Monday, February 20, 2012

Three Valleys ski week

It was a little late in the season, but I finally got to go skiing this winter when a group of eight of us headed into the French Alps last week. With a teacher among us, we had to go during half-term which made things busier and a little more expensive. But I was more than happy to have someone else organise everything for a change & just pay my pounds - thanks Anna, you did a splendid job. Sunday was spent flying from Bristol to Lyon, picking up our rental van (which turned into a minivan & a car as someone had wrecked our van previously) & driving the couple of hours east. We had a pleasant little detour through small villages on the outskirts of Lyon before the satnav was taken off "avoid tolls" & we hit the motorway. We settled into the chalet that evening - pleasingly for our appetites & not so advantageous for our waistlines, it was fully catered.

My ski bag had been packed to the gunwales with all the warmth I could find as I nervously watched the icy grip winter had over Europe in the preceding weeks, but Monday dawned clear and a chilly -15ºCish - not the more than twenty below that I had feared. We piled in to the back of a Landrover (reminded me of a rather bumpy journey from Kathmandu towards Chitwan fifteen years ago) for the short run up to St Martin de Belleville & our access on to the slopes of the Three Valleys (Les Trois Vallees if my French was any sort of good). Billed as the world's largest ski area (interconnected by lifts & slopes before anyone starts picking nits), it wasn't long up the ridge before one could start to be amazed by the size of it. There are eight resorts connected by over a hundred and eighty lifts, & 600 km of trails. If that isn't enough - there is so much terrain off-piste, that I'm still not sure I can comprehend it. I'm pretty sure that I rode more lifts in one week than there are in all of New Zealand.

We had quite a wide variety of experience in our group & it wasn't long before we started to separate. I spent Monday with Andy & Rich trying to remember how to ski properly - turns out it's just like riding a bike. Both Rich & Andy had been to the Three Valleys before, so I was happy to tag along & get my confidence back. We mostly stuck around Les Menuires & Val Thorens for the day (here's a map).  It was a gorgeous, if a little cold, day with good views that I couldn't get enough of. With half-term there were a few queues, but not as bad as we had feared - & there was always somewhere else to explore further from the crowds.

We managed to get back to where Spike (our host) had dropped us off, in the morning, well before the lifts closed & it wasn't long before we heard the others had miscalculated just how long it took to get back from Val Thorens & were stuck well up the valley when they missed a lift by two minutes. It sounded pretty cold (well, colder - it was pretty cold to start with) once the sun dropped & they were faced with finding a bus back down the valley.

Surprised to find that I wasn't aching more after more than nine months off the skis, it was a slow start to the day as there was general faffing around waiting for James (a manager of the chalet) to show a few of us around. Most of our group had to head back to meet others for lunch leaving Andy & I to explore some more interesting runs & a bit off-piste. That slowed me down a little; over lunch in Les Menuires we met up with John & Rich (who had gallantly been giving a little boarding help to Sally, a beginner in our group).  The afternoon was a little more relaxed as with so much terrain, there are inevitably flat bits - which tend to slow boarders down more.

The great weather didn't continue into Wednesday - but that was fine as it snowed all day & it was still coming down for most of Thursday. Visibility was pretty poor on Wednesday morning particularly - I had a good few falls for no apparent reason as my inexperience showed through. At least Rich has the excuse of failing eyes for not being able to see anything when the light is flat. Still we managed to make it into Courchevel for lunch, somewhat inadvertently - where we feasted on hamburger buns, a wheel of the cow cheese & bananas as we sat on a stack of pallets outside the Spar (little supermarket). With a good whiteout & still two valleys to get out of before getting close to St Martin, we made a beeline for what turned out to be the emptiest run we'd seen yet. Maybe it was just the clouds, but there was no one up the top of Roc de Fer.

