Sunday, 2 March 2014

Unexpected Visitors

Ash, Paul and Jackie on a steep off piste

The receipt of a text message on Wednesday evening heralded the start of a hectic, but very pleasant few days. Sitting quietly in our apartment, the receipt of a text message is a pretty rare occurrence these days, particularly from Steve MacDonald, it read ‘Hey Brian, are u in Morzine this wkend? I’ll be there today until Sun, lets catch up!!’. Steve is my ex working colleague and friend and part of our team of four who did ‘Trailwalker 2012’, 100km in 30 hour walk over the South Downs in July 2012, see:
That’s interesting I thought and then announced to Jackie ‘Guess who we’ll be skiing with tomorrow? You’ll never guess’. She didn’t until she looked at the message, but we were immediately really looking forward to it. 

Paul looking apprehensively down the slope
At this stage we had no idea who else he was with (if anyone), was it people from his company, was it his partner Dani and their 6 month old son Ruben, or was it some of his friends? We didn’t know, but Steve’s always happy attitude and gregarious nature would make it a great time so, after not receiving a reply to my text, we set off on Thursday morning into the Les Crosets ski area and sent another message saying where we’d be if he/they wanted to meet up.

Pause for photo. LtoR Ben, Steve, Neville, Jackie, Ash and Paul (and it was that steep!)
Skiing 'SnowCross Crozets' in Avoriaz
His text to say they were on their way over and would be with us within half an hour was optimistic, we waited at a chairlift for 45 minutes, but it was bright sunshine and we’d done several off piste steep runs, so were happy to rest in fabulous scenery and sunshine keeping an eye out for the green jacket, grey trousers and snowboard that he said he was wearing. After several false identifications, we finally saw him snowboarding down with some style. Jackie waved and went over to him and, before I could move Ash Chury and Paul Johnson, on skis, were smiling in front of me. The Trailwalker 2012 team reunited, what a really pleasant surprise, it was great to see them! They were with two other snowboarders, Neville and Ben, who turned out to be very relaxed and friendly guys and a great bunch of people with which to spend a few days.

'Boarders' Neville, Ben and Steve wait for us skiers!
They arranged a late break to get a good deal and had rented rooms in a fully catered chalet in central Morzine, 100m from the Super Morzine bubble. Neville spent a ski season 9 years ago in Chamonix, so the preference was for that area, but as Steve knew we were in the Morzine area he persuaded them to come here. Although they had been here before, their knowledge of the area layout was limited, so Jackie and I became unofficial tour guides. As we had no idea of their level or what sort of runs they like to do (snowboarders do like different types of runs, usually preferring off piste powder) and being a mixture of snowboarders and skiers it was anyone’s guess, but there had been a huge amount of snow overnight (at least 300mm if not more), so the off piste would be fabulous, on piste not so good (large amounts of powder snow on pistes quickly get churned up into big, lumpy moguls making on piste skiing challenging, particularly for snowboarders, making off piste the better choice in those conditions).

Ash looking cool!
After pointing out some steep off piste, high above the Les Crosets area that looked fabulous in the bright sunshine with a few other ski tracks coming down, but lots of deep fresh untouched powder, there seemed no other choice (Jackie and I had done one of the gullies earlier, so we were happy, but as Jackie pointed out to me later, it was the boarders that were enthusiastic and vocal, Ash and Paul, not saying so much). We got the lift up, traversed across the top of one gully and into a second, relatively untouched area. ‘That’s quite steep with a narrow exit at the bottom’ Ash said but, without too much thought, I said ‘Yes, it is’ and set off down. 
Jackie in thigh deep powder
The snow was magnificent and very ‘forgiving’, being so deep and Steve, Neville and Ben were straight off ahead, closely followed by Jackie and then me. Paul and Ash were not quite so quick and I think they were a little apprehensive, but they got on OK and the smile on Pauls face said it all. How fantastic is this, with sunshine, blue skies and magnificent mountain scenery spread out in front of us. The lower part narrowed into a natural ‘half pipe’ with lots of untouched powder, making the whole run so good that we went back up and gave one of the other gullies a go. It was obviously the right choice as the smiles and adjectives such as ‘awesome’ were in wide use.

This was a Ben 'oh dear' moment. He boarded down fresh powder only to end up in a bowl. You can see the piste about 10m away, but it took him about 15 minutes and a huge amount of energy to get up the deep snow back onto the piste. The rest of us sensibly skied round the bowl!
A wipeout by Paul in deep powder snow
We moved into Avoriaz and into the ‘expert ski area’ of amazing black runs and backcountry (SnowCross) skiing. The SnowCross route was closed, due to avalanche risk, but we could traverse into it lower down, once past the avalanche danger, by skiing down steep untouched snow into a massive wide bowl, well away from lifts and pistes and had an amazing time, getting back to a lift in order to go up and do it again! The joy on everyone’s faces said it all, a great choice of runs and a great day!

There were so many good photo opportunities
On Friday we met up again and, feeling the pressure of taking them somewhere that might equal or better yesterdays skiing, we went over into the Chatel area. There had been more snow overnight, perhaps another 200 or 300mm, so the off piste was again going to be superb. There was some look of questioning in some faces when I suggested we go along a flat, slightly up hill piste that disappeared round a mountain top, but I assured them it opened out into a steep black run with lots of off piste opportunities either side, so off we went. It didn’t disappoint, fantastic deep untouched snow that, in places was thigh high, making downhill progress slow on all but really steep slopes (don’t lose a ski in this stuff, you’ll never find it!). 
Neville and Paul
It was the right decision again, the smiles and suitable adjectives, followed by ‘let’s do it again’ said it all. After that, we moved further into the Chatel area to seek out another off piste area Jackie and I had seen. We’d tried bits of it before, but didn’t want to go too far from the lifts as we may get too far away and be faced with a long walk back. No such reservations now, we set off down steep terrain moving away from the lifts following only the odd ski track. Hoots of laughter, plenty of fun and a great time was had by all, even managing to find our way back to a lift. 

Steve looking cool
So good another repeat was done, going even further afield and ending up at a frozen reservoir and thinking we may have blown it and be faced with a long walk in deep snow but, just as we were thinking this, a ski instructor with a client came into view and told is the lift we wanted was just over the hill there, so it turned out perfectly, except for the weather, which had clouded in and was now snowing hard. Jackie and I beat a hasty retreat, leaving them to ski in poor conditions, but later we found out that they also gave up as visibility was so low it made skiing almost impossible. It was about 15:00, so we’d been out most of the day.

Just the two of us
Paul and Jackie
Yesterday was their last day, but it was Saturday, the best day of the week for skiing as the slopes are usually uncrowded as it’s ‘change over day’. The weather was not too bad, cloudy with light snow but bright enough to give good definition and, with a further reasonable covering of snow overnight, another good off piste powder day (they don’t know how lucky they were, virtually the best snow we have seen since we’ve been here!). We weren’t disappointed with the crowds either, it was really quiet with very few people around, so we chose the morning to do some standard downhill skiing on beautifully groomed pistes. 

The traverse across the top of a black slope towards the 'Zone Freeride' off piste section
Now that's a hot chocolate with cream! (Thanks Paul)
Paul and Neville had got smart phones with a skiing app on that recorded how far they had skied, how fast and down what slope, so fast downhill skiing seemed to be on everyones mind. The first steep, almost empty red piste had readings of just under 40mph (over 60kph), the second run Neville really went for it and recorded 56mph (90kph) which was an unbelievable speed. I don’t think Jackie and I were that fast, but we were certainly faster than the first run of 40mph, maybe 45 to 50mph, that’s pretty fast on skis!!

Lunch on the piste. LtoR Jackie, Paul, Neville, Steve, Ben and Ash
Group photo!
There was still yet more off piste to be done and we caught a lift up from the Nyon area to a ‘Freeride zone’ in a separate steep wide bowl that can be accessed from a black run by traversing around an arête. I’d seen it before, but Jackie hadn’t been keen, but today all the expert locals were going there and it looked fabulous. We weren’t disappointed and, even though lots of people had been over there, it was so big there was plenty of fresh snow still to be had. Fabulous, very steep and very exciting, guess what? We went and did it again!

Jackie weighing up the best way down
Steve managed to fall into a giant hole
Lunch, a rest, and then we went over Les Gets to an area we knew between pistes. There are several areas of off piste, pretty well covered with pine trees, so quick turns round, through trees, ducking under branches are in order, with plenty of open areas in between, ranging from steep to moderate slopes. Fantastic fun was had by all, several ‘wipe outs’, including two by me, but many more by Ben who boards very competently, before losing it completely, somersaulting several times, seemingly just for our entertainment. 

And the more he dug, the deeper he got!
We spent the whole afternoon there, before heading back to Morzine and skiing down to the bottom of the Pleney lift to their usual après ski bar at the bottom. As it was their last day, we had driven to Morzine in order to have a drink with them. Apres ski bars have plenty of load music, this one being right next to the slope, semi outdoors, where you just drop your skis on the snow outside and go and party in full ski gear and ski boots. It’s unique and great fun and Ben’s penchant for dancing really adds to the entertainment and he really is very good!  I took some video of our skiing and boarding during the day and some video at the après ski bar. You can have a look at it by following this link:

Another Ben wipeout!
Apres ski beers!
In summary, we’re had a fabulous time, great company, great snow and probably the best skiing we’ve done since we’ve been here. We were just glad to be able to be their unofficial tour guides take them to the ski areas that really fitted their requirements, we didn’t need to ask if they had enjoyed it, we could see it in their faces, their actions and their words. It was great to see Steve, Ash and Paul again and to reunite the ‘Trailwalker 2012’, but we have met two new good friends in Neville and Ben, we both hope we can all meet up again sometime, it was a fabulous few days. Thanks guys!

Cheers guys, lets do it again sometime!

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