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When I was a youngster one of my favourite books was The Children’s Picture Atlas in Colour. Mine was published by Hamlyn in 1975, price £2.95. The chapter on the Soviet Union shows smiling Young Pioneers, endless fields of wheat and industrial plants with enormous chimneys clouding the skies with smoke. The text speaks of great efforts and sacrifices, planned socialism, world class education and of the USSR challenging the United States for first place as the dominant industrial power.
Many chimneys in the former Soviet Union now stand as dead as surrounding trees they killed. This is not so true in Kazakhstan and not just because there are very few trees. Decline is evident but miners dig coal, power stations still provide electricity to towns and factories and the chimneys, including the world’s tallest Ekibastuz GRES-2 at 420m still smoke. Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world, is rich in natural resources and is the most prosperous of the former Soviet ‘Stans’.
The Kazakhs are eager to develop tourism and so we decided we should do our bit to help. We spent our Tenge travelling to ski tour in three mountain ranges, the Altai, Dzhungarsky Alatau and Zailiysky Alatau.
Crete? You’re going skiing in Crete? I didn’t know there was any skiing in Crete. Is there snow?
I’ve encountered such incredulity with other destinations but Crete seems to really puzzle folks.
There is indeed snow on the mountainous island of Crete. Not every year, but pretty reliably and what’s more, the limestone peaks were unquestionably formed by the Greek Gods with ski touring in mind.
The highlight of our week long visit was a traverse of the Lefki Ori. We also enjoyed Psiloritis, the highest mountain, in a wet white out (Type 2 Fun) but missed out on the eastern peak Spati due to our incoming flights being disrupted by wind. Oh the wind, the wind. If ever I said ‘let’s stop for a drink and a bite here as there’s no wind’, woosh……..there it was!
What do Uzbekistan and Liechtenstein have in common? They are the only two doubly landlocked countries in the world. We had skied in one so we felt duty bound to visit the other.
Europe’s fourth smallest country, the Principality of Liechtenstein has an area of about 160 square kilometres and one ski resort, Malbun. From there we managed one very nice day tour before we were pushed south yet again due to the weather and winds in the northern Alps. We ended up in the Pass dal Güglia region of the Grisons, Switzerland ; a paradise for ski tourers.
Thanks to Wolfgang we now know the difference between apfelstrudel and topfenstrudel and a lot about Bavarian culture and history. We heard about his ancestors, the development of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and of the winter Olympics there in 1936; we sampled seven different Wiess biers, worked our way through the local specialties at the delightful Bräustüberl and we even managed to ski tour in Bavaria!
The weather and avalanche conditions in the northern Alps resulted in us driving a total of 1271km in our luxury Sprinter bus to find the sun and good, safe snow to ski in a total of four different countries. Ski hard but smart Wolfgang said. I like that.
Matsuo Basho switched sword for pen and became Japan’s most famous poet. He embarked on four pilgrimages including one challenging journey on foot through Tohoku, northern Honshu in the late 17thcentury. The poetic work he penned after this walk, Oku no Hosomichi romanticised the beauty of Tohoku’s natural environment and has inspired many to follow in his footsteps. On our quest for low density powder our plan was to roughly follow Basho’s route but in reverse.
In the recent past the snow in Japan could be depended on to be the deepest and lightest one skied during any particular season. Now irregular snow fall and ‘European powder’ is often the norm; fun to ski but not what one has in mind before departure. This year Tohoku had the lowest snowfall in living memory which meant that Hiro had to change our plans right from the start. We went well off Basho’s piste doing a lot more driving than intended but we did enjoy some excellent skiing.
Japanese night in Hamburgbukta a tiny near-perfect horseshoe of a bay in the far north west of Spitsbergen. Akiko, Kumiko and Hiro had brought the ingredients all the way from their homeland and David, the Japanese music to accompany the meal, from Manchester. Talk ranged from the pleasure of visiting and skiing in Japan to the options for a memorable day in the mountains on skis the following day.
It was a great pleasure to be back sailing on Aleiga again, this time very ably skippered by the charming August. We didn’t have the best of weather but we did enjoy the full Spitsbergen sail ski combo. We got Aleiga up to 10 knots under sail and admired magnificent scenery from remote mountain tops accompanied by eider ducks, northern fulmars, little auks, artic terns, barnacle geese, guillemots and puffins.
