Just back from a long weekend in Val Thorens. The snow cover was still good despite high temperatures and many of the upper runs were in great shape. Lower down the snow was melting fast but we were able to make the most of what there was.
The picture shows the view from the top of the Cime de Caron at 3,200 m looking south towards Italy. Our boards were having a quick rest before tackling the superb Combe de Caron black run down to the base of the cable car station.
The current good conditions in Scotland are rare indeed and I like Winter Highland's advice: 'It's midweek, it's quiet, the snow is good, throw a sickie.....'
Sadly, its not always like that as witnessed by this piece I wrote last year for The Aspect Journal. I now offer it here too for posterity: my account of a typically wet day riding in Scotland.
We wanted to start the next thousand years as we wished them to continue. So when we slipped out of the village at seven in the morning on New Year's Day 2001, we felt rather smug. We envisaged the rest of our friends slumped by the fire at the end of the day, suffering from holiday bloat, when we would return as rugged, mountain-conquering heroes with tales to tell.
Fifteen of us had gathered in the west of Scotland to celebrate the "real" start of the millennium. An hour in, after a lavish Hogmanay dinner and ceilidh, two of the party had discreetly staggered off for an early night. So the fact that we were on the road so early felt like an achievement in itself.
The entire United Kingdom was in the grip of a vicious cold snap with most of the country covered in snow and we were certain that a trip to Scotland would offer some snowboarding opportunities. Unfortunately, Presbyterian Glencoe, the nearest ski area to our holiday village, chose not to open for religious reasons, despite rare good conditions. Further north, Nevis Range was reporting far less snow and had not yet opened for the season. For several days, however, the resort's Web site had promised that it would open on New Year's Day.
After two hours on the road we arrived at an empty car park. We quickly learned that there was too little snow to open properly but that the resort manager would make a decision within the next hour as to whether they could open anything. We settled down in the café with a few other hopefuls to rest our weary heads and wait.
Finally the manager announced that, as promised, Nevis Range would open. The shivering snow addicts cheered. However we would have to be patient, he explained, because to get us to the limited snow his staff would need to reconfigure a drag lift to start higher up the mountain.
By lunch time the lift was ready and twenty or so hardcore skiers and riders jostled enthusiastically to the chair lift that would give us access to the hill. From there it would be a short hike to the tow lift that now served the upper half of a narrow snow gully flanked by brown heather.
We savoured the first few runs as though they were the reward for climbing Everest. We revelled in the camaraderie that had developed between the resort staff and their most committed customers.
Then, perhaps inevitably for Scotland, the rain started. A slight drizzle at first, we barely noticed it. A few timid souls trudged toward the chair lift but we kept going, donning goggles and hoods, relishing the rain as an additional hardship to be overcome.
Water seeped through our clothes, running down our limbs while we cowered on the tow. Soon there were only a handful of people left on the hill and what little snow was left was fast dissolving. We made a final run, dodging the newly exposed patches of heather, and unstrapped our snowboards, smiling.
Two hours later around the fire, still wet, we recounted the day to our mocking and deriding friends. We had no doubt, though, that we had made the right decision to go snowboarding that morning. We only hoped that our perseverance would be rewarded with better conditions for the next thousand years.
With a base height of only 200m and a top lift at about 1000m Hafjell did not sound too promising but I was pleasantly surprised. The latitude, two hours drive north from Oslo's Gardermoen airport, means that there is normally plenty of snow despite the low altitude. A recent snowfall and persistent cold temperatures meant that conditions were very good last weekend when I was there.
Norway is expensive. Everything: accommodation, travel, lift passes and, especially, beer is pricey but I was adding a couple of days on to the end of a business trip so it seemed like a good opportunity and at least the travel was taken care of.
The resort is a 15 minute (read £25) taxi ride from Lillehammer which is well served by train directly from Oslo airport. The town is very proud of its Olympic heritage having hosted the Winter Games in 1994. Hafjell itself was the site of the Slalom events (snowboarding, you will recall, did not make the schedule until the 1998 games in Nagano). It was also due to host the womens' downhill event but the competitors complained that the slope was not steep enough and the event was moved to nearby Kvitfjell and run on the same course as the mens' downhill.
