Thursday, 18 February 2016

Our ski tour ‘Big Day Out’

It’s been a couple of weeks since our last blog entry and, although we’ve done a lot, I want to concentrate on the big ski tour circuit we did yesterday from the Valley de la Manche near Morzine, up and over a col into Switzerland, a fabulous ski descent to link up with a red piste towards Champerey, several ski lifts and pistes back to the top of Avoriaz in France and then a long off piste descent back to the start.

To build up for it we had several days that we might call ‘preparation days’ and I briefly describe these under the sub heading ‘Preparation Days’ so, if you want to skip straight to the tour go to the sub heading ‘The Big Day’.

Preparation Days:

Since our last entry we’ve done a few days of downhill piste and off piste skiing, but less frequently due to the very busy February school holiday period which has seen a massive increase in cars, people and lift queues, so we had decided to concentrate more on off piste ski touring during this time in an effort to avoid the crowds.

View down from Col de Graydon
Our first off piste day was with Si and Cassie in our local ski area La Grand Terche in St Jean d’Aulps, two minutes walk from our apartment. We took the lifts up, got to the Col de Graydon (Google Maps link to Col de Graydon) and from there skied down into a beautiful, steep and largely untracked area. We didn’t know exactly where it would go or how we would get out but we knew roughly the area and knew we wouldn’t get too lost. 
Jackie and Cassie skiing down from Col de Graydon
The initial ski down was of first class quality, deep powder snow with the opportunity to put in fabulous ‘S’ curves in the snow, but after the initial joy the slope eased and we found ourselves in trees and a narrower valley with a mostly snow covered stream that we had to cross three times. Fortunately it was quite small and, on taking skis off was easily crossed, but we had some up hill walking in deep snow and close growing trees to negotiate so it was ‘interesting’. A real adventure we called it!

Some 'interesting' bits on the ski down from Col de Graydon
Jimmy the dog on our tour from Col de l'Encrenaz
Jackie and I went out on Monday to the start of our proposed ski tour ‘Big Day’ and toured up the route for the first hour to the lake, just to make sure we knew where to park and the initial ascent. We had been further up when we were here two years ago, but never made it up to the col, so this was a useful recap. We didn’t go any further as it was snowing and we were walking in a cloud with very little view! It was also our first proper tour for a while and Jackie grew couple of blisters on her feet, which wasn’t a good start!

LtoR: Paola, Eddie, Leanne, Jackie, Si, Cassie, Drew
Si and Cassie led our next day out and it was a ski tour from the Col de l’Encrenaz, behind the Mont Chery ski area up towards the Col de Ratti (save that for another trip) and onto a lower summit for some avalanche awareness discussion and transceiver searching. We had a larger group for this, so in addition to Si and Cassie and Jackie and me we were joined by Leanne and Drew and Si and Cassie’s neighbours Eddie and Paola and their little dog Jimmy. 

Heading on up, Jimmy the dog keeping up!
We had a sunny but cold day and Drew took the lead with the avalanche awareness and transceiver searching which was, for some of us a useful recap and for others completely new instruction, so very worthwhile. Jackie and I have done this on several courses before but not for a good few years, but Drew is the only person I know who has actually been involved in a real avalanche rescue (and very recently), so his personal experience was very interesting and made it very worthwhile. For Drew’s avalanche experience see Leanne’s blog entry on it here: Link to Drews avalanche account. The day finished (as these things usually do) with a visit to a bar on the mountain for a vin chaud and/or a beer.

