Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Skiing and a bit more skiing – Days 82 to 90

Me 'n 'er on a chairlift in St Jean
The skiing for the last week has been much better than we expected. The snow conditions were better, not the sheet ice we expected, the weather has been pleasant and the crowds have not been here.

We've had a good days out with Cassie and Si and Haig and Gabby, and with C&S and Jimmy, Garvan, Ash, and Martin, three of whom we've met before. The main focus of that day out though was the Sunday 'all you can eat' gammon and dauphinois potatoes. How the guests went back to the chalet for the three course dinner I shall never know. We had a couple of biscuits!

Today the forecast weather has come in. Other places in the Alps have had huge amounts of snow, while we either had rain, or nothing, now it's our turn. Although we have rain outside our window, it's snow a little higher up. The problem, as ever, is the wind speed which is high for the next few days, so while precipitating and blowing, we are in!

Todays snow forecast courtesy of www.snow-forecast.com Adding up those red figures of forecasted snowfall equates to 135cm (4.4 feet) between now and Saturday night. That's at the top of our local resort of St Jean, but note the varying freezing levels (bottom line). Anything above 900m means we only see rain here, as we are today, but we can see the snow line higher up the mountain opposite us so, although it looks dull here, we know there's fresh powder up a bit. However, look at the wind speeds, 40kph today means everything up high is closed and, to be honest, anything above about 20kph makes for fairly miserable skiing so, at the moment Saturday will be our first day out
Jackie beneath a moody sky. Photo taken by Cassie
We have made half an effort to be a little more sociable in the vicinity, last Tuesday there was an advert for a dance class on the expats emailed group. Cassie said it was great, and she was going, so we went, and we did have fun, but to Brian's disappointment the promised jive and waltz weren't quite what he expected. It was an exercise class, based on dance, and he was the only man, so don't think he'll be going again! We also popped into the 'other' bar up here, has been under new, British, management since the last time we were here. We had a pleasant drink, and think we might go up again, probably on Saturday when they have a band on, and the special is slow cooked cola ribs which sound delicious!

We have Gizmo sat, though we were cancelled yesterday, as mummy was home sick. He did make my day by actually running about and seeming pleased to see us, having completely ignored us the first time, so that was lovely. Cats have not been so much in evidence this year, though both Callico and Whitey from our previous two visits have shown their faces. They are still as skittish and antisocial, but still look quite well fed, which is good news after four years.

At the top of the bubble in St Jean, our local resort
Our mountain Roc d'Enfer (Rock of Hell)
So all in all a good weeks skiing, though we were both ready for a day off, but didn't feel we should take one till today, as the bad weather may be here for a few days. So nice to be in, boiled up the chicken carcass from yesterday's roast (meant to be Sunday, but after the ham.....) and made some yummy soup for lunch, B has a sultana loaf cooking and I'm about to start on the cauliflower cheese to go with the cold chicken. All very domesticated!
I wanted to take a photo of Jackie at the top of St Jean but she was too quick for me and all I got was her curvy ski track just left of centre
Finding fresh powder in St Jean

The moody mountain. Taken outside our apartment one evening


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Then the rain came down – Days 76 to 81

The start of our ski tour to Abondance
Anyone who has been out on the hill with us is probably aware of his weather jinxing skills. You'll be glad to know they are still going strong! After the best start to the season, or whatever he said in the last entry, the forecast weather certainly arrived on Wednesday, the edge of Storm Eleanor closed the whole of the Portes du Soleil. An almost unheard of occurrence, not only did it pour down, all day, at all altitudes, the wind was crazily strong. We stayed in.
We weren't the first up, but it gave us tracks to follow
Thursday we did venture out as food shopping had to be done, despite the heavens still emptying. We bumped into Cassie leaving the supermarket carrying a bag of cat litter and were concerned that by the time she got it into and out of the van, it might be solid! The post New Year beef sale finally hit Carrefour, so beautiful stewing beef for €4.90 /kg, only in large packs, 2kg was the smallest. So boeuf bourguignon, 2x beef stew and dumplings, 2x beef rendang following the same recipe as last time we were here using the coconut sweets from the tin of Quality Street (sorry Elizabeth, I know they are your favourite) and 4x beef madras with vegetable curry accompaniment. The curries have yet to be made, but it's all working out so far!

