NPC Ski Mountaineering meet – Ben Lawers

“When are you having your ski mountaineering meet ?”, the new meets secretary said.
“What ski mountaineering meet ?”, I asked innocently: it was the first time the concept had been mentioned.
“Come on, don’t piss me about. You’re going to lead a ski mountaineering meet, and I want to know where and when you’re having it, NOW !”

After I’d retrieved my jaw from my knee, I tentatively suggested a couple of dates :
“No good ! Thats so-and-so’s meet that weekend.”
It eventually came down to the last weekend in February and then the difficult question – where ? I thought I’d better have somewhere fairly well south, or no one would turn up at all, but somewhere fairly high or there’d be no chance of snow. Glenshee was out, since half the Pennine seemed to be going there at Easter anyway, so all I could think of was Ben Lawers – at least the walking is good if there wasn’t any snow !

The year advanced through January and even the alps hadn’t any snow, let alone Scotland – what chance a skiing meet now ? But its a well known fact that Pennine meets always happen exactly as planned, and by mid-February the storm clouds were rushing in to ensure success. Snow on most of the previous ten days ensured a reasonable covering and lots of frantic phone calls got some sort of support for the meet. On Friday night Mike Thomas and myself met up in Killin, as arranged, and proceeded to execute beautiful telemark turns. The only problem was that we were still driving at the time, looking for somewhere to camp.

Next morning in Glen Lochay we decided that since we couldn’t get up the Ben Lawers visitor centre road the previous night, it wasn’t even worth a look in the new snow, so a local venue for the day’s skiing was chosen – Meall Ghaordie. We set off along the road, until a track led up to the SE ridge of the hill. Wet, soggy snow kept sticking to my skins slowing progress in the poor visibility. Exciting patches of windslab on the upper slopes kept us wending between rocks to minimise the risk of avalanche. Higher still and the wind ensured that rocks were impossible to avoid, but eventually the summit “windshelter” and trig point appeared.

Like most Munros, this one had a superb view of the first ten yards of the way down, but very little else.

Retracing our tracks as closely as possible involved a fair bit of kick turning or falling over (or in several cases, both at once), but below the cloud life got a little easier. Unfortunately, the completely flat lighting meant that you couldn’t see bumps in the terrain, so both of us skied over invisible three foot drops and into invisible chest high snow drifts. By choosing snow thick enough to ski, but thin enough to have odd bits of grass showing through, we began to adjust to the conditions, and were just getting confident when Mike started shouting at me as I skied towards him. I looked up from the snow to see what was up, when I felt the ground dropping away – and skied neatly over a ten foot high cornice into a snow drift in the bottom of a stream bed – luckily quite unhurt. Some difficulty was experienced in getting up in deep snow whilst laughing hysterically, but once done, we were fairly soon down in the valley and back to the cars. The weather was just above freezing and showing no signs of improvement, so we retreated to the local café.

Andy Nichols and Jill Gates turned up in the pub, and meet strength doubled immediately with this strong nordic skiing contingent. Beer was swilled and Andy and Jill set out to lead us to an excellent camping spot whose location they knew exactly. Two or three increasingly sheepish trips up Glen Lochay later, they pulled into a layby with just enough room for one car and vanished into the woods. Mike and I retreated to our own spot, profoundly unimpressed. We had noticed, however, that the sky had gone promisingly clear and the temperature was dropping.

Sunday morning dawned cold, crisp, clear and sunny and the nordic team declared that they would ski the entire length of Glen Lochay to Ben Challum, and promptly set off to do so. The Alpine team ummed and aahed and decided that four or five miles on the flat to start probably wasn’t what they were good at, so set off for Ben Lawers itself. The visitor centre road was just as impassable as before, with the added complication that there were now a dozen or so vehicles finding this out, so we ended up parked on the main road half way to Lawers village. This proved to be a good starting point and we were soon steaming (quite literally) up the sunny south-facing slopes of Ben Lawers on excellent snow.

Higher up the odd patch of crust was met as we diagonalled up to the right to the SE ridge. At the col, a superb vista opened up over Lochan nan Cat with views to Beinn A’Ghlo and the Eastern Grampians, as well as the Eastern hills of the Lawers group itself.

The upper part of the ridge proved just a bit too steep and rocky, and a hundred feet or so had to be climbed carrying the skis, but we were able to ski the final section to the summit cairn, arriving just ahead of a number of walkers. The rest of the panorama to the north now unfolded, showing us the Cairngorms and the Ben Alder massif, while further west we could see Ben Nevis beyond the Mamore forest, and further again, the view swept round to the Blackmount, Ben Lui and South to Ben More and Stobinian.

Rather than retrace our upward route, we now skied down west on steep ground to the col (with a convincing demonstration of the headplant as a rapid stop from AERW). Then up another ridge to Beinn Ghlas, which itself is an excellent viewpoint for Ben Lawers.

Time was now advancing, but the snow was still in excellent nick for a swooping descent of almost three thousand feet to the main road. It was only a short walk back to the cars, and quite uneventful apart from a passing car wrapping its aerial round my skis at high speed. It failed to knock me over, but seemed to have given the front seat passenger a nasty shock, and caused the driver acute embarassment !

The Ben Challum team achieved their objective, but did not return down the valley until after dark. Skiing by Petzl headtorch is apparently quite entertaining ! The nordic team continued to ski for a few more days while the alpine contingent returned south, in my case back to the New Inn.

