Category Archives: Off-piste

Get off those groomers

4/2/14 – On camera at Kicking Horse

 

Kicking Horse

Up high at the Horse

After months of bloglessness  it’s time to start posting again, as I’m back doing something worth writing about ski-wise. (I haven’t been idle since my last post by the way: I have got married, left my job and been settling into a new house/district 300 miles from my old home.)

Right now my ski-eenite husband, PJ, and I are on a fortnight’s road-trip in Canada, with a few days’ heliskiing along the way. Heliskiing! It’s on lots of people’s wish-lists and we are lucky enough to be about to do it, as a kind of winter honeymoon.

Powder highway

On the powder highway with two sunroofs

I’ll tell you more about the heli part later. For now, more about our warm-up, following the “powder highway” of British Columbia.

Not as powdery as sometimes (we have heard there’s more mountain biking than skiing at Whistler at the moment; luckily we are further inland, where there’s good cover), but first impressions were good: we disembarked at Calgary (Air Transat from Gatwick, 399 GBP each, including ski carriage, booked a fortnight in advance) into a blizzard.

Kicking Horse ski resort, Canada

Fresh snow at Kicking Horse, BC

We picked Kicking Horse (three hours’ drive from Calgary in easy conditions) as our first stop, cruising there in a rental car (4WD, about 500 GBP for two weeks) with two sunroofs.

KH has a reputation for nice, steep terrain and quiet slopes, many ungroomed. There’s a telecabin, rather than chilly chairlifts: a bonus when Jan/Feb temperatures are typically in the minus-teens.

Vagabond Lodge

Vagabond Lodge, a lovely welcoming place to stay, close to the lift

At the small base station – a handful of lodges, apartments, shops and restaurants – we checked into Vagabond Lodge, recommended in guidebooks and through word of mouth.

It turned out to be a winner. [Here, added later in February, is my review for the Telegraph.]

Ken and Lori Chilibeck, our hosts at Vagabond, arranged for us to take a mountain tour with Don, a seasoned local. He took us to his favourite spots and we all enjoyed making the most of the great conditions – 10cm of fresh snow on a decent base.

Kicking Horse

Yet another long mogul run. The mountains opposite are the Rockies

We explored more by ourselves on day two, dropping off the ridge into Feuz bowl (pronounced “fuse” by the Canadians), where the snow was in excellent shape after a rocky entry, and taking the “goat track” into Superbowl.

By day three we’d recovered from the time change and our legs were getting used to the “foreign” snow (lighter, colder, lots of moguls).

Vagabond Lodge lunch

Lunch at Vagabond pre-climb was make-your-own sandwiches. Another day it was Thai curry

At lunch, back at the lodge, Ken asked if we’d like to join him on a hike up a peak known as T2.

It’s within the ski area boundary, but the half-hour climb means it’s even quieter than the super-quiet other slopes.

What a privilege!

Climbing T2 at Kicking Horse

A little wobbly in places… It was easier not to hold onto the rope

The scenery was spectacular, the climb challenging enough (for me, a heights-o-phobe), the ski back down fantastic.

But pictures say so much more than words, so below is a link to the film Ken made of our adventure…

http://tinyurl.com/kulbxo2

Ken Chilibeck

Ken Chilibeck, once a star television reporter who covered Canada’s most important sport, hockey

Can you tell that Ken was a star sports reporter in a previous life? I hope heliskiing will be as much fun as our afternoon on T2.

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Filed under Canada, Link to film, Off-piste

20/4/13 – Now the snow really is coming down in Val

Val d'Isere snowfall

Somewhere in this picture is a car

What a difference two days makes. After four days of deep blue skies, thick fog yesterday turned into snow clouds by evening.

The flakes fell feebly at first, then during the night winter returned with gusto.

Today we awoke to an almighty 50cm of fresh snow at valley level – and it was still coming down.

