Monday, December 22, 2008

Winter solstice

The Alps are simply spectacular at the moment. Several metres of snow have now fallen and the meteorologists are saying that it's the whitest start to the winter for thirty years. I'm continuing the base training with two good ski tours over the weekend of the winter solstice.

On Saturday I climbed the peak of La Thuile (2294m) above Albertville with a group of friends from Chambéry. We donned our skis at 800m and worked our way up though the forest, then high alpages, and finally the summit slopes to top out 1500m higher. The photo on the right shows Daniel skinning up at the moment we exited the dense forest. As you can imagine, the view from the top was stunning: the photo at the top of this article shows the view looking north over the Combe de Savoie and the Massif des Bauges. Snow conditions on the descent were extremely variable: rock hard wind slab near the top, which became breakable crust and eventually sodden wet powder. Skiing the patchy rotten snow through dense trees to get back to the cars was really quite a challenge!

On Sunday I joined up with Amis Montagnards, a mountaineering club based in Geneva, to climb Le Buet (3109m), the highest summit in the Aiguilles Rouges massif. The 1800m tour follows a remote valley due West from the Col de la Forclaz at the north end of the Chamonix valley, before climbing steep slopes to the summit. With several metres of fresh snow and blue skies conditions were simply perfect.

The summit is high and slightly removed from the high spine of the Alps so the panoramic view from the top is incredible. To the East we could see deep into Switzerland, including the unmistakable peak of the Matterhorn. The Mont Blanc massif dominated the view to the South East, and to the South we could see as far as the Meije and the Barre des Ecrins, over 150km away. The photo to the right looks over the Chaine des Aravis, one of the classic paragliding routes in the region. The descent was sublime: the high altitude wind slab quickly gave way to 1000m of vertical descent through sculpted virgin power fields. Skiing doesn't get any better than this.

It seems incredible to me that in just seven months I'll be racing through this wild terrain, literally from horizon to horizon, and hoping to take only a few days to do it! Still, with 3300m of ascent completed over the weekend with four kilograms of boot and ski tied to each foot and another few kilos on the back, the physical preparation is off to a good start.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Training update

So, last Saturday was the Escalade race in Geneva, 7.25km up and down through the twisty cobbled streets of Geneva's Old Town. The race draws over twenty five thousand runners of all ages to celebrate the defeat of the Savoyardes in 1602. According to legend, the invaders were turned back by an enterprising woman who poured a pot of hot soup over them! I ran the course in 27m34s, an average speed of 15.8km/h, finishing 52nd out of over 1800 in my category.

Winter has arrived early in the French Alps and there's already over a metre of snow, even in the mid mountain. Speed training is over now and it's time to focus on base fitness for the winter season. My main activity is ski touring. This uses special ski equipment that allows you to release the heel of the binding so that it pivots at the toe. With artificial seal skins glued to the base of your skis you can ski up the mountain. Once at the summit, you peel off the skins, lock down your heels and ski down. There are no lifts so you earn every turn of the descent. Climbing up gets you very fit and you experience the high mountain at its most hostile: deep winter. It's the perfect X-Alps training.

I did my first proper tour of the season last weekend, climbing up the Dent de Verreu in the Chablais massif with the Amis Montagnards mountaineering club of Geneva. The top 300m was so good - 50cm of fresh virgin powder - that we had to climb up again to ski it a second time!

Right now I'm in Zermatt, Switzerland at the foot of the Matterhorn. Tomorrow I'm back on the freeride skis for the fun Infinity Downhill ski race: 2200m vertical metres in one go from the top of the Kleine Matterhorn down to Zermatt. It's a bit of fun but it's also a chance to check out one of the turnpoints and chat to the locals over a beer about flying and running in the area. Not all the preparation has to be hard work!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rules version one

We've just received version one of the Red Bull X-Alps rules for 2009. There are likely to be a few changes yet, but of interest is the minimum equipment that you have to fly or run with all the time:
  • paraglider
  • harness
  • emergency parachute
  • helmet
  • mobile phone
  • GPS logger
  • GPS tracking device
  • three emergency red signal rockets
In 2007 most athletes' sacks weighed about 12kg, except for Vincent Sprungli's which weighed under 10kg.

The radii around the turnpoints have not yet been decided. You have to pass south of the summit of the Marmolada and north of Mont Blanc.

Of note as well, is that this year, like in 2007, there is no enforced rest period and trailing teams will be eliminated (first one after 72 hours, then one team every 48 hours until you pass Mont Blanc or someone finishes).