Monthly Archives: January 2012

22/1/12 – Inferno 2012: today, it’s the wax and the tuck that will count

Out of our window at Chalet Fontana, this morning

Half a metre of snow has fallen in Muerren over the past 36 hours, so they’re blasting, ploughing and shovelling like crazy to get the course and the transport system in shape for today’s Inferno downhill.

The start has been put back by at least half an hour: they’re clearing the Allmendhubel train track to get the funicular running and dynamiting various bit of the mountain to make it safe to open the cable-car from Lauterbrunnen and the train from Grutschalp to Winteregg. Quite a task, and it’s still falling thick and fast.

The start hut at Allmendhubel, yesterday

Earlier this week, it seemed a good bet that the Inferno would run its full 14.9km course, from the Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen. Conditions were excellent, with plenty of snow on the lower parts. Many of us who have been here all week spent Tuesday and Wednesday – lovely, clear days – getting to know the twists and turns of the upper parts. Organisers felt optimistic about the prospects of a classic – despite forecasters muttering about a front approaching.

Then, at midnight on Thursday, it began to snow. By Friday mid-morning the valley was enveloped by a blizzard, with 100kph gusts at the top and the Birg and Schilthorn cable cars closed all day.

Yesterday, when we went to acclimatise to our 2m race-planks, it wasn’t a great surprise to find a start hut at the top of the Allmendhubel funicular – though the decision as to the route had yet to be finalised. We practised the woodcutter’s path and continued down Winteregg, but the track to Lauterbrunnen was closed (though some people ignored the signs and descended anyway).

Practising the woodcutter's path on Friday

Soon after 1pm, officials made their call – the race would run the 9km between “Allmihubel” and Lauterbrunnen – where, by the way, it was raining yesterday, though not enough to wash away the piles of real and manmade snow: the track’s lower reaches got snow cannons this year. This means it’s going to be a game of gliding: the only corners to speak of are hairpins, and the technical mid-section that is normally the trickiest part won’t feature at all. The two hill climbs, conversely, are still in.

We spent yesterday afternoon relishing the powder on the Schiltgrat and between Gimmeln and Gimmelwald – in poor light but at least 25cm of fresh snow. Lots of racers were out enjoying themselves – though I was dismayed to see some ducking under ropes to ski in the “nature zone” to the right of the Schiltgrat – pointless, when there was fresh snow all over the mountain. (These zones, by the way, allow hibernating animals some peace and quiet – being woken up suddenly can kill a marmot.)

At 7pm last night, at the press conference, I found out more about the route. Because up to 40cm more snow was forecast tonight and tomorrow, the woodcutter’s path isn’t safe, being beneath an avalanche slope. So, when we set off, we’ll turn right and follow the normal piste – which will lead us to a much longer climb than that of the woodcutter’s path.

Tuesday's visit to the Schilthorn, to practise the top sections

The good news is that there’s going to be an alternative route through some of the post-Winteregg hairpins: after the first one, I understand, you’re able to scoot down a short-cut to rejoin the path. From there, it’s one long schuss – punctuated by hairpins, some of which are very sharp. Finally, 9km and about 1,000m of vertical after the start, you come out in the meadows just above the Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg road.

I’m starting at 450 of the 1,850 racers – which should have been at 10.45ish. Later racers, today, may have a bit of an edge, as the forecast is for the snow to ease off, so they may have better visibility and a faster surface. At least that’ll be my excuse if I have a rotten time…

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Filed under Off-piste, Racing, Switzerland

18/1/12 – Inferno 2012: the skating has started

This is the latest Inferno info: the last time it went 'all the way' was 2006

I’m in Muerren, Switzerland, this week for the Inferno ski race. The big news this year is that the full course – from the top of the Schilthorn all the way to Lauterbrunnen (14.9km and 1,990m of vertical) – is skiable and being prepared for Saturday’s downhill.

Whether we’ll really be going all that way I’m not sure, as the forecast is for snow Friday and Saturday. In the past, when conditions at the top have been too snowy or windy, it has begun lower down.

The langlauf is under way. By the time I do it, it'll be dark

More pressingly though, right now the langlauf (cross-country) leg of the race – entered by 470 of the 1,850 who do the downhill – is under way as I write. I have a prime viewing spot from the living room at Chalet Fontana, great-value self-catering lodgings in the centre of Muerren.

The speed and stability of the early starters is astonishing – a far cry from my own tentative style. There’s hot wine at the “bumps” – designed to make the beginners fall over – and plenty of bystanders shouting “hoya, hiya!” and ringing cowbells to spur racers on.

You’ll see from my start number – 315 of 470 – that my record in this race isn’t brilliant.

My practice last night: not the most dynamic look

But it’s a fun challenge to do the “combined” Inferno, which also includes a giant slalom, rather than “just” the straight downhill – if only for the relief you feel when the langlauf is over.

Muerren is looking its beautiful Alpine best this week, with chalet roofs piled high with snow, pistes in wonderful condition and deep blue skies soaring over the Eiger, Moench and Jungfrau summits opposite.

View from the Gimmeln yesterday morning

You can see by tracks that off-piste conditions have been good lately; however, on many south-east to south-west facing slopes – at all altitudes – there are giant, gaping cracks right down to the ground: a legacy of the 2m of snow that fell all at once within a few days on warm, snowless slopes in mid-December.

Some of the cracks have avalanched – some in harmless places, some in more threatening locations.

