacier. Both areas were well filled but even so keeping your speed down is a must at this time of year as there are alot of icy blocks and rocks waiting to catch the unwary out! As usual the views down the Chamonix valley and the high mountains were breathtaking. We even managed to find some nice sheltered spots with windblown powder and some crust! So heres a link to the video its only my second using Moviemaker (and it shows). Think I need to invest in a Mac and become a real video anorak, watch this space

16 December, 2010

Early Snow in Chamonix

Following on from my October ski adventures up the Aiguille du Midi, I am now pleased to report we have good snow cover in Chamonix for the start of the season.  As I write this the snow is falling think and fast past my office window, it’s so distracting!The picture above is before the snow started.

I spent most of last week plotting to go ski touring at the Grand St. Bernard pass with friends.  However when it come to Saturday the weather forecast was less than ideal for a ski tour in the high mountains, with cloud and snow by lunchtime.  So the plans were changed and the Grand St. Bernard, an area I have yet to ski in but can’t wait to go; will have to wait for another time.

At the first lifts opened in Chamonix on Saturday I headed up the Grands Montets for the opening day.  The eager skiers were ready and waiting at the lift station doors by 0830 and it was the usual race to get on the first lift of the season.  Rhiannon and I hopped onto the Bochard lift and skied the piste to half down to warm up our legs.  We then cut off into some of the off piste and were happy to find upto 40 – 50cm of lovely light, fluffy powder.  Managing to avoid the rocks we traversed to the Herse piste which was still unpisted and were lucky enough to get the first tracks down it.  We must have had near on 100 perfect turns in lovely powder before returning to the mid station. 

We headed up the lift again with a plan to ski tour to a small col called the Rashass which leads you round to the back side of the mountain.  Looking at the snow and weather closing in we decided it was not the best idea so headed off for more powder on the off piste and found some sneaky runs down through the trees laden with fresh snow.

On Sunday I ski toured up to the top of Les Houches, this was a good 1hr 40min skin.  The sun even came out and I was fortunate to ski some lovely powder snow on the top sections.  They had yet to start pisting the snow so you could ski the men’s world cup downhill run in perfect powder snow.

We have more snow due to fall this week, with a big dump on Wednesday the forecast says 20 – 30cm at 1200m, which should equate to around half a meter up around 2000m!  So anyone heading to the Alps in December will be rewarded with great skiing.  Having said that it sounds like the reports from the UK are not dissimilar and heading to Scotland (if you can get there) might not be such a bad idea after all.

I’m now onto plotting this weekend’s ski adventure.  Courmayuer and the Hellbronner lifts open in Italy at the weekend so I think I will be taking advantage of being able to use these lifts free on my Chamonix ski pass.  Heading there for some tree skiing, the best coffee and pasta you can find.

Last week also saw the delivery of this winters team kit from out clothing sponsors Berghaus.  The boys will be looking smart in their blue Attrition Jackets and their Sella Windstopper tops, the girls will be in this winters must-have purple Chogori Jacket or the Badile Soft Shell.  We will be reporting later in the winter on just how amazing all this new kit is.

Late Season Ski Touring in April and May

In late April and May, spring is in the air, but winter in the mountains is far from over. For keen skiers the late season is the best time of year to tick one of the classic ski tours. Why? Well, at the medium and high altitudes the snow pack is deep, and crevasses are well plugged with snow. The days are warm and the nights are cold and due to the freeze thaw cycles of night and day, faces are generally more stable. Another great benefit is the long days, giving more daylight than your legs can handle.
The Skiing
Every type of snow can be found late season. The strength and direction of the sun dictate the character of the snow pack. Throughout a single day, the snow pack can go through several transformations; each stage offers the skier a new texture and experience.
Typically, shallow light powder can be found on north facing slopes. South and west facing slopes are rock hard in the morning, and soften throughout the day, as the warm sun ‘transforms’ the frozen pack, the snow surface becomes incredible to ski on. This is the famous ‘spring snow’, and rivals untracked powder as the ultimate snow experience. Every skier’s nemesis ‘breakable crust’ is also common in the spring, so it helps to be light on your feet! A good knowledge of snow pack is needed to get the most out of the evolving conditions.
Heavy ski clothing can be exchanged for well ventilated garments.  Warm and waterproof clothing still needs to be carried for cold mornings and windy cols. Skiing in the sun on south and west facing slopes can be blisteringly hot.
Narrower ‘all mountain’ skis are the most versatile for spring conditions. Fat skis are heavy and rarely needed in the firmer snow. Ski crampons should always be carried, especially useful in the early mornings when the pack is frozen.

