Thursday, 18 March 2010

Serre Chevalier 6th to 13th March 2010

Skiing can really be a drag sometimes......Peyra-Juana cafe tucked away off the beaten track round the back of Monetier is what its all about.

I did a week in Serre Che this time last year, and found it a really good ski area, so headed back with 4 other friends and Mrs H to sample the area once again, and introduce my buddies to a place I found really very interesting.

Serre Che is essentially 4 resorts along the valley up towards the Col de Lauteret, starting with Briancon, France's highest town and going up to Monetier-les-bains at 1500m. We stayed in Villeneuve, a lovely old rustic village with a small river running through the heart of the old town, where our chalet was situated. There are plenty of little bars and restaurants clining on to the edges of the river, lovely on a sunny spring day. Its got a good choice of places to eat and have a beer, without being lively or pretentious. Its just got a really nice vibe to it.

Our chalet was a short 2 minute walk from the supermarket, bars and commercial centre over the road, and a couple of minutes further on were the Frejus bubble and Pontillas gondola, both old but reliable lifts to take you up to the mid stations on the mountain. Not once did we see a queue at the bottom, and we were on first lift 4 out of 6 mornings as well.

However, with a ski bus stop right outside the front door, we managed to avoid the short walk in ski boots and carrying planks, although we did manage a few walks back after finishing the afternoon in Bar LaGrotte with a Kronenburg.
The flights were on time, transfers were good, and we arrived as night fell to a cold buffet in the chalet and welcome glass of bubbly. We decided to have a wander into the village, get acclimatised to the cold (and it was damned cold too, around minus 10 that night), and go for a beer, or two, or three.......

Day 1 of skiing - Sunday, and we awoke to cloudy skies, but bonus - fresh snow falling right down to valley level. Whilst this meant reduced visability, we knew full well that up top it would be fresh snow to get into. 4 of the 6 of us headed up the Pontillas lift. The other 2 went to the bunny slopes as one of them is a total novice and doesn't do heights too well. My other 2 buddies, Stu and Z, headed up with us. Both are beginners and have only done a week or so before, and I wanted them to play on the lovely green slopes up at the top of the Villeneuve sector, above 2000m. There's a series of green and blue runs up here, with some long drag lifts. The snow was bang on - about 10cm of fresh on top of the groomed pistes. We spent the morning warming up on the long Barres run, before I decided to get S&Z around to see the ski area.

The snow fell all day, but the sun was not far from poking through the clouds. It was cold though, unusual for this time of year. We got S&Z up to the top of the Grand Serre chair, but the wind had got up and was blowing fresh snow all over, and viz went down to nothing at times, so after S&Z crashed into each other, we headed down for lunch.

Ali and me skied long into the afternoon, exploring around the Chantmerle sector.

There are lovely long reds around here, quite steep in places but really really wide. Great for confident intermediates and speed freaks. I had been looking to get over to the Aiguillette lift, tucked away beneath the Prorel peak which leads over to Briancon, and we found to our delight 2 wonderful deserted long pistes, and had a blast down here for an hour or so, before heading off at 4pm to meet the others for a well deserved beer.

Here is the view looking down the Frejus bubble into Villeneuve, and you can see how much snow is on the ground right down in the valley. Conditions remained cold enough all week for the snow to stay, although the roads were cleared by Monday.

Day 2, Monday, and its absoloutely freezing this morning, but the good news is the sun is up, the sky is blue, and its going to be a great ski day. Ali and me headed up Pontillas again, as I wanted to have a crack at the black itinerary under the Balme chair, and thats exactly where we started. Its a steep almost off piste run, no grooming, and a good test of how good your legs are, especially first thing. Ali wasn't too keen to start with and did a lot of "why did you bring me up here?" but 5 minutes in and she was giggling like a school girl and bombing down to the bottom making fresh tracks.

We had a busy morning, headed over to the Chantmerle sector, and even up to the top of Prorel before skiing back down to Aravet midpoint for a nice lunch, albeit quite expensive. Typical France.
My buddy Steve spent the afternoon with us, and we took him over to the Aiguillette runs, which he absolutely loved, and we couldn't believe how empty they were. There were a few people skiing the trees on hard moguls underneath the lift, making it look easy. Not for me, thanks.