Val d'Isere snowfall

At least 50cm fell at village level last night. And it has started again

The fogged-in valley echoed to the sound of blasting, and as we clicked into our bindings 50 yards from our chalet, we could hardly believe it – late-April powder, on the final day of our trip, after nearly a week of wonderful spring conditions.

The temperature was zero in the village.

Val d'Isere snowfall

Matching snow-blankets

At first only the nursery slopes were open but at 10.40am the Solaise Express cranked into action and dozens of rucksack- and headcam-clad powder hounds piled on up.

The air was filled with ear-splitting yipps as the first tracks decorated the fresh stuff.

Val d'Isere snowfall

Jean-Marc Pic in the deep stuff on Solaise

Up top it was way deeper than 50cm – closer to a metre, we reckoned – and people were sinking to their waists, tumbling about, losing skis, shrieking with joy.

We dipped into the trees lower down and thought we were in Canada.

Weight on both skis, quiet body, middle position, gentle up and down motion – it was a chance to practise the powder style, but sometimes we sank so deep it was easiest just to follow the fall line.

Val d'Isere powder

Dave, whose fat skis finally came into their own

Bellevarde opened around midday and we headed there next, doing a circuit towards La Daille (the Face was closed). The sun was pushing through and after we stopped for a bite at Triffolet the lower stretches were getting heavy.

By the time we crossed back to Solaise at 3pm conditions were a bit porridgey – no wonder, as the temperature had risen to six degrees.

Chalet Lafitenia hot tub at Le Chardon Mountain Lodges

Val d’Isere’s most scenic hot tub, at Chalet Lafitenia – ideal apres-ski after a day of powder

Our last run, nevertheless, was still brilliant, on a blanket of powder somewhat melted and shallower than morning, but powder still.

As I write, snow has begun to fall again, thickly, properly, and there’s another 15cm expected overnight.

Val d’Isere is open for two more weeks – I think it’ll be an end-of-season to remember.

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Filed under France, Off-piste

18/4/13 – The snow’s coming down in Val d’Isere

avalanche Val d'Isere

One of the many avalanches in Val d’Isere this week. Note the single point of release at the top

Never have I seen so many enormous avalanches all over the place as this week in Val d’Isere.

On slopes of every aspect, they have been tumbling down in giant proportions, engulfing acres of mountainside with tons of wet snow. Some have begun as slabs; others have a single release point no bigger than a handspan.

Many have widened to more than a hundred yards and travelled half a mile. Many must be at least 100 feet deep.

Sadly, a few days ago not far from the resort, three members of a ski touring group died in an avalanche soon after setting out from a mountain hut one morning (read a report about it here).

Lanches avalanche Tignes

This avalanche crossed the Lanches piste near Tignes Val Claret – after skiing hours

Several runs within the ski area are closed due either to avalanche danger or simply being crammed with avalanche debris – for instance, the blue Santons run and Piste L, from Solaise to Le Laisinant.

Above Val Claret, a giant wet-snow slide, with a single release point, spilled onto the Lanches piste on Monday evening.

Avalanche Val d'Isere

This is where Mattis (open) meets Piste L (closed, and filled with debris)

A couple of days ago a massive wet-snow slide blocked the road somewhere between Val d’Isere and Bourg St Maurice. The road was closed again for ‘Pida’ (blasting) yesterday. There are good bulletins on the Radio Val d’Isere website.

Where we’re staying, at Le Chardon Mountain Lodges, which has a sensational view towards Le Manchet and the Rocher du Charvet, we’ve been watching them from the hot tub each afternoon.

Usually they’re tumbling down the west side of the valley, and two days ago there was a spectacular display, way up the valley, far from lifts or any sane off-pisters.

Avalanche Val d'Isere

Here’s one on a west-facing slope

At 4.30m today, a slab broke off on the east side, showing that the time of day/aspect is not always predictable. It was just up the valley from the open Epaule du Charvet mogul run and ground to a halt by the summer sports pitches.

I was surprised by its speed – wet-snow avalanches certainly don’t always amble down, leaving time for people to get out of the way.

