Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Disappointing Winter

Leysin, March 30, 2011

It's a grey, rainy day and Leysin is swathed in a veil of cloud that makes it feel as though my mountain eyrie is completely alone in the world. Quite pretty, very uninviting for outdoor activities, and so a perfect day to reflect on the last three months here in the Swiss Alps, while listening to a backlog of BBC and CBC radio podcasts. (Yes, I am a nerd!)

When I last updated this blog (yes, Kent, I am still the world's laziest blogger!), the winter term here at Leysin American School was about to begin. I was looking forward to it, as Tuesdays and Thursdays during the winter are half-days for classes, ending at lunchtime, followed by afternoons on the ski slopes. It sounded idyllic, and, being a huge fan of skiing, I was looking forward to being on the slopes four days a week, plus a few evenings of skinning up the Berneuse for a nocturnal ski down.

In fact, the winter turned out to be a colossal disappointment. After a beautiful snowfall on Christmas Eve, it simply stopped snowing. In Leysin, it was almost two months before it snowed again, although it did rain once or twice. Leysin's ski slopes were appalling: icy strips of artificial snow, frequently soggy and wet, with rocks peeking through. In addition to not having any new snow, it was also remarkably warm, sometimes hot, throughout January and early February. On February 6th and 7th, I took pictures of some of our students sunbathing in hammocks, and having class outdoors. On February 12th, I had a great bike ride to Interlaken, through the ski resort of Gstaad, with barely a flake of snow to be seen anywhere.

It was not just Leysin that suffered, although we had probably the sunniest, warmest weather. Most of Switzerland also had an almost completely snow-free winter. I did go out skiing a few times, searching for that elusive endangered species, snow. I had a few good days at the nearest high-altitude resort, Glacier 3000, up above Diablerets, about a 30-minute drive from Leysin. It went bankrupt a few years ago and was bought by a few Gstaad residents, including Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone. The slopes on top of the glacier are generally not terribly steep, but between wind and very localized snowfall, there was often fresh powder up top. As well, the steeper slopes of the Combe d'Audon were open sometimes, and when they were in powder, they were truly excellent, despite the irritatingly long series of lifts to get back to the top.

I went out on a ski tour to Le Metailler, a 3000-metre mountain south of the resort of Super Nendaz, in early February, but, although we were up high, and although the views were wonderful, the snow was mushy soup full of rocks. I did a very informative avalanche course with a local mountain guide, Roger Payne, at Glacier 3000 (since there wasn't enough snow in Leysin to even pretend that there could be an avalanche).

I went with Terri to the lovely surroundings of the Gemmipass, up above Leukerbad, and had a great weekend playing on our inflatable Airboards. Another weekend, we hiked up the snowed-in road to the top of the Grand St. Bernard Pass, had soup and tea at the Hospice run by the local monks, and airboarded back down.

Mostly I played squash and rode my bicycle, trying to make the most of a bad situation. My friends in BC and Japan kept e-mailing me to tell me about the epic snow years they were having, while I looked out at the flowers blooming in February and wondered what the hell I was doing in the Alps.

A three-day weekend in late February had been pencilled in for some skiing, but with the drought continuing, I decided to add to my country count instead, and flew up to Copenhagen to visit my Yangon tennis friend Hans, who now works for the WHO in Copenhagen. It was cold and wintry and clear, and I had a great time, wandering the streets, visiting the Little Mermaid, gawking at the amazing displays in the flagship Lego store, and playing tennis with Hans. Neither a case of being poisoned by a dodgy kebab (in Denmark?!?!) nor the uniformly high prices put me off enjoying my 94th country.

When I got back, it had actually snowed, and I had one week rather like the ones I had envisaged: skiing Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in Leysin, powder at Glacier 3000 on Saturday, and snowboarding on Sunday in fresh powder in Leysin. The following week, I toured up the Pic Chaussy with my sister Audie and a couple of my colleagues, and despite there not having been snow for three days, and despite the Pic Chaussy being perhaps the most popular ski touring peak in French-speaking Switzerland, we still had fresh tracks on the way down. That weekend, I did two ski tours near Leysin with Terri, one up the col beside the Pic Chaussy (some fantastic cold, deep powder on the shady north-facing slopes) and an eye-opener of the possibilities near Diablerets, when we toured from Isenau to L'Etivaz. A week after the last snowfall, and we still had great snow. I feel that if we could find that sort of snow in the worst winter in years in the Alps, next year I will have better ideas of where to go hunt elusive powder.