The snow-cats have been working hard to plough several layers of “steps” below such hazardous slab-fields, protecting pistes from the kind of wet-snow avalanches described in a recent “Ezine” I received from Henry’s Avalanche Talk.

This crack under the Kandahar lift turned into a wet snow avalanche

The cracks really show the sheer quantity of snow here – as does the towering wall of snow, 3m high in places, next to the second long traverse/schuss in the downhill, in the Engetal.

Talking of schussing, it’s time for me to gear up with those flippy, lightweight planks for the most knackering part of the week – I’m due to wobble onto course at 6.15pm. Wish me luck!

P.S. 19/1/12: Here are the results so far… http://services.datasport.com/2012/winter/inferno/

P.P.S. To read about last year’s race, see blogs from January 2011 and to read my article in Country Life about the Inferno 2011 click here.

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Filed under Off-piste, Racing, Switzerland

6/1/12 – How I was once ‘imprisoned’ by an avalanche in Zermatt

Zermatt from its ski area. Yesterday's avalanche came from the left, round the corner... I think

Yesterday, an avalanche down the valley from Zermatt blocked the road and railway up to the Swiss resort. My parents happened to be driving up the valley at the time, and came to a couple of men waving flags to stop the traffic at about 2pm, somewhere below Randa, where the avalanche had come down. Today the road and railway have reopened.

While I was cruising the web looking for information, I came across an article (read it here) in the Swiss newspaper, Blick, which expressed entertainment at British papers’ coverage of the Zermatt situation (“Trapped! Avalanche strands skiers in Swiss resort of Zermatt” – Daily Mail).

Here’s my rough translation.

“The situation has even been causing excitement in England,” wrote the Blick reporter. “…Even the Guardian reports on its ‘imprisoned’ countrymen. But Marcus Rieder, a spokesman for the cantonal police, had to chuckle. ‘It’s not a serious situation, and the avalanche wasn’t that big,’ he said. ‘A couple of cars were covered briefly and a disused building had its roof blown off by the avalanche wind.” Interestingly, Rieder added that the avalanche – a powder avalanche rather than a slab – was triggered by a serac breaking off the Weisshorn glacier high above.

In fact, it sounds as though the conditions have left people stranded all over the place. According to the same report in Blick, the Swiss resort of Andermatt, parts of the Bernese Oberland and parts of Austria’s Arlberg are now cut off due to the high avalanche risk, which is level five in places after massive snowfall and – more significantly – high winds.

Yesterday was far from the first time holidaymakers have been “imprisoned” in Zermatt. On my first visit, aged seven-ish, just before Christmas, an avalanche in a similar spot shut off access for several days.

With no choice but to stay put, we tried to extend our lift passes beyond the three days we had already purchased and used up, but the lift pass office refused to sell us additional (and therefore cheaper) days, insisting we start again at day one. So unimpressed were we at this attitude that we joined the queue for a helicopter out of town…

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Filed under Switzerland, Transport

2/1/2012 – Easyjet ski carriage: my attempt at beating the system

My ski bag weighed 27kg - and even then I suspect it was resting against the side of the scales slightly

I usually fly to the Alps with Easyjet, as I find its flights the most convenient, flexible and frequent from my local airport. After noticing in June that the airline’s fee for sports equipment (and therefore ski carriage) had risen to £25 each way – up from £18.50 last winter; see here – I was keen to work out a way still to take all my stuff yet to keep my costs down.

The cost of ski carriage crops up regularly in threads on the ski forum Snowheads, and last summer I “talked” to people on the site who had successfully transported a ski bag stuffed with other clothing and equipment, and not consigned a regular bag (fee: £9 each way).

According to Easyjet’s own website (for relevant section see here), a ski bag is allowed to weigh up to 32kg. (Oddly, if you consign a regular piece of luggage as well, the total weight for both items remains 32kg.)

I decided to make this my new system. I bought an oversized, padded, 190cm Dakine ski bag with two wheels at one end (about £80 from Edge & Wax, including a Ski Club of GB 10pc discount).

In it, on my way back from Italy yesterday, I packed two pairs of skis, my ski touring boots, other hardware such as sticks, shovel and probe, plus my ski clothing and a few other bits and bobs – a good few, actually, including clothing and two bottles of wine I won in a raffle on new year’s eve (one in each ski boot). In fact, all that was left to go in my hand-luggage-rucksack was my laptop, camera and picnic.

After an hour queuing at Milan Malpensa on one of the busiest travel days of the year, the moment of truth approached. The check-in supervisor frowned as he weighed in the ski bag at 27kg and attached to it a “HEAVY” tag. “Just sports equipment, is it?” he asked. I nodded and hurried off to give it to Signor Bulky Items before he changed his mind or suggested opening it up to check.

Plenty of room on the platform for this massive bag, but what about on the train?

The main point of this post, however, is to tell you how deceptively tricky those huge, wheely ski bags are to manhandle around the place, especially if stuffed to capacity. (It didn’t help that I was also probably stuffed to capacity, too, after five days enjoying Alagna’s lovely restaurants.)

Sure, if there are no corners, steps, winding routes or narrow corridors, the bag is quite easy to pull along. But throw in a train or bus journey, a few flights of stairs, a queue, a trip to the loo, a walk along the busy departures hall, a snowy path, or anything that requires you to hold the bag upright or take it around a bend, and it’s a struggle.

So yes, ignoring the outlay, so far the baggage system has saved me an almighty £9. But it was a little nerve-wracking as I am not a good liar, and I did arrive home with rather sore arms…

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Filed under Gear, Italy, Off-piste, Ski touring, Transport