Monthly Archives: March 2013

30/03/13 – Scottish skiing: my first time

Unpromising: the road to Cairngorm ski area

Unpromising: the road to Cairngorm ski area during my visit in mid-February

Spring, apparently, has been delayed this year in the British Isles, and the forecast for the next month, we are told, is chilly.

This might be bad news for heating bills, but it’s good news for Scottish skiing.

In general there’s excellent cover – which, with the cold temperatures, should last – and open lifts. Bright, settled weather, without much wind, is forecast (more details on conditions at ski.visitscotland.com/conditions/).

My day ticket - £32.50, about the same as many Alpine places

My day ticket – £32.50, about the same as many Alpine places

If you’ve always wanted to ski in Scotland and can get a few days off, now would be a good moment.

I’m fairly fresh from my own first ski trip there, during a weekend in February.

Why had I left it so long? Well, as I’m a southerner it has always seemed as convenient to travel to the Alps as to Aviemore, Glenshee, Glencoe, Nevis or the Lecht, and a safer bet conditions-wise. 

The top. Our visit followed a blizzard

The top. Our visit followed a blizzard

But in February a last-minute plan, hatched with my boyfriend, PJ, resulted in a great three-day break.

Our main aim was to practise cross-country skiing ahead of the Engadine Marathon, and Scotland seemed a cheaper and handier option than the Alps as it was half-term, and last-minute flights to Europe were expensive.

The runs. There are plenty of them

The runs at Cairngorm Mountain. There are plenty of them

In the event, we also did downhill skiing, night-skiing, ski-touring and walking, stayed in a brilliant hotel and enjoyed amazing food.

We threw the plan together two days before setting off – which can be the best approach for Scotland, I now know, because sometimes the slopes are closed for days on end due to high winds.

My research involved phoning a Nordic ski centre I’d read about at Huntly, between Aberdeen and Inverness, to check the trails at nearby Clashinarroch Forest had good cover. They did.

Fog. It's quite normal

Fog. It’s quite normal

I consulted Ski-scotland.com, which showed conditions on the downhill runs at Aviemore to be promising.

I used sites such as laterooms.co.uk, booking.com and Tripadvisor to track down a mid-range hotel between Aviemore and Clashindarroch Forest, and struck gold – for comfort, welcome, company and dining – with Tigh Na Sgiath.

Between the snow-catching fences, conditions were perfect

Between the snow-catching fences, conditions were perfect

I booked myself onto the Caledonian Sleeper and caught it straight from work on a Thursday night, while PJ got to Inverness from the north of England under his own steam and picked me up in a rental car.

Under moody skies but in high spirits we drove to Aviemore town, whose main street is lined with outdoor and gear shops, high-street stores, cafes, b&bs and ski rental places.

Waiting for a t-bar - queues are very orderly and polite

Waiting for a t-bar – queues are very orderly and polite

It took 45 minutes, plus a further 20 to the ski slopes of the Cairngorm Mountain which, after several stormy days, had re-opened that morning.

We parked in a lower car park, as the closest one to the base station (altitude 635m) was full. Despite the recent blizzards, swathes of hillside were bare.

There's a knack to putting it back in the reel

There’s a knack to putting it back in the reel

On the shuttle bus to the base we clocked where much of the snow had been blown – onto the road, on which the snowplough had carved a corridor, leaving towering banks either side.

“Funicular this way! Tickets that way! Thank you!” The cheerful official who greeted our busload reminded me of the volunteers pointing newcomers in the right direction in North American resorts.

A little bit of health and safety

A little bit of health and safety

Lift passes cost £32.50 a day – a similar price to many Alpine resorts; 6-16s are £19.50 and tinies are free; 65s-plus and students pay £23.50.

There are various family and multi-day offers, and from 12.30pm the adult rate drops to £21.50.

We bought our day passes at the desks by the funicular, but you can buy them in the adjacent ski shop, too, if you’re renting gear. “Those passes lasts till 8pm today!” said the assistant excitedly. We’d struck a rare night-skiing day.

The day lodge at the base station offered tasty food at sensible prices

The day lodge at the base station offered tasty food at sensible prices

Cairngorm Mountain has 11 lifts and a vertical drop of less than 500m. We rode the funicular to the main top station (1,097m, though the T-bars of Ptarmigan bowl, where the night skiing and some of the beginners’ slopes are, go slightly higher).

The wind blew and the upper third of the mountain was shrouded in fog as we set off down the White Lady, a red run I had heard of. Like many of the pistes, parts of it are lined by wood-and-wire picket fences, effectively placed to “catch” snow and wind-drift.

Wall decoration upstairs in the day lodge

Wall decoration upstairs in the day lodge

A film of drizzle stuck stubbornly to my goggles – I could see better without them.

