Monthly Archives: March 2011

27/3/11 – When the guide starts whistling…

Most mountain guides I have skiied with are inscrutable, calm and quietly authoritative. On most tours I have done there have been moments of minor worry: once we were snowed in for a day with an inebriated hut guardian in the Bernese Oberland and another time, in Austria, we took several hours to descend just a few hundred yards on a glacier in terrible fog.

Italian mountain guide Michele Cucchi

Michele Cucchi and Marco Zaninetti, who are guiding us from Alagna to Zinal this week, are probably the best I have skiied with – both inspire utter confidence and are also thoroughly nice and helpful blokes. However, I learnt last year to detect when we are approaching or crossing challenging terrain, due to Michele’s habit of low whistling when danger is near. In spring 2010 in the Engadine, it was usually the crevasses or seracs of the Morteratsch glacier that prompted the whistle. This time, we’ve had several opportunities to hear it (though I emphasise that at all times we couldn’t have been in better hands). Here are our hairy moments from the past few days, in order of alarmingness:

Windblown slopes below the Matterhorn

1) Descending across the lower, north-facing slopes below the Matterhorn on our afternoon journey from Schwarzsee to the Schoenbielhuette. Here the snow was extremely unstable, even on seemingly innocuous slopes of less than 20 degrees. We had seen that slopes of a similar aspect and angle, at a similar altitude, had avalanched elsewhere locally, with huge windslabs (the biggest killer) coming off in the unlikeliest of places. Marco crossed each slope first, halting in a safe spot and communicating with Michele, who was at the back, via radio. Then we traversed one by one, some sinking scarily into the very variable track more than others, and some hearing whumps and crack noises as they crossed. It was a relief to get to a safer spot in the middle of the valley.

2) Climbing from the Schoenbielhuette up to the Col Durand, our route ascended a gulley below the Hohwang glacier. Marco was at the back with me after I’d stopped to spend a penny. The others were setting quite a pace and when we reached the gulley, he said: “Don’t stop here – go up quickly now, because of what’s above!” Above the gulley was an ice-fall and, a kilometre away and directly above us, seracs as big as houses were enjoying the morning sun. I hurried on up; at one point a stream gushed under the snow, which was barely a foot deep and had already borne the weight of six blokes. As I approached the top, something up above caught my eye: a massive serac breaking off and tumbling down. It stopped short of the ice-fall above us and all that came down to our level, channeled to where we had just been, were scattered bits of ice. But the sight of the falling serac, and a cloud of snow, was impressive and alarming – it made me move pretty swiftly.

Our ascent towards the Col Durand, with seracs always a threat from above

3) The last 100 or so metres of vertical to the Schoenbielhuette proved surprisingly exciting, as loose stones from a sun-drenched bit of moraine came tumbling down the slope were were ascending every now and then. Michele and Marco instructed us to hurry on up and watch the bank above us carefully. The afternoon snow, too, was pretty sinky, and we were happy when we arrived at the top.

4) The top of the Durand glacier, which leads down towards the Cabane du Mountet, looks steep on the map, but when we arrived there on day four, it proved even steeper, due to the receding glacier and low snowfall this year. Michele and Marco made a secure hold in the hard ice with an ice screw and lowered us down one by one as far as the bergschrund, which we then had to cross “quickly” to the safe ground below. This looked far worse than it was – in fact, the descent was an easy and very secure sideslip. Thank goodness, I thought, that we didn’t have to go up that way…

5) On our second day, skiing down from the Col de Lys – the highest point on our tour, at 4,260m – to the Monte Rosa Hut, we nearly saw Mike Crompton – our host and the boss of Zuba Ski – slip down a crevasse. As he passed a place where we were meant to be keeping up good speed, he slowed and started sinking as the snow covering a crevasse began to collapse. Some quick poling saved the day and those behind him took another route.

En route to the Monte Rosa Hut, via crevasses

6) I thought we might have found a body near the Col de Lys when a couple of us spotted what looked like a glove at the entrance to a crevasse, looking as though it could have come off as a person toppled down. Marco edged close to it and fished it out with his ski pole. It turned out just to be a cap. Phew!