Conditions were perfect - very cold (minus 11) but clear skies and bright sun. This is the top of the Grand Serre chair, very different from 24 hours earlier, and from here you can see right across the whole area, both sides of the Serre Chevalier peak at 2491m.

Tuesday was a flat light day, and much harder to ski. It was also a fair bit colder, minus 17 at the foot of the Clot Gauthier chair and boy could you feel it once on the chair. We did the Casse du Boeuf black from top to bottom as it had plenty of good snow on it early, and yet again was practically deserted. It was a nice grippy fast black, plenty of width on in case you made a mistake, and I found myself pushing to go faster and faster all the time. Ali kept telling me I was mental, and that she couldn't keep up!

The Neo's were behaving brilliantly - just what I had expected. Grippy on piste, fairly decent edge to edge, but particularly great in the thicker snow and off piste. Just the right length too at 166, glad I didn't go go for the 176's as these babies have a really sharp turning radius.

The rest of the week, it was sun sun sun, and it warmed up considerably during the day as well. We were able to sit out without jackets for a while, eating lunch al fresco a couple of times, and temperatures climbed to 5 or 6 above at some points in the strong afternoon sun. However, it got cold again at night with clear skies, and the snow was able to remain in perfect condition.

We had a couple of trips over the top into the Monetier sector. Firstly with Steve, when the afternoon light went, and we only did a few runs, had a coffee, and headed back over. There were however cracking views to be had from the highest point of the whole ski area when we want back and nailed some cracking off piste off the top of Yret and Cibout.

This is looking down from the black Col du Vent run, which starts with a mogul field, but where I found myself continuously heading away from the bumps and into the lovely fresh snow and untracked areas.

One of the best runs in the area is the fantastic long and fast red "Cucumelle". It blasts its way down from the peak at 2700m between Villeneuve and Monetier and we again found it to be blissfully empty, so we really opened up and had some fun on here, pulling in some great carving turns and pushing the skis to their limits. I thought I was going way too fast at times, but thats kind of what its all about these days, going to the limit. Here is the Cucumelle viewed from across the valley at Frejus:

One of the great things about Serre Che is, whilst right at its highest points it is open and quite exposed, there are a lot of trees high up. This only adds to the beauty of the place, and also offers some protection when the weather socks in. Skiing through the trees definitely adds to the ambience of the place.

Up at the Cucumelle peak, we came across a number of skiers and boarders who were more than happy to strap their gear to their back packs, and make the long 45 minute climb up to the highest point, where the rush of making fresh tracks through the lovely soft powder proved too irresistable. We watched a number of them come down, looking graceful and flashing snow tails behind them in the knee deep powder. Personally, I didn't fancy the hike up, but we did have plenty of good off piste fun at other points.

Here are some more pics showing how good the snow was, and where fresh lines could regularly be found:

Briancon side was somewhere we never got over to last year, and we spend a day blasting the slopes over here. It tends to get more sun that the other areas due to its more southerly facing slopes, and there are some cracking wide open reds and blues at the top section. We had a play on the off piste here too which was lovely and soft, and also in the massive natural half pipe which must be over a mile long.

We also headed down to the bottom of the fantastic Remparts red, which is where the Prorel lift out of town comes up, and you have to get onto the next section back up to the top. Its tree lined and a wicked cruise all the way down, with some nice steep sections interspersed. We managed to cover off most of what he hadn't seen last year, and found this side surprisingly good, and with plenty to go at as well. We had our last afternoon over here, and really started messing about with jumps, bumps and off piste fun. The run back to Aravet was long and tiring, and we decided to finish the week on the black back down to LaGrotte bar, followed of course by a couple of beers whilst the evening sun faded away over the peaks.
Its amazing how much people relax with a drink of two inside them:

Here is the Casse du Boeuf black as seen from the balcony of our chalet, a cracking way to finish any day, and in particular another brilliant weeks skiing.

I have done Serre Che twice now, so I don't think I will return for another week just yet, as there is plenty more out there to go at, but its a place I have come to love - definitely not your usual ugly French high altitude purpose built monstrosity, but a cutesy old rustic place with a great range of tree and high altitude skiing to conquer, a slightly more chilled feel to it, and some life after 6pm to boot!