Lower down we relished the long, grey views towards the Monadhliath mountains, as well as the sight of old-school ski suits (including 1980s Nevica favourites), rear-entry boots and skinny skis.

After lunch we walked up. As part of our fitness plan, in case you're wondering

After lunch we walked up. As part of our fitness campaign, in case you’re wondering

There was a high snowboarder count, a few telemarkers and several groups of mountaineers on foot or crampons trudging here and there.

There were a dozen or so people skinning up – and we found out later you can buy a “ski mountaineering ticket” for a tenner – allowing two uplifts, excluding the funicular.

We had a drink in the friendly restaurant at the top. There's also a good shop up there

We had a drink in the friendly restaurant at the top. There’s also a good shop up there

We mastered the slowly-retracting T-bars, which mustn’t be thrown away, but handed patiently back to the reel as it circles the pylon.

We joined queues even more orderly than those found in North America, overseen by helpful lift attendants.

We found a favourite lift, Fiacaill Ridge Poma, which had no queue, being at the edge of the ski area, and accessed a fun stretch of Firn-like off-piste in between rocks.

After a few runs, and a quick go on the jumps and tabletops in the snow-park, we had French onion soup at the base-station day lodge; tasty enough for £2.85, and venison burger looked good too.

We then skinned to the top of the funicular, via Fiacaill Ridge. At Ptarmigan station we had “gluwine” (me) and a pint of lager (him), and got chatting to a Pole who had come for the day from Inverness and to a Scotsman who had a season ticket (about £300, he said, if you pay a few months before the season).

Skiing M2 once the cloud had lifted

Skiing M2 once the cloud had lifted

M2, they both said, was the pick of the runs, so that’s where we headed next, and found a scenic, rolling piste on a ridge with dramatic views.

Though graded blue and in great condition, it has narrower parts. Half way down I offered to help a girl who had taken off her skis and was carrying them down awkwardly (“I got the fear,” she explained with a grin, but was happy to continue as she was).

We had an afternoon appointment in Aviemore to pick up some cross-country skis for the next day, so we peeled off towards the West Wall poma (where a couple of black runs are found) and headed off-piste towards where we thought our car was parked – which it was.

Night-skiing in Ptarmigan bowl

Night-skiing in Ptarmigan bowl

A couple of hours later, we were back, layered up for night-skiing on Coire na Ciste T-bar at the top of the funicular, where portable floodlights were rigged up on a green run.

The queue was a chilly 10 minutes so we only managed three circuits before bailing out at about 6.45pm.

This was only Day One – and I haven’t even told you about the cross-country skiing at Clashindarroch, which was excellent. I’ll save it for a future post.

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16/3/13 – Engadine marathon 2013: the verdict

Engadine marathon - making for the starting pens on the lake at Maloja

Making for the starting pens on the lake at Maloja

Aches and pains? Huffing and puffing?

Well, up to a point.You can read more about what it was like to be a first-timer in the largest ski race in the Alps in my Telegraph and Planet Ski articles.

But last Sunday I had a surprise: the Engadine marathon was fun, satisfying and not as exhausting as I’d predicted.

They arrived in matching pairs...

They arrived in matching pairs…

Along with 11,312 of  the 12,540 starters, from elite athletes to flailing novices, aged 16 to mid-eighties, I finished the 26-mile course.

It followed the snow-clad frozen lakes and wooded paths of the far eastern corner of Switzerland, in the Graubunden canon.

...they arrived in matching groups

…they arrived in matching groups

If you’ve seen it in the papers lately it’s mainly because Pippa and James Middleton – the siblings of Kate Middleton, Prince William’s wife, in case you live on another planet – were taking part.

Pippa was the fastest British girl at 2hr48 and her brother, James, took 2hr17.

And there was even a Brit in tweeds and a Jimmy hat

And there was even a Brit in rather fetching tweeds and a Jimmy hat

The fastest Brit, Alan Eason, clocked an impressive 1hr41.

The overall female winner, a Finn in her mid-thirties, glid round in 1hr29, setting a women’s course record on her first Engadine outing.

Which ones are mine again?

Which ones are mine again?

She was only a minute behind the male winner, a 23-year-old Frenchman, while the slowest racers took six hours.

I was overjoyed with my time of 3hr30 (as a first-timer of questionable fitness, four hours had been my target).

Engadine marathon start

And we’re off. You can see the classic style racers on the right, following the grooves

Anyway, here’s the full list of results.

After clicking on Results 2013, you can view them by class (which corresponds to age and gender), or by nationality.

Something especially impressive is that there were 223 finishers in the men’s over-70s category – and the oldest racer was born in 1926. This is a sport for everyone.