A final weekend before the two-week spring break looked unpromising for snow in Switzerland, so Terri and I drove through the Grand St. Bernard tunnel to Aosta, Italy and its excellent food and general cheeriness. It was a much snowier world down there, and we had a decent day of skiing in Pila, before spending the next day walking and lunching in the snowy, pretty valley of Cogne as great fat flakes of snow belted down out of us. I was excited at the prospects of snow back in Switzerland, but as soon as the car poked its nose out of the tunnel into Switzerland, it became obvious that, as had happened several times this winter, the snow clouds had only peeked over the mountains into Switzerland before turning back again into snowy Italy. In places near the Grand St. Bernard, snow levels were only 20% of their historical average this winter.

It amazes me that after a winter spent living in a ski resort in the Alps, I only once went to one of the famous Swiss ski resorts (Zermatt), since most weekends the snow was so miserable that it wasn't worth driving a couple of hours for more rotten snow. I certainly hope next ski season is better!

For the spring break, I had tossed up the idea of abandoning the Alps in favour of the Persian Gulf, but the occasional snowfall that we had started to receive made me decide to stay in the Alps for two weeks of ski touring. I planned two five-day trips: first the Wildstrubel Route (click on "Prospectus" for the route) from Glacier 3000 to Kandersteg, then, after a day off, the classic Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt.

The Wildstrubel Route was fantastic. With my colleague Sion, I skied east under perfectly bluebird skies, along the crest of the Pre-Alpine Ridge, bagging a series of 3000-metre peaks and skiing down through fresh powder (the heavy snowfall the day before we set off helped make for fresh tracks every day). It was a seductive lifestyle: an early breakfast, five or six hours of skinning up and then skiing down peaks, arriving at our comfortable Swiss Alpine Club huts in the early afternoon, having a beer and some rosti, taking an afternoon nap, eating a lavish evening meal, and then tucking up into bed at an early hour, ready for another day of the same. There were 19 people following the same route and same itinerary, and it was fun getting to know them and sharing ideas and travel tips for the mountains. The fourth and fifth days, around the Laemerrenhutte and the Gemmipass, were the highlights, with fantastic views of the High Alps and the best powder descents, with the Rothorn providing probably the single best ski run of the entire winter.

After a lazy day in Leysin, I changed ski partners and headed to Chamonix with my colleague Paul. The plan was to spend five days ski touring between the twin meccas of Alpine sports, Chamonix and Zermatt. The weather forecast looked less brilliant than it had for the Wildstrubel Route, and so it proved. Getting to Chamonix on the little train from Martigny was a highlight of the trip, as we chugged up the spectacular Trient Gorge. Chamonix was a shock to the system after the quiet and beauty of the Wildstrubel trip, with the train filled to overflowing with hordes of skiers, and the city pulsing with the energy of tens of thousands of tourists. After a less than restful night in a local dive, we set off for the Grand Montet lift, where we found ourselves in the worst lift lines I have ever seen anywhere. We got to the bottom by 9 am, and skied off the top at 11 am. For such a mega-resort, Chamonix has some pretty antiquated and poorly-designed lift infrastructure.

It was hot as we skied down a bumpy, unpleasant slope to the Argentiere glacier and put on our skins for the climb up to the Col du Chardonnet. The climb was relatively easy, but the weather clouded over and it began to snow. At the top of the col, it became apparent that we had been misinformed about the existence of a fixed rope, and our short glacier rope was clearly too short to get us down the 100 metres of 45-degree icy slope below us. We got halfway down by abseiling on another group's rope, before they abandoned us halfway down, and it took a while to be rescued by the guides from a second group. We arrived at the first day's cabane chastened, late and tired.

The second day was more of the same, with an advertised two-hour climb and descent to Champex taking five hours, as we ice-climbed up a hard, steep slope to the Fenetre d'Arpette, having missed the start of an easier col. By the time we skied down rotten, bumpy slush in the Val d'Arpette into Champex, we had missed the last bus to take us to Verbier and the next leg of the tour. With the weather forecast looking gloomy, and our confidence shaken by two epic, rather unpleasant days, we decided to abandon the rest of the Haute Route and leave it for another time.

After the spring break, less than two months of actual school remain, and I am busy trying to line up my summer's travels. I have bought a ticket to Tbilisi, in Georgia, and I'm trying to get my Abkhazian, Russian and Belorussian visas for a bicycle ride from Tbilisi, across most of the Eastern European and post-Soviet states that I have yet to visit, to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I'm really looking forward to this, as it will take me to a few places that I've wanted to visit for years: Svaneti, the Crimea, Transylvania and the Tatra mountains. I will certainly keep the blog updated during this trip, and maybe even before then, as the school year draws towards its close.