Monthly Archives: December 2012

30/12/12 – A cheap, handy hotel in Geneva

Last week I travelled from Geneva to London after a few days’ Christmas skiing. I needed to be at my desk in Victoria by 10am on 27/12. When I booked my flight on 4 December, the cheapest fares to Gatwick, both around £100, were last thing on 26/12 or at 7am on 27/12, both with Easyjet.

After totting up train and taxi fares to get me home in the Surrey countryside in the middle of the night, and other logistics, I opted for the 7am, plus a hotel in Geneva on 26/12.

My £100 room in central Geneva

My £100 room in central Geneva

Tripadvisor users pointed me towards the Manotel Kipling, near the station, and I paid £100 for a double (split between two of us), through one of the booking sites (booking.com or hotels.com, I think). As the trains from town to airport take less than 10 minutes and start well before dawn, there was no need to pay a premium for an airport hotel.

On 26/12 I caught a train to Geneva from Sion (SF46/£32 single) at 6.06pm, arriving about 8pm. I exited the city/boats side, and used the maps on boards near the trams outside the station (which is under refurbishment) to find Rue de la Navigation, as I’d forgotten to print a map.

...and from another angle

…and from another angle

It took me about three minutes to walk to the Manotel Kipling, turning left out of the station and following the main road for about 250m, before turning right into Navigation.

I’d had a picnic, but I could see there were cheap-and-cheerful places to eat, many Asian and Middle Eastern, on the way. A couple of the side-streets in this part of town are seedy but you don’t need to walk down those to reach the hotel.

The male receptionist was friendly and professional. I checked out at the same time as checking in, paying my SF3.30 taxe de sejour (tourist tax), in return for which I was given a travel card, which covered my morning fare to the airport.

The bathroom was nice; there were even weighing scales. Not sure a great idea to test them out after Christmas

The bathroom was nice; there were even weighing scales. Not sure a great idea to test them out after Christmas

For £50 each, room 209 was a winner. The temperature was spot on, the bed large and comfy, the carpet and furnishings fresh, new, attractive and restful and the lighting well designed.

The suitcase stand was solid and large, there was at least one full-length mirror, I was able to let in extra air by opening the window and there was a Christmas sweet on each pillow.

The smartly striped, wooden-floored bathroom was bright and clean, with good soap, a decent-sized bath and shower, plus weighing scales.

Tea and coffee - they must get a few English guests

Tea and coffee – they must get a few English guests

Wi-Fi was free, strong and simple to access. The street outside was quiet.

All this makes it, I reckon, a good bet if you’re on the way to or from the Alps on an early or late and need a convenient, good value hotel.

The negatives: the fridge wasn’t turned on (to store my following day’s picnic rather than raid the mini-bar), and a requested 5.30am wake-up call never sounded.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy own alarm did, and I was on the 5.59am train to the airport (arrival 6.06am), only to find a giant queue for security (“less than 15 minutes”, promised a screen: it was more like 25), which had me worried about missing the flight.

I didn’t, and here I am back in grey, rainy England, with the surprise of an on-time Gatwick Express for the same price as the Southern Trains (my usual carrier) trip.

Apparently, until 1 January a single fare on the GatExp has been reduced to £13.50 from £18.90 because engineering works are making it S-L-O-W-E-R than its usual half hour.

A polite, orderly Swiss queueA polite, orderly Swiss queue

A polite, orderly Swiss queue

Which, I confirm, after spending nearly 50 minutes chugging into London, it certainly is…

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27/12/12 – The new Grilleses chair lift, Anzere, in pictures

Anzere, the sunny little Valaisan resort where I have skied almost every year since I was three, has a new lift. A few months ago I showed you some pictures of it being built.

Now it is fully in action and it’s no exaggeration to report that this four-seater chair, Grilleses-Conches, travelling 500 vertical metres mid-mountain in five minutes, has transformed Anzere’s skiing. Compared to before, the area (previously about 50km of pistes) seems half as large again, and the speed of the thing, compared with the t-bar it has replaced, feels supersonic.

I’ve ridden up and skied down a couple of dozen times over the past few days. Here’s what I’ve found…

Introducing the new-look Grilleses...

