Archive For February 8, 2017
The first rumble. Difficult to know the exact cause through a wool hat, two hoods and with the wind as it was. Perhaps a plane? Minutes later came the second, closer and much louder. Thunder. We’d skinned just 400m in the pouring rain and we were now going to have to about turn and quickly. We were totally soaked and I think everyone was secretly relieved! We reached the safety of the tiny café at the base of the pistes just in time to watch an impressive electrical storm which amongst other damage, killed seven horses. The roads on the way back to Nicolosi were literally rivers.
Day 2. After donning still damp clothing we set off back up the mountain in better weather but in a ‘stiff breeze’ which stiffened as we climbed. We finally lost visibility so we called it a day at the observatory at Piz Deneri enjoying a surprisingly good 1000m run back to the vans.
Day 3. We tried from the south but the weather was so bad we didn’t get more than a few yards from the top cable car station. It was back down in the lift with damp tails between our legs. We never did get to see the red hot lava flows close up, only a view from the airport in the dark of the morning as we departed. Unfinished business.
Plan A was a five day traverse from Valnontey to Pont staying at the Vittorio Sella, Chabod and Vittorio Emmanuelle huts. Highlights were to be a traverse of the Gran Serra and the 4061m Gran Paradiso.
The latter is a most accommodating mountain allowing access in most snow and weather conditions. The Gran Serra is different. 80cm of recent, windblown snow lying on the old base meant that care was needed and a traverse of the Serra out of the question. We did however have the pleasure of two nights in the Sella hut skiing what was safe. Built as a private hunting lodge for the king, we were privileged to have the place to ourselves.
I always enjoy the Gran Paradiso and we were very lucky to have such a fabulous day on the mountain. Taking our time we enjoyed every moment. With dry bread, thin jam and lukewarm tea to fuel us on our final day we set off towards the Col d’Etret. Dreams of bacon, eggs, black pudding and tomato were interrupted as the weather closed in and left us with no option but to feel our way down the Vallon della Seyva to the car. May 2017
The team’s expectations were realistically low. Most were joining for the esoteric nature of the trip and the chance to visit Samarkand and Bukhara. There was talk of Azerbaijani style snow cover and Kashmiri snow stability! In retrospect the trip had it all.
We visited the magnificent ancient cities under clear blue skies though with bitingly cold temperatures. The total lack of tourists was a delight and made it easy to imagine the wonder of travellers of old arriving after weeks on the Silk Road. There wasn’t much made by man on the planet to rival the splendour of Bukhara in the 10th Century.
The snow was fabulous – think Japan in January and Utah at its best. However, unlike Utah and increasingly Japan there was no powder feeding frenzy as we were the only back country ski tourers in the country. What we didn’t track one day lay pristine, untouched by wind or fat powder skis several days later.
Skins and two lifts from the Soviet 1980’s did the uphill work. The latter may soon be replaced by a large, modern, same as any other, ski resort, as we met Frenchmen doing feasibility studies. I’ve met these types before and sadly for us ski tourers what often follows ruins the charm and pleasure for us though the investment undoubtedly gives some employment and fun to others. The profits, if any, invariably remain in the hands of the few.
Congenial company and a relaxed atmosphere on the Goxsheim combined with pretty good snow and weather gave this trip a holiday feel. Even I felt as if I was on holiday as once back on the Goxsheim after skiing there was nothing for me to do. This is most unusual and took me several days to get used to. Charles runs a tight ship and everything went like clockwork starting with a tasty breakfast at 8.
Evenings were spent chatting, reading, playing cards and listening in awe to Anto and David’s guitar prowess. The pair held together well despite Anto not having any brown M&M’s and his disastrous and incorrect use of the Dorian scale, instead of the relative minor scale during Wednesday night’s jam session.
The buzz of après ski conversation and guitar playing was accompanied by a selection of fine single malts including Oban, Highland Park, The Macallan and The Glenlivet and delightful American whiskeys specially imported for the occasion by David and Ron.
Spring had come early to Finnmark but there was plenty of snow for us late season ski tourers. We usually had to walk a short distance to the snow line and on the descent there were one or two memorable Norwegian tree skiing sections. Many of the fine ski touring peaks of the Oksfjiord area have no name and on only one day did we meet any other skiers.
Thanks to Espen we spent the one bad weather day we had enjoying May 17th Norwegian national day celebrations in the small seaside village of Bergsfjiord where the local inhabitants made us most welcome.
This trip was a disappointment. Everything was disappointing.
There wasn’t much snow and that what was there often unskiable. Disappointing. The permanent daylight made for disturbed body clocks and sleep. Disappointing. We were continuously warned of the polar bear threat yet only saw one in the arrivals hall at Longyearbyen and one in the museum. Disappointing. The potato salad for the barbeque had far too much mayonnaise. Yet more disappointment. And I could go on, and on. Rare has so much disappointment been felt in such a short time.
To try and overcome our disappointment we skied and sailed in one of the most magical places on Earth. We got Aleiga up to 10.6 knots under sail, had an exhilarating beat up Krossfjord, spent nights in idyllic anchorages and barbequed on the beach. We enjoyed ascents of several mountains with incredible views and did have the occasional patch of skiable snow on southerly aspects. The light throughout was extraordinary and perhaps most so when we left the Ny Alesund bar at 1am.
