The few that have kept skiing, even when the lifts have stop turning to ‘earn their turns, spring has been a quick and warm few months! The ski season is well and truly over with the last of the spring snow gone; and now the skis are serviced and the batteries are removed from our trackers it’s time to reflect. Here are my thoughts on Black Diamond’s Mission Shell Jacket and Sharp End Pant
Coming into this year’s ski season I was super keen to increase the hours I spent touring; so a nice lightweight breathable outer shell setup was going to be a must. However, moving to Vail Colorado, one of the world’s largest ski resorts, with ‘day in day out use’; protection from the elements and durability where going to be a key factor.
Being almost 6ft 4in tall I often find that technical apparel never quite fits right; having to wear larger sizes to accommodate for the extra length, but then finding it way too baggy everywhere else. With Black Diamond I settled on ‘large’ for both pant and jacket, although I could have been a medium in the pants. The large pant gave an extra 2.5cm inseam, and with the integrated belt system tightening up the waist, the large was the better fit. The large jacket was a great fit right from the start, with the under arm gussets giving a great range of movement. The super adjustable cuffs, powder skirt, and Cohaesive cord-lock technology hood all contributed to sealing up the jacket from the elements. Full Gore-Tex construction gave both the jacket and pant excellent waterproofness and breathability, needed to keep the metres of powder snow at bay and disperse all the heat from those warm spring days or sweaty mid winter ‘pushing-the-envelope’ moments!
After six months of clattering through tree runs, being stuffed in a bag, ploughed through countless feet of snow, and some rain, this setup has proven its worth many times over. And still now, all be it not smelling quite as fresh, it looks as good as it did when it came out of the packaging.
So if you’re looking to progress into the off-piste and earn your turns, ski groomers all day, or go get buried waist deep and send powder shots overhead this Black Diamond Mission Shell jacket and Sharpe End pant combo will keep you dry and warm on the way down; and well vented and breathable on the way up. From freezing chair lift rides, to climbing across cornices, it’s great to have 100% belief in the kit you’re using – and Black Diamond didn’t disappoint. And not having the extra worry of being too cold or too warm; you can just focus on the objective in front of you.
If I’m honest, I reached a plateau in my skiing some years ago; I kind of accepted that I’d reached the limits of my body. I wasn’t too unhappy with this as I felt that my skiing was quite good, at least for my age. But wouldn’t it be nice to get just a little bit better? Which is why I was attracted to Carv Digital Ski Instructor.
I’ve been skiing for almost 40 years – and, no, unlike my 14-year old son, I didn’t start at the age of 3! Perhaps I should have, as he’s now far better than me. I look at my son’s skiing with unashamed jealousy and wonder why I can’t be as good as him. Well, I’m not the kind of dad who simply rolls over and lets the younger generation through! No sir, I’ll try anything to regain my dignity and rightful place in the family hierarchy!
Carv Digital Ski Instructor
I think I’m right in saying that our sets were from the first full-scale production run for the product. I say ‘we’ because my son was so impressed by the concept that he also had to have a set – bah, there goes my secret weapon. At £250 a set, it wasn’t exactly an easy decision to commit to, especially as there were no independent reviews out there. But the concept was just so enticing (as was the desire to improve my skiing).
Carv is exactly what it says: it’s a digital ski instructor. It monitors your skiing performance turn-by-turn and talks to you as you’re skiing (of course, you can switch this off). Unlike a human instructor, who will tell you afterwards that you’ve done it all wrong, Carv tells you in real-time, so you can, on the next turn, change what you’re doing and get it right. Carv works with you on separate parts of your skiing: balance, angle, pressure, etc, but it doesn’t overload you with advice and information.
Carv comes in 3 parts: the insole (the core of the product), the tracker (essentially a battery and a communication device to connect to your smart phone), and an App. Let’s take a look first at the insole.
This is the clever part of Carv. The insole is packed full of sensors that monitor various parameters of your skiing: edge angle, balance, pressure, G-force, and others.
Because it’s sized to your ski boot, if you had a crazy idea of sharing it with someone else they’d have to have a similar Mondo size boot. The insole doesn’t appear to have been designed to be moved regularly from one person’s boot to another –the setup video mentions to take care not to bend the insole excessively when fitting it, suggesting that it might not like being moved between boots frequently.
