Chamonix downhill and touring

Mary, myself and Sarah drove out to France in early March with a bit of trepidation about whether it was sensible in what was clearly turning into a global pandemic. But as no-one was saying we couldn’t do so, we were unlikely to get any money back from insurers if we wimped. Since Mary hasn’t toured for a long time, and Sarah very little at all, and my skills are also probably as old as my kit, Sarah had insisted we have a guide for a bit of instruction to get us up to speed. We’d all got new kit, Sarah because she had none, Mary because she had always intended to replace her kit if she started touring again, and myself because the Emery bindings I’d expect to keep repairing for a few more years yet really had died as the various spares proved inadequate. So I’d now got some Fritschi bindings that would take my old boots, and some new (-ish) boots that would fit the pin bindings (but a size bigger than the unpleasantly tight ones from Val d’Isère). I’d also concluded that my skins had not been reglued for so many years that they were a lost cause as well as being a right faff to adjust to fit the new skis. So an expensive bit of reprovisioning. Chamonix, however, is always the best place to buy a load of kit, so Mary and Sarah had decided to do a bit of hire first, buy later, apart from the essentials of new transceivers and other accessories.

We had three good days of instruction, and some good downhill days on our own, but hadn’t managed our ambition of getting up to the Vallée Blanche (we’d set out once, but the uplift was delayed opening by the wind and we reckoned we would be too late in the day). Our guide was fully booked for the rest of the time we were out, so it looked as if we’d missed it for this year. However, coronavirus would have it otherwise, and it became aparent that people leaving the UK later than us were having second thoughts, and some ski resorts were closing, so suddenly, we looked like being the only available paying customers left, for a season that would clearly become a financial disaster for guies. So we were off !

Visibility at the exit on the Midi was rather poor, and there was still enough wind to be a bit on the chilly side as we sidled down the zig-zag path in crampons, but it did give the benefit of much reduced exposure. We soon found ourselves enough flat space to shift into skis and as we skied down, we started to drop out of the cloud. Mary and I had been this way before of course, on foot on the way to the Pyramide de Tacul and the Dent du Géant, but that was a long time ago. We didn’t need to be roped up this early in the season (well, not for downhill) and fairly soon we were out in the middle with rapidly improving visibility. It was meant to be a touring trip, not just an off-piste run, so we roped up and set off to cross a crevassy area to reach less-tracked snow than the downhill-only skiers had access to.


Passing a crevasse on our way to the Italian side of the Vallée Blanche.

I’m not great at acclimatisation, and even after a week skiing, this was close to my ceiling, so we didn’t climb to any great height before stopping for a rest and setting off for the long, mostly powder run down, overlooked by the Géant, now coming clear of cloud.


Skiing below the Géant, a tick dunnit from 1991 (in the summer)

We had got an early enough start this time that we were not time pressured, so skied down in short stretches, trying to find untracked powder. Mary had managed to pick up a bit of a knee injury in poor visibility and lumpy terrain earlier in the week, so was being quite careful, but with now excellent visibilty and high contrast lighting, there were few, if any, hidden haggis traps. We were well away from crevasses by now, so weren’t roped up, but were skiing one at a time, so everyone was being watched by the whole group the whole way. You wouldn’t want it to be all over in a flash anyway !


Now well out into the main valley – and it is by no means as flat as it looks in photographs, so keeping speed up in the powder was not too hard.

Passing the Requins Hut there is a steep ice fall, with the ski route down its left hand side, before a long and rather flatter run out down the Mer de Glace. No powder down here, but a bit of care required not to lose speed and have to skate or pole. The glacier snout is now much farther back (and depressingly much lower) than a few decades ago so there is a long, long climb up steps to reach the lift back to the Montenvers railway. A bit of queuing, but then rapidly down to Chamonix. Talking to the ski shop later in the evening, they were condfident there were no cases in the Chamonix valley and expected skiing to continue for at least the next week, but by 8 p.m. the French had announced that all ski resorts were to be closed from next day (a real bummer for a load of Brits who had flown out that very day to find no ski holiday and no food service in their hotels on arrival). In the morning, we hastily packed up, cleaned the apartment and started driving home. We’ve been caught out before by ferries not running at night in the winter, so stopped off at a very socially distanced cheap hotel en route, and were surprised to find no surcharge to get on an eerily empty ferry next morning. That’s looking like the end of trips to the alps, at least for this year.

