The sun is shining brightly here in Chamonix, for the first time in several days. There is a real sense of the forthcoming summer, not just in the increasingly vivid colours around the valley but also inside me. It's been a fairly intense winter for me this year. A return to a full ski season for the first time in three years (After my scottish adventures...) and culminating this week with my IFMGA Ski Guides exam. Which, with a great big smile and a good deal of happiness I can tell you I passed.
It's such a great feeling to have this important hurdle under my belt. I've been leading ski touring adventures through my qualifications as a Military Mountain Guide for quite a few years now and it is mainly my love of ski adventures that encouraged me to aspire to become an IFMGA Guide. Finally it feels like I'm about to realise a massive life dream... and that feeling is so exciting it's almost too hard to find the right words to describe it.
This winter has been so much fun and I've been fortunate to share my time with so many different, interesting and charismatic people. Friends both old and new who continue to enrich my life. I'm conscious that in my present mood I risk gushing too much about what an amazing time I've had this winter... but then again I really have thoroughly enjoyed myself. It has completely reinforced my faith in the fact that whatever happens in future I have chosen the right path to follow in life... With each new year life seems to grow bigger and more interesting. This summer I already have quite a few exciting plans which I'm really looking forward to... and then next winter I have almost too many ideas for ski adventures for the time available!
My three fellow Aspirant Guides and I all passed our final exam after an intense week of fairly difficult ski touring conditions. The first half of the week we spent around Chamonix before transfering to the Bernese Oberland in search of colder temperatures and more stable snow conditions. Although I know both areas reasonably well, conditions in the mountains are always changing and when the weather conditions are challenging getting anything done safely requires quite fine judgement on behalf of a Mountain Guide.
Ski Mountaineering is a real passion for me, there isn't really any aspect of it that I dislike. Except perhaps sharing dormatories with snorers... :) So I half expected this exam to feel easier than the others. The trouble is, when something really matters to you, you set your standards quite high. This week certainly didn't feel easy... although it feels easier now it's over!
I have been helped this winter by many very professional and experienced Guides. All of them have simultaneously inspired me and shared their depth of knowledge and passion for the mountains. I have enjoyed working with all of them and I feel proud to be about to join them in the Guiding profession. Their belief in me and their respect has helped ease my nerves during this important test and remains something I value deeply. I look forward to a future where I can help others find that same love of life and sense of connection that life in the mountains has helped me find. In the meantime I am excited about the prospect of my second Aspirancy summer and hopefully successfully completing the scheme in September! If anyone fancies sharing an adventure with me this summer then get in touch and we can start planning! :)
Every once in a while life deals you an unexpectedly good hand. This years Oxford UOTC ski touring exercise to Austria has just finished, and on my drive home to Chamonix last night I was able to quietly reflect on two very memorable weeks of ski mountaineering.
(Left: Hoch Tirol Gross Geiger summit)
This year we decided to run two trips to widen the participation in the this challenging and enjoyable adventurous training activity and allow for different ability levels of skiing and fitness within the student group to be accounted for. The first week was to be accessible to less experienced skiers. After an initial training package we aimed to complete a traverse of the Silvretta mountain range starting from Ischgl and finishing in Galtur. This would take in five Mountain huts and various peaks and passes along the way. (Right: Klaus looks for good snow on day 1)
(Left:Leading up to the Granitsharte on day 4 week 2) The second trip was targeted at more experienced and fitter students. We aimed to complete the coveted and challenging Hoch Tirol ski tour from the Ahrntal valley in Italy to a final ascent of the highest mountain in Austria- the Gross Glockner. This second week would be conisderably challenging for the inexperienced ski tourers with a lot of new skills to learn and 1500-2000m of ascent and descent every day for six days. (Right: Me and Klaus on the summit of Austrias Highest Peak the Gross Glockner)
This Hoch Tirol ski tour has also been high on my personal wish list for a while so I was very excited to see the idea take off and flourish in the hands of the lead student Chris Hancock.
(Below: Group on completion of week 1 at the finish in Galtur- well done guys and girls!) :)
Both journies proved to be very different, not only in terms of the challenges of the terrain and conditions but also in terms of the characters of the groups themselves. This was not entirely to be unexpected as we had a much larger group on the first week and a small group of four on the second, but across the entire expedition I can genuinely say that I am very pleased and proud to have shared these journies with all the students who rose to the challenge. I am pretty confident that they all learnt a great deal, I observed their physical skills improve greatly during the journey and if they had even 10% of the fun I had then they will remember this adventure for a long time into the future. (Below: The Johannis huette at sunrise on the ascent day of the gross Venediger)
As I reflect on two weeks of shared experiences I cannot help but smile... there's almost not trace of sadness that such a fine period had to draw to a close. I am convinced that the magic of ski mountaineering has taken a firm hold in quite a few of my fellow adventurers. Several of them were already starting to come up with ideas of where we should go to next year...!
