Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Skiing the Vallee Blanche, Chamonix Mont Blanc

What an amazing day!! The Vallee Blanche in Chamonix is a 20km off-piste ski route with a vertical descent of approximately 2700m. The views on a good day are stunning and being surrounded by high mountain peaks gives a real sensation of being in an unspoilt wilderness. This is one of those experiences that you will be ever forget. 
Henrietta at the bottom of the Aiguille de Midi Cable car
  Henrietta, my youngest daughter,  and I have just returned from one of the most memorable days skiing ever. The Vallee Blanche has been on my list of things to do for a very long time and today we were blessed by some of what were apparently the best conditions of this year's ski season to date! Blue skies, light winds at the top of the Aiguille de Midi and unbelievably 60cm of fresh powder snow - no wonder it was busy. A relatively early start saw us at the bottom Aiguille de Midi cable car at 8.45am and after waiting for our telecabin number to be displayed  (we were on the 19th one of the morning - there's  a reservation system during the ski season which seems to, based upon our experience, work well). By 9.45am we were up at 3750m at the top and suffering the typical shortness of breath that such a rapid ascent to altitude brings. The temperature was apparently -21 according to the digital display within the tunnel that's  been carved out of the rock, and -32 taking into account the wind chill! After a few pictures from the viewing platform above the cable car of Mont Blanc and across into both Italy and Switzerland it was time to rope up and start the treacherous descent down the snow ridge that links to the glacier below.
Henrietta and I (she's the good looking one even wearing goggles!)
Mont Blanc
    Poor Henrietta really doesn't likes heights however she did extremely well to manage the narrow roped track down to the where the skiing starts (which took around 15 minutes). Any slip here without being roped up would certainly lead to your death as you would first slide down a 60 degree snow slope before entering free space and then land on some rocks some 600m below you.  
Skis safely secured to Henrietta's rucsac for the initial descent
The descent from the Aiguille de Midi
The first part of the route is straight forward passing close beneath Mont Blanc du Tacul and then the descent starts in earnest with slopes increasing in angle and difficulty. After approximately an hour and a half we were just below the Requin hut and enjoying not only a picnic lunch but also spectacular views of the the Dru, the Aiguille Verte, the Dent du Geant to name but a few and all in stunning surroundings coupled with blue skies.  
First part of the route
Looking back up to the Aiguille de Midi
The second  half of the day was much more straightforward gliding along the freshly snow capped glacier down to beneath the Montenvers train station and the end of the Mer de Glace.  Here we had a steep 25 minute climb up the side of the valley to take us up over a small ridge and then down into Chamonix itself.  
Negotiating the seracs du Geant
Lunch time!
Looking at the upper reaches of the Mer de Glace at our lunch stop
Requin hut on the sky line towards the left
After an exhilarating day! The end and waiting for the bus
After a well deserved Coke and beer we the made the final 30 minute ski back down though the forest and into Chamonix. What a day!!   By chance we met Ben Bradford of Vertical Frontiers at the end who said how lucky we had been with the conditions and that it was the first time he had been able to ski all the way back into town. Lucky indeed. Stay safe

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Book review: Up and away - The Hard Road to Everest by Doug Scott

I've was fortunate to be selected to write a review of the above book by the Mountain Training Associaton for The Professional Mountaineer magazine which is circulated to all British Mountain Guides as well as members of The Association of Mountain Instructors as well as members of the MTA. I believe the circulation is in excess of 6000.

Below is a transcript of the review - to cut it short - it's an excellent book!

Enjoy and stay safe


‘Up and Away – the hard road to Everest’ Doug Scott Book Review

By Ian Ridley

“No matter how much we might try to convince ourselves that Everest is just another mountain, reaching its summit changes everyone who climbs it, in one way or another. It is the peak with the most history, the greatest height, the lowest temperatures and the wildest storms” so says Doug Scott towards the end of his authoritative and hugely impressive autobiography. Up and Away, is the first volume of a two part collection, that chronicles the earliest years of his child hood and a very normal up-bringing through to adult hood and becoming a teacher, and finally to summiting Mount Everest via the south-west face on 24 September 1975 aged 34.

I’ve only met Doug Scott twice, well I say ‘’met”, I’ve been to two of his lectures!

