Tag Archives: Tignes

30/3/12 – Where to go for April snow?

Spring-like Ischgl slopes this time last year

Spring ski deals have been landing in my inbox thick and fast this week. Inghams has amazing April savings – Courchevel or St Christoph am Arlberg for £349, including flights and half-board – while Powder White has slashed hundreds of pounds off holidays in St Anton and Meribel and extended the season for several of its properties. I’m sure Crystal, Iglu Ski and other operators and agents have bargains as well.

Most cut-price offers are chalet-based – not my ideal set-up as I prefer b&b or self-catering to take advantage of “local life” – but when such great savings are on offer, no matter.

Do be aware, however, that even in a bumper snow year it’s still worth aiming high (a top of somewhere around 3,000m, I suggest) if you want quality conditions.

Afternoon ski-touring in the woods near Anzere

Even if – like in many places – you still have a metre of snow at village level, if it’s 20 degrees by day then that snow will be foot-deep slush by 2pm unless you’re properly high and – just as crucially – north-ish facing.

Last weekend in south-facing Anzere, which still has mountains of snow in the village (at 1,500m), by 1pm it was over, even on upper slopes (2,400m). I was happy to ski in the morning and go touring through the woods in the afternoon, or sit on the balcony or swim at the great new indoor-outdoor pool (more on this nice, affordable Swiss resort here).

The high slopes at Grimentz last weekend

By contrast an hour away in the Val d’Anniviers, the resorts of Zinal and Grimentz had wintry piste conditions from three of their top stations (each around 2,800-2,900m), and the week-old, tracked-out powder by the side wasn’t bad either. The crucial thing was that the worthwhile top slopes were north or north-east facing (the fourth top, which faces south at 2,800m, was heavy slush by lunchtime).

The other consideration is that places where you typically find lovely “firn” or “corn snow” off-piste at this time of year (caused by freeze-thaw) may not be as good as usual.

A wet-snow slide of the full snowpack that started on a slope of around 30 degrees and crept a surprisingly long way

In Anzere you can often ski almost every square inch of south-facing slope safely during freeze-thaw if you catch it at the right time of day.

However, the cracks in the snowpack that appeared in December – after 2m of snow fell on warm, bare ground – are still there. They haven’t responded well to blasting, but some readily slide off by themselves.

Sunny side up: lunch outdoors is a pleasure of a spring trip. Just don't necessarily expect to do much skiing afterwards

“Hors piste interdit”, read a sign at the top of Le Bate at Anzere, and patrollers were posted at strategic spots near the cracks, on the alert for one to turn into something like the lift-destroying, wet-snow slide of a few weeks ago near Valmorel in France (watch the footage here).

I may not ski this April, but if I was planning a trip for myself – an affordable week or long weekend with the hope of off-piste and enough late-season après-life – these are the places I’d consider:

The Guspis off-piste run at Andermatt in wintry conditions - but this is a good spring bet, too

Engelberg (Switzerland, nearest airport Zurich) – slopes to at least 3,000m, largely north-facing; open till 29 May; great guiding office (see my article about that here).

Monterosa (Italy, Milan or Turin) – Amazingly, until this resort closes on 15 April this Italian “three valleys” is offering a free lift pass to everyone who stays three or more nights (half-board) in Gressoney or Champoluc. The slopes go to about 3,200m and face in all directions, and there are legendary off-piste runs down wild valleys (with cheapish guiding) and superb, great-value food on and off the mountain.

Andermatt (Switzerland, Zurich) – Lower Naetschen will be closed, but the 3,000-ish-metre Gemsstock mountain has an amazing north-facing bowl and various back routes. Read more in my Telegraph report here.

Zermatt (Switzerland, Zurich or Geneva) – several high tops and possible guided descent of Schwarztor. Stay in the Walliserhof for a treat or the Alphubel for a bargain. My sister has found a super-cheap, central, family apartment but it’s such a steal that it has to remain top secret so she can always get in. Sorry!

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

Ischgl (Austria, Innsbruck or Zurich) – up to 2,800-ish, but the main thing is that it has a lot of upper slopes and they face in various directions. A year ago we had a lot of fun there with Jim Costelloe, a Ski Club of GB leader who found us fabulous snow despite very scant cover. A friend and I even did an easy self-guided tour up a side-valley – although this year it would probably be less safe.