(Below: The boys express their thnaks after an immensely enjoyable week2)
Normally I lead these OTC ski touring expeditions on my own, but thanks to the support of the Austrian Military (and a few words in the right ears from friend and fellow Haute Route veteran General Richard Shirref) I was able to team up with IFMGA Guide Klaus Zweiker to run both phases jointly. (Right: Team Hoch Tirol on summit of the Sonnblick) This allowed us a lot more flexibility to adapt the itinerary to the needs of the particpating students and, on the second week to lead a group of relatively inexperienced ski tourers safely through some challenging and at times serious terrain. I also feel very fortunate to have found a great working partership in Klaus, with whose considered advice and support I now feel ready for my forthcoming Ski test at the end of April. It's also really special when you find a kindred spirit and make a new friend with whom to share future adventures... Austria doesn't seem too far away anymore.
(Above: Klaus, Matt, Sam, Pete, Hugo and Tania about to set off on the Hoch Tirol ski tour, Kasern IT)
Pete Henriques has just made an excellent video of the second week which can be watch here: Ex Blue Tour Austria week 2.
Mid march saw a flury of activity on skis and a real insight for me into the ski touring possibilities in the Vanoise national park and the famous three valleys ski area in France. In the past I have rather dismissed Courcheval, Meribel and Val Thorens as a mostly on piste, tame and overly busy area of the Alps. Doing some Aspirancy work for Tim Blakemore and a group of skiers based out of the La Tania resort has helped changed my mind.
(A resort which has had my name on it since it opened... sorry-couldn't resist :) )
The whirlwind of ski tours started with a training day at the Grand Montets to prepare a group of mine for the Haute Route. Charlie Vey and friends were to embark on the Verbier variant of the Haute Route with Roeland, due to the fact that as an Aspirant I cannot work yet unsupervised by a fully qualified Guide.
Once the group was safely on their way in the carefull hands of Roeland I headed south to Pralognon de la Vanoise to join Tim Blakemore for a little winter room touring down there.
With plenty of fresh snow, fallen with strong winds the avalanche conditions required carefull handling and as such it proved an interesting and rewarding few days of Ski Aspirancy. In addition to that the group were good company and we had some very good snow on the descent from the winter room of the Refuge de la vallett (Seen right, in a brief clearing of the clouds as we approached it). It is definitely an area that requires some more exploring from me in future on skis and I wouldn't hesitate in recommending it for hut to hut tours or days touring.
Last Friday night I was mostly skiing around the Sella Ronda Massif. I encountered this ski rando race whilst searching teh internet for interesting cross country ski races in November last year. The video of a fly-over the competition course had me instantly hooked. Basically it is described as four vertical races stacked one after each other... with some mind expanding speed skiing down rolling pistes in pitch darkness cacooned in your surreal bubble of light. I have to confess... I'm hooked and next year I'd do it all again!
The atmosphere was so friendly and welcoming and I felt proud to have completed it within the cutoff bearing in mind it was only the second time I'd skied on my new race skis and my partner Al was using regular touring kit! Good effort... but then he did come 9th in the CCC a couple of years ago. I was glad to be able to keep up!
The race sets off at 6pm from one of the towns in the Sella Ronda Circuit and this year was the time of Arabba. We stayed in a lovely hotel in Digonera just outside of Arabba. It happened to be right next door to a War Memorial for the battles of the first world war around the Col de Lana which I have recently been reading about. I have some ideas to run ski tours visiting some of these historically significant military sites in future so if you are interested please get in touch. It was lovely to do such a famous race with a good friend and to both experience our first big Ski Rando race together. The rush of that first descent on a wild rollercoaster gave us both such a rush that I think we are both keen to return next year for some more Dolomite Magic.
After the race there was no rest for me as I embarked on a journey north to the Silvretta and Galtur to meet a lovely goup of Americans keen on some ski mountaineering and as much peak bagging as possible. I was working for Rob Jarvis under the carefull guidance of Full Guides Dave Hollinger and Tim Blakemore. The week presented us with some mixed weather, but generally really good snow and remarkably good company. I look back on the week with a lot of good memories and plenty of humourous moments... I don't think I'll forget 'The Hawk Line' anytime soon... and Hawk if you ever read this I mean that in a very effectionate way. :) It was great to get to work alongside Dave and Tim as well and see how they operate on skis in the mountains as all too often we are all working in isolation out there. The week had such a great sense of warmth and friendly banter that as with all good things it ended all too soon... but with a fantastic ski down into Galtur in fresh powder! Gentlemen thank you for a great week and being so welcoming to an Aspirant and I hope to get the chance to ski with you all again in future. Left, Pete signs the book for the group on the summit of the Drielanderspitze.
