Alaska

Speak to most skiers or snowboarders and heli skiing in Alaska is usually high up on their bucket list. It was up there on mine, bracketed in the section of things that I’d love to do but would probably never get to do. I first became aware of the Chugach mountains and their reputation after watching ‘Steep’, my favourite ski documentary following the stories of pioneering skiers such as Bill Briggs and Doug Coombs. In the Chugach wet snow falls, sticks to the mountains and a cold wind sweeps in from the North drawing moisture from the snow. This leaves a light soft powder that sticks to the steepest of faces. It’s this light, effortless, velvety snow of the steeps of the Chugach that skiers dream of; a maritime snow pack unrivalled anywhere else in the world.

So when our good friend Gavin Davis came to the Wheelers and I with the proposition of a once in a lifetime trip to Alaska this March you can imagine it didn’t take much persuasion* to get it booked (*it took no persuasion).

We came to Alaska with an open mind. We didn’t know what the snow and weather conditions would provide and, as we’re all well accustomed with the unpredictability of the weather when it comes to this sport, we weren’t going to hang all of our hopes on it. We didn’t know what the guiding would be like and if they’d be able to take us to the steep open faces, narrow couloirs and often exposed areas that Alaska is famous for. We just came to make the most of whatever experiences it would throw at us.

We arrived to a period of low pressure, resulting in bad weather and a lot of rain. We got orientated and trained up in avalanche safety, helicopter safety, sluff management and a refresher in ‘beacon’ searches. After that, we waited. Day 3 in Alaska and we got what we were waiting for… Heli Time.

Playing cards in the NEFCO, waiting for the rain to stop, the clouds to part and the helix to fire up

Playing cards in the NEFCO, waiting for the rain to stop, the clouds to part and the helis to get fired up

Within the first morning Alaska had reached and far exceeded all expectations. The snow was the most perfect snow you could imagine skiing and our guide, Andrew quickly read the group’s ability and desires for the week and promptly took us on a hair-raising heli drop for the second run. We ticked off some great runs, including ‘Alzie’s’ couloir and ‘The Funnel’ and skied from 10am until 6pm, flying back to base to a setting sun. Perfect.

The team (minus Will) with our guide, Andrew at the bottom of The Funnel. A photo opportunity while we wait for the Heli

The team (minus Will) with our guide, Andrew at the bottom of The Funnel. A quick photo opportunity while we wait for the Heli, the best taxi in the world…

I had two aims for the trip:

  1. To experience some classic Alaskan steeps
  2. To scare myself.

We managed to do both of these every day we flew, several times a day. Gavin had emailed ahead with strict instructions that we wanted to ski lots of steeps and consequently we were given Andrew as our guide. We were informed he was one of the best and that he’d take us to some ‘cool spots’. With a combination of Andrew as our guide and Dave as our pilot, it felt that no cornice was too small and no ridge was too narrow land on!

The Friday in particular was a day on skis I’ll never forget. It was the first time anyone had skied the Worm Glacier in the last two seasons and from start to finish it was exhilarating, challenging and at times just down right intimidating. Donkey Kong set the tone in the morning: a steep entrance into a couloir with a choke at the bottom you had to straight-line out of with a blind run out. Without a doubt the craziest thing I’ve ever done on skis, resulting in a forward flip after hitting a small compression.

Skiing Alzie's Couloir amongst the amazing Cordova Glacier, one of the many breathtaking glaciers in the Chugach Mountains

Skiing Alzie’s Couloir amongst the amazing Cordova Glacier, one of the many breathtaking glaciers in the Chugach Mountains. Photo courtesy of Andrew

The day carried on along the same lines: Nailed it; Hourglass; a variation of Hourglass; The Shoulder and last but not least, Buddy Loves Spines. Buddy Loves Spines was one of those ‘cool spots’ we’d been told about. When we got dropped at the top my fight or flight response kicked in and I was ready to fly away! If it wasn’t for the support of the boys, I’d have been back in that helicopter quicker than you can say ‘no fall zone’. It was my Everest. With a side-slip entrance off what felt like a postage stamp sized landing onto an exposed face scattered with rocks, it felt like we were thousands of metres from the glacier. Andrew was as cool and as calm as ever reassuring me that I was more than capable and after a cautious descent I made it top to bottom (with a few breathers in between!). I may not have felt it at the time, but I sure am glad they didn’t let me get back in that heli! It was nothing short of mind-blowing.

