Last week I teamed up with some Norwegians, Swedes and a couple of Americans, one being the guide Kris Ericksson who I've skied with a a few times and good friend Per As, a Swedish mountain guide who lives above La Grave. It was with Per that I first experienced a mountain guiding some 20 years ago in '97 when I went with my snowboard to La Grave for the first time.
As ever with a week's skiing ahead of us, location was primarily dictated by weather and, in fact, at the beginning of the week on the Sunday we did think that spring skiing would be on the cards the back end of the week. And how wrong we were!
Monday I drove up the 16km to the Lautaret to meet the team who had driven up from the La Grave side. We then skinned up to one of our favourite areas below Pic Blanc. However this time we climbed up to a ridge and then skied down towards the direction of Valloire.
We could have skied for far longer and further if we wanted to but the game plan was to put the skins on and climb back over another ridge and ski down to the village above La Grave where Per lives.
The snow was so sweet, and unlike Japan it was way steeper. As ever the subsequent photos do not show the gradient that well, though this video might give you an idea.
By the Tuesday the forecast had changed again and now there was a very definite Retour d'Est showing up. This is a weather system local to Piedmonte and SE France that can deliver substantial snowfall down in the Queyras, so Per made plans to source some accommodation there.
While only 36kms as the crow flies from Serre it's some 80km to drive. We skied slackcountry Puy St Vincent en route to the Queyras on the Wednesday taking the lifts before a quick ridge hike and then skiing down to the Narreyroux valley where we donned skins to climb back up for skiing untracked on the descent.
We arrived in our refuge for the night after a half hour skin up from Ceillac to the Refuge de la Cime
Objective for Thursday was a ski tour taking advantage of a randonnee lift pass that took us to the top most lift from where we skinned up to the Tête de la Petite Part.
After the descent we put the skins on again to climb up again skinning across the lake by the Chapel St Anne.
We left Ceillac heading back down and on to Abries and then up past Ristolas to the very end of the valley and the small hameau of L'Echalp where we parked up and found ourselves in the superb Gite 7 degrés Est run by Laurent and Geraldine.
The Retour d'Est is indeed an amazing weather pattern, and this was the third time that I had experienced it in full force. As you drive up to Abries so the snow starts to fall and as you near Aiguilles it's coming down heavier and then within the next five or so kms it's like you're in a different country. Indeed where the Gite is sited the snow accumulations were substantially more than Abries!
Next day we headed back down the valley to Ristolas with a few of us making arrangements to spend an extra evening in the Gite.
We skinned up the old over grown pistes of Ristolas to the treeline and had two descents worthy of anything Japan threw at us as this video shows.
18th February 2018
NINJA POWDER SLAYING
There may have been the depressing sound of rain on Saturday morning along with grey cloud and warmer temperatures but at least it meant there'd be some fresh snow up the hill. So on Sunday I was on first gondolas with pow ninjas Ken, Kevin and Pikey hoping to score some sidecountry turns before the holiday hordes clogged up the lifts.
But, hmm, there was only a sprnkling, just enough to cover tracks which just meant you couldn't actually see the bumps and crud underneath before you hit them.
OK after a winter of powder every week whether sidecountry, slackcountry of backcountry, we're now getting fussy. We made first turns down Pikey's shoulder (right of Barres lift), then second turns as we did it again before hiking up the ridge at the top of the Vallons to the top of the old Balme chair and skiing beautful untracked (if a little crusty) all the way back to the Crete drag where the long lift queue at around 11am killed our enthusiasm for further forays.
For Gavin it was the start of an off piste week with Mountain Guides Per As and Kris Erickson so what better way to start than with a day in Per's backyard of La Grave? They were first on the lift and scored classic La Grave powder and a couple of Trifiddes couloirs. But it soon turned into a freeride frenzy as Gav says 'it was the busiest I've ever seen La Grave'.
16th February 2018
OFF THE BACK
Friday, 16th February
Well amazing what can happen in a couple of days; only a few days ago we were skiing in minus 20. The forecast for yesterday looked grim with rain and temps of +8 and the night before I decided that I would not ski and then we awoke to minus 2 and 5cm of snow with low viz.
