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 A lot of snow can fall over a day or two, meaning that those pessimistic reports from the week before are quickly out of date.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.