Our guide Andrew and I in front of Buddy Loves Spines - still high on Adrenaline!

Our guide Andrew and I in front of Buddy Loves Spines – still high on Adrenaline!

Of course, this kind of skiing comes with some risks. Collectively, the four of us have suffered a torn ACL and MCL, whiplash, a broken wrist, damaged ligaments in the ankle and a burst nose requiring 12 stitches. In fact, by Monday afternoon we were regulars at the Cordova Medical Centre. One more injury and I think we’d have qualified for a loyalty card! It’s safe to say that Alaska has well and truly broken us!

Medicare Monday: Sam got flown back to the UK to get started on repairing his knee, Gavin got flown back to base with a broken wrist and damaged ligaments in his ankle and James burst his nose requiring 12 stitches. Thank you to the Cordova Emergency Room for all of your help!

Medicare Monday: Sam got flown back to the UK to get started on repairing his knee, Gavin got flown back to base with a broken wrist and damaged ligaments in his ankle and James burst his nose requiring 12 stitches. Thank you to the Cordova Emergency Room for all of your help sorting out the boys!

Despite the unlucky injuries, would I recommend it? Undoubtedly. I can’t fault the whole set up at Points North Heli and we are all in agreement that Andrew is arguably the best guide we’ve ever skied with, allowing us to open up many runs that hadn’t yet been skied this season (thanks Andrew!). The only problem, and I have a feeling this may count for all ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences… I’m not sure we’ll be able to keep it as just the once!

I could write all day about our time in Alaska, but instead here’s a taste of life in the Chugach:

 

The Euro Lotto

As we approach the end of our autumn race training in Tignes, this is usually the time everyone starts to go a little bit quiet. All of a sudden focus reaches fever pitch and every run counts for so much more as the eurotest looms overhead. Every hundredth of a second you shave off a timed run is like a small win, easing nerves and raising hopes in the process.

As many people who are aiming for the coveted eurotest know, and as many of those who have already passed know, the eurotest can be somewhat of a lottery. There are many variables that can work with you or against you on the day of the race: the snow conditions; the weather; your bib number; the side of the bed you woke up on that morning etc etc.

You can prepare, of course, to increase your odds. As everyone knows, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Usually quite spectacularly in the case of the Eurotest! Preparing mentally and physically and keeping the skis well prepped helps to reduce the chance of one or all of the variables catching you out on the day and that’s part of the reason why we spend the autumn training on the glacier.

Fellow podium-er Rob Rhodes prepping his skis christmas-style

Ski prep time – fellow podium-er Rob Rhodes prepping his skis christmas-style

One of the many race days during training. These are timed days in full catsuit attire to emulate the atmosphere of the eurotest. Our resident opener, Jas, is first down to set the time and we have two runs to try and get within the pass time.

One of the many race days during training. These are timed days in full catsuit attire to emulate the atmosphere of the eurotest. Our resident opener, Jas, is first down to set the time and we have two runs to try and get within the pass time.

Pre-race leg swinging, stretching and stripping (down to the catsuit!)

Pre-race leg swinging, stretching and stripping (down to the catsuit!)

Vantreen and I wrapped up warm in what was rumoured to be -25 degree temperatures (with wind chill!) on our way up to training this week

Vantreen and I wrapped up warm in what was rumoured to be -25 degree temperatures (with wind chill) on our way up to training this week. I wasn’t smiling so much after my feet had frozen.