But within the hour blue sky was making an appearance, so with a few texts and WhatsApp pinging a plan was made with an American friend I've skied with coming over from La Grave to ski here in Serre Che. So as usual pressure was on to give him a good time and to date my record has been pretty good with visiting dudes.
We did a classic run off the back down to the Vallon de Chambran in a mixture of powder and spring snow, this time going all the way to the valley floor. See picture above.
It was just so good that you did not want to stop.
But we paid for that sublime descent on the climb back up as temps ramped up and the fresh snow turned to stodge sticking to our skins, and it was so hot. I was quite wasted by the end and that beer in Pi Mai tasted so good!
The Vallons piste was like you'd expect in April and all the way down Frejus every now and again you'd hit that knee wrenching Velcro snow!
15th February 2018
VALENTINE'S DAY TOUR
Wednesday, 14th February
Back to our secret tour area in Nevache but it was a sunny and cold five days since we were last there and the conditions had changed with more hard icy steep paths to climb up. And there was crust at the top above the trees where the slope is more exposed to the sun,
But there was also a sprinkling of fresh so the powder in the north facing trees was sublime!
It was only Gav and me and the Rando Chiens - Gav and his 'girls' for a memorable Valentine's Tour. Beanie needs her tummy cleared of ice balls in the deeper powder but they both love chasing down the icy road taking short cuts.
Tuesday, 13th February
Gavin and Ken went up Yret chair, down a fairly skied Montagnolle then skinned up the north-east untracked face for perfect powder.
12th February 2018
Guest Blogger: Chris Tomlinson reporting from hospital
LOSS OF BLOOD AND MONEY BUT NOT HUMOUR
It had to happen eventually – every skier’s luck runs out. After seven straight injury free seasons, mine ran out two weeks ago in the Swiss resort of Les Croset.
In an innocuous collision with a Swiss snowboard instructor, my right calf was sliced open, on what quickly became a red piste. Up to that point, Season 8 had been going well but it ended rather abruptly.
I’d had a bonus week just before Christmas in Les Arcs and I’d even managed to ski in England before that – in my local park. The journey to Morzine had been uneventful and the skiing conditions in the Porte Du Soleil were improving. Better still, I seemed to be skiing rather well – it was finally all coming together.
I had big plans for the season. I was about to head to Laax for a week of Ski Club leading and I’d booked a place on a BASI level-2 course in March. I was skiing so well that morning, I was starting to think I might even pass it. Along with my skiing plans, I’d left the chalet unmanned and my Land Rover parked outside it.
While the snowboarder applied his first aid training to my severed leg, I started to realise that all bets for my season were off and the focus was now on survival. Thirty-six hours later, after a ride in a sledge, a helicopter, an ambulance, a plane and another ambulance, I found myself waking up in a Birmingham hospital, talking to a plastic surgeon.
The journey had cost me €2550 – but it was worth every penny. The helicopter ride cost €968 alone, which seemed like a very arbitrary figure. Does anyone say to the pilot, 'that’s outrageous, I’ll walk'?
When skiing I carry a first aid kit, but like many skiers I suspect, I was not prepared for my own medevac. I didn’t have my EHIC card on me (it’s still good for a few months yet #BREXIT) and I didn’t know any of my insurance details. I didn’t have my passport either; it was back in Morzine, just over the border in France which could have proved rather problematic. But I did have a chunky credit card on me, which soon started haemorrhaging in sympathy.
I was heading for reconstructive surgery in Switzerland, which I was more likely to survive than my credit card, until my wonderful girlfriend hatched a plan to repatriate me. The thought of a long stay in a foreign hospital was almost too much to bear but mercifully my friends pulled out all the stops and got me on a plane - all I had to do was escape from casualty. Debbie had found a top leg trauma surgeon and had a hospital bed waiting in Birmingham.
I knew I was back in the UK when people in uniforms stopped asking me for my credit card and instead of French accents I heard Brummie – thank God for the NHS, I thought, and that next time there is a general election I certainly won’t be voting Tory.
After the surgeon had sewn my leg back together I still couldn’t feel or move my foot. He explained that, after six weeks recovery and maybe another month or two of physiotherapy I would 'probably' get both abilities back.
The good news was, the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang was about to start and it looked like I was going to see most of it. The other good news was, I’d have plenty or time to complete the Skiing With Demons Trilogy.
