Just Pistes

Nice to get the piste skis up to speed

Location: Les Houches
Snow: Firm pistes
Weather: Bluebird

Just a few piste laps on the GS skis before work this morning.  Excellent firm snow, no crowds and not as cold as earlier in the week.

Lots of space on the back side of the mountain overlooking the Arve valley

Le Petit Croisse Baulet E Face

Graham: Dropping into the E face of Le Petit Croisse Baulet

Location: Portes du Mont Blanc
Snow: 25cm powder, a little sugary lower down
Weather: Bluebird, cold, windy up high

A little resort touring today from Megeve’s lifts, something we had heard is worth some short hikes and an area we know a little from summer biking.

From the Combloux base we took lifts up to Sommet des Salles before a quick 350m skin through Col de Jaillet to the summit of Le Petit Croisse Baulet.  We had originally planned to ski the NW face toward Giettaz but the snow looked much better on the E face so we changed plans for that.

Graham, Roddy: Halfway up to the summit

Off the summit we found nice boot-top powder on the fairly mellow face leading into some gullies where the snow turned a little sugary but still very nice to ski.  We continued down to rejoin the resort pistes and eventually made it after some some pretty nasty bushwhacking and sidestepping; next time I’d skin out to Col de Jaillet for an easier exit and a quick second lap.

Graham, Roddy: Considering an alternative exit route (we should have done it)

With time getting on and the snow on the NW face not looking great we abandoned plans for a second lap from the same peak and instead made a very quick skin up the groomed track to the north of Le Christomet which we know well from the summer.

Dropping in to the east from about halfway towards l’Eperon we enjoyed a short mellow powder field then some very fun skiing in clearings between the trees …then some more bushwhacking when we ended up in the riverbed.  We got out fine but staying way left or right next time would make it an easier job.

Graham: Nice mellow powder at the top of the second descent

First day on my new big touring skis today too: Invictus 108s which I’ve swapped my Kingpins onto.  Initial impressions are very good; heavy-ish, stiff-ish, powerful but pretty natural in the soft snow and decent on the piste (a bit of edge work will no doubt improve things).  I’m sure they’ll do a great job for their intended purpose.

Here We Go Again

Not me or my friends, but a nice intro photo (at the col between Tete de Balme and Croix de Fer)

Location: Le Tour/Vallorcine
Snow: 25cm powder on a good base, some wind-affected snow
Weather: Bluebird, cold

Proper snow is here, holiday crowds have left town and I’m kind of on top of things with work, work and work now, so time for some skiing.

Le Tour’s Tete de Balme chairlift didn’t open yesterday so we took a gamble and headed up there with hopes that it would today, but with touring gear packed in case it didn’t.  Just as well, as the lift status gave an 11am opening time when we checked it on the drive up.

Snow on the front side wasn’t looking great from yesterday so we skinned about half an hour from the Autannes chairlift to the Tete de Balme peak for a much-needed warm-up, keeping full layers, helmets and goggles on.  The other group that joined our ascent broke off towards Croix de Fer (maybe finding good or sketchy conditions) so we had the short descent towards the chairlift to ourselves on pretty nasty windblown snow, avoiding the steep deathtrap slopes above and right of the chairlift.

Trekkers for the skin up (not as shit as most people say they are)

Below the top of the lift the snow improved a lot; mostly just 20-25cm powder but creamy-smooth and with a good base; just one rock scrape for me all day.  Only the lifites and pisteurs had been down since the new snowfall so we stuck to the lift line, skiing flat-out on the fun mellow angles and rolls.

We arrived at the chairlift base at 10.45am just as the startup bell sounded and the lifties were as stoked as we were on the conditions, congratulating us on being their first customers of the winter.  Two more laps with barely anyone else on the lift next, then a couple more with a little more traffic which was mostly sticking to the same lines so it was easy to keep finding untouched snow without even having to go too far right from the lift line.

Colin: Heading from Tete de Balme peak to Tete de Balme chairlift on wind-scoured snow (Mont Buet in the background)

Colin: Deep

We headed home pretty early to save the legs for tomorrow, with the front-side pistes on the upper mountain in perfect condition and the home-run piste a bit icy.

Dinner at MBC coming up shortly; a classic end to a classic Monday ski day and I’m definitely in the mood for winter now.  Excellent to ski with my old pal Colin off the lifts for the first time in a couple of years too, now that he’s bought himself a lift pass!

The Longest Autumn

First ride back home after my Canada trip (Flegere, 31st October)

In recent years autumn has jumped from being my least favourite season of the year to possibly my favourite of all, with nice cool weather, a bit of moisture on the trails and very low crowds making for perfect biking conditions. After returning from Canada I was a little worried that I’d like Chamonix’s natural trails less than before, being much more rough & ready than those in BC and not purpose-built for biking, but it turned out to be the opposite situation; I felt like I was riding with more confidence than ever and enjoying them even more than usual.

