Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Skiing, walking, sunbathing and the odd beer or two

Our blog entries are taking on a familiar feel, but nevertheless different things happen that are worth speaking about.

See how the snow has slid off the roof, but not broken off
Apart from plenty of skiing (Jackie remarks that we’ve only had four days off from skiing since we’ve been here, but that’s now five including today – it has snowed and the cloud was low, so we’d rather not ski in a pillow case when we have the choice!), we are now in the middle of French school holidays and what a difference! We thought our little resort was a little out-of-the-way to attract many people, but we were wrong, this week it’s very hectic. Our apartment block must be fully booked and the car parking in our private car park normally has plenty of free spaces, but not this week, it’s packed with people parking cars in the strangest of places, leaving us to park quite a way away in the free car park down the hill. 
Ice sculptures
We were warned about this and it’s not too bad, we just drop our stuff off and then go and park and walk five minutes back. The resort has plenty of car parking by the lift station, three large car parking areas and a fourth car park down a bit (where we have been parking) and, when we first arrived we thought they would never be full, but this week every available space has been taken and every verge and road space also parked on. What it must be like up on the slopes we can’t imagine, we haven’t been up there!

A ski pole acts as an aerial on a radio at one ski lift
We skied on Saturday in Morzine, which is the best day of the week, all chalet employees are busy with ‘change over day’ and people on ski holidays are returning home or just arriving, leaving only locals who drive up for the day. They are usually good skiers, so keep out of the way, ski in a predictable way and are relatively few in number. Car parking is usually a bit more crowded, but a small price to pay for pleasant skiing. It was another fine sunny day on Sunday with a good fresh covering of snow, so we decided to go out again, but what a mistake. Not only were all the locals still there, plus the many local kids classes (the equivalent of taking kids to Sunday football in the UK), but also the new influx of people on their first day of their holiday, plus French half term holidaymakers here for the week, it was a nightmare! Packed slopes, huge queues at the lifts of ‘me first, we don’t queue’ people and groups of skiers who get off lifts and stop to decide what they are going to do, completely blocking the exit for others and who gather on pistes to regroup, forming a barrier to other skiers, seemingly oblivious to other people. We gave up and came home, deciding to do something else the next day!

Our pleasant walk through La Vernaz
Our next day was very pleasant, again clear blue skies and warm, we went for a walk on a snowless hill about 20km north of here, towards Geneva, at a place called La Vernaz. Other than dramatic mountain scenery in the near distance it was a walk on grass covered and forested hills, through a couple of villages, with a section of a nice exposed traverse on a rocky path with a chain to hold onto. The best thing about the walk was the two friendly village cats we encountered, first cats to stroke since leaving the UK! 
With an exposed rocky ledge section
Happy Jackie!
It only took us less than two hours so, on the way back we diverted to look at a climbing crag near to our village. According to the ‘UK Climbing’ website the crag has about 30 bolted routes, most of which are within our climbing grade, but we were diverted before we got there when we found signs to two ‘via-ferratas’, up the main part of the rock face, each 300m high, graded ‘red’ and ‘black’ in the same way ski pistes are graded.

And again!
Who lives in a house like this? Actually, it's for sale (I wonder why?)

The Via Ferrata rock face

A 20 minute walk up very steep ground took us to the start and they look absolutely magnificent, but pretty scary, particularly the black. Via ferratas are routes up and through mountains protected by a metal cable and some artificial foot and handholds, originally an Italian invention to allow troops in the First World War to ascend the Dolomites to get access to their front line to conduct battle. The original Italian VF’s are still there today and it’s possible to do multi day hut-to-hut tours on these remote mountain passes, but the idea caught on and more modern VF’s have been put up throughout the Alps and Pyrenees, with the accent on sport climbing. These two routes we found are just that, each taking about 1.5hours to do according to the notice, but scaling an improbable looking rock face, using some natural rock holds, but mainly by standing on metal hoops drilled into the rock and clipping a special harness and rope arrangement, called a lanyard into the metal rope. The black route appears to go over an overhang and, higher up, traverses a bar that spans a gap between rocks with nothing below your feet, amazing and very scary. That should get the heart pumping and the adrenalin going! We just have to do them, but we left our lanyards at home. Our cunning plan is to ask Roger to go and get them and bring them out when he visits us at the end of March, when all three of us will do them together!

