Off Piste Coaching, La Grave 21-29 Jan 2006

My skiing needs a new challenge so I booked myself on an Off Piste Coaching course run by Alpine Guides. Anne wanted to do something else so I ended up going on my own. Most of the 11 students were in the same boat and, somehow, four of us (Lawrence, Rupert, Tony and me) managed to get ourselves organised enough to arrange to fly to Chambery at similar times and then share a hire car and a room for the week. There wasn't enough space for us to stay at the recommended hotel, the Edelweiss, but we had no problems getting into the Castillan instead. I don't think we missed out on anything and, because of the central location, it certainly saved us from a lot of clomping.

None of us had met before but by the time we had got to La Grave we were the best of friends. Tony's endless supply of jokes had us all bonding together in no time. Everyone kept asking how long we had known each other!

Sunday, 22nd January 2006

click While Rupert and Lawrence went off ice climbing with Alpine Guide Richard Cross, Tony and I caught the bus to Monetiers and spent the day warming up on Serre Chevalier. It certainly was warm and the snow was very thin - particularly on the higher runs where it had been blown away by the wind. We couldn't get anywhere near my favourite run from my last visit - Isolle.

Monday, 23rd January 2006

This was the first proper teaching day and, since I wasn't sure of the score, I didn't take my camera out. We went by car to Les Deux Alpes and had a official warm up on the pistes. After lunch we were split into two groups. Apparently, this was supposed to be based on skiing ability but, uncannily, when six of us had accumulated near the guide, Al Powel, he said "okay, you're all with me". Perhaps the split was based on the ability to get up from the table and put your skis on instead.

I found out in the bar in the evening that I had nearly met Al before. He had been climbing with Nick Bullock in Nepal shortly before we bumped into Nick in Namche in 2003. Not only that but, after the course, Al was heading off to Chamonix to meet up with another Nick who, it turns out, sold his randonee skis to me via eBay. Small world!!!

Tuesday, 24th January 2006

click Another day at Les Deux Alpes without my camera. This time seeking out more off-piste and the best snow. Afterwards, we piled into the bar at the Castillan. Fortunately, there were plenty of staff on hand to keep us plied with drinks.
click Dinner was always a massive 5-course affair which took at least two hours. By now we had teamed up with two of the others on the course who had also ended up in the Castillan. Round the table from left to right are: Charlotte - member of the Pinnacle Club (see Cwm Dyli entry) and due to have a crack at the Haute Route in March; my gluten-free banana; Lawrence; Rupert; Tony and David. David runs Backcountry UK and, it turns out, we had already met in 1997 in Banff, Canada - this really is getting uncanny!

Wednesday, 25th January 2006

click It's still early in the morning and here we are in the car park receiving instruction from Al in the use of avalanche transceivers. At least we know they still work when it's bitterly cold!
click Then we piled into the bubbles and headed up for our first look at the slopes of La Grave. The whole place is like one enormous itineraire. There's no pistes you just go where you want. But watch out for the glaciers, avalanches and big drops! This is Al, Rupert and Simon (one of three doctors on the course) and, in the background, La Meije.
click One of the advantage of skiing near a glacier is you get to find enormous ice-caves like this.

