Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Fun (!) on the road in the snow

On the skibus, commuting between resorts not linked by lifts

Fun in the snow on our way home this afternoon! On our way home early as it had started to snow icy flakes which hurt on our faces as we skied, we stopped at the supermarket and, when we came out it was falling heavily, covering the roads at an alarming rate, despite the snow ploughs being in action. The drive back to our apartment is a steep hill and, as we turned one of the corners, there was a school bus stuck (all the kids out having a snowball fight), the driver out fitting his snow-chains, a hopeless teenage driver, a cement lorry, sadly some Brits (1) with their instructions out trying to work out how to put on their snow chains on, all on their way up, a navette skibus, three cars on the way down and someone in the ditch! Amazing how it can deteriorate into chaos within minutes!

Jackie, Mike R, Brian, James and Roger
Jackie, Mike R, Roger and James
I was helping push hopeless teenage driver (only into someones drive as she was that hopeless!) who, incidentally had a passenger sitting inside while I pushed, while B was putting on our snow chains. Moved 2nd 'idiot Brit' who had glibly sailed passed B, only to find he was going nowhere, then stopped so no-one could come up or down past him, so by the time embarrassing Brits (1) had got their chains on and moved, and the three cars behind the navette skibus had come down, we could at least get away, though this did seem to involve me running up hill!

Looking down into Torgon, the furthest we can go in the Portes du Soleil ski area. At the head of the valley you can just see the edge of Lake Geneva
Our lunch stop today
Half hour after we got in, the sky cleared and, when we went out later, the road completely cleared. Glad we had our snow-chains and had practised putting them on before having to do it for real (unlike some!)

An evening at SMC's hotel in Morzine. Jackie, Jo, Mike D, Roger, James and mike R

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Snow and SMC

A 'deep powder' day. This was an unpisted black run

Well we have had some snow which led to a fabulous day playing about in the powder. There is something odd about not being able to see anything of your leg below the knee, it also makes turning quite interesting! Still, at least falling over is a soft landing

Getting our gear out of the car at the Ardent gondola lift station
We’ve both indulged and bought bird food and cat food, a fat ball for the blue and great tits, though they really seem to prefer the bread, and some cat crunchies, for two fraidy, fraidy cats, they must be strays as if we move too fast inside, while they are on the windowsill outside they leg it, opening the window even to put out more crunchies is definitely a no-no! Hopefully I will have managed to calm them down before we go, a stroke and some fuss would be nice! They are a little white one with a dark eye patch and dark tail, and a white and tortoishell one.  I've been putting cat crunchies on the window sill, the mostly white one, will walk along the sill to eat, but the other just pokes its ears over the top and snaffles the crunchies from below!
This may sound a bit in opposition to the bread we are putting out for the birds (that the cats were eating too) and the fat ball he's hung (if I was having cat food he was having bird food!) but the bluetits and great tits seem to be here 0800 ish and 1600 ish and cats are after dark, so hopefully we won't have a conflict of interests!

Skiing in a snow storm has its drawbacks!
Roger, our SMC chairman with his new Christmas present skis. At this point they hadn't even been on snow. They've even got his name and a little Union Flag printed on them. He's a 'happy bunny'!
This is Mike R, all ready for action....
Our gentle routine of opening the eyes, to look out of the window, and decide, depending on the weather, how long to spend over breakfast in bed (we have given up drawing the curtains as no one can see in, and it’s a lovely view to wake up to, or see the cats on the window sill), has been shattered by the arrival of the SMC (Solihull Mountaineering Club), they are staying just down the road in Morzine for the week long annual ski trip, so obviously they will be out regardless of the weather…..

Mike D...

and Jackie (and Brian the other side of the camera, but no-one takes a photo of him!!)