It was a pleasure to be back on Aleiga again, captained by the very experienced Anton Heijbel. Anton immediately reassured us with his quiet efficiency, competence and easy smile. Aleiga is an Ovni 445 which is a great yacht for sail / ski expeditions coping surprisingly well with up to 8 on board. 8 is the max so when I heard that unbeknown to me we had been assigned a second crew I wondered where we’d put her.
It turns out this was a mystery that needed no solving as her incompatibility with our project proved itself almost immediately. 10 litres or so of diesel in our fresh water tanks was her opening shot. The second salvo was a cold water shower through the deck hatch onto the group dining in the saloon. Mistakes can be made but further issues made it clear that she had to go. It was with relief that we said our brief goodbyes, continued the cleaning operation and at last set sail.
Yachts, camels, tractors, armoured personnel carriers, rusting chair lifts, mules and CO filled Russian vans have over the years been called upon to access the snow. All come with a variety of challenges for the ski tourer and much as we greatly appreciate (most of) them we are always relieved when we start travelling through the snow covered mountains by the means we know and love best. Skis.
It was not a good night’s sleep. The loose-fitting metal windows of our mountain hut rattled all night long in the gusty wind and just before dawn three small earthquakes shook us from deep below. These were linked to the series of earthquakes that hit Kumamoto in Kyushu causing such devastation and loss of life. Lack of sleep immediately became an irrelevance.
The Japanese Alps were an unusual sight as winter had only brought one fifth of the usual snow, the lowest amount in 50 years. There was sufficient to ski but we had to adapt the programme as has so often been the case this season. Weather was mixed but thanks to smartphones and reliable forecasting we were able to be in the right place at the right time.
Days started and ended with the delights of the onsen – natural hot springs. Between onsens we enjoyed a continuous loop of 7-eleven and Lawson stops, skinning, skiing, green tea ice creams, beer, plum saki and delicious food. Nights were spent on futons of varying degrees of comfort, laid out on spotlessly clean tatami mats.
After the Alps we headed south and on a truly beautiful day Mt Fuji failed to deliver, for the second time for some, due to lack of snow and dangerously icy conditions. We about turned at 3160m to the disappointment of all and found solace in the cultural delights of Japan’s ancient capital, Nara, the monastery complex at Koyasan and the gardens and temples of Kyoto.
Luis was right to confirm the trip as the snow cover was poor but sufficient. However, instead of the Sierra Cream that a skier would expect at the end of March we had to deal with ‘variable’ conditions which included quite lengthy walks in ski boots, not without pain for some.
Much of any trip’s success is down to the weather and on this one it was amazing. As we sat in the sun on the tops we enjoyed 360° views over the arid landscape of Andalusia and the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa with the mountains of Morocco clearly visible. To our east the plains of Almeria were covered in plastic greenhouses, the source of much of northern Europe’s out of season fruit and vegetables. Below us to the south were the thousand year old white washed villages of the Alpujarra.
We saw no other ski tourers during our week which was wonderful. We had the massif to ourselves. I was out for three days ski touring at home in Chamonix prior to the trip and there were a multitude of tracks, uphill and downhill, and people everywhere. In the Sierra Nevada it was a delight to be back in the mountains on skis and to see no one and especially to have no snow boarders walking in the skinning track! Grumpy old man…who… me!?
If it’s just to ski one would do best to concentrate one’s efforts on the nearest ski area. To travel with skis means you are looking for something else. That something we had in abundance in Andalusia with the highlight undoubtedly being our visit to the Alhambra; despite the crowds, such a beautiful and peaceful place in today’s hyper active world.
Having spent the week looking down on the city of Granada through crystal clear air we finished up in the city enjoying drinks and tapas looking up at the mountains. Perfect.
We were supposed to be making a ski traverse of Corsica but we had to accept the inevitable. There wasn’t and wasn’t going to be, enough snow this season. An alternative had to be found.
One week before departure I was scratching my head thinking of somewhere that would tick most of the boxes. I was in regular communication with a Russian friend who was off to Georgia as were Faffing Jim and some other skiers I know. Initially I wasn’t interested as I’d been before but then the idea of the Svaneti came to mind…..majestic Ushba, the south face of Shkara, Georgia’s highest mountain and fascinating, lost world villages with their defensive towers. One day’s organisation later and we were up and running.
Many things make these ski trips memorable, be it the scenery, the travel, the encounters we have, the companionship, adversity and sometimes even the skiing. Svaneti skiing was pretty good on the whole, we had a lot of laughs and the Georgians we met were without exception, welcoming and kind towards us. Special thanks to Shako and Richard for their help and guidance during our stay. Magnificent spring snow skiing to the ancient villages of Adishi and Ushguli was the highlight of the trip.
Road travel is arguably the most dangerous thing we do and the rough and terrifically exposed roads we drove in two trusty Mitsubishi Delica’s left a lasting impression. The terrain is a nightmare for any civil engineer. Cuttings through mountains of unstable debris with frequent massif landslides gave incentive to keep moving. Slowly though. The 43 kilometres from Mestia to Ushguli took us 3 ½ hours so an average of 12kph. Fast enough!
The other big danger we face is avalanche and we had an encounter too close for comfort with a small one just below the Guli Pass. This was a reminder that we must never drop our guard nor lose sight of the perpetual goal of returning safely to the valley at the end of every day.
Ironically during our entire time in Georgia it snowed in Corsica…..! No regrets. Had we been there we would have achieved nothing.