Get yourself over there, if you haven't been before. Its a place that will soon really take off, once they finally invest in some faster lifts.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Alpe d'Huez January 9th to 16th 2010

Its easy to let a bad trip tarnish your views on a ski resort. Unfortunately, I travelled with 8 fellow skiers and boarders and we were delayed, diverted, went the wrong way in a 6 hour taxi journey, and didn't have any cases or ski's for 3 days and lost 2 full skiing days as a result. HOWEVER, I still managed to have 4 and a half excellent days skiing in despite the hassle's, and would definitely put ADH up there with the best in terms of extent, lifts, scenery, and general all round f***ing good places to go.

I had bought my new Scott Neo's for this trip, so you can imagine how pissed off I was when I found out that these, along with my clothes and most other peoples gear were still at Gatwick and hadn't made it onto our flight! Sunday and Monday were lost as a result of delays and lack of equipment, so Tuesday morning we marched down to the hire shop and all got what we needed to in order to get on it. For me that meant buying a pair of sallopettes - every cloud has a silver lining, and I chose a lovely pair of blue Quiksilver pants that I had been after for a while....

I also needed ski's, and selected some Rossi Bandit 80's to get a feel for the all mountain wider skis. These things were shite, and had edges like rolling pins, but at least we managed to explore the immediate area on the Tuesday.

Our chalet was in a fantastic position, right on the edge of the Altiport green run which leads you down to the Marmottes and Alpe Auris (Scare Chair) lifts, with about 25m of off piste to head through in order to reach the piste. At last, I clipped into my bindings and headed off to the Marmottes lift with my Mrs (Ali), and Phil who was boarding with us. Phil is a decent boarder, and we are both very confident skiers, but the first run we came to at the top of the 2nd stage of the Marmottes lift was a black onto a difficult red with moguls, in fairly flat light! That's what you call throwing yourself in at the deep end. Phil did a lot of complaining about it being difficult and then headed straight down it without incident, whilst I ended up waiting for Ali for ages, as she was shitting it on the icy moguls.....

Eventually we got down and skied right back into the resort, underneath the DMC lift.
The main runs around the bowl leading into ADH are blues and greens, nice cruisy pistes which all inter-link so you can head back into any part of town from the top where the lifts drop off.

This photo is taken from the top of the first stage of the DMC looking back into town.

We skied up Signal in the afternoon, and watched as a kite skier took off and flew across the valley. There are some nice long runs and tons of offpiste down the back of Signal into Villard Reculas and we skied right down as far as we could before taking the lifts back up and skiing down the main red which is used at night for floodlit skiing on Tuesdays and Thursdays. By now, I was getting pissed off with the Bandit's as the edges were proper spent, although being over tired probably didn't help. Wilko joined us for the afternoon, he is a less experienced boarder, but wanted to get out and about and not spend all his time on the beginner slopes.
Phil took a big fall on the way back down Signal, took his eye off the slope as we started to relax and speed up, and caught his front edge landing an ollie and he went flying. Luckily he wasn't hurt, but he did have plenty of snow right up his top and down his pants!
This is what Signal looks like floodlit at night:
Before going back to the chalet, myself and Stewart (who had been playing on the greens all day and having a lesson) went down to the Intermarche at Marmottes Centre and got a crate of Kronenbourg and a litre of Vodka to have around the place. Back at the chalet, we took a cold beer each and headed into the hot tub, followed by a very hot sauna. Perfect finish to an active day.
Dinner, wine, beers, coffee, a good chat with the other people in the chalet, and in bed by midnight on a lovely clear night.

SOOOOOOOOOO imagine everyone's surprise when we awoke to 50cm of fresh snow! This was Stewart first thing in the morning at the door of the chalet, not believeing his eyes. He had never skied in fresh powder before, and after they had pisted the runs, it snowed and snowed and snowed and snowed....and continued all day too:

Phil and Wilko joined us for the day, along with Ali and me. Stewart and his Mrs decided to do their own thing and take it easy. We headed up the top of the DMC and found the visibility really bad. We had a play around higher up, but were not getting anywhere fast. The snow was up to our knees and whilst it was great fun, it was bloody hard work, and Wilko was really struggling. One time he went off piste without realising and ended up in snow up to his chest it was that deep! He had to eventually climb out on all 4's and take his board off, and walk 1/4 mile to the cafe to recover! Here he is after climbing out - he said he has never been so knackered in his life!