I was fortunate to attend a school in London back in 1977 when he kindly visited to give a lecture. Aged 15 and interested in climbing but having been no further than the Lake District, I was mesmerised by his story. In particular I remember one of his stunning photographs looking out across the Western Cwm, the highest valley in the world, towards Pumori with white fluffy clouds billowing up from below. It made me think that one day I too would love to look down upon the clouds from such a lofty vantage point. That dream was realised when on 25 May 2012 I too stood on the summit of Everest. 

So it was with great anticipation that I awaited a copy of ‘Up and About - the hard road to Everest’ to land on my doorstep.

As with any book, you tend to read the cover, then see how many pages the book has, the size of the print, the number of photographs which in this case is prodigious with over 230, both colour and black-and-white. However what really stood out for me the comprehensiveness of the index, which extends to 11 pages (with around 1900 entries) – this is not only an autobiography but an encyclopaedia of climbing! And herein lies a clue to the mind-set of this legendary man and the awe-inspiring life he has led.

For those too young to remember the 60’s and 70s, Doug Scott is one of the country’s, indeed world’s, top climbers, having led numerous first ascents across the globe and his book is a tremendously detailed account of the world of climbing during that era. It’s also a testament to his staggering memory, given the clarity in which he recalls his life.

There’s no doubt that climbing is in every sinew of his body.  However the book, is very honest and I suspect, for him writing the book was also cathartic. He writes with true passion but his humility and modesty shine through as he reflects on his experiences. There’s plenty on the successes of other climbers and how without them he would never have achieved so much. He was obviously very driven to feed his climbing habit which he admits lead to some selfish behaviour. Most climbers can relate to that but will also share the link between climbing in the mountains and respect for nature and the people who live there; and the difficulty of leaving loved ones at home for so long.

Reading the book, one encounters moments of great sadness recording the loss of friends, but there are enjoyably amusing moments too.

‘Up and About’ is not only an excellent account of what drives Doug Scott, but also how the mountains have changed his perspective on life. It is also an excellent social commentary on the massive changes to post-war Britain in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

 Would I recommend it? – Most definitely, to climbers and non-climbers alike.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

New website and some great vidoe courtesy of Petzl

Finally after weeks of work  (and I know it doesn't actually look like it!) my new website is up and running. www.mountain-skills.com

If you spot a typo or a link that isn't working then do let me know so I can get it sorted.

For now though, if you've got 5 minutes check out a new glacier travel safety system form Petzl.

Even if you don't think you'll ever be traveling over glaciers it's worth watching just for the amazing scenery and skiing - certainly beats a dull day in the UK!

Enjoy and stay safe


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Sauze D'Oulx January 2014 - Great Skiing!!

Sauze D’Oulx

Why this resort should be on every intermediate skiers list! I, along with my daughter have just returned from what is quite simply the best skiing holiday ever (5th – 12th Jan 2014).  We had such a good time I thought I’d share the experience with you.

Henrietta & I at the end of one of the most amazing skiing weeks ever!

OK, I’ll admit I’m biased because we had a full week of good weather. The mornings often started slightly overcast but no later than lunchtime we had sunshine and blue skies. It was only on our last day that we woke to thick cloud; rather than take the day off we still ventured out only to find that the Sauze was in a temperature inversion (cold air trapped under a layer of warmer air at a higher altitude) – by the time we were on our second lift we were up above the cloud and in sunshine!!

Wide tree lined pistes - not a soul to be seen

Why I think Sauze D’Oulx is so good (Pronounced 'Sau-zee doo):                                                                                        

         Extensive skiing area – over 400km; now that’s a lot to get through in 7 days but its possible if you’re committed or just like a challenge. Home of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.

      Virtually ski-in ski-out if you choose the right accommodation (more on that later).

      Very short transfer from Turin Airport. About an hour by car or one hour twenty by coach. This makes it ideal for a short weekend break as well. Easyjet fly from London for less than £80 return if you book sufficiently far ahead.

        Good choice of mountain restaurants that aren’t totally unbearable. That’s not to say they’re cheap. It still going to cost you anywhere from €6.50 upwards for a coke and a cheese and ham toasted sandwich. A coffee is from €1.50. Our most expensive lunch was €22 for the two of us.