The insole fits between the boot shell and the liner. Before I took delivery, I was a bit worried about this as my son’s ski boots are fitted for racing and are therefore very tight. I was concerned about the insole raising the foot up and therefore squeezing the top of the foot against the boot. Well, that wasn’t an issue; the insole is amazingly thin, so thin that you don’t know it’s there. If you have moulded insoles (as I do) then don’t worry, they won’t conflict.
The insole connects to the tracker (one for each boot) via a hard-wired cable to the insole. The cable needs to be disconnected from the tracker to allow it to be recharged. We recharged the batteries every evening so didn’t really road test its endurance. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t a quick charging process, so to avoid losing power when skiing I’d recommend recharging them daily.
The brains of Carv is the App. We were using iPhones, but there is an Android version. The App provides you with lots of functionality, from drills, to challenges, to monitors, to free sessions. I started with the drills, but quickly (in my dreams) progressed to the free sessions.
I found the drills and challenges a mix of annoying and inspiration. The annoying bit for me was the Super Mario type sounds that resulted from achieving the goals, and not achieving these. But, this pales into insignificance when compared to the improvements to be had in skiing ability. It genuinely does up your game to another level – and beyond. I was able to work on those things that had held me back for years – remember my plateau comment? – and seriously improve my skiing. In fact, I’d honestly say Carv exceeded my expectations.
Carv analyses your skiing and awards you a skiing IQ from each of your runs. This IQ is averaged and can be uploaded onto a leaderboard so you can see how good, or bad, you really are. It was very pleasing to see my IQ progress steadily as I worked through the drills and challenges. It was less pleasing to see my son improve faster and move into the top 25, leaving me down in the 80s!
I can see the Carv team continuing to develop the functionality as they learn more about the product. I just hope they don’t get it to the stage where it tells you that maybe you’d be better off trying some other sport – I’ll leave that to my son!
So, who is Carv suitable for. Well, I’d rule out beginners, novices and those improving to intermediate. You need to have become ‘one with your skis’ for Carv to be a benefit; besides, when you’re learning it’s so much fun in a class sharing each other’s experiences – Carv would simply get in the way, and it doesn’t laugh when you fall over. So, I’d suggest Carv is suitable for intermediate/advanced, and even expert. My son is using them to improve his racing skills to great effect.
Overall, Carv is for the dedicated and capable skier and it really is as good as their website claims.
There has been a lot of press about the new S/Lab Shift ski binding from Salomon. After nearly a decade of R&D Salomon has produced a ski binding that can deliver downhill performance with touring capability. A ski binding that gives today’s freeride skiers a chance to “earn their turns” by touring uphill and then charging ‘big lines’ on the descent!
Having never ski toured before I was both excited and apprehensive when Shep, Salomon’s friendly ski tour guide, introduced me to ski touring. First the safety kit, including a transceiver which was very reassuring. And then the 99mm underfoot QST skis with S/Lab Shift bindings, and skins. All I will say is; “if you are into Transformers you’ll love these bindings”. A ‘click here’ and a ‘click there’; and you transform a touring binding into an alpine binding, and visa versa – “simples”.
So with the skins attached and the bindings in touring mode, I managed to locate my boots securely. It takes a bit of practice, but I would have experienced that with any ‘pin binding’ – and you soon get the ‘knack’! We set off, nothing too adventurous at the side of the piste, but enough to understand the technique of going uphill with skis – without the aid of a button or chair lift. Needless to say it was more tiring, but it was also more rewarding – I now understand the term “earn your turns”.
It was now time to, ‘click here’ and ‘click there’, and transform the bindings into alpine mode. This I am familiar with, and they felt as good as the bindings I have had on any of my piste/all-mountain skis!
The whole experience was great, and I managed to impress Shep enough to allow me to join a more adventurous trip the following day.
