La Giettaz: Small is beautiful (and spooky)

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From the top of the chairlift at La Giettaz, looking towards the Combloux ski area with Mont Blanc in the background

Skiing is usually a social activity. A chance to get together and enjoy the mountains, take some moderate exercise, eat and drink well. To ski alone is seen as fairly eccentric, although I’m hardly the only person to do it. I don’t do it all the time but I find it relaxing and therapeutic to just charge on your own, lift to lift, with nary a stop. I suppose it takes a degree of comfort with the environment to really enjoy it, and that’s what puts people off.

When you are somewhere with stunning views and good food, like La Giettaz, where I spent a happy weekend in mid March, skiing solo is pure pleasure. As with Cordon, the key to this place is the relaxed atmosphere and lack of crowds. The pistes are open and easy and there are no groups of English haw-hawing, wearing fancy dress, overspending or generally making beasts of themselves. I think a driving holiday around smaller resorts in France is a great option. If you want to scare yourself or ski some steeper stuff you can always get a guide, or drive to Chamonix, Tignes or whereever for the day, spend EUR54 on a lift pass (EUR28 at La Giettaz/Combloux) and go hard. The following week I went to Tignes/Val D’Isere for four days and skied with some friends and it was fun, but is the actual skiing experience so much better?

For example Val D’Isere boasts some of the world’s most impressive and efficient ski lifts including the amazing L’Olympique (capacity 3,750 per hour) which meets the top of the Funival (2,200 per hour) to service Val D’Isere’s Bellevarde ski area.

Postively vomiting skiers up the hill makes for crowded runs

Positively vomiting skiers up the hill makes for crowded runs

While it’s all very fast and slick, and goes some way to justifying the extortionate daily lift pass spend, it creates it’s own problems. At any one time at the top of these lifts there 200-300 people of varying abilities setting off and the pistes served are as a result, often crowded. That to me is irritating, potentially dangerous, and not the thing that mountain holidays are made of. Maybe I’m just getting old – which is becoming my catch phrase it seems.

And as for the food….well there’s good eating in Val D’Isere, especially the 2 Michelin star l’Atelier d’Edmond in Le Fornet, where I ate two lunches in succession on my Tignes trip. But sorry La Giettaz again won out. The unheralded Les Balcons de Lydie was my chosen spot and frankly I preferred their honest to goodness French country fayre to the microscopic stuff.

Magret de Canard, pichet de vin rouge - all for EUR18 :)

Les Balcons de Lydie: Magret de Canard, pichet de vin rouge – all for EUR18 🙂

The last thing to touch on is the village itself. La Giettaz is a real french village rather than a ski resort, with school, Marie and everything else, situated in the lee of a cliff on a steep part of the D909 – the Col du Aravis road to la Clusaz.

La Giettaz is pretty isolated.

La Giettaz is pretty isolated.

The cliff and steepness of the terrain mean it’s pretty much in the shade most of the time and it’s got a rather spooky feel. I strolled around the village on a Friday night and it seemed somewhat deserted with a defunct ‘a vendre’ hotel right in the middle, one bar, Chez Lulu, and one pizzeria/creperie. If the French ever localized Scooby Doo, La Giettaz would make an excellent setting. My hotel, the rather optimistically titled ‘Fleur des Alpes’ appeared to have only a handful of guests, and took me back to the my childhood in cheap french hotels on the way south to camping in the summer. The evocative musty smell and sausage shaped pillows set the scene, while dinner was served by the owner sans menu. She just sat me down brought some soup, then pork casserole, followed by yogurt and fruit. All very healthy but a bit Colonie de Vacances for my taste.

Rather gloomy. It does get a bit of sun around midday

Gloomy La Giettaz view looking down the valley towards Flumet. It does get a bit of sun around midday

The village seems to be run by one family, the Bibollets, whose name dominated the war memorial on the church wall. They also run the ski school, ski shop and Chez Lulu. Presumably they marry out to improve the bloodline. Either way it’s worth a weekend or a day away if you are stuck with the hordes in La Clusaz, and it’s a great counterpoint to the French mega-resorts in the Tarentaise.

