I’m back! Not posted any stuff for a month or so. Call it a lost mojo or the fact that I’ve been busy tinkering with my ever-growing collection of gadgets, editing videos and, well, being out and about generating stuff for the blog. I’m way behind as a result and have lots to catch up. A couple of walks in the Black Mountains and Brecons, a superb day out in the mid-Wales mountains near the Elan Valley and a trip to the Southern Highlands of Scotland with the lads. But before all that a little report of my annual skiing trip to the French Alps. Slight diversion from the majority of my walking relating posts but you can’t have a blog with “slide” in the title without doing a bit. At least the photos were nice
Uncle Fester and Mont Blanc from Mont Chery
Uncle Fester in action on Mont Chery
There were supposed to be 5 of us but due to some family and work-related problems it ended up just being me and Uncle Fester. For anyone who’s interested we always fly out on a Friday night to get a full 8 days skiing in, flying home the following Saturday night. After a trouble-free QuesyJet flight from Bristol to Geneva and a night in a hotel in Annemasse we headed to the resort of Les Gets for our weeks skiing in the Portes du Soleil. It claims to be the largest ski area in Europe and it certainly does give you a sense of travel as you move around the dozen or so separate resorts. Most of the resorts are very pleasant and the skiing for the most part is superb and uncrowded. The tree-lined runs are top notch and there is everything from easy beginner slopes to some seriously steep stuff (Avoriaz has “The Wall” reputed to be Europe’s steepest marked run). There is a huge choice of slopes but there are several disconnects where you either have to walk, take a bus or do both. Our other favoured area is the 3 Valleys where there is none of that tomfoolery. I’d certainly go back to this area again but in all honesty the range of skiing in the 3 valleys and super efficient, well-connected lift system and slopes is far better. Nice to try somewhere different though and we had a great weeks skiing. Our apartment was also rather splendid (apart from the slippery access road with its entry barrier halfway up an icy hill!) and particularly spacious as it was sized for the 5 of us!
Our Apartment in Les Gets
View from my bedroom window
The first couple of days were, clear, sunny and cold on wonderfully groomed pistes, great for getting back into the swing of things and just enjoying the simple pleasures of swooping through the sunshine and adrenaline rush of high-speed activity that I love.
Nameless Peak from Mont Chery
Les Gets and Mont Blanc from Mont Chery
Trees in afternoon light
We spent most of the time in the immediate area of Les Gets itself as we just didn’t feel the need to explore. The first video collection I hope captures the mood.
After a couple of days we got what we wanted, an overnight dump of fresh powder.
West from Ranfolly, Les Gets
Cloud and Powder
When I was learning to ski I was a speed junkie, enjoying freshly groomed slopes to whizz down at unsafe velocities usually ending in a spectacular fall that became my trademark. After a lesson on powder skiing I was hooked and nothing beats floating through deep untracked powder after fresh snowfall. This day was as perfect as it gets, champagne powder and after an hour so the clouds parted to reveal sensational views across the Alps to Mont Blanc.
Mont Blanc above the cloud
Uncle Fester emerges from the trees
Ranfolly, Les Gets
A cracking lunch and a large beer outside in the sunshine at our favourite cafe completed a pretty much perfect morning. An afternoon cruising around the uncrowded slopes, dropping in and out of the powder finished the day off to a tee.
Clouds and Mountains
Mont Blanc framed by clouds
One of my best ever day’s skiing and I hope the next compilation supports that elation I felt when I got back to the flat.
To say we had all kinds of weather during the week is an understatement. After a couple of days of cold clear weather and a day of fresh powder we had what every skiier dreads – rain. The lower slopes turned to mush and it was raining as high as 2000 metres.
Here comes the rain
The video clip below is taken from an afternoon of solo skiing as Uncle Fester took his leave and sensibly spent the afternoon in the flat. I’m far too tight to waste my hard-earned and very expensive lift pass so I stayed out and spent a happy couple of hours getting some alternative shots in the cloud and rain. For the uninitiated these shots were taken from a chest harness rather than from a head-mount hence the lower angle and regular views of hands, poles and skis.
Nice thing about a rainy day is that the slopes are deserted so I had the resort pretty much to myself. I did discover on my last run to the flat that what was light fluffy powder the previous day was now porridge causing a rather spectacular face-plant that I managed to capture. The rain also had the rather interesting effect of turning the hard compacted snow on the estate road into watery sheet ice. Very hard to walk on in ski-boots and pretty much impossible in trainers as I found out when I went to do the shopping!