Normally the Brevent lifts reopen for three weeks in November but this year it was Flegere for five weeks in October/November, so a little more time for easy-access 800m laps even though I don’t like the trails quite as much.  There’s always plenty other local stuff to hike or pedal too so I made the most of the dry weather while it lasted and kept my legs fit for ski season.

With great effort comes great reward (Plan de l'Aiguille, 1st November)

A couple of storms rolled into town in November so I put my bike away and got three decent ski days.  Then things got dry …very dry.

While some Chamonix locals were getting out ski touring during six weeks of no snowfall and trying to convince themselves and others how good it was I was more happy to get out pedalling again for what I consider to be more reward from less effort, and as the dry & mild weather continued I was really happy that I hadn’t decided to stay in ski mode this year once I started in November.  Luckily I found a few like-minded friends of friends to ride with and the longest autumn on record continued to provide really fun days through to early January including a few new variations of existing trails and and some roadtrips to some new spots, especially on the sunny side of the Aosta Valley where we met up with some of the friendliest locals ever for a couple of good shuttle days to finish off biking season.

Lovely autumn colours and trail conditions (Brevent, 7th December)

Incredible conditions on Who's Way after a big push up from Saint Gervais (18th December)

Final ride for now, and a very nice one to finish on with a good crew (Aosta, 5th January)

I was hoping for one more ride this week but with falling temperatures and a little snowfall I think biking is finished for a while.  Back on the skis soon.

Courmayeur Opening Day

Courmayeur does pretty good views

Location: Courmayeur
Snow: Fresh dense snow, rain crust below 2200m
Weather: Hazy cloud then sun

This week’s foehn wind has given us warm, dry weather in the Chamonix valley but on the Italian side of Mont Blanc there was a good amount of snowfall, just in time for Courmayeur’s opening day today.  Crowds were low (thanks for staying home everyone), the coffee was cheap and although the snow was quite heavy it was creamy smooth with no rocks hit all day and we found plenty of untracked gullies, rolls and drops off the Youla lift right up to the last lap.  Below about 2200m there was a pretty heavy rain crust (mostly breakable), but who cares when the skiing up high is this good?

Graham: Aye, that'll do

Rain-crusted pyramid jib & Mont Blanc

The next week looks pretty dry and warm.  I’ve washed off my bike and am getting into winter mode more and more but I’ll probably get back out on some rides this week anyway.

Lavancher Laps

Graham: Best snow of the day in the lower half of Lavancher Bowl

Location: Grands Montets
Snow: Mostly 15-20cm sugar
Weather: Hazy cloud, warm

Grands Montets’ Bochard gondola opened this weekend thanks to last week’s lower temperatures and new snow.  I didn’t make it up the hill yesterday but Graham reported decent conditions, so we headed up this morning for a couple of laps of Lavancher Bowl with touring gear for the return to midstation.

Not many tracks were leading into Lavancher so there was plenty of untouched smooth sugary snow for us for one run to the tunnel with an easy hike out on the piste and then one to the Pendent chairlift for a mellow skin back on the cat track.  There were a few rocks around but seeing as I was on broken skis it was nice not to care much and take long fast turns in the open sections but I only clipped a few lightly anyway.

Graham: Steeper little pitch

Very nice smooth sugary snow lower down

Things sound a bit warm and wet for the next week but there should be a bit of snow up high midweek and the base should be sorted nice and early this year for a change.  Maybe even some biking still to do at valley level.

Here We Go

Feeling good in the powder

Location: La Fouly
Snow: 30cm powder, some wind & sun-affected
Weather: Bluebird

Winter 16/17 is well and truly upon us.  After some bike maintenance on my return to Chamonix I only managed a few rides off the Flegere cablecar, one at Loriaz and an excellent late-afternoon descent from Plan de l’Aiguille before temperatures dropped last week and the snow started falling.  My bike still hasn’t had its end-of-season wash but I’m pretty doubtful that I’ll get back out on it this year so it’s ski time now.

Verbier had a few lifts open today but our passes don’t work there yet so we headed to the small Swiss resort of La Fouly for a quick tour on its mellow, grassy slopes.  After about 600m skinning on a mix of groomed cat-track, semi-groomed cat-track and skin track we were at the top of the resort with a few groups ahead of us.  Plenty of fresh snow for everyone today though; a good 30cm of powder for the most part, a little wind or sun-affected in places and not many rock strikes under the surface.

Graham: Tackling some powder single-handed between wrist operations

Little drop lower down

So not the most exciting day but not a bad way to kick off the winter either and it’s nice to get back into the winter routine anyway with my ski gear feeling good.  This week looks pretty sunny so I’ll maybe get some resort touring around Chamonix if I’m bored, and there looks like another good dump of snow incoming next weekend.

School Holiday Dates 2016/2017

Here are the UK and French school holiday dates for the upcoming winter.

Canada, Eh?

Upper Angry Pirate; one of my favourite park trails

Oh Canada.  I’m currently sitting in Glasgow after my first “real holiday” since 2008: 17 days spent staying in Whistler with my former Chamonix housemate Rob and hitting some of the best nearby riding spots.  Graham was set to come on the trip too until a nasty wrist injury put him out of action at the start of September; it was a real shame not to share it all with me as the friend who really got me into biking in the first place but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from enjoying myself!  Early or mid September would have been a better time to visit for drier weather and more time in the Whistler bike park but I had an Irish wedding to attend at the end of September and Graham was meant to be racing the last two EWS stages so flights had been booked to arrive on 5th October.

Thanks to some very nasty weather I only managed one wet day and two dry days in the park in the end, and only on the lower mountain due to snow closing the Garbanzo chairlift, but I really got a taste for why it is famous as one of the premier lift-accessed bike parks in the world.

Riding the perfectly smooth blue flow trails was a real treat compared to the 100% natural tracks I ride most of the time back home; nothing but fun berms and jumps, perfect to start me off.  I probably hit more jumps in the first two days than I have in the past five years, slowly getting my confidence up to hit some of the classic bigger jump trails by the end of the second day and feeling comfortable getting just a little bit sideways in the air for the first time on day three.  Some of the technical double-black trails were a little intimidating at times but I could pick my way down everything OK, and my favourite trails of all were the blacks which blended a bit of flow and tech together nicely.

Rock drop on Schleyer

Paul: Northshore drop on Fade to Black

Once the park shut I was really regretting not doing the trip in September after all, but after I had been on a few other trails I found that I preferred the riding outside of the park.  The trail-building culture in BC, from local bike authorities and individuals alike, is something we just don’t have back home; every track was purpose-made for biking and well documented on the excellent Trailforks app.  I felt I could ride as fast and as confidently as most of the group on these trails, compared to the in park where I felt a bit cautious a lot of the time, so could really enjoy them to their fullest.

As well as local rides in the Whistler valley I got to sample trails in Pemberton, Merritt, Kamloops and Lillooet, all with their own character and features, but I feel like I only scratched the surface of what each area has to offer.  See the photo captions below for trail names and locations.

My introduction to rock rolls on Green Monster (Whistler)

Nice views towards Mount Currie at the bottom of Stimulus (Whistler)

Accessing Rio Escondido (Kamloops)

Rob: Riding the whole Merritt/Kamloops trip on a twisted ankle

One of the best day's riding ever at Della Creek (Lillooet)

I’m already thinking about a return trip next autumn but there’s plenty to enjoy back home in the meantime.  Some friends have been skiing up high in Chamonix for a few weeks already but I’m not quite ready to scrape the storage wax off my skis yet; Flegere is open for the next five weeks with some new trails I want to explore, plus the usual classics around the valley to pedal up or maybe even some Canadian-style shuttle laps.

I’d like to give a big thank you to the new friends I rode with around Whistler, the old ones I met up with, and most of all to Rob and Kathleen for being such good hosts.  See you all next autumn I hope!

Very fun gully section at Della Creek (Lillooet)

September

Late-afternoon golden light at the top end of the valley

Ah, September.  Probably my favourite month of the Chamonix summer season, and one of my favourite of the whole year.  Town is a lot quieter with the main summer holiday season & UTMB race week finished, work contracts are coming to an end, the weather is still good and bikes are allowed back on some of the best trails in the valley.  Game on.

Graham: One of only two descents of the Sentier des Gardes this summer

After my ride-as-many-different-lifts-as-possible challenge with Graham last month I had another big link-up ride at the start of the month with a very different goal: to ride my favourite trail on every lift-accessed mountain between Vallorcine and Sallanches.  Another spreadsheet was required to plan out the timings and I managed it all, taking nine big descents on the back side of Le Tour, front side of Le Tour, Grands Montets, Flegere, Brevent, back side of Les Houches, front side of Saint Gervais, back side of Saint Gervais and back side of Megeve/Combloux to finish at Sallanches for a pedal & train back home.  All-in I covered 155km in 13 hours and descended over 10,000m for very little uphill effort.  By the last descent my legs and arms were ready to give up so I was kind of glad I ended on a pretty mellow route but very satisfied to have finished another big day and I definitely want to do a few more like this each year.  This style of riding is quite unique to the Chamonix valley and hopefully we’ll see more people taking advantage of this in the years to come.

Bikers, walkers, paragliders, wingsuiters (out of shot) and sightseers all enjoying September on Brevent

For the rest of the month the various lifts throughout the valley were closing one-by-one so I got some final descents in on my favourite trails even if a poorly-timed train closure meant retrieving my car by bus the next day or dropping it down the valley the night before.

My only descent of Col du Tricot this summer; always worth the effort to push up here

Final descent from the summer lifts on my favourite newly-discovered trail

I’m writing this from Glasgow while I’m here visiting family and attending a friend’s wedding.  Next up, a wee trip across the ocean; watch this space for updates!

See you in a month Chamonix!

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