It was pretty cold today, and we were all knackered after the mad morning, so headed down for a good lunch at Chez Leo, at the back of the Marmottes Centre. Stew said he'd had an amazing morning on the freshies, although Zowie didn't share the experience. We headed back out in the afternoon and ploughed on as it continued to snow, by which time a metre of snow had fallen in total, it was amazing! Phil and Wilko bailed early doors, and Ali and I had the last run down at 4.45 with Stewart and Zowie before heading back to the chalet for another hot tub, sauna and beer session. We had a good laugh that night playing some games after dinner, and had plenty to drink too, and made plans to ski the next day with Tim and Gary who we had met staying in our chalet, and their mate Paul who was staying in town for 3 nights. Tim was going to be in charge of the itinerary for the day....not sure if that was a good idea bearing in mind he had spent a couple of visits to rehab himself....!!!!
Wednesday had been a good day though:

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Alpe d'Huez January 2010

Thursday: I woke up at 3am to find Stewart bolt upright and fast asleep in the lounge, snoring his head off. He had got up to be have a puke, not felt great, and sat looking at the snow still falling and fell asleep. I directed him back to his room, wondering how he would be in the morning..... Thursday morning and everyone was up early doors. There was a definite sense of anticipation in the air over breakfast. Gary and Tim had decided we would meet up with Paul at 9, and head over on the Scare Chair to Auris. Me, Alison, Phil and Wilko would join them, but Stewart politely declined as he is shit scared of heights, and the scare chair would be a lift too far in his opinion. Pussy.
It had stopped snowing, and the pistey bashers had done a great job. The top surface was superb, although vis was not so good: cloudy and flat light, so we would need to feel our way more today. Still some deep snow about off piste, and outside the chalet in particular: The Scare Chair is interesting. Not scary, but not what you expected either. It just drops down the valley and you go down, but its all quite sedate and there are some spectacular views when the light is ok. This was taken on the way back over later in the day: We did the steep Fontfroide red a couple of times, not too easy in the flat light, but hit some serious speed in the bottom section. It was nice to ski all week with so few other people on the slopes, and not once did we queue for a lift. This is how I like it, and exactly why I go in January. We ended up over in Auris, where we had the most fantastic hot chocolate in a small piste side cafe. Even if it was £4. Some of the pistes had not been bashed, and we found ourselves having a right laugh in some seriously deep stuff all over again. Alison thought she was going to die coming down one of them, but then skied past me at the bottom whooping with delight. I think she is getting on with her new K2's. We stopped for lunch over at the bottom of the DMC; there is a really decent restaurant in the Hotel Beau Soleil operated by Rocketski. Cheap food, massive portions, and FREE water. Refuelled, we headed up the DMC and over to Oz en Oisans down the wonderful Poutran and L'Omlet runs. Phil was having binding problems and had to stop and tighten them at a service station by the Poutran lift - they had nearly come right off!

Discovered the chalet is haunted tonight. Over dinner, me and Wilko definitely heard a woman calling out from downstairs...but on investigation there was no one there, and the front door remained locked. Odd. Then the Ipod turned itself on in the speaker dock. Even odder. But at 3.15am I woke up hearing a buzzing noise, lay in bed for a minute and then went downstairs. We had been in the hot tub the night before, and always left covered up, switched off, lights out. However, when I followed the noise, I ended up downstairs in the hot tub room - lid off, jets working, lights on. Very weird.