Moving on to pin bindings

An issue that has becoming increasingly apparent in the last few years is that skiing with bindings that have not been manufactured for over two decades is asking a bit much. The metal components seem to be fine, but the plastic seems to be getting beyond its design lifetime and is becoming brittle. I have enough spares to keep my trusty Eméry touring bindings going for many years yet, but had already had enough minor breakages to be sure I would want to invest in new and modern kit before going on anything like a serious tour. So after two hours skiing in Val d’Isère today the inevitable happened – a fairly minor impact broke the plastic part of the toe piece of the bindings, and a skistrap broke. This left me with kit that still worked (I had no difficulty and no falls skiing back from Tignes to La Daille) but that was marginal on safety, both for myself and other slope users. Time to bite the bullet !


The broken toepiece

So a quick bit of internet to tell my bank that I was in France and about to use my card and off for some major retail therapy (as in, adding 150% to the cost of the holiday!). Chamonix is the favourite Christmas shopping venue, but Val d’Isère certainly proved up to the challenge, and the shop associated with the bureau des guides had both the equipment to sell and the advice to go with it. So I will be skiing the rest of the week in modern pin bindings and for almost the first time in boots which are not Dynafit. We’ll see how it goes… Well, one answer was “very well” – the Scarpa boots whilst no heavier than the Dynafit, do seem to be stiffer and with more of the feel of a downhill boot. However, sizing seems to be an issue – and even with thin silk socks, and a bit of padding to allow for the shorter left leg (from breaking my heel in 1981) the boots seem to be very narrow fit round the heel and were cutting off blood flow over the course of a few hours skiing, so that I would really not want to use these on a long tour. Pity, really. I don’t think a size bigger would help – it really is the tightness of fit round the heel, and not length for my toes which seems to be the problem. So now I’m in the market for some newer Dynafit Tourlites – ones which will fit the pin bindings. A pair off ebay for £8.99 (would you believe) are a perfect fit and in no worse nick that my old ones, but tragically didn’t actually have the fittings shown in the photo to work with pin bindings. But since I was also able to repair the Eméry bindings in about fifteen minutes at home, I’ll certainly be using these if any touring opportunities pop up in Scotland (although it’s been T-shirt and shorts weather as I write this in North Wales in February, so ski touring seems a little unlikely this season).

Powder day on the Stang

The Stang forest is a north-facing hillside on the Durham/Yorkshire border above Teesdale. It often catches a decent snowfall, and the forestry tends to mean that it gets less wind than the open fellside, so the snow often drifts less, leaving a better overall cover, which then stays in shade a lot of the time. One fall had consolidated to form a base when a second fall added a layer of what proved to be some of the best powder we’d skied – well, certainly within the UK.


Setting off along the ride east of the Stang road, near the top of the ridge

Nordic skiing with the dogs was always fun – the Doberman (Seb) didn’t really like getting his paws cold and would try to rest his front paws on the back of your skis. The Collie-ish black dog (‘Byl) loved sticks, and would try to grab the front of your ski and run off with it. This wasn’t too hard to cope with on the flat or uphill, and neither dog could keep up on a fast downhill, so that was easy. It was the gentle downhills, especially in shallow snow when you didn’t want to dig the edges in too hard and risk catching stones underneath, that caused most grief. You’d just get to a nice pace, with the dogs in close attendance, when ‘Byl would grab a ski tip and pull it sideways, usually resulting in doing the splits and face-planting between the skis. Fortunately, on a powder day, the dogs were slowed and the ski tips hidden, so the downhills on the Stang tracks were a joy to run !


Schuss down one of the gentler tracks on the Stang in fresh powder

We’d skied with friends near Bowes on Sunday, and on the Stang Monday. Unfortunately, I had to work in Cambridge three days this week, and returned to ski the Stang again on Friday before it thawed – an unusually long period for the snow to lie. I’m pretty sure the photos were taken on the Monday outing.

Ski touring in the Ötztal

Work in progress…

We set off about 6 p.m. on the 25th April to drive to the alps, crossing by an overnight ferry. By late afternoon on the 26th we were at the Austrian border, on a relatively minor road. The immigration officer took away our passports to his office, then seemingly forgot about us for ages. When we eventually enquired, he waved us on, but we had to ask for our passports back. This did make us a bit later than we’d planned getting to the Ötztal valley, but we were still in time to get sorted out somewhere to stay.

