Northern Mountain Sport / Blog / Off Piste Skiing and Touring

Off Piste Skiing and Touring

This (ski) season has been superb so far; cold temperatures and small but regular snowfall meaning I've had to make hay whilst the sun shines, or at least ski powder. I've recently guided on a week for the Ski Club of Great Britain based in the town (and ski resort) of St Gervais.The aim of the week was to ski off piste and tour 'in the shadow' of Mont Blanc using the lower resorts of Megeve, Les Contamines and St Gervais itself (all skiable on the same 'Evasion' pass). At this time of the season it's often the best time to hit the lower resorts and find those dreamt about untouched meadows which stay cold and are usually unaffected by the wind. I was lucky enough to work alongside Bruce Goodlad (who lives in this area) so at times it felt like I was getting an insiders tour of the resorts. That said, compared to Chamonix resorts finding untracked powder here was like shooting fish in a barrel (to add a further unrelated simile) and the terrain lends itself to lovely cruising into lower valley villages which then link up either by telepherique or bus.

During the week we skied a day at St Gervais, skiing down twice to La Planellet and La Livraz and also doing the classic descent to Le Planay from Mont Joly. We also spent two days skiing the Megeve system. One day skiing entirely off piste running down to Le Plan (Giettaz) twice and finishing off by a superb descent down to Praz sur Arly and bus return. The second we skied the classic Croisse Baulet (2236) using skins to ascend to get a great run (which was a first for Bruce which was nice). Lastly we skied three days at Les Contamines and I was impressed by the touring here. We toured the classic col de Fenetre to (very nearly) the col de Bonhomme and also the Col de Cicle (via a 'col with no name').

I've also worked two avalanche courses (foundation and progression) at Le Tour which certainly is place which produces them. The topography is complex and affected by wind and I turned back at one point (dropping in to the back bowls) as the visibility dropped and felt slab building.

Lastly, I've been to the Vanoise National Park which is a tourer's paradise. I've been tracking the weather ther for a while as I wanted to ski the classic Glacier de Gebroulaz to the Roc de la Peche hut and things looked good. As I arrived however it was obvious there had been a lot of wind activity so we had a chat and decided to make the col de Gebroulaz (3417m) an obvious decision point. We skied out of Meribel and over to Val Thorens via the lifts and were at the Col de Thorens in about an hour. A windy hour and a half later and we were at the col which was being used as a training venue by the French army. At least they tested the slope for us. Actually the slope was getting well scoured in both ascent and descent so here at least, slab was not an issue. We booted up in crampons (which felt like a good idea) and as the weather looked a little cloudy but fine we dropped in to the Glacier de Gebroulaz. The glacier is mainly north facing and mostly set at a really nice angle to ski amongst dramatic ice scenery - or so I believe. Unfortunately the weather decided to take an (unforecasted) turn for the worse and very soon it became obvious that safe travel (one by one and always in sight) coupled with fine navigation (avoiding all steep ground) was the pattern for what became a very long day. It was a very tired party that arrived at about 17:45 at the Roc de la Peche hut that evening. Luckily for us the Roc de la Peche is a place of superlatives. It is adorned with genuine Savoyard antiques and also famously has a jacuzzi and sauna. I think we were all in it within 15 minutes.

The next day dawned fine and we set of for the peak of the Roc du Blanchon. It had obviously rained in the night and we broke through a disturbing crust on the west facing slopes but I persuaded myself that the lovely, untouched powder fields on the north facing slopes would be fine. They were not and in fact every aspect had been affected, certainly up to 2500m. This crust may well become significant later on and I will be digging down and having a good look when I return later. A colleague of mine was having an equally crusty time on the col de la Vanoise so I can only imagine it is widespread throughout that area. Anyway, you can't have everything so we enjoyed the dramatic vista eating our lunch under the seracs of the Glacier de la Vanoise all silently wandering how on earth we were going to ski the crust. Well, I simply skied huge straight lines, stopped and kick turned until at last (there is a God) we hit the soft stuff. The last ski through the scrub trees was actually great fun and we all enjoyed that section before skiing the ski de fond track all the way back in to Pralognan de la Vanoise. The track (skiers right in descent) is quick and the one to take. The opposite side of the valley was dramatically raked by loose snow avalanches during the morning as the sun heated the rocks and it certainly made impressive viewing (and the noise!). Lastly, after a well deserved panache we hopped in a taxi to Courcheval where we once again rode the lifts over to Meribel and skied all the way to the chalet. Well done to Caroline, Dom, Jenny, Kevan and Tim.

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