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Filed under Italy, Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland

23/3/11 – From Alagna to Zinal, mostly uphill

Today I’m meeting up with a group of near-strangers, with the plan to spend five days with them at close quarters. We’ll be ski touring from mountain hut to hut, starting in Alagna in Italy and finishing in Zinal, in the Swiss Valais. I’m joining a group put together by Mike Crompton, the co-founder and -owner of Zuba Ski, an excellent British-run company that specialises in both the above-mentioned villages and ski areas.

Last year two of my cousins and I ski toured with Zuba in eastern Switzerland’s Engadine – the best hut-to-hut trip I have done yet, with clear skies (very clear – the Icelandic dust cloud meant there were no planes), sensational scenery, borderline scariness (mainly due to crevasses) and that hard-to-find harmony of ski ability and fitness in our party. Will this trip live up to last year’s…?

First climb of the trip, from Alagna to the Guglielmina

So far, so good. I travelled to Alagna from just over the mountain in Zermatt – I could probably have skiied, as there’s a well-trodden off-piste route to Champoluc (which connects to Alagna) from high above Cervinia. But I don’t know the way so I took the 6.13am train to Brig, which connected nicely to the 9.38 to Milan, followed by a 45-minute train ride to Malpensa airport, where I met Mike and two of his old friends Rich and PJ, who are brothers – all of whom were fresh from the low altitude of the UK.

It’s summery and settled. We’re meeting our guides – Michele Cucchi (who led my cousins and me last spring) and Marco Zaninetti – tomorrow, so we made our own way to tonight’s hut, the Guglielmina. Although it’s within the ski area, slightly off-piste, we decided to be keen and to skin up from the mid-station of Piana Lunga.

Italian house shoes - leather, with wedge heels

“It’ll take, oh, about an hour,” said the optimistic ski shopkeeper. It took us more than two, which didn’t surprise me when I saw it was a climb of 800m. We’d had wine and two decent courses at lunch (at L’Unione, in Alagna), which made our already overfilled backpacks (more on this in a future post) feel even heftier. Still, it was a lovely climb in the evening light and we just made it to the hut before dark. Even better, it seems we all climb at about the same pace.

The Guglielmina is more hotel than hut: there are flushing indoor loos and hot showers, I have my own room, and the hut footwear is far superior to huts’ usual rubbery offerings. There is even Wifi, though scant phone reception. Zuba sends around 40 guests here for a few days each New Year, and today’s visit makes me feel tempted to join them to see in 2012 – especially if bombardinos (our first drink there; hot advocaat and brandy) are involved…

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Filed under Italy, Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland

20/3/11 – Tales from the City II

It’s day three at the City Ski Championships in Courmayeur and the racing, apres-ski and nightclub – Covo, in Entreves, as Courmayeur’s has closed – has left most people too knackered or hungover to go skiing. After going to bed very late I overslept for my 9am transfer and arranged to get a later one.

All in all this has been a superb weekend, brilliantly organised by Momentum Ski. To read more about it, see this link to my article about the City Ski Champs 2011 – including the breaking news that the event is moving to Crans Montana next year. Here it is –

Sunday morning peace in Courmayeur

To kill time before leaving town at lunchtime, I wandered the lanes of Courmayeur and lingered in the church square, watching Milanese and locals introducing their dogs to each other, admiring each other’s children and reading the papers in the sunshine.

The variety of shops – nearly all open on a Sunday – is astounding, and the only ski shop I saw looked wholly out of place. I especially enjoyed an Alpine antiques shop selling cowbells (90 Euros-plus), ancient skis and painted cabinets.

I found picnic stuff for my next journey: marrons glaces from a little food store (that in GB would be a delicatessen but here is no great shakes), a bunch of tomatoes and salami made of suino, which I hoped wasn’t donkey – I looked it up later and luckily it means pork (suino = swine). My destination now: Anzere in the Valais, where my family has a flat where I can do my washing and pick up my ski touring gear, which I’ll need later this week.