Tignes (France, Geneva or Chambery I think) – When there was virtually no snow last November, we had great conditions on the glacier. Stay on the upper slopes throughout the area for quality snow and see here for more about its group off-piste days out. Go the first weekend of May to catch the Black Shoes Telemark Festival’s 20th anniversary. The other high French resorts (Deux Alpes, Alpe d’Huez, Val Thorens) should be fine, too.

Obergurgl and/or Soelden (Austria, Innsbruck, Zurich or Salzburg) – They didn’t benefit from the big weather fronts in December and January, which approached from the north and blanketed the Arlberg again and again before arriving in the Oetz valley as wind. But now, conditions look great. Take the bus to the Aquadome at Langenfeld if it’s boiling hot in the afternoon and don’t miss the Nederhut après-ski on Mon, Wed and Fri.

I’m a great fan of St Anton, where I have been late in the season several times (most lately to do the Weisse Rausch, a mad annual race), but I recommend it less as a late-season place than my two other Austrian tips, as the number of its slopes that are really up near its tops, as well as being north-ish facing, seems to be fewer for its size, and rather scattered about, compared with other options. But if you like a busy town with plenty of après-ski, this is still a good bet well into April.

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Link to film, Off-piste, Racing, Ski touring, Switzerland

5/12/11 – Snowheads: meet the virtual crowd who turn real on the slopes

Left to right: DeeJayDee, pixiebri and kwaka

I’m not much of a technophile, but I’m starting to see the light after a week on holiday with the good folk from snowHeads, an online community of nearly 28,000, which organises five or six “bashes” (ski trips) each winter. Last week I joined the site’s “PSB11” (pre-season bash 2011) in Tignes with 120 snowHeads, and they used their social network in ever such sensible ways.

Even before we got to the slopes, technology swung into action. On the snowHeads coach en route from Geneva airport to Tignes last Saturday, flowa, a smiley New Zealander in her 30s, let her wallet and phone slip out of her pocket while ducking out for an emergency pee in a lay-by near Annecy.

Half an hour and 50km later, she realised they were missing. What to do? Enter HolidayLoverXX – a seasoned “bash”er – a few seats away, who recalled that a snowHead named paulio lived nearby and might be able to help. Using a smartphone, someone sent paulio a PM (private message) asking if he might be able to help find the missing items.

Scroll forward to breakfast the next day and paulio replied he’d be delighted to help, but clear directions to the spot were needed. Enter HolidayLoverXX again with her laptop, looking up Annecy on Google Maps. A bit of street view sleuthing followed, and flowa thought she recognised a roundabout near the lay-by. A couple of clicks further revealed it to be the very lay-by. Tarquin – a Yorkshireman – identified the coordinates of the spot and sent them to paulio.

Paulio replied that he would drive to the spot, and ordered flowa to go skiing. By 1.30pm, news arrived that he had found the items.

Next step: how to transport them from Annecy to Tignes. HolidayLoverXX and Tarquin contacted eng-CH, who was due to drive up to the PSB that evening, to ask if she’d divert to pick them up from paulio. And so she did.

As flowa said – posting a thank-you note and an account of the triumph on snowHeads the next day, “What a team, what a community”. See flowa’s full post here – from which, you’ll see, I have borrowed extracts for this account; credit and thank you to flowa – http://tinyurl.com/cj76nwd – and scroll down to see reaction from other snowHeads.

PMs and texts were also key to arrangements both during and before the trip.

A fortnight before departure day, I had a PM in my snowHeads inbox from NicSnow, a London-based snowHead who was organising a pre-PSB11 get-together on a Friday night in a London pub. I was already busy, but 30 people turned up and had a great evening. Then, the night before the flight out, I received a text. “If you get to LHR in time tomorrow there’s a plan to meet in the Tin Goose in T1 after security!” It was great way make people feel welcome, especially those who came to the PSB on their own.

Cyber-charged ski-testing

The first couple of days, there were further useful, concise texts about boot-fitting, transceiver practice, a vodka party and free vin chaud. There was another about discounts in a restaurant – claimable on presentation of a snowHeads ‘snowcard’, a snazzy, barcoded photocard each of us had been given on arrival – and another about an avalanche safety talk.

Even for ski-testing, there was a cyber-angle. When Kneissl, White Dot, DPS and Salomon – invited by snowHeads to be present at the PSB11 – handed out skis, they scanned a barcode on each tester’s snowcard and matched it with the barcode on the skis. It’s all being uploaded to the site, so – theoretically – each of us should, on our return, have an online record of which skis we’ve tested. Genius!