Unfortunately, after all of the training lady luck was not on our side this year for December’s Alpe D’Huez test. The call to cancel the test was made last week due to a lack of snow and anyone who saw the webcam can understand why. Arguably a good call by the french considering  there were more cows than snowflakes on the stade!

And so we keep on training, keep on preparing and keep on increasing our odds. Despite the relative lack of snow, it’s been another great autumn training with Podium. Thank you to the amazing coaches: Dave Morris, Jas Bruce, Scott Bryson and Lynn Sharp for a productive 6 weeks. As always, the coaching was second to none and their sheer dedication to sorting out my pesky left leg has been invaluable. From bungeeing my legs together (in and out of the gates) for the best part of a week to euro coins being taped to the bottom of my boots – no stone has been left unturned to try and get my left leg to match the work of my right. Some experimental line changes has brought hope to the fact that I may one day become a fully fledged ambi-turner! Thank you coaches – that eurotest will be mine yet!

It may not have been the end to the autumn we hoped for but instead the preparations will continue until our next shot at the test in January. Fingers crossed for the winning ticket at Alpe D’Huez part deux.

And we’re back!

The last thing I remember I was sat at my computer at work running through the list of things I needed to pack for the season. The next thing I know it’s half way through the second week of race training with Podium and we’re already discussing the logistics of the Alpe D’Huez Eurotest. As always with autumn race training, time is flying by quicker than Lindsey Vonn in a downhill.

We’ve had some great days and we’ve had some nearly as great days. So far there’s been sun, snow, wind, ice, slalom skis, GS skis, dual slalom, pro slalom, the most direct GS gates you’ve ever seen, 5 wonderful coaches, 4 groups of skiers, 3 down jackets, 2 closed days, 1 overly grumpy man in a restaurant and a partridge in a pear tree.

Another great day on Tignes glacier… this week the skis haven't been so blue but there are rumours of dropping temperatures and more snow over the weekend so I'll take that!

Another great day on Tignes glacier… this week the skies haven’t been so blue but there are rumours of dropping temperatures and more snow over the weekend so I’ll take that!

Evenings have consisted of stretching (and plenty of it after the first few days back on slalom skis!), volleyball, handball, core sessions, talks on line and tactics, talks on race routine, ski prep, countless cups of tea and many an early night.

One of Charlotte "the new Rachel Kerr" Vantreen's daily updates on the brew count

One of Charlotte “the new Rachel Kerr” Vantreen’s daily updates on the cup of tea count

Yesterday’s closed day was spent playing a competitive handball tournament followed by an afternoon fitness session focusing on balance and coordination, strength and agility and plenty of core…. or to put it another way it was spent playing on balls, trampolines and boxes!

Fitness session at the Tignespace

Fitness session at the Tignespace

It was back up the hill today, trying to tame the GS skis ready for the first mock race on Friday.

It’s great to be back. We just need for time to get slower and for us to get faster!

Pre-Autumn Autumn Training

The first day of Autumn and what a beautiful time of year. The leaves have turned every shade of gold, there’s a slight nip in the air and everything feels just a little more crisp. More importantly, it marks the fact that we’re one step closer to winter. The first leaf falling from the tree is like a switch for many a ski instructor or snow fanatic as thoughts immediately turn from summer to winter. That’s if the switch ever turned off! For the instructors that venture down to teach in New Zealand or Australia winter is the light that never goes out.

For those of us that reside permanently in the Northern Hemisphere, however, this time of year is all about putting away our ‘summer stuff’ and gearing up for winter. For some of us, it’s particularly about gearing up for Autumn race training. It’s time to invest in any new ‘vital’ pieces of kit; time to work out the logistics of the forthcoming season; time to put into action the training regime to get the legs and core ready and time to get excited about winter by watching video after video of everything and anything ski related and picture after picture of Ted Ligety race training in Chile.