The ski area does not look that promising when you arrive with only the lower half of a couple of runs visible but higher up there is a decent amount of terrain served by three quad chair lifts and four main T-bars. The runs coming off the chairs get quite busy at the weekends but by enduring the drag lifts you can access some lovely tree lined runs with virtually no one else to get in your way.
Few of the runs could be described as challenging and there appeared to be limited off piste opportunities (plenty of cross country trails of course). Most of the terrain comprises well groomed wide gentle slopes which are perfect for high speed carving.
The "resort" has very few restaurants, bars or shops but it does have scope for lots of other winter activities, the main one being cross country skiing (we also took in a bob sleigh ride at the Olympic track on the other side of the valley).
Its not a place you would go for a ski holiday although it certainly is worthwhile for a weekend if you are in Oslo or nearby.
Well, I finally got my first turns of the season at La Bresse last weekend. It was my first time riding since breaking my ankle last year and I was a little apprehensive. To start with I was very aware that I did not have full strength in the joint and I was nervous committing to toe side carved turns in particular but by the Sunday afternoon it felt almost back to normal. Very encouraging.
As before we drove to La Bresse on Friday night, arriving at about 2 am and drove back on Sunday afternoon getting home, to London, a few minutes after midnight. Despite spending longer in the car than on the slopes, it was well worth it and four drivers made light work of the 1500km round trip.
We had been a bit dismayed last Thursday as the web cam was showing white and brown in equal proportion (looking much better for this weekend btw) but in the event there was enough snow to keep almost half the resort open and we enjoyed riding under clear blue skies with temperatures a degree or two below freezing keeping the remaining snow in good condition.
One revelation this time around was the ski d'aurore, or dawn skiing, which operates from 6 am at weekends. Not all of us were able for the early start on Sunday and we regretted our late night when we heard the report of fresh, flood lit corduroy over breakfast. Practically speaking, it makes great sense to use the extra few hours this affords as we had to leave at about 3 pm to get home at a reasonable hour. Next time!
Well, my week in Tignes has not gone entirely to plan. The snow is good and the sun is shining but I have gone and broken a bone in my ankle.
The worst of it is that it was early on the second day and that I am now out for the rest of the season.
I was carving fast on my toe side and tried to scrub some speed but the board scudded across some ruts compressing my ankle. The pain was intense and I had to fall on my front and lift the board clear of the snow and just slide to a stop. I lay there cursing myself in the knowledge that this was the last run of my holiday.
I was able to limp down side slipping on my heel side to the top of the Sache gondola, for those that know Tignes this was on the Rhododendron piste heading down from l`Aguille Percee towards Les Brevieres.
When I got to the medical centre the x-rays confirmed that it was a fracture of the talus, so I will be hobbling around on crutches for the next 6 weeks. Bummer.
My weekend trip to La Bresse in the Vosges was a great success. Driving down on Friday night we were held up for an hour or so on the A26 just north of Rheims by snow and snow ploughs but other than that the journey in both directions was smooth and painless. On Sunday we left La Bresse-Hohneck at 3:00pm and were back in London by 10:00pm, frequent driver changes and an iPod set to shuffle made the journey a breeze.
During my Christmas break in Vermont I managed to squeeze in a couple of days riding at Killington so I thought I would post some thoughts on the place.
Just got back from a late season long weekend in Tignes so thought I would gloat (I mean report)!
Four of us flew to Geneva Thursday evening and rented a car. We drove to Albertville and stayed in the (very cheap) Formule 1 motel then got up early and drove to Tignes Val Claret, where we rented a 24 m2 studio apartment, cosy for four but cheap at EUR 200 for 3 nights from the helpful English speaking Agence du Glacier. On Monday night we drove back to Geneva again staying in a Formule 1, this time at Ferney Voltaire five minutes drive from the airport. We flew back early this morning.
This article was originally published on Snowserve in May 1999.
As the end of the season approached Nick and I decided we needed a last trip to the snow. We figured that the May Day bank holiday weekend was our last chance and some quick research indicated that while many alpine resorts would close on Sunday 2nd May one of our favourites, Val Thorens, which is also the highest in Europe and hence a good bet late in the season, was open until the 7th.