Our tracks up
We did manage to make the most of the fabulous snow on Tuesday before the rain as we ski toured up the valley to the col, where we thought we could ski down to get the lift to take us into the Abondance ski area. He told me the lift was running, the conditions were good, I'd managed to tape up my own foot, once the blister started forming reminding me where to apply the tape, and all was good. Till we hit the col, to find the chair lift we were planning on skiing down to has been taken out, what Brian had seen running on the internet, was a tiny new drag lift, which meant we had to skin 3/4  the way up the final slope! I may have had a slight sense of humour failure!

A stop for emergency first aid
Once we got there the skiing in Abondance was lovely, though from the central area you have to pole each time you want to get to a lift, and it was this movement that agitated the blister, but we gave them a good go, before deciding to go back over the top! The sky was beginning to darken, and you never know how long it might take to get down, if all goes well an unfairly short time, but you have to allow for all eventualities. In this case unnecessarily, it was a great ski down with fields of untouched powder that took about 20 minutes, compared with the two hours up!

Skiing back down in untouched powder snow. We are now back down in the col that Jackie was writing about. There used to be a ski lift off to the left which I thought we'd be able to catch to the top to avoid having to skin up, but its been taken out. The new lift is right up the hill,just in view, it meant we had a lot more ascent to do. She was an unhappy bunny, so I kept just far enough ahead to keep out of range of her ski pole! The slope behind her used to be a ski run, but now with no lift its inaccessible to downhill skiers, but not to us ski tourers!
Stepping over a part buried fence. This is grazing land in the summer
Yesterday with the forecast showing sun and temperatures of about 8degrees we thought we'd better go and see if there was any snow left at all. As it turned out t was better than we expected, hard and icy, but the pisteurs do work miracles. We met up with Cassie and Gabby and Haig, only to find that the guests had taken themselves off, which was good, but that Gabby's boots were too big, so Cassie was taking her/them back to the shop. Would we mind skiing with Haig for a bit as he's only been skiing since they started working for Cassie and Si. 
Jackie enjoying the untouched powder snow
It would appear he has already spent too much time with Si and was happy to try whatever B suggested, so reds, blues, a view of Mont Blanc before meeting up with the guests so Cassie could pick them all up together...... we both enjoyed it, though it has served to highlight that perhaps we are slightly jaded with skiing every day, regardless, just the two of us. So skiing with others, when the conditions are good or perhaps a little more time learning bridge, studying the location of the best campervan sales agents and things like that. It is still a lovely place to be. We went for a gentle walk by the river today as I hurt my back unloading the shopping on Thursday, it seemed to be getting better till I sneezed yesterday morning, and was jolly painful this morning! Having said all that, once B put his cakes in the oven he has popped out to do a quick circuit....
A panorama of the valley to Abondance with Pic de la Corne peak that we've yet to climb, hopefully later in the season!
Activities for a rainy day, bake and eat!
Our walk along the river today, Jackies bad back showing in her eyes
A pleasant riverside walk by an angry river - and that's nothing compared to two days ago. That's all our melted snow running down there!
An indication of how high the river has been. This was the end of our riverside walk, the path has been washed away!

Monday, 1 January 2018

St Jean d’Aulps, French Alps – Days 70 to 75

Jackie up to her knees in snow
Now that we’ve settled into our season of skiing in the French Alps our blog entries are likely to be fairly similar, snowy (hopefully) photos and stories of various skiing adventures, but we’ll try to avoid too much repetition.