Andy on foot above Rofen, getting a look at the country aheadWe spent two days on the glacier at Sölden, not just downhill skiing to acclimatise, but also doing a bit of telemarking to keep in form. We took 14 (fairly short) lifts each day, and I skied 2443m telemark and 7112m alpine over the two days. On the 29th, we had a day off the skis, walking up from Rofen above Vent.

The 30th saw us setting off on the ski-tour proper, walking (and a bit of skiing) up to the Martin Busch Hütte, which proved to be a bit more civilised than many of the high alpine huts we’d used on summer trips, having the luxury of flush toilets, indoors !


Andy setting off from the Martin Busch Hutte on the ascent of Kreuzkogel with light sacks

Mindful of the fact that I acclimatise slowly, we didn’t head up to the highest peaks straight away, but had a day out with just day sacks, climbing a nearby peak called Kreuzkogel. We could skin up to the col below the summit, but reached the top (at 3360m) on foot.


Andy on the way up Kreuzkogel from the Martin Busch Hütte

This day trip gave us a good idea of the sort of snow conditions we would be dealing with, and afforded us an excellent view of the route we would be taking over the next couple of days. We could also see over to the Vernagt Hütte which would be our base for the last couple of days, but our intended high point, the Wildspitze, was well hidden in a cloud cap.

Back at the Martin Busch Hütte, we got an earlier start the next day, heading up Niedertal by the route we’d looked out over yesterday:


Our target was Similaun, the high peak top left

Niedertal was a long but fairly gentle ascent in the beaten tracks of many other skiers, so not particularly hard work, although we were now carrying our full packs again. Turning left, we had a steeper section to climb up the Niederjoch Ferner with a few zigzags. The top gave us a good view of the final part of the ascent, with a steep section up to the 3606m summit of Similaun.


By the time we were on top, it had clouded in

Ah, this article seems to still be a work in progress – there are some more photos scanned and the rest of the story (Similaun, Fineilspitze, Hoch Guslar Spitz and Wildspitz) will be along shortly…


Setting off in marginal conditions (it hadn’t really frozen overnight)


It really was way above freezing by the time of our final descent

Seanna Bhraigh in a hurricane… on ski!

“I never seem to have epics like you read about in magazines”

I nearly lose my balance as another gust of wind rushes up from the corrie to the south and over the ridge of Seanna Bhraigh. I am skiing uphill on skins, in a wide braking snowplough with the wind at my back and still sliding uphill, jamming the poles in to try and stay put. A few seconds, and the wind drops a little, allowing me to resume my steady plod up the ridge. This is repeated a dozen times before I turn directly away from the wind to reach the summit cairn. It’s important not to overshoot the cairn since it is ten feet short of a 1400′ drop into one of Scotland’s remotest corries ! The sun is still shining as I fight to untangle the camera from wind strewn rucksack straps without losing anything vital. Any odd item cast to the wind would next stop somewhere near Aberdeen !

It had all started normally enough. After a superb day on Ben Lawers, enthusiasm knew no bounds and a reasonable (if not exactly brilliant) forecast for Friday and Saturday led me to plan a two or three day expedition to ski the Beinn Dearg group in Wester Ross. On the theory that it is four hundred miles from Cambridge to the highlands, so an extra hundred and fifty or so hardly matters, I drove up through Inverness to the Dirrie More on the Ullapool road….

The hills of the far north are all arrayed to view, from Stac Pollaidh in the West to Ben Klibreck in the north. Back to the South West, An Teallach, spectacular in the early morning sun, is now being assailed by lowering black clouds. I decide to abandon plans to ski Carn Ban, the remotest Corbett in the known universe, and head back to the tent for a brew. This is easier said than done as the return from Seanna Bhraigh is directly into the still-increasing gale to regain the col.


Only yesterday morning, under a heavy overcast, with three quarters of my first big Scottish river for ages crossed, I had started to remember what this game was about. Hopping from greasy boulder to greasier boulder with a pair of skis and camping gear for three days, which you can’t afford to get wet, I was forced back to a long detour upstream. Yet more greasy boulder hopping and marginal wading finally got me to an hour of peat bog, a further river crossing and thence the lower slopes of Am Faochagach. The snow line was a few hundred feet higher and the skis came off the sack. True to form, the visibility dropped to ten metres.

Perhaps a veil should be drawn over the slow plod over false summits, and the slushy descent to Loch Prille. It was windless, humid and mild. The promised sunny intervals were no doubt all occurring several hundred miles nearer the Met. Office, whose accursed inhabitants have probably never been to Scotland.