Friday was my turn to pick us a route; Gary, Tim and Paul joined up again, having thoroughly enjoyed the previous day. Looking out the window over breakfast, I just knew this was going to be special. Very special. The sun was poking through the thin later of cloud, the pistes had been bashed overnight, but there had been about 10cm of fresh snow on top, not a breath of wind. The kind of day you dream of, and don't very often get. We went straight up the 2nd stage of the DMC and had the most sensational morning over in Montfrais, heading down Les Rousses and past L'Alpette, before messing about on the blues down in the valley. The sun was bursting through now, the cloud virtually gone, apart from a thick blanket down in the valley beneath us. The off piste was soft and fluffy, the bashed pistes almost deserted and in just the best conditions you can imagine. Tim had a nasty fall just before lunch and twisted his knee, and decided not to ski that afternoon so headed off with his Dad after a great lunch in La Grange near the Alpette cable car. Tim and his Dad had Duck Malgrat and said it was amazing, whilst Ali and me shared the most amazing Pizza. Phil and Wilko decided to have an afternoon with their non skiing GF's and left us, so myself, Alison and Paul decided to have a bit more fun in the offpiste around Alpette before taking the cable car up to 3300m and the highest point on Pic Blanc. The view up here is amazing, you can see one fifth of France. But it needs to be a clear day. We decided it was the time to do La Sarenne, the longest black in Europe. Not at all an easy run, and so much off piste to play in too, so it was absolutely knackering. We ended up under the low cloud at the mid station of the scare chair and headed back up to ADH for a beer in the sun, before I skied together with Stewart for his last run of the week. The whole day was so good, and ranks amongst my best ever ski days yet. It was so good, I will let the photos do the talking:

Luckily for me, I managed to blag a lift pass on the Saturday morning and had 4 hour extra hours to try and make up for some of the lost time. Me and Paul went back over to Montfrais where the best skiing was in my opinion, and had a giggle playing in the pow around Lac Blanc too, before we got too tired and had a couple of tumbles in the really deep stuff, up to our waists, coming back down under the DMC into town. It was time to put the Neo's away for a few weeks, and pack the last few things for the journey back, which turned out to be a lot less eventful than the one over!

ADH gets a massive thumbs up from me. Lots of variety, 250km to go at, and with the deep snow we had fall while we were there, tons of fun in the powder and off piste. La Sarenne is over rated IMO, its a long and tiring run, nothing too hard about it but it just goes on and on and on and on.....and the bottom couple of miles is all fairly flat and dull. We didn't do the Tunnel as we only went up Pic Blanc one day, and it had been closed the previous 2 days when we looked on the lift info board in town. Next trip, Serre Chevalier 6th March, assuming Monarch Airlines don't f*** up again or go bust in the meantime......

Monday, 14 December 2009

Saturday 12th December - Pas de la Casa/Grau Roig

Another bright sunny morning, so plenty of sun cream and lip balm. However, it was notably colder this morning as we drove up past Canillo, El Tarter and Soldeu and parked up at Grau Roig. This area is over the back from Pas de la Casa, but when conditions are good it links all the way across the Grandvalira area back to Encamp, just a couple of kilometres from Andorra La Vella, covering a total of 103km of pistes with untold off piste availability.
This picture is looking down into Pas at the end of the area from Coll Blanc at 2528m.

This was the only run down into Pas to be opened, as they were running the snow cannons all day to try and get some coverage in time for Christmas week when the tourist season begins. It was good snow top and bottom, with an icy hardpack section in the middle so you needed to be alert! There are normally a lot of runs down into Pas and a new section is opening into Porte des Neiges in France which will add another 60km or so soon.

We got as far as this on the right, looking up to Cortals at the top of the Soldeu section, but because of the lack of snow across here, we were unable to connect into Soldeu. This is where the cable car from Encamp comes into from nearest Andorra La Vella. However, we were able to ski down Enradort, a nice fast red, and take the Llac de Cubil chair back across and ski down into Grau Roig again.
From there we took the track to Pressons, a frozen lake with a lovely restaurant, but the track was shocking and should never have been open - loads of rocks and ice, and quite a bit of damage to Hfu's rented board. We decided to use the Mirador black next time, which whilst it had snow on it still was in parts decidely hard work with very little snow coverage.
This is looking across Grau Roig:

We had a quick lunch with Andrea, our guide for the day from Australia, and then had a bit of a play the rest of the afternoon, mainly on the main drag from Coll Blanc down into Pas and the other side down into Grau Roig, before all too quickly it was 4pm and time to call it a day.
Here is the view up from Pas:

It was only 2 days, but gave a good impression of the 2 main ski areas, and left us all wanting to come back and see it in good snow conditions as many of the pistes were closed and some of the offpiste looked really good fun.
We drove back to Andorra La Vella for a fantastic dinner at El Bon Raco just on the outskirts of town, and headed back to Heathrow on Sunday afternoon after a leisurely stroll around the town in the morning.
I had fun with the Stockli's and they held up well despite the variable coverage, but I am still itching to use my Neo's - which will be 10th January now, in Alpe d'Huez, another 4 weeks away yet......

