Matterhorn from Zermatt today
Weekend ski trips are the holy grail for any skier, they let us city slickers squeeze the maximum possible ski time into a busy working life but are becoming increasingly expensive and less achievable due to changes in airline schedules. The heyday for these trips feels like it was around 5 years ago when budget flights were at their lowest and ski resorts weren’t desperate to compensate for bad years of lost trade.
We set off from Kensington at 0330 on a Friday morning (that’s just one day off work) and flew at 0650 from Stansted to Bergamo. On arrival, we were greeted with the luggage at the efficient little Orio al Serio airport. Within 20 mins we had a blushing baby Fiat Panda ready to economically transport us to the Alps and back.
ACROSS THE PO VALLEY
The drive was straightforward, across the A4 until Novarra then a turn off into the Val Sesia with our destination Alagna at the end of the road. The whole journey took about 3 hours including a 15 min stop. After turning off the A4, it all becomes a bit rural, frequently getting stuck behind nonna. There are some fascinating and noteworthy places along the way such as Gattinara, Borgosesia and Arborio (of risotto rice fame!).
ALAGNA, END OF THE ROAD
At Alagna we parked at the bottom of the cable car (€4 per day) and hired skis from Sporthaus (conveniently next to the lift). After purchasing a 2 1/2 day pass (€91) we sped up to the top of the first cable car full of excitement. Next we waded through a few puddles (it was April after all in a bad season) to reach the Passo Salati gondola to reach the summit of Alagna.
FROM THE SUMMIT OF PASSO SALATI
A short fuori pista trip (5 mins) off the main piste to Gressoney led us to a fine pair of rifugi, namely Citta di Vigevano and our chosen Rifugio Guglielmina. We arrived at 1430, not bad after leaving London at 0330. A quick chat at the bar and dump the rucksacks and we headed off to ski for the rest of the day until the lifts closed at 1645.
On the first day we stuck to Alagna which is very limited in both lifts and runs, but is clearly called ‘freeride paradise’ for a good reason. With snow, there would be extensive off piste options all around in a similar spirit to La Grave in France where the lifts are merely there to allow access to a valley of opportunity.
The only one we tackled was a bowl right next to Rifugio Guglielmina which was in terrible condition, being in the shade it was an ice crust with wet slush under the surface.
EVENINGS IN GUGLIELMINA
After a couple of hours on Alagna’s sparse but long pistes, we headed back to the refuge and arrived to a soundtrack of Italian jazz on the patio. As it was Jamie’s birthday, we treated ourselves to a bottle of the fine Grattamacco Super Tuscan. Rifugio Guglielmina prides itself on an outstanding Italian wine cellar. Penne with cinghiale (wild boar), then carpaccio di vitello (veal) washed down with a few too many grappas and a scramble in the dark to the room after the generator packed in for the night made for a memorable birthday.
During our second night, we performed a 2880m altitude pub crawl by visiting the adjacent rifugio for a beer. We though this original, but at 2200 2 piste bashers parked up and proceeded to do the same as if it the local norm. I took some good night photos with my LX5 “compact landscape kit”.
GRESSONEY, STAFAL AND CHAMPOLUC
From the top of the Passo Salati lies a land of opportunity. Great off piste down to Alagna one way and miles of piste towards Gressoney and Champoluc in the other, all covered on the Monterosa ski pass.
Gressoney’s pistes are not so extensive nor difficult but offer excellent variety and great vistas. We benefitted from a free guide in the form of a guest we met at the rifugio who had skied the area since age 7.
We did not fully explore Champoluc, but this seems like the most extensive pisted area and also offers quite spectacular views. I believe the town is very scenic but did not visit.
TIME TO RETURN ALREADY
Following a freezing cold shower (€3) in the rifugio, we made an early start to beat the weekend crowds on Sunday, knowing that we may finish a bit early. The temperature reached 23 degrees and felt more beach than ski resort like, as enacted by half naked basking Italians.
We descended back to Alagna at 1530 and returned our skis, took a wash in the toilet block by the lifts, ate a couple of slices of pizza al trancio (and bought gifts) from the lovely bakery and; finally descended in the Panda. Traffic was awful until the A4.