Rich being visible on an otherwise low-vis day
Proof from Rich that I was actually there skiing - no idea where this was
It wasn't long into the week where the change in diet, exercise intensity & who-knows-what-else had me fighting off a sore throat & cold. Somehow, it never really turned up with more vengeance than a runny nose - unfortunately, Rich got hit a bit harder & had the morning off while Andy, Anna & I headed out into Thursday's clouds & fresh powder. Anna was keen to get to Courchevel & Andy & I hadn't seen all that much of it on Wednesday - so we stayed relatively low and got some good runs in by lunchtime. The slopes were emptier with the clouds sticking around, so we got more of the fresh powder to ourselves.  After an over-priced chocolate crepe for lunch, we headed over to Meribel to play off-piste in the trees & generally have a bit of a laugh. There was finally some reward for me having lugged around big skis for the week - I didn't hit any trees (not through much doing of mine, I might add).

It's hard to get a photo of Andy, good or otherwise, as he was always in front

The trees were looking pretty too
After getting back to the correct valley, we messed around in the new snow on the huge off-piste expanse below the Jerusalem run.  This proved extra amusing as we still couldn't see much and the snow was quite variable depending on where the wind had got to.  But there was just enough light to be able to see each other hilariously falling over - thanks for not crashing into us though, Anna.  That was the best day yet - great to be skiing continually good distances (on the days the GPS trackers were with us, we were covering between forty & fifty miles) & with two much more experienced skiers than me, I was slowly improving.

With that weather gone, Friday was back to being gorgeous & just for a change it was remarkably warm - owing in part still dressing for -10ºC. With John in tow as well, we first headed back off of Jerusalem to see if we could do any better with a bit of vision. Funny how being able to see things helps a lot.

Anna doing a better impression of someone not falling over off-piste
Wanting to see the big wooden ram off the back of Pointe de la Masse, we made our way over there again. Almost there we stopped & sunned ourselves over lunch (masses of deckchairs was something I didn't get used to seeing - it skiing, it's supposed to be cold):

There it is - the rest of the view wasn't too shabby either
Andy had had his eye on a big unmapped area off the back of the ram for most of the week.  After some discussion, it was decided that we would all head down there.  We weren't too sure where it went, but figured that it would take us roughly back to Les Menuires.  It was a good variety of moguls, powder, worn tracks  & eventually a groomed run that dropped us a thousand metres to the valley floor.
Val Thorens is down there - the highest ski resort in Europe apparently
John & Anna in front of one of the many random summer building dotted around the area
Towards Les Menuires
Perhaps these two weren't the best influence on my skiing after all - relaxing on one of the last runs of Friday.
After sweltering a lot of Friday as we worked harder off-piste, it was definitely well worth shedding a layer & even going so far as to ditch the goggles & don sunglasses for our last day on Saturday. Saturday is the traditional change-over day for ski packages, but we were travelling Sunday to Sunday - this meant that we missed the crazy traffic off the mountains & got a day of bliss on empty trails. Andy & I were keen to head for the highest point (& also one of the edges) of the Three Valleys to end our stay - somehow, a slowly recovering Rich was convinced to join us.

But first - the group photo: Andy, Rich, Anna, Becks, Marina, Sally, me & John
Heading out for what would be a stunning day
This cable car took us part way to the highest point - there were only about a hundred skiers on it
Mont Blanc
We eventually got to the summit of the ski area, just below Pointe du Bouchet, at 3230m.  The runs out there were empty & we just had to head up twice as the snow conditions were fabulous.  On one of those chairs up, something clicked in my head while watching much-more-elegant-than-ungainly-me skiers.  Working hard to keep my knees closer together, my skiing took a step-change & the rest of the day was great as speed, control & smoothness improved.  There was another great big run back down off the ridge that that large cable-car above serves, before we lunched in the sun in Val Thorens.  The afternoon was spent in Meribel, as Andy & I had neglected it somewhat for most of the week.  With one last frenetic run down Jerusalem, we wound up what was the best day's skiing of an excellent week.

