Returning to form: Pisteurs Couloir

This post is about skiing Pisteurs Couloir in Val d’Isere, but before I explain all about the route, there’s some important context. I wrote my last blog post just before I headed out to Tignes for three weeks in the New Year of 2015. The skiing was great but I had really bad guts for the whole trip, a problem which had started a few months previously. I even had to cancel my New Year midnight tour up to the famous Aguille Percee, because I just didn’t think I’d be able to manage it.

This actually signalled the start of the craziest ordeal of my life, an ordeal that would consume 2015, and the reason that I wouldn’t write any blog posts about skiing for a while. Several trips to the doctors upon my return from France culminated in a diagnosis of Stage 3 colorectal cancer on Friday 13th February 2015. It sure was one hell of a way to end my ski season. I’ve written extensively about the experience on my work blog.

Getting back to any kind of form has been incredibly hard. My core muscles felt like they’d been ripped out after the operation and the chemotherapy that followed is just brutal. Ongoing fatigue hits me really hard and I’ve lost most of the sensation in the ends of my fingers, toes and soles of my feet (chemotherapy doesn’t like nerve cells). But I’ve learnt not to quit and so I immersed myself in three weeks of mountain time at the end of May and into June 2016. After a mandatory few days in La Grave to catch up with the crew there, I drove on to Tignes. What fun I had, fulfilling my Director of Good Times responsibilities on the FREEFLO Women’s Introduction to Ski Touring Weekend, hanging out and skiing with the delightful Squash Falconer, and enjoying a wonderful stay at Chalet Chardons (thank you Kathryn Staniland).

It was skiing Pisteurs Couloir with my mountain bezzie Flossie Cockle that really made the trip though! Being back in the mountains was sensational and life reaffirming, if not really hard work on my seriously debilitated body. The couloir is a right of passage for off piste skiers in the Espace Killy and I needed to ski it to pshychologicaly mark some sort of return to form, though I still have an enormous way to go.

Pisteurs Couloir looms ominously in the distance from the top of the Olympique lift, its sweet line cutting its way vertically through the Rocher Du Charvet. For access, get to the top of the Grand Pre lift. The couloir is clearly visible on your journey up. As soon as you’re off the lift, get your skis on your pack and start the boot up from immediately to your left. I’ve heard people say it’s a 20 minute walk in but I’d allow a little longer than that. Go back on yourself a little from the direction of the lift and navigate your way up and along the ridge line until it opens up. Get your skis on and ski for about 100 metres (losing about 10 metres from the high point), the couloir opens up below you on your left.

Pisteurs Couloir is not an overly-committing line but it shouldn’t be under-estimated either. Last year we had to write off an attempt because of an obvious significant slab avalanche in the left hand fork of the couloir (and subsequent conversations the next day with the skier that had triggered it and managed to ski away). On this attempt, the entrance was well hacked out from edging by previous skiers and you’d need to be Anselm Baud to make jump turns into it. A previous party had left the remains of a ski-belay, so using a short rope to access the top section is definitely an option.

Without belay, we edged in. Exercise significant here as falling would not be a good idea. After about 20 metres the route opens up into some fine couloir skiing before it splits (at a small shoulder) into an obvious right and left branch. We skied it twice in two days (it was so much fun) and took the left branch both times as the snow looked much finer. With an entrance angle of about 45 degrees, the couloir opens out into easier 35 degree terrain on which you can really open it up. Make your own mountain decisions and enjoy!

Off-piste in Tignes: Vallée de la Sache via Le Trou de la Souris

This is the post I should have written one year ago but never got round to. But the season has begun and I’ll be hearing the click click of my own bindings in about a week when I’ll be back in Tignes and heading straight to the Vallée de la Sache. Predictably, I’m about as excited as a kid waiting for Santa Claus right now. In preparation, I’m sharing some pictures from last year’s off-piste excursion to ski Le Trou de la Souris (The Mouse Hole) which drops into the infamous Vallée de La Sache and is the best route in by far.

Access is easy. Get yourself to the L’Aguille Percee and take the usual short hike up the hill as if you’re heading into the Vallée de la Sache by the usual route. At the top of the hike, look into the Vallée and follow the ridge line (on skis) for a few hundred metres. I’ve not put compass to map, but it’s a North / North West direction. The last couloir is the one you want. Watch out for wind loading if there’s fresh and make all other usual assessments. Drop it. Le Trou de la Souris is on your left hand side and I can pretty much guarantee you will ski past it the first time because you can’t see it until you look back! We did just that, but don’t worry because if you time it right you still get freshies like in the pictures below!