Again it was cold, windy, and in cloud; which gave my first experience of Sweden a rather ‘monochromatic’ outlook. We skinned up much steeper terrain, with a customary ‘zig-zag’, and once again the bindings performed brilliantly in touring mode. Once again the pleasure of being away-from-the-crowds, that ski touring gives you, was delightful. But as Sir Isaac Newton eloquently said; “what goes up must come down”!
I felt sorry for the trees, as we descended the powder fresh tree line. A twig here, a branch there; we became close friends. Too close sometimes; but the bindings, in alpine mode, released with great aplomb! At the bottom it occurred to me, that while my colleagues made light-work of the tree line, it was I that was fully testing the bindings – as I ‘crashed’ my way down!
So what does a virgin ski tourer think of the Salomon S/Lab Shift ski bindings? Rather amazing actually! Here’s a binding that will perform in both alpine and touring mode; and will enable you to ‘earn your turns’ however extreme they may be!
It’s been an interesting season so far in Colorado, USA. It’s had record low snow fall, record high temperatures, snowpack instability, and winds ripping through the valley – not what the locals have come to expect from this staggeringly vast, peak fill, snow playground in the Rockies!
The Whitedot Ragnarok is the brainchild of Fred Syversen; and after a quick ‘Google Search’ it becomes very clear why these skis just want to charge everything you put in front of them! Originally the Ragnarok was a super stiff , but this second generation Ragnarok is a little more playful. With 118mm under foot, 143mm up front and 130mm in the rear the ski is definitely designed to float, and to charge face-first down powder lines and steep faces. Just looking at the skis; they scream “powder day”!
However, like I said, “it’s been an interesting season”. So the deep powder days have been few and far between (although the snow is starting to come more regularly now) leaving sunny, chopped up half powder/half mogul filled runs, which isn’t really what most of us would call ‘ideal skiing’, but the Ragnarok has a different opinion. If you can manage to blank out the bumps, and your knees will let you, the Ragnarok will ‘smash’ through whatever you put in front of them.
But it’s not all ‘smash and grab’! The stiffness helps to add a fun ‘pop’ to the exit of hard turns; the minimal camber under foot is enough to carve corduroy with the best of the ‘short ski groomers’, and the rocker (both tip and tail) will make these big skis scrub their turns, through tight trees, with ease! Whitedot gave this ski its own category “The Fun Charger” and they hit the nail square and true on the head.
I cannot say enough about how versatile this ski is; and that’s me having put standard alpine bindings on them! The Ragnarok has had me cruising Vail’s vast inbound powder fields, to boot packing out-of-bounds on East Vail’s endless selection of rolling pillow lines, open bowls, cliffs and tight trees. And not once did they disappoint! It’s as if the people at Swiss Army Knives gave the guys at Whitedot a pep talk before they designed this ski; it does everything!
And if you go for the Carbonlite Ragnarok, with a pin binding setup, those steep, remote exposed lines in your dreams will become a reality.
So it turns out us Brits, who live on an island, with a maximum height of 1,345m, and relatively little snow, make one-hell-of-a ‘big mountain’ charging ski.
The day began with a big bowl of bircher muesli (oats soaked in apple juice) and a peanut butter and banana smoothie. Once all packed and ready to go we skied straight out of the front door to get the car and headed to the Col du Colombiere. With the col closed in winter, the tour begins with a nice a steady climb following what is usually the road. Perfect to get the legs warmed up before the steep top. The temperature at dawn was -14C, which made it bitterly cold on the hands when putting on our skins. Hence it was in our interest to get moving quickly.
The sunrise confirmed the forecast of a crystal clear sky, and highlighted the mountain peaks with a orange glow. Once around the first corner we were pleased to see a group of five, about 15 minutes ahead, sluggishly putting the tracks in for us. Perfect! After starting from the car all still wrapped up with gloves, down jacket and a head band, we were starting to warm up nicely. Knowing what lied ahead, the pace was gentle.
We made it to the top of the col with ease, but we knew from there the real climbing would begin. Without wanting to get damp from sweating, and with the sun coming up over the mountains, we thought this was the perfect time to shed some layers, have a sip of water and get the sunnies on. To be efficient in the mountains, we always try and plan our stops and make the most of each rest break. This saves energy as well as time.