Three and a bit ski tours from Tignes

Winter 1988/89 was set to be my most prolific ski season – we’d already had a week based at Val Thorens over Christmas with almost 60,000m vertical skied, mainly on piste. Another week with the NPC at Montgenevre in mid-February was booked, and we were now, three weeks into the New Year, off for two weeks to Tignes. But whilst there had been plenty of snow over Christmas, it had hardly snowed since, and many of the slopes at Tignes were closed – some entirely bare ! This did make for low avalanche risk, however, so it rapidly became apparent that my best option was to do some touring well away from the worn pistes. In those days one could ski down the glacier to the Tignes Wall, and with the glacier much higher than it is thirty years later, the total ascent required to reach the Tour de Pramecou was not great, so many skiers, even those without touring equipment, were able to reach it.

The top of the Tour de Pramecou, 3083m
The top of the Tour de Pramecou, 3083m

The snow here having proven good, I proceeded to the Col de Palet and did a brief recce for a hoped-for tour later in the trip. It’s a fairly short descent to the Réfuge, but a world away from the noisy pistes, as those without skins to climb back have no desire to find themselves down here. This detour suggested that my planned routes later on would also be good.

Another four days piste-bashing (and one day rather unproductively spent trying to drive a monoski – very unsuccessfully) and I felt fit enough for a longer tour. Part of the battle was to get from Tignes right across the area to the very far end of the Val d’Isère lifts above Le Fornet. The top of the bubble here is the Col d’Iseran (2764m) where again, I soon left the crowds behind, making new tracks in the snow on the road over the pass. It is not much over 200m to ski down to Pont des Neiges, but that is almost a hundred metres lower than the bottom of the Pays Désert Poma, so some commitment already. I then ascended SSW for about 350m on skins to reach a small col west of Ouille des Trétêtes from where a further descent of 130m or so took me into an isolated bowl above the Vallon de Lenta. Here it was time to put skins on once again.

Looking back to the descent from the col, before climbing to Pointe Sud de Bézin
Looking back to the descent from the col, before climbing to Pointe Sud de Bézin

A little under 300m of climbing this time, took me to the Col de Bézin and up the north ridge to the top of Pointe Sud de Bézin, at 3061m. Looking towards this peak from the Val ski area, it is hard to pick out the Bézin summits from Pointe de Méan Martin, at 3330m, and behind them. However, on arrival at the top, it proved to be a finer viewpoint than expected and well worth the climb.

Looking north from the summit
Looking north from the summit of Pointe Sud de Bézin – having skied from the Col d’Iseran up the snowy valley on the right, my descent was to the left toward Fond de Fours

Although hard work, the way up is the technically easy bit, and I was now hoping my four years skiing experience would see me safely back down to the Val d’Isère ski area at Le Manchet. The gradients certainly weren’t anything to worry about, and I could see skiers on the col ahead of me, but the start of the descent was untracked – the first time I’d been in this situation in the alps. Tracks did appear before reaching the Réfuge de Fond de Fours however, as there are quite a few ski peaks that can be reached via this valley.

Just coming down to the Fond de Fours Hut
Just coming down to the Fond de Fours Hut (just right of centre in the photo)

More tracks led to a steep bit with deepish sugar snow that gave me a bit of trouble (I’d not met snow like this before) but I was soon within sight of the trade-route off-piste descent from the Cugnaï lift which I’d skied before.

The bottom of the Fond de Fours valley, dropping back into Val d'Isère
The bottom of the Fond de Fours valley, dropping back into Val d’Isère

With this success behind me, and another day’s downhill skiing, I once again headed for the Col du Palet, just two quick lifts from our apartment. This time, beyond the Réfuge, I continued, skirting round the north of Aiguille des Aimes and climbing the Pointe de Vallaisonnay by its ENE ridge. Only 3020m, but another rather fine and isolated spot. I returned by crossing the Col de la Grassaz and skirting south of the Aiguille des Aimes, traversing its SE slopes to reach a col from where a very short ascent regained the Col du Palet and the Tignes lift system. This had been a slightly bigger day, with 690m of ascent, but the final trip would be my biggest ski tour to date by a large margin.

Réfuge de Col de Palet
Réfuge de Col de Palet

This time, I was in the lift queue well before opening, to be the first person up. For the third time, I skied down to the Col de Palet Hut. This is the taking off point for a long off-piste descent to Peisey Nancroix, but there was far too little snow for that to be feasible at this time. My objective was to drop to about 2200m and turn west up the Val de Genêt, south of Mont Blanc de Peisey. I then climbed the broad SE ridge of the Dôme des Pichères, an ascent of over 1100m. To the north of me was the really shapely rocky peak of l’Aliet, which I photographed almost to death. It was particularly disappointing a few weeks later to receive someone else’s slides back from Kodak. They never did manage to find my film, so there are no pictures taken on either of the two later trips.

A view of my route taken from the Col de Palet earlier
A view of my route taken from the Col de Palet nine days earlier during my recce trip. The Dôme des Pichères is the rounded snowy summit on the left

For early February at over 3000m, the day was ridiculously hot, and I soon found the fleece-and-shell trousers I was wearing far too stifling. Ascending the final slopes in bare legs and tee-shirt, I was surprised to meet two French skiers carving neat turns down the slope towards me. “C’est tres chaud, non ?” – no reply. But I could certainly imagine mutterings of “Zee Eenglish, zey are so stupide!!”

This encounter over, I met no-one else on the trip and soon reached the 3324m summit where, anticipating the possibility of not remaining upright throughout the descent, I resumed normal attire. Mostly it went well, though perhaps the snowplough indicated a lack of the necessary ability to ski soft snow (and was quite tiring). Dropping into the shade of the valley, things got a lot easier and soon I was back at the junction of valleys and starting another climb to regain the Col de Palet. At over 1500m of ascent, this remains one of the longer tours I’ve skied (even thirty years later).