This route is awesome, go seek it out. It’s got a crazy big mountain feel to it, when actually you’re really not that far from the piste (not that I’m saying you shouldn’t take full care) and the angles are all nice. Getting through the hole and down the other side usually gets pulses racing, but it’s far worse than it looks. Because it’s a guides route, there’s a fixed rope in place (always test it) which helps. If there’s not much snow in the hole then it’s worth racking your skis on your pack as it is a bit trickier getting purchase on the rock. But if there’s plenty of snow you can just carry your skis.

If you really want to do it in style then you should drop Floss a line at FREEFLO. As well as being an utterly awesome skier and instructor, she also knows where you can get the best coffee in Les Brevieres at the end of the adventure!

Backcountry hotdoggin'!

Backcountry in Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

This blog is about celebrating adventure and sharing a little bit of information on the amazing places that I get to visit and ski. How happy was I then when my best friend, who emigrated from the UK to Australia a few years ago, announced that he was getting married. As soon as the congratulations were dispensed, my brain turned to thinking about how I could combine that with a trip to New Zealand to catch the tail end of the ski season! I’d been to New Zealand before and I knew exactly where I wanted to go: back to the beautiful town of Wanaka, nestled in the heart of Mount Aspiring National Park. This town is probably one of my favourite places in the whole world, after La Grave, of course.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking, but here’s a few shots of skiing at Treble Cone (including the Motatapu Chutes) and a trip to Brewster Hut to try and ski the West Face of Mount Brewster (far too windy for the snow pack) and a day’s climbing at Hospital Flats, just out of Wanaka.

Confessions of a very amateur freerider: why it’s good to fall over

There are quite a few unwritten rules in La Grave but there is one very important one: don’t fall over. The place has earned itself a very fearsome reputation because so many people haven’t abided by this rule and the outcome has been devastating. Unintentionally, I decided I’d flout this rule myself last week whilst skiing the Vallon trade route, Trifide One.

Alan McHardy skiing Trifide One

Alan McHardy skiing Trifide One

Trade route it may be but it’s not a line that should be underestimated. As I hauled my arse up from my triple somersault, my heart in mouth buddy and true La Grave local, Lars-ake Krantz, informed me that to date 25 people have never stood up again after falling in here. Gulp.

I’ve skied a half decent number of the infamous La Grave road runs now and managed to stay upright in all the important places, falling being something that I’m pleased to say I don’t do very often anymore. So what happened this time?

Well I was probably trying a little too hard to impress my local friend, after all it was the first time I’d skied with him. Lacking the crystal clear focus that such routes demand, I went into freefall. It went something like this:

  • With my weight too far forward on a steep slope, the front tip of the ski went under the snow and my skis flipped me over. It took the time of the first somersault to even realise I had lost all control
  • On the second somersault I felt the tip of the ski plunge into the snow again but I knew they hadn’t popped (lucky I cranked those DINs up the day before). But “shit” I thought, I really need to stop myself now or I’m taking a very long and very fast ride down a 200 metre couloir
  • And that’s where my mountaineering training kicked in… the first thing you get taught on a mountaineering course is how to walk in crampons and how to self-arrest with an axe if you fall on a steep slope. I didn’t have an axe but I still had my skis and I had an elbow! Hearing Lars shouting at me to flip myself around, I managed to do just that and at the same time thumped my elbow into the snow as hard I could. I stopped.

I like to think I stood up quite nonchalantly but inside I was mad, though quite relieved also, especially when I saw the big hunk of a rock I had been charging towards.

But why is falling sometimes a good thing? Because it’s a very abrupt and scary reminder of all the important things that you need to do when choosing to play in these demanding areas, namely:

  • Think you’re a dope skier? You’re probably not… go ski with the big boys and it’ll help with perspective. Skiing backcountry requires a very different style from piste skiing and fortunately there’s some amazing guys and gals in La Grave to learn from.
  • Learn the art of falling. If it does all go to ratshit then, as proved,  you need to be able to make some rather important life decisions even whilst you’re upside down!
  • Want to freeride? Get some mountaineering training, there’s more crossover than you think and you’ll feel much more comfortable in high mountain terrain.
  • And don’t try and impress the locals, they’ve seen much better than you. Stay focused and concentrate on your own game, you’ll look far more R.A.D!
Old photo of a very good friend falling in Les Freaux Couloir, La Grave. Not fun to watch.