With the other group still in front, we were cruising along in their tracks all the way up to the point our couloir was in view. We cut off right, which gave us a good feel of the fresh snow, and got excited for the decent. After a steady climb of nearly 900 vertical metres we reached the couloir to the peak of Pointe du Midi. At which point two other skiers, coming from a different direction, had skipped in front. We weren’t complaining! Having been here before on an icy day, when we used our crampons to boot pack up to the top, today was a real treat. Soft and stable snowpack with a couple tracks up already meant we were able to stay on our skis and kick turn all the way up.
Quick tea break and a speedy transition from skins to downhill and we were off into La Combe Sauvage (the Wild Valley). The ski down was without a doubt one of the best descents I’ve done so far. Everything came together to make it perfect. No wind, blue sky, a foot of fresh ice cold snow on top of a solid base, combined with a 40 degree couloir. We were in heaven.
And it didn’t stop there! With huge smiles on our faces and after a quick look back up at our tracks we were in to transition number two. Skins back on, down jacket off and we were back to climbing. This time only a 300 metre ascent but taking us to a second peak with clear views of Lake Geneva in one direction and Mont Blanc towering the endless peaks of the Alps in the other. It was time to tuck in to our still warm veggie tagine and admire the views.
Transition number three done and we were in downhill mode. Having read about ice stalagmites in a cave nearby, we headed over to an opening of a cave and lucked out. Inside were beautiful icicles from the floor to the ceiling, bigger than two of me. The ice stalagmites were just as impressive, growing up from the ground as tall as 6 feet. With the day warming up we were keen to get a move on, so after taking a few snaps we were back on our skis and had the rest of the descent to enjoy. Perfect snow, super fun terrain and the sun still shining.
The final push was a long but steady traverse of only 100 metres of vertical but around 3km in distance back to the car. We had two more transitions of skins on and off, by which point we were getting faster and wasting less and less time. Our total ascent was 1320m. We covered around 7km in distance. And our circular journey took us 5hr 45min. For us it was the perfect day!
There’s a ‘shift’ to ski touring (free touring), and it’s growing in popularity! So if you’re skiing frontside on the resort pistes or finding that un-tracked snow on the backside of the mountain, the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD is the perfect all round boot. It’s comfortable, lightweight and gives you the performance you want. The same can be said of the Atomic Backland skis, lightweight and performance!
Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 130
Before I left for Colorado; I was impressed with the customisation of the boot. The Hawx Ultra has a narrow last, and my foot is defiantly not narrow. However, thanks to the expert fitting of the Memory Fit 3D Platinum Light Liner, these are the comfiest boots I had ever worn; and light! They only weigh 1420g (size 26.5 boot). The lace up liners are a great addition because you can put the linear on before putting the boot on; which is a great help in the cold car parks of the Colorado Rockies.
New to the touring scene I was interested to see how I would get on with the pin bindings compared to a traditional alpine bindings. Safe to say any doubts I had were quickly put to bed. The pre-cut skins were also an easy fit (and removal), thanks to a new tip fitting.
My guide (brother) had been up in the mountains for a month skiing and touring every day; so I was expecting to be absolutely beasted when we pulled off the highway at Shrine Pass, Vail (3380M). The extreme light weight of the Hawx Ultra XTD and the Backland 95 skis (1370g size 177cm ski) meant, that although I was behind, my pride was still intact – which is always key when trying to keep up with your brother. After two hours of going up my legs were feeling surprisingly better than I first expected; mostly due to the boots and skis rather than my superior fitness levels. The hike mode on the Hawx Ultra allows the boot to articulate further than my legs possibly can.
Atomic Backland 95 Skis
After an avalanche check it was time to charge down the untracked snow on the Atomic Backland 95 skis that took me uphill so well. They were just as good on the downhill. The carbon backbone of the ski gives it the stiffness and performance you want making those powder turns!
The best part about this set up is that it gives you uncharted access. Find yourself a touring buddy and go wherever the snow takes you. For me personally there isn’t much better than being out in the mountains with just yourself and your touring buddy; away from all the noise and lift ques in resort.
