Monthly Archives: May 2011

27/5/11 – Why energy bars just don’t cut it

If, like me, you are one of those people who has one perpetual eye on your next meal, the prospect of the long stretch between breakfast and supper during a hut-to-hut ski tour may seem alarming. What sort of provisions will you pack to sustain you between huts? Will there be room in your rucksack? Will you get terribly hungry? And most worryingly, will your companions’ picnics be nicer than yours?

Viande sechee for 14, carried to the Konkordia Hut

A year ago, when ski touring in the Bernina region, I was the only one to pack ‘energy’-type bars. Nobody wanted to share them with me because they were so unappetising, despite probably ‘doing the job’. Thankfully most days we arrived at the huts early enough to feast on pasta (on the Italian side) or roesti (on the Swiss side) at about 2pm before sitting down to supper at around 6pm.

A much better bet for the rucksack, I have since discovered, are mixed nuts and dried fruit, such as raisins, sultanas and apricots. I buy mine at home from Julian Graves, which seems good value, mix my favourite types together and bring them in a carrier bag. They are delicious and easy to hand around; they provide good energy compared to their weight; they don’t freeze, melt or smell, and unlike individually wrapped energy bars, they aren’t bristling with packaging.

A lump of hard cheese is another satisfying snack, which provides a gratifying opportunity to use the Swiss Army knife that weighs down the lid of my rucksack. I like the harder types of Gruyere best, but a word of advice: don’t unwrap it in the dorm room three days into the tour.

Dried or smoked meat makes tasty Alpine fare, and most mountain guides worth their salt will have a slab of some kind in their rucksack, whether a blotchy, gnarled salami sausage or a slab of smoked ham. One of my favourite mountain meats is the good-value, square-edged Landjaeger, available in bunches of two or four in Austria, Switzerland and probably Germany: the skin is thin enough to eat and you can break off pieces to hand around without the Swiss Army.

Snake snacks - we could have got through several packets

Wafer-sliced, delicate viande sechee is wonderful too, but you may have to carry packaging to keep it fresh: on a recent Berner Oberland tour, one of my friends, a chef, heroically carried enough for 14 of us to feast on with our afternoon shandy aperos at the Konkordia Hut.

And what’s for pudding? Chocolate is the obvious choice, available to buy daily in huts so you can avoid lugging it throughout the tour. But it tends to freeze or thaw, and I find that one bar leaves me wanting a second, whether I’m up a mountain or not.

My suggestion is to take sweet/sour shoelace-type confectionary. Between Alagna and Zinal in March I carried a bag of Haribo strawberry sherbert-covered ‘snakes’. They were so popular among my companions that I had to ration them towards the end. I took a similar packet, from Migros, to the Berner Oberland, with similar results – though oddly, the boys liked them more than the girls did.

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, Italy, Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland

23/5/11 – Bomb squad: Kevin Giffin in Fall-Line magazine

Part of Kevin Giffin's patch

In the current (summer, number 97) issue of Fall-Line Skiing and Snowboarding (, one of the coverlines reads: “FERNIE PATROL – He’s got a bag full of bombs and he’s gonna use ’em”.

It always makes writers happy when editors make their material sound fun and readable. That’s how I felt about this coverline. You can read the three-page article it refers to, in pdf form, here:

My piece in Fall-Line about Kevin Giffin

The piece is about Kevin Giffin, the chief patroller at Fernie, western Canada, who I interviewed for Fall-Line when I was there in February/March.

At first, I was surprised that someone whose routine involves dynamiting, avalaunching, blasting, heli-bombing and more dynamiting (plus a daily contingent of ‘wrecks’) could be so laid-back.

But on reflection a calm temperament is probably a bonus in this job, and Kevin also came across as super-organised, outstanding at motivating his team, utterly reliable and – crucially, I think – keenly aware that there’s always something new and useful to learn. When a mountain guide, a patroller or even an instructor thinks they know it all, and doesn’t allow for the unexpected, I get jumpy.

In the article Kevin also reveals…

…that most injuries happen on green runs – the ones with the best signage and grooming

…that increasing the number of girls on his team of patrollers has created a ‘better dynamic’

…that he carries a 50m spool of dental floss in his rucksack

Follow the link to the pdf above to find out why – and to read more about one of Canada’s premier powder hotspots (also see February posts).

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Filed under Canada, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Off-piste

20/5/11 – Planning a midnight loo trip

The loo hut at the Schoenbiel hut in the Swiss Valais

It is sod’s law that during a hut-to-hut ski tour, when the loo lies luxuriously inside the building  you don’t wake up at in the middle of the night needing to go. When I toured from Alagna to Zinal with Zuba Ski this spring (see March posts), I had no 3am calls of nature in the Guglielmina (more of  a mountain hotel) or the Monte Rosa (a shimmering new eco-creation built in 2009), where the loos are just round the corner from the rooms. In the Schoenbiel and the Grand Mountet, however, where they are in a separate hut, I had to go at least once a night.