A Weekend in Cordon

Amazing view of the Mont Blanc massif from Cordon

Amazing view of the Mont Blanc massif from Cordon

The start of my post-Lenovo, post-Melioidosis holiday. Finally. With Mihika in Munich and three days to kill before the arrival of Baffy & Syd, who were attending England vs Wales at Twickenham before travelling to the Alps from Windsor in their charabanc, I decided on somewhere small and pretty to dip my toe back in the ski waters. Chamonix is the obvious place to head to on a Friday night from Geneva, but that’s no place for the convalescent skier. Expensive, frantic, an international melting pot of crampon toting ‘extreme’ dickheads, I couldn’t even face the gentle slopes of Brevent. So gazing at the map, I happened on Cordon, which faces the Mont Blanc Massif but is still 20 kms away from the mayhem , and isn’t connected to Megeve so would be quiet (i hoped).

The Friday night traffic made the drive 2 hours.

The Friday night traffic made the drive 2 hours.

After shuttling down from AMS in a very crowded plane, I picked up my hire car, a Golf 1.4 TSI automatic. I wasn’t too thrilled with an auto, but being thrust into the Geneva Friday night traffic changed my mind. It’s pretty nippy, and has lots of flashing lights, screens and buttons on the dashboard. Top Gear eat your heart out!

All roads lead to snow!

All roads lead to snow!

The drive was slow due to the weekend traffic heading for Cham & Megeve, but uneventful, and I found the hotel easily enough after a 10 minute climb from the Autoroute Blanche exit at Sallanches
I had naturally (stupidly?) booked the most expensive place in the village (a small village to be fair), the Chamois D’Or, and have to say it was wonderful. Very welcoming, decent rooms/bathrooms and wifi (not a given in France). More to the point the cuisine was superb. 4 courses for 32 euros starting with a terrine, a fish from Lac Leman, an excellent plat de fromages, followed by the best Fondant Chocolat I have ever eaten.

Fondant in almond and mint sauce. Absolutement splendide!

Fondant in almond and mint sauce. Absolutement splendide!

Next morning and it was up to the ski station, a 5 minute climb from the hotel. 17 euros for a day ticket, but only pomas, no chairlifts. However, the view is so spectacular it’s worth it. You can see the whole of the Mont Blanc range from the Domes du Miages to the Aiguille du Argentiere. On a blue sky day only Zermatt surpasses it. The skiing is pretty decent too. 11 kms of reds & blues. Easily enough for a couple of hours and completely empty pistes. It was a great place to get my ski legs back and enjoy some proper french hospitality, both on the mountain and in the village.
Saturday evening I watched the aforementioned rugby in my room (the bar is a bit posh at the Chamois D’or and there’s no TV) before another excellent repast. This time an avocado salad to start followed by Veal escalope with Linguini.
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Top stuff. Very relaxing weekend and set me up nicely for the drive over the Col des Aravis to La Grand Bornand on Sunday.

At the summit of teh Col du Aravis - about 1500m I think

At the summit of the Col du Aravis – about 1500m I think

The Silk Road to Powder

Living a dream

Living a dream. photo credit www.heli-ski.kg

As Bodhi says in Point Break: “If you want the ultimate you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price”. In this case the price was S$7,000 ($5,000 approx) which was something of a bargain to be flown to Kazakhstan and back, driven around Kyrgyzstan, ferried about in a giant Russian chopper for a week, to be terrified beyond belief numerous times, to sleep happily in a warm yurt, to meet the strange, tough people of central Asia, to enjoy as much vodka & beer as I could drink, to ski dry powder at 4000m, to stand in the dark and see the stars at their most vivid and wonder why i worry about the future even though it doesn’t really matter. It was that kind of trip and I still get flashbacks months on.

I read about heliskiing in the Tien Shan mountains of Central Asia way back in the 1990s in Onboard magazine, and it finally happened in February 2015 when I headed to Kyrgyzstan with my friends John Aitken and Charlie Fullerton. Before we embarked I only had the vaguest notions of what to expect, and any research I did just raised more questions than answers. We only confirmed we were going in late December and I wasn’t clear on the details of where we would stay and how many days heli we would get, until the week we set out. The combination of travelling to a remote and little known country, the scale of the Tien Shan peaks, and the prospect of being flown around by an old Russian military chopper, certainly generated a rare sense of adventure.

The TienShan mountains we were skiing, just above the Issy Kul lake near Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

The TienShan mountains we were skiing, just above the Issy Kul lake near Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

We first flew to Almaty in Kazakhstan, staying overnight before heading to the Kyrgyz border in a cab. The flight on SQ to Bangkok, then Air Astana to Almaty was uneventful and they didn’t charge us for the massive ski/board bags. We skirted the Himalayas on the Indian side, and as it was a blue sky day, and I was in the right window seat, saw the Annapurna sanctuary and other great peaks. Air Astana even had a relic of a lost, glamorous era of air travel, in the form of big beers (well i was impressed anyway). It’s a decent airline and I would recommend it.