Jackie free climbs the first section
The view back to our ski resort from the crag
On the way up to the crag we met a couple called Simon and Cassie just on their way down. They have recently bought a chalet in the village and have started a ski holiday company called Alpine Action Adventures. They have a fantastic chalet (we called round there on the way back) with amazing views, can take up to 14 people and offer a fully catered for ski holiday. They are aged around 30 and are the nicest people you could meet and we really wish them well. They have a mini bus and, although they are not near any ski lifts, Simon takes guests to and from the resorts car parks to access the lift system. It’s probably better than being near a lift as that gives access to only one part of the resort, whereas Simon can take guests to lots of different lifts making the best use of this massive ski area. Their website is and we would recommend anyone to them. They have excellent reviews on Trip Advisor and they are such great people! AND they have two cats, so complete overdose for one day!

Tea and cake on our balcony...
Tuesday, another clear blue sky day, we decided to try out skiing again and were pleasantly surprised. Car parking, no problem, lifts not too busy and slopes not too bad, maybe we had jumped to conclusions about half term being mad after all, maybe it’s just best to avoid Sundays!

Followed by a beer!
Two piste groomers ready to set off for a nights work in St Jean
We’ve enjoyed the sunshine, even sitting on our balcony in tee-shirts, enjoying a beer, but the sun has taken its toll on the snow. However, it’s been cloudy and snowy today, so we haven’t been out, and the forecast is for moderate amounts of snow over the next few days to a week, with freezing levels dropping quite low. 

A local band provide music at St Jean lift station in falling snow
Tonight we’ve had quite heavy snow in our resort, so it’s looking all very white again. Tomorrow is sun in the morning so we’ll be out to enjoy the fresh powder, before it clouds in and starts snowing again tomorrow afternoon and night. All looking good for the snow depth and quality.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The day the snow turned sandy brown!

Not sure how well you can see the sandy tinge to the snow

Now here’s a funny thing, we went out skiing today on brown snow, not really brown, but a light sandy colour. Overnight we had a light dusting of, what looked like sand, we noticed it on the car this morning and assumed someone may have been sanding some wood nearby and had deposited a light dust on the car, but looking down from the chairlifts we could see the snow was a light sand colour. It was particularly emphasised on the pistes where people had skied and disturbed the top layer, to reveal bright white snow beneath, churning up the top layer to a slightly deeper shade of sand. It became ‘creepy’ later on when mist descended (despite the forecast predicting clear skies) and we were in an unfamiliar area, having caught two buses to La Chapelle. 
Here's another picture of sandy snow with white skied bits
Through the mist it looked as though we were skiing on very light coloured sand dunes, of the type we expect on tropical islands (and incidentally off Northern Scotland by Picton), giving quite a surreal experience. We don’t know what caused it, but the light winds were coming from the south-east, the direction from North Africa, so we suppose it could be desert sand carried across on the wind, a phenomenon not unknown in the past, but we can’t find anything on the news about it.

Jackie skiing through fresh powder
Someone not-so-lucky being lifted into a rescue helicopter
It’s half term this week and therefore pretty busy, so we’ve been selecting our skiing area carefully to avoid the crowds and have been going to more isolated areas, requiring more planning and travelling, but also giving much more variety. Getting up and out promptly has been the order of the last few days, as locals on holiday travel by car, filling up the car parks at the main lifts early, but we’ve managed well and only been caught in a lift queue a couple of times.