Despite the visible carnage, and the fact that the danger level has been at four since we arrived (and sometimes four/five), we have been on two fantastic day tours, led by a super-experienced French mountain guide in his fifties, Jean-Marc. The crucial thing in such conditions, is timing and route choice.

Cornices near Col d'Iseran

Cornices, facing east, near the Col d’Iseran

Yesterday, we rode the Le Fornet lifts and skied into the Col d’Iseran, where several groups were taking similar routes.

Our highest point was almost within touching distance of some horrific-looking cornices, but our route was safe. We started skinning at 10am, arrived at the top at 11.15, descended past the Refuge du Fond des Fours and arrived at the Manchet lift by midday.

Ski touring at Val d'Isere

Our happy group, this morning. After an hour and a half’s ascent, we skied down on perfect spring snow

Today, we took the lifts to the top of Cugnai, skied over the back on rattly, west-facing frozen slush, ascended past the same Refuge as yesterday, and continued climbing gentle, mostly east-facing slopes – with no other groups in sight – in the blazing sun to reach the top, drenched in sweat, by 11.30am.

Ski touring Val d'Isere

Exiting the valley we had plenty of debris to negotiate

Our descent, on beautiful, west-facing, untracked spring snow, culminated, near the valley floor, in traverses of the giant avalanches we had watched from the hot tub, now set into a mass of frozen boulders of snow. We were at Manchet just after midday.

Rain is forecast tomorrow – though it seems inconceivable it will arrive, looking at the deep blue sky this afternoon.

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5/4/13 – April skiing: where to go for a last blast

Fabulous spring skiing in Ischgl two years ago. This year, those brown patches are white

Fabulous spring skiing in Ischgl two years ago. This year, those brown patches are white

To round off this snow-blessed winter in the Alps and escape the persistent winter chill of home, if you have a few days and a few pounds to spare I suggest you go skiing.

I have a final trip booked, to Val d’Isere – not a usual haunt of mine as I generally head for Austria, Italy or Switzerland, but it will be a nice change. Last time I stayed there, apart from one short press trip a couple of years ago, was when I was training to be an Inghams rep nearly 20 years ago.

Anyway, if I didn’t have that trip booked, here are the places I’d consider…

1. Engelberg in Switzerland. The top slopes are open till May 26, the town is lively, there’s accommodation for all budgets (including a youth hostel) and it’s only an hour from Zurich airport. There are also some brilliant local guides. Read more about that in my Telegraph article from last season about where to join off-piste groups.

...and when the slush sets in, here's what you can do instead

…and when the slush sets in, here’s what you can do instead

Zermatt, where the views are at their best at the end of the season

Zermatt, where the views are at their best at the end of the season

2. Zermatt in Switzerland. It’s open till May 5, the town is vibrant, busy and full of ski mountaineering folk – and the shops, for once, are offering plenty of end-of-season bargains on gear (not forgetting the pyjamas, nighties and underwear, at Calida, towards the top of the main street). Again, there’s lodging for all budgets. But it’s far from the airport, so go for a week to make it worthwhile. Read more in the insider’s guide (and here is page 2) I compiled at the start of this season.

3. Obergurgl in Austria. It’s open till April 28, and with the village at about 1,900m and most of the skiing between there and 3,000m, there’s very quick access from hotel or b&b direct to the snow. What’s more, there’s fantastic touring, with a great choice of day tours. It’s less than 90 minutes from Innsbruck, and if winter flights have tailed off by the time you want to go, you can fly to Friedrichshafen, Salzburg or Zurich instead. Read my recent piece in the Telegraph, and my off-piste article from last year, to find out more.

4. Ischgl in Austria. The lifts aren’t due to close until May 1. I went late in the season a couple of years ago and despite it not being a good snow year, there was excellent cover thanks to super-efficient snowmaking earlier in the season. There’s good touring nearby in the Silvrettas – hire a guide and stay overnight in the Jamtal Hut (open till May 4), for instance. Keen apres-skiers will know its reputation for lively bars, which is merited – read more in past blogs of mine, such as this one, by entering ‘Ischgl’ in the search box on the right.

