Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Non-skiing in Saint Jean d’Aulps

New cat on the block. This one likes strokes so Jackies happy

Our skis have not seen the light of day since Christmas Day firstly because of the snow conditions, which have deteriorated since our last entry due to continuing warm weather and no precipitation, but also because of the huge crowds that have descended since Sunday. Other than the February French half term weeks, this week is the busiest in the resort and we can see it just from the volume of cars in our small resort and the fact that every apartment seems full. It’s very hard to find somewhere to park in our ‘private’ car park and, on one occasion had to park in the main public car park a little down the hill. We also have not ventured down to our swimming pool as we have heard the crowds of children running and shouting down there. We’ve heard Avoriaz are restricting sales of lift passes in the resort to try to limit the number of skiers on the limited number of pistes so, all in all it’s crowded with poor snow conditions – we’re just keeping out of the way and away from any skiing!

Sitting in our apartment with views out over the mountains
Walking up to Abondance, St Jean ski area in the distance
The weather, however, is at last on the cusp of change, the high pressure has at last moved away and we have some cold fronts moving in, forecast to bring a good dump of snow starting on Thursday (New Years Eve) night and continuing through to at least Monday and probably beyond. At last! The winds are, however, still from the SW, so relatively warm, meaning the snow line is above us, at around 1200m, so we may get rain or sleet here, but lots of snow up high.

On the col. Abondance ski-run and chairlift in the distance
In the meantime it has continued warmish and sunny, so we’ve taken the opportunity of getting out and about in our walking boots, yesterday doing a 9km walk with 650m of ascent up the mountain on the other side of our valley to the top of the Abondance ski resort. In the last entry I mentioned how that resort is the most inaccessible to us as, by road or ski lift and bus it is a huge distance, so last season we were here in 2014 we didn’t ever get there. It is only about 5km away ‘as the crow flies’ up a 4 wheel drive track from Saint Jean village and I was interested to walk up there and explore the possibility of ski touring up there using our touring skis with skins attached to enable us to walk uphill on them.

Looking down into the Abondance valley
We drove up a sealed road to the point the seal finished and continued as a gravel track. We were around 1000m altitude, parked the car and continued on foot in warm sunshine, up a relatively steep incline into an opening hillside of grass, evergreen trees and the occasional house. Ahead, above the col we were aiming for we could see the top chairlift of the Abondance resort and a grass slope through the trees that would become a red ski run in condition. Although the temperature was not much above freezing, there was no wind and clear blue sky, so the warm sunshine and effort exerted made us quite warm and we were walking in ‘T’ shirts.

Jackie decides it would be fun to climb up the skilift stanchion
Encouragingly, the slope was always uphill, which meant that if we ski toured up, it would be possible to ski back down and, although the track is not that wide and quite steep in places, there are sections where we think we would be able ski on open countryside, so it all looked possible – as long as there is sufficient snow and the track doesn’t get too churned up.

After just under 2 hours of walking we emerged on the Col de l’Ecuriele at 1534m. It was a flat area, still covered in snow that was sufficiently frozen to support our weight without breaking through the crust. From here there is apparently a Blue ski run leading down to the bottom of the top lift, so here we think we’d be able to remove our ski skins, put the skis in downhill ski mode and take off to ski the Abondance ski resort once it opens.

That'll be her on the platform then!
Higher up the stationary chairlift provides a nice seat
For now though we needed to carry on uphill, following the track of the blue run up into the resort proper. We reached another col at the top of the Grand Fremoux ski drag lift and had our first view down into the valley that contains the Abondance ski resort and, a little way along the Chapelle d’Abondance, Super Chatel and Chatel ski resorts, but we couldn’t see them far down into the valley.
Instead we decided to head to the top of the chairlft, to a point at 1674m but, on the way we passed the exit point for the Grand Fremoux drag lift with a couple of high stanchions supporting the cable, pulleys and mechanisms. 
In fact a nice place for lunch
All these poles have ladders to give access for staff to ascend in the case of problems, ice, seized bearings etc and, of course the general public (like us) are not allowed up them, particularly when they are running. Well, it wasn’t running and there were no people around so Jackie, obviously harbouring a secret desire to climb up one set off up the ladder, alighting on the platform at the top in amongst the machinery. I stood and took photos and expected to hear a whistle or see someone approaching on a vehicle, but no-one came!

Look, this is the inside of a ski lift attendants hut (that hut you can see in the photo above). Apart from the big control cabinet her has a microwave, a heater and a coffee maker. Never feel sorry for a lift attendant!
From the ski lift back towards St Jean d'Aulps
After she had fulfilled her desire and came down we continued up hill and had our lunch sitting on one of the chairs at the top of the chairlift in warm sunshine and splendid isolation at a place that, in season would be packed with skiers and lift personnel. We felt quite naughty people, but it was a nice rest and with great views all around.