Efes on Air Astana

Efes on Air Astana

Almaty is a post-Soviet city with the resultant drab architecture, but has a nice atmosphere. It feels as European as it does Asian, and I enjoyed a lovely horse steak, and we visited a few bars before turning in. Next morning was a two hour foggy drive to the border across the steppe. As soon as we neared the border we could see the mountains above the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Our Kyrgyz driver met us on the Kazakh side and even helped with my 20KG ski bag which was cool.

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Heading across the steppe to the Kyrgyzstan border near Bishkek

We then drove for 6-7 hours to reach our base at Karakol on the southern shore of the enormous and beautiful Issy Kul lake. Our driver Almaz was the fastest thing on wheels and did not respect red lights or other vehicles so we got there about as fast as we could, managing to catch the occasional nap. Kyrgyzstan’s status as one of the Central Asia region’s poorest countries is clear from the infrastructure, with many roads potholed, gravelly and muddy with meltwater from the winter snows. You can also see the economy remains tied to agriculture, with lots of people riding horses and plenty of happy looking livestock.

We camped & skied in the Terskey-alatau mountains just south west of Karakol on the southern eastern shore of Issy Kul. Map from www.mapsofworld.com

We camped & skied in the Terskey-alatau mountains just south west of Karakol on the southern eastern shore of Issy Kul lake. Map from www.mapsofworld.com

We stopped a couple of times. First to eat at a god-awful motorway rest stop, and then to help the police arrest a “gangster” who was reluctant to leave his vehicle. Alamaz couldn’t wait to get involved and could obviously handle himself, bringing the skirmish to quick conclusion in the authorities’ favor.

Issy Kul is 113 miles long and the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca. It never freezes as it's slightly saline so looks spectacular against the huge peaks of the TienShan.

Issy Kul is 113 miles long and the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca. It apparently never freezes as it’s slightly saline so looks spectacular against the huge peaks of the TienShan.

After finally arriving at the comfortable and friendly Green View Hotel in Karakol we met up with Charlie who had flown direct to Bishkek, and hit the town for some beers & food. While we did not explore Karakol thoroughly, it’s a pretty drab, sprawling place with the post-industrial blight of the Soviet era obvious.

A photo of Karakol I took from the heli when we were going to refuel. The town doesn't match the surroundings, that's for sure.

A photo of Karakol I took from the heli when we were going to refuel. Interlaken it is not.

However we found a nice enough bar/restaurant after a brief taxi ride and I enjoyed a bizarre savoury pancake with mutton & cheese while the lads had a kebab which came in a paper bag with stale bread. Beer was good though.

Kyrgyz cuisine was strange but hearty. Mountain food!

Kyrgyz cuisine was strange but hearty. Mountain food!

Next day it was onto the snow for the first time with a trip up to the Karakol ski resort which is up a steep snowy/muddy road from the town. The terrain is pretty expansive and it had some nice bars and one hotel.

Looking back down towards Karakol with the mountainous border with kyrgyzstan in the background and the start of Issy Kul far left. Les Menuires chairlift also visible.

Looking back down towards Karakol with the mountainous border with Kazahkstan in the background to the north, and the eastern shore of Issy Kul far left. Les Menuires chairlift also visible.

The lift system was comprised of chairlifts of questionable provenance. This orange one I used to ride out of the centre of Les Menuires towards the Meribel valley back in the 1990s and they still had the signs to prove it. Brought back memories of La Masse and some good times.

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There were Les Menuires signs at the top and bottom of this rickety orange chairlift. Chances are I’d ridden it at least 50 times before in a different life back in the 1990s!

The snow was icy hardpack but it was nice to have a warm up and for our last run we had a 2 minute traverse and got a few powder turns in, giving us a taste of things to come. The views were also awesome with the Issy Kul lake stretching away as far as the eyes could see and the border range with Kazakhstan beyond.

John struggled on his Jeremy Jones powder board which wasn't made for ice. Charlie's Lib Tech was still in Bishkek so he was on some kind of fibreglass dinner tray. They still had fun though.