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Filed under Food and drink, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Racing

19/3/11 – Mine for 24 hours – the 5,900-franc ski

Benedict Germanier from Zai, with Colin Jackson. Picture by Martin Bond

During yesterday’s City Ski Championships dual giant slalom I ducked into the woods near the start to spend a penny and my binding broke as I was climbing into a hole. I needed replacements, swiftly, for my trusted Stoecklis, as our Ski Club of GB team had a chance to get to the next round in the mixed competition. We had drawn against a fancied team that included ex-GB racer Laura Westmacott and were poised to do a re-run.

As befits a ski event for high-end folk, one of the event’s sponsors is a high-end producer of handmade skis. Zai, which means toughness in Romansch, makes 1,000 pairs a year at its factory in Disentis, using materials such as cedar wood, stainless steel (for the edges) and a base material used on World Cup race skis. They claim their skis – which start at 3,500 francs – lose only two per cent of performance over 1,000 hours of use compared to the standard wear rate (they say) of 80 per cent over 100 hours. City Ski competitors were able to test-run a slinky collection of Zai skis throughout the weekend – and I gather a few already own a pair.

As my binding refused to respond to the efforts of pisteurs to mend it, Benedict Germanier, Zai’s CEO, came to the rescue. He brought me a 174cm Spada Buola (spada means sword) that contains granite and rubber. Retail price: 5,900 francs. Have a look here:

Off we went on the re-run – but I was spared going flat out because our rivals’ first skier crashed, allowing team Ski Club to finish at our leisure. The next round we won by a couple of gates. Our luck ran out in the final: we were up against First Energy, fielding among its two girls Emily Sarsfield, Britain’s star ski crosser. We couldn’t catch them and lost by a gate or two.

But I was relishing the Zais – they felt precise, speedy, solid and manoeuvrable. I arranged with Benedict to keep hold of them overnight and race on them in today’s individual giant slalom. We had just one run, on a shortened course, as it had snowed nearly 10cm and organisers were fretting that conditions might be dangerous if people went wide into the deep stuff (I didn’t really get this until I saw a few racers making multiple extra turns between gates and taking some interesting routes down).

Our Ski Club team (l-r): me, Kate Mullins, Vanessa Fisher and Toby Heelis

By the time I raced at number 66 the sun was out and I was expecting decent ruts and a bumpy ride. Surprisingly, the course was smooth … or was it the skis? I came in at 37 seconds – a few hundredths behind the winning non-FIS girl, two seconds behind the fastest FIS girls and the male non-FIS winner Filippo (see previous post – my prediction was right), five behind Graham Bell and seven behind overall winner Mikey Colyer (an Accenture analyst and only 21). You can see full results here: City Ski results

In the afternoon I tried the skis in powder, slush and soft moguls. Although this model is more of a piste ski, they sliced smoothly through everything. As I had handed them back to the Zai guys, should I have asked whether they might cut me a deal on ex-test skis? Better not: it’s easy to get carried away when surrounded by these financial folk…

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Filed under Gear, Italy, Off-piste, Racing, Switzerland

18/3/11 – City Ski Championships: tales from the City I

Few men can wear white trousers on or off the slopes without looking a bit of a wally. At the City Ski Championships this weekend, where London’s big financial brains are let loose on a giant slalom and giant apres-ski sessions in Courmayeur, Italy (, I have come across two.

Italians in Italy can get away with this

Filippo and Alessandro Guerrini-Maraldi, London-based brothers in their 40s on the Lloyd’s team, are recognisable from great distance by their high-end Continental ski-wear. The look – which also involves a red vertical stripe – won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I like it.

Filippo, who is married to the aunt of a friend of mine, has proved the star of the City Champs so far, making the decisive run to land his team the men’s prize in the dual giant slalom alongside Alessandro and two more Lloyd’s boys, Chris Oliveira (a brilliant former GB racer who I met at the Inferno this year) and James Prike.

Lloyd’s were trailing to a younger and very determined Accenture team in today’s relay-style race by the time Filippo started his run as the last racer. “I had three gates to make up, so it was shit or bust,” he told me. A skier who is going way faster than he looks, Filippo closed the gap and passed the Accenture number four just before the line.