Best  Late Season Trips:

Bernese Oberland

Home of the Eiger, the Bernese Oberland is located in central Switzerland .The setting here is a spectacular  high mountain landscape complete with giant  glaciated valleys more akin to Alaska than the Alps. This classic tour, typically attempted over a week, crosses the massif from North to South. The scenery is among the very best in the Alps with classic views of the Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. The majority of the tour is on huge tumbling glaciers which converge at the source of the giant Aletschgletscher, the largest glacier in the Alps. The trip is especially suited to late in the season, because the whole voyage stays in the high mountains, never needing to descend to valley bottoms. There is the opportunity to make ski descents of several summits including 4000m peaks. Truly this is a beautiful and special place.
This tour is fairly similar to the Haute Route in terms of technical and physical demands. Previous ski touring experience is essential and you need to be a competent off-piste skier. A good level of fitness is also required in order to sustain six days of consistent effort.
More information Bernese Oberland 4 Day Tour

Haute Route
Needing little introduction, the Haute Route is the most famous and spectacular ski tour in the world. The Haute Route traverses through the heart of the Alps, linking the two famous mountain towns of Chamonix and Zermatt. The journey provides the opportunity for outstanding ski ascents and descents on every stage of the tour. It really is a high level route with 5 nights spent in high mountain huts.  Most of the time is spend high above tree line crossing glacial terrain surrounded by breathtaking mountain scenery. The Haute Route covers 130km and has around 6,000m of ascent. For advanced skiers it really is a "must do" trip.
More information: Haute Route 3 Day

Gran Paradiso
This tour is one of the classics of the Alps and popular with Italian ski tourers. The Gran Paradiso at 4061m is the highest mountain entirely within Italy and sits in one of the most idyllic National Parks in the Alps. This tour circumnavigates the massif and cumulates with an ascent of the Gran Paradiso.
The trails are generally quieter than in France and Switzerland and when combined with the dramatic scenery and the friendly, Italian hospitality it all adds up to a great week's ski touring.
More information: Gran Paridiso

Italian Haute Route
This challenging tour traverses the Monte Rosa chain situated on the Swiss Italian border. The Monte Rosa is the second highest mountain in the Alps and has the highest land area in the Alps over 4000m. There is an element of mountaineering in this voyage, so in addition to being a strong skier, tourers should also be able to handle an axe and crampons. There are fourteen summits over 4000m in the massif, most of which are accessible by skis, so long and exciting descents are assured. The mountain huts in the area are all comfortable with hearty meals and stunning mountain views. The tour includes a stay in the famous Margherita hut which is the highest in the Alps.
This tour is suitable only for experienced and fit skiers. Please contact Mountain Tracks for more information.

Mont Blanc
A ski ascent of Mont Blanc is the ultimate objective for many ski mountaineers. While not technically challenging, ascending Mont Blanc on skis requires a high level of physical fitness and previous experience using crampons and ice axe. The descent of Mont Blanc takes in some of the most spectacular glacial scenery in Europe. If there is sufficient snow, you can descend by ski right down from the summit to Chamonix, a vertical drop from the summit to the town of nearly 4000m! Before attempting Mont Blanc a well structured programme of acclimatisation and training is undertaken. 
More information: Ski Mont Blanc

Situated in Russia, Elbrus (5642m) is the highest mountain in Europe, and during April and May snow conditions are usually excellent. This tour is an expedition into the heart of the mighty Caucuses range which nestled between the Caspian and the Black Sea, it's a seriously wild place! The main chain contains many mountains over 5000m and tens of summits higher than Mont Blanc.
In spring time the passes and mountains offer exceptionally fine ski-touring in virtually undeveloped surroundings. The initial stages of the trip are spent with some superb day touring in the Adyr-Su and Baksan valley. The ski terrain on Elbrus itself is relatively straightforward, the high altitude being the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Crampons and ice axe are required on the icy upper slopes.
More information: Elbrus Ski Tour