The season has started off quite promisingly, early snow has given a good base and subsequent fairly regular falls down to 7 or 800m have allowed virtually all the ski lifts and pistes to open, along with knee deep powder for really good off-piste skiing. It’s the best start to a season we’ve seen and, I think one of these best in recent years, something that has had an effect on reducing the number of people coming to all the European ski resorts, affecting the local economy.

Mont Chery and the Les Gets ski resort from the upper slopes
Jackie does a bit of off-piste
The Portes du Soleil ski area is one of the biggest in the world, with over 650km of skiable runs, but it is also at a relatively low altitude, 950m to 2466m. It straddles the French/Swiss border and comprises many distinct ski resorts, that are funded (we understand) by distributing the income from the Portes du Soleil full area lift passes in proportion to the number of people passing through the electronic lift gates. It is possible to do a large circuit all linked by pisted runs and ski lifts to take in the majority of the resorts, but not all. The ‘greater circuit’ to take in all the resorts is only possible with the use of free ski busses and even then some ingenuity is required, so it’s almost impossible to take in all resorts in a single day.

In the resort of Montriond
We can ski back to the car but its icy to drive on. Glad we got the ski rack though
Even to complete the linked circuit of the majority of resorts requires the use of some critical ski lifts and pistes that, if not available, break the loop and make the tour impossible. One such area is Morgins, which is a small resort in the Swiss sector and, one lift, the ‘La Follieuse’ is the only way to get back up and continue the circuit having skied down from the French Chatel area on a piste that faces into the sun and is badly affected once the warmth of the sun increases in the second half of the season.
Happy New Year from us!
We heard from our friend Si that the Morgins ski company were getting insufficient funds from the PDS pass and could no longer afford to keep La Follieuse lift operating, potentially cutting the circuit and adversely affecting the prestige of the PDS. We heard an ‘arrangement’ was agreed on with other Swiss resorts taking over the lift to keep it running and, this season we have already used it to complete a ‘circuit’. Another outlying area in the Torgon Swiss sector has already been cut from the PDS as its access lift has been removed, separating it entirely, again possibly due to funding. The long term future of the Portes du Soleil depends on visitors and without sufficient snow people just won’t come. Let’s hope the snow this season continues and people return to keep it all viable!

A snowy ascent on a short ski tour I did
However, our season in the two weeks we’ve been here has been pretty good. The freezing level has been going up and down and, at our level of 950m we’ve been freezing in -7C, but also awash in heavy rain (snow above 2000m altitude) on one day, turning lovely powder snow into concrete after refreezing, but fresh snow on top refreshes it all again. In the 14 potential ski days we have had we have skied for 12 of them, a total of 332km of skiing, Jackie now complaining that we need a day off. Well, we’ll probably have one or two of those on Wednesday and Thursday of this week as it’s looking like heavy snow, but rain below 1800 to 2000m, with thunderstorms on Wednesday.

Skiing with Loo and Marti
Tonight we are looking after Gizmo, the hypo-allergenic, dog while owner Alex goes off to play in his band in Morzine, something that may become relatively regular. They live up near us in St Jean and, on Boxing Day evening he had a gig in L’Avalanche bar, which is directly opposite our apartment block, less than a minutes walk away, so we decided to wander over, have a beer and watch them play. It’s pleasant, folky/middle of the road type music and makes quite a good atmosphere and we sat at the bar talking to his girlfriend until they started playing, then moving to some seats at the side of the speakers and meeting Lorraine and Martin, or Loo and Marti as they like to be known. An English couple, they own a chalet in Morzine, renting out one floor to self catering, her living here all season, he going back to the UK to work, although he is 60 and thinking about retiring. They drove out from the UK on Christmas Day, so this was their first full day here.