Lloyd’s have also been performing highly at apres-ski (indeed so has nearly everyone). They retired at 2.30am from Bar Roma last night, then today piled into the mountain restaurant Maison Vieille after the race before hosting a party at the Post for dozens of racers, organisers and VIPs (namely Damon Hill, Colin Jackson, Marcus Brigstocke, Konrad Bartelski, Graham Bell and Matt Chilton).

There were 22 teams in today’s dual slalom; in tomorrow’s individual race 150 people will take part – from stockbrokers, bankers and underwriters to not-so-City types: one of the best non-pro female skiers (who raced on the Ski Club team with me – see next post) here is Kate Mullins, who works at Arsenal Football Club, and there’s also a contingent from UEFA. But my money is on Filippo to show everyone how it’s done.

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Filed under Italy, Racing

16/3/11 – St Anton: heaven or hell?

As a contrast to the discipline of downhilling (see previous post) I’m spending three days in St Anton, which combines lively apres-ski with challenging slopes. My friend, Katie, and I stayed at the Hotel Kirchplatz (75 Euros each a night including a massive breakfast) at the bottom end of the pedestrian zone, which is central and convenient – essential when you’re only in town for a few days.

Last time we came here I went to the Arlberg Ski School’s Powder Club and Katie joined regular ski school, but as the last snow was more than a fortnight ago and the off-piste looks unpromising it made much more sense this time to ski together.

Not all these were ours

The Mooserwirt apres-ski bar is some people’s idea of hell: I’ve read that it sells more beer than any bar in Austria. By 4pm it’s packed out, Europop is belting and the dance floor inside is heaving. In my experience, if you get it right, and end up on a fun table, it’s fun. Get it wrong and you can’t wait to get out.

My formula for successful apres-ski in St Anton is to find a spot outside the Mooserwirt at one of the long  tables, get chatting to your neighbours over a Weissbier, and have a round or two of schnapps. Sometimes it’s fun in the umbrella bar or inside, but my plan A is outside. I stay till after dark then zoom home to change and go for a late supper either in the Fuhrmannstube (no booking – have a drink at the bar while you wait) or the ‘communal’ pizzeria towards the top of the pedestrian zone, on the right.

Table service at the Mooserwirt

In the unlikely event I have stamina to go out after supper we tend to avoid the meat market that’s the Piccadilly, though some friends of mine love it. Instead we like the little bar off the lower end of the pedestrian zone, which used to be Bar 37 and now doesn’t seem to have a name. We’re missing last year’s Mexican barman but I think it still beats the busier, bigger places.

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink

13/3/11 – Racing the Parsenn Derby in Davos

Paul Accola, Swiss World Cup star of the 1990s

When I was at the Inferno in January (see previous posts) I got talking to a couple of British guys who were attempting the Swiss “Super-Vier” – a series of four amateur races at Belalp, Murren, Davos and Saas-Fee. I’d already missed the first, the Belalp Hexen (witches’ race), but thought it would be fun to have a go at one of the others, as well as the Inferno.

I chose the Parsenn Derby at Davos, the oldest downhill in the world (founded 1924), mainly because my mum did it in the 1960s and I have always known about it.

A team of four sets off: the first three times count

I travelled to Davos on Thursday with a horrific cold picked up a few days ago in Surrey when an attempt to cycle home from the station went wrong and I ended up walking three miles home down country lanes at midnight.

So I’ve spent most of the past three days at one extreme or another – on the one hand I’ve been in bed trying to get better; on the other I’ve been doing training runs on a 3.5km downhill course with a pair of 201 super-G skis strapped to my feet.

As I’ll be writing about the Parsenn Derby for a ski magazine next season I’ll save the juicy bits for print – for instance, about the scary jumps, my freakish team result (A cutting from the Gipfelzeitung) and the edible prizes.

For now, I’ve posted these pictures and a few links and there’s a link to the race site and results below. By the way you’ll see I was in good company – among the racers was local former World Cup star Paul Accola: part of the appeal of this excellent race is that mortals like me can pitch themselves against ex-pros.

Bring on next year’s race – I’m hoping to put together an amateur (though of course by no means amateurish…) ladies’ team in 2012: any takers?

Here’s the Parsenn Derby website:

And this is a link to the Parsenn Derby results

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Filed under Racing, Switzerland