The team assembled at the top of 'Mouflon' and unpisted black run that we all did
They arrived yesterday in time to get a half day pass (though whether I would have bothered as Jo, Mike and Mike were up at 01.30, to leave Brum, drive to Manchester for an 07.00 flight! Even Roger and James who stayed overnight in Manchester were still up at 04.00) so we met them at the bottom of their nearest lift and off we went! Didn’t get home till gone 17.00, what about tea and cake? Well a small slice while the stew re-heated. 
Here's something you don't see everyday, men repairing a chairlift
Then alarm for 07.30 this morning to be at their hotel for 09.00. Back for 16.00 today, really ready for cake! We are just not used to these long days, we didn’t actually ski any more runs, you just spend longer re-grouping, deciding what runs to do, and having lunch! We’ve been having a sandwich on a lift, not an option for the guys. We may have to leave them a bit earlier a few days as we still have to do normal mundane things, like buy bread, cook dinner etc! It’s lovely to see them though, and the skiing has changed – James has a tree obsession, loves to ski off piste through the trees, so we all follow!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Life in the French Alps

Looking down the slopes towards St Jean. Lake Geneva is in the distance

We have been in our apartment in St Jean d’Aulps Station for seventeen days now and in that time we’ve skied for fifteen, had one day off in between and had a day off today due to bad weather. We’ve skied over 250 runs, varying between green (very easy) to black (very hard), with some off-piste and covered probably 60% of the ski area. Each ski day has only lasted about four, occasionally as little as three or as much as five hours, but we’ve not stopped, only pausing for each other on some slopes and eating a sandwich on lifts, so it’s been pretty intense and our knees and thigh muscles have started to complain and the knee supports have been in use!

Jackie looking cold but cool!
In that time we haven’t really met anyone, we’ve had occasional chats with other English people we’ve seen about, but we haven’t been out to bars or restaurants at all, so not met anyone socially. I’ve cooked cake of differing types for every day and Jackie has cooked some great meals (her Boeuf Bourguignon was particularly superb), washed down by cheap but quite good French wine (less than €2 per bottle), so each day has generally ended just after 3:00pm with tea and cake, shower, vin chaud (once so far), preparations for and then eating dinner, followed by reading or watching English TV and bed by 10:00pm, often with a hot chocolate with rum, feeling very tired from the days of exercise. I know our social life doesn’t sound that exciting, but we’re feeling pretty wiped out by the time we get in.

Amazing mountain views all around
Our local area from a chairlift
Our skiing technique has, I suppose improved, but it’s a slow process. We can ski down mogul blacks rather than just ‘get down’, but when we watch good people skip down with such style we realise we’ve still a long way to go, but we are both feeling much better and confident in tackling tricky runs so it makes the enjoyment all the better.

The area, known as the Vallée d'Aulps in the Rhône-Alpes region of Southern France is very popular with English ex-pats and we can hear English being spoken widely. The reason is easy to understand, it’s very close to Geneva airport and has many villages dotted around the mountains with purpose built chalets, apartments, hotels and private houses and year round activities.
Thonon les Bains town centre
With an excellent record of good snow due to its geography and location, skiing is the main activity in the winter, along with ski touring, skating, para-skiing, heli-skiing, ice climbing, winter mountaineering etc, but it’s also a huge summer destination with mountain biking being a major activity. The ski lifts are adapted to carry bikes up to the high mountains, allowing hair-raising mountain bike descents down the slopes (sounds brilliant!), but other activities are rock climbing, there are a huge number of routes available locally for all grades of climber, with a lot fitting into our grade, and high mountain walking and scrambling and, so they say, some via-ferrata routes (mountaineering and climbing along fixed steel ropes and ladders), although we haven’t found evidence of those yet.

Lakeside view in Thonon les Bains with expensive yachts moored in the harbour. The mist makes the lake into an ocean
A section of medieval Thonon les Bains
As a result of this, many people, including English ex-pats have bought houses and moved here permanently, in some cases bringing their young families to start a new life in France. And why not, it seems relatively cheap, you can buy an apartment here for €80,000 to €100,000 or a house for €200,000 to €300,000 (much more if you want something near a ski lift and in a town centre such as Morzine), and food is certainly no more expensive than in the UK and possibly a bit cheaper (certainly the wine and beer is!). It’s quite tempting for us too, everything we could possibly want is here and we’re thinking maybe a summer here might be worth trying sometime and, if as good as we think it might be, why not base ourselves here for a few years….?