St Jean d'Aulps. Our apartment is at the bottom of that ribbon of snow
After lunch it was all downhill, starting with the red ski run, all on grass other than a few snowy bits and we realised just how steep a red run is, causing us to be quite careful not to slip and slide down. How different it would be in snow and with skis! The walk downhill gave us fabulous views across the valley and we could see our Grande Terche ski resort, the long red run down to our apartment and all the buildings and roads right down to Saint Jean village. We took a brief detour of the main track to a small lake set in amongst the trees before getting down and back to our apartment in time for tea and cake.

A close-up at the end of the snow. Our apartment block is in the centre, our actual apartment is on the right by the trees
Jackie on the red ski run. Hopefully we'll get a photo of her actually skiing here
Harbouring my desire to climb the pointed mountain of Pic de la Corne (2048m) very nearby I managed to talk Jackie into it for Wednesday 30th, the day before the snow is due to come in and effectively seal it off until next April/May. We sent out messages to Si and Cassie and Leanne and Drew to see if they want to do it and got positive replies from them, so all seemed set for tomorrow. We even went out today to recce possible parking places for the start and found some for a few cars very close to the end of the road, so all look set. Today the weather looked cloudy, as forecast, but sunny for tomorrow. By pm today it had started to drizzle and, as the day went on it turned to rain which, with a temperature of 5 or 6°C probably meant snow higher up and, sure enough, just before it went dark we could see a fresh layer of snow all over the summit of Pic de la Corne and on the mountains round about. Good news for skiing, not so good for mountaineering. The forecast is still clear and sunny tomorrow, but it’s overcast and still drizzling/raining, so what it will be like in the morning is anyone’s guess. Tomorrow we will decide.

The lake on the detour back down. Didn't try the ice
In amongst all this Jackie spied an email on the valleexpats email list we’re on from a musician looking for someone to look after his dog on NYE while he plays a gig in Morzine. We’re not planning on going out so we offered, as long as we can have him here. ‘No problem’ was the reply from Alex so, this afternoon we went off to ‘The Cottage’ Inn, restaurant and bar in the centre of Morzine to meet him his girlfriend Ella and Gizmo the dog. He and his fellow musician, a saxophonist had just set up and were about to start so we had a beer and watched them for a couple of numbers before heading back in the Morzine end of the ski day rush hour traffic. Gizmo’s a nice quiet dog so he should be fun, we’re looking forward to it.
Alex, on the right is the owner of Gizmo, the dog we're looking after on NYE
Oh, and this was the route we took from St Jean, on the left, to Abondance on the top right of the red streak

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Christmas in Saint Jean d’Aulps

At the top of the Mossets lift in Morzine. The snow doesn't look too bad here...

We would have liked to have had a title that said ‘Christmas skiing in St Jean d’Aulps’ and, although there is some skiing, it is very poor. Our weather is still dominated by a high pressure system that is blocking all weather fronts and instead forcing them up over the UK, giving them lots of rain and flooding, which is really sad for them. Its position, slightly to the east of us means it’s dragging warm air currents up from North Africa, meaning sunny, warm days, typically 7° or 8°C and no fresh snow.

This is what it looks like on the other side of the ridge in Switzerland. In condition there are 3 or 4 groomed pistes down those green slopes and can you see three gulleys to the left of the pointed peak left of centre? Last time we were here we had fantastic off piste skiing down those when Steve Mac and friends came to visit
Our resort in St Jean. Our apartment is 400m below at the bottom of the gondola
The last snow here was at the end of November and, although the snow blowers and piste groomers have done remarkable jobs of keeping some linking pistes open, allowing some skiing to take place, it’s now very hard packed and thin. Very hard, icy pistes make it very difficult to get a ski edge in to slow down and it’s only possible by getting weight fully over the front ski and a getting a large angled edge to the slope. If the ski edges are not perfect they can just slide away under you so you fall into the slope and slide down. The thin surface often means earth or stones are poking through, if you hit one of those at least you’ll blunt your ski edges and possibly score the base of the skis and at worst stop dead catapulting you forward down the slope! Couple that with the large amount of Christmas skiers now packing the slopes, many inexperienced or going too fast for the conditions and it’s a recipe for a disaster!

Blue or Great Tits feeding off the fat balls on our balcony
Groucho cat eating the bread we'd put out for the birds
For the next few days the same looks set to continue, but there are signs that the high pressure system will break down around New Years Eve allowing some fronts to move in and, a few days later the wind may change to the North, which should bring some colder temperatures and some snow. We hope so!

