The Ski Blog April 2018

Powder Days: 40 (plus). Spring Touring: 10 (ish)

Forty days of powder and still counting. Maybe 10 spring touring days and almost giving up. Meanwhile the snow snakes were lurking under windblown crust causing a man down - or two.

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TELETUBBY SKI TOUR LAND

I'm not sure who's Tinky-Winky, Laa Laa or Dipsy but Gav, Ken and I did one of our favourite ski tours, known affectionately as Teletubby Land because of the rolling hills - hike up over one and there's a higher one behind it. More accurately the area is known as the Crete Domillouise up from Cervieres.

 

The Teletubbies, in this case marmots, were frolicking around their burrows as the sun rose over the hills while we skinned for the first mile from the road to the start of the climb. It was 06.00 when we left home with the Rando Chiens, knowing that the warmer temperatures would soon over-cook the snow.

Apart from marmots, we saw two other ski tourers during the five hours of climbing up 850m and skiing down, a total of 14km. Five hours? Well, in the end we were in no hurry as the terrain is more N/NW facing  and cooking super slowly so we had several stops for drone practice. And, finally, the drone is beginning to obey instructions and actually follow as we ski down.

 

The summit, yesterday, was the stone border marker with Italy. We were skiing down at 11.00 on spring snow that, once again, turned heavy below 2000m, but still skiable. It was then a mile's sweat-dripping skate / skin / slide  back along the road to the van.

The Rando Chiens are now sleeping after three ski tours during the week, over 40km distance and around 2500m vertical. Sssh let them lie..

sleeping dog
 

ANOTHER HARD DAY AT OUR OFFICE

ski touring with dogs
 

I know some people will groan when they read this blog, hearing about what a 'hard' life we have in the mountains. I could justify our current lifestyle by saying that we paid for it with decades working in London, commuting on trains and having only a week's annual ski trip. I could, also, point out that, especially in our autumn years, life is potentially too short NOT to do what we enjoy. 

But I can just imagine the eye roll from those who are still working, commuting and having only a week's annual ski trip.

I also think we should ski  as much as we can, while we can, until our teeth fall out or knees crumble (worryingly, at yesterday's BBQ, teeth falling out and knee operations were the main topics of conversation!). But there's a guy, Lou Batori in the USA who's still skiing on Crystal Mountain at the ripe (ripping?) age of 107 which could mean that we have quite a few years left, with or without our own teeth.

So, yes, it was Wednesday, 'hump day' when office workers are over the midweek 'hump' and on the downhill to the weekend, but we were on the downhill from the top of Trois-Évêchés enjoying perfect spring snow accompanied by the Rando Chiens.

Rando Chiens ski touring with dogs
 

It was an early start for our 'commute'. We were in the van with Ken and the Rando Chiens at 07.15 heading to the Col du Lautaret. But we weren't the first. There were around 20 cars and vans parked up in the usual spots by the road with many skeezers (old geezer skiers like us) preparing for their day's 'work' skinning up the hill. But guess what? Like most commuters they followed the herd and the busy M25 route up Pic Blanc leaving us with the vast Trois-Évêchés area virtually to ourselves (we only saw four other tourers).

A two hour hike, past plenty of avalanche debris from warm spring slides, took us to the top of the Crête de Côte Plaine with Gav finally able to play with the drone without fear of trees or power cables (see vid at the end of the blog).

avalanche debris
 

Then it was sweet spring snow until the last half mile below 2200m when it turned to sludge, giving the Rando Chiens quite a calorie-burning workout which, for Kiki, Mumma Rando Chien, is hopefully going to bring her waistline back.

We were back at the van by 11.30, drinking a beer/Coke at the cafe at the Lautaret and out for a BBQ with Pat and Adrian at 15.00, sipping Presecco, poolside, in the warm sun. 

ski tour beer
 

PS. And here is the result of Gav's hard 'work' flying the drone and editing the day's vid:

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FROM CHASING POW TO COL CYCLING

Prali deep snow
 

In a normal season we would have been ski touring these past five or six weeks with the occasional powder day. but this is no ordinary season.

It does seem, however ,that we are on some sort of payback for all the powder days we've had this season and, whereas Serre Chevalier will boast that they have more days of sunshine than any other ski resort, that has not been the case, and we've been lucky to see more than two sunny days in a row.

In fact, last week, I cycled up to the Col du Lautaret and was speaking to Fred who runs the cafe there and mentioned to him that another Retour d'Est was on the cards and he replied that he'd just want a Retour de Soleil!

With another Retour d'Est in the forecasts we were concentrating on the options. The forecast for Abries in the Queyras was for around a metre of snow and temps -4C, but the cams Wednesday onwards were simply not showing those conditions.