Avalanche awareness and trasceiver searching stop

The Big Day

Have a look at our Youtube video of the day in conjunction with this written account:

Here's the route we did. Starting on the left at the blue star, number 2 is the lake, number 5 is the Col de Cou on the Swiss border. Numbers 5 to 6 is the ski down from the col and we joined the piste around number 7 and got to the Grand Paradis ski lift at number 12.numbers 13 and 14 are ski lifts, number 15 a blue run down, 17 and 18 is the Grand Conche chairlift, 19 a blue piste, 20 another chairlift up to Avoriaz, 20 to 12 off and on piste runs, 22 is the Fornet chairlift, 23 to 26 is the final ski descent and 26 is the location of the bar, before returning to the start
The view at the start showing the final ski descent
The prep days had got us properly organised with our kit so, on the day most things were ready and we had only need to make mountains of sandwiches and snacks, fill water bottles, pack and go. Jackie’s previous blisters were now covered in Compeed but she had woken up in the night with a sore throat, a bit of a cough and ‘hurting skin’. Not a good start, will she manage it?

At the lake after Si and Drew joined us
On locking our apartment door Jackie asked where my transceiver was, I’d forgotten it! How could I do that, such a vital bit of kit, but it was easily retrieved and we were off down the hill to Si and Cassie’s where Cassie and Eddie were waiting for us all to head off together. Si had already left, taking their guests to the ski lifts for their day, then going on to pick up Leanne and Drew and meeting us at the agreed parking place in the Valley de la Manche.

First aid on Jackies blisters, administered by Si
Having worked out and planned timings for the route I had said I really wanted to be starting at 10:00am as, any later we would feel a time pressure all day so, with everyone making a special effort we were all together at about 09:50am – just perfect! However it didn’t last, on getting our kit out Drew realised he had left his transceiver at home and needed to return to get it. It turned out that Si also had nearly left his behind, so that was three of us – what is it with transceivers? Vital, but three of us nearly (or did) forget them, bizarre!

Heading up the mountainside
‘You go on ahead and we’ll catch up’ said Si and, bearing in mind both Si and Drew are ex military and very fit, this seemed quite reasonable so, in a flash Si was off down the road in their car with Drew, obviously sticking to every speed limit on the way!

We set off into a beautiful day, clear blue skies and sun, but cold with a fabulous view of our route ahead, the Col de Cou in the distance and, to the left the huge bowl down from the Col de Fornet, which was to be our final ski descent. The first third of the route, up to the lake, is on prepared pisted tracks going uphill through snow covered forests and meadows, so it made progress quite easy, the skins on our skis biting nicely into the fresh snow to prevent us sliding back downhill, yet sliding easily forward with each step. 
Eddie taking a break and enjoying the scenery
Ski touring is not that different from walking except the skis are not lifted off the ground, but slid forward and, as snow smooths things out, each ‘step’ is the same as there are no obstacles like rocks to step over or round. The ski poles swing easily being planted in a regular movement just to assist balance and movement, giving a full body workout.  In a short time you get into a rhythm, breathing and heartbeat settle into a higher but manageable rate, you feel a stretch in calf muscles at the extent of a stride and a tightening of the thigh muscles as you move forward. As you don’t always need to look down it gives the opportunity of looking round a bit more so it is probably more pleasant than walking.

Brian slowly following Cassie up
Within an hour (before 11:00am) we were at the frozen lake, a flat area at 1400m with expansive views of snow covered mountains all around us dazzling us with the bright sun reflecting off them. We were hot, even though the temperature was well below zero, due to the exertion of touring through 2.5km and over 200m of ascent, but you cool quickly once pausing so it is necessary to put on a layer or two to prevent chilling, which we did. This is a popular excursion for ski tourers, snowshoers and walkers, so we were not alone, but enjoyed our surroundings and a bite to eat while we waited for Si and Drew to catch up. Amazingly they were with us within 10 minutes of our arrival and this was after driving to and across Morzine and, when Drew couldn’t find his transceiver, a visit to a ski shop to hire one, then all the way back and then up to join us. Fit people these military types!

Taking a break
The groomed path continued for a short while until opening out into a wide valley where the prepared path finished at a remote chalet and the real touring started relentlessly uphill towards the col. It was at this point that Jackie, suffering with her cold and blisters, decided that she needed to attend to her blisters and apply more protection, so Si immediately prepared an area by the side of the track, got out his zinc oxide tape and did a splendid job of making the sore areas of her feet as comfortable as possible. What a star!

