Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Reconaissance walks

Whilst waiting for the snow to arrive, I took a walk out into the back country yesterday to have a look at the conditions. I have some climbs and ski descents planned for the winter, and I wanted to have a good look at the terrain, as well as the current snow cover. Understanding the geography of an area is a big advantage when it comes to skiing it safely as a lot of time can be lost by taking a wrong turn. As well as that it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and it is always surprising to find an apparent wilderness with few signs of civilisation only an hour's walk from an overdeveloped ski area.

Monday, 5 December 2011


After the last post on the late arrival of the snow this year, anyone planning to ski in Europe this winter will be glad to know that snow has been falling across the Alps (as well as the UK) over the weekend, and quite a few resorts have now opened. I have heard it is snowing in Chamonix and Les 2 Alpes, the Tignes webcams are showing white where there was only green a week ago, here in Andorra we have had a little snow overnight in parts of the country - up to 10cm, and the Spanish television is reporting good snow conditions in the Sierra Nevada (the Spanish one not the US one).

The weather patterns still look quite unsettled, so we may well see more snow before the end of the week. So there is a lot less reason for doom and gloom than just a few days ago.

Incidentally, this BBC Weather video does a good job of explaining why this autumn has been particularly warm and dry, and whilst it is referring to the UK, the same effects have given us a sunny, snowless November in much of the Alps and Pyrenees.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Is the snow coming?

This year the snow in Europe is running late - many resorts have postponed their opening, others have opened with a limited area. Ski races have been cancelled including World Cup races, and early season ski instructor exams have been cancelled as well. There is a lot of pessimism around some resorts, and people reading the snow reports might well be getting worried about the holidays they have booked.

On the other hand, the sun has been shining, and the skiing that is open has been pretty good. I have spent four weeks in Tignes, skiing on the glacier, and the conditions have been great - nearly every day has been sunny and clear, and the pistes have been kept in good condition. There was not a lot of off-piste but it was only November, so it would be unusual if there was.

I would post some photos, but I managed to lose my phone which they were stored in. Note to self - zip up all pockets before skiing. :-(

People tend to forget that every winter is different, that some begin early and others late. Good early snow early on does not guarantee a good winter any more than a late start means a bad one. It is still a few weeks before the season really kicks off with the Christmas holidays, so there is still time for it to snow. Here in Andorra only a couple of resorts have managed to open at all so far, so we are all waiting for the snow to come, but it is still a nice time of the year to be here, meeting old friends and new faces in the resort.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Skiing Mont Blanc

Summer has really flown by in the Alps this year and Chamonix has been a great place to have some skiing and climbing adventures. The skiing highlight was a descent (and ascent) of the highest peak in Western Europe back at the start of August. The highest peak in all of Europe, by the way, is Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus near to the Georgian border.

As happens often with the best adventures I was invited on the trip at the last minute - the day before we set off - to make up a 3 man team with Benoit and Denis. My French is still not great, although it is improving, and Denis's English is at about the same level so Benoit had to act as translator a lot of the time.

Day one was the easy day - we caught the last lift of the day up the Aiguille du Midi at 6pm, then had a pleasant ski down to our campsite at the Col du Midi. There were ten or fifteen tents there already as this is a popular spot in high season. Weaving through tents on skis was a new experience for me. Then tent up, cooking and sleeping. Denis had opted to spend the night in the more expensive luxury of the Cosmiques Refuge, so we had a quick discussion of our starting time before he departed to warmth and a waiting cooked meal. We decided on a relatively late 4am start to allow the snow time to soften before our descent.

Camping below the Midi
Day two was the hard day we had to climb from 3500m to 4800m. I hadn't been that high before so I wasn't one hundred percent sure how my body was going to cope with the altitude. We started with a skate across the flat to the foot of Mont Blanc du Tacul where we put our skins on and began to climb. Just before the first bergschrund we switched to crampons and strapped the skis to our sacks. It started getting light near the top of the face of the Tacul, so we had a fantastic vantage point for the sunrise. At the shoulder Mt Blanc du Tacul we put skis on and enjoyed our first few turns of the day across Col Maudit and down to below Col du Mt Maudit. From here is the steepest climb of the ascent up to the col, and something of a bottleneck with the parties ahead of us following a line of fixed ropes. Avoiding the fixed ropes to the right we made faster progress and from the col is an easy contour across to the Col de la Brenva.