Steps down to the Grand Mountet's facilities

The main thing is to be prepared. Before you climb into bed, stash your Crocs or Birkenstocks – or whatever footwear is provided – in a precise spot where you can slip out of your silk liner and straight into them. Plant your head-torch in an accessible and easy-t0-remember spot. Even if it’s spring, I like to have my down jacket stuffed somewhere handy to slip on over my nightwear for the trip outside (I take a separate cotton top to sleep in, worn with long johns or very lightweight tracksuit bottoms).

If you have too much stuff lying around near your mattress, and one of these items is hard to find (especially the headtorch), it can lead to an anxious and noisy scramble to reach that little hut in time…

At the Finsteraarhorn hut, the loos are indoors

You can make the journey from bed to loo hut easier by practising before nightfall. At the Schoenbiel, we were there the first evening the hut had opened for spring ski touring, so the path dug from terrace to loo hut was narrow, and in parts slippery. Below the path is a cliff, and the hut is at the edge. At the Grand Mountet, there was black ice on the approach to the loo hut. It’s no problem negotiating these paths in Hausschuhe with a headtorch – as long as you’ve noticed where the tricky bits are in daylight.

When you get to the loo, do not lock the door, even if you are in a country where everything works perfectly, such as Switzerland. A friend of mine – just over the Italian border, admittedly – got stuck in an outside loo once after locking a rusty old latch, and the door virtually had to be unhinged to get him out.

A final word of encouragement: given the right preparation, a loo trip in the small hours can actually be quite enjoyable. If there’s a decent moon and a starry sky, the view of the mountains at night, especially when you alone are admiring them, is magical. And if you’re in the Konkordia Hut in the Bernese Oberland, when you make it to the cubicle, you’ll hear soft music, thanks to a couple of little speakers rigged up among the partitions.

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

9/5/11 – Bernese Oberland in pictures

The Konkordiaplatz from the Konkordiahuette (2,850m)

With good reason, the Bernese Oberland is a popular and busy spot for ski touring.

Two of the three huts we stayed in were virtually fully booked this weekend, and nearly every slope we skinned up or skiied down was tracked to some extent.

En route to the Hollandiahuette, with part of the Aletschhorn behind

But as you can see from these pictures, even when it’s crawling with tourers and climbers in the high mountains, there is no shortage of space.

View to the Konkordiaplatz from the Hollandiahuette at 6.30am

You still only see a dozen other people on each day’s journey.

The Loetschental, with the Hollandiahuette a speck on the horizon

Enjoy these pictures of some of the wonderful views we enjoyed during this tour – although remember, the weather this spring has been exceptionally brilliant for ski touring. On my first hut-to-hut tour, in the Silvretta region a few years ago, it was thick fog every day…

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

8/5/11 – What are these snow-bound insects?

Yesterday morning we were skinning up from the Konkordiaplatz towards the Kransberg, on the way to the Hollandiahuette, our last overnight stop on this four-day Bernese Oberland ski tour. There had been a light wind overnight and the sun was beating down from a clear sky.

These insects covered a vast area from about 2,900m to 3,300m

All over the snow around us were millions – or possibly billions – of tiny insects. At first I thought they were bits of dust. But in fact each speck was squirming. They were spread evenly on the surface, each inhabiting a little space, with few touching another. For more than an hour they were around us: from around 2,900m to 3,300m, when, after a steeper pitch that made me forget to watch them, I realised they were no longer there.

I have heard of the Gletscherfloh (glacier flea), but am doubtful that’s what these little specs are. Can anyone identify them?

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Filed under Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland

5/5/11 – ‘Peeeepah’: the hot topic in the Bernese Oberland

Even though it’s May, I’ve been skiing today. Or rather, walking uphill on skis, and making the occasional downhill slide. If you’ve read previous posts – such as this – you’ll know I love ski touring – an ever more popular activity in the Alps, both among locals and and the likes of Brits.

Out of the tunnel, onto the mountaintops

This time, I’m joining a Swiss group assembled by an old Anzere Ski School friend of mine, Caroline Ogi, who now runs the excellent Hotel Walliserhof in Zermatt. Among the group of 12 are a hairdresser, a railway station manager, a chef, a ski shop owner and several colleagues from Switzerland’s very well organised tourist board. Our mountain guides are Fred, a handsome Valaisan, whose fighting cows are headed for stardom in the upcoming Combats des Reines, and a kindly, bearded, Nendaz-based Belgian who goes by the reassuringly Alpine name of Helmuth. Our destination: the huge glaciers that spread out across the Bernese Oberland, behind the Eiger.