We had heard of polar bear and whale sightings but we contented ourselves with walrus. Their curiosity took them close on many occasions and we enjoyed inspecting their beach antics at Magdalena Fjord. One can only wonder what they thought of the 200+ passengers of the cruise ship Austral who were ferried to see them in a fleet of buzzing Zodiacs the morning after.
Cruise tourism to Svalbard has increased by 140% since 2007 so it was unsurprising to see so many cruise ships this time. The MSC Meraviglia brought 5700 passengers in one go when it visited in 2018! There are also many more yachts and small vessels taking ski groups like ours so if there is a problem we are part of it.
Finishing on a positive note, from a point of near extinction when hunting was finally made illegal in 1952, walrus numbers are also up. Approximately 4000 animals now call the archipelago home.
The twentieth century art at the New Tretyakov Gallery blew me away. It’s sensational. Socialist realism masterpieces were the perfect end to twenty four hours of culture in the transformed city of Moscow, the heart of which is now tourist hell. Prior to my gallery visit the morning service at the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was a magnificent performance with the three mains actors, The Church, the security services and political power working seamlessly together.
Contrast is a wonderful travel companion. On this journey through Russia she accompanied us constantly; such was the variety and intensity of our experiences. They just kept coming. It’s almost as if we visited three separate countries during three different time periods; provincial Russia, the traditional nomadic life of the Nenets and Moscow the gilded global capital.
Ski touring was of course the reason for our travels and the Ural Mountains delivered the goods. They’re neither high nor particularly accessible but there is a lot to choose from far from the Instagram trail. We had 2500km of mountains to ourselves and good skiing on every day. Privileged we indeed are.
Snow machines, mega RVs, light aircraft and helicopters are all part of the Alaskan scene. This is not BMW country. Here is the land of the mammoth pick-up truck, guns and gas station coffee. Unsurprisingly we stood out. We ski touring Europeans travelled unarmed, by people carrier and van, stopping for ‘fancy coffee’ where we could. Snow machines have pretty much a free reign and helicopters are all over the place ferrying skiers to ‘heli bomb’ the slopes. A toxic mix but we weren’t in Alaska to moan so all experiences were fully embraced.
Our ski journey through South Central Alaska was with the local expert, IFMGA guide Joe Stock. Joe loves his backcountry skiing. When in the mountains on his skis he’s like a puppy dog with a ball. It was fun and easy working with Joe as it was travelling and skiing with the team. “Mountains are just mountains…” as Joe says, “It’s the people who make the mountains special.”
Alaska delivered the goods; great weather, superb skiing and fun people.
Vanja and I had been in contact for many years and so it was a pleasure finally to meet and to ski in the beautiful mountains of his home country. Like many of his countrymen he’s a tall chap so it was also fun for me to be the small guy. Montenegro, I had read, has an average altitude of 1000m and 15% of the country is over 1500m. During our short visit I saw so many ski touring objectives but access to them would be the crux.
We toured to Bandijerna in the heart of the Durmitor National Park on a sensational day, followed this up with an excellent, short bad weather trip to Mali Stuoc and enjoyed a finale to remember on 2420m Sljema. On every day we were accompanied but one or more of the local dogs who seemed as happy as we were to be out enjoying the fresh air, exercise and lovely views.
Everyone in Bosnia smokes; or that’s how it seems. Our cigarette smoking hotel owner said his mother gets through four packets a day. Walk into any public place be it a restaurant, bar, café or service station and the air will be a toxic fug of tobacco smoke. Why do Bosnians have such a universal disregard for their health? Perhaps the answer is partly due to the tragic recent past? Why too is the Bosnian countryside empty; villages and small towns devoid of inhabitants? Urban migration is happening all over the world but there’s more too it here. The scars left by the 92-95 war run deep.
Bosnia is a wonderfully mountainous country with much to offer the outdoors person and reliable snow for us ski tourers. Tourism is to be encouraged, bringing as does much needed revenue. Even the omnipresent Bosnian traffic police do their bit to promote tourism by only extorting money from the locals. The country is culturally rich and the people we met were very kind to us. I hope the future will kind to them but there is an edge to the place and sadly I fear for what it may hold.