Col de la Brenva
Looking up to the summit - 500m vertical to go
From here is the long last slog up the summit slopes. The end is in sight but it feels like it lasts forever. There is nothing technically difficult but it is a test of fitness and acclimatisation. The summit itself is disappointingly flat - there is a rounded ridgeline and it is difficult to be sure where the highest point actually is. We went along the ridge in both directions a little way just to make sure we had covered the true summit. Suddenly, after seeing other parties ahead of and behind us all the way up there was nobody around to take a photograph of the three of us, so we had to make do with separate pictures.

Benoit on the summit
Denis and myself on the summit
After taking in the view we set off skiing down the North Face, a little to the (skier's) left of the ascent route so we had the slope to ourselves. The snow was surprisingly good - light and powdery despite it being windy enough that our tracks were soon filled in behind us. After a few hundred meters we had to traverse right to rejoin the track unless we wanted an extra ascent. From Col de la Brenva we decided to climb Mont Maudit as it was still early enough in the day. This gave us a second 4000m summit as a bonus tick, and also gave us the most challenging skiing of the day.

Benoit dropping in on Mt. Maudit
The North Face of Mont Maudit had not softened at all, and its upper section was the steepest of the day, so a few very cautious turns were called for on hard packed snow. The lower section was more powdery and we could have a bit more fun, being careful of the crevasses. Next was around half an hour of skinning back to the Shoulder of Mt. Blanc du Tacul and the final ski of the day. This was the part where we could leave tracks visible from the lift station, and although the snow was a little heavier with the afternoon sun and the altitude dropping below 4000m it was still good skiing.

All that remained was to pack up the campsite and make the final climb up to the cable car station where we had the chance to look back up at our tracks whilst waiting for the lift. Not a bad day's skiing for the start of August.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Snow Angel Nannies

Taking a skiing holiday with children can be stressful. Of course it can also be a lot of fun, and the kids will often take to the snow a lot more readily than the adults. You can reduce the stress with good planning, research and a sensible choice of resort, but there are still many things to think of, especially if you want to ensure you have time to ski or snowboard yourselves.

An alternative which people might not consider is to hire a private nanny. Having somebody to else to look after the childcare can take the stress out of the holiday, whilst of course retaining the fun factor. A private nannying service is much more flexible than a creche - the nanny can bring the children to meet you for lunch or hot chocolate breaks, take them to ski lessons (and collect them afterwards of course), look after in your own accomodation, or take them to activities in the village. Basically, this kind of service gives you the peace of mind to enjoy the slopes, whilst knowing your children are well looked after and being able to see them when you want to.

A private nanny might sound like an expensive option but the service costs less than you might think. One nanny can look after up to four children (depending on their ages), so if you ski with friends, more than one family can share the cost. There are things you will want to check before booking - does the company use qualified nannies, are they properly registered and insured etc. - but if you use a reputable company you can ensure a relaxed and stress free ski holiday, even with the kids in tow.

If you are travelling to the French Alps to ski, Snow Angel Nannies are very professional and have an excellent reputation around the resorts they cover. The company was set up by Alexandra Chapman (pictured above), a ski instructor in Les 2 Alpes after she saw how many of her clients struggled to find suitable childcare whilst they were skiing themselves. All the nannies are fully qualified and the business is expanding to cover more resorts each season. You can book or find more information through their website. Unfortunately they don't operate in Andorra yet, so this is not of much help to people visiting my resort, but hopefully a similar service will open in Arinsal in the future.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Ski Servicing Myths - The Fingernail Test

In Europe, if you are going to ski at this time of the year it will be on a glacier. The pistes will tend to be firm, so your edges need to be sharp. If you are not going to ski, then it is a good time to prepare your skis ready for next winter, rather than wait until the last minute. Either way it seems a good excuse to mention one myth of ski servicing which I keep hearing.

The fingernail test, or thumbnail test, is supposedly a way to tell if your edges are sharp enough. Simply scrape the flat of your nail over the ski edge and see if you scrape away a sliver of fingernail. It is certainly true that a sharp edge will easily take away a little bit of nail. The trouble is that fingernail is soft enough that even a blunt edge can scratch it easily enough. A couple of weeks ago I neglected to tune my edges between days on bulletproof icy pistes. I was sliding around all over the place, really struggling to find any grip and make the skis carve in the ice. I learnt a lesson about putting the time in to service the skis every evening when the conditions require it. However, at the end of that day my skis still passed the fingernail test, despite being completely blunt.

The best way to know if your edges are sharp enough is to run your fingers across them (but not along them as you will tend to slice them open). With practice you will learn what a really sharp ski feels like, and what a blunt one feels like.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

My New Blog

I have just launched a second blog at As the name suggests it is all about learning Spanish, so although not really related to the content of this site, it is quite relevant to my own career as a ski instructor in a mainly Spanish speaking ski school.