Another long pull to the col behind Beinn Dearg found me a “sheltered” campsite at 2800′. Predictably, the sky now began to clear and the wind to rise. Suitably esconced with the tent pegs firmly lodged in frozen snow, it was easy just to make a brew and decide to save Cona Meall and the other peaks for Saturday.


Sunrise over Cona Meall

Saturday seemed set to fulfil the promise of improving weather as the sun hit my tent at 7.30 from a clear sky. The wind was a little stronger, and from the south, much as forecast, but sooner (why does bad weather always arrive earlier and good weather later than forecast ?).


Beinn Dearg from Meall nan Ceapraichean

An 8.30 start saw me skiing up Meall nan Ceapreachean, only a six hundred foot climb and offering a fine view of Beinn Dearg in the sun, and, in the further distance, An Teallach looking serious in winter array.


An Teallach from Meall nan Ceapraichean

I hadn’t topped a Munro before 9 a.m. for ages, so I was soon feeling very pleased and self-righteous as I skied north for the subsidiary top and then on to Eididh nan Clach Geala, my second Munro before ten O’clock, and it really was getting quite breezy.


Cona Meall : Loch Prille to left, Am Faochagach to rear

A long descent over superb snow in bright sunshine led to the broad col south of the real target of the expedition, Seanna Bhraigh.


Seanna Bhraigh and Eididh nan Clach Geala

The col was quite a sheltered spot to put on the skins for the final wind-blasted climb to this remote, but impressive summit.


Seanna Bhraigh : approaching from east


Northwards from Seanna Bhraigh as weather deteriorates

Back at the col: the rapid change in weather is looking more serious as the sky exudes black clouds streaming over Beinn Dearg. A brief stop for tea and a struggle with the wildly flapping map finds me a route following valleys, rather than compass and pacing across the open moor.


Route back from Seanna Bhraigh as storm hits

Half an hour later, sleet turns to heavy blown snow and spindrift as I climb out of one valley into the second. Up this valley reaches a bouldery area, I recognise from the morning, so just one ridge to cross, but now headed directly into the storm. Slab is building on the smoother slopes, so I thread my way between large boulders, fighting to stay upright as each new gust screams past, until eventually the almost scoured-bare icy ridge appears.


Retreat from Seanna Bhraigh as storm eases a little

Still pushing hard to head downhill I am amazed to see the visibility improve and the col and Beinn Dearg appear. Cona Meall comes clear of the cloud and I wonder idly if I could climb it today if the wind drops. First priority, however, is a brew. Since the tent was carefully placed by a good landmark, I have no trouble in finding the site, but as I approach, I notice something odd in the snow.

A tent peg. Looks just like one of mine. A nasty, sinking sort of feeling assails me as I round the corner. There ahead of me is a stove, a fuel bottle and a pair of crampons. But no tent. Investigation soon reveals pegs which need digging out with an ice axe, and guys. The tent has evidently been torn from the guys. A couple of hundred yards downwind I find another peg, badly bent, but nothing else. Since the route to chase the tent is directly away from my escape route, and time is already limited, retreat seems the only safe option.

Both the direct descents are steep, rocky, and plastered with fresh snow, madness to attempt in the gusty wind, and with the spectre of major river crossings below. The only skiable route is directly over the summit of Beinn Dearg. The one piece of good fortune in this is the “ease” of route finding : just a matter of following an old wall up the sheltered side of the mountain until it turns a corner, then 270m due south to the summit, just below 3600′. This duly materialises, as an icy cairn only just visible in the blizzard. Beyond it, still on a bearing, the descent gets more sporting. Skiing straight down a steep, but almost invisible slope into a gale on a compass bearing is an entertaining activity, best accomplished by leaving the skins on and heading down in a very wide snowplough. Legs like tree-trunks are a decided advantage, and mine are aching pretty severely by the time I emerge from the cloud a thousand feet lower.

The remainder of the descent to the valley is simple by comparison, but still leaves a river to cross. Despite being three miles upstream of my last crossing, it is now swollen by the snowmelt and rain falling at lower altitudes and takes over half an hour of searching and marginal rock hopping to cross.

Just another low ridge, and then down to the road to reach the car shortly after dark. Five Munros in two days, all on ski and a wealth of useful (!) experience.

As I say, I never have epics.

But sometimes life can get quite challenging.

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).