Just think of the tan you will get

Just think of the tan you will get

Other late-season favourites of mine are St Anton in Austria, which stays open till April 21; Alagna/Gressoney/Champoluc in Italy (only till April 14, sadly – but lift passes are free till then if you book three nights locally, and it’s amazing value for food and drink); or Cervinia in Italy, which shares Zermatt’s slopes but not its prices (open till May 5). An underrated place probably not on your radar is the Engadine, where Diavolezza/Lagalb stays open well until May 20, and Corvatsch until May 5. The area offers excellent ski touring too – and don’t be put off that it’s in the St Moritz area: there are hostels and modest b&bs as well as swanky hotels.

Of course, you could always plump for Colorado or Utah, where a snowstorm is meant to be heading right now, or for snowy Scotland, where conditions are excellent.

I’ll leave you with the details of four great cut-price deals that landed in my inbox  this week from Inghams, which might be worth a look if you can make a dash for the Alps at the last minute. I’m sure the other tour operators have similar offerings at equally appealing prices.

St Christoph, Austria. £349 for a week’s chalet-board (that means half-board, including wine with dinner and CHOCOLATES afterwards) in a chalet hotel with a pool and doorstep skiing, including return flight from Gatwick to Innsbruck on April 13.

St Anton, Austria. £349, chalet-board, similar to above. There’s no pool but the place, Chalet Gampen, looks pretty good, with whirlpool, sauna and all that stuff. Departing from Gatwick on April 13.

Tignes, France. £369 at Chalet Hotel Le Dome, described as ski-in, ski-out. Similar deal as above, flying to Chambery on April 13 from Gatwick – easily the best airport for Tignes, being about 90 minutes away.

Val Thorens, France – the high-altitude end of the Three Valleys. £369 at Chalet Anais, departing from Gatwick on April 13, flying to Chambery.

Happy holiday-hunting, if you have time!

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, France, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland, Transport, United States

14/2/12 – At last! I am in a movie!

A few months ago I went to see Flow State, a ski film, at a London cinema. Instead of trailers there were adverts or shorts supplied by the evening’s sponsors, which included Lake Tahoe, Skiset, Nissan and the Ski Club of Great Britain.

A film made by the Ski Club started rolling, and my companion, Kirstin, and I were smiling as we watched the turquoise-jacketed leaders, of which I am one, cruising around the mountain under blue skies with their… ahem… obedient, orderly, happy and very expert-looking band of British followers.

Our smiles froze when, suddenly, both of us appeared, looming in giant form over the darkened auditorium. I wish I could say we were wedeling, goddess-like, in feathery powder, but in fact we were in a distinctly un-Alpine setting.

Kirstin and Emma, the evening we caught the Ski Club cameraman's eye

Kirstin and Emma, the evening we caught the Ski Club cameraman’s eye

A couple of years before we had been videoed, together with a third friend, Emma, at the club’s summer party, knocking back the free early-evening glass of fizz.

The party was at the Hurlingham Club, a somewhat grander “white house” than Ski Club HQ in Wimbledon.

We were on screen for three seconds at the most, but it felt like a full minute as Kirstin and I sank into our seats, cringing.

Anyway, having got over the shock I wanted to have another look, so I made a quick search on Youtube. I couldn’t find it, but Kirstin made a more diligent search recently and tracked it down, under the catchline “Why join the Ski Club?”

It has had a mere 51 views as I write, which is similar to the average attracted by the far less consequential and decidedly unprofessional films I have put on Youtube (see here; my most popular by far, by the way, is of the Trofana Alm apres-ski bar at Ischgl).

As the people at the White House have gone to such trouble to put the film together, and were so nice as to think me and friends worth including, shall we try to up its view count?

You can see it here (we appear after about a minute).

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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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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