That's a bit of a mammoth post, but if you couldn't tell - it was an incredible week in a great ski area, with fantastic snow, good weather & an excellent group of people. I'm well pleased that my skiing improved suddenly & even more chuffed that my shoulder stayed put. It was one of those weeks of such intensity of activity & enjoyment that remind me why I'm so far from home - something that will be well up on the highlights list of my travels & that I'll be able to tell stories about when I finally return to NZ. Pretty close behind the Mara. On that note I should probably go to bed - thanks are well in order for all those that made that week.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bristol Stroll

It was a surprisingly easy two hour drive up to Bristol last night. I'm staying with third cousins here for two nights as tomorrow I'm meeting up with friends and finally heading out for a ski this winter.

With a proper chilly start to the day, I was well chufffed to see a brilliant blue sky.  After a lazy morning including sleeping in, entertaining the kids, drinking tea and eating copious amounts of coffee cake, behind us - we headed out for me to be shown around Bristol.

Driving past the Downs (strangely on the top of the hill) I heard of the city's profiting from the slave trade, which is reflected in such placenames as White Lady Road & Black Boy Hill. Down to underneath the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge we were following the Avon up to the old docks.

I was intrigued that there was such a thing as a free parking lot so close to town. But there was and soon the kids were in the buggy and the manic dog was running in circles as we wandered into the centre of town taking our time to feed ducks that weren't skating on the ice. As I got sidetracked by old cranes and trains on the dockside and there were plenty of people also out enjoying the sunshine, it was a little while before we finally sat down for lunch.

The sun was sinking as we emerged for the return trip, which was quite chilly as we strolled at a Dotty (two year old) pace back to the car, curiously bumping into Ollie's brother and his family heading the other direction. Now we are back at home and I'm sat in front of a roaring fire with tea and more cake watching The Princess Bride, all is well.

(Annoyingly, my shoulder operation has been pushed  back a month.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Last rides

For my last weekend of riding for many months, winter finally decided to turn up - just a little bit. Saturday dawned beautiful & clear - Ady & I headed out for a similar loop of the Forest to the previous week's. With an extra layer on in deference to the -5ºC, it was great to have the Forest dry for a change. With a slightly slower pace than last time, the best part of the riding (apart from being out on such a great morning) was riding across all the frozen puddles & either locking up the wheels to slide across or suddenly breaking through the ice.

Sunday's news was of course dominated by the UK coming to a grinding halt in places with a few inches of snow. Pleasingly, it just rained a bit down this way & I set off up the M3 with Dan towards Winchester - meeting at Chris's house in Otterbourne. As soon as we got off the motorway the snow starting showing up on the side of the road. We set off through a few inches using a variety of bridleways & side-streets to go around Winchester anti-clockwise through some rather posh patches. A few centimetres of snow is great fun as there is still mostly traction, but a just enough sliding around for the front wheel to make things interesting. Eventually we were off the roads & cutting through the countryside avoiding puddles & trying to keep our feet warm. It was noticeably warmer, but damper than Saturday's ride.

There were some big wide tracks that provided plenty of amusement snaking around many puddles. Unfortunately by this stage, our feet were starting to get wet from the constant spray. In the end, our three different methods for keeping warm feet all failed well & truly - at the first decent food stop, there was much walking around on the road to try & warm our feet.

Through more fields, down bridleways & the occasional piece of singletrack we carried on. After a particularly wet, muddy & slow field crossing, during which we were delighted not to have the large-horned steers impale us, we hit the South Downs Way and headed back towards Winchester. It wasn't long after that we stood around cursing our cold feet as Dan extracted a large thorn from his tyre & patched a tube. That was about the time I took this photo - apologies for lack of nice photos, stopping to satisfy my shutter-finger wasn't a large priority.

Strangely, as the snow was mostly melting by now, we hit the deepest drift of the day in the middle of an open field. More fun sliding around, it was a pity that the spring that holds my brake pads apart somehow got bent in part & then started rubbing annoyingly on the rotor. There was no way I was changing that with so little distance to go until home - it took long enough to remove the calliper from the frame & cable-tie it to my seat. The 50 km were up with a lot less resistance for me (you never realise just how much your brakes are rubbing when you gradually get used to it). Back at Chris's it was time to painfully remove socks, warm up & hose bikes, shoes, clothes & backpacks of much splatter.

So there you have, my last ride report for quite some time ("and there was much rejoicing").