What did we get next? Well it rained all night but at some point it stopped the skies cleared and all that heavy wet snow turned to ice.
Early morning icy slopes
The runs were absolutely rock hard the next day, although the sun was out. Uncle Fester wasn’t at all happy and quickly took his leave of me again. I took off on a solo tour of the area. I don’t mind skiing the icy slopes. It’s much less taxing on tired legs (skiing in powder and heavy snow is hard work) and the runs are slick and fast, ideal for a speed junkie like me.
This final video captures that solo day and I’ve left the sound on the clips so you may be able to hear the sound of the skis carving across the ice.
The rain returned the penultimate day although rather than the light drizzle of before it was now a ceaseless downpour that even I wasn’t keen to experience. We did venture out after lunch on the assumption that surely it would be snowing higher up. It wasn’t and Uncle Fester left me to it after a couple of runs and went back. I stayed out to make the scientific and clearly obvious discovery that skiing in heavy rain is deeply unpleasant. Skiing gear is designed to be windproof and warm, not to keep you dry in a downpour. As I sat alone on a chairlift, soaked to the skin and with water dripping out of my gloves I decided that I’d proved my point and been quite foolish enough. Unsurprisingly, no photos or video footage from this little excursion.
The final day was a cracker with more fresh powder to play in, but distinctly cold and windy. Not a bad finish to a fun week with very mixed conditions, great learning process as I always say, normally when lying face down in the snow after a fall. Roll on winter 2014
Sitting here on a cold and very wet Sunday, my thoughts drift back 3 weeks to a time when the white stuff was all around and there was fun to be had. After a heavy dump of snow on the Friday it was only right and proper that we took the kids out for some sledging.
I live in a pretty much countour-less world around my village but a short 20 minute drive takes us to Ewyas Harold on the Welsh border where there is a top-notch sledging site that you can park at the bottom of. Perfectly sculpted, the slope is steep and long enough for some pretty fast rides with a decent run off at the bottom so you don’t come an unfortunate cropper if you run out of control (other than a strategically placed metal water trough for the sheep and cows but that’s by the by). It’s local popularity ensured that the slopes were well polished by the time we got there ensuring some very swift descents
Needless to say the kids had a great time and so did the adults.
A few photos and a nifty little video below courtesy of my HD Headcam to get the vibe.
Alas the camera wasn’t able to capture the highlight of the afternoon. TBF took a ride and headed straight for a ramp that the braver kids had made. She hit it at maximum velocity and bounced a good couple of feet into the air before landing in a most undignified manner in the snow. It was the funniest thing I’d seen in a while and the kids were in hysterics, mainly due to the fact it was so unexpected. She survived the incident without major injury I should add. If only I’d had the camera on.
The next day it was time to try some skiing. The weather was pretty dreary and my previous experience of skiing in the Brecon Beacons wasn’t great. Loose unconsolidated snow on heather and tussocks does not make for great downhill skiing. What I needed was close-cropped grass and Hergest Hill possesses plenty so it was off to Kington. You can drive pretty much to the top but I figured the road would be undriveable so I parked up in town with a view to walking or skiing up (I have touring skis and skins to climb hills). Have to admit I felt somewhat conspicuous walking through the town in ski boots with skis strapped to my pack, gathering curious looks as I went. Luckily there was enough snow on the side and middle of the road to ski on so I was able to get the skis off my pack and skin up the narrow road, gaining more quizzical looks as I went. Once on the open hillside I was in proper touring mode and apart from a few brave sledging souls (the weather was pretty grey and grim) I had Hergest Hill to myself.
Passing the usual Monkey Puzzle tree markers on the summit I decided to try and ski down the other side of the long ridge to Gladestry.
It was at this point I was reminded that what feels like a hill on foot is not quite the same as a hill on skis. The slopes down to Gladestry were nothing like steep enough for any white knuckle adrenaline and I just gently cruised down, barely putting a turn in. Someone else had been up here on skis and I followed their tracks down. After a brief pause above the village (the final slopes are steep and covered in gorse) I simply retraced my steps back over the top, another gentle and unexciting trundle although it was good to be out on skis.