Introducing the new-look Grilleses…

Regulars are more used to t-bars, such as this one, Les Luys. But now they're in a minority

Regulars in Anzere are more used to t-bars, such as this one, Les Luys. But now these two-man drag lifts are in a minority

My first glimpse of the new-look Grilleses

My first glimpse of the base station

It starts considerably lower than the t-bar it has superseded

It starts considerably lower than the t-bar it has superseded

They have kept the lift man's hut from the old t-bar, complete with fully functioning clock, which the new lift station lacks...

They have kept the lift man’s hut from the old t-bar, complete with fully functioning clock, which the new lift station lacks

Ready for a first ascent

Ready for a first ascent

There's a nice view if you turn round...

There’s a nice view if you turn round…

...and to the left are some pretty chalets, previously much more secluded, but maybe now going up in value thanks to true doorstep skiing

…and to the left are pretty chalets, previously much more secluded, but maybe now going up in value thanks to true doorstep skiing

One half of this mayen (place to go traditionally with cows in May, if I understand correctly), directly under the lift, has been modernised. The owner of the left-hand portion has left it original

The right-hand half of this mayen (place to go traditionally with cows in May, if I understand correctly), directly under the lift, has been modernised

You can see the old t-bar hut on the right of this picture. The chair takes a route a little to the east of the old t-bar line

You can see the old t-bar hut on the right of this picture. The chair takes a route a little to the east of the old t-bar line

This cow shed is above the tree line, near the top

This cow shed is near the top. You can see the top of the telecabin on the left of the picture, on the horizon by the mast

Aaah! A double pylon! Don't panic, it doesn't seem to get tangled up with Le Bate, a longstanding two-seater chair

A double pylon! Don’t panic, it doesn’t seem to get tangled up with Le Bate, a longstanding two-seater chair

Fabulous views from near the top, with the Four Valleys (Verbier, etc) lit up

Near the top, with the Four Valleys (Verbier, Nendaz, etc) looking very close the other side of the Rhone Valley

The top station

The top station

What this lift means is access to more terrain. This is the original piste, which remains intact and lengthened, top and bottom...

This is the original piste back down, which remains intact and lengthened, top and bottom…

This is a new run, classified black, called Chaux de Duez. We used to ski it as an off-piste run - along with much of the terrain either side of it

…but there is also a brand new run, the other side, classified black, called Chaux de Duez. We used to ski it as an off-piste run – along with much of the terrain either side

The chair has made swathes off off-piste more accessible - though I suspect it'll be tracked more quickly than before, when these bits of mountain were less visible and with less obvious access

The chair has made swathes off off-piste more accessible. This is good, but I suspect it’ll be tracked more quickly than before, when these bits of mountain were less visible and with less obvious access

Much of the best terrain accessible from Grilleses can be seen here. But there's more behind me, and over that ridge...

Much of the best terrain accessible from Grilleses can be seen here. But there’s more behind me (taking the photo), and over that ridge…

Anzere's best mountain restaurant, the Tsalan, is on one of the half-dozen piste runs you can now do from Grilleses. This week I have been eating a plate of help-yourself salad, with cold beef, prawn cocktail and lettuce, priced by weight. Price ranged from SF7.40 to SF9.30. Definitely an example of cheap Switzerland

Anzere’s best mountain restaurant, Tsalan, is on one of the half-dozen piste runs you can now do from Grilleses. This week I have been eating a plate of help-yourself salad, with beef, prawns and lettuce, priced by weight. So far I’ve paid between SF7.40 and SF9.30 per meal. A prime example of cheap Switzerland

This is the brand new run down from Tsalan to Grilleses chair, very handy. It's lined with snow cannons - which have finally also been connected up on the original Grilleses run. Progress!

This is the brand new run down from Tsalan to Grilleses chair. It’s lined with snow cannons – which have finally also been connected up on the original Grilleses run. Progress!

A final view from the top, a spot on the mountain only visited by an occasional off-pister

A final view from the top, previously a spot on the mountain only visited by an occasional off-pister

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25/12/12 – Mikaela Shiffrin’s first World Cup win

Obergurgl, where the US team trains

Obergurgl, where the US team trains

When I went up a T-bar with Mikaela Shiffrin’s mother in January last year, she told me her daughter had been “rippin’ since she was tiny” (in English: skiing like a demon).

I was there to watch the 17-year-old American racer practising slalom on the Kirchenkar run in Obergurgl, where the US team trains. Then, already, she had broken records by becoming the youngest female racer to stand on a World Cup slalom podium for decades.