Mala Mojstovka was our initial objective and it came as a bit of a shock, especially to those used to cruisy skinning in the ultra-light powder of Japan. Here it was hard, icy and steep straight from the car; some wondered what they had let themselves in for. Mala M is a magnificent ski peak with extraordinary views and great run down, albeit on character building snow. The tone was set for the rest of the visit.
The ladies of the Pri Martinu looked after us handsomely and with an ever present smile. Fortified by portions of schnitzel the size of small wheels, dumplings, and mountains of apple strudel we had to ensure a minimum of 1000m per day. Thankfully this was achieved.
The Julian Alps of Slovenia are steep and one understands why the hardest route on many of the world’s big mountains is ‘The Slovenian Route’. The ski touring terrain lies between impressive peaks and is also steep, requiring good conditions and technique to be enjoyed safely. We were lucky in having those conditions and the weather to enjoy them.
Seven hours to drive 250 kilometres of potholed tarmac from Ushhorod, four hours by bus then ten by train followed by another two by bus from Cherkasy, ten hours by car from Kiev. Telemark family bonds are strong so although getting to Mykulychyn for the festival was no easy affair no complaints were heard from The Ukraine Telemark Team.
Our invite came from a chance encounter with Misha, Gleb and friends on a flight to the Georgian Caucasus in 2016. Fast forward three years to Mykulychyn where friendly people gave us a warm welcome, where the skiing was good and the evenings’s entertainment memorable. The Tequila Band from Ushhorord rock and Vitaly’s Ungweiser craft beer hits the spot though like all beers we have tried so far it does not enhance ski performance. If the world’s leaders were telemarkers there would be a lot more peace and understanding between nations.
Thank you to everyone and especially to Sasha for all the driving.
Iran ranks near the top of any adventurous ski tourers wish list. Historically and culturally a ski trip here in on a par with Greece. What’s more, like the Greeks the Iranians one meets whilst travelling are universally friendly and most welcoming.
We went to the Azeri north-western part of Iran which has a real ethnic and linguistic mix and is rarely visited by westerners. The Sahand mountains and Iran’s third highest, 4 811m Mt Sabalan are well suited to ski touring though we had difficult snow conditions and a high avalanche risk. Just look at the photos. Each mountain shot shows a shallow snow pack, old, cold snow and all heavily windblown. Care and discipline were required.
Prior to skiing some of us fulfilled a longstanding desire to visit the ancient cities of Esfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis. We weren’t disappointed. The magnificent Sheikh Safi od-Din mausoleum in Ardabil where the eponymous carpet originated was the final cultural highlight; or was it the packed offal restaurant for dinner where we did our best with heart, lungs, kidney and tripe?
We entered The Wort Hotel, Jackson Hole and that classic line from the 1980 John Landis film The Blues Brothers came to mind, « Oh, We got both kinds, we got, country and western ». After the show Anto and David were talking guitars with the band. ‘Where should we go now?’…. ‘Well the Willie Waldman Project is playing at the Rose & Thorn’…… Sticky carpets, padded plastic vinyl furnishings, 8% IPA and four exceptional musicians having a blast until 3am. Wow. What a show and what a night.
This was the Classic Rock road trip but we weren’t in the US just for the music. We were there for low density powder. And like on our Saturday night out in Jackson we hit the jackpot. Our four days in each of three areas, the San Juans of Colorado, the Wasatch and the Tetons continually gave some of the best skiing any of us can remember. Let the photos do the talking.
Many of us firmly believe that when possible an espresso should be taken before ski touring. We were at the bar doing just that. Alessandro has superb coffee and as we delighted in the strong, silky smooth nectar he shared his thoughts on La Scienza del caffé.
Firstly, the glass of water is to cleanse the palate. It should not be drunk after the coffee unless the latter is bad! One then enjoys the aftertaste for a long time. The golden rule is never, never, never should sugar be added. Ten different coffees with the same sugar all taste the same.
I felt that I didn’t need to ask Alessandro what he thought of milk, whipped cream, vanilla syrup, chocolate sequins, white chocolate mocha sauce, caramel, cinnamon or cocoa powder.