A few miles before Pontresina, where there are bottlenecks by the hills

This is me a few miles before Pontresina, where there are bottlenecks by the hills

Here’s another link some readers may find entertaining.

The super-efficient organisers have posted videos of – seemingly – almost every finisher crossing the line.

Simply find a person on the results list you want to watch, look up their start number (eighth column from the left), input it or their name into the field on the right of the screen and there they are. 

This is what was needed afterwards

This is what was needed afterwards – cakes from Kochendorfer Conditorei in Pontresina

Here are some numbers to try – though with the first few it’s hard to tell which is which as they’re going so fast:

Pierre Guedon (the male winner, from France) – 317

Riita-Liisa Ropenen (the female winner, from Finland) – 9

Alan Eason (the fastest Brit – I can’t identify him, but you get an idea of the speed) – 1079

Pippa in the middle: the Middletons and friends at the finish

Pippa in the middle: the Middletons and friends at the finish

Christian Wenk (a paraplegic who completed the race in a sitski) – 4191

Pippa Middleton (in red and black; photographer close by) – 4606

James Middleton (in black, I think, with red headband, skating past camera) – 41847

Me (in pink and black; the knackered-looking one making straight for the camera) – 5807

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7/3/13 – Engadine Marathon: three days to go

A nice flat bit of marathon course near Samedan

A nice flat bit of marathon course near Samedan

In three days’ time I’ll attempt to cover 42km on cross-country skis in the Engadine Marathon.

There’s no reason why I shouldn’t succeed; after all, 11,000 people do so each year, some of them less fit and less confident on flippy little langlauf skis than me.

What strikes me is that I’ll be exercising for four hours continually (Rivella and banana breaks excepted), which I have never done before. Cross-country skiing looks gentle but is surprisingly dynamic, and I the skating style definitely feels like proper exercise (I’m sure the classic style does too; I haven’t tried it).

PJ going smoothly up a hill during practice, 4km from the finish of the Engadine Marathon

PJ going smoothly up a hill during practice, 4km from the finish of the Engadine Marathon

My training regime (if you can call it that), the start of which I outlined in my last post, has continued as follows:

Feb 26 – 45min yoga in lunch break

Feb 27 – 1hr yoga

Feb 28 – 45min horse ride

March 1 – 25min run on treadill, covering 4.3km

March 2 – 1hr horse ride and 30min shovelling muck (good for arms and core)

March 3 – 2hr horse ride (including on foot up Leith Hill, to give the horse a rest and make me puff instead) and 30min bike ride up Pitch Hill

March 4 – ZERO! (Or is it called a rest day?)

March 5 – 25min Boris bike ride round Hyde Park in beautiful sunshine, plus a 3min sprint from the Tube to check-in at Heathrow airport while cutting it fine en route to Switzerland

This is the sorry sight I was after 15km - only just over a third of the distance we'll go on Sunday

This is the sorry sight I was after 15km – only just over a third of the distance we’ll go on Sunday

March 6 –  15km cross-country skiing (we are in the Engadine now) followed by near collapse. Maybe it’s the altitude

March 7 – 22km of cross-country skiing: barely more than half of the distance we’re in for on Sunday but it still took nearly 2hr30

Before our half-marathon this morning we had a lesson (PJ’s idea – thank goodness one of us has some sense), to knock some proper technique into us.

Nora, our young Swiss instructor, who has completed the marathon in 2hr19min, began with the basics after watching me skate up and down a few times outside the Langlauf Centre at Pontresina.

Mostly, it was about how to push. “Don’t lift your hands above the level of your shoulders, and keep your poles angled backwards – you must never see your ski pole basket,” she said.

“Bring your hands back to the front each time you have finished pushing, don’t take a break there – if you take a break, make it at the front.” She added that extra power could be gained by releasing the grip at the end of each push and therefore making the push longer.

Then, it was about when to push. To date I had been doing a haphazard combination of double-push (both poles at once) and single (one at a time), depending on gradient and speed.

But actually there are several official types of push/step, the “two-one” (push with both poles every other step), the “one-one” (push with both poles every step, saying to yourself ‘sticks, ski, sticks, ski’) and the “asymmetrical” (push with both poles every other step, but at an angle, for going up cambered hills).

So what was that one-pole-at-a-time push I was doing yesterday?

“That,” Nora said with disdain, “is the lady-step.”

She conceded, however, that the lady-step can be useful for hills. There is a correct way of doing it, single-poling at the same time as the opposite ski, with the pole parallel to the ski.

Despite all these excellent tips, and a marked improvement in technique, after today’s post-lesson, 22km-long practice I was ready to drop. And I don’t think it’s just down to the altitude…

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