Lunch stop - no beer insight

Fairly cheap Après-ski if you restrict your drinking to ‘Happy Hour’, which is generally between 4 and 6.00pm.

  The Italians are positively friendly unlike some of our Gallic friends across the border in France who seem to think they are doing us a favour by letting us ski in their country!

   English is widely spoken though as always it pays to learn a couple of phrases.

The one dull morning (temperature inversion) -
see how close the hotel is to the slopes.
Literally ski to within 50m of the Hotel Sauze
at the end of the day

What’s not quite so good:

            It’s not the highest of ski resorts. The town is at roughly 1400m and the skiing goes up to around       2800m depending upon exactly where you are on the Via Lattea (the 400km interlinked Milky Way). We spent an anxious fortnight before we went praying for snow – thankfully it did; almost a metre just before we arrived.

      There’s not much to Sauze if you’re a non skier.

      Some say the piste map is poor. Bearing in mind the extensive area I think it does a pretty good job. We never got lost or picked the wrong piste off a lift. Quick plug – If you think your map reading is poor come on one of my navigation courses!! www.mountain-skills.com ).


We travelled with Crystal Ski holidays purely as they seemed to offer the best value and I booked 7 weeks before we travelled. This was my eighth skiing holiday and my daughters fourth.

A week’s half board at the Hotel Sauze (see later) cost us £369 each from Bristol airport including coach transfers to and from the resort. We didn’t need to use any of the services offered by the reps in country so can’t comment on what they are like. This was only another £30 more than going to Bulgaria, which had been on my list, as I wanted to keep the costs down. (It’s a sad reflection on today’s education system when I jokingly told my daughter we were going to Bulgaria: she replied ‘great but where is Bulgaria!’).

The six day lift pass was €180 euros each (we deliberately chose not to ski on the afternoon we arrived due to the limited time and what seemed like a high €25 for a couple of hours skiing!). This was a €10 euro saving as early January is considered to be the low season. As a certain supermarket says ‘every little helps’ – that’s almost an extra 3 pints at Happy Hour.

On the lift up to the top of Claviere

We booked our ski hire independently online beforehand. Following a bit of research on the web we booked though Sauzeonline.com which turned out to be excellent. Including helmets and ‘premium’ standard skis (well it made us feel better even if our skiing isn’t up to it!) cost €103.50 each. We also paid an additional €10 each for insurance at the Clotes Ski Centre  (Paulo Chalp is the owner) to cover against accidental damage or theft of our skis. Why, especially as I’m normally one to save every penny possible? Well frankly it seemed such a paltry sum for what it offered: no need to worry about having them pinched at a lunch stop, no paper work to fill in, no police reports to get and €10 was less than the £50 excess on our winter insurance policy. OK so they were insured twice but I was happy to run with that (wasn’t so happy on loosing out on 3 pints of beer though!). I would recommend booking through Sauzeonline.com which was very straightforward and everything was on their system when we arrived (even James who runs the site - how amazing was that!!).

Ski insurance and parking for a week at Bristol airport cost us £57.  So a weeks skiing at a conversion rate of 1.2 euros to the pound cost us £633 each. The only extras were lunches and a few beer tokens for Happy Hour (honestly!).

Ski Areas

From Sauze you can either get to the Sportinia area either by a direct lift straight from the eastern side of the town or as we did take a couple of lifts up from Clotes. To our minds this was nicer than fighting for second-hand air in one of the free resort shuttle buses.

A great run to warm up on first thing in the morning  is run 11.  Another great run and one of the longest is Gran Pista (another red) that comes off run 11 just below Sportinia.

Now back to those ‘button’ lifts I mentioned earlier on. We found the area to the west of the resort and served by 3 button lifts (lifts 1,2, &3) to always be the quietest area of Sauze (run numbers 35-40ish). You can even ski straight back down to Clotes at the very end of the day from the top in complete solitude.

Run 11 - great for getting your legs going first thing in the morning

Well worth going over to, in fact we chose to ski there for two days. The only time we had to queue and I’m talking less than five minutes was on our final Saturday morning as we got caught up in ski school. Best areas were the very tops and the Borgata slopes. There’s also a lovely tree lined blue run down to Pragelato. Worth doing if only for the scenery and the cable car back up.