Instead of coffee we should have been drinking mint tea, with lots of sugar. The plan had been to ski in the M’Goun, the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. What snow there was in the Atlas this year was vitrified and far too dangerous for skiing so we changed to Val Maira at the last minute. For most of us it was our first time skiing there and we were all blown away by the potential. There are so many ski touring possibilities and the coffee really is good. I’m sure we’ll be back.
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This was billed as a pre-Bolivia acclimatisation trip but as Bolivia was already taking up a large chunk of valuable vacation time the group was a small, but very select one. Three days of superb spring ski touring which brought back happy memories of past visits to the high peaks of the Valais.
‘Oh, il y a de la neige Inshallah, il y a de la neige Inshallah, Inshallah’. That’s all I’ve ever had from Mohamed in the twenty years that I’ve known him. Calling Morocco for an update on conditions always gives the same response. This, my sixth trip, was no exception; however on this occasion God did not will it. He had not been generous and what snow was there was brick hard and icy; too dangerous for skinning and skiing. We had to face it – there was no skiing in Morocco. Anywhere.
We contemplated continuing with the plan on foot but cramponing on such icy, rock infested snow was as deadly as trying to ski it. Our only option was to go hut to hut ‘touring’, through the Berber villages of the High Atlas. With glorious weather, warm temperatures and good company determined to make the most of the situation, we had a enjoyable time.
Back in 2005 as we skinned the 1500m to the Tizi Likemt we were intrigued by the young lad who climbed rapidly on foot alongside us carrying a dilapidated rucksack. We wondered what he was up too. With a warm smile and a sense of accomplishment he laid out his wares on the col – Coke and Fanta at 20 dirhams the bottle. Mohamed was 15, one of 11 children, none of whom went to school. Fast forward to 2019 and to my delight, Mohamed, now 29 and married with two children was to be our guide for the week.
Breakfast was laid out with military precision with each room allocated a table. At 7am the team entered and chaos reigned. Room 51 sat at table 43, one of whose occupants ate at the table for room 56. 53 sat with 32 at table 45. The Breakfast Dominatrix was not amused and boy did we know it. Our status sank to unimaginable depths when she caught the Senior Member making an illegal sandwich from the breakfast buffet.
We were in Corvara but the snow wasn’t so we only managed one day in the Dolomites – but what a day. The views on our traverse of Piz Boé were as good as any of us could remember and we climbed in the sun, sheltered from the wind. It was a cold week with temperatures never rising above zero and with a low of -21°C. On the other days we skied excellent snow from our comfortable farmhouse base in Val Casies on the border with Austria.
Taking refuge from the cold in the stylish café at the top of the Crëp de Munt lift after our Piz Boé traverse the illegal sandwich appeared. The waitress approached and ‘Oh No…’, it was the Breakfast Dominatrix. Breaking the rules to make and now breaking the rules to eat; she was most unimpressed!
I’ve rented vehicles in many countries over the years. Invariably there are bad surprises and in fact I can’t think of a positive. Sometimes an upgrade might happen but usually I’m dealing with bald tires, dubious excess charges or outright dishonesty. The vans Francesco and I were offered in Rome looked as if they had been used for stock car racing. ‘We’re professionals’ we said, ‘offering a professional service. We can’t carry our customers in these’. After much toing and froing we obtained a very nice VW but I was stuck with the battered Fiat. What to do!?
Our week in the Appennini was a delight. Highlights included the Rave di Giumenta Blanca on Mt Amaro and the beautiful, near deserted village of Castel del Monte. The café bar there gave us a superb breakfast spread and après ski hospitality though it’s the only bar I have ever been in anywhere that didn’t have a single bottle of Scots Whisky.
At the end Francesco and I happily relinquished responsibility for the rental vans at Rome airport. Because mine was so battered the full length dent I’d put in it on a narrow mountain road whilst listening to Harley wasn’t even noticed.
I’ve a day in Sendai and I feel awful. I’ve picked up a flu bug from one of the team and the last couple of days have required ‘additional effort’. Trail breaking in deep snow with a fever really isn’t fun.