The top section of the road was steep enough for a few turns and little more excitement but there were cars skating around on the lower slopes so I cut across the fields back to Kington. There were some pretty decent little runs across the fields, although the right of way traversed far too many stiles for my liking (I haven’t yet worked out a technique to ski over a stile). Trying to ski down a narrow rutted farm track was an interesting sensation! The last run of the day was the best, a steep private driveway that no-one had cleared gave a nice few turns in some decent powder to finish. In truth there was enough snow on the pavement on Kington to ski on, but I figured trying ski down a narrow pavement next to a busy road probably wasn’t all that smart. Not exactly ski-mountaineering but a fun afternoon out in the snow. Good practice for my proper skiing trip to France the following week
My temporary lack of work could end at any time such is the uncertainty so I’ve been trying to grab as many bonus days out as I can. A couple of days after my trip to the Berwyns I headed out again into the Black Mountains, this time with TBF for company.
8.2 Miles, 1,300 feet of ascent
The weather was grey and a little dreary looking but looked reasonably settled. Heavy snow had been forecast for the day after so I wanted to get out while I could. We headed for Capel y Ffin to take in a high quality route along the western side of the ridge enclosing the Vale of Ewyas. There was already a good covering of snow and the road in had a few interesting icy patches.
TBF plodding in the snow
As we set off from the car it started to snow, heavy enough for me to worry whether the roads might be a little more white when I got back. Never really amounted much though so there was no real worry. As with all cloudy snowy days there was a monochrome feel to the views so not much in the way of photographs. I needed some foreground to help and TBF was the only option hence her regular appearance in this post.
TBF smiles through adversity
The route climbs steeply up to a very nice grassy shelf about halfway up towards the summit and then climbs very steeply through the broken crags onto the main summit ridge. I descended this way in winter a couple of years back and it was like the Cresta Run, everything was just a long frozen stream. Took me an hour to descend about 300 feet. This year I had the ideal gear to tackle it – Microspikes. They hadn’t been much use in the Berwyns but here on steep icy frozen ground they really came into their own and made the ascent plain sailing. They really are rather handy little pieces of kit, easy to put on and take off, light and effective. I’m a convert.
Steep section on Chwarel y Fan
As we crested the edge up onto the wide broad ridge the wind howled in and it was proper winter up there. Driving spindrift and icy cold blasts had us retreating into our hoods as we pushed on past the Blacksmiths Anvil and on towards the high point of Chwarel y Fan.
TBF on the summit ridge
Into the clouds
In better conditions it’s a cracking high level ridge. Not exactly narrow but airy enough to give fine views and sense of height. It was no day to be hanging around though so we pressed on along the ridge and down towards the end of the ridge at Bal Mawr. I’ve said before that I take a perverse pleasure in wild and wintry days like this. If you treat it with the right approach and are well protected from the elements you can feel a real sense of invigoration – makes you realise you are alive. The Black Mountains are not especially high or remote but weather like this gives them an altogether more serious air. I was loving this little battle with the elements and I was pleased to say TBF was too.
“Not cold – no really its not”
There is a very short sharp steep section just after the summit of Bal Mawr, easy with spikes but TBF found it a little harder. We were soon at the far-point of the walk and picked up the cracking path that doubles back and traverses the slopes below the ridge we’d just walked and slowly but surely descends back to the valley. It had stopped snowing by this time and the weather brightened a little. The sun nearly came out as well and for a while it was quite pleasant.
Crossing the wild moorland above the Vale of Ewyas
Vale of Ewyas
We took advantage and stopped above the valley for a cuppa and some lunch, enjoying the peace and quiet of midweek day in the mountains (we didn’t see anyone all day). The path returns to Capel y Ffin along a path that stays on the open moorland side of the farms and fields. It’s a really nice path but today it was a mix of wet snow and slimy mud. That combined with the fact that we needed to get back to pick the kids up from school pressured us into a quicker pace and we didn’t enjoy it as much as we should. I was quite relieved when we re-appeared at the grassy shelf we’d crossed earlier and could drop back down to the car and head for home. The roads had completely cleared of snow so my worries of earlier were unfounded.
The ascent route
One of those days where the pleasures are less obvious but you don’t always need blue skies and sunshine for a fine day. Sometimes just a wild challenging walk in winter conditions with the other half will do very nicely.