We dropped off the car at Bergamo airport and relaxed in the departure lounge (great shops) before flying back to London at 2240.
And that, is how to ski for the weekend…
We stayed at Hotel Excelsior in Les Tines just up the valley from Chamonix and Les Praz. I spotted this charming hotel for it’s good value (€70 / night) and good reports on Tripadvisor. Some people on there complained about its location, but they’re amateurs because it has a fantastic location with both a railway station and a bus stop at the end of the road.
The only thing that annoyed me about this place was the fact that they had a very small ski shed and the Japanese Ski Team were staying there too and seemed to monopolise the place, not even moving aside to allow the other guests in. They just kept waxing and sharpening their edges as we tried to squeeze in to replace our kit.
The Mont Blanc Express Train
A superb way of getting up and down the valley, hugely underrated and overlooked by most holidaymakers (another bonus!). It stops at all of the major ski stations… what about Le Tour I hear you cry? Well, if you take the little train to Vallorcine you have a very quiet gondola ride to the Tete de Balme which is the best part of Le Tour anyway. Keep going and you can get to Martigny. Go the other way and you can get down to Les Houches and St Gervais. Most versatile.
Some heavy snow fell again in Chamonix giving excellent conditions but poor visibility. Jane and I enjoyed some piste and forest runs around Grands Montets on the first day. It was a Thursday so the lifts were good and quiet, we ate a good ski lunch in the Plan Joran restaurant, a highly recommended self-service.
On friday I took a guide, Xavier Vimal from the Compagnie des Guides in Argentiere. We skied the Argentiere Glacier along the classic left flank route, rejoining the Point de Vue piste just above the Lognan Refuge. The snow was in fine condition but the visibility was dreadful.
Next, we tackled the Combe de la Pendant, from the top of the Bochard accessing it from the Chamois piste’s uppermost section. The Combe contained deep choppy snow and was enjoyable. We continued down the Combe until it reached a plateau at the tree line and then took a difficult forest descent through the Foret du Lavancher. Real combat skiing through the varosses before joining the Grand Balcon Nord trail down into Le Lavancher itself. It’s a pretty little village with some very old and authentic chalets, it’s also rather unspoilt compared to some of the other villages in this valley.
Another excellent short trip… Some more pictures
Jane and I headed out to Chamonix to celebrate my 30th birthday last week. I love visiting The Chamonix Valley before it all opens in December, and it has become something of a tradition in recent years.
This year the whole of Europe was blanketed in deep snow and Chamonix was experiencing perishingly cold conditions reaching -26 at the top of the Grands Montets.
Grands Montets, Tabé / Plan Joran couloirs
The first day we skied at Grands Montets in near white out conditions but to constant hard falling snow which laid thick under foot. By the time we had done a run and taken a lift back up the tracks had been covered and new powder had set down. The snow was typical for very cold conditions in that it could not be melded together into pack and was very powdery. I didn’t really have the right wax on my skis for these conditions (cold wax advised) and experienced some sticking under the skis particularly when trying to skate on flatter sections.
Some excellent fresh tracks were had in the little couloirs in this sector, these are ideal for this sort of day when the conditions are too severe to head further off the beaten track as you always have the security of bailing out onto Plan Joran or following the Tabé chairlft.
Brevent / Flégère opening day
Usually the opening day is very popular and the slopes are busy, but this year access to Chamonix was limited by the severe snowstorms across Europe, particularly hitting France and obviously preventing people from travelling since the slopes were totally empty.
Unusually we were still hitting fresh tracks at 12:00, there was some wonderful deep fluffy powder skiing. I had a little misadventure in the Cornu sector when I lost a ski in deep snow on a 50 degree slope and fell quite a distance. The climb back up to retrieve my kit was pretty hairy.
The site of my misadventure
We enjoyed a nice meal with Simone and Wendy from Alpybus in Le Sarpé in Bois (nr Les Praz) which is a lovely traditional little wooden mountain restaurant. It is always reassuringly full of locals with Génepy on free pour.
Le Tour / