Cloudy Resort Day

Colin, Rob, Sandy, Laurent: Returning to town

Location: Verbier
Snow: Firm pistes, rough off-piste
Weather: Overcast & windy

Still waiting for the snow to really hit Chamonix, so back to Verbier today for what we hoped would be some nice sunny resort laps.  Unfortunately the weather turned out far worse than forecast, starting cloudy and ending up completely overcast and a bit windy.  Still, some good fun laps with a big group including Guillem and Naila who we convinced to have a break from their rando skiing; well done Naila getting on well on her first time ever on alpine skis & boots!  We took a chance by skiing back to Verbier town at the end of the day which turned out fine – maybe the best snow of the day (softer lower down) and just a few rocky sections to avoid at the end.

I’ve heard from a pretty reliable source that Chamonix’s Grands Montets lift area is only a “maybe” for opening a week on Saturday (20th December) depending on temperatures and snow, contrary to what the Compagnie Du Mont Blanc website currently states.  Let’s wait and see…

Quick Laps Up High

Graham, Sandy: Access to our second descent

Location: Helbronner
Snow: 10-15cm powder, some slightly wind-affected
Weather: Sunny but cold

Now we’re getting there.  Things are feeling more and more wintery every day in Chamonix; the snow line is still around 1800m but the trees are looking frosty and temperatures are pretty low.  Up high conditions have been reportedly pretty good with routes off the Tour Ronde seeing heavy traffic in the past few days, accessed from the Helbronner lifts on the Italian side of Mont Blanc.  We were keen to avoid the crowds today, and also to avoid too much hiking at high altitude after spending most of the summer below 2000m so set our sites on something off the Aiguille d’Entrèves or Col d’Entrèves from a lazy mid-morning start.

The new Helbronner lift line still isn’t ready so it’s the same story as the last two years: park in La Palud, take the two old cabins up to the second mid-station then walk the steps to the top.  Just be sure to pace yourself on the steps on your first visit!  We could see some ski tracks going down to the Pavillon midstation but the descent from the Aiguille d’Entrèves was a bit rocky, the Toule Glacier full of open crevasses & wind-affected snow and the exit very thinly covered so we abandoned plans and just took a couple of easy descents towards the Vallée Blanche which we know pretty well from skiing home from Italy.

The terrain was very mellow but covered in nice smooth powder for the most part for a nice cruise down until we stopped a safe distance from some very obvious crevasses each time.  The skin back up was pretty quick and easy and my touring boots were feeling good on their first outing of the winter.  An excellent cappuccino break in the top station finished things off nicely before getting the lifts back down to the car, then another cappuccino at the bottom; why not?

Lorne: Easy skin back up

Not a day to brag about to your friends but a fun one, which is all that really matters isn’t it?

Getting There

Kev, Angus, Rob: Off-piste access above the clouds

Location: Verbier
Snow: Pistes excellent with some bumps/ice; off-piste variable
Weather: Sunny & cold above the clouds

The slow start to winter 2014/2015 continues with no significant snowfall anywhere near Chamonix in the past few weeks.  A slow start suits me fine at the moment as I’ve had a lot of work on but things are settling down now and I’m ready for some skiing.  Cervinia was an idea for earlier in the week but weather, travel time and costs meant a change of plan to Verbier today for an easy blast around the pistes.

Thick cloud was sitting above Verbier town but luckily we broke through it above 2300m to be faced with bluebird conditions, mostly very nice pistes and skiable off-piste (some firm bumps, some soft patches, some rocks).  The Chaux-Express chairlift/gondola is now running (from the bottom of the park, near Jumbo) which let us cut left off the main frontside piste and cross to find the best piste conditions of the day on both variations and some fun rolls and gaps to find.

Maybe the best part of the day: new skis.  I told myself I didn’t need any new skis this year, and I really didn’t, but ended up with two new (old) pairs last week anyway: some shorter Katanas (€100) and some Dynastar Arno Adams circa 1999 (€5).  At those prices I couldn’t say no!  First day on the Katanas today and they were perfect for the conditions; everything I love about my 198s but in an easier to manage length for sub-par conditions.  I bought them as rock skis but might end up skiing them quite a lot, we’ll see.

Angus: Dealing with variable off-piste snow

Weather forecasts for the next week are constantly changing, so anything could happen.  The snow will come, don’t worry!

Mid-November Powder Day

Lorne: Making the most of early-season powder (photo © <a href="https://www.facebook.com/SorenRickardsPhotography" target="_blank">Soren Rickards</a>)

Location: Cervinia
Snow: Perfect pistes; 15-20cm powder on a good base off-piste, some slightly wind-affected, no rocks
Weather: Mostly sunny

Yes, a real resort powder day on 13th November.  I had heard reports of Zermatt getting a lot of snow last week and Ross Cluley had stories of good conditions from Cervinia on Monday, so after yesterday’s further snowfall a return trip through there was definitely the right call for today.

Cervinia is the Italian resort linked to the Zermatt ski area, both sitting directly under the iconic Matterhorn.  An early start got us through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, on to Aosta and up to Cervinia for 9.45am and things definitely felt more wintery than in Chamonix.  Early-season lift tickets are €31 for the Italian lifts, plus a refundable €5 lift card but I managed to use my St Bernard card I had in my bag.  We were first told that only two chairlifts were running but as avalanche control took place most began to open.

Off the chairlifts the terrain was very mellow so we stuck to the pistes to warm up in perfect conditions.  Once the gondola and large cablecar opened up it was time to see how the snow really was.  Entering the face under the cablecar wires things felt deep but a little wind-affected so we played it safe and stayed away from the steeper rolling sections but still had plenty fun at high speed in boot-top powder.  Even once things got tracked-out in the afternoon this area was still skiing well and I didn’t hit a rock all day.  Definitely wishing I’d taken some newer, fatter skis rather than my trusty Volkl Explosivs!

The scenery today is worth a mention as well.  Many people talk about Chamonix’s views but they are nothing compared to the Matterhorn towering over you or the shape of the mountains around the Aosta valley.  Lunch too; a typical Italian ski day affair of large cheap portions and €1 coffees in the sun.  No complaints.

Today’s powder has gotten me even more in the mood for winter 14/15.  If today had been a mid-February powder day it would have still been one worth talking about.  With the costs of travel and lift pass I’m not sure if I’ll be back this winter but it’s definitely worth doing once per year before most other areas’ lifts open, especially if conditions are looking as good as today’s.  And I’m sure that Cervinia or Zermatt would make an amazing family holiday destination.

Early Start

Graham: Best snow of the day off the Funispace cat track

Location: Verbier
Snow: Decent on piste, 10cm powder off piste with some crust and lots of rocks
Weather: Bluebird

Not the earliest start to a morning’s skiing but the earliest in the year I’ve skied since Hintertux in 2009.  I’m not totally ready for winter yet but with a few of Verbier’s lifts open on weekends from today and a road trip on the cards I couldn’t say no.  A mad rush yesterday got my car ready, winter tyres and roof rack fitted, and back home I got my winter gear out while biking kit still littered my room.  Luckily I bought my new ski clothes at the start of summer and am totally happy with my skis for the first time ever, so I was ready enough.

Verbier’s usual early-season lifts were open today – Le Chable/Verbier gondola, Funispace big gondola and Lac Des Vaux 4-man chair over the back – plus the Lac Des Vaux 3-man chair too.  Only the pistes on the back side were officially open (skiing pretty well) but the Funispace piste had been somewhat prepared with most sections skiing fine and the steeper sections essentially rocky off piste skiing.

Off piste the snow was powdery and skiing well but a lot of rocks were lurking under the surface so don’t break out your brand new fat skis just yet!  Some skiers were making some nice turns and small drops off the back side but we played safer and found some good fresh turns off the second cat track skier’s-left off the Funispace piste.  Snow which catches a lot of sun was bulletproof crust but as long as you anticipated it you were fine (see Graham’s photo).

Lorne: Funispace piste

By 1.30pm things were getting a bit busier and we had had the best snow of the day so we headed home.  Not amazing snow conditions at all, but it’s nice to be on snow again to whet our appetite for the winter ahead.  I’m still pretty busy with work before I can settle into winter but the whole day and even the routine of coming home after skiing, putting my gear away and putting a blog post up has really gotten me in the mood.

More snow is incoming in the middle of the week so we’ll see how that turns out for a return trip next weekend or maybe some touring.

Late Summer

Graham & Spence: Le Tour, looking towards the Mont Blanc Massif (16th September)

OK, “autumn” if you like, but I like to just think of winter and summer.  If I’m skiing it’s winter, if I’m biking it’s summer. Easy.

Right after the Ultra Trail weekend at the end of August my predicted exodus of 15,000 visitors more or less came true leaving empty streets, quiet trails and also bringing nice stable weather for most of September and October.

As the various lifts around the valley closed I managed to get good final rides in most areas.  Some horrendous communication between various companies resulted in the trains at the top end of the valley being closed for the final week of Le Tour’s lifts so I didn’t manage to get a final run to Trient but Les Houches provided the best days of the year in its closing weekend.

For the past 12 months Graham and I had been talking about linking up two of our big routes in Les Houches from last summer: the Bionassay Glacier trail and Col du Tricot.  Unfortunately our work schedules conspired against us and we weren’t able to ride it together so Graham rode it with Spence on the Friday while I hit it with Luke and Simon on the Saturday.  Then I repeated it on my own on the Sunday because it was that good.  About 1000m total climbing for 2200m of descending; it doesn’t get much better than that!

After the lifts closed I started to get pretty busy with work – driving, Boax Clothing winter prep and web design in equal measures – but still managed to get out for rides around the valley on my new clipless pedals & shoes which I’m loving.  Brevent’s October reopening provided some nice late-summer lift-access but I got a little bored up there and ended up having some better days exploring Le Péclerey above Le Planet and riding all the way back to Chamonix.

One of my last rides of the year, Le Péclerey (29th October)

I’ve just arrived back in Chamonix after a quick visit to Glasgow and Edinburgh to see family, friends and catch up with my doctors.  In 2008 my large intestine was removed after a short but intense spell of ulcerative colitis.  Two more major operations in 2009 got me back to full health and allowed me to live the life I wish, which I’m very grateful for.  I was signed off from the hospital register in 2012 but my surgeon was keen for some exams now just to be safe and my GP more concerned about my general health.  It’s all good news: they’re really happy with how I’m doing, initial exam results look good and my blood tests came back as “spot on”.  The summer’s biking has left my 5kg underweight again so I’ll be getting in shape for winter with the help cheese on every meal and many a pastry.  Wish me luck!

Some friends have gotten some skiing off the Midi already but for me it’s not worth it (hiking short laps at 3800m after a full summer of biking under 2000m, no thanks).  I’ll wait until winter hits properly; not long now.

Mid-Summer

Give Morzine local Will a taste of our alpine singletrack; Tete De Balme to Vallorcine (24th August)

It’s been a wet summer in Chamonix.  Exclamations of “27 days of rain in a month” and “the wettest summer in 55 years” have been made but really it’s not been as bad as some people are making out.  There’s only been one week of non-stop heavy rain and it has been warm enough for the mid-mountain to dry out enough between storms.  I’m sure the alpine climbers aren’t too happy with things but it’s still been fine for biking even for someone with as low a mud-tolerance as me.

Work for Boax Clothing is always slow outside of the ski season so I’ve been doing some transfer driving again on a casual contract which has kept things nice and flexible for working around the weather and I’ve built a few websites for local groups which lets me work when I like.  Some friends have been more locked into work schedules or just generally demotivated for whatever reasons, so there haven’t been as many roadtrips as usual and often no-one to ride with when a good window of weather has hit.  Luckily good biking can be done on your own much more safely than skiing can so solo rides have still been some of my best days of the summer, making my own plan for route variations all day long and riding until my legs give up.

High season sees a lot of hillwalkers flock to the Chamonix valley so  a lot of the rideable terrain around Brevent and Flegere is off-limits to bikes in July and August, and so a lot of June was spent on those natural technical trails.  Once into the busy period Les Houches and Le Tour offer lift-accessed purpose-built bike tracks but with Les Houches drying out much slower than Le Tour’s alpine terrain I spent most days at Le Tour, often getting a few bike park laps before riding over the back on classic alpine singletrack routes to Vallorcine and/or Trient then returning to Chamonix on any combination of the Planet, Grands Montets, Petit Balcon Nord/Sud and riverside trails.

Summit of Mont Buet, apologies for the black & white photo (10th August)

Early August saw a group of 18 of Dave’s friends take an all-day memorial hike up Mont Buet.  An early start up the Tré Les Eaux route saw us tackle a long approach and technical finish to reach the summit along the north ridge after 8 hours.  Before the summit we stopped at the point where Dave fell to look down the path he took and which I then skied that day, then had a break on the summit for a good feed including the last remaining Davey Sausages plus some tribute scotch eggs.  Excellent.

The ascent was long but interesting, and I got my usual summit feeling from skiing or biking, ready for the fun part of the day.  Unfortunately I discovered that hillwalking is not the same, and the 3 hour descent was no fun whatsoever but I got down, exhausted.  I’ll stick to hauling my skis or bike up hills from now on!

We’re just finishing the busiest weekend of the whole year in town, with holiday crowds still abundant plus 7000 runners for the UTMB ultra marathon weekend plus their supporters.  In the next few days the valley’s population will drop by around 15,000 and I’m really looking forward to what September has to bring.  The valley’s lifts are closing weekly so I’ll be getting some good final rides in all areas, and with Les Houches’s Bellevue cablecar the last to close some serious days are in the pipeline right to the end of the month to repeat a couple of big vertical-descent days up there, maybe even linking them up for a real classic, and plans are in place for a trip to Finale (Italy) at the start of October.

School Holiday Dates 14/15

A few friends have mentioned plans of a visit to Chamonix during winter 14/15 to me already so I’ve been looking up some school holiday dates to figure out the best weeks to visit and avoid.  So here are some calendars that will no doubt be useful to you too whether you’re a Chamonix resident figuring out when you want to work and play, or are planning a trip from the UK.

French schools are split into three groups.  The UK mostly shares the same holidays across the country and so bring more crowds to town than a single French school group does.  The calendars should be pretty clear anyway – more coloured lines mean a busier time in town, easy.

So it looks like we have a nice 5 week window of no holidays for most of January and the start of February, 3.5 clear weeks in March, and intermittent holidays in between.

January is my favourite time to ski, with the most consistent fresh snow and no crowds before the madness of the February holidays, but the gap in March can be excellent too – either hope for some good late-season snow or make the most of quiet spring conditions.  In between, get out on your touring skis to avoid the crowds!

Summertime!

Angus & Ruaridh: First ride of the summer (Caillet Buvette)

It’s official; summertime is here in the Chamonix valley.  The shorts are on, my hair is cut, BBQs have begun and the biking is already in full swing.

It’s my third summer of biking now and I’m loving it more and more each year as I progress and get to know the valley’s trails.  And I generally like the summer atmosphere in Chamonix more than in winter (especially early summer); heading out in mid-morning for a few fun sunny laps with not many others around definitely beats battling 8.30am lift queues!  If we could have the summer vibe combined with good skiing conditions we’d be sorted, but for now I’m happy to switch between the two every 6 months.

Chamonix’s lifts are due to open between the 14th and 28th of June, when we can mix things up between full-on downhill laps or use the lifts to get up to 2000m before exploring further on the bike.  Until then, it’s pedal and foot power all the way; not as good of an effort/reward ratio, but it’s our only choice and at least we’re getting fit in the process.  So we’ve been hitting all of our usual easy-access spots around the valley so far and also exploring a few new ones.

I’m also just back from a quick trip to Scotland for Angus & Kirsten’s wedding, plus a good opportunity to catch up with friends and family in Glasgow and Aberdeen.

Like me, Angus & Kirsten are now Chamonix residents but are originally from Glasgow’s southside, so the wedding was held in Errol Park between Perth and Dundee.  What a venue, and what a day!  The bride and groom are my oldest friends in Chamonix so it was a special wedding ceremony to witness, and many Chamonix friends made the trip over to share in the day and get stuck into some Scottish ceilidh dancing after dinner, plus share in a few beverages.  Excellent work by everyone involved in organising the day!

After a brutal drive home through Glasgow, Whitely Bay, Lincoln, Walthamstow, Dover and Dunkirk, I arrived back in Chamonix to find daily temperatures in the mid-twenties.  Just time to put the finishing touches to my bike and I’m ready for the lifts to start rolling and see how many roadtrips we tick off this summer’s list!

As always, stay tuned to Graham’s bike blog for more regular updates through summer.

And I’m Done

Lorne: Loving the first real powder of the winter (Courmayeur, 3rd January)

That’s my skiing finished for the winter.  The Midi remains open through summer but I’m not fancying anything up there and am now fully in summer mode with my shorts on, hair cut and my first bike ride of the year already in the bag.

Overall it’s been another good winter here.  December was a slow start with not much snow and low motivation but January and February’s excellent powder and quiet crowds sorted that out for some amazing days on the mountain with a solid group of ski partners and lots of new areas explored.  I was feeling fitter than I have done in a long time so have enjoyed my touring a bit more but there’s still nothing like quiet lift-accessed powder when it’s available!

It’s at this point that I would normally say that the most important thing is that all of my friends stayed safe through winter.  Sadly this was not the case this year and we lost Dave Tapsfield to the mountain on 25th February 2014.  Experiencing the death of a friend first hand will never leave me but I have come to terms with the the accident itself and dwelling on the details of the aftermath will never make them any easier to deal with so I’m carrying on in my own way.  The incident serves as a stark reminder of how quickly and easily things can go very bad in the mountains and I’m very thankful for the support from our community in Chamonix, the UK and worldwide, most of all to Graham, Colin and Alex for sharing some of the best days of the winter with me on the Midi Plan in the week following Dave’s death.  Skiing is what I love and I will continue to enjoy everything that it gives to me, now even more certain of my approach to how and where I ski in order to get the most fun from it as possible while weighing up risks and effort involved.

So thanks once again to everyone I skied with this winter, especially those who have helped with photos, and to everyone reading and commenting on the blog posts.  It’s now time to relax and enjoy the summer – stay tuned to Graham’s bike blog for regular updates on this summer’s adventures.

Until next winter!

  • Lorne Cameron: Chamonix Ski Blog

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