Another black kitten that has joined us. Jackie has named him Smut

Si and Cassies chalet in St Jean d'Aulps village
In the meantime we have been making the best of it and we are not at all unhappy here. We have been out skiing but as the days have gone by and conditions gradually deteriorated we have done less and less. Now, until more snow comes, if we want to ski we’re just going up the gondola into our local ski resort in St Jean, the Roc d’Enfer. There are only 4 pistes open with one longish red run right back down, finishing within 2 minutes walk of our apartment, so we don’t need to use our car and can go out for one ski run (albeit icy) if we want to. We’ve done that on a few days finishing with a swim in the indoor heated pool in our apartment complex. The sunny days and the local scenery is stunning and even though there’s not much snow, it’s a great place to be. We’re planning some walks up nearby mountains and even climbing at the nearby ‘elephant rock’, 2 minutes walk away from Si and Cassie’s chalet in the village. There are 92 bolted climbs on the crag, ranging from 4a to 7a+, plus 2 fabulous and long via ferrata higher up, so enough to keep us busy.

Christmas carols on Christmas Eve in the Bar National. LtoR: Leanne, Drew, Cassie, Brian, Si (blurred) and Jackie. Si and Cassies guests are behind me, almost obscured by my head
A nice photo of us that Leanne took
Today we went for a drive over the mountains into the Chatel valley, going up over the Col du Corbier at 1237m along a winding mountain road with fabulous scenery and down to the small Abondance ski area that is part of the Portes du Soleil area but not yet open as you can’t ski on grass! It’s actually the furthest and hardest to reach resort for us and, last time we were here we didn’t ski there. The mountain pass we went over today is closed when it snows and the only way to drive there is a very long road drive almost back to Lake Geneva, so in snow it has to be done by skiing over the mountains into Chatel and then catching a bus down the valley. It’s only a small resort, but I really want to get there this season so, when it snows we must make an early start and try and do it this time! Jackie is really keen as you can imagine! It is ironic that we can actually see the top chair lift in the Abondance resort from our apartment in St Jean, on the top of the far mountain, but there’s no direct access from this side, making it hugely difficult to get to. Maybe we could ski tour up the mountain to it from here, now there’s a thought!

Christmas Day skiing. At the top lift in the St Jean resort
Jackie sliding on ice at the St Jean mid station
Today is Boxing Day and we’re having a second day of roast turkey with all the trimmings, followed by the second half of the rich chocolate dessert I cooked. Christmas Day involved scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast for breakfast, a local ski in St Jean followed by a swim, then sparkling wine while dinner cooked then, after dinner the Queen’s speech on TV at 4:00pm for us, a film, Dr. Who and Strictly Come Dancing, wine, nibbles and then a Skype conversation with all my family who were celebrating Christmas at Steph and Sam’s house back home. Also, we must not forget all the pussy cats who came to visit us on our balcony for their share of turkey offcuts. All very, very nice.

Sitting down to Christmas Day dinner
Christmas Eve was also pretty special. We had decided to go down to the village to the Bar National, run by a Scottish couple, who were putting on a carol concert and handing out free mulled wine and mince pies. We met up with Si and Cassie who walked there with a couple of their guests and Leanne and Drew came down too, so we had a few drinks, very loud carol singing and lots of laughs. It was great to finally meet up with Leanne’s husband Drew, who is an immensely likeable guy and the evening was made even better when they invited us back to their place for dinner.

A Crested Tit with a Mohican hairstyle that we saw
Leanne and Drew you may remember from Jackie’s last entry are the couple doing the Housesitting assignment in Morzine that we originally applied for before backing out due to our commitments to Si and Cassie, so we finally managed to see the two apartments they are looking after and their small studio that they are restricted to when the apartments are full. Fortunately the lower apartment was empty so they served us dinner in there which was great food and they were both great company. We hope to see a lot more of them over the season as we all seem to get on very well, they are both accomplished skiers (Drew taking ‘stage 3’ French ski instructors lessons, Leanne having done stage 2) and they like ski touring, which of course we do too.

The view from our apartment car park. The buildings below are Saint Jean d'Aulps village. On the horizon just left of centre is the top chairlift of the Abondance ski resort and, do you see that bright, craggy peak just right of centre? That's called Pic de la Corne. It's 2084m high and I really want to stand on it's summit before we go home! 
A 'zoom'of the previous photo. The Abondance ski lift is left of centre
So far, apart from the snow, it’s turning out to be just what we hoped the ski season would be. We’re starting to feel like locals and are enjoying helping Si and Cassie on the odd occasions they need a bit of assistance and are looking forward to their and Leanne and Drew’s company on the slopes and/or touring when time allows. So far so good, it’s fabulous so far!

Even more zoomed in. You might just be able to see the stantions of the chair lift against the blue sky above the clearing. That clear grass slope is one of the ski runs in Abondance. So near and yet so far! I think we could ski tour (in condition) up to it from the houses in the above picture. It's only about 3.5 miles and 650m of ascent - how fabulous would that be!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

In the snow in St Jean D’Aulps (it rhymes, St Jean D’Aulps is pronounced St Jean Doe)

Another long drive got us safely here, with little excitement, though I did have the 'fun' of the Lyon periferique which was very scary. The French really are mad drivers!