Anyway, since we’ve been here, the weather has been unusually warm (relatively speaking ) and, although there’s plenty of snow up high (above about 1300-1400m), it’s a bit thin at lower, village levels, meaning that runs back into resorts are few and far between. Only a few are kept open by both expert piste grooming and snow making machines. It really is magic how the piste groomers keep the slopes in such good condition, even in conditions of lean snow falls and warm days, they scrape the snow from beside the slopes (reducing the off-piste considerably) and mix it with snow made from the machines at the sides of many slopes to produce very good runs. However, even with their best efforts many of the lower slopes are closed and others have rocks, earth and bracken poking through, making them passable with care.

The view from our balcony after a fall of snow
Last week and so far this week, it has been relatively cloudy weather with intermittent flurries of snow, some of them quite reasonable, so runs at high level are good with plenty of good off piste, it’s just at low levels where temperatures have been between about 2⁰ and 5⁰C during the day and the precipitation here has been either sleet or rain. The forecast from tonight onwards is for it to turn much colder with freezing levels coming down to 450 or 500m, so if it snows again (as is forecast), we should wake up to snow all around us. The cloudy weather, although bringing much needed snow, makes skiing that much more challenging as dull skies remove all definition from the slopes making it all just white, hiding lumps and bumps. It means more careful skiing, and even then hitting an unseen bump which plays havoc with the technique, weight back, aching thighs and constant staring at the slope for those hidden traps. Roll on lots of snow and then clear sunny skies!

And the view from our balcony this morning! notice the bread crumbs on the balcony rail, I put them there each day for the visiting Blue Tits, but haven't managed to get a photo of them yet, they are too fast for me! We noticed that overnight lots of bread went missing and, this morning we saw the culprit, a small white cat appeared, grabbed some bread, was startled to see us looking, dropped the bread and dashed off. Jackies going out to buy some cat food now, but I've told her we have to buy bird seed as well! Look carefully and you can see cat paw prints on the white paint.
Today was particularly cloudy with rain here and very low cloud, in fact this afternoon we were in the cloud and could see nothing, so we decided skiing was off and we should go sightseeing. We drove down to Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) and our nearest large town, Thonon les Bains, which is the capital of the Chablais region. Unfortunately the weather here was as bad as in the mountains, so we didn’t get the best impression of the town. It’s an old medieval town built on two levels, a low level on the shores of Lake Geneva and a higher level with remnants of the fortified wall of the old town. On a good day the views of the lake from the old ramparts would be magnificent, but we could see a harbour full of expensive looking yachts, a grey expanse of water disappearing into the mist making it look like an ocean, and around us a town of mixed modern functional buildings and old to very old buildings in a clearly affluent town.

Skiing as it should be - fresh powder!
In the town centre was a market that we visited with coats buttoned up from the drizzle, but we were a bit late as they were just packing up, so we ambled around and came upon an imposing statue of a Joseph-Marie Desaix who lived from 1764 to 1834. He was born and died in Thonon, but in between he participated in the storming of the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution, served on the first Legislative Assembly in the first Republic and had a valiant military career as a General under Napoleon, being seriously injured by a musket ball, subsequently the governor of Berlin and then imprisoned after the fall of Napoleon. He was nicknamed ‘the fearless’ and has his name engraved in a stone at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A pretty impressive career!