Now I have a few days helping train a group of British lads embarking on the Haute Route with Roeland this week and then it's back to Austria for more touring in the East.
This week I have been back to teaching cross country skiing and preparing for a big chunk of time coming up ski touring in Austria. It hasn't stopped me from managing to get another tour in from Chamonix which I've wanted to do for ages and will be an integral part of doing the full haute route in a continuous push. Roeland and I spent yesterday skiing over from Argentiere to La Fouly via the classic Grand Lui tour... and it gave me a chance to try out some of the fantastic new clothing that Haglofs have sent me. The new Spire Q jacket in Firefly is so far my favourate and I plan to use it on my forthcoming work over in Austria.
Once again, without the generous support and faith Haglofs have shown in me getting through the BMG Guides scheme would be even tougher... I'm looking forward to lots more future adventures now! :)
So after a good training weekend it was back to Ski Touring and checking out areas I'm keen to lead groups to in future years. The border areas along the alpine Arc have long since held a facination with me, and this time I wanted to spend a little time exploring the area between the Col du Montgenevre and the Col du Mont Cenis. The main peak of the area is Mont Thabor and there are a host of lovely vallies to explore with a great deal of interest and history. I started at the ski area of Montgenevre and after a few runs on piste headed out into the backcountry and the former Italian Vallee Etroit. All the way along the former border are fortifications and posts, mostly smaller than that shown above, but clear evidence of the former frontier. After the second world war this high altitude Italian valley changed hands and is now part of French territory. The trouble is... it can only be accessed from France by crossing over a col and the main alpine arc... so it's pretty Italian in feel and culture. I stayed at the very hospitable and highly recommended Refugio Re I Magi and the food was some of the best cuisine I've ever had in a mountain hut. It has provoked some discussions with friends about how terrible French huts are normally at food... and this one is French... well only through a quirk of history... it is Italian in everything else! I spent a lovely couple of days exploring the Mont Thabor area, getting some ideas for future and of course checking out this vital link in the traverse of the Arc Alpin. Another thing I've keen to offer groups in future. It was also nice to enjoy the mountains in solitude. I don't often ski tour alone but occasionally I do and with a low avalanche category and mellow touring terrain I thought this woudl be a good opportunity. So it turned out to be. Sometimes travelling on your own allows you to meet more people of the local area than perhaps you would i you were in a group. Even in my short time here I have made some new aquaintances with good energy and lots of smile. A refreshing boost to a focused season.
So this weekend I've mostly been racing. First in the 21km Gommerlauf Klassiker, with the secondary mission to check out the beautifull Goms valley for running future cross country courses there. Secondly the Run&Skate event in Chamonix... well it's on the doorstep and I'm not in Scotland so why not?
Logistically it sorted of made sense... Roeland had to drive over to Davos, so he could give me a lift, help be my support crew for the race and then continue on in the afternoon whilst I made my own way back. Even the minus 18Degrees C at the start in Blitzingen could subdue the atmosphere of excitement... and even though it starts with a massed start (which I'm not a fan of...) it was a lovely morning. 21km of immaculately prepared tracks and a real battle with two other ladies in the finishing 5km.
I'm pleased to say that although I had a slow start the final 5km saw me get the fire and manage to finish in 5th place lady overall... not bad for someone whose been out of racing for a few years. Most importanly the views and skiing were fantastic and Roeland was there to greet me at the finishline. I felt really pleased to finally share a race like this with him. Above double poling to the finish in Oberwald you get an idea of the great surroundings for this race.
So this morning it was the time of a more local race... and a combination of 18km Skating and a 12km snowrun. Now I've only ever been an average runner so I was hoping that my skating might make up for it... but again Skating massed starts don't inspire me and last week I was tripped up... or fell over whatever way you look at it twice in the massed start. I decided to take ti easy for the first bit and then try to claw back time later... focusing on good technique all the way since this year I'm not at my usual levels of fitness.
The race is great fun, I have to say... the course is prepared really well and the atmosphere is so friendly and welcoming. Four of my students from Oxford UOTC also came over from the UK to compete in the race and they all loved it too. I hope, and I suspect they'll return in future years. Well it turned out I didn't do so badly and came second lady overall. My running time wasn't inspiring but then plenty of room for improvement I guess if I focus on that. A bounty of small prizes was given out by the organisers... including a cowbell... so perhaps I could be tempted to do more of these local races... they sure are great fun! I've already had a hot bath and good stretch so now I have to turn my attention to finding some Aspirancy ski work this week...