While checking the cams out in Abries I was also looking at the resort that can't be named, in the Piedmont, a mere 70mins from Turin airport and it was having a battering with the latest Retour dEst.

I had to take Elaine to Turin early Friday morning, so I devised a cunning plan. Why not do a detour home to make the most of the retour!

We left Serre early Friday morning with heavy snow falling and the drive up and over Montgenevre was more like winter with the van deciding to go for a slide on a roundabout by the obelisk.

The final 15km drive up to Prali (whoops) is very gnarly, steep and narrow and it was like the depths of winter, with over a 120cms of new snow.

Vis was not too bad with low cloud intermingled with brighter patches and the occasional glimpse of sunshine. This was my third time there, and first without a guide, though last time with him we skied lines under the chair lift. The second time the snow was not at all good off piste and we skied slushy snow on the piste.

There could have been  only around 30 people equally split between freerider skiers and snowboarders. In the car park I saw a few French reg cars from our part of the world.

First run, I sort of stuck to what I knew but ventured away more into the trees as under the chair was quite chopped up, with nigh on 50cm deep tracks! It was deep, though has to be said, that we're nigh on in the middle of April and, at 2200m, it was never going to be light cold powder but I did put my poles in to see just how much fresh and could not touch the layer below! 

There are not that many pistes and they sort of border the freeride zones in the forest. What was really good was that lower down, as the snow became heavy, you just traversed out and got back on the piste to ski to the lift.

I really enjoy finding a line in new terrain that I don't know; it's a sort of sixth sense trying to recognise what might be good/work and, more importantly, where could be bad. With that much fresh snow I was on the cautious side, and was packing skins in case I screwed up.

I was tempted to skin up the piste from the top of the chair lift to access more untracked terrain but could see that they were working on the drag lift and, sure enough, it eventually started up.

That then opened up more terrain and my last run, as the weather started clearing, was a big traverse. I headed down in the trees, sniffing out a line, this time well away from the pistes.

Prali deep snow
 

This was a big route taking me all the way down to the valley bottom and then a 15 minute walk back out. The snow for the last 250m was classic spring sludge.

As I was packing up, nine or so skiers in three groups also came along the road, so I was quite chuffed to have worked out that route, which must be a bit of a classic.

There is so much terrain there and the second chair would open up even more. There's one whole section where I've never been, but I'll be back for sure!  

That was on Friday. I awoke on Saturday to another dank miserable day. The weather slowly brightened up so I decided to go for a ride, and back up to Montgenevre to where the van had a little slide the day before!

This time the roads were dry and it was a pleasant ride, though on a Saturday the roads are far busier than a week day.

Road bike Montgenevre
 

Sunday morning and I'd decided on a ski tour with the Rando Chiens, I was going to head to Cervières and take a look at the conditions up towards La Chau but the weather down that way looked very overcast while here it did look brighter so I opted for the Gardiole (again).

Parking was at around 1550m as the road still has a lot of snow, so it will be a very long time until we can drive to where we were stopping this time last year. I was initially encouraged as I nearly slipped over on black ice. however, as I climbed up from Les Tronchets on a slightly different route, I was semi-alarmed at the snow pack. It was obvious there had not been much of a refreeze an,d essentiall,y it was thin frozen crust on top of deep rotten snow, so not ideal for skiing.

As I climbed so the conditions were more encouraging but a chill wind kicked in and it was on with gloves and an additional layer. Atop oft the summit I did wait but it was past noon and I didn't want to be too late coming down.

The top section had not transformed (again) but lower down was sweet corn spring snow. All too soon I started to encounter the rotten snow and had to ski very carefully.

Hopefully this rotten snow will not be an issue, but I have my doubts as we will need some very significant overnight freezes for the deep snow to transform and the forecast does not look promising.

Even the Rando Chiens found the rotten snow hard going but on the firmer spring snow they had no problems staying with me.

Rando Chiens Gardiole
 

And the usual summit photo :)

Gav and the Rando Chiens Gardiole

ANOTHER MAN DOWN

ski touring
 

Barely had the 'ink dried' on yesterday's guest ski blog by Alf Alderson about getting helied off the mountain over the back of La Plagne and there we were chasing a blood wagon down the pistes at Serre Che.

There'd been around 10cms of fresh and the sun came out at midday so a small group of us headed up the hill. Our first descent was down the relatively steep off piste slope under the Clot Gauthier chair. There was a crust under the layer of fresh like snow snakes lurking to pounce so it was debatable as to how much to let the skis go.