I interviewed her for Fall-Line magazine’s ‘Day in the Life’ series, in one of last season’s issues, an article you can read here:

Day in the Life of Mikaela Shiffrin

Now, a few days ago, Shiffrin has won her first World Cup race, a night slalom at Are in Sweden. I’m delighted – she was down-to-earth, focused and impressive in every way.

You can read more about the 17-year-old here on Planet Ski, and watch an interview with her by the ski reporter James Cove. There’s more detail on her win at Are here.

Shiffrin has moved from one to watch to one to beat. I wish her the best of luck at the Schladming World Championships in February!

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17/12/12 – Flow State, the latest Warren Miller film: the verdict

Powder skiing in the Bernese Oberland

Powder skiing in the Bernese Oberland

It wasn’t the outrageous big air, the fearsome steeps, the 1,000ft rag-doll falls or the ravishing powder turns that will stick in my mind from the ski film I saw last week.

During the 90 minutes of Flow State, the latest Warren Miller release (the man himself is in his 80s and someone else makes the films these days), there was footage from Alaska, Hokkaido, Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley, Kaprun, Utah and California. Even modest little Murren in the Bernese Oberland, where I usually go in January to race the Inferno, got a look-in.

None of these was as mesmerising as the closing five or so minutes, shot in Svalbard, in the far north of Norway, during the 24-hour daylight of the Arctic summer.

The view that made me catch my breath was shot from high up the mast of the Arctica II, a heavy-duty, 62ft sailing boat, showing the bow moving slowly and deliberately through intricate slabs of sea-ice.

Jackie Paaso and Aurelien Ducroz go boat-skiing in Svalbard

Jackie Paaso and Aurelien Ducroz go boat-skiing in Svalbard

This was a more intrepid version of the Norwegian boat-skiing trip I went on in April quite a few degrees farther south.

For Flow State’s pair of ski tourers (Jackie Paaso, the only female pro skier in the film, and Aurelien Ducroz), on the agenda were Polar bears, walruses, first ascents and skiing under the midnight sun as well as climbing on skins from fjord to peak.

Give me snow, any day

Give me snow, any day

The footage was unmissable, and I wanted to join them – though I might not have been brave enough to leap into the sub-zero sea or go water-skiing on a pair of K2s.

Flow State (see the trailer here) is a mixture of brief clips of astonishing daredevil footage, some of it frenetically jumbled together, and around a dozen five-or-so-minute “stories”, when the pace slows and two or three skiers or boarders go on some kind of mission.

Apart from the Norway foray, my favourite missions were:

  • The current and former World Cup racers Tommy Moe, Daron Rahlves and Marco Sullivan fishing, rafting and heliskiing in Alaska.
  • Another trio blasting down the powder-laden avalanche barriers in Niseko, Japan, to the soundtrack of a Japanese drumming band.
  • Vintage footage of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division learning to ski and survive in wintry Colorado – and fascinating interviews with some of the original members, who became lifelong ski fanatics.
  • Travis Ganong, another World Cup skier, demonstrating perfect, effortless powder technique while heliskiing in Alaska.

It was also great to peer through the stone arches of Murren’s Allmendhubel funicular  and see a local guy, Sascha Schmid, and a Canadian big-mountain skier, Hugo Harrison, sashaying down in powder.

At one point the commentary inferred that they were skiing down the Eiger. Maybe they were, but I wasn’t convinced, and I think I spotted another tiny error in this section: something or someone was said to be “more local than Lederhosen”, but as far as I know, that Alpine suede legwear really belongs in Austria and Germany (Swiss traditional men’s clothing looks more like this).

The soundtrack was excellent, and high-energy, but those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I’d have liked to have seen more Swiss music, which did feature in the film for a few seconds – I’m not sure where they found it in midwinter in Muerren, but it looked like, possibly, the Alpenruh, where the pair seemed to be staying.

I also loved seeing the old-school freestylers, Jonny Moseley and Bob Howard, dressed up in crazy technicolour 80s garments, complete with big hair to go with their big air and ballet moves.

Aurelien Ducroz in Svalbard (picture by Alex Witkowicz/WME)

Aurelien Ducroz in Svalbard (picture by Alex Witkowicz/WME)

In fact most of the skiers in Flow State wore bold, bright clothing, which, I hope, means I am on trend this winter with my own pink trousers and orange jacket (to be revealed in a future post, I expect). Just a shame I’m not quite up to those double back-flips and vertical faces…

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13/12/12 – Riding Haflinger ponies in Obergurgl

A Haflinger from the Edelweiss & Gurgl stable

A Haflinger from the Edelweiss & Gurgl stable

These days people talk about “riding” a mountain, rather than skiing it. Well, a few years ago I went riding up a mountain, in winter. On a horse. Or rather a pony – an Austrian Haflinger, no less. It was in Obergurgl, where I’ll be skiing (and maybe also riding) next week.