Approaching the col
Since I had planned the route I took the lead sliding skis uphill in other people’s rough tracks in the general direction of the col a long way ahead. My lack of proper cardio vascular training in recent weeks soon showed itself and, coupled with the higher altitude I started to struggle. Calf muscles and thighs started to ache and feel weak, breathing was heavy and my pulse high. Thinking this was just me and seeing fit people like Si and Cassie move ahead I started to feel a bit down and worried about my ability to get to the top, but just then Drew came past looking tired and complaining his pulse was probably around 180bpm. Thinking about it my pulse was at about that level too!

On the col taking ski skins off and preparing for the ski descent
Fortunately I saw Si and Cassie stop for a snack on up ahead and we all reunited, sat down on our skis and had something to eat and drink and admire the view. We still had nearly 300m of ascent to do, I was aware of how tired I felt, but I took a little comfort when others said how tough it was, but I still felt that I was probably worse than them. Jackie, on the other hand didn’t look too bad, despite her blisters and cold so, on Si’s 5 minute warning I decided I needed to get started so I could go at my own slow pace and let people pass as they wanted to. I don’t think Jackie was very impressed as I think she wanted me to stay with her, but I just felt I had to get into my own rhythm at my own slow pace and we wouldn’t be far apart. Si, with energy to spare, apparently stayed behind Jackie making sure she was OK and we all continued slowly towards the col. 
Brian, Si and Drew check the map at the col
Even at a slow pace my pulse was racing, breathing very fast and legs aching so I slowed, took smaller steps and pressed on, being passed by Eddie, Leanne, Drew and Cassie and watching the col slowly get nearer. I finally got there, followed by Jackie and Si a couple of minutes later, took a few minutes to recover, removed the skins from our skis, put on lots of clothing layers and prepared for the ski descent.

The view down from the col. Almost untracked, our route was to head straight out and then right into the valley with the low lying cloud
Heading down with Brian leading, GPS (with marked track) in hand
Most people around us at this stage had reached their goal and were preparing to ski back down the same way, but not us! Our plan was to go on, down into Switzerland and try to link up with part of a Swiss piste run and ski lifts to get us back and over and back into France. It involved skiing down into a remote valley of virtually untracked snow following the track on my GPS. I had studied maps, Jackie and I had skied as close as we could on pistes to study the route through binoculars and I had carefully looked at the satellite views on Google Maps to study the terrain and best route. I was confident, but leading people into the unknown terrain beneath steep cliffs full of avalanche possible snow is a bit daunting. We had checked the avalanche forecast and at ‘2’ and on slopes below 30° angle we reckoned we were pretty safe, but still kept at a safe distance between each of us in case of avalanches.

Into the low lying cloud heading towards the piste
There were, at most, only a dozen ski tracks down, so it is a seldomly done route for some reason, but it meant we had plenty of untracked snow to ski on and standing on the edge looking down on such a beautiful scene under a bright blue sky gave a great feeling of anticipation. After checking the maps and the route on my GPS for a final time I, followed by everyone else at a safe distance skied down into the unknown, cutting tracks in fabulous soft snow and covering a large distance in no time, compared with our very slow ascent.

After the ski down and lift up. The Col de Cou is in the centre behind Jackies head. It's a long way away! In the picture LtoR: Drew, Leanne, Brian, Jackie, Si and Cassie
Heading towards the Fornet lift and the col
Skiing down after so long ascending uses different muscles and the transition isn’t easy. After my first couple of turns I was over and lying in deep powder snow with one ski off. Thank heavens for leashes, the ski couldn’t go far, but standing up and getting the ski back on is not easy in such deep snow and, by the time I had done it I was out of breath and hot again. Looking back and up I could see Jackie announcing to the others that I was lying in snow! 
The path to the col from the Fornet lift
Finally up I continued on, stopping as far away from avalanche territory as I could to check my GPS and make sure we were still on course. We were and I confirmed the correct point of departure down and round an isolated building and onto the dozen or so other ski tracks that all converged at this point. We were now heading steeply downhill and then onto a thin, bumpy track round towards the piste, desperately trying to get an edge in somewhere to slow down and control speed while trying to keep weight forward in order to stay upright when being launched into the air going over bumps, all very interesting!