Old photo of a very good friend falling in Les Freaux Couloir, La Grave. Not fun to watch.

Easter (2013) in La Grave and Les Deux Alpes

Wow, I can’t believe how long this blog update has taken but here it is! A quick reflection of last year’s trip back to the homeland with the boys (and girls) from England. Here’s some snaps from our adventures that included a ski tour up the Pic Blanc du Galibier, an attempt on the ridge of the Col du Laurichard (West Ridge of the Roc Noir de Combeynot), some lovely powder skiing in the trees in Les Deux Alpes and more than one trip down the ‘Nuns’. We also did the trip to Saint Christophe and I ended the season with my one and only La Grave road run of the season: Girose Right.

As ever, I’ll let the pictures do the talking!

This season’s plans are taking shape with a 3 week stretch over Christmas starting in Tignes, then onto Morzine for Christmas Day, a few days in La Grave (of course) and hopefully a quick dash to Risoul.

C.A.N. N.O.T. W.A.I.T

Do the Okey Stokey: 2 weeks in Revelstoke B.C.

Probably a record for late blog updating but midway through the season I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Revelstoke, Canada. What a couple of weeks it was, it took me another week to recover. Revvy is simply awesome and the snow out of this world mainly because it just keeps falling and falling and the backcountry is divine.

Thank you to our fantastic hosts Si and Fi who looked after us like Kings (and Queens) and congratulations to the Spilligans… the Cone and Lee who got engaged whilst we were away!

In total I managed 8 days skiing, 3 days touring and 1 day ice climbing. 1 planned extra day of ice climbing was lost due to avalanche danger – check out the Bumbling Mountaineer’s Avalanche Masterclass. But I did manage to get my main objective for the holiday skied, Brown Shorts, a lovely looking big wide couloir which drops off the side of Mount Mackenzie and which you get to ski the top section of the Mac Daddy face to access, one of the venues for the Freeride World Tour. Checkout Backcountry Skiing Canada for the full info.

We also had two days touring in Roger’s Pass, heading up to Balu Pass. Wow, check out the pictures, days like that are a beautiful remind of why I love being in the mountains so much and how lucky I am to be there. Not another person in sight, knee deep powder, great friends and amazing views. Life don’t get much sweeter. On another day of touring we tried to get to the top of Mt Macpherson via the ‘fingers’ but got completely lost. There was a rather funny incident on the way down though, check out the Bumbling Mountaineers Freeride School!

Amazing times so here’s some pictures and a couple of comedy videos. Next stop, back to La Grave and Deux Alpes in a couple of weeks to bring the 2013 season to a close. In the words of a Revelstokian… ‘that’s seriously sick dude’. And Collymore has just been in for a service and fridge installation from Mr. Ward at Kombiwerks

 

Beginning the season in style: La Grave & Les Deux Alpes

I’m coming the conclusion that I’m not a very good blogger… it seems I’m incapable of updating it on time. So, three weeks after my last trip to Les Duex Alpes and La Grave, here’s a selection of photos from my pre-xmas trip.

I had 10 days out there in total and managed to ski 7 of those. One was missed due to weather, one to a wasted body (due to such good skiing) and one because of the mother of all hangovers. Worth it though as it was to celebrate my good friend and the ultimate ski buddy Flossie Cockle’s success in her Eurotest, she is now the highest qualified British ski instructor you can be, yay! So glad I was there to experience her do it as I know it’s been an emotional journey!

But the 7 days skied I have to say were pretty damn epic… it just didn’t stop snowing. Somehow I managed to find and ski more off piste in Les Duex Alpes than I managed in the whole of last season and, with all the snow, it was freshies after freshies. With variable avalanche conditions, the snowpack was pretty stable despite all the snow (certainly towards the end of the trip), so the resort based off piste was open for business – as the local UIAGM guide said on the lift “you can ski anywhere it’s white!”. The backcountry was a bit of a different story so didn’t get any touring or ridge hikes and drops done this time and, because the La Grave lift didn’t open until the Saturday before I left, I only spent one day there. So no road runs unfortunately but they’ll still be there next time I’m back.

Next stop Revelstoke Mountain Resort, Canada, on the 26th January. I think the word is ‘siiiiick’!!!