30/11/12: Winter Is Here

After a warm summer of biking, climbing, hiking and anticipation, winter is finally here. Big fluffy flakes have been tumbling on and off for the last 72 hours; temperatures have been yo-yoing either side of zero and there's a solid 15cm down here at valley level, 1050m.

This is excellent news for everyone. Skibums are arriving in the resort to snowy trees and white expanses, glimpses of serpentine, powder-filled couloirs and frosted cliff faces. The mobile snowtyre-fitting guys are booked out, their vans scurrying around busily all day. Shop tills are ringing with people taking advantage of preseason bargains, and Chamonix high street has shod it's summery greyness and become a picture postcard again. It's a relief to see it deep, crisp and even after the periodic snowdroughts of the last couple of years.

As I write, the skies have broken blue and the first skintracks are appearing up the front face of Les Houches and Le Tour from those too excited to wait. Crests of sunlight are illuminating the newly-formed cornices of the Aiguilette des Houches and the Brévent ridgeline, and the whole valley is gently vibrating with the expectation of soon-to-come turns; of powder mornings, cruisey piste afternoons and touring missions. It's impossible not to be affected by the stoke that runs beneath this valley of passionate mountain people.

19/3/12: It Snowed.

I remember back in 2003, nearly a decade ago when I spent my first winter in the mountains, when it got warm in the spring. I was ready to pack up and leave, change states, move to somewhere beachy and summerly, but an old local skier stopped me with some advice I'll always remmeber:

"In the mountains, when you think it's over, there's always one more"

Now, it's only March, so I should think we've actually got a couple more One Mores ahead of us, but for now, today was good. It snowed throughout yesterday afternoon on and off then and overnight, so this morning we were treated to up to 10cm on the valley floor in some parts, none in others.

I'd grabbed a 1315 reservation at Grands Montets and was happy with the quality of the ride; deep pow, up to 30/40cm in places, pretty tracked but a lot of fun. Nice stable snow that was neither slidey nor too grippy. Below 2500m-ish things got a bit chunky, claggy and heavy, with tracked snow having the consistency of mashed potato. And, inevitably, there were quite a few mogul fields disguised with a powdery coating - a nasty honey trap for skiers caught amongst the thinly covered bumps. Beware rocks, which have sneaked under the snow with the merest coating hiding them.

I didn't hang around long; I got my top bin done, got forty or fifty over-the-head turns, then got down and back to the office. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Hopefully it'll drop a bit more overnight and it'll be fun tomorrow first thing. Well, it better be; I plan to be in the first lift.

3/3/2012: Spingtime In Chamonix

spring conditions in Les Houches
 If you have had an eye on conditions in Chamonix right now, you'll know that it's hot. Valley temperatures encourage short-wearing and make jackets superfluous; the high sun makes shades mandatory everywhere. Salads have replaced fondue as plat du jours, and bars are selling Amstels by the ton, the vin chauds being relegated to the storeroom.

Three things are sure in this life; death, taxes and snowmelt. March is my favourite month of the year, because whilst the snow in town ebbs away day by day, there are often big old storms that run through and turn the place into winter again.

Today saw boney pistes at Les Houches softening around 10am, and sloppy, waterlogged, grippy and slow-riding snow turn up on S aspects from midday. Off-piste is a joke right now; forget it. Our snowpack arrived in a hurry before Christmas, on unfrozen ground, and we're seeing plenty of aspects sliding to ground from on sunny aspects. However, some cloud crossed over during the day and we're expecting snow from tomorrow afternoon; I didn't check the expected quantities, but keep an eye on chamonix-meteo.com for the latest beta.

1/3/12: 4 Mountains, One Day

A couple of blogs back I talked about a video project that I helped out with, where a group of friends tried to ski four big lines in four different Chamonix resorts in one day. Well, the final edit is done; here it is. We didn't quite make it to Le Tour, but we had a lot of fun on the way:

The lines
- Charousse couloir, Les Houches
- Pass Payot, Brévent
- Nature Reserve, Flégère
- Ligne des Pisteurs, Grands Montets

This excellent video was put together by Charlie Davies Photography as part of his You Are The Pro follow-cam project.