The next day, with somewhat tired legs, we took the lifts to ski frontside. This is where I had my doubts about pin bindings. Skiing in America for the first time, it was my first experience of someone pulling my skis out of the gondola for me. I was met by an American guy who was extremely excited about how light my skis and bindings were. First run down and all those doubts about the bindings and skis were gone; putting in harder carving turns each time. The pin binding work just as well on piste; and it was noticeable how many people were skiing on pin bindings!
The next wave of skiing is defiantly coming in quick, so keep an eye out for our freetouring gear!
I was lucky enough to have been offered a set of the Atomic Redster X7 skis with XT12 bindings, for a recent ski trip, so jumped at the chance to take them away.
Atomic have arguably produced some of the best race/piste skis on the market over the years. Although I’m nowhere near the same level; knowing that current World and Olympic Slalom Champion Mikaela Shiffrin and current Men’s World Champion Marcel Hirscher opt for the Redsters, I was very excited to try them out.
Various reviewers have catagorised the Atomic Redster X7 as an all mountain to top end piste ski. Atomic describe the Redster range as the perfect blend of Giant Slalom carving turns and Slalom short radius turns. So as a keen skier myself I was interested to see where I would ‘place’ them!
My initial thoughts of the skis were very positive; on the first ‘red run’ of the morning. Atomic’s power woodcore, full sidewall and 100% traditional camber, had the skis edging beautifully. When I flexed the skis into the turn they responded, with their full sidewall and woodcore, snapping me back and into the next turn. I took advantage of this, whilst the slopes were empty, and enjoyed several runs with the skis push harder and harder. I understood what Atomic are claiming with the “blend” as the skis seemed to generate more speed the harder I pushed them.
When my ‘millionaires’ slope time starting to come to an end I decided to go in search of a busier chopped up piste, one that you might find at the end of the day, to see how they would handle the lumps and bumps. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, but due to the slope being busy, I tried a few parallel turns. The skis were very aggressive over the bumps and seemed to snap back at me the more pressure I put through them. I didn’t see this as a negative towards the skis because they are sold as a top end ski, that are designed to be aggressive. It did get me thinking, though, that fatigued legs at the end of a long day may struggle to absorb these bumps on the last runs down to the bar.
Overall, I would sum these skis up as an awesome bit of kit. To any potential buyers I would strongly recommend really thinking about where you ski most on the mountain. If your looking for an all mountain ski that is forgiving and can go all over, even into the powder, then these are not the skis for you. However, if you prefer to ski hard on fresh packed corduroy pistes with a ski that is going to push your edge angles, and generate speed, then these skis are fantastic. I found myself having to back off several times, not due to the ski quivering or loosing grip, but for a reason that any skier doesn’t really like to admit to!
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.
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.
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.
With help from their amazingly talented team of athletes, including Candide Thovex, Faction are renowned for making world class skis. Their recent edits and full length films, especially ‘This Is Home’, really show the diversity they have in their skiers and the skis they make.
The Candide range of four different skis cover all bases for any type of shredding on the mountain. Whether you like sending huge straight airs off cat tracks, bouncing through powder in the backcountry or ripping around the piste or park, Faction have got it covered. The four CT skis vary in size and flex but share an attraction of being fun, playful and ‘rippable’ skis in differing terrain. Obviously the dream would be to have all four skis in the quiver but when the budget is tight it’s decision time!
I chose the CT 2.0 because I was looking for a new playful ski that will enable me to learn butters, be light in the air for trying new spins and still be comfortable on crud and cruising home in the powder. The poplar/beech core is light, strong and responsive making it a great ski for extra pop and control in the air, not forgetting being buttery soft. With their carbon reinforcement underfoot, the impact of heavy landings is spread, whilst hard packed, cruddy terrain is dampened. The symmetrical shape of the 2.0 has made it easier to link and flow between turns whilst skiing switch and gives confidence for landing backwards. While this ski is ‘freestyle at heart’ it’s flat camber and tip and tail rocker mean it maintains a good edge on piste and still floats over powder effortlessly, making it a great all-round ski.
Overall the 2.0 is a lightweight, soft but strong ski with enough underfoot to be fun all over the mountain. Combine this with its slick, simplistic design and you have a very sexy ski.
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.
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.
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.
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.