Monday, 1 January 2018

St Jean d’Aulps, French Alps – Days 70 to 75

Jackie up to her knees in snow
Now that we’ve settled into our season of skiing in the French Alps our blog entries are likely to be fairly similar, snowy (hopefully) photos and stories of various skiing adventures, but we’ll try to avoid too much repetition.

The season has started off quite promisingly, early snow has given a good base and subsequent fairly regular falls down to 7 or 800m have allowed virtually all the ski lifts and pistes to open, along with knee deep powder for really good off-piste skiing. It’s the best start to a season we’ve seen and, I think one of these best in recent years, something that has had an effect on reducing the number of people coming to all the European ski resorts, affecting the local economy.

Mont Chery and the Les Gets ski resort from the upper slopes
Jackie does a bit of off-piste
The Portes du Soleil ski area is one of the biggest in the world, with over 650km of skiable runs, but it is also at a relatively low altitude, 950m to 2466m. It straddles the French/Swiss border and comprises many distinct ski resorts, that are funded (we understand) by distributing the income from the Portes du Soleil full area lift passes in proportion to the number of people passing through the electronic lift gates. It is possible to do a large circuit all linked by pisted runs and ski lifts to take in the majority of the resorts, but not all. The ‘greater circuit’ to take in all the resorts is only possible with the use of free ski busses and even then some ingenuity is required, so it’s almost impossible to take in all resorts in a single day.

In the resort of Montriond
We can ski back to the car but its icy to drive on. Glad we got the ski rack though
Even to complete the linked circuit of the majority of resorts requires the use of some critical ski lifts and pistes that, if not available, break the loop and make the tour impossible. One such area is Morgins, which is a small resort in the Swiss sector and, one lift, the ‘La Follieuse’ is the only way to get back up and continue the circuit having skied down from the French Chatel area on a piste that faces into the sun and is badly affected once the warmth of the sun increases in the second half of the season.
Happy New Year from us!
We heard from our friend Si that the Morgins ski company were getting insufficient funds from the PDS pass and could no longer afford to keep La Follieuse lift operating, potentially cutting the circuit and adversely affecting the prestige of the PDS. We heard an ‘arrangement’ was agreed on with other Swiss resorts taking over the lift to keep it running and, this season we have already used it to complete a ‘circuit’. Another outlying area in the Torgon Swiss sector has already been cut from the PDS as its access lift has been removed, separating it entirely, again possibly due to funding. The long term future of the Portes du Soleil depends on visitors and without sufficient snow people just won’t come. Let’s hope the snow this season continues and people return to keep it all viable!

A snowy ascent on a short ski tour I did
However, our season in the two weeks we’ve been here has been pretty good. The freezing level has been going up and down and, at our level of 950m we’ve been freezing in -7C, but also awash in heavy rain (snow above 2000m altitude) on one day, turning lovely powder snow into concrete after refreezing, but fresh snow on top refreshes it all again. In the 14 potential ski days we have had we have skied for 12 of them, a total of 332km of skiing, Jackie now complaining that we need a day off. Well, we’ll probably have one or two of those on Wednesday and Thursday of this week as it’s looking like heavy snow, but rain below 1800 to 2000m, with thunderstorms on Wednesday.

Skiing with Loo and Marti
Tonight we are looking after Gizmo, the hypo-allergenic, dog while owner Alex goes off to play in his band in Morzine, something that may become relatively regular. They live up near us in St Jean and, on Boxing Day evening he had a gig in L’Avalanche bar, which is directly opposite our apartment block, less than a minutes walk away, so we decided to wander over, have a beer and watch them play. It’s pleasant, folky/middle of the road type music and makes quite a good atmosphere and we sat at the bar talking to his girlfriend until they started playing, then moving to some seats at the side of the speakers and meeting Lorraine and Martin, or Loo and Marti as they like to be known. An English couple, they own a chalet in Morzine, renting out one floor to self catering, her living here all season, he going back to the UK to work, although he is 60 and thinking about retiring. They drove out from the UK on Christmas Day, so this was their first full day here.