Lovely wide open pistes high up with an Olympic black run together with gentle tree lined runs. We had a great day over here.

Probably our least successful day if only because there aren’t a great number of runs. It’s very beautiful and has a totally different atmosphere to Sauze or Sestriere so still to my mind worth visiting. We just ended up back in Sauze in the late afternoon hitting the slopes around the button lifts!

You need to catch a chair (or two) down from Claviere to Cesana
Not a problem though and great views

One of the appeals of skiing the Via Lattea (Milky Way) is that you can ski over to Montgenevre in France and use your lift pass there for a day. Now the reps will try to sell you a day trip via coach transport for €23 each (now that’s a serious 8 pints of beer each – my daughter has asked me to point out at this stage that she doesn’t drink beer!). The plus side is you will get more skiing over there but where’s the sense of a challenge if you’re spoon-fed everything. We like a challenge especially if it means getting value for money!

People say you’re always clock watching and to a degree that’s true. However I though it would be useful to give some timings so you can decide for yourself whether you want to ski over (I would recommend it).

OK Dad which way? The Black run, of course!!

Apologies this paragraph is rather dull!! We got on the first lift out of Clotes at 9.00am and where over in Montgenerve by 11.00am. This was getting off each lift and skiing straight down to the connecting one. For the return we were at the bottom of lift 95 at 2.20, at the top of the Colletto Verde at 2.32pm and then skied the black down to lift 41 – 2.47pm (don’t worry there’s also a red that cuts out the steepest section). The lift up took 10 minutes to the top of Colle Bercia. It then took an hour to get back over to M.Fraiteve above Sauze via Sansicario(3.57pm). From there you can actually ski back to Sauze but there will be some pushing uphill just to get around the shoulder just below the top of lift 10. Alternatively just make sure you get down to the bottom of lift 10 by 4.15pm. We did!!

The top run for us in Montgenevre was Soureou, a red from the French/Itlaian border – take lift 95 up. You get a tremendous sense of being high in the mountains and of isolation. If I had to name just one run from the whole trip I think it would have to be this one. Perhaps we were just very lucky with the weather and the conditions. Don’t worry there are plenty of others!


We stayed at The Hotel Sauze and on Tripadvisor I've gave the hotel five stars as for what it is, it offers a real personal touch way beyond its 3 star grading (think UK 2 star).

As this was part of a Crystal Ski package so I can't comment on the cost however all of the previous Tripadvisor reports are right. Firstly all of the staff are excellent and go out of their way to make your stay comfortable. Nothing appears to be too much trouble and they'll even teach you a bit of Italian. (In fact compared to many stays in France all of the Italians we met were friendly and actually seem pleased to see you and want you to have a good time). Their English is also excellent so don't let that put you off should you want to ring the hotel directly. Its hard to believe how hard they work.

The food was also excellent with plenty of it. There's a comprehensive breakfast buffet (eggs cooked to order) as well as what is effectively a four course evening meal as there is a help yourself buffet before your first course. There is a choice of three dishes per course which you need to choose the night before, which given the small budget they must operate on is quite understandable and really not a chore.

The view from our  balcony

The rooms. Perfectly adequate. My daughter and I had a twin room (originally made up a double but very speedily sorted out once pointed out - we are talking less than 15 minutes). The ensuite shower was clean with plenty of hot water, in fact too hot at times. How often have you been to a hotel where you've had to turn the hot down after a days skiing - not many I suspect.  Downside  - yes the walls are thin but you'll only hear other people if you actively want to listen out for them. If you think this will bother you take earplugs. I did but never actually felt the need to use them.

The bar. At reception there is a small bar and whilst lacking in après ski atmosphere, they do offer the cheapest drinks in town. They also provide tea and cake for when you get off the mountain. Oh did I mention the free wifi.

Finally the location - it is literally less than 50m from the bottom of the slopes at Clotes and that's as far as you'll need to walk as there is a travelator (walking carpet) to take you up towards the first lift which you can then ski across to (See second from top photo)

Après Ski

I think every bar has a happy hour and we tried a couple (oh , OK then three in all). Most have a loyalty card to try and encourage you to go back (or should that be ‘stay’).

