Alex reports on some early season rock hopping in the Chamonix valley.
Going to bed dreaming of your best powder days, waking up and looking expectantly out the window for a layer of fresh snow, even though you know none was forecast, then wondering if you can even remember how to ski after 7 months off. Yup, the new ski season is upon us.
Last week, with the ski season about to kick off and a heavy fall of snow at high altitude during the week, our excitement levels were already starting to mount. It was the perfect time to head to Chamonix, the mecca for off piste skiing, ski touring and ski mountaineering, and take part in a three day advanced avalanche course. The plan was simple: spend 3 full days in the company of experienced mountain guides, get some good turns in on the surprisingly good snow, and talk avalanches, snow profiles and route planninga lot.
To cut a long story short, we did just that. At the first evening session it quickly became apparent that our group was made up of a bunch of pretty decent skiers who all had similar reasons for being there. Its been 3 years since my last course, Ive done a lot of skiing since then, and want to push myself even further into the off piste and backcountry this season. As Matt and Steve constantly reminded us throughout the course, as your mountain ambitions increase, so should your expertise. Whenever you strap your skis or board on and head out, your cards have already been dealt. The question is, how will you play them?
The course covered things I knew, thing I felt I should know, and things I definitely didnt know, despite being a reasonably experienced and avalanche conscious skier. This only goes to highlight the importance of building on basic knowledge, not resting on it. Do I now have just enough knowledge to confidently get myself into real trouble? Time will tell.What is certain is that you would be mad to be heading out of resort this season without taking the time to learn more about the behaviour of the amazing stuff we call snow.
The rewards for off piste and backcountry skiers are great, but so are the dangers. With avalanche tolls on the up as more and more people venture off piste, what amazes me is how many skiers and boarders ignore this basic truth. Last year there were 28 deaths by avalanche in the Swiss Alps alone, many of which may have been avoidable. Over 95% of avalanches are triggered by the skier or boarder themselves. It is just not enough to trust in luck, someone else, or your latest safety equipment – avalanche airbags, avalungs and transceivers dont stop avalanches happening! For anyone with an interest in going outside the resort bounds without a guide, a good (and growing) knowledge of avalanche safety really is imperative.
So how was the skiing? Well, after an evening session over tea and sausage rolls, the Friday was spent in bright sunshine enjoying some fairly untracked runs through the off piste accessed from the Bochard lift in the Grands Montets area. Perhaps the Scandinavians had yet to arrive in town?
Saturday dawned to low cloud and a higher than expected snow line, so our planned ski tour from Contamine had to be shelved – Fergal need not have worried. The cloud didnt let up all day which, combined with a breakable ice crust on south/east facing slopes, provided a further challenge for the days skiing. We did see enough terrain between the whiteout to be convinced that Contamine was worth returning to at some point this season though. As a smaller, more family orientated resort it doesnt get inundated with off piste skiers hoovering up every bit of fresh snow before you even step off the lift.
Sunday proved to be the day however. With the Grands Montet still shut, we skinned up from the Bochard lift, across some sizeable avalanche debris and over the shoulder. What a treat lay in store. Anyone who has skied in Chamonix will know that getting fresh tracks off the top of the Grands Montets are a rare and memorable treat. On this morning we looked down towards the Argentiere glacier, saw two tracks heading down, and not a sole in sight. Reason number one to consider getting some ski touring bindings! Have I already had my best ski of the season?
Given it was everyones first days on skis this year, I think we were thankful that this was an avalanche course not a full on ski session the long breaks to discuss wind slabs, slope angles, weather reports and snow science were quite welcome! There was some good skiing on show (notably Ben and Rich, who skis surprisingly well for an Aussie) and some great falls to appreciate too.
We can highly recommend Mountain Tracks (www.mountaintracks.co.uk) if you would like to consider doing a backcountry and avalanche safety course. For a place to stay in Chamonix, look no further than Drop in Chalets, who combine quality hospitality with a passion for off piste skiing. If you would like to know more, check out our muchbetter guide to ski touring, telemark and ski mountaineering. Share the love too – add your favourite ski tours to the where to go section.