A nice mountain picture? Look closer at the zoomed in section below....
Can you see four skiers, one of whom (on the left, halfway down) is throwing up a powder trail as he skis? The second person is to the right and a bit lower, the third person is near the bottom about three quarters of the way across the picture and the fourth is just left of a large rock near the bottom right hand corner. Now go back to the big picture and work out where they are on that mountain. We watched them ski down from the very top and this was the best picture I could get with our relatively basic camera. It's still very impressive and they must have had a fantastic descent, well worth the effort of getting up to the summit
Jackie in front of a couple of piste grooming mchines
Our ‘getting off the beaten track’ led us to Morgins, a quiet Swiss resort that we can get to from our usual local car park within 9 or 10 lifts and pistes, taking about an hour. We did some runs we had done before and then, looking at a noticeboard showing an old area piste map, we spotted a red run not shown on our modern piste map. We could see where it should go on our map, but no piste was marked, so off we went to see if we could find it. Halfway down a blue run an opening through some trees had a small ‘closed’ notice, barely visible so, ignoring it we followed a couple of previous ski tracks through the trees and onto a narrow but brilliant ski track that twisted and turned down, eventually joining another piste, which went back to a lift out. 
Jackie on the 'lost piste' of Morgins
It was THE run of the day, offering some pretty exciting skiing in a very isolated area with no-one else about, so good in fact we went back and did it again! Disappointingly we went back again the following day to find a piste grooming machine had gone through overnight and groomed it into a proper piste overnight, making it remarkably easy and much less inspiring. We think they must be keeping it for only those in the know, but in the day since we first found it and were one of only a few people down, by the next day it was really skied out – but by whom?

Husky dogs take a break from pulling sledges
And here's a close up showing them having a well-earned rest!

Jackie putting the 'skins' on her skis
We’ve finally managed a bit of ski touring, getting out and using our ‘skins’ to ‘skin up’ or walk up hill on skis. The ‘skins’ we use these days are not animal skins, but a man-made material that is adhesive on one side to stick to the base of skis and provide friction on the snow one way to stop the skis sliding back downhill, but slide easily uphill. Normally they are used to access remote areas, not serviced by ski lifts to give a true mountaineering experience, the kind of thing we have done several times in previous years when we have toured hut to hut in remote mountainous areas, but this time we used them to skin up a piste, just for a bit of exercise. 
And off she goes up hill
Jackie did ask ‘why’, when we have perfectly good ski passes to avoid having to walk up hill, but I told her it would be good for her, so off we went! We only did about 2km and 410m of ascent up a ‘blue’ piste, keeping to the edge to avoid downhill skiers, but it was good exercise and we saw so much more than we would normally, taking lifts and pistes to get to an area in our local resort that we wanted to tour through, not to mention how many people said “Bonjour” as the easily slid down past us!

We’re hoping for a bit more snow in the next few days as higher temperatures have removed most of the snow below 1100m (we’re at 900m, so can see mostly green around us now), there’s still plenty about, several meters deep at higher elevations and loads of great skiing, but a new covering, particularly to cover the sandy coloured layer would be very welcome, but we’re not complaining!

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Back to normality

By the lake in the wind and rain!

Sadly Thursday wasn’t as good as Tue and Wed, but we still went out for a couple of hours and did a walk from one of the lift carparks to the frozen lake at Montriond via the waterfall through the trees. It was a lovely walk but sadly it was pouring down the whole time and when we got into the open by the lake the wind whistled round our ears, so a hasty retreat to the bar for vin chaud was called for, and well deserved as the walk back was all uphill, AND in the pouring rain!

The frozen waterfall (no good for ice climbing though)
Night off for me as we went out for a last meal, Denise, B and I shared a fondue while Paul had tartiflette (a mixture of bacon, onion, cheese and potato, added to the list of things I must find a recipe for and make!) Very pleasant it was too.

So after a relatively early night and the alarm going off at 06.00 to get them to the airport on time, which we did, surprisingly, having spoken to Carole who collected Ben from the airport the previous evening and said the wind, rain and trees had caused the first, easy, hour long part of the journey to take two hours! 
Jackie found an igloo!
And seemed quite comfortable in there
Fortunately we were blissfully unaware, and all was sorted and we got there on time. We had sort of been aware – it’s difficult to miss a thunder storm that reverberates round the mountains for ages per rumble and causes the lift to be closed early (well who wants to be out in a bubble lift in a thunderstorm?) The little house is now returned to peace and tranquility, not that having them here was a problem at all, we had a lovely time, all fitting in such a small space and getting on remarkably well. We had a quick ski yesterday after the airport run, but hit the rainy worst part of the day, but have had a lovely ski today with Carole though it was now very warm (11 degrees on return home) and the snow very slushy. Makes it easy to ski on, and we had to make the most of it as it is now half term and madness will reign on the slopes and all over – even parking at home may be tricky apparently! At least we have the option of not going out till the madness is over!