A very quick resume as everyone has a different idea about what they are looking for.

Ghost (beneath Clotes lift).  Quite like an English pub. Good atmosphere.

Paddy Mcgintys (surprisingly as Irish bar!). Again good atmosphere, reasonably priced food. Music.

Mira Bar. More like a wine bar, good selection of nibbles on the bar from around 5.30pm.  Mountain sports shown on the large TV’s and free wifi (which is why we spent most of our time here). Oh and they do the most amazing crepes.

Well, kept the ugliest bloke photo until the end,
otherwise you may not have read this far!!

As you can tell we really enjoyed the hotel and the skiing.

Well I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my rather rambling blog and hopefully its given you a bit of inside info about the resort and the area.

Would I go again? – you bet. I may even take my wife next time!!!!


Monday, 22 October 2012

Mount Toubkal & Marrakech

Best laid plans and all that!!

I had been planning to write this post yesterday but had a mini disaster. I managed to drop my external hard drive that has all of my photographs - that's over 300 GB onto a tiled floor. Needless to say it didn't bounce and now sounds as though there's a trapped bird inside it (which I'm sure there isn't!). So the hard drive is now toast. Thankfully I think I've got most of the photos backed up on another drive at home but even so there are few hours ahead of moving files into the right library (I use Aperture on my Mac).

So being suitable fed up, Caroline and I (well mainly me) consoled ourselves with a plate full of cakes - true comfort food. Alcohol would have been my first choice but as Morocco is a Muslim country it's not easy to come by.

Ok so back to Mount Toubkal the highest mountain in North Africa. I really enjoyed it and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone. You start off from Imlil at 1700m,  through walnut trees and past apple orchards. The path then steepens and is quite rocky up to the Refuge at 3207m.  In all the walk including stops and an excellent freshly prepared lunch took us seven hours.

The Refuge

We stayed in the Club Alpin Francais refuge which was very full and apparently holds up to 150 people. We were in a dormitory of around 25 people. Very thoughtfully and Gallic, you get mixed up together that is men and women and snorers and non-snorers!! It's the latter that stops you from getting any sleep rather than trying not to roll on top of the young Italian lady next to you!

Caroline had decided 3207m would be her altitude record and chose to stay asleep when the alarm went off at 4.00am.  The early start took me straight back to Everest reminding me of  the bitter cold.

After breakfast it was up and off as I tried desperately to keep up Lachen, my guide who knew the route so well he could follow it without a head torch. We were the first to arrive at the top  (4167m) and enjoyed 25 minutes just soaking up the views and the tranquility. It had been a breathtakingly beautiful dawn and now being able to see the Sahara in the distance was truly magical.

The top!!

A quick decent avoiding slipping on the snowy track meant we got back to find Caroline finishing off breakfast. After a welcome glass of Berber whisky (ie mint tea) we set off at a leisurely pace back down to Imlil.

After fond farewell to our guide we were driven back to Marrakech, which took just under two hours, and to our hotel the Al Fassia.

Having been away for so much of the year and away again for a month before Christmas I was under strict instructions to book somewhere decent. Well the Al Fassia doesn't disappoint and I would thoroughly recommend it to those looking for some peace and calm away from the melee that is the Medina. Check out Tripadvisor for some of the glowing reviews. 

True it's expensive and when I was quoted the price I had to double check that I wasn't buying the suite on a time-share basis! Oh well Caroline's worth it (well she is when she's just been looking over my shoulder).

This is my second visit to Marrakech and I was pleased to see Caroline’s reaction upon arrival. Within the city walls of the Medina there is a heady mix of noise, colour and a vibrancy that is at times almost overwhelming. The best thing to do is to head to one of the many roof top terraces and enjoy a very reasonably priced coffee and just soak up the atmosphere.

Dried fruits galore!!

I’ll certainly be offering a trip next year for those that want to push themselves to over 4000m and experience the affects of altitude whilst also having the opportunity to visit what is undoubtedly one of the most magical cities in the world. Keep an eye on the website for details.

Fishing for your supper - well actually a drink

Bye for now.