John struggled on his Jeremy Jones powder board which wasn’t made for ice. Charlie’s Lib Tech was still in Bishkek so he was on some kind of fibreglass dinner tray. They still had fun though.

There were bigger Tien Shan peaks behind us looking south.

There were 5,000m + Tien Shan peaks behind us.

After an excellent kebab in a mountain restaurant we then met our driver Slavan and headed for Yurt camp out in the wilderness. It was here when the adventure really started. The drive into the mountains was around 45 mins until we reached the trailhead situated at a small farm. We then took to Skidoos, with Charlie riding pillion while me & John were dragged along on a plastic tray.

Our chariot into the wilderness

Our chariot into the wilderness

It wasn’t the most comfortable 4 km of my life and I was relieved when the giant helicopter hoved into view, sitting on a plateau just above a picturesque Yurt camp.

The Mi8 TV-1, a military version of the Russian helicopter dating from 1961. This one was built in 1980 according to the pilots.

The Mi8 TV-1, a military version of the Russian helicopter dating from 1961. This one was built in 1980 according to the pilots.

They greeted us with beer which was nice and we met some of the other guests, a mixed group of mostly Brits who all worked at an international school in Almaty. We then got to settle into our Yurt which we were sharing with the guides.

Our cosy Yurt. There were 12 of us in there!

Our cosy Yurt. There were 12 of us in there!

Inside it was all bunk beds with a wood-burning fire at one end. I was excited about sleeping in a Yurt after reading Tim Cope’s brilliant book “On the trail of Genghis Khan” and it didn’t disappoint, being cosy but clubbable. It reminded me of the good old days (not sure I felt that at the time) staying in a 16-bed dorm in a hostel in Bayswater road back in the summer of 1999.

It was toasty. I love camping and despite the sub-zero temps, it's just as good in the winter.

It was toasty. I love camping and despite the sub-zero temps, it’s just as good in the winter.

The toilet facilities were rather basic. Clean but cold. Less said the better. The washroom was rather Red Army 1942, and consisted of a weird Sauna tent plus a freezing stream which they had dammed to create a pool.

After a pre-heli briefing with the guides which thoroughly scared me, we sat down to dinner. The food was pretty decent and we polished of plenty off freeflow beer & vodka before heading to bed around midnight. The heli pilots were partying til about 2am but I felt quite fatalistic, and was unusually excited for the coming day.

First heli-skiing day dawned with a bright blue sky and after porridge and eggs for breakfast we got our kit together and readied for the off. Have to say I became pretty nervous during the wait – probably about the heli rather than the skiing (that was soon to change). Here’s the big bird coming into land (actually the vid is from Day 2). It always felt like it would land on top of you but landing close is the only safe thing apparently due to the rotors or something.

My memories of the first drop are pretty hazy to be honest…The snow was nothing special as I recall and the run ended in a 5km proper combat ski traverse through a forest. It took about an hour and I had one big stack and we all had to rescue the boarders multiple times as there wasn’t much of a gradient. I can’t imagine what the logic was behind the choice of first run but it certainly got us sweating.

Legs were like Jelly by this point and didn't expect the photographer to appear from behind a tree!

Legs were like Jelly by this point and didn’t expect the photographer to appear from behind a tree!

The runs got better from there and enjoyed some nice snow although I struggled at the top. It definitely wasn’t Japow and my Volkl Mantras were sinking right through it unless I went pretty fast, which was hard to sustain.

Some of the snow was amazing, some less so!

Some of the snow was amazing, some less so!

The lads on the boards were doing better and really flying, although the exit runs were too flat for them for the most part and they often had to get one or both feet out. Every single run seemed to end in a long traverse through the trees, which was pleasant enough but wasn’t quite what I expected, Here’s a video of the third time I went through the trees just before lunch – Be warned it’s 8 mins of pootling along through a pretty forest, but not sure why the heli couldn’t have landed further up the hill!

The guides were pretty technical apart from the sweeper Dennis, a young Kyrgyz lad who just straight-lined everything and knew how to jump. If he was from Canada or France he’d be in ski movies for sure. After 3 runs we had a packed lunch next to the chopper in fairly balmy temperatures and I actually had to apply some more sunscreen.  It was then we found out it hadn’t snowed for more than 6 weeks…which put the conditions into perspective. Not bad at all.

