All posts by SteveG

Steve G is the Director of Outdoor Activities at Oakham School. He is very passionate about outdoor pursuits, and more importantly, passionate about introducing people, especially kids, to activities in the great outdoors. Some say he is a 'Mountain God'.

BASI 4 European Mountain Safety – A Candidates Perspective

Having completed the British Association of Snowsport Instructors (BASI) 3 European Mountain Safety (EMS) assessment, a few years ago and the Level 4 training last year in Courcheval, I thought it would be a good idea to complete the BASI 4 European Mountain Safety.

Ski touring and off piste skiing are what I enjoy most about snow sports. The mountains have always held a fascination for me and the physical effort involved along with the skills needed to safely travel in them are key to this.

Areches – The Venue

I arrived in Areches (1,000m) a few days before the course started so I could get my bearings. However, with the huge amount of snow that fell followed by rain and a category 5 avalanche forecast, this was limited. The ski resort itself was closed for two-days! Areche-Beaufort is a very small resort which is split between Areches and Le Planay (1,170m); which is in the Haute-Savoie and was part of Italy in medieval times. The locals are very proud of their heritage and make some amazing cheeses. The area is well known for its wildlife which includes Ibex, Chamois, Lynx, Ermine, Bearded Vultures, Golden Eagles and Wolves which come over the mountains from Italy. The village is home to roughly 3,000 people who live there year round and the majority are involved in farming of some sort or other. The resort’s big plus, compared to other places I have skied, is the amount of easily accessible backcountry skiing which is not glaciated. They have a race, the Pierre Menta, each year in April and in the summer, which sees thousands of teams skiing/running up the mountains and cols. It is truly is an all-year round resort. For those new to touring there are several skinning tracks which run close to the piste and are marked and graded. They offer very cheap single lift passes for those wishing to ski off piste or are heading further afield but want to make use of the up lift. The Ecole du Ski Français (ESF) offer instructor led day and half day tours. The instructor I met was Pierre-Eve and his mad collie which didn’t stop running all day. Other sports shops offer guided trips over more challenging terrain and privately guided trips.

ski touring skinning up
The gradient was at an easy angle and we were all very keen to impress, so the ascent didn’t take too long!

BASI 4 European Mountain Safety

The assessment started on the Tuesday evening with a short briefing about what to expect and what we needed to carry. Each morning we discussed the avalanche and weather forecast to test our knowledge and understanding relating to the areas we would be working in. We then set out to ski the resort and to check out our map reading, group control and route choice both up and down hill. As the day was so nice we took in the biggest local hill ‘Le Grand Mont’ (2,686m). The gradient was at an easy angle and we were all very keen to impress, so the ascent didn’t take too long! The views were jaw dropping in all directions with uninterrupted views north to Mont Blanc. The ski down was also great fun as the snow was so good. We did have to remember that we were being assessed and make sure we looked after the group, taking them down the best lines. Returning towards the piste we stopped to set up ski belays and then lower and belay back up our partners to demonstrate we were safe. A bit more skiing followed and the first day was behind us. That evening we had a theory paper which covered various areas including avalanche, weather, mountain knowledge, emergency procedures, flora & fauna, equipment, etc. We also had to complete a route plan for the following day with bearings, timings, distances and features to look out for. 

view of the mountains
The views were jaw dropping in all directions with uninterrupted views!

We woke the following day to blue skies and so could do our planned route. We took it in turns to lead and everyone had to keep track of our location as you could be asked at any point to show our location and to prove it. The ski in was very enjoyable through trees to start, then open fields, and mountain meadows later. Dropping over a ridge in to a bowl allowed us the chance to stretch our ski legs for a short distance before putting skins back on our skis and heading up to the Col de Roche Plane (2,094m), over 1,000m of ascent. Heading back down started really well and we all enjoyed the snow, however, this was not to last as the snow, which had been great up to this point, changed to become nearly un-skiable. The descent became slower and it was with huge relief that we eventually arrived back on the road, a short walk from Areches. With nothing planned for the evening we all went for a well earned pizza and a couple of beers before heading off to bed and to pack kit for our final day and our results!

Another glorious day greeted us and with only a few skills to be tested we were all looking forward to finishing. More off piste skiing, avalanche and weather quiz, and the dreaded transceiver search followed. The search was for two transceivers which had been buried to simulate an avalanche; which had to be found within eight minutes. Nerves play a big part in this, because so much depends on you passing. We all took our turn and even though some of the transceivers misbehaved we all completed in under the time allowed. 

With all the testing completed all that was left was to find out the results. I am glad to say we all completed the assessment successfully which was a great relief. It was great to meet new people who were doing the assessment for different reasons. Tim, Rupert and Alister were great company; and each offered the others support when they needed it. And thanks to Willie, our assessor, for his encouragement and good humour throughout. 

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The Integral Haute Route – France Switzerland

Two years ago, Tim Davies and I started the standard Haute Route (a high Alpine ski tour linking Chamonix and Zermatt) with Andy Cowan who 2 days in had to pull out due to injury. We managed to get as far as the Valsorey Hut where Tim developed appendicitis and had to be air lifted by helicopter and have an emergency operation; which left me on my own and having to ski back down over the glacier and crevasses by myself, which was quite interesting. The following year we did a few routes around the Imperial Haute Route but always planned to come back and have a go at the Imperial Haute Route proper.