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Filed under France, Gear

3/12/11 – Something is falling from the sky

View towards Mont Blanc from the Grande Motte yesterday: finally. a change from blue skies

Tiny flakes were swirling around the top of the Grande Motte yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t quite snow, but it wasn’t wind displacement either.

It was a kind of wafty dust that barely settled on my jacket, and later on, in the village, I saw a more substantial lone snowdrop float down from the sky. But despite predictions from weather-watchers of “snowfall at 10pm”, the sky cleared overnight.

Tignes Val Claret this morning, outside Hotel Curling

This morning, over Tignes Val Claret, where I’ve been staying this week, the cloud was much lower, enveloping the valley and spitting out miniscule flakes of something that was almost snow.

“Il neige!” I said optimistically to a man sweeping the steps (of dirt, not snow) outside the apartment on the way to breakfast. “Ce n’est pas de la neige,” he harrumphed. “C’est du givre.”

Tempted? I wasn't. The MM run back to Val Claret this morning

I looked up givre. “Tres fine couche de glace se formant par condensation du brouillard.” My inexpert French tells me this means a fine layer of ice formed by condensation from fog.

Whatever the stuff is, it’s still falling and has gathered pace a little. I’m leaving town this afternoon and didn’t think the mountain looked tempting enough to ski today, so I can’t tell you what’s going on up top.

Why the excitement? Well, in case you haven’t heard, the arrival – or not – of snow is on everyone’s minds in every ski resort in the Alps. Nothing has fallen for a month, and locals say there hasn’t been so little cover at this time of year for 50 years. The skies have been so clear this week that I’m coming home with a spring-like tan.

Midweek on the 3500 t-bar, with perfect visibility as well as great snow

Having said that, conditions have been excellent, thanks to the glacier and snowmaking. The funicular, Grande Motte cable car, Lanche and Vanoise chairs, and Rosolin, Champagny and 3500 t-bars, and the runs they serve, are in full swing – even if the odd tiny crevasse is visible on the piste and you have to watch out for patches of glacial ice. Yesterday, the Bollin chair opened, too – with 100 per cent artificial snow.

The forecast, according to the printed bulletin in the Grande Motte cable-car station, is for some kind of precipitation some time over the weekend – definitely more than a dusting of givre – and for unsettled weather next week.

Other forecasts are even more optimistic: the Ski Club of GB says 60cm of snow is forecast in Tignes, with snowfall every day from tomorrow; snow-forecast.com says something similar, starting with 10cm tomorrow. The picture looks similar across the Alps. I hope the forecasters are right!

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27/11/11 – Scant snow, much fun and the power of the internet

Winter hasn't arrived - but conditions on the run to Val Claret are excellent

I’m on an unusual sort of ski trip this week. My companions – some of whom may become new friends – have names such as DeeJayDee, faceplantress, Piste_Rider and Schuss in Boots. Some of them bring laptops to breakfast and there are smartphones, headphones and gadgets aplenty.

No, it’s not some kind of secret conference, but the “pre-season bash” of an internet forum called Snowheads. Or, more correctly, snowHeads. As a recent arrival to the forum, I’ve found it an excellent source of anecdotal info from its opinionated, usually well-informed users. In turn I’ve answered various questions put by other snowHeads, sometimes by linking to a relevant post on this blog. More than 27,000 people are registered to the site, 120 of whom are on this holiday. A friend and I wanted a super-cheap, high-altitude late November ski holiday with some new people, so we went for this.

The view towards Val d'Isere, where the snow has held on north-facing slopes

We’re in Tignes Val Claret, one of a handful of places in the Alps with reasonable snow at the start of a winter that hasn’t yet arrived. Almost exactly a year ago, when I was in Tignes Lac doing the Ski Club of GB leaders’ course, we had daily blizzards and temperatures were as low as minus-30. This time, it’s glacier skiing only, plus artificial snow down to the resort.

On the Grande Motte glacier this afternoon

However, conditions are surprisingly good; wintry, grippy snow, with the odd slab of glacial ice underneath to keep you on your toes, plus blue skies, and views that look more like the Atlas mountains in summer than the Alps in winter.

It’s busy but not over-run, with French, British, Americans and other nationalities race-training, the French army attempting some off-piste and a ski school or two doing pre-season training.

In the other direction - not a flake in sight

Several ski firms have brought their latest models for our group to try – and plenty of non-snowHeads are testing them too. Bridget – the friend I’m travelling with – and I enjoyed matching pairs of Kneissl GSes all afternoon: much better on the piste than our all-mountain planks.

So now to apres-ski. The main conundrum: whether to introduce oneself by forum tag or real name? Most people, so far, have been doing both, and it has made quite a good ice-breaker, but I think people will “‘relax” into real names, especially if they venture beyond our hotel bar. After all, when it comes to your round, you can’t really say, “Spud9, are you having the same as Brokenwing, or is HompHomp getting you one already?”

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18/7/11 – Is it too soon to dream about powder?

Well, there are a few blue runs - picture by Nick Lowe

Last week I found out where the Ski Club of Great Britain plans to send me as a leader next season. I’ve been asked to return to Fernie in British Columbia, Canada, where I spent three weeks earlier this year. I’m delighted as I had a great time there. It means I’ll be able to re-use not only the several unattractive serious-sub-zero neoprene masks but the map that is still in my head of hundred-plus runs (most of which are ungroomed: see previous posts such as these http://tinyurl.com/6g6p9l6 and http://tinyurl.com/6knhh5y).

Fernie has extra appeal for Brits this year because you can fly much closer than you could in past years, to Cranbrook an hour away rather than Calgary nearly four hours away, with Inghams. I hope to give this a try.

This was the weather we liked

The resort’s slogan is ‘Legendary Powder’ and last season, it certainly was. When a New Zealander friend of mine, Chris Johnson,visited me there in February, it snowed every day – and on average every other day of my entire stay. I soon loved the trees as they make for good visibility in all conditions and the snow stays better among them for longer. They are almost everywhere, as the top station is at less than 2,000m. See what it was like here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VECeNhuTLc.

When I spoke to Matt Mosteller (read his blog at www.skircr.com/matts-blog) from the tourist board a month ago, he said there was still four metres mid-mountain, two months after Fernie’s lifts had closed. When I go next year I’d also like to visit nearby Red Mountain – another ‘steep and deep’ spot – and White Fish, just over the US border in Montana. I also want to buy a ‘ski skirt’ of the kind worn by locals to stop them getting a wet behind on chair-lifts.

Just to explain, Ski Club leading works as follows. Competent, confident skiers and boarders can apply to enrol on the two-week Ski Club of GB leaders’ course, which is held each December in Tignes, France. Applicants need two references who will attest to their ability  on two planks (or one), as well as to their off-piste experience, and they must attend an interview. The course cost me around £2,000 once I’d paid fees, travel and extras. It involves tuition on and off-piste, snowcraft, avalanche essentials, basic rescue, leadership, Ski Club policy and so on. Some of the teachers are respected names, such as mountain guides Nigel Shepherd and Kathy Murphy and technique guru Phil Smith.

From a skiing and social perspective it’s a highly worthwhile course, whether or not you plan to ‘lead’. See the blog posts of December 2010, starting with this one – http://tinyurl.com/69mgah9 – to find out what goes on. If you pass, you may be sent for a few weeks to one of the Ski Club’s 34 resorts that host leaders. Each leader appoints a skiing meeting time and place six days a week, plus a daily ‘social hour’, and members in those resorts can join the leader for free – at a specified level each day, from intermediate to advanced, including ‘near-piste’ off-piste some days. Non-members can sign up for a free taster day, and sometimes the leader will organise a group to go out with a mountain guide.

During my time in Fernie, between one and half a dozen members came along most days. Only on three days in the three weeks did the members want to ski on piste, which illustrates the sort of skiers who love the place – and the ‘in-bounds’ and ‘out-of-bounds’ system, plus the very clear closed signs, made it easy to choose safe powder routes. I was glad I had no days with no ski buddies at all, as I’m not a fan of skiing by myself.

The system and leaders’ course has been around since the 1960s and it works pretty well – although the club has plenty of leaders at the moment so beware, if you sign up to this year’s course I gather they may not guarantee you a ‘slot’.

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Filed under Canada, France, Link to film, Off-piste, Transport

17/12/10 – SCGB leaders’ course: performing arts

Ski Club trainers-turned-entertainers

Yesterday afternoon the big moment arrived when around 40 sealed envelopes containing course results materialised in the salon of Hotel Levanna. Everyone who passed has been given a Ski Club of GB Leader grading (A to C), a ski grading on- and off-piste (purple to gold, as for Ski Club Freshtracks trips) and a fitness grading (1 to 10). There was celebration, relief, surprise and – for just a few – deflation, but our mission was far from over, as there was a final important hurdle to clear: Thursday night’s cabaret act, to be performed by our seven ski groups and our team of trainers.