Friday 11th December

Woke up to bright sunshine but slightly colder temps, and good news over breakfast that we were going to ski Arcalis as Pal and Arinsal were both not open. A 35 minute car journey and we finally saw some snow.

We met up with our guide for the day, Miguel, a retited doctor and race coach, and headed off up La Basera lift to Les Portelles at 2550m. There was clearly a lot of epic off piste action to be had around here, although sadly with no fresh snow for a week and warm temps, we weren't going to be able to sample it.
The temp suddenly turned chilly up here, and we decided to head down the first piste, which was La Portalla del Mig, a steep red under the chair back to the base. This was quite a testing start for us all, first action of the season and we get thrown down a long steep red! But it felt amazing...letting the skis run eventually after negotiating the steepest section at the top. These Stockli's felt nice and grippy, and then suddenly felt very fast as we bombed off after Miguel back to the bottom lift.

We had a nice tour of the area, there is roughly 70km of skiing and all but one piste was open, and we managed to ski it all in the daym, with an hour for lunch at 1pm. There are some lovely cruisy blues around the back in La Coma area. Sadly the exciting looking L'Estany red from Cota at 2625m was the run that was shut, but would be well worth a burn down in good conditions. It was nice that the slopes were virtually empty......I reckon we saw 100 people tops all day, and most of them finished at 2 for a long lunch - what as waste of VST (valuable skiing time).
Hfu was struggling to keep up on his board; it wasn't great and he was finding it hard to maintain any speed on it, and had a couple of falls but nothing serious. Timm on the other hand was flying, and he and I started to have some fun and banter as the day wore on, resulting in the usual spraying of snow and the responding unhooking of my bindings and faceplant!
Round the front side of the resort, there are also a number of good runs including the fast red El Bosc as well as the more relaxed La Font blue, and we had an hour at the end of the day without the guide to let ourselves go a bit.
This is looking down the top part of the steep Portella del Mig red:

This is over in the sunny La Coma bowl at the back:

After a testing first day on the slopes, where better to relax than back in Andorra la Vella at the lovely Caldea spa and wellness centre with a personal 20 minute massage, followed by a selection of sauna's, steam room's and relaxation pools (after a beer, of course....)

Dinner was taken back at the hotel along with a few more beers and some shots, before being told that Pas de la Casa was being opened in the morning, so off we headed to get a decent night's kip.

Thursday 10th December 2009 - Andorra

First trip of the season, albeit a short one, so plenty of excitement as I packed my case and ski boots. I decided against taking the new skis due to snow conditions in the Pyrenees, which are reported as not being great, so I will take advantage of the ski rental that is included in my tour.

Headed off to Heathrow for 9.30am but as usual the M25 ruined the start to the trip and I didn't get to check in until 10.45am. Thankfully, BA allow online check in the night before, so it was fast bag drop and head off to get through security and meet the others in my group.

Finally met up with Jules, the trip organiser and a skier, and Timm - an Ozzy who rides his own boards - at the gate just before boarding the flight to Barcelona. Plenty of time to chat on the place though, as BA had not arranged to offload the cargo on the inbound flight so we sat on the tarmac for an extra hour.....

A nice smooth flight into Barca, where it was a warm 18c. Mind you, plenty of snow on the mountains as we flew over. Met up with Hfu, another boarder who had flown in from Bristol and headed up to the mountains on our private transfer. 3 and a half hours later and we arrived in Andorra La Vella to sort out the rental gear. Jules and Hfu had to get the full set: Jules got some short Volkl skis as she was going in for a lesson in the morning, Hfu got a Dynastar board and some soft boots, whilst I selected a nice shiny red pair of Stockli Spirit ski's in 165's.

Enough time to meet some of the guys from the Tourist Board over a couple of beers and some Tapas before a reasonably early night (11.30pm) in readiness for the skiing the next morning, although there was some doubt as to where we would go if at all because conditions were so poor due to the warm weather the past week or so.
were in good condition with no stones or icy pathces, except right at the bottom of the resort.