View from our apartment balcony. Not much snow - yet!
We arrived within 15 mins of our eta, which isn't bad in a nine hour journey to meet  Andy in the apartment, a couple of new cupboards, but apart from that just as we remembered it. We crammed the contents of the car into the apartment and it now feels like home. It is in fact the first time since we were last here that my food box has actually been unpacked.

Thursday we popped in to say hi to Cassie before going off to buy our lift passes which we got for the working/residents price of 720€ rather than the 900€ we paid last time. Very happy with that! 

This left us free to ski on Friday, which was a surprise to us as we didn't think the resort was open, but "follow us" said Si and Cassie so we did. We were out with them and their friend Jim, visiting from the UK and Leanne and Ed, both of whose spouses are in ski instructor school. 

On the piste! LtoR: Cassie, Leanne, Jackie, Jim, Ed, Simon
First view of the snow. Top of the Ardent lift in the Lindarets bowl
It really is a very small world, sometime in August I'd spotted a perfect listing on Trusted housesitters "no pets, but two apartments to change over between guests, in Morzine in exchange for a studio apartment" Morzine is just down the road and actually attached to the main part of the resort and free accommodation......... We applied immediately but explained that we had already agreed to rent this apartment, and got an almost immediate reply that we sounded perfect, could we look into getting out of the apartment? 
Lunch with new friends. Jackie, Simon, Jim, Leanne, Ed & Cassie
In itself that shouldn't have been too difficult, it was only August, still plenty of time for Carole to advertise and fill the apartment. The other issue we had though was that we had agreed to help Cassie and Simon on changeover day, as this year they are doing their own airport transfers and had given them our word, so apart from the fact they are lovely people, our own consciences kicked in. The other minor fly in the ointment was no oven in the studio, so how would B be able to keep me in cake? We explained all this, apologising for 'wasting their time' but hoping we can meet up to look at future possibilities. "Not to worry" she said, "but yes, let's meet up, a couple that were in over the summer may be interested." 

Looking on after a major wipeout by Jim
It turns out this 'other couple' were Leanne and her husband Drew, who C&S had met in the summer and got to know. They are a couple a little younger than us, he is 50, don't know about her, but she is lovely, they too are housesitting their way around so we really look forward to spending some time with them and learning of their experiences.


Second day out for Jackie and me. On 'Le Linga' ski run in Chatel
The snow was far better than expected, but limited, nothing off the side of the piste and a few icy patches and some stones to be avoided, so a good morning skiing before stopping for lunch at an en piste restaurant, something we don't do! All except Ed, who had suggested the venue, were a little shocked at the cost, but it was lovely for a treat. We then popped into Morzine as B had communicated with a guy from the Vallee expats email group who had some old skis he just wanted shot of, so for 50€ just less than we spent on lunch, we got a pair of skis each that we won't worry about going over the stones with in these dodgy conditions! Having said that, the pair B got actually have ski touring bindings, as our 'good' skis do and are newer and probably better than his good skis!

'Whitey' on our windowsill
Two nights in, and there outside the window, looking in was 'Whitey' , just as well I'd sneaked some cat biscuits into the shopping trolley then! It took about three months last time to get her to sit on the windowsill to eat biscuits, this time about a second. I swear she recognised us. She was shortly followed by Callico cat, and then by a new one, half her size, but has to be related, initially called Eyebrow cat, we have moved on to Groucho. She is very cute, but very fraidy, runs off all the way up the hill as soon as I open the window to put biscuits out. Whitey is in charge, and is spending as much time on the windowsill as she can manage, nearby falling asleep, but not leaving her post for fear of anyone else getting first dibs!

And just to prove it's the same cat, here's a photo from 2 years ago. Same cat? I think so!
'Eyebrow' or 'Groucho' cat
We went out to test our 'new' skis, and they feel like skis to me! What do I know! So money well spent for peace of mind. Then off to Cassie and Si, to have our bed making lesson as the first guests arrived today. In the end B followed Si to the airport in the second vehicle while Cassie and I stayed and made beds, cleaned and made canapés. Very glad we did it that way round rather than both of them go off to the airport as the flight was very delayed and it would have been an awful lot of wasted time. Had a lovely day, in some strange way, now I have no house to clean I quite enjoy a good blitz and we did a lot of chatting while making canapés. And we came home with a little pocket money. They insisted! This was just what we wanted last time we came out, a little job giving us the chance to meet some people, and their friends.

'Christmas Corner' in our apartment, thanks Elizabeth xx
So we've been here four days, had a couple of half days skiing, met some lovely new people, started our 'Saturday' job and settled in like we've never been away. A good dump of snow and it will all be perfect.