There may well be a little crossover with this site, as the Spanish I have learnt tends to have a bias towards skiing related terms. However for most readers interested in the ski and outdoor focus of this blog, then unless you have an interest in learning Spanish as well then there might not be that much to interest you, so I won't take it to personally if you decide not to spend any time there.

Having said that, I thought I should mention it, just in case regular readers are interested in what else I am getting up to online, or in case you noticed a new blog appear in my profile and wondered what it was about.

The new blog will probably have more regular posts than this one, but shorter ones. I imagine it will have less photos as well, as I take plenty of photographs of mountains but far fewer of anything very typically Spanish.

If there are any other skiers out there who want to learn Spanish as well then please leave a comment and let me know what you think so far. For the rest of you, I promise to get back to some skiing in the next post.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Three Cols Tour (Les Trois Cols)

Following on from the EMS course mentioned in the last post, we have to log a number of days ski touring before taking the exam course. My first tour following the course was the 3 Cols route in the Chamonix valley. This starts from the Grand Montets cable car (or the Argentiere refuge), descends to cross the Argentiere glacier before climbing to the Col du Chardonnet, a rappel down and a ski and skin lead to the Fenetre du Saleina and Col Superior du Tour, before skiing down to Le Tour village. This was a full day out, with 1200m of ascent and some really spectacular scenery. Thanks to Sandra for a great day.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

EMS - Mountain Safety Training

In the past I have mentioned the Eurotest and how it can be a major hurdle for ski instructors wanting to work in France. The French have also imposed a second test - the Eurosecurity - which is now part of the top level qualifications for Eurogroup countries including France, Italy, Austria and the UK. Whilst less known and for most people less difficult than the Eurotest the Eurosecurity course is a lot more useful and practical for working ski instructors. The idea is to achieve a minimum standard of mountain safety awareness so that clients can be confident that a top level qualified instructor is competent to take them off piste safely.

I have just attended the training part of the Eurosecurity or EMS (European Mountain Safety) as it is named in the British system. The second part will be a three day examination next winter in La Grave. The photo above is from the first day of the course, ascending the Col des Crochues in the Chamonix Aiguilles Rouge range.

The second and third days of the course took us to the region around the Grand St. Bernard Pass which links Switzerland and Italy (above - setting off from the Super St. Bernard car park; below - arriving at the St. Bernard Monastery where we spent the night.)

Above - St Bernard Pass. Below - Day 3, ski touring in Italy and Switzerland

Overall I have to say that this was one of the best of the many ski instructor courses I have done. It was definitely one of the most enjoyable, partly because there was no exam - not until next year anyway - and partly because we got to explore a lot more of the mountains than on most courses. It was also a very useful course. I often ski off piste with clients in a fairly limited way, within the remit of my current ISIA Mountain Safety qualification i.e. within the ski area, close to marked runs, accessible from ski lifts.
   "Can we go off-piste?" is a common question from my more advanced groups whilst "Can we learn to race?" is something I almost never hear. However skiing off piste entails all the risks of the mountain environment - avalanches, navigation hazards, rocks, cliffs, trees etc. so it is important for the instructor to be aware of the risks and to work within the remit of their qualifications to minimise them. An instructor who has passed the Eurosecurity is then qualified to take clients off piste or ski-touring on non-glaciated terrain for up to one day. For trips beyond the remit of this qualification the client would have to book a UIAGM/IFAMG qualified High Mountain Guide.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Ignore the Snow Reports

Many a UK skier spends the winter months avidly scanning the snow reports, either to decide where to book a skiing trip to, or to try and figure out what the snow will be like when they arrive at their destination.

The trouble with snow reports is that things change, often quickly. A lot of snow can fall over a day or two, meaning that those pessimistic reports from the week before are quickly out of date. Compare these photos of Arinsal (one from my window and one Vallnord Webcam image) to the sunny photos of my last post for example.

The other problem with snow reports is that the numbers are not that relevant. People often say things like "Resort X has 150cm of snow and Resort Y only has 90cm, so Resort X is better this year." I have to say that as long as any rocks are covered I have never noticed the difference between skiing over 20cm or 200cm of snow depth on the pistes. Even if it did matter, the snow depth changes constantly as the ground underneath is not flat, and the snow is moved by both the wind and the piste grooming machines. The biggest factor that determines the snow depth measured is where exactly the measuring stick is pushed into the ground. Each resort will use the same spot for their measurements, so it is fair to compare this winter to last winter, or this week to last, in the same resort. Trying to compare different resorts based on snow depth is pretty meaningless though. The cumulative snowfall for the season - i.e. how much snow has fallen - might be a more useful figure to compare resorts for their snowiness. This will be a much bigger number than the snow depth as the light fluffy snow that falls will compact into dense heavy snow over time.

