A short film from last years La Sentinelle in Arolla Switzerland. I didn’t guide on that meet but I did on the previous 3 editions and plan to be at the Dolomites meet in 2021. Hope to see you there and enjoy the film.
We all watch those jaw dropping films of skiers shredding down spines in Alaska and pulling surf turns on perfect powder turns and cant help to be inspired and motivated to emulate these feats. But making the transition from the piste to off piste can be a daunting challenge when initial forays into the fluffy stuff seem so hard and leave us stuck upside down with a lost ski! The pros make it look effortless because they are so good, and also very very strong athletes. While you don’t need to be an Olympian to ski offpiste, recognising its much more strenuous and conditioning your body accordingly will do wonders. Also throw away your race carvers and try a pair of skis that are 100 m or more under foot.
1. Get stronger and more flexible
Skiing off-piste uses much more energy than general piste skiing, perhaps 10 times as much. The stronger you are the easier it is to control your skis from the start of a run until the end. Initially quick gains can be made at the gym to maximise strength and power endurance. Do your pistol squats, leg presses, lunges, box jumps. Improve your core’s torsional strength to prevent over rotation in turns and improve balance on a wobble board. Increased flexibility will help you absorb the bumps and compressions without injury, too.
A favourite training aid is this ski fit app from professional trainer and physiotherapist Neil Maclean Martin in Chamonix. Being mobile its portable so you can do it whereever you are including your Travel Lodge hotel room with no special equipment – so there are no excuses. Try out the free version and if you like it see if you get to level 4 – it works me so hard! Ski Fit App
2. Don’t drive from the backseat
It can be a constant battle to get your weight forward after every turn, but if you’re driving from the backseat, your turns will be late and energy-sapping. Modern front rockered skis can be driven hard off-piste with a lot of forward pressure without the tip dive. Try lifting your toes off the footbed while skiing and you will feel your weight going forward and pressure increasing on the front of your boot, where it should be.
3. Continually scan the terrain ahead
That way, you can anticipate what’s coming and make turns and weight adjustments accordingly. Too often our focus, especially under stress, is reduced to the patch of snow in front of our tips. When skiing fast, my eyes are continually flicking to as much as 100m ahead. If I’m doing 160 kph on a pair of race skis, I’ll be looking 500m ahead.
Lots of it. Buy a lift pass and get as much skiing done as you possibly can. Don’t be that British mountaineer that thinks touring will get you better at skiing, it might just make you better at going uphill. If you only ski perfect powder on sunny days, you won’t be able to deal with anything else. Go out in all kinds of snow, and in all kinds of weather. You wouldn’t expect to develop the muscle memory to balance on a surf board straight away and skiing is the same, developing muscle memory to cope with different snow over time.
While lessons are expensive getting tips from the pros will help avoid bad habits developing and since people learn in different ways, the pros have a variety of methods to get to the same goal. Ski instructors Simon Christy, Alison Thacker and Mark Gear all have years of experience and coaching worth taping into while a day out with a guide like myself can focus on off piste techniques over a variety of snow conditions drawing on my experience from ski racer to professional big mountain skier with Black Crows.
5. Use slightly shorter poles
In soft snow you sit lower relative to the surface. Shorter poles will help keep your weight forward, as you stretch the pole out in front to initiate the turn. On steeps it’s common to use poles that are 10cm shorter than normal.
The Brenva Spur
We arrived at the Cosmiques hut with the plan to climb Tacul and Maudit and ski the Brenva Spur on-sight, but news there had been 40cm of snow dampen our enthusiasm. Tour Ronde and the Brenva Face had been in the rain shadow, while the Chamonix side had received a pristine bounty. As the afternoon cloud lifted we studied the voie normale and considered our options. There was good chance of being forced back in the dark by avalanche risk if we opted for Tacul and Maudit, so we went the long way round, over Col de la Fourche.
We woke just after three in the morning, forced down as much food and water as possible, and headed out into the night to ski the Vallée Blanche. The night was black as ink and the usual summit reference points were cloaked in darkness. Even my powerful head-torch’s beam seemed to be absorbed by the night. Navigation became difficult. Suddenly, something unfamiliar began to form in the darkness – a strange shadow against what little light there was. We broke left to ski parallel to a chaos of huge ice blocks as much as four metres high. The seracs under Col du Diable had fallen. We continued to ski down the Vallée Blanche, beside the avalanche, all the while adding yet more distance to our day. Eventually, after a considerable detour, we were able to ski round the toe of the debris and start back towards Cirque Maudit. Our friends had passed this way the previous afternoon while traversing from Torino to Cosmiques, so we knew this biblical serac fall must have happened in the last few hours. It was an ominous portent for the Trilogy.