Steve decided that speed was his friend no matter what but, as it turned out, speed was the kind of friend who urges you to 'go faster' and then laughs as you stack it. A bit like Gav. So when the snow snake pounced near the bottom of the slope where maybe the snow was slightly warmer, Steve was travelling at quite a pace and stacked it spectacularly.

Unfortunately his new fat skis didn't come off and the snow snake had a mightly grip resulting in a classic knee twist and the blood wagon back down the mountain. A thousand or so euros later, with x-ray and drugs, Steve (image below from last week's happier bluebird day) is on crutches with a ruptured ACL and damaged lateral ligaments. So that's the season over and just when he'd invested in an avy kit for ski touring.

That's three skiing friends this winter with ruptured ACLs (two of them off piste). And then there's Alf Alderson who's just had his MRI results and, yep, ACL ruptured. Gav, who did his a few years ago and had keyhole surgery on both knees, is setting up shop hiring out his knee braces, cyro cuff and crutches.

blood wagon
 

MAN DOWN

ski touring
 

It’s amazing how fast your brain works. Consider…

You’re skiing horrible breakable crust with a mate when his tips suddenly dig in and he gets flung head first into the crud. How long does it take from him losing control to ending up in a snow-covered heap? One second? Two seconds max, maybe?

Well, that incompetent buffoon lying in the snow was me a couple of weeks ago on the Cul du Nant over the back of La Plagne, and in that two seconds or so my brain had time to process the following:

'Shit, I’m going over. Aagh, me feckin’ knee, the binding hasn’t released! Jeez, me other knee, that binding hasn’t released either! Bollocks, I hope that’s not damaged my ligaments.'

All that in about the same amount of time it takes you to READ THESE FOUR WORDS. As I say, amazing what the brain can do (also quite impressive how much swearing your internal monologue can cram into a couple of seconds).

The other thing that’s remarkable, certainly as far as any keen skier is concerned, is that when the whole car crash has come to a halt it’s not the pain of potentially knackered knees that takes priority. No. Your first thought is 'Will this stop me from skiing?'

And then your brain performs yet another little trick; it tries to persuade you that although both knees feel like someone has hit them with a mallet, give it a minute or two and you’ll be fine. So, having recovered my ski poles and my composure, both with the help of ski buddy Chris, I get to my feet and set off skiing again.

Yes, the left knee is a bit uncomfortable, but I can still turn with my left ski. Now for my right knee – Christ on a bike, that hurts!

So, you try it again in case it’s miraculously repaired itself in the last few seconds. Of course it hasn’t, and eventually the pain overcomes hope and optimism and you admit it; you ain’t skiing off this mountain, as there’s still over a thousand metres of descent on pretty awful snow to complete.

Time for our guide André to call out the rescue helicopter. Oh, the humiliation…

I won’t bore you with the tediousness of x-rays, pain killers, icing, rest, knee braces, crutches, doctors, physios and the like, suffice to say the last 17 days have been tedious in the extreme, as well as intensely frustrating having missed the end of an epic ski season, and right now I have no idea when I will ski again. Or do anything else more exciting than watching the telly for that matter.

I’ve had knee ligament surgery before, and it really isn’t something you’d wish on your worst enemy (although I wouldn’t have any qualms about seeing Donald Trump or Nigel Farage go through it). You’re looking at nine-months rehab, and given the glacial speed with which the NHS works you can add weeks if not months to that to allow for the waiting time before you actually get the surgery in the first place.

All of which means that a serious knee ligament injury at the end of one ski season could easily see you miss most, if not all, of the next season. Which is a bit shit. No, actually it’s a lot shit.

So, right now I’m awaiting an MRI scan for a definitive diagnosis of what my crap skiing on the Cul du Nant has done to my knees.

I really have no idea which way it will go, but if you watch this space I’ll let you know if a few days…

Editor's Note: Alf later informed us that the MRI sadly confirmed an ACL rupture.

40th DAY OF POWDER

fresh tracks
 

Just when I was about to put my Nordica Santa Ana 110s back in the garage, we have yet another powder morning. After a miserable Wednesday with drenching rain during the evening, Thursday was a bluebird up the hill with around 15cms of perfect powder.

So we were on first lifts and making first tracks from off the Crete drag, top of the Clot Gautiher chair and then the ridge, both ways, off Eychauda. 

According to Gav's Strava where he has recorded every day in the white room as 'powder', there have been 40 days, this winter, here (that's Serre Chevalier plus La Grave and Queyras) - and he missed the Easter Saturday powder shred when he was in the UK. They haven't all been bluebirds by any means, but even stormriding in a blizzzard or two has been epic.

And, then, of course, we had Japan. So we're now getting to nearly 50 days of powder skiing. And 0 for spring touring. But the season's not over yet...

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