Thursday, 26th January 2006

click Thursday was deemed to be a touring day so we hopped into the car and headed for the village of Besse. The track started at the end of the car park so, before anything else, we wrestled with our skins. Luckily, there was very little wind at all.
click After nearly two hours of skinning we were coming to the highest point - the Col Nazie - and the weather was distinctly brighter.
click Tony and Chris (another doctor) looking warm - as were we all.
click Rupert admiring the view.
click Charlotte leads David, Phil, Mike and, picking up the rear, is Simon Christie our ski instructor.
click Time for a picnic.
click ...and running repairs. Charlotte was having a little problem with her new boots.
click Then, as the weather started to close in, we headed back left and down a steep slope with some quite heavy snow. It didn't make for easy skiing but we all got down in one piece.
click Then we headed even further left up a rather awkward traverse. The slope in the middle looked a bit avalanche-prone so we tried to keep a good distance apart. After the traverse we had another, smaller descent, this time in some fantastic light powder. I'd never skied anything like this before.
click Back to the car park for a quick chat while we sorted ourselves. Here's Al the guide, Liam the other doctor, Simon the instructor and Rupert.
click After each day, Lawrence would download our pictures to his PC so that we could have a 'slide' show in the evening. Here he is, on his bed, putting them all the right way up. The room was a little cramped with four of us and all our gear but we more than coped.
click After dinner we headed up to meet the others in the bar at the Edelweiss. Robin, the owner, is a Scot and the bar has a particularly good selection of whiskeys. At the bar there's Phil, Robin and Rupert and at the table we have Chris, Mike and Simon.

Friday, 27th January 2006

click It's the last day of the course and we're back to La Grave for more instruction from Al.
click Some of the routes involved little hops between valleys and, because there was so little snow, we had to take our skis off and clomp over.
click The two groups would meet up for lunch every day at a mountain restaurant. In the afternoon we'd swap over so we had an equal dose of Al and Simon. This restaurant was at the lift station known as P2 and is my favourite. We had a very friendly welcome and the prices were very reasonable. She even remembered from my previous visit that I couldn't eat wheat.
click 'Beyond here be Dragons'.

This is how you get onto the slopes from P3, the highest lift station that was open. There are no piste bashers, no pisteurs, no one to rescue you if you fall and injure yourself. What they do have is lots of guides and a man in a cabin at the bottom who will talk to you about the risks that are prevalent. This is the real deal!

There's no hesitation from Simon though - he's been here many times before.
click ...unlike this party that Simon spotted on the other side of the Val Chalvachere. Their intended route, down to the left, ended in some steep cliffs. With good snow it's possible to 'huck' one of them - but not today. They were having to side-step a long, long way back out to the right of the picture.
click Towards the end of the day the wind was getting up but our group opted to ski all the way to the bottom. Here's Lawrence being the foreground to my shot of the lovely village of La Grave. The other group were a little way behind and opted to come down in the lift. Only by now it was closed because of the wind, so they had to ski down after all. It was quite late by the time they arrived which was just a little worrying for Phil who had to drive back to Geneva in time for a flight.
click More bar staff are on hand.

Saturday, 28th January 2006

click The course was finished but we had another day of skiing to get in. We thought of trying La Grave on our own but the high winds meant that the lift was closed so we went back to Les Deux Alpes instead. Lots of overnight snow meant that these icy moguls had a good layer of fluff on the top - nice if you got it right but a shock if you didn't. Later on, Lawrence, not know for his caution, took some between-the-pistes fluff at high speed. He only noticed at the last moment the hard-packed track crossing his path. He took off, cleared at least 10m and landed with his skis up in the air in front of him. He avoided damaging himself but one of his bindings took a hammering and wouldn't close properly. We decided it was time for lunch so, with Rupert's aid he hopped on and off the chairlift while I carried his ski. Then he took the bubbles back to the bottom while Rupert and I skied down. The ski shop said it was terminal so we lingered over lunch. Lawrence said he didn't mind festering so Rupert and I went round a few more times.
click On the way home we noticed some ice climbers out late so I walked back down the road to get some photos. Unfortunately, it was quite dark by the time I got there and the photos are not good. Here's some of the village that I took on the way back.
click The Hotel Castillan is the large building right in the middle of the village.

Sunday, 29th January 2006

click Time to go home and for a last look out of our bedroom window. You can see the lift station at the foot of the car park. The lift itself follows the break in the trees. You can just make out P1 on the rise and P2 is on the horizon. P3, the highest lift station that we could use, is out of sight. The temperature had risen a lot overnight - notice all the dark, wet snow over on the left.
click Mrs Castillan, of the fourth generation to own the hotel, presented us with the week's bill and here Lawrence is divi-ing it out between us.