My third cathartic, snowy memoir was languishing on my laptop. I now also had the material for a suitably dramatically, if gory, first chapter. Most keen skiers will end up on crutches at some stage. If my books were to be a compendium of a geriatric ski bum’s life, then injury and recovery had so far been omitted - I was literally suffering for my art.
I might have welcomed the free time more if the snow during Season 8 wasn't shaping up to be epic. I might have to un-friend my Morzine friends if they don’t stop posting pictures on Facebook of the fresh tracks they're making.
Watching the Olympians is proving less frustrating than Facebook because I’ve no ambition (or the ability) to do what our elite athletes are doing on the telly.
I do regard skiing as a sequence of challenges and I suspect, if not winning medals, all skiers have their own private ambitions. Skiing is a sequence of challenges that start when we first put on skis. The first is to master the snowplough then successfully descend on a blue, then a red. Then for some of us our ambitions grow to skiing an infamous black run or complete some famous off-piste decent.
On that day in Les Croset my skiing ambitions were instantly recalibrated. My new skiing challenge was not to qualify as a level-2 instructor, but to ski a green run without falling. The challenges on route would be to wiggle my toes, then my ankle, then throw away my crutches; then complete a successful descent of the Tamworth Snow Dome followed by a triumphant returning to Morzine to collect Landie.
I’ve witnessed other people return from injury and tried to help them with what I now suspect was patronising advice about psychology. I know the biggest challenge will come long after my wound has healed - learning to trust my rebuilt leg to support me.
I know I won’t be the first skier to make a successful comeback from injury, but it’s the first time I’ve faced this particular skiing challenge and frankly I’m a bit daunted.
Anyway, the men’s moguls are just about start and as that’s one competition I don’t mind sitting out off, I’d better put the laptop down and watch it. I might not be on a hunt for a medal myself but I feel like awarding gold to anyone who’s fallen, injured themselves and didn’t give up on skiing.
Copies of Chris’s first two books Skiing With Demons I and II can be bought here.
There's not much powder to be had sidecountry any more so it's a question of where to go touring bearing in mind that all the obvious places will have been tracked?
Basic requirement is north facing slopes. And somewhere away from the main roads.
We headed to Nevache to a place where we've ski toured before but that's all I'm going to say because it's so off the beaten ski touring track that absolutely no one was there. And the powder untouched. So we'd like it to stay that way!
It's a long skin to a certain summer village around 500m up but with the sun out and the Rando Chiens sniffing out wild life it was a very pleasant hour and forty minutes.
We stopped at the village for a snack and to mess around touring and 'skiing' on the snow laden roofs before climbing another 400m through the trees.
So it was quite a hike but the snow was sublime! Cold powder and completely untracked. And the trees are perfectly spaced. Only hazard is a line of cliffs with one of two gullies to find for the way down.
A total of 12.7km and 908m vertical. The Rando Chiens slept well last night.
8th February 2018
A FEW DAYS CHASING POWDER
Sunday. 4th February:
Where to go to find those powder stashes? Maybe it was worth doing one of our favourite slackcountry lift-assisted runs and practise with the drone? So we took the lifts up and skied to the top of the Col du Mea. The snow looked amazing. Pristine.
A few turns later and it was evident that the snow was anything but amazing. Leg -breaking crust. I skied down a dozen or so turns so Gav could get the drone to follow me. All I can say is thank goodness he pressed a wrong button because it wasn't the best skiing style! After maybe 20 turns we put skins on and climbed back up.
Monday. 5th February:
Snowing! Around 10cms by lunchtime so we headed up the hill to investigate. It was low vis but we could see the tracks were mostly filled in as we pinged off the Crete drag to do the old lift line then up the Barre drag for Pikey's shoulder (off to the right at the top) and up the Crete again to do the right hand side down through the trees.
The snow was amazingly light. Like Japow. But it was so light that even with 15cms our skis were touching the base so you could hear / feel them on the icy crud. Still this is being slightly fussy. We had a couple of hours skiing super light powder. How bad?
Tuesday, 7th February:
Gav, Ken and a couple of Vikings (Norwegian friends) did the ski tour near the Lauzet in the Ecrin (so Rando Chiens not allowed). It involved a bit of stealth skiing as a group of around 12 set out before them so they only climbed for 400m to get first tracks and then did a second climb to get some more. Not quite touring etiquette, but when they saw them skiing back down all over the place they didn't feel to guilty.