Sometimes it was a smooth ride

Sometimes it was a smooth ride

The last run of the day was probably my favorite. The boarders and a couple of the skiers went with the rest of the guides down a steeper route, while I chose to follow the oldest, but canniest guide Oleg on a more leisurely path. There were some nice turns above the tree line at the top (3600m) then down into the forest and back to the Yurts, leaving the heli to make its own way back. By this stage, although I was tired, I was feeling a bit more confident and really loved being out there in the complete quiet, without lifts whirring, mountain restaurants, or any other real sign of human activity.

Descending towards the Yurt camp in the valley. There was a beautiful light, complete silence. Magic.

Descending towards the Yurt camp back down the valley. There was a beautiful light and complete silence. Magic.

Being greeted in the Yurt camp with beer and barbecued chicken was a perfect end to the day and we got our fill as the other group were about an hour after us, having being taken into a forested gorge which apparently was an absolute nightmare. John was almost catatonic and it’s fair to say we were all knackered. I wolfed dinner and retired to bed with my Kindle before 9pm and got a good 12 hours sleep in.

Fish from Issy Kul, potatoes, rice, bread....just what was needed.

Fish from Issy Kul, potatoes, rice, bread….all major food groups…just what was needed.

The next heli ski day was completely different. There were no less than 14 guests in the heli as a random group of 6 Austrians had come for the day. Plus the 4 crew, 4 guides and a photographer made for a packed chopper.

The big bird takes off after leaving us on windswept plateau.

The big bird takes off after leaving us on windswept plateau.

 

The terrain they took us on was higher and more open and the snow was generally very good. The Austrians, who I’d naturally assumed would be godlike skiers, were nothing special, and one, who was on a board, even dropped out after first run.

Big wide open runs made it easy

Big wide open runs made it easy

The big group did mean it got a bit more tracked out but I was much more comfortable than the previous day and let my skis go a bit more. The runs were also shorter with no tree dodging exits so we got plenty of turns in, and all in all it was great fun.

Because of the size of the group we didn’t do anything steep and a lot of the runs were gentle and open – just the way I imagined like it.

The 12 hours sleep the night before had also done me good and even the final run of the day through a thickly wooded gorge was fun. The snow was amazing, presumably because the sun never got on it and while the Austrians tumbled and lost their Teutonic cool, I felt, just for a moment, I was back in Hokkaido!

The beers afterwards went down even more easily and I must admit the partying was probably a bit hard this night given what was ahead. Freeflow vodka is addictive, what can I say?

The heli crew were enjoying John's company.

The heli crew were enjoying John’s company.

I’ve already written about the events of the last heli day in a separate post. The one thing I didn’t mention was the aborted landing we had at the first drop. We seemed to come into the ridge to hard and bounced off, with the whole machine wobbling. It was the only truly scary moment in the heli of the whole trip, and we were all relieved when he came back round and landed on a lower part of the ridge without incident. Here’s a 50 second video of the successful drop.

After that, and in between all the avalanche anxiety, there was some great skiing though.

Being in a different valley was interesting and on the way down to the heli we happened on another Yurt camp. What a life this fellow has!

Got fogged up...I was sweating.

Got fogged up…I was sweating.

I was feeling relieved to get off the hill unscathed and get to the chopper!!

I was feeling relieved to get off the hill unscathed and get to the chopper!!

Not sure if it was the night before or the strange granular type snow, but I got really tired and only did 3 runs in the end. We were a few valleys away from the camp so took the Heli back. It stopped off in a field near Karakol for some refueling and attracted a large crowd who raced to see the whirligig in their Ladas.

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Men & their Motors

Quite a crowd!

Quite a crowd!

When we took off again the pilot flew crazy low sending the locals scattering before pulling into what seemed like an unwisely steep ascent, before letting the heli fall, which left you feeling weightless for a moment. Was unexpected, but thrilling in its own way, especially given the size of the chopper! The heli and pilots had just arrived in Kyrgyzstan after working in Afghanistan for the previous few months so I guess they were entitled to have a bit of fun just like us.

The night was one of some disappointment but some celebration. Snow was forecast and even we paid for more time in the heli, it wouldn’t be likely to be flying the next day. So what do you do? Well we hit the beers and the vodka and reviewed some of our video footage on Charlie’s laptop in the yurt.

Cosy Yurt

Cosy Yurt

This one which features some rather tired skiing from me, a lost John, and where me & Charlie both questioned John’s eyesight, proved a favorite.

The next morning dawned and the camp looked beautiful after maybe 18 inches of fresh.

