07 March 2009

Ski touring

No running for the last week, because I've been off learning to walk uphill on skis on a course with the International School of Mountaineering, based in Leysin. Unfortunately, we were severely restricted by some appalling weather, which left us with a huge amount of snow but also a great deal of wind, whiteness, avalanche risk etc.

After a couple of days of learning the ropes, including an ascent of Pic Chaussy, the supposed highlight of the week - a couple of days in the Great St Bernard Hospice, where some monks invented the brandy-carrying dogs - turned into a bit of a nightmare. We skinned up in horrible conditions and hung around for a pleasant night in the Hospice. On setting off the next morning, we triggered a mini-avalanche within 10 yards of the front door, decided discretion was the better part of valour and we just set off back down the mountain again. Through the Combe des Morts - the "Valley of Death" - so called because of its avalanche risk. Great.

Luckily, like my recent visit to Chamonix, this trip was saved by the last day - a climb of the Gros Ch√Ętillon. The weather was a bit less severe (the summit is only at 1,840m versus the Hospice at 2,470m) but there wasn't much of a view beyond our immediate surroundings. Luckily these were the most incredible snow-laden trees - it was pretty spectacular.

The ski down, through the ~18" of recent snowfall, was good enough to make up for the previous couple of days.

Am I now a fan of ski touring? I enjoyed lots of things about it - the tranquility (particularly when compared to a traditional ski resort), the sense of achievement on climbing a hill, the sense that one should try to ski down as well as possible and not "waste" any of the ascent, the freedom to roam wherever you want rather than being constrained by lifts and the aerobic element, just to name a few things. If I lived somewhere snowy, I think I'd happily tour a lot - it's like going for a good mountain walk, with the added bonus of skiing down at the end. However, for me, with only a week or two of skiing per year, I think my time on the slopes is too precious to spend it walking up them as well as caning it down. Having said that, I'm sure I'll be back for a proper hut-to-hut tour at some point in the not too distant future - the West Oberland Haute Route, also run by ISM and involving "superb north-facing (powder) slopes giving about 1000m of descent each day, and beautiful backdrops of huge limestone cliffs and the peaks of the Swiss Valais" sounds pretty cool!

Finally, a big "thank you" to Terry, who taught and guided us last week and generally kept us out of trouble, and thanks also to those on the course who were, for the most part, an entertaining bunch.

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