The snow was good cold powder as it was north facing slope with trees.
Wednesday, 8th February:
What to do? Lauzet trees again maybe as the snow was so good? Or perhaps Abries in the Queyras where, according to Snow Forecast, at least 30cms had fallen over the past two days?
We opted for the road trip with the Vikings. Driving towards Abries we were expecting to see snow-laden trees but it looked more like 30mm rather than 30cms! How could the forecast be so wrong?
But we headed up anyway and, by the time we got to the top drag with virgin snow either side, it became apparent that they'd had maybe 15cms over two days and absolutely nobody had skied it.
It was like having our own private resort. Even though it was 10.00 by the time we did our first run we were doing first tracks back down to the drag again. Then up and over to do the classic north facing trees - which we all agreed are so well spaced we could have been in Japan (main image).
The tree run goes all the way down to the bus pick up. Although there's a red run for piste skiers, hence the bus, this is a brilliant service for freeriders as there is so much scope for off piste down to the road.
I did two long tree runs including a bit of a skin to get an even higher and better untracked line (image above) then drove the van around to pick the others up for a last run finishing at 16.00. I think during the whole day we did maybe 50m on the piste just at the bottom to pick up the drag!
3rd February 2018
GUARDIAN ANGEL IN LA GRAVE
Friday. 2nd February:
It's been 20 years since I first went to La Grave and, last season, even though I went over there three times the lift remained closed for various reasons.
I'd heard that LG had a better snowfall than here on Thursday and as I have some Scandi friends who are there for a couple of months the plan was to hook up with them.
First mistake was opting to go there on a sunny Friday as Fridays are when many groups from here, Deux Alps and Alpe d'Huez go there as the 'Grand Finale' to their various off piste weeks.
I've never seen it so busy I think we were in the queue for tickets and the lift for well over an hour and it was feckin' freezin'!
However you know that once up on the mountain people tend to disperse very quickly.
We eventually hooked up with my friends at P3 and did a descent off the glacier except that Ken and I were a little discombobulated with regards to the route finding. Then one of the Scandis tore off in front of us so we'd already committed to the line.
It was then that I realised we'd fecked up big time and even though Ken was carrying rope etc it was not a good move. That said there were quite a few groups that had taken another line towards Muretouse but again think that involved rappels maybe.
So just as I was trying to work out what the hell to do (only Ken and I were packing skins and we could climb up over the rock spine rather than the glacier) this skier came round, looked at me and said 'Gavin?' and it was a Mathieu Maynadier who I know well turning up like a Guardian Angel. He explained that we could ski down without the need for rope and we followed him and the three very fast skiers he had, but it was a very tough descent with a gnarly traverse and lots of you don't want to fall slide slipping!
We eventually made it to the road with people having descended the various Girosse couloirs and I got a lift back up to my van, quite an adventure in doing the Classic Chirouze, a first for me!
We then hooked up with another Scandi who had done two seasons and was a very very good skier and he pretty well destroyed me, though I did that myself by taking a stupid line over a small crest into what I thought was soft snow only to ski over a load of rocks falling on my left flank which is now red raw and sore in a couple of places.
So just when you think you're ski fit and can handle most things, a serious big La Grave day will sort you out, though has to be said that Ken and I probably had a good 25+ years on the Scandis.
A little vid of a nice line, but does not take into account the nigh on 15 min traverse to get to it!
Thursday. 1st February:
Weather was pretty foul but it was snowing.
Decided on taking Les Rando Chiens for a quick hike to see what the snow was actually like. Drove up to the Lautaret and weather was grim, very windy and snow blowing horizontal across the road making for challenging driving conditions.
I actually drove past our usual parking spot just below the gallery tunnel thinking it was a bad move and drove up to the Col and turned round. On the way back I decided if it was Japan we'd be out there. So as I parked up and the dogs became very excited.
Decided only to climb up to Les Mandettes, just over 300m, and twas difficult to pick a line as light was so flat so climbing was more touch and feel with the gradient. Once at the old hut as I went into transition mode so there was actually some blue sky and vis was so good I could see the valley below, and a very nice descent was had in a variable snow pack.
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