Inside the riding hall in this Tyrolean resort, I watched a pricked pair of woolly, caramel-coloured ears and a shimmering flaxen mane bob along in front of me while snow swirled outside.

Instead of 'hup, hup', it was 'trit-trot'

Instead of ‘hup, hup’, it was ‘trit-trot’

My mount, Hevelyn, was trotting round Austria’s highest-altitude – and, then, spanking new – riding hall (1,930m), which was built by one of the village’s “ruling” families chiefly to help revive the resort’s summer fortunes. However, these well-bred mares are in work in winter, too.

The Scheiber family, which owns the Edelweiss & Gurgl hotel, a favourite with the British and bang in the village centre, has kept Haflingers since the 1920s, and a fabulous painting of the herd grazing on its summer pasture hangs in reception.

Hevelyn and Anita with their grooms

Hevelyn and Anita with their grooms

Lukas Scheiber, who took over the hotel from his father about 10 years ago and is a respected international Haflinger judge, told me: “My grandfather brought Haflingers over from the South Tyrol – where they originated – and he became chairman of the first official breed society. They were working ponies – we used them to transport supplies to our mountain hut, the Ramolhaus.”

In the 1960s the practical need for Haflingers petered out, but the Scheibers kept them for fun and breeding, giving them basic ride and drive training, and became one of a handful of Tyrolean breeders concentrating on top-quality animals.

“Since 1980 we’ve been buying the best or most expensive youngsters each year,” says Lukas (the family set a record at the national stud’s 2006 sale by paying £35,000 for Roque, a six-month-old filly with phenomenal bloodlines). “A good Haflinger must have a nice head, a white tail and mane and a quiet temperament. And it’s very important they’re good movers.”

Whose mane is smoother?

Whose mane is smoother?

Hevelyn, five years old and, like her 10 stablemates, in foal, certainly had plenty of movement – it took me a little practice to attain that armchair feeling.

My instructor, Simone Riml (who was brought up just down the valley), took care over warm-up and cool-down, and gave the mares plenty of breathers, especially between canters.

The horses are exercised lightly as close as a fortnight to foaling, which takes place between February and April, and they only jump in summer, in early pregnancy.

Nearly 90 per cent of riders are children and teenagers – although there is no weight limit and most of the ponies look about 14.3hh: “Haflingers can carry anything,” Simone assured me. Handling lessons are available too – and they’re gentle and adorable in the stable: it’s almost as rewarding to groom as to ride them.

Obergurgl's smart riding hall - in use winter as well as summer

Obergurgl’s smart riding hall – in use winter as well as summer

The hall – a 20x40m vision of glass and pine, with a sand and synthetic surface and a spectators’ gallery – sits on a hillock opposite the village church and virtually adjoining the Edelweiss’s livestock barn.

There live the mares; the fillies, inquisitive and nibbly; the hotel’s cattle (the Edelweiss is self-sufficient for milk and butter) and its pigs (pork is often on the menu).

The mares graze on the mountainside in May and June, while the fillies spend the entire summer there. But where are the boys? Well, some may be family ponies in Britain or America, the biggest export markets, and others may be dashing between obstacles at driving trials in Austria and elsewhere. But the ungelded ones, at least, are under strict official control.

The national stud (at Ebbs, east of Innsbruck) owns the Tyrol’s 50 registered stallions, which stand at 30 regional stallion stations. Colts undergo a rigorous procedure to gain the privilege of passing on their genes.

“Each year 1,200 foals are born in the Tyrol,” Lukas Scheiber said. “The association picks the 60 best colts and keeps them at Ebbs for a period, before selecting 20 to stay entire. It buys them from their breeders, but not for a huge amount of money – it’s the prestige that’s important.”

Please, mummy, can I get a pony?

Please, mummy, can I get a pony?

