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.