Easter ski-touring

Almost two dozen NPC members were in action on the slopes of Glenshee during Easter week, but as the slopes got more crowded during the weekend, Mike Thomas and I abandoned the lifts (provided for beginners who can’t yet go uphill) and took off for some real skiing.

The first trip was to the Cairngorms, where Bynack More was to be the target. Unusually, it wasn’t windy in the Cairngorms so, inevitably, it was thick fog above 600m instead. This made for an interesting traverse across Coire Laogh Mor, where we went too high and got into an area of boulders where skis were something of a liability. However, we eventually hacked our way to the col where the view down into Strath Nethy was particularly eerie. The thick mist meant that we could only catch glimpses of the valley floor 200m below, and what we saw looked uncompromisingly steep. We decided that it would be safer to continue up the ridge and onto Cairngorm, rather than risk the longer trek over Bynack More and down to the Saddle above Loch Avon.

The ridge was easy enough to follow, and some measure of progress could be judged by the occasional rock poking through the snow which loomed up ahead then steadily fell behind. One of the boulders turned out to be a reindeer, forlornly waiting on the ridge for the moss to reappear. A small summit provided us with a much needed landmark. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the one marked on the map, which resulted in about half an hour skiing on bearings, counting paces and generally becoming confused and emotional (much like closing time at the New Inn). Eventually the land started to conform to expectations and we ascended the final slopes of Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, confident in the knowledge that we would find the Cairngorm weather station at the top.

The rather diminutive cairn came as a disappointment and maps, at all scales available, were hastily consulted. A reconstruction of our wanderings led to another bearing, and off we went. Now, skiing in a straight line in 5m visibility is a skill only mastered by a few. We are of the many, and continually slewed off to the right, bringing ourselves very near the head of the Coire na Ciste ski tows. Sound carries very well in mist, so the sounds of merriment and jollity as people were disgorged from the tow and fell over in the mist were a strange contrast with the earlier silence. We skied with this noise for half a kilometre with no sight of its source, then pylons suddenly loomed out of the mist. The final slog up to the real summit was fairly straightforward, and we were soon removing the skins for the run down into Coire na Ciste.

By now, the lifts had closed, so we had the slopes almost to ourselves. Perversely, we had hardly started the descent when the skies were swept clear and the sun came out, revealing the whole of the ridge we had climbed. Had we wasted just a little more time, we would have had superb views from the top !

Since everyone who had stayed at Glenshee had been in the sun all day, we decided to avoid another “educational” day at excessive altitude, and ski the lower peaks to the west of Devil’s Elbow. Starting early from the car park, we skinned up the piste to the Cairnwell. Though only a few tens of metres from the top of the Chairlift, it is surprising how few people actually take these last few steps to the top. Skiing back towards Butchart’s corrie, we tried to maximise the speed to get up a small summit at the top of the slalom course. Then we bid farewell to the groomed and crowded pistes and headed west.

This is a gently undulating ridge, and the skins went on at the first col. Here, two nordic skiers overtook us, having no need to don skins and thus demonstrating the superiority of skinny skis over very gentle terrain. We set off in lukewarm pursuit, and caught up at the summit of Carn nan Sac. Here there were quite a few tracks of like-minded skiers. Another 1.5 Km west brought us to the Munro summit of Carn a’Gheoidh where we removed the skins – the next bit would be fun. A 300m descent on the north side of the ridge gave us the best snow we had skied all weekend. The final section down to the col above the Baddoch Burn had us picking a careful line down patchier snow, but we were able to ski right down the col.

The ascent over Southeast-facing slopes was on soggier snow, but over the ridge of Carn a’Chlarsaich, we had another excellent run down to Loch nan Eun where we skied to an island and had lunch.

The smooth flat snow surface of the loch was too much of a temptation, so we skied the half kilometre across the middle to start our ascent of Glas Tulaichean.

From a shoulder half way up, Beinn A’Ghlo came into view – another superb ski mountain and a definite ‘must’ for next winter. The last section of our ridge was quite steep and it was a relief to finish the uphill for the day as we reached the trig. point. The view across to the Cairngorms was superlative and such a change from the previous year when I had climbed the mountain in 15m visibility and pouring rain.

The corniced summit ridge curved round to the Southeast towards Glen Lochsie and gave excellent skiing for a while.

However, late afternoon is not the best time to ski down to the snow line in a gentle traverse, and the snow soon became heavy. South of Creag Dhearg, we dropped into a small valley and kept on ‘interesting’ snow in the stream bed for quite a way below the general snow level. A short hack down the heather then brought us to the Glen Lochsie path and the cottages.