This year I don’t have the benefit of a gym membership for pre-autumn autumn training. Already I’m missing the 6am starts to race to the squat rack before all the cross-fit-fuelled men arrive. Instead, training is about to get a little more creative with the use of a skipping rope, an agility ladder, a rusty set of weights, a borrowed bar and my dad’s garage. You have to keep these things interesting after all!

Luckily, it’s not time to put away the road bike quite yet and we took advantage of a free saturday to head for a spot of interval training in the English equivalent of the Alps… the Yorkshire Dales. As always, God’s own country didn’t disappoint and the 83km loop around a postcard-worthy landscape provided a perfect saturday spin. Having grown used to an incline of around 7% in the Alps, the Dales weren’t forgiving as we came face to face with 17% hills. They were short and sharp but the perfect way to get the thighs burning and the heart racing. That’s got to be good preparation for race training!

Anyway, enough said. I’m off to look at more pictures of Ted…

A true Yorkshire route, taking in a little of "The Way of the Roses"

A true Yorkshire route, taking in a little of “The Way of the Roses”

A taste of Yorkshire

A taste of Yorkshire…

A taste of Ted...

A taste of Ted…

Stopping in at Bolton Abbey

Stopping in at Bolton Abbey on our way out of the Wharfe Valley

 

The Alpine Way

After three months off from all things ski related (including the blog!) and some much needed time with family and friends back in the UK, we’re now back into the alpine way of life. Following the surprisingly glorious stint in the UK, particularly during June and July, I was a little disappointed to arrive back in the Alps to the news that this is the worst summer in living memory of most of the locals. After hearing there were no more than 3 sunny days in the whole of July it appears that old blighty has blown the alpine summer out of the water. Having said that we’ve had at least 5 sunny days since being back, nearly doubling that of July, so I’m hopeful for the rest of August!

Weather aside, it’s not stopped the array of activities that make the Alps so appealing for the summer. With tennis courts on the doorstep and a lake 5 minutes walk up the road offering everything from paddle boarding to flyboarding, not to mention being surrounded by mountains, Tignes offers a little something for everyone.

However, nothing quite beats the most lycra clad of all the summer activities in the Alps – road biking. Perfect for a spot of high altitude fitness training and arguably the best way to take in the breathtaking scenery. We took advantage of a free weekend and popped over to Italy to do just that. Arriving in Aosta slightly later than planned, without a vital pair of cleats, with no idea exactly where we were and with reports of storms, the planned cycling trip looked like it was going to be a non-starter. However thanks to a helpful Italian with google maps and a shiny new pair of cleats we were soon on our way.

Starting just outside of the old town in Aosta at 590m we snaked our way up 35km of alpine road, covering nearly 2000m vertical to reach the heights of the Col du Grand St Bernard at 2473m, connecting Italy and Switzerland. The scenery was indeed breathtaking and we had ticked all of the boxes to complete a true alpine cycle: marmots, alpine cows complete with cow bells and little alpine cafes en route (which we couldn’t actually enjoy as in our usual unorganised rush we’d forgotten to take any money with us!). There were even three St Bernard dogs being taken for a walk as we reached the top. The unrelenting 35km of uphill was… character building, nevertheless it was all very idyllic and well worth the slog.

1km from the top and we were nearly blockaded by crossing cows

1km from the top and we were nearly blockaded by crossing cows

Arriving at the Grand St Bernard pass three and a half hours on

Arriving at the Grand St Bernard pass three and a half hours on

The pass, rumour has it, is the most ancient pass in the Western Alps. It is reported to date back to the Bronze Age (about 800 BC), having been crossed over the years by the likes of the Romans, Napoleon and his 40,000 troops and according to legend, Hannibal and his elephants. So once you reach the top you’re in good company. St Bernard himself, the 11th Century Archdeacon of Aosta who was responsible for building the Hospice on the pass, sits at the top on the Italian side. Actually, a statue of him stands pointing at the sky. In 1923 he was confirmed as Patron Saint of the Alps by Pope Pius XI and is the protector of travellers, skiers and mountaineers. Now that’s my kind of saint!