Winter Camp!

Winter Camp!

Looked beautiful when the sun came out!

Looked beautiful when the sun came out!

We packed up and decided to head back to Almaty that day rather than try the questionable delights of Karakol. Before we left we had the fun of joining head guide Nikolai’s birthday celebration with the other guides and the pilots. I provided a bottle of Johnny Walker Explorer’s Edition (a very smooth drop) and the guys had a bottle of Red label which went great with some fresh pancakes, Nikolai is obviously held in very high esteem by his peers and after seeing his YouTube channel including his ascent of Nanga Parbat you can see why. He is a tough, capable and decisive ski guide, but never arrogant,  disdainful or impatient. Glad he was in charge!

Liquid breakfast with pancakes chaser

Liquid breakfast with pancakes chaser

We finally left, drunk, mid-morning on the skidoo – this time with me riding pillion and Charlie suffering the bumps. The road we had driven in on was gone, covered in snow so you couldn’t see it at all, so we took about an hour to get out of the valley.

skidoo drag lift

The lads are never happier than when spooning!

The road had disappeared. No snowploughs in these parts it seems.

The road had disappeared. No snowploughs in these parts it seems.

Back in Karakol we bought a bottle of vodka and drank it and talked bollocks as we went the 6 hours to the border. It was beautiful with all the snow and the lake and until I drifted off to sleep it was a wonderful drive!

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Conversation was rather rambling 3 hours into the journey

A pretty snowbound Mosque near Karakol

A pretty snowbound Mosque near Karakol

The border was absolute chaos on the Kazakhstan side with a riot rather than a queue for only two or three immigration officials. It really felt like it would come to blows and carrying all the ski gear with a weird 6pm hangover wasn’t ideal. When we got through we were lucky to find our old taxi driver who took us to the border the previous week and then we had the long, boring drive across the steppe to Almaty.

The next day was a free one for us as we were all flying Sunday night so we decided to check out Almaty’s local ski resort, Shymbulak, which is only a 20 minute taxi from the city. I have to say I was blown away by the facilities and the mountain was a decent size. It felt like a European resort and there was easily enough terrain for a day. The lifts were modern, and the stylish, sunny bars at the base were a great place to hang out, listen to some tunes, and have a beer and a kebab.

The lads make a spectacle of themselves at the behest of Famous Grouse

The lads make a spectacle of themselves at the behest of Famous Grouse

It had snowed the previous day (the same storm that hit in Kyrg), so conditions on the piste were perfect which may have colored my perception somewhat. I got my Volkl’s, which had suffered a number of serious rock impacts down to the base, repaired at the resort, so hired some skis which were 161 Fischer’s. Truth be told they were more like snowblades but it was fun after the intensity of the heli-skiing.

There was even a glacier at the top which was 3200m

There was even a glacier at the top which was 3200m

This kebab in Almaty was awesome. just want to put that on the record.

This kebab in Almaty was awesome. just want to put that on the record.

In the evening we headed back into the city, swapped to a rather rough & ready hotel on the outskirts and then hit the town. There’s a good atmosphere in Almaty and I would recommend it. People, especially the girls, dress up and everyone is friendly. We started with a rather lavish Georgian meal with Georgian wine and then went to various bars. It was a fun end to a very exciting trip.

Thanks to Charlie for doing a lot of the organization, and I would be happy to recommend Sergey and the team at Ski-Pro Kyrgyzstan to anyone who wants to head to the Tien Shan, whether it’s ski touring or heliskiing,

All photos Sony Z3 Compact smartphone
All videos Contour Roam 2 action cam http://contour.com

On Avalanches

My recent trip heli-skiing in Kyrgyzstan was more challenging than a week in Val d’isere or Zermatt in all kinds of ways. Just considering the skiing itself the exposure was significant with steeps, rocks, gullies, trees, streams, variable snow conditions and physical duress due to the 5 or 6 long off-piste runs per day. It was often what the French would call ‘Ski de Combat’ and at the end of the day everyone was exhausted.

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Slip sliding away….Little avalanches here there and everywhere. A still from my Contour Roam 2 headcam

The only thing that really scared me though was the avalanche danger. Three weeks before I was on the Swinging Monkey chair in Niseko Japan and I shared my lift with a dreadlocked, serious looking, loud American chap who was sporting a pair of fat Black Crows. Turned out he was from Juneau, Alaska, the capital of big mountain heli skiing. I decided to get some Gnar points by casually dropping my upcoming Kyrgyzstan adventure into the conversation. This stopped him in his tracks and he said: “Continental Snowpack. Stay safe dude, stay safe.”  As is my modus operandi, I didn’t ask him the significance of this but noted for future reference. He duly skied off into the Japanese mist leaving me to ponder my fate.