If you live close to a ski area, or a few of them, looking at the snow reports on a daily basis when deciding where to go and what to do is definitely a good idea. If you live here in Andorra for example you have plenty of options for your weekend skiing. If you live in the UK then the Scottish reports are the only ones really worth looking at outside of your holiday. Looking at the reports during your holiday is a good idea as well, particularly if you plan to go off piste. Looking at the reports in advance though is often just going to make you pessimistic ahead of what will probably out to be a great holiday.

The final point I want to make on this is that snowmaking technology has come a long way in the last few years. Here in Arinsal for example, almost every run (95% of the ski area) has been open all season despite a sunny January and early February with a lot less snow that average. Not only have the pistes been open, they have been well maintained and kept in good condition the entire season. For beginners, many intermediates and in fact anybody who prefers to ski on-piste to off, the conditions have been every bit as good as in a really snowy year with the added bonus of being able to ski in the sunshine most of the time. The only disadvantage is that the (fantastic) view across Andorra is a bit greener than people have been expecting.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Spring (???) hill walking photos

It isn't exactly the hill walking season here in Andorra, but with unseasonably warm temperatures, sunshine, and receding snowlines on the south facing slopes (still plenty of snow on the ski pistes though) I decided to take a walk up the hillside behind our appartment building. Partly because I have always been curious to have a closer look at the bordes (farm buildings) which perch on the hillside opposite the ski area, and partly because I rarely get the chance to go out walking during the ski season, with being on skis pretty much every day.

For those interested in walking the Andorran mountains, and seeing a quiter side of the country away from the ski areas and tax free shopping, there is a very good Cicerone Guidebook - The Mountains of Andorra: Walks, Scrambles, Via Ferratas and Treks which covers the entire country (it is quite a small country so there is plenty of detail). Unfortunately getting a decent map of the area is not so easy, as none published here are very up to date or accurate. The 1:25000 map published by the government stops at the border, with adjacent parts of Spain and France left as white space - looking at it one half expects to see "Here be dragons" scrawled across the edges of the map.

Here are a few photographs to show you a side of Andorra not often seen by visitors to the ski resorts.

Les Marades piste (left) and Coma Pedrosa - 2939m (right)

Bordes Del Torner

Bordes de Prats Nous

Pal and Arinsal ski areas

Coma Pedrosa valley with Coll Carnisser in foreground

Bordes de Percanela

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Video Review - Steep

This skiing documentary is currently being sold on Amazon UK with my all time favourite ski movie - "The Blizzard of Ahhhs" thrown in as a bonus. If you don't already own either you have a good opportunity to get hold of both for £12.99. Since I recently watched "Steep" for the first time, it seems an ideal moment to post this blog's first ever video review.

I should begin by pointing out that "Steep" is not your typical ski movie. If you are expecting the usual adrenaline fueled mix of high speed, big air, steep powderfields and avalanche dodging - all set to a banging soundtrack - then you might be disappointed. There is still plenty of adrenaline, powder skiing and inspiring descents, but on the whole, this is a much more considered affair tracing the history of extreme skiing from its beginnings around forty years ago to the present day. As inspiring as the action sequences are, I found  the interviews with the protagonists more captivating and interesting. The risks of the sport are not ignored but tackled head on. In fact a large part of the film attempts to unravel what drives these people to risk their lives in pursuit of another epic ski descent.

Beginning with Bill Briggs climbing and skiing the Grand Teton in 1971, the story moves between North America and Europe as it follows various pioneers of the sport and the developments brought by each decade, ending with the heroes of the last decade. It is sobering to note that many of the skiers featured are no longer alive. Particularly moving are the interviews with the late Doug Combs and his wife, where they talk candidly about the possiblity of him dying in the mountains, doing what he loves.

As well as covering the risks though, the film also brings across the passion for the mountains and the zest for life that the heroes of the sport invariably have.

On Amazon UK, "Steep" is being sold as a two disc set with the classic late 80s ski movie "The Blizzard of Ahhs". This is the film that launched the career of Glen Plake - owner of the most famous mohican in skiing. Filmed and narrated by Greg Stump, it follows Scott Schmitt, Mike Hatrup and Glen Plake as they travel from the US to Chamonix, France, to ski the extreme. It is a great companion to "Steep", as the latter film looks in detail at "Blizzard", and its place in the development of extreme skiing.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

How to be good (at skiing)

To follow on from the last post about how long it takes to get good at skiing, here are a few thoughts on how to get there.