Down town Sendai has nothing to offer but shops and I have a strong dislike for shopping. There’s hardly a foreigner in sight contradicting the article that I have just read on tourist numbers. Apparently the Japanese Government would like to reach 40 million foreign visitors a year by the time of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
I’ve certainly noticed rapidly increasing numbers of foreign skiers over the years particularly in the Nirvana that is Hokkaido in the month of January. This increase became an explosion a year or so ago. One piece suits, GoPro adorned helmets, ABS bags and fat skis are now all over previously little known ski touring spots and are crowding out the popular resorts. Skinning and skiing with other groups when one previously enjoyed the mountain to oneself stir a complex mixture of emotions!
‘What to do,’ as my Russian friend Alexey often says. Well quite simply we try and stay away from the crowds which in Japan is not too difficult as 80% of the country is mountainous. Thankfully there are still plenty of places where one can enjoy putting down fresh tracks and a fully authentic Japanese cultural experience.
Nobody had booked a beach holiday so we couldn’t go to Crete. Fortunately Plan B was a good one as snow was bountiful on the Greek mainland. An hour or so on my very smart phone from Japan was pretty much all it took to make the changes – we were off on a Greek road trip.
The mountains were empty and even sites of huge historical interest such as the Parthenon and Delphi were thankfully free of their high season crowds. The locals were out in force at the Parnassos ski area though as it was a holiday weekend marking the beginning of Lent for the Greek Orthodox. Everyone was having a great time on the slopes – we didn’t see much fasting or prayer.
Christos and Giorgos made the very best of our first day as the forecast for the week was poor. We completed a superb round trip over 2415m Tsarkos and the highest summit in the Parnassos Mountains, Liakoura 2450m. We then sampled the delights of the Southern Pindos and the high peaks of the Zagori speeding back to Athens at the end on the newly completed motorway.
There are many ski touring options in Greece and the Greeks are universally a most welcoming and hospitable people. When one adds to the mix excellent food and so much of historical interest it is obvious that Greece just has to be on every ski tourers ‘must do’ list.
We had tried to ski in Corsica before but ended up in the Georgian Caucasus, not because I’m poor at geography or got lost but because there was no snow on the Île de Beauté. In 2018 there was the most snow for thirty years and just prior to our arrival 15cm fell overnight on the beach at Ajaccio. The three ski areas, Val d’Ese, Ghisoni Capanelle and Haut Asco were packed with locals at weekends.
So we had plenty of snow but that gave us a higher avalanche risk to deal with, made difficult by the often bad weather. The Alta Strada as the ski traverse is known, loosely follows the route of the GR20 long distance path. The terrain is therefore serious and careful route choice is an absolute must. We were a strong team expertly guided by Manu but as is always the case we couldn’t beat the weather which saw us arriving soaked at destination on several occasions. We did enjoy one glorious day and two with at least a few hours of clear skies, sunshine and the incredible views from Corsica’s mountains in winter.
Déjà vu. Thunder, lightning and pouring rain. We were back for our second attempt at Etna having had the same terrible weather for the entire time we were here last year. At least it was obvious that skiing was not an option so we visited a near-deserted Taormina in the driving rain. At least there were no other tourists. The stalls packed with tat did not have a single customer.
Day 2. Snow chains on the vans the skins on skis. Fresh snow, fresh tracks and a beckoning summit. Clouds however, meant there were no guarantees. We summited the NE crater as the clouds parted; this time it was obviously meant to be!
The day was an eventful one with a broken Dynafit binding which we repaired and a broken fibula for which we could do little. Thankfully David’s slow motion tumble happened close to the road and happily the break did not need surgery.
Day 3. Was it to be Plan A, B or C? We bought lift tickets and lived in hope. After a short skin and just as Plan C looked like the only option the clouds lifted and the spectacular main crater stood clear. We skinned right to the top in excellent snow before enjoying a fabulous run down to the west.
Other than summiting the highlight of our visit were the breakfasts laid on by Antonella and Salvo. Homemade jams, pistachio croissants, cakes, blancmange, freshly squeezed blood orange juice and limitless cups of wonderful coffee all served ‘subito’ with grace and a big smile.
