Category Archives: Gear

I’m no expert on equipment but I’ll have a go at being helpful

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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Filed under Food and drink, Gear, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Link to film, Music, Racing, Switzerland, Transport

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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Filed under Gear, Racing, Switzerland, Transport

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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Filed under Canada, Gear, Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland, Transport, United States

28/7/12 – Olympic men’s road race at Abinger

The A25 at Abinger Hammer at about 11.15am

First came the motorbikes – dozens of them, riders waving. Then the police cars, official vehicles – BMWs galore – and more motorbikes. By the Kingfisher Farm Shop at Abinger Hammer, and opposite the village shop, by the Tillingbourne stream, hundreds of locals crowded the roadside.

These guys pedalled over from Farnham

We perched on a wall, having arrived sedately by bike from Peaslake, a couple of miles away. A man nearby was picking up live reports on his smartphone and announcing the latest. An official vehicle equipped with a loud-hailer cruised by, confirming his news that there were four minutes between the leaders and the next bunch.

My friends Alex and Rebecca with our vehicles

“How does the race work? Is it timed?” a woman asked a pair of cheery, lycra-clad road-bikers who had pedalled over from Farnham with a picnic. First past the post, they explained patiently.

Finally, at 11.25am, they came. So quickly I hardly clocked them. Four minutes later, as promised, a second batch passed.

At last, some action. But which GB-er is it?

This time, we caught sight of the Team GB suits but failed to spot those all-important side burns that belong to both Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins.

Then they were gone – and along came dozens more Beamers, who looked like they were having their own road race at least as hairy as the two-wheeled one. Then minibuses full of press – and it was over.

A few would be motor-racers were at these wheels

As they pedalled on to do nine circuits of Box Hill – where Mark & co are closing on the pacemakers as I write – we stocked up on chutney and sausages at the farm shop before meandering home.

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24/4/12 – Ski-touring by boat from Bodo

We'll fly to Bodo, in the centre of the map, and explore islands on the Vestfjorden

At the end of this week I’m going on the most expensive ski week I’ve ever booked (bear in mind I’m a cheapskate, so this may not be saying much), and also probably the least luxurious (though a university week 18 years ago at Tignes Les Brevieres may come close).

The destination? Arctic Norway, in a winter version of ocean-cruise meets bareboat charter meets Swimtrek – staying on a sailing boat and skinning up mountains from sea level each day, to be met by the boat after each descent.

Since Graham Austick of Piste to Powder opened Lyngen Lodge in northern Norway a few years ago people have started to cotton on to this part of the world as a ski-touring destination. Our group of friends is going with Zuba Ski, and the Ski Club of GB is running a group trip to the Lyngen Alps the same week. But it’s still what I’d call very well off the beaten track.

Our little group (five, plus an Italian guide) is flying to Bodo, in Nordland, rather than Tromso, which is where you’d make for if you were heading to Lyngen. Bodo is an hour and a half’s flight from Oslo, and well within the Arctic Circle – here are the co-ordinates, if you understand that sort of thing: 67° 56′ 8″ North, 14° 58′ 55″ East.

We’ll get on the boat and our week will be spent exploring the islands off Steigen, with views to the Lofoten Islands – pictures here of those from someone else’s blog.

This is Marco Zaninetti, our guide

I’ll be taking pretty much everything I usually take on a hut-to-hut tour – here is the list I made last year.

But as we won’t be carrying all our belongings every day, I’m taking a few extras, such as clothes for the journey and for evenings, proper pyjamas, a clean pair of ski socks for every day, a towel (there’s a shower on the boat), a sleep mask (in case the cabin has a porthole – daylight will be long), binoculars, a couple of books and some CDs. Luxury!

We will be fed morning and evening on the boat and we’ll take packed lunches on our hikes, but I’m taking nuts and raisins in my pockets, too – and some sweets a bit like these.

According to the itinerary, also on the cards is “helping to crew the boat – anchoring, sailing, helming, preparing and cooking food” and “a quick refreshing dip in the Arctic waters”.

Hopefully it won’t turn into a full-on swimming holiday rather than a skiing one – the forecast looks suspiciously spring-like (rain and sun) and I haven’t worked out if there’s really snow all the way down to sea-level yet, or whether we’ll be climbing part of the way in our boots… Wish me luck!

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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…


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

24/12/11: Sledging fun on the Gadget Show and in Country Life

My dad in 1961, on a door with a metal sheet underneath. I wonder how it would have fared in the test

Top television viewing this week for me was the Gadget Show’s film for Channel Five, in which Pollyanna Woodward, one of the presenters, tested 20 toboggans at Tamworth Snowcome (see it here –

I was especially interested because my sister, nephews and I test-rode several sledges in Zermatt in October as research for an article about the joys of sledging for Country Life magazine – which, by the way, is in the shops now as part of a bumper wintry Christmas edition (£3.75 including a travel supplement).

Big air in Gloucestershire, 1961

One design Pollyanna definitely didn’t try was anything that resembled a simple yet speedy toboggan devised by my dad, uncle and aunt, photos of which my uncle sent me when I was researching the CL story.

As you can see, it proved great for getting air over stone terracing in their Gloucestershire garden in 1961.

My uncle - cushions made this toboggan the height of luxury

It was a door, with a metal sheet fastened to its underside. My dad and uncle recall that they strapped cushions to it – no wonder they look so comfortable – and used the ropes that held them down to hold onto. It once had an outing to the Wiltshire Downs, where the pair of them lugged it all the way to the top and began the run down by jumping off a cornice.

My sister inherited the family toboggan gene - she made this sledge (circa 1983) in woodwork and it's still going strong

Anyway, back to the Snowdome. Pollyanna and colleagues set up a laser speed trap to see which was the fastest of the models, whose prices ranged from £14.99 for a UFO plastic disk to the Alurunner, at £472.

Quite rightly, she also gave marks for comfort, manoeuvrability and fun.

Fastest at 21.2mph was the Zumbach Sport (£399.99), which looks like a traditional Rodel sledge, with wooden frame, webbing seat and (I’m guessing) metal runners of some kind.

Pollyanna’s favourite – just like my nephews’ top choice – was a plastic design with steering wheel and handbrake.

This Davos sledge, one of my best birthday presents of all time. I never did get the hang of big air, though. Maybe it needs a cushion

She also loved the Bobski (£55), a British invention that flies along and looks like it might be rather a handful (in a fun way). I have one, and we plan to give it a try this weekend in the Alps – I’ll let you know how it goes. Also in her top five were the extremes, price-wise, of the Zumbach and the UFO.

I’m not sure if she tried one that impressed us greatly – the Zibob, a Swiss-made shaped red box with a handle that “carves” and is as fun for adults as children. Check out the Zibob race schedule for the year here

Happy sledging, if you’re anywhere near the snow, and remember, some sledges are meant to feel slightly out of control…

PS: 2/1/2012 – you can now see the Country Life article in pdf form by clicking here.

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Filed under Gear, Link to film, Transport