Action off and on the slopes and a lively bunch of characters in terms of both candidates and trainers provided plentiful material for the sketches – which ranged from a shockingly frank poem to a hilarious horse race to a one-man stand-up (one group was badly hit by injuries). For me, the trainers’ effort in ripping us mercilessly apart was the winner, and an hour some had dreaded left most of us crying with laughter. I’d love to tell you more, but I’m afraid the content was rather too juicy to describe on a family website…

Yesterday was also race day, preceded by a fascinating visit to the Toviere pisteurs’ hut and a team photo after breakfast, in which I suspect some faces will look rather wild-eyed: Jack’s nightclub has been raking it in the past few nights. Olly Sloper – the youngest on the course at 21 – was the one to beat in the giant slalom Phil Smith set on the glacier, and he and I were the only trainees to have done significant racing (mine in the very more distant past than his…). Olly duly tore down in about 41sec and I was a couple of seconds behind. Yes, I admit it, both of us had our skis filed and waxed – but to counter that we stayed out trying to sabotage each other until 4am the previous night. Three of my Patagonia team-mates – also keen party people – did great runs to take the next few places.

There were certainly no catsuits on display: at 3pm it was minus-20 at Val Claret and the gale on the glacier made our race venue decidedly chilly. The past few days, in fact, I have been feeling like the Michelin woman, wearing two layers of Merino wool and two of cashmere, two sets of long johns and a pair of disposable toe-warmers. During our brilliant performance session with Phil Smith on Wednesday, some members of Patagonia group were breathing on each others’ cheeks to ward off frostbite and some reported icicles in their socks. In another group, would-be leader Jim Costelloe’s big toe went white and numb with frostbite: word has it he has been prescribed Viagra to ward off gangrene.

So the results are in, we all know what we think of each other, and some of us have been allocated exciting leading slots for the coming season (see the reps’ section of this website in due course to find out where we’re going). And suddenly, this morning, as we opened the curtains to a blanket of new snow – still falling softly – the adventure was over. Well – almost. Lost keys, unpaid bills and missing persons delayed our bus’s 8.30am departure by 45 minutes. Then reports started filtering in that Geneva airport was closed. Then we heard that Heathrow might be closed. At Bourg Saint Maurice our bus’s electrics gave up and we transferred to another one. On through the snow we ploughed, arriving in Geneva a good two hours later than scheduled. But no worries – Geneva is in chaos, all flights are delayed, and everyone is taking the opportunity to say their goodbyes over a final beer in the bar!

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14/12/10 – SCGB leaders’ course: heading downhill fast

Men's World Cup GS at La Daille

Nine days into our Ski Club leader training, most of us are getting the hang of it and the end is in sight. For some, our day off on Saturday provided a breather from a pretty relentless programme. Some slunk back to bed; some had fillet steak and champagne at La Folie Douce; some discovered the water-slides at Le Lagon. For me, it turned into a brilliant ski day after I teamed up with a couple of others who weren’t suffering too severe a hangover.

Our blast around the mountain took in forgiving, well-skiied crust, freshly formed moguls and powdery pistes as well as the men’s World Cup giant slalom at La Daille, where we warmed up with tasty 1 Euro vins chauds. On a remarkably uncrowded Solaise we found untracked powder before knackering ourselves hurrying back to catch the last Tommeuses chair.

Back in training on Sunday, armed with shovels, probes and transceivers of varying sophistication, Patagonia group played hunt the treasure, first in a playground, then up the mountain. Never has our six-some behaved so harmoniously as when seeking and digging up “bodies” in a mock avalanche scenario and we were rewarded with a huge smile from British-born, Chamonix-based mountain guide Kathy Murphy as her stopwatch clocked seven minutes, the best time yet this week. Kathy proved a superb teacher whose patience in the face of masculine banter revolving around probe lengths and penetration was awe-inspiring.

Finally for today, is it my imagination or are some of the party animals slowing down? I’m convinced I spotted a hitherto carefree individual or two anxiously cradling our “bible”, the Ski Club leader manual, and slinking roomwards at going-out time. The sauna, too, was strangely quiet on Monday. I suspect the swotting has begun in earnest for Wednesday’s written exam…

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Filed under France