I duly looked up what a “Continental snowpack” means, and for our purposes you can assume the snowpack is hard to read, variable and thus avalanches frequently, without warning and often weeks and weeks after the last snowfall. A great source of avalanche science is the excellent Meted Avalanche Forecasting website which has a full explanation of how snowpacks are classified.

The question that’s really intrigues me is what’s safer – heading into a remote location with a potentially unstable snowpack, but with the best equipment and experienced, risk-averse guides –or – getting off a chairlift on a powder day in the Alps and following someone’s tracks and then seeing some fresh and just hitting it, without any preparation, equipment or expert assessment of the danger?

The night before our first heli day we had a briefing with our 4 guides and they said the snowpack was unstable and was almost certain to avalanche at anything steeper than 30°, which wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. So the next two days were a bit of a surprise – we did all kinds of terrain including runs from 3600m and although the guides gravely tested the slopes and took us along ridges and spines when they could, I completely relaxed. Even from the heli I didn’t see the signs of avalanche activity. How wrong I was.

Day 3 dawned and we headed further east from our Yurt camp to get some more fresh. The terrain was steeper and the snow seemed a tad heavier than the previous day. There were only 4 clients this time (vs 14 the previous day) so we set for more action, or so we thought. The first pitch was excellent, and I got to go first and distracted by only one set of tracks from our lead snow sniffer, Oleg. This took us about 400m down on to a spur with a choice of a short, steep pitch left or right before the terrain flattened out into the valley. After everyone had completed the first pitch Oleg duly went to scout the left hand route. The slope which was maybe 40° at the top immediately avalanched below him, so he skied down that avalanche path and radioed up that we should try the other route, as it wasn’t stable and getting to his avalanche path would involve exposure.

Nikolai Gutnik, the lead guide, and something of a mountaineering legend in Central Asia, headed off to scout the right route which led into a narrow gully. This too avalanched, and due to the terrain trap, he radioed that we should go back to plan A. We went one at a time and traversed the steep pitch following Oleg’s tracks, before hitting the avalanche path. This slide was only 10-15m wide, and maybe 200m long, but had gone to the base and so was rocky and difficult. Everyone got down without incident but it was, to say the least, scary, especially as it was about the only properly steep skiing we did on the whole trip.

In the afternoon we again did some steepish – 28 to 30 degrees-  pitches and these too avalanched, although this time it was only the top 12 inches or so that went. Here’s a photo of me showing the size of the slide.

In the path. See the video below.

In the path. See the video below.

Here’s a video of me skiing into an avalanche path and setting off a small slide as I turn left to right… The guides knew the snow base just wasn’t super deep but even so it was unsettling and given the rocky nature of the slopes, injury would have been pretty much certain.

There wasn’t a run we did that day that wasn’t affected by the unstable conditions and I was glad to get back to the camp without incident (well there was a daft stunt the heli pilot pulled, but that was kind of fun!).

Compared to a powder day in the Alps I think it was more dangerous, although my recent Alpine experience is limited. In the Alps I never carried avalanche safety equipment but I did follow the advice of the pisteurs, avoid areas where there were obvious signs of recent avalanche activity. Maybe I was young and dumb lived in a fool’s paradise when I did my seasons from 1997-2000 but I never felt in danger like I did in Kyrgyzstan. In the early season I’ve never seen snow just sliding off like I saw there and you got the impression it was fairly constant feature of skiing there.

And there’s no comparison with Japan at all. I’ve never seen an avalanche in Niseko after 4 weeks skiing there, despite the massive regular snowfall, and that’s one factor that will keep me going back.

Here’s a video created by Nikolai our guide with some pretty good footage of avalanches in the Kyrgyz backcountry.

Volkl Mantra 2015 – Review

So the best ski I’ve ever skied was the 2012/2013 Volkl Mantra and I already new they had changed the design for the 2015 version…..but I went out and bought them anyway! That it turns out, may have been a mistake.

Bulletproof but a tad lifeless in my book.

Bulletproof but a tad lifeless in my book.