Last time I toured with Caroline & friends we were weathered off the Haute Route and spent three days stuck in Arolla. This weekend, by contrast, is forecast to be sweltering and sunny. I’ve packed as lightly as possible, leaving behind quite a few items compared to last time ( Last night I stayed in a dorm room at a backpackers’ hostel in Basel (32 Swiss francs) after flying in late from Gatwick. (Since I’m sleeping alongside a dozen people for the next three nights it didn’t seem worth booking my own room on the way.)

Tikka at the top: sadly it wasn't quite lunchtime

Hundreds of Asian tourists accompanied us to our starting point this morning at Europe’s highest railway station, the Jungfraujoch (3,454m). While they made for the Bollywood curry house on the first floor, we skated off down the Jungfrau glacier to the Konkordiaplatz, where the ice beneath the Aletsch glacier is said to be up to 900m deep, then hung a left to climb to the Gruenhornluecke (a col on the way to tonight’s hut).

To my surprise, at our picnic break, chat revolved around the Royal Wedding. Most of all, the Swissies were interested in “Peeeepah”. Getting Suisse Romande and Schwyzerduetsch speakers to pronounce Pippa correctly – which was their chief preoccupation – is quite a challenge.

Guide Helmuth and punter Pierre-Cedric during today's first gentle climb

Talk was also of the acclaimed Swiss mountain guide Erhard Loretan, who died on his 52nd birthday a week ago. Loretan was one of only four climbers to have summited all the world’s 14 peaks that exceed 8,000m. This afternoon we passed the Gruenhorn (which is just over 4,000m), where he fell while leading a client a week ago (read his obituary here

View from the Finsteraarhornhuette

The Finsteraarhornhuette, which we reached at 5pm, has large individual bunks, impressive indoor loos and sensational views from its terrace. No wonder 98 of its 106 beds are taken tonight. Loretan stayed here the night before his fall: I hope the last night of his amazing life was a peaceful and comfy one.

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Filed under Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland

1/5/11 – Scant snow, much fun

Easy spring off-piste

Last week, before and after Easter, I spent a few days in Ischgl, mainly because it was near St Anton, where I had to be for a race on Easter Saturday. As you can see from a post I wrote before Easter, I liked the place. In the past, I have usually opted for Zermatt or Obergurgl for late-season skiing – two of my favourite places at any time of year.

Surprisingly often, an improbable blanket of powder materialises in late spring, but sun and spring snow are just as likely to be in the offing – as they were this year. I adore spring snow – and if you don’t think you can have fun on very little of it, watch this (very short) film, taken by Ski Club of GB leader Jim Costelloe (who had been showing us round) just before Easter in Ischgl:

Ischgl’s answer to the Mooserwirt

I also love the ‘holiday’ feel of spring apres-ski. In Zermatt, my favourite option, given enough snow, is a hut-crawl along the homeward Sunnegga run. Bands play in some huts, and you have a glorious view of the good old Matterhorn. If you’re holidaying with children in Zermatt – as my sister was last week – apres-ski might involve marmot-spotting while walking to Zmut or Zum See. Meanwhile in Obergurgl, live music at the Nederhuette, which is so cosy in winter, continues on the terrace at least three times a week until the Saisonsschluss.

A Kuhstall full of lovely cheese

Apres in Zermatt and Obergurgl is low key, but in Ischgl it’s quite a serious business. The likes of the Schatzi Bar (see previous post) cater for a minority: most Ischglites favour the Mooserwirt-esque experience (right down to the galleried building and playlist) offered by the Trofana Alm. As it’s not on the mountain, there are fewer ski boots stamping on the tables, and as this is Ischgl, not St Anton, there’s bling, war-paint and his’n’hers suits aplenty. My only complaint is that it all takes place indoors – in contrast to the Mooserwirt proper, which has a massive terrace. This is what the Trofana Alm sounds and looks like, by the way:

Despite its busy apres-ski Ischgl remains firmly farmy

When the Trofana Alm winds up at 8pm an identical party continues at the nearby Kuhstall. It’s tremendously popular among all nationalities – from Germans and Russians to Scandinavians (the Brits barely figure) and lots of fun – I’m surprised more resorts don’t operate a similar soundproofed apres-style late-night Europop den. I admit I didn’t last beyond an 11pm supper, but maybe this was due to the other – much squarer – kind of apres-ski I had been doing earlier, walking in the meadows. Well, the Alps are a land of contrasts, aren’t they?

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Filed under Austria, Link to film, Off-piste, Switzerland