The statue of St Bernard towering over the travellers on the col

The statue of St Bernard towering over the travellers on the col

History and St Bernard dogs aside, the beauty of this cycle lay in the descent. What goes up must come down and I can safely say the 35km of downhill on fresh tarmac (and where it wasn’t fresh tarmac it was a very well kept, quiet road) was the best downhill I’ve experienced on a bike to date. A perfect day cycling and one I would thoroughly recommend to anyone hanging around the Alps with a road bike!

The descent

The descent

To top it off, Pré Saint Didier Spa, is a short drive away from Aosta, nestled in the heart of the Italian Alps and conveniently en route to the Col du Petit St Bernard and back to Tignes. After Saturday on the bike, Sunday in the spa was the perfect way to relax, freshen the legs and end the perfect alpine weekend.

Pré Saint Didier Spa (the buildings bottom left of the town) from the viewpoint above.

Pré Saint Didier Spa (the buildings bottom left of the town) from the viewpoint above.

 

You know what to do!

If you’re a trainee ski instructor in that start of summer predicament of what to do or where to go next season then check out the following video. With numerous options of where to train across the Alps, New Generation Verbier’s Jon Ahlsen AKA Pappa Jon and Tom Waddington AKA Raging Bull show you a little of New Generation’s offerings. Join the New Generation Verbier team to train for your level 4 with two of the most enthusiastic and inspiring skiers you’ll ever have the pleasure of skiing with. I’m biased, yes, but having skied with them as friends, colleagues and coaches I can’t recommend them enough. Just see for yourself….

Let the summer commence!

After a long long season, it’s finally time to crack on with summer. My feet are definitely ready for some flip flop action and it’s with great pleasure I pack away my beloved down jackets.

Along with hundreds of other BASI members, I spent last week in Austria on Hintertux Glacier for a (yet another!) bash at the Level 4 tech. After a tiring week, I’m sorry to say I missed out on the coveted thumbs up. I have no excuse other than I just didn’t ski that well! Maybe it was a case of tired legs. Starting the season at the beginning of November and ending it with a demanding week in mid-May could have been a tad ambitious. Equally it may have been the pressure, which is always slightly heightened on the Tux Glacier (pardon the pun). With so many people taking exams in Hintertux, it’s always a great opportunity for a big social with friends from all over the Alps at the end of the season. This does mean, however, it comes hand in hand with an above average quantity of BASI trainers! If you perform well under pressure, Tux is the place for you. It can be quite unnerving stood at the top of the bumps run (or any other run for that matter!) with numerous other candidates gathering behind you waiting to go and a row of BASI trainers stood waiting at the bottom in a kind of “Britain’s got Talent” style panel of judges. Unfortunately, I got the buzzer from the judges this time! As always, there was some great skiing during the week, some surprisingly good snow and it was great to ski with BASI trainer Sean Langmuir again after a few years.

Our panel of BASI trainers. Also known as "the BASI Whitewalkers" amongst the Game of Throne fans!

Our panel of BASI trainers at the bottom of the bumps. Also known as “The BASI White Walkers” (keeping the Game of Thrones fans amused throughout the week!). Photo courtesy of BASI trainer, Sean Langmuir.

Moving on from the slightly disappointing end to the season, it’s time to concentrate on all things warm and sunny! As if they knew it was coming, fellow University of Manchester graduates and the founders of SunGod Sunglasses, Ali and Zoe, are back with a new style of customisable and polarised sunglasses for the Summer. After the huge success last year of the original style from SunGod Sunglasses (the Classics), the new SunGod Mavericks have already exceeded their original target on crowd funding website Indiegogo. With the first production run now guaranteed, they now have a new stretch target to add a new frame colour to the range. Thanks Ali and Zoe, they came just in time to start the summer properly! Check out their video to hear about their new campaign or click on the photo below to get on board and order your own pair to customise:

The new SunGod sunglasses: the Mavericks

The new SunGod Mavericks