Firstly, to get really good you need to ski regularly. As it takes many weeks of skiing to get to a level most people would consider to be good, a single week's holiday a year will get you there very slowly. Leaving a whole year between each time you ski also gives you a long time to get out of practice. If you are going to spend more time skiing each year, it makes sense to spread that time around the season, or even the whole year, as much as possible. That way you will have less time to forget between each visit to the slopes.

Consider a second holiday in the winter, maybe to a cheaper resort, or a long weekend ski break as well as a week's holiday. If you are lucky enough to live within an easy drive of a ski area, even a small one, then take advantage of that and go there as often as you can. The cheaper local ski centres are ignored by many in favour of saving up for a big trip to a big name resort, but each has its own unique offering which may be well worth a visit.

If you cannot manage a visit to the mountains then artificial slopes can help keep your skiing on form. A few visits before your ski holiday will get your ski legs back so that you hit the pistes in good form on the first day of the holiday. Most artificial slopes will have clubs with regular coaching sessions so you can keep improving your skiing throughout the year.

Two of the best options to extend your annual ski time are to live in a ski resort for a season, and to get at least some skiing in during the summer months. There are many ways to do a ski season, be it working in resort, or funding yourself to take a year out, but those can wait until a future post as it is a bit late for this season and early for next. Having said that, it is always worth asking around when you are in a resort this year if you want to organise something for next winter, and there may even be vacancies where people have left the resort for some reason.

Skiing during the summer months is a fantastic way to improve, as you will at least halve the gap between your skiing trips. There are many options from this ranging from a few hours on an artificial slope, through a week or two at a resort with summer skiing up to doing a whole season in the opposite hemisphere.

 Summer race training camp in Les 2 Alpes
Spreading ski training over the year

As well as increasing the time spent on skis, your rate of improvement depends a lot on what you do with that time. I am a firm believer in lessons or coaching in order to improve your skills, as practice alone can only take you so far. Skiers at any level from beginners to world champions benefit from coaching. This does not mean you have to book into ski school for a week. If you already know how to ski then an hour or two with an instructor to fine tune your technique and get an idea of what to work on can be very productive. If you are at a high level then there are many performance skiing courses you can take to improve your skiing in specific areas, be it recreationally or as a competitor.

Lastly, you can improve much faster if you approach all your skiing with this as your goal. Many skiers spend their time cruising about the same pistes, never challenging themselves, spending as much time on lunches and coffee breaks as they do on skiing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this - it is a very pleasant way to spend time in a beautiful environment, and holidays are supposed to be enjoyable after all. However you will improve faster if you constantly challenge yourself. Ski challenging runs or ski faster (always with respect for other slope users of course). Try to make every turn a good one. On easy slopes set yourself challenges - ski on one ski or do some other exercise, try not to allow the ski to skid, try to make a set number of turns in a given length of piste, or restrict yourself to skiing in a certain corridor. There are many things you can do to push yourself, but it is very easy to let your skiing stagnate if you don't do them.

Monday, 3 January 2011

How long does it take to be a good skier?

I have been asked how long it takes to be a good skier, which is pretty much an impossible question to answer. For one thing, everybody improves at a different pace. More crucial though is the question of what is meant by a good skier. However good you are, there is always somebody better. Is an instructor like myself, with an ISIA badge and a few hundred weeks on snow an example of a a good skier? I hope the people I teach would think so, but put me in a ski race and it is apparent that there are lots of skiers out there who are far better (and faster) skiers than I am. To get to a really top level requires investing a huge amount of time, from a fairly young age, as well as having the talent and opportunities and funding and determination to succeed.
If a good skier is someone who can ski black runs competently (short parallel turns for example) you are probably looking at 3 - 10 weeks from complete beginner, depending on natural ability, confidence, determination and amount/quality of instruction. To be competent off piste in any sort of snow conditions takes a good few weeks longer. Getting to an instructor level will take most people tens of weeks of skiing, whilst getting through the top level instructor courses may well take hundreds. Getting into top level competition, where the really good skiers are, will require dedicating a huge part of your life to the sport.

Lynsey Vonn - Getting to this level of skiing takes many years of dedication
Photo credits here

In the next post I plan to give a few tips on how to get good (or at least better, since 'good' is such a subjective word) at skiing.