At Col de la Fourche we met with dawn as the sun peered over the eastern skyline. That moment of first light is a revelation for the mountaineer whose senses have been deprived in the dark. Fear, anxiety and doubt evaporate as all becomes clear, calm is restored and the low point in the soul disappears. In front of us the Brenva face revealed its magical hidden secrets.
Crossing Col Moore at just before seven that morning, we stashed excess kit in the snow to reduce pack weight before starting up the route. We left behind our skins, ski crampons, ropes, shovels, probes, and extra food and water for the return leg. We would travel through survivable avalanche territory on the way back, but on the route itself only a transceiver was needed for body retrieval by the rescue services. Having estimated the snow would be soft enough to ski by half-past-eight, that gave us a leisurely hour-and-a-half to bootpack 700m.
The air was still and a blanket of cloud was drawn over the landscape below keeping Italy snug. Most people would still be curled up in bed enjoying a lazy Sunday morning. Snow and ice crystals glimmered, and the temperature was pleasant enough to climb the iconic curling arête of the Brenva Spur in thin mid-layers. We quickly covered the final few hundred metres to the pyramid rock tower, gatekeeper to the serac exit onto Col de Brenva.
After stamping ledges in the snow, we swapped crampons for skis and took in the magnificent surroundings. The endless east face of Mont Blanc lay to our right, a crazy mix of couloirs, buttresses and tumbling seracs that held historic alpine climbs such as Route Major. Sun-warmed powder waited for us on the upper section but, as I gazed on it, I wondered how it would ski.
We skied some cautious turns initially, allowing our sluff to run in front until we had passed a section of shallow snow over the ice. Then the angle eased, allowing us to open it up more and a dozen turns of almost sensual skiing took us to the narrow arête. We dropped onto wide open slopes holding perfect spring snow sucking in a couple of hundred metres in five or six swooping turns. Smiles all round.
Now, however, we had to cross back over the Brenva glacier and Col de La Fourche before the final 600m skin back up the Vallée Blanche to the Midi. We were all hit by a sudden slump in energy as we skinned back towards the Fourche, the adrenaline of the descent fading, replaced now by heavy fatigue. The fun was over and it was time to push hard for the last three hours and escape the searing alpine sun.
Its been a busy few weeks here which kicked off after a heavy dump of snow plastered all the faces. A project had been forming in my mind over the last year which involved skiing and shooting 3 of the biggest, baddest and hardest lines in the Alps. The Matterhorn is perhaps the most well known and iconic mountain in the World. Any time you ask a child to sketch a mountain they draw you the outline of the Matterhorn. Its East Face is an incredible slab of rock, steep enough to defy logic that snow will stick, and its rarely in condition. The West Face of Mont Blanc was a must, Himalayan in scale, the upper pitch alone is 1200 m of 50º starting at 4810 m, combined with another 1000 m of 45º couloir skiing below. This one had been alluding me since 2009 and in years when you have already been skiing for 7 or 8 months, its tough to hold out through June for it. The obvious choice for final route would have been the Eiger West Face but I’d already done it in 2011 and my interest lies in exploring new places. Having not skied in the Brenva Cirque, the Brenva Spur was the obvious choice. A route steeped in history and coveted by Alpinists in a remote and wild setting. After a mild season with low valley snowfall levels, we would be entering and leaving the Brenva by Col de la Fourche and the Aiguille du Midi rather than being able to ski out to the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
All that remained was getting the right partners with the head, experience, strength and fitness to take on these big days. When we embarked on the project I guessed there was 50% chance of completing it in 5 years. The Brenva fell to us first in a 12 hour day and a few days after we nailed the West Face in a 14 hour day – the last 3 hours without water. Reassessing our chances I now put them at 60% chance of completing the project this season but the long term forecast was showing that temperatures would rocket. A couple of days later we were off to Zermatt for what would be our only shot at it. And we did it!
Skiing the Trilogy or Triple Crown in a period of ten days days was a full on experience, mentally and physically. The shortest day was the last one at 10 hours, all 3 days were at 4000 m or more, and all were a race against the clock before conditions became dangerous in the heat of the day. A bit like doing 3 iron man races in 10 days? Maybe, but who cares, this was a personal quest to ski and shoot in wild places with my friends.
Finding skiers who have enough energy left for some big pushes at this time of the year can be tough but a big thanks to the ever psyched and super strong guys who joined me at various stages along the way to make this project a massive success: Mikko Heimonen, Jesper Petterson, Tom Grant, Enrico Kareletto Mosetti, Guilhem Martin Saint Leon.Below are a few shots from the trips with the good stuff and full blog post still to come.
55º uppers on the Matterhorn above and below
Enrico Karletto Mosetti and Tom Grant on a lush morning on the Brenva Spur
On our way up with the Te Crew boys
Dave getting used to a camera I lent him.
A little tree adventure and then perhaps last of the pillow lines for this winter