I skied in Niseko last week on my new 177s 2015 Mantras and some how they felt a lifeless to me. They were super stable at speed and worked well in the powder but I just didn’t have the fun I had on the old Mantra.

I’ve never skied on a full rocker before and maybe that’s the problem. The old Mantra just got better & better and more responsive as you went faster and faster which was an addictive feeling. The new one just didn’t kick out of the turn in the same way. it’s like an airbus A380. You get to take off speed and you take off, but you feel pretty much nothing.  Anyway I’ll be testing them again out in Kyrgyzstan next week so watch this space.

UPDATE: In Kyrgyzstan they just weren’t the skis I needed. They recommended above 100mm underfoot and when I got there all the guides and other skiers were on more than that with 115mm+ ideal apparently. The Mantras still skied well and the lighter the powder the easier it was, naturally. In the trees they were agile enough and they survived me hitting some rocks hard with only damage to the base.

The guides said the big problem was I wouldn’t be able to get out of trouble on the big open slopes where some extra flotation would give you the stability you needed to ski away from a slide without risking a fall.

Ofcourse it is the skier not the skis in the final judgement, but out there I needed all the help I could get and the Mantras need high speed, which in the variable snow conditions I just couldn’t control. Next time I heliski (if there’s a next time) I’ll be going for some big mountain 110-115 floaters, Maybe the Salomon Q series or something. Perhaps I’m just getting old…

Here’s a really good video review alluding to some of the feelings I have had:

 

 

 

 

Niseko: Not enough Japow for everyone?

Japan’s powder paradise is still an amazing place to ski, primarily because of the snow quality, but it is getting more crowded than ever.

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Me skidding along merrily in Niseko – Chinese New Year 2014

The snow is everything you’ve heard of and more. Through December, January and February it dumps 10 metres or more on Annapuri peak above the village of Hirafu, meaning the ceaseless paranoia about global warming and parched seasons in the Alps or the Rockies is moot. Sheer volume doesn’t tell the whole story though. The snow is the lightest, purest, crystalline powder you can possibly imagine. The precise microclimate that creates this is something to do with Siberian cold and the nearby Sea of Japan, but I promise, there’s nothing like it.  The first time I went in 2011 it was love at first sight…a weekend in Tokyo preceded 5 days of discovery in beautiful Hokkaido, culminating in a run off the peak in fresh powder and bathed in bright sunshine that I will never forget.

The well-known negatives of Niseko – a town dominated by the loud aussies who first popularized the place, expensive accommodation and shockingly bad transport within and between the resorts – pale when you get your first few turns in.

This famous excerpt from ski movie Reasons in 2008, featuring Chris Benchetler and the late great JP Auclair shows Niseko as it actually is, and should be seen if you are thinking about going. Unlike in most ski movies which visit heli-ski places in Alaska and Canada, the runs that they were skiing are right in the resort and accessible via lifts to pretty much anyone.

Niseko is a small resort – a maximum 700m vertical from peak to village, and at best 50kms of marked slopes served by a poorly planned aging lift system. Surrounding this is an accessible, and mostly gentle mix of backcountry and sidecountry which used to be shared by 300-400 of the better skiers while some 2,000-3,000 others pootled around on the piste.  The big problem is now that the numbers have started to even, meaning it’s gets tracked out like a European resort. On January 21st 2015 over 2,000 skiers went through the peak gates. It was pretty much tracked by midday, a situation that would have been unlikely 5 years ago.

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Mt Yotei looms over Hirafu and Annapuri peak

So what to do? Well I certainly wouldn’t put anyone off going to Niseko, but bear in mind you’ll have to earn your turns in the powder with early morning queues at the lifts, some eager hiking and some investment in guiding.

Hirafu itself is gradually being civilized by its sheer expense, with the richer older Australians gradually pushing out the tattooed backpacker bogans that infest the bars. There are burgeoning dining and accommodation options and all in all I would say the area is on the up, despite the crowds in the powder.

But if you want the dream turns you have seen on movies and on Instagram, you might need a different strategy. Accommodation with dedicated transport that can shift you to nearby resorts is probably advisable and that will send your costs up.

For a more detailed look at Niseko the 2013 Outside magazine article that has helped popularize the place with Americans is a good place to start and even includes some rather frank Aussie bashing, with Outside’s intrepid correspondent having the misfortune to time his visit with the absurd “Australia Day”, celebrated annually on Jan 26.  Last piece of advice is to never make that same mistake!