Easter Monday saw us seeking the high plateaux in search of good snow, but once at Spittal of Glen Muick, the lack of snow low down decided us against a long horseshoe. Instead, we carried skis up the path to Lochnagar until finally, at the col, we could put on the skins and get back to business. As the gradient steepened, we sailed past a couple of nordic skiers who were continually sliding back and falling over. A final steepening brought us the col south of Meikle Pap, where we were greeted by a stupendous vision of the cliffs and gullies of Lochnagar. Three traverses linked by kick turns brought us to a rocky area where harscheisen were really needed. Since Mike didn’t have any, we removed the skis and hacked our way onto the gentler ridge above with the ice axes. The remaining two kilometres round the corrie rim to Cac Carn Beag were excellent skiing with fantastic views.

The view indicator on the summit suggests that you can see peaks from the far north to the Cheviot, 90 miles to the south. However, heather burning and haze ensured that we could ‘only’ see about 30 miles in all directions. In particular, we could see countless acres of snow, all above 900m, and dotted with small parties of ski tourers.

Another long descending traverse took us to the south, then east of Cuidhe Crom from where we could follow Northeast-facing slopes down towards our day’s starting point. The snow was getting heavy again, resulting in one or two spectacular head-plants. Again we found patchy snow in the stream beds so we skied well below the general snow line. Starting to walk out back to the main path, I stopped just short of stepping on a snake. It was quite a laid-back Adder, and only decided to move when Mike arrived. The walk back to the car was quite a slog. I’m sure that the way to solve this is to carry the skis up nearer to the snow line on the mountain bike – but that’s another story !

Stob Coire Sgriodain and Chno Dearg

I’d just been on five days of Glenmore Lodge ski-mountaineering course with Bob Barton and Blyth Wright, during which there had been a bit of shortage of snow on the hills, but plenty falling around us as we played crevasse rescue techniques on the climbing tower (supplied with hot coffee at frequent intervals – very civilised). By the time I was on my way home, the snow had built up on the tops and the sun was shining, so I drove to Fersit to do a horseshoe tour onto Chno Dearg and Stob Coire Sgriodain.

Fersit sits below the Alcan dam holding back Loch Trieg, with the road end at about 270m, so it’s a 700m climb over 3½km to the first Munro. Views open up southwest over Loch Trieg, so you can see the snow level in the photograph. The thin wiggly line is the West Highland railway which passes through Fersit and along te eeast shore of Loch Treig gaining height slowly to cross Rannoch Moor via the isolated Corrour Halt – handy base for ski-touring that cannot be reached by car.


Looking across Loch Trieg towards Stob a’Choire Mheadhoin and Stob Coire Easain. Photo: Andy

The weather was a complete contrast to the dreich week I’d just spent in the Cairngorms, though it wasn’t to stay like this all day – opportunities need to be snatched as and when they arise – lots of little outcrops and complex micro-terrain would make navigation much more difficult in poor visibility.


Good snow between the rocks – Stob Coire Sgriodain. Photo: Andy

It had clearly been windy with plenty of freeze/thaw – the summit was quite icy on top, though the snow between the rocks away from the very top was mostly good. This is the cairn on the 979m top of Sgriodain.


Icy Cairn on Stob Coire Sgriodain, looking SW towards incoming weather. Photo: Andy

There’s not much of a drop over the next two kilometres to a broad col barely below 900m, with 976m Meall Garbh off to the south. As the weather was already starting to deteriorate (Rannoch Moor was already under the heavy cloud), I didn’t make the detour to visit this top – it’s the low rounded lump below the big bank of cloud rolling in in this next photo. Chno Dearg is the higher (1046m) peak to the left, another kilometre and a half beyond the col.


Chno Dearg and Meall Garbh and the route ahead, seen from Sgriodain summit. Photo: Andy

There’s a final photo of myself putting skins on for the final ascent of Chno Dearg, waiting for me to scan when I work out where it is (it’s not in the slide magazine with other Ski mountaineering photos from this winter). By the time I got to the second Munro of the day, photography was unrewarding in the rapidly closing weather, and my priority was to make a safe descent before the light got too flat to stay upright. It was clear that Sunday was not going to be a day to be on the hill, so I headed south as soon as I got to the car, having had an excellent day on the tops and two more Munros ticked off.