Alex (left) and band mate perform in L'Avalanche bar
We got on very well with them and arranged to go skiing together on 28th which we enjoyed. Loo is an accomplished skier, having skied for 50 years and has beautiful neat ski turns, but doesn’t like to ski fast, unlike us. Marti is less accomplished and was clearly getting quite tired by the time we stopped at a bar for hot chocolate and lunch, so we left them to go back after lunch while we carried on for a few more runs. Loo is in a local bridge club and wandered if we wanted to join, the various members getting together for social dinners occasionally. Well, I’ve never played bridge and Jackie only occasionally, but the idea of learning quite appeals so, at the moment I’m trying to pick up the basics from Jackie and the internet and then, maybe we might have a go.

Torchlit descent of the ski instructors on New Years Eve
In other news, we met up with Si and Cassie for a blast round the 10km St Jean d’Aulps ski circuit on 29th and then had an evening at their (actually Si’s mother, Judith’s) apartment in the village. This year they have Gabby, Si’s niece and boyfriend Haig to run their chalet for them, they concentrating more on ski transfers from Geneva airport to the PDS and also slope pick up and drop offs. It hopefully will mean we can spend more time skiing with them, but they, particularly Si, are workaholics and always on the go, so how much quality ski time we’ll have with them remains to be seen.

Sometimes its nice to just sit on a ski lift and enjoy the scenery
Our day out in St Jean was an example, we planned to meet up in the morning and ski all day, but they got waylaid by events at their chalet and, in the end met us around lunchtime. By then Jackie and I had completed two circuits plus a lot of excellent, but tiring off piste skiing, but we were ready for another circuit! Skiing with Si and Cassie is always exciting and enjoyable as Si is such a ‘go for it’ character. The off-piste snow was perfect so our circuit consisted of huge amounts of it, skiing off to seek out untouched knee deep powder into gullies and between trees in uncertain directions. It was late in the day when we completed the circuit, but a mention from me about wanting to ski down off piste from the top station to the last drag lift in an area none of us had been to before was enough to convince Si (and me) to get one of the last lifts back up to try it out. “We don’t need any more lifts after this do we” Cassie asked, knowing they were about to close. No we didn’t and with fading light we skied off the piste steeply down-hill through trees and virgin snow into unknown territory…

Well, it worked out as I am sitting here writing this, but Jackie and I did switch on our avalanche transceivers just in case. It was steep, tricky in places but deep powder all the way and we had such a laugh (well, Si and I did at least) and the evening drinks at their (sorry Judith’s) apartment made it a really nice day.

'Bravo Ben' on a building in Chatel as viewed from a ski lift. Ben is the British son of Carol and Andy Cavet, who we rent our apartment from. He is now skiing moguls for France in the Winter Olympics and is hopeful of winning a medal in next months Olympics in South Korea. We'll be watching him!
The next day, 30th was the dismal day of heavy rain below about 2000m, so planning not to ski we took on a chalet changeover for a couple, with two young kids. They all had the flu and she is 15 weeks pregnant. Most of their bookings are summer ones, so disorganisation reigned and it took us a lot longer than expected. Still, we got some pocket money! We only went out the next day to our local St Jean resort again to ski on icy, hard packed pistes and avoiding the frozen, solid off piste. Our New Years Eve was relatively quiet, we walked the 2 minutes walk to the lift station for free mulled wine and to watch the torchlight descent by the ski instructors, accompanied by small children with torches, followed by an excellent firework display. After returning to our apartment for dinner and wine we went back out about 10:00pm to see what was going on. A small outdoor party of French ski instructors and their friends was going on, the two restaurants were full of diners and L’Avalanche bar was full of drinkers, so we came back, cracked open our bottle of bubbly and saw in the New Year watching TV and messaging family. The bubbly wasn’t up to much, giving me a headache this morning (nothing to do with the mulled wine and red wine obviously!).

Today, a ski over Les Gets ski area, with a failed attempt to meet up with Si and Cassie who were out skiing with guests. It’s always difficult trying to be in the same place at the same time on ski slopes and despite several text exchanges it didn’t happen, so we had a pleasant ski in sun and light snow showers and surprisingly good off-piste and returned here to look after Gizmo.

So our new year begins and we have 4 months of skiing ahead of us, or as long as the snow lasts.

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