A Winter’s Work for a Mountain Guide

As the new winter approaches I thought I would tell you where my work as a Mountain Guide took me last skiing season.

Last winter kicked off with a ski touring trip to one of my favourite places in the whole of the Alps: the Grand Saint Bernard Monastery. It is completely cut off in the winter and the only way to get there is on skis. Gerard, Alastair and I based ourselves at the Monastery for a couple of nights and skied and climbed in the surrounding mountains.

Skiing to  the Grand Saint Bernard Monastery
Descending to the Grand Saint Bernard Monastery.

Not long into the trip and I was faced with a potential drama when Gerard’s ski binding broke. A broken binding in a ski resort is a hassle. But in the middle of nowhere it is more than a mere inconvenience. For a start it is impossible to move around or get home. Without the means to make a temporary repair your plight can become serious. As you would expect (being with a Guide) we effected a temporary repair with fuse wire, cord, super glue and some emergency screws.

For the past seven years my work in January has taken me to Klosters in eastern Switzerland.

For me Klosters has some of the finest off-piste skiing anywhere I have ever skied. Last year was no exception. The snow on the north facing slopes gave us days of untracked powder skiing.

I always go to Klosters with the same clients. They are the keenest skiers you will ever meet. All are women and the youngest is 65 years old. Each morning we are ready to go at 8.15am. They insist on skiing to lunch without a break. Then a quick bowl of soup and out again. Normally I like to stop at around 4.00pm because in January it is getting dark. But normally one or two of them will ask to go back up the mountain for one last run on their own. I have to make them promise not to go off piste and take it easy. Some times “taking it easy” has meant a descent from the Weissflu to Kublis. At 14 miles it is the longest pisted descent in the world! Sadly the team will be depleted this year. Judy is off to the Antarctic…ski touring.

As the season moved into February and March I tended to concentrate on heli-skiing.

Unlike heli-skiing in Canada where the whole operation is geared to how many vertical feet you can ski, here in the Alps I have developed the concept of the journey. An example of this was a wonderful trip we did last March.

We drove the hour from Chamonix (where I live) to Sion airport where we jumped into the ski plane. This took us on a spectacular 25-minute flight before setting us down on top of the Pigne d’Arolla at 3600 meters. The ski down to the alpine village of Arolla past the Vignettes Mountain Hut must rank as one of the finest ski descents in the world. After lunch, this time a helicopter came and picked us up and took us to the top of another mountain; the Rosablanche [3700 meters.] A powder ski descent to Haute Nendaz linked us up to a waiting taxi for our rendezvous with the Land Rover at the airport. We were still back in Chamonix by 6.00pm.

After the somewhat glamorous heli-sking part of the year, April saw me get to grips with the Haute Route–the Chamonix-Zermatt expedition.

My first trip of last year was with a group of six. Three women and three men. I am always a little apprehensive about the Haute Route because it has often been a life-long dream of many of my clients to complete this celebrated trip. Unfortunately the key ingredient for success is outside my control: the weather. You require a good forecast.

So as is often the case, on the day we were due to leave the weather was very windy and things did not look promising. Nevertheless I decided to set off mindful that we could always turn around if the weather deteriorated. But this time the weather improved. Each day it just got better and better. Six hard yet exhilarating days later we found ourselves skiing down towards Zermatt under the awesome north face of the Matterhorn.

Towards the end of April I met up with my long time client and good friend Charles.

Our plan this time was to try and climb some of the big four-thousand meter peaks on skis. Our “warm up” peak was to be the Bishorn (4153 meters) at the head of the beautiful Zinal valley in western Switzerland. This proved to be a stern test because the approach to the Hut took eight hours and we arrived feeling a little jaded. But the next day we climbed the mountain in about four hours.

Now this is where the skis came into their own; the summer before I had climbed the very same mountain on foot. Whereas the time for the upward climb had been similar, now on skis it went like this: from the summit back to the hut – 20 minutes (versus three hours on foot). From the hut back to the car – 1 hour (versus 6 hours on foot and throbbing knees). And we had sensational skiing thrown into the bargain. Next day we climbed the Allalinhorn (4027 meters) On our final day we climbed the Strahlhorn (4190 meters) high above Zermatt and Charles still managed to be home in Hertfordshire the same evening. Not bad to climb three four thousanders in four days.

At the beginning of May I had another team to attempt the Haute Route.

Only this time for Tim and Marie-Claire it was their second attempt having been thwarted by unimaginably horrible weather on our previous attempt. Again the weather was far from perfect, but they were extremely fit, good skiers with reliable well-designed clothing. And above all they had the positive mental attitude “to get the expedition done.” This allowed us to push on in often grizzly weather and I found myself in Zermatt with two very contented clients. It was especially pleasing for Marie-Claire because she was the fourth generation of her family to complete the Haute Route. She has already told me that when she has children I will be employed to accompany them too!

By the middle of May I had skied 122 days and was welcoming a change of scene. I was well ready to put my skis in the cupboard and get out my mountaineering boots for the summer climbing season.

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