The welcome Vin Chaud at the end
Wildlife count has increased over the last few nights, not only have small cat one and two been visiting for their crunchies, but black and white old cat with manky eyes has too. On top of this I’ve opened my eyes overnight to see a pine marten eating the birds bread on the balcony railing, and last night a fox on the window sill eating cat crunchies! Fabulous.

Other noteworthy successes to mention are: on returning from the supermarket to find we’d been charged 99 cents for a 70 cent avocado, we popped in the next day and got a reimbursement using nothing but French (and pointing!) And for me, getting Denise on skis, B was so convinced it would never happen, I really should have had a bet with him! I was so proud of her.

Skiing on Saturday with Carole
I just want to add how much we enjoyed Denise and Paul being here, they are so easy and fun to be with. It was great to be able to spend time with them as, unlike many siblings, Denise and I have always been close and done lots together in our younger days, so it was great to catch up and spend time with them both. It was also a joy to see how they both, but Denise in particular was so taken with the fabulous scenery and the general skiing format of gently skiing down slopes in beautiful sunshine and, when feeling a bit thirsty, stopping for a drink at one of the many bars on the slopes. It is a pleasant way of life and I think they really bought into that, maybe they will learn to ski!
Here's one Carole took of the two of us

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Our experiences in the French alps

Well here we are Paul (my husband ) and I (Denise Brian’s sister) in St Jean d’Aulps staying with B & J for a few days. We are absolutely amazed and delighted at the fantastic views that can be enjoyed even from the apartment window - it is so much more beautiful than we imagined. We have been on two fantastic days walking on the beautifully groomed pistes on very well organised and signposted paths - the views are to die for, whichever way you look! The first day was quite hard as we are not used to walking in snow and there was a fair bit of uphill (not my favourite) but we stopped for a ‘vin chaud’ midway through and were revived enough to enjoy the second half of the day. 
At the top of our first gondola lift
We completed a very enjoyable day with homemade (by Brian) apple and cinnamon cake  and millionaire shortbread followed by a fab meal of beef bourginon expertly created by Jackie. We were in bed by 10pm as I was exhausted from all the fresh air and exercise!

Jackie, Paul and me on the ridge above Morzine
A welcome 'Vin Chaud'

Lunch stop

This is a 'travelator' used to get people up a slope

Our first chairlift. He stopped it so we could step off it!
The second day we walked about 5 miles at a much greater height of about 1800 metres (much higher than Ben Nevis!) with even more amazing views over mountain ridges, snow covered chalets, helipads and again past practically vertical snow slopes busy with skiers making it all look very easy and enjoyable. We enjoyed a beer on the ski slopes and even had an encounter with a chair lift - I was amazed at my bravery, but it was such good fun! Back at the car park we saw a few people clustered around a very heath robinson contraption that was belching out steam and looked to be creating something to eat or drink. 
The snow was a bit deep in places!
We went over for a closer looked and the locals explained in French that it was a mini distillery producing pear brandy! One of the locals offered us a swig from the bottle he had just bought and reckoned it would improve our skiing! It burned all the way down but was surprisingly good. Once back at base we were again treated to tea and cakes. I was then (fairly easily I am surprised to report!) persuaded to have a go at trying to stand up on a pair of skis on a very flat slope close to the bottom of the piste a few yards from the apartment. 

Our highest point
I managed to fall over twice in about  10 minutes but tried to have a go at moving forward slowly, stopping and turning-it was very hard, uncomfortable and scary but I’m so glad I had a go. All this stress was followed by confit of duck, boulangere potatoes and cabbage followed by Brian’s bread and butter pudding washed down with wine, of course!

I’m off to bed soon as I am exhausted again but a very happy bunny who is loving the alpine adventure!

A relaxing moment


Carefully walking down the piste

Ready to ski

Its not too bad.....