More about Haflingers

  • Haflingers are chestnut – fuchs, in German (which means fox) with a white or flaxen mane and tail
  • Fuchs varies from dark to light
  • The mane is left to grow naturally long, but the tail can be trimmed
  • Feathers may be lighter than the body but there should be no discernible socks
  • The blaze should start under the forelock and peter out before it reaches the muzzle
  • In the mountains, some Haflingers’ muzzles get much blacker in summer
  • Fillies are named with the first letter of their mothers’ names; colts with the first letter of the fathers’ names.

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8/12/12 – Arctic ski-sail in pictures

On board Lille Polaris, our home for the week

On board Lille Polaris, our home for the week

The story of a brilliant but weatherbeaten ski-sail adventure I did in Norway in April was in the Sunday Telegraph Discover section last month.

You can read the full piece here online, or in more colourful pdf form (Norway ski sail Sunday Telegraph p1, Norway ski sail Sunday Telegraph p2, Norway ski sail Sunday Telegraph p3).

Our skipper, Sture Ellingsen

Our skipper, Sture Ellingsen

Some nice pictures were used in the article, including some provided by Zuba Ski, the British-run company that organised the trip, and some by our “first mate”, Hayet Mohkenache, a sailor and photographer from Marseille.

But as I have so many more, I am posting some here, alongside a couple of extracts from the piece.

Our guide, Marco Zaninetti

Our guide, Marco Zaninetti

“Strapped to the deck as we left the pretty marina the following morning were five pairs of skis; stashed below were our boots, skins, crampons and other paraphernalia, from sun-cream to goggles.

A steady climb from sea level

A steady climb from sea level

Compared with a standard European mountain refuge our quarters were palatial – a three-berth cabin at the stern, a double at the bow, two flushing loos, hot showers and plenty of drying space.

In the living and dining room were sofa-like benches that doubled as beds for Sture (almost pronounced “steerer”) and his assistant, Hayet Mohkenache, from Marseille.

We usually climbed 800-1,000m

We usually went up to 800-1,000m, taking two to three hours

The fridge in the neat galley was jammed with vacuum-packed, home-cooked suppers supplied by Markens Grode (“growth of the soil”), a café and farm at Kjerringoy where almost everything is home-raised (animals, vegetables and crops) or locally hunted (moose), picked (cloudberries) or fished (salmon, halibut and cod).

...and skied back down to the water

…and skied back down to the water

Cloud-laden skies heightened the mood of adventure as we advanced north, watching the mountains become snowier.

Within half an hour the three braver members of our party had climbed Lille’s mast while I (an avoider of heights) was studying a map of the region with our Italian mountain guide, Marco Zaninetti.”

Sometimes we found a good picnic spot

Sometimes we found a good picnic spot

Later that week…

“We picnicked sitting on tufts of heather alongside mountain streams, and I gradually appreciated why Sture had skied solely in Scandinavia since taking up the sport aged two. “Why would I go to the Alps? he reasoned. “Here we have sea and mountains.”

The tiny Gammen Hut, which we climbed to one day in a storm

The tiny Gammen Hut, which we visited one day in a storm. It was built by villagers at Nordfold

In the event Lille’s sails were rarely hoisted, due either to a lack of wind or far too much wind: one day we motored for four hours against the current in storm-force conditions to reach the district’s only “safe” harbour, Nordfold, nodding nervously as Sture promised, “There’s no danger.”

Inside the Gammen Hut, where we lit the stove

Inside the Gammen we found a stove, lots of hooks, a map, two little benches, a table and a visitors’ book

Being stuck there for two days brought unexpected joys – and was nowhere near as limiting as being confined to an Alpine hut during bad weather. Nordfold has just 300 inhabitants, a bar that opens “when someone wants to have a party” and hills rather than mountains.

More climbing practice

Even the mast was fair game for an ascent

But Sture, to keep us entertained, arranged a visit to a salmon farm – and to a centre for gender equality studies which has its headquarters in the village.

There we heard about the Gammen Hut, an example of a dugnad, built by a community for everyone.

Beautiful Arctic light

Beautiful Arctic light

“Each spring,” the director of the centre told us, “locals run up to check their fitness: half an hour is an OK time.”

On skis, it took us 90 minutes for the 550m ascent; en route we loaded rucksacks with logs from a tiny wood-store specially for visitors to the hut – a dugnad in itself.

One of our prettiest climbs

One of our prettiest climbs

At the Gammen, the size of a small garden shed, we lit the wood-stove, signed the visitors’ book and spent a cosy afternoon playing cards as a storm raged outside.”

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Filed under Food and drink, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Off-piste, Ski touring, Transport