In the background of the winter season I have been involved in helping to move BASI Cross Country (Nordic) skiing forward. I have confirmation now that I am to become the next BASI Nordic trainer and will be delivering BASI Nordic courses from the start of the 2013/14 winter season. This is something I'm really excited about and hope to use to help develop the skills of other XC-ski coaches to fully develop both their personal potential and their professional coaching skills. I look forward to working with fellow trainer Ewen Martin int he future. It was also a pleasure to meet Roy Henderson again after about 10 years since our shared adventure in Glen Coe and Jom Davison the BASI Nordic Directr. Excited and pleased to be onboard and looking forward to taking things forward into the future!
Straight after the GB champs I had been planning to head a little south into the Austrian Tirol and so a solo tour of the Kitbuler Alps. Watching the weather bring a return to considerable snow and the avalanche risk rise I knew my solo touring plan was going to have to be moderated. At that moment a friend happened to get in touch and it reminded me that he lived in Kirchberg in Tirol... basically right in the centre of where I planned to explore!
Perfect... so Ross Kane found some time in his busy schedule to take a day with me exploring some of the wilder parts of his back garden. Although the hills are mellow, each of the days described had at least 1000m of ascent and descent, and since I only had three days I had always planned to do it several fairly meaty legs. Thankfully Ross's telemark conditioned thighs were more than up to the task and we set our sights on a sections traversing from Kelschau to Aschau, which is then only a short drive back to Ross's appartment in Kirchberg.
The day started with a lovely gentle ascent to Lodron, and then scoots ever easterly over steinberg and into a fantastic powder descent to the gasthof steinberg. Then came a powerfull pull, breaking trail all the way to Gerstinger and with the sun thinking about setting a really enjoyable descent through meadows and trees into Aschau itself.
My legs certainly felt it that night and we were both glad of the pick up by Brigitte at the trailhead by torchlight.
The next day thickly falling snow made me modify my solo plans further and opt for an out and back tour from Kelschau to the summit cross of the Feldalphorn. It was cold that day, and the snow without question the stuff of skiers dreams.... I could feel truly satisfied for a day well spent cruising through the trees back into the tiny ski area to pick up my car and shovel it out of the car park.
Although I couldn't complete the tour form start to finish, I certainly feel that I have a good idea of what sort of touring the area has to offer and have already started planning an early season trip to offer next year. Kitzbuhler alps, you have found a special place in my memory... and I'll be back!
This last week I've been in Ruhpolding shadowing BASI trainer Ewen Martin running a level 2 Instructor teaching course. In order to enable some of the students to participate it was being conducted around the XC races here in Ruhpolding for the Army and GB championship. Although not my main effort, since the races were there it seemed a shame not to get stuck in, and on reflection it has been good training towards my French test de capacity which I plan to do in March later this year.
The trouble is racing can be a little addictive and althought I initially planned only to do the 10km classic, I ended up doing all three of the XC races, the 10km classic, 7.5km skate (FT) and the 5kmx4 classic relay. The conditions for the 10km classic were some of the least pleasant I've raced in... fresh snow on a unfrozen base, and wet... conducted after the 160 male competitors have done 3 laps on the course for their race... nice! For anyone who wants to get a true feel for this race follow the link: CLASSIC RACE GB CHAMPIONSHIPS 2013. This lead to deep sugar snow on all the hills (and there were a lot of them) and no tracks to speak of. As I went round the course I couldn't help reminding myself that I had paid to enter the race... hence had paid to experience this rather unpleasant, hip flexor abusing physical test. I managed a pride-saving 6th place overall GB. Not close to my personal bests in the past but not too terrible either.
Although I consider classic to be my favourite and best technique this years 7.5km Skate race indicated otherwise and I managed 2nd place GB and first Army... my first ever Army prize now that the rules have changed and TA competitors are recognised. After that it was easy to be talked into joining an all-star team with British rising stars Glen and Julianna Martin (trained by their father Ewen) for the XC relay. Glen cruised the team into 3rd place overall on his first leg and I tried to pull out all the stops now to loose too many places in second leg and handed over in 7th to Stuart Gray... another rising British XC star. 3 youths and a veteran (and the only mixed team 2 guys and 2 gals)managed to place 9th Team overall. I
The BASI shadowing also went well and after a very productive period of consolidation for the BASI nordic team we go our seperate ways with some constructive work to get stuck into which will take BASI nordic to a much more vigorous and positive position in the future. For me now I look forward to getting stuck into work as a trainer and attending the BASI trainers conference in October at Hintertux this Autumn... all to spread the love of XC-skiing!