Imperial Haute Route (Grand Lui Variation)

So after saying good-bye to the Oakham Lower School ski trip I met up with Tim and started to sort kit, huts, transport, etc. Our weather forecast for the week ahead was good and so two old men set out on a journey from Chamonix to Zermatt via La Fouly. The Integral Haute Route is two days longer than the standard routes, has more high gain and loss, and does not require you to book a taxi so is more of a pure journey.

We knew that the start was going to be a bit of a ‘bun fight’, as we had to do hand to hand combat with the queues at the Grand Montets Cable-Car Station. This is always a bottleneck and means a slow start wedged in with huge crowds. Luckily, the cable-car was running smoothly and after a couple of hours, we found ourselves deposited at the top station ready to go! Avalanche transceivers checked and harnesses on we set off across the Argentiere Glacier towards the Col du Chardonnet (3323m). We travelled quite quickly deand managed to overtake many guided groups, which meant that when we arrived at the Col there were only a few people, and groups in front of us. As there was a fixed rope already in place and we were a small team, Tim managed to persuade the French to allow us to jump the que, which was a great result. Once down we set off for the Trient Hut, but first had a great view of our route for early the next day whilst having a late lunch. Climbing the Fenetre de Saliena (3261m) had us skiing down the Trient Glacier towards our evening stop. The hut is well positioned with great views and is a mix of old and new even if the guardian is a little less than welcoming.

skier climbing col
Steve climbs down the Col Fenetre de Saliena (3261m).

The standard route goes down to Champex where you get a bus or taxi to Bourg St. Pierre, however, we chose to ski over the Grand Lui to La Fouly which would mean we could ski/walk the whole route making it a little more challenging, purer and two day’s longer. We left the Trient and skied some excellent snow with no one else anywhere to be seen. It was great to be in these high mountains and have the place to ourselves. The Col de Saleina (3419m) was easy enough to get over and then followed some more fantastic snow, which started to change as we neared the valley to heavy slush, which made skiing a little more challenging. Scrabbling through some loose rocks and boulders gave access to the final stretch down to La Fouly and the Auberge des Glaciers. I had been through here a few years previously when doing the Tour De Mont Blanc with family and friends and remembered it as being very relaxing. The hotel was great and we had the dormitory to ourselves so we managed to spread out and sort kit. Being in a valley meant that the meal was exceptional in quality and value for money plus we had showers.

Day 3 was going to be quite a hard day but relatively short and would finish at the Plan de Jeu Hut which Tim assured me would be excellent, which it was. Walking along the road, we arrived at some steep verglas slopes with a huge amount of old avalanche debris that had to be picked though and we eventually passed the Lacs de Fenetre and climbed up to the Fenetre de Ferret were we saw our first people. The ski down to the road and on to the Great St Bernard Monastery was on exceptional snow and left both of us smiling from ear to ear as did the excellent coffee and cakes we devoured at the hospice. The Plan de Jeu is brilliant with smiling, happy/welcoming guardians, who love country & western music, great views and sound advice. Certainly worth a stop next year for a bit of day tour action with my wife. I might even try to get over later in the year for their beer festival! The beer, food and company made for a very memorable evening and again no one else was staying so we had the place to ourselves.

Travelling onwards to the Valsorey Hut (3037m) in wall to wall sunshine with 1600 metres of up and a good amount of downhill action was something I was looking forward to as it would take us to our high point of two years previous and mean we were well on our way. Once again the skiing was exceptional and certainly left us wanting more, however, the climb that followed from the valley floor to the hut was seriously hard in the full glare of the sun.

skier mountains
The Matterhorn dominates the skyline from the final Col de Valpelline (3568m), before skiing down the glacier to Zermatt.

The start of the day was a little on the messy side as I had a bad case of the squits; which is not good when you are climbing steep iced slopes of around 50 degrees with skis strapped to your back. The wind was quite strong which made everything that little more exciting especially going to the toilet! We had no issues route finding and the snow conditions continued to be great. When we arrived at the Chanrion Hut I found that several people had been hit with the same bug, one having to be air-lifted off and others turning back. It is amazing how something so simple as a stomach upset or a broken binding could put an end to an expedition.

The Chanrion Hut was much nicer, the guardian very welcoming and interested in our well-being which was nice. Following a relatively good night’s sleep, we faced another long day with lots of UP! Climbing the Pigne d’Arrolla (3796m) was cold and windy and seemed to go on forever. However, having recovered from my illness and in good weather we climbed the last few metres to the summit to take the obligatory photos before heading down to the Vignettes Hut, which would be our final hut of the trip. Now that all of the various Haute Routes variants had joined, the route was a mass of people and the hut was not much better although still very welcoming.

With the final day looming we got our heads down and in the morning managed to be the first party out of the hut and to the first Col. The weather was forecast to change with much colder weather on its way. The clouds rolled in to make route finding quite challenging at times but this never detracted from the enjoyment of completing this amazing journey across the high Alps. Our final ski descent from the final Col was hard with man-eating moguls made of solid ice spread around big crevasses on steep slopes. The leg in to Zermatt was slow, as the snow had turned to slush so our skis having little in the way of wax on them tended to stick.

bottle glass of beer
The Grand St Bernard Pass from the Plan de Jeu refuge. The beer was 8% and very welcome!

All in all this was a great seven-day tour with great company in amazing surroundings with some challenging descents and route finding. We had the mountains to ourselves until the Pigne d’Arolla where we joined the standard route. I would recommend the Integral Haute Route to anyone that wants a challenge. Our final photo’s where taken outside the Monta Rosa Hotel having skied into Zermatt then walked through the narrow streets towards the train station and our train back over the mountains to Chamonix looking forward to a good shower, meal and a few beers to celebrate.

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