The Moors were looking for water when they came to the valleys of the Sierra Nevada. They found it in abundance and settled in Granada and in the mountain villages of this southerly massif. 1307 years after the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula a small group of ski tourers arrived in Güejar Sierra, one of those villages. They too were looking for water though not for drinking or irrigating crops for they drank beer and wine and ate in fine restaurants. They came looking for snow.
The winter of 2018 was a white one so the intrepid skiers found with ease that what they sought. Guided by local mountain man and expert organiser, Luis, the skiers enjoyed six days of beautiful sunny weather, gracing the slopes with turns in the famous ‘Sierra Cream’. The latter wasn’t as creamy as usual though as a strong wind was our constant companion, blowing hard enough to turn us around on Harley’s 70th birthday.
A ski touring group that meets on the beach in Malaga for a lunch of grilled sardines, calamares and salad before heading for the hills is off to a good start. If the start is good then the fun often continues. So it proved to be.
Bolivia is a land of vivid colour, the variety and intensity of which is instantly remarkable upon arrival at El Alto. Whether it is deep blue sky, the snow-capped peaks or the rainbow costumes of the 26 de Mayo Fiesta del Gran Poder, all is clear and bright.
Not an obvious ski destination, Bolivia did have the highest ski lift in the world at 5379m Chacaltaya. It was also the closest to the Equator. Sadly climate change has removed the glacier there and the lifts have not worked in 10 years or more. The ‘resort’ is worth a visit and the peaks around give an easy day’s acclimatisation – on foot.
John Biggar probably knows more about the mountains of South America than anyone who has ever lived. Using his local knowledge we initially set up camp at 4700m in the Khara Kota valley. We spent a week there and summited five 5000m peaks. The snow and skiing were good though the approach walks are lengthening year on year due to the relentless recession of the glaciers.
We then took a chance on skiing the beautiful 6348m Volcan Parinacota. We carried our skis in the dark to the snow line only to find that the sun had created penitentes since our recce two weeks previously. The summit was therefore done on foot.
Ski mountaineering without transceiver, shovel or probe on avalanche free snow with perfect sunshine and cloudless skies. Bolivia. What’s not to like?
What a place for a road trip. It seems like every bend, every dip on the South Island roads reveals a view to die for. Stops are frequent and nature’s beauty observed in silent reflection. It’s not surprising that Chinese tourists from the likes of Chongqing or Zhengzhou are now here in their multitudes. Quite a change from when I was last here in 2015.
Popular places such as Wanaka are now transforming at breakneck speed. Development is everywhere and property prices have grown 18% year on year. The beauty is still there but Wanaka is no longer the restful, chilled place it was for so many years. Good for some, not so good for those who loved it as it was.
As usual we had mixed weather with some incredibly atmospheric days in the mountains. We skinned and skied, drank good coffee, ate delicious food (with a special mention for the steak at Mt Olympus) and generally had a very, very nice time.
There was a lot of snow in Finnmark this year which was unusual for young folk but as it used to be in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Due to the severity of the winter the reindeer were hungry and low in the valleys. We had to give them a wide berth as a mother, if disturbed, will abandon its calf never to return. Reindeer avoidance was thus the main criterion in deciding where to ski, the snow and weather being excellent.
Fuelled by sandwiches made with home baked bread we enjoyed gentle days in the mountains with one 1500m day. Charles reckons on 1000m vertical per sandwich but I have to confess that’s somewhat on the meagre side for me!
Dry weather meant I could start and end the day on deck with yoga in the morning and a beer after skiing. Charles and Marion did a super job looking after us. Skiing from the Goxsheim is easy and a true delight.
Julia, Anna and Sasha did a wonderful job of feeding us for the nine days we spent on the mountain. High Camp porridge was a particular delight and Alpine hut staff could learn a thing or two about cooking from the Elbrus ladies.
World weather is becoming more unsettled and traditional patterns are no longer reliable. The mountains of the Caucasus were dry until spring when poor weather at last brought snow. Bad luck for those who went before us but we hit it lucky. It snowed continually for days prior to our arrival allowing us to begin skinning from base camp and giving us excellent skiing, especially for early June.
Seelni vyeter, strong wind, is often a problem on Elbrus so we felt keen anticipation as we ate our midnight breakfast on the last day. Summit day and it was silent outside with a clear, starry sky. It proved to be the perfect end to the season.