Alex (left) and band mate perform in L'Avalanche bar
We got on very well with them and arranged to go skiing together on 28th which we enjoyed. Loo is an accomplished skier, having skied for 50 years and has beautiful neat ski turns, but doesn’t like to ski fast, unlike us. Marti is less accomplished and was clearly getting quite tired by the time we stopped at a bar for hot chocolate and lunch, so we left them to go back after lunch while we carried on for a few more runs. Loo is in a local bridge club and wandered if we wanted to join, the various members getting together for social dinners occasionally. Well, I’ve never played bridge and Jackie only occasionally, but the idea of learning quite appeals so, at the moment I’m trying to pick up the basics from Jackie and the internet and then, maybe we might have a go.

Torchlit descent of the ski instructors on New Years Eve
In other news, we met up with Si and Cassie for a blast round the 10km St Jean d’Aulps ski circuit on 29th and then had an evening at their (actually Si’s mother, Judith’s) apartment in the village. This year they have Gabby, Si’s niece and boyfriend Haig to run their chalet for them, they concentrating more on ski transfers from Geneva airport to the PDS and also slope pick up and drop offs. It hopefully will mean we can spend more time skiing with them, but they, particularly Si, are workaholics and always on the go, so how much quality ski time we’ll have with them remains to be seen.

Sometimes its nice to just sit on a ski lift and enjoy the scenery
Our day out in St Jean was an example, we planned to meet up in the morning and ski all day, but they got waylaid by events at their chalet and, in the end met us around lunchtime. By then Jackie and I had completed two circuits plus a lot of excellent, but tiring off piste skiing, but we were ready for another circuit! Skiing with Si and Cassie is always exciting and enjoyable as Si is such a ‘go for it’ character. The off-piste snow was perfect so our circuit consisted of huge amounts of it, skiing off to seek out untouched knee deep powder into gullies and between trees in uncertain directions. It was late in the day when we completed the circuit, but a mention from me about wanting to ski down off piste from the top station to the last drag lift in an area none of us had been to before was enough to convince Si (and me) to get one of the last lifts back up to try it out. “We don’t need any more lifts after this do we” Cassie asked, knowing they were about to close. No we didn’t and with fading light we skied off the piste steeply down-hill through trees and virgin snow into unknown territory…

Well, it worked out as I am sitting here writing this, but Jackie and I did switch on our avalanche transceivers just in case. It was steep, tricky in places but deep powder all the way and we had such a laugh (well, Si and I did at least) and the evening drinks at their (sorry Judith’s) apartment made it a really nice day.

'Bravo Ben' on a building in Chatel as viewed from a ski lift. Ben is the British son of Carol and Andy Cavet, who we rent our apartment from. He is now skiing moguls for France in the Winter Olympics and is hopeful of winning a medal in next months Olympics in South Korea. We'll be watching him!
The next day, 30th was the dismal day of heavy rain below about 2000m, so planning not to ski we took on a chalet changeover for a couple, with two young kids. They all had the flu and she is 15 weeks pregnant. Most of their bookings are summer ones, so disorganisation reigned and it took us a lot longer than expected. Still, we got some pocket money! We only went out the next day to our local St Jean resort again to ski on icy, hard packed pistes and avoiding the frozen, solid off piste. Our New Years Eve was relatively quiet, we walked the 2 minutes walk to the lift station for free mulled wine and to watch the torchlight descent by the ski instructors, accompanied by small children with torches, followed by an excellent firework display. After returning to our apartment for dinner and wine we went back out about 10:00pm to see what was going on. A small outdoor party of French ski instructors and their friends was going on, the two restaurants were full of diners and L’Avalanche bar was full of drinkers, so we came back, cracked open our bottle of bubbly and saw in the New Year watching TV and messaging family. The bubbly wasn’t up to much, giving me a headache this morning (nothing to do with the mulled wine and red wine obviously!).

Today, a ski over Les Gets ski area, with a failed attempt to meet up with Si and Cassie who were out skiing with guests. It’s always difficult trying to be in the same place at the same time on ski slopes and despite several text exchanges it didn’t happen, so we had a pleasant ski in sun and light snow showers and surprisingly good off-piste and returned here to look after Gizmo.

So our new year begins and we have 4 months of skiing ahead of us, or as long as the snow lasts.