Tomorrow we’re hoping for better weather and more skiing, just for a change!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

More skiing

Husky dogs pulling sledges

Well Ash and Simon are long gone, it was lovely to see them and we finally caught up with them properly on Wednesday, their last day, and skied with them all afternoon. Skiing just as a pair in many ways is so much easier, but I’ve spent so much time over the years on the piste counting people, are we all here? Who have we lost? Is everyone enjoying themselves? So it was lovely to be back with a few more people. 
They weren't really bothered about strokes
Their call saved me from ‘Yeti’ a really mogully black, as we had to rush off to where they were for which I was grateful as it would have been our first black and I prefer mine hard and fast rather than slow and lumpy! We have done it since and it was fine, but I’m just trying to break myself in gently as we are probably not as fit as we have been in the past, and with 4 months ahead of us, I don’t see the need to creak and groan and have aching knees at the end of every day! (All I have to do now is convince himself of this!) Although I have avoided the aches and pains, I know we have worked, as my legs actually feel like they belong to someone else as I sit here, which is really odd!

End of Piste on St Jean d'Aulps circuit
They then took us out to dinner just up the road from the apartment, as they had to return their skis – they knew all our ‘locals’ much better than we do – well I’m relishing having a cooker and kitchen all to myself, so it was our first time out after dark! How pathetic does that sound? So one stone meal and a couple of beers together and we said our farewells, us off to bed, and Simon out on the pull – well it was chalet maids night off! Not without a jolly time, sad farewells and a bag of assorted tangerines, OJ, odd toast biscuits, and a toilet roll! (you can never have enough toilet roll, especially when B has a cold!)

But it was OK, he gave us a lift down
Skiing has been varied since then, we REALLY need some more snow, runs are being closed all over the place, an important ‘linking’ run we could see from the lift today was definitely brown, with soil showing through, skiing on this is not good for the skis obviously as grooves in their base just slow you down for ever after, so we avoided this run and therefore a big area that we have still to play in! We did the big circuit of St Jean d’Aulps the other day, which was lovely, and will be done regularly when we just want a quick blast. Can’t claim to have done that in its entirety either, about 1km from the end, there was a barrier across the road, and a man with a fire, B thought he was just to stop us skiing, I hoped (and I was right) that he was there to ferry us to the bottom in his ‘all terrain vehicle’ So sorry the UK weather has been pants, but the same jet stream that is causing you problems is causing us trouble too!

The village of St Jean d'Aulps
Me, Simon and Ash on a chairlift

Ash, me and Simon ready to ski

A good view of Mont Blanc (except it's the one in cloud, centre right)
Our farewell meal (don't know why Ash is a bit blurred, must have been a finger mark on the lens)
The village of St Jean d'Aulps from the piste, showing the lack of snow
Our lunch stop today
Anyway, we’ve settled into a lovely routine, breakfast in bed (prepared by the breakfast fairy, or not me anyway!) ski, home for tea and cake (cooked by the cake fairy) possibly via the supermarket which is on our way home, hearty dinner which I’ve really enjoyed cooking, macaroni cheese tonight, but we’ve had lots of stews. The best was a boeuf bourguignon cooked with some reduced priced beef and a bottle of wine costing 1 euro 45 cents! Paid 7 euro 10 cents for the beef, have frozen half of it and had two dinners and one lunch each from the cooked half! 

The view from our balcony
The Dents du Midi in the background
Possibly turning the TV on if there is something to watch, well we do have UK freeview after all! Or if not reading, crosswords and the pc, before sleeping soundly through the night, something I got very used to in our year away but seemed to evade me in the two months we were back in the UK (too many people to see and things to do, and worrying about what to bring/pack for here. Now we are here we’ve got what we’ve got, and apart from coconut milk for Thai curries, for which I’ve sent out an appeal to the mountaineering club, all is good). We’ve even used the swimming pool, him twice and me only once, but if we can make that part of the routine, it has got to be good for the muscles! (It was a bit cold today though! And has left me deaf in one ear.)
Looking over the Swiss ski area of Champery from the top of the Grand Conche lift. Left is Les Crosets and the Grand Conche lift, the slope in the distance to the right is the infamous 'Swiss Wall' an off-piste black, currently closed through lack of snow