Over the col ready for the final ski down
I am very happy to say that navigation worked perfectly and I edged to a halt just as we converged towards the piste, only to see Si make a desperate manoeuvre to avoid me and stop alongside. Didn’t realise he was so close, but at least he didn’t take me out! The others appeared all feeling happy with ourselves and then set off down the rather flat and very long red piste right round to the Grand Paradis chairlift near the Swiss resort of Champerey. We’ve done this run several times before and it always seems to just go on forever, it gets very flat where poling is necessary and a huge length is very shallow, meaning you just slide. After a long while of sliding with bent knees they start to ache, along with already tired thighs!

Eddie leading we ski down amongst stunning scenery
Just as you think it can’t lead anywhere and you are completely lost a really isolated ski lift comes into view with nothing else around save a small car park, but it lifts us up right back into the middle of the Swiss Les Crosets ski area and suddenly we are in the middle of lots of downhill skiers and lift queues. When ski touring we carry rucksacks with lots of gear in, avalanche probes, shovels etc and, to be able to sit on a chairlift we have to put rucksacks on our laps, so there we are in our touring gear and rucksacks sitting alongside downhill skiers. Jackie was pleased to be able to sit next to someone who wanted to know all about where we had been and, on telling him, he announced he had done the Haute Route ski tour in Switzerland. Jackie was able to tell him that we considered it, but discounted it on the grounds of it being too popular and being a bit like a conveyor belt with the huts on route, a fact which he agreed with.

A pause on the way down to admire the scenery
Our onward route from the top was a blue run down to the Grand Conche ski lift, that took us up to the Swiss/France border, we skied down at the top of the Lindarets bowl, took another lift up and over into Avoriaz. From there we did some off piste and on piste skiing down to the start of the busy Fornet lift, which would take us back up to the Col de Fornet. Here most people ski back down on some great unpisted but in resort routes, but that was not for us! Here we side stepped in our skis the 100m or so rise up to the col and the edge of the Avoriaz resort and looked down into the unpatrolled Valley de la Manche and prepared for our final ski descent back to our vehicles.

Skiing down with tired legs
I had spotted this route while trawling the internet for off piste runs and found this under one guides list of his top 25 ski descents in the Alps. It sounded fabulous, looked good on the map and on the satellite view on Google Maps and looked good when Jackie and I did a recce by going up to the col and looking over some days earlier, so it was in the plan.

And finally, just before the end, a bar
Fortunately Eddie, who was with us had previously done this descent with a guide so he knew it reasonably well and was able to lead the way down, warning us of an area of high avalanche danger so we could space ourselves out and generally making it stress free for us all. The snow was a bit ‘heavy’ as the sun had softened it by the time we were on it, so it was difficult and tiring to ski on, particularly with tired legs, but the views were stunning and, as a route it was fantastic.

Eddie chats with bar owner Mark
It was so much the better as, within 5 minutes of skiing time to the end there was a bar known to Eddie as a great place to stop. Run by a British guy married to a local he is apparently open all hours and is the usual place of stop for ski tourers. He even knows the times of busses back into Morzine and kicks people out in time for them to ski down. We made ourselves comfortable, had a beer or two, a huge bowl of chips and had a good laugh with owner Mark.

We were back down to the cars before sundown very tired but very happy people. The end of a memorable day with people we can now call good friends.
Jackie gratefully accepts a beer from Eddie
A beer or two and a huge plate of chips with salt (we needed the salt), what better way to end a fabulous day out
And we were back down at the cars before sundown
Here's a Google Maps view of our route up to the Col de Cou (centre) and the ski down from the Col de Fornet on the left

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