29/2/2012: Turning Back

What happened to the winter? The end of February really is the most deceptive time of year. One minute you're looking at a frozen garden, snowed-in car and the wood burner cranking 24/7, the next minute the road's melted, you're forgetting your jacket a couple of days a week and lunchtimes are spent lazing around in sunglasses, wondering what the hell the people up the mountain are thinking.

That's unfair; it's not that bad. Sure, it's icey in the morning, but as soon as that big 'ole ball of flame in the sky gets to work, the ice cubes become slush-puppy texture around midday. Ski shops in town are doing great business tuning up edges and applying universal wax to counter the grippy, slow, water-saturated afternoon snow that invariably turns up mid-afternoon.

That's how it is on-piste. In short; it's restaurant and sun-terrace weather. Off-piste is a different story, where the condition of what's above & around you is just as important as what's under you. We set out yesterday for what looked like a cracking tour to the Vogealle couloir on the back of the Aiguillette des Houches. I'd checked it out the previous day from Servoz-Le Mont and it was looking good - a 2hr skin in, then a 30 minute skin out. I met my buddies at Brévent for first lift and we went up to Planpraz, checking transceivers and tightening straps on the gondola. We switched onto the first Brévent bin and went to the top, putting harnesses on and getting ready to ski to Bellachat before touring up the Aiguillette, then over the back. Before we dropped in, we took a look at the whole tour route and this weird creepy silence descended over the three of us. We started looking at each other and clicked straight away that there was a problem - not sure what yet, but all of a sudden there was a weird vibe about the tour.

Something about the sun skyrocketing into the atmosphere and the temperature creeping up, the menacing exposed slopes we would have to cross in a few minutes' time and the final sunny climb to the peak just wasn't right. We all felt it, and after a few minutes of spinning the topic from various angles, came to a decision to bail. We headed down the pistes, back into the resort, away from our objective.

It shouldn't have, but it took quite a lot of willpower to say no. I'd taken the whole day off and spent time researching the approach, the line and the exit. But sometimes, as says Bruno in his excellent article on Pistehors about getting avalanched near the Montenvers this week, "when there is a doubt, there is no doubt".

We'll go back another day, once the pack has had a couple of melt-freeze cycles and stabilized a bit more...and the weather gets cooler.

24/2/12: Spring Is Sprung

Temperatures are climbing here in the Chamonix Valley; the snow here at valley level is melting away slowly as the mercury is nearing double digits for the first time in four months. The season's far from over, but I'll be wearing my shell a lot more than my down from now on.

Had an incredible week, the highlight of which was a video project with some friends & riders. Four of us rode 4 lines together in one day - in 4 different Chamonix resorts. It's something we've had in mind for a while; to follow the sun and string together a big day of great freeriding, and kind of to show off the diversity of terrain that this place really offers. We had a car, which we needed, and the places we were going weren't exactly too congested.

Video coming soon. Meanwhile here are some stills of the day.

prarion, couloir de charousse

nature reserve, flegere

ligne des pisteurs, grands montets

22/2/12: Blue Sky Days

 360° view from the Prarion, Les Houches, this week

Well, the French Holidays have shifted slightly - now it's Parisian accents on the slopes talking about how much they love skiing in "Chamon-eex".

It is pretty good right now. The weather's great and we've had some snow over the last 24hrs that has softened things up a bit. That said, the sun is getting higher day by day, climbing in the sky and becoming stronger as we inch gently forward into summer. More sun means melting snow, and melting snow means refreezing snow, which means hard, crusty snow.

The way to get the soft stuff right now is to stick to higher altitudes (over 1800m), sheltered aspects in the shade. There's plenty to do there; in the sun the pistes are nice and smooth but very busy. It's the holidays; what do you expect...

Anyway, here's a couple of shots from today and Saturday:

15/2/12: The Holidays Start!

An empty piste. Not what you'd expect to see during February half-term-time, right? Well, it is a cross-country piste, I suppose.

The holidays are here and town is busy. Word's got around that Chamonix is one of the only places with snow this year, and people are learning more and more to book late and follow the snow. So town's rammed, the restaurants are all busy and the pistes are full. Tip: stay away from bottlenecks for the next three weeks! That means avoid the Lognan cable car at Grands Montets, and (worst of all) the main cable car at La Flégère.

The one saving grace is that this week, it's the Rhone Alpes part of France on holidays (the locals), which means at least the punters up there know how to ski. The Parisians aren't here...yet.

The snow is holding up well. Pistes are lovely - cold and fast - although shaded aspects with a lot of skier traffic get pretty nailed and end up as boilerplate ice by midafternoon. There's no powder off piste; that's long gone. And with a relatively low sun angle and cold daytime highs, there's no warmth to soften the snow right now either. Even most of the tour-to stuff is tracked out (Berard Valley et al).

My advice? Ski the pistes until your legs can't carve any more, then party late and soak up the good vibes around town right now. It's meant to snow this week - not much, but there'll be soft snow around somewhere.

11/2/12: Angel Dust

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll have worked out that the mountains are cold right now. But how cold is cold? How do you explain -21°C to someone who hasn't experienced it?

First, you get up in the morning. Your windows have fought the elements hard, boasting thick condensation from your warm house while you watched TV last night. Now it's frozen, aditting defeat, a sheen of ice fused to the interior of the glass in your house. You turn on the tap; the pipes are frozen, hot & cold. You walk down to the garage to turn the water off, cursing your luck at having to brush your teeth at work again. You unlock the garage, turn the lever, walk out, lock it again...and a sliver of flesh sticks to the exposed key, tearing a fragile fingerprint.

You give up and go to work, then go snowboarding at lunchtime. At -21°C, the cold is everywhere; despite your multiple layers and insulators, the breeze snakes its way through your vent zips, boot seams and glove stitching. It gets under your helmet and whitens your ears, and the exposed skin on your face is frostnipped in minutes. Forget the buff; your warm breath wettens the material near your mouth and fuses it to your lips.

The one redeeming thing about the cold snap Chamonix is experiencing right now is the angel dust. The French call it 'le froid qui tombe', the falling cold, and it's a phenomenon that is so breathtakingly magical it's worth braving the chill. As you ski through the light midday mist, ice crystals lighter than air swirl around you, a floating world of rainbow-coloured diamonds. You soar through the light, feeling like you are seeing stars, but you've not got up too fast, you're just experiencing angel dust; one of the loveliest things you can have happen to you up there.

Piste conditions are fabulous, off piste hard and scratchy. There's been wind up high so there's no powder in the hills...just in the air.

01/2/2012: First Of The Month, Chamonix Style

Ten days since I last posted? A big no-no in blog land, I'm told, but I've been busy in Munich at the annual ISPO tradeshow wankathon doing 'work'. I got back yesterday and it was straight up the mountain today to check it out. So apologies, but it's been worth the wait. For you and for me. Why?

Well, in nearly ten years living in the mountains, it's not been better than it is now. The snow is perfect - light and dry, cold and fluffy, thick and smokey, easy to spray up; and it just keeps piling up, storm after storm.

This last stormcircuit saw a weird snowfall pattern, with more snow lower down. I cleared 40cm off my driveway and Argentiere only saw 10cm or so. Looks like anyone skiing Grands Montets was disappointed with the thin fresh layer, which schralped out soon. Today, Brévent was the place to be. And we weren't alone; I took a run with ex freeride world champ and all-round Scandi ski warrior Ane Enderud which was humbling and sick; a bunch of the Perfect Moment guys were up there going huge, and there were smiling locals with snow in their hair everywhere, with snow packed in open pockets and clogging up collars.

I didn't even bother straying over to the Cornu chair, although I hear it was off the charts over there; we sent overhead pow run after overhead pow run down the demilune, l'ENSA couloir, Pass Payot, everywhere. Had a bit of a wait for a guide to rap his clients into the ENSA, but once they were done it was sideslip-of-death to heel-hop-sharp-board-eating-rock to massive-overhead-pow-up-the-sides-mania.

So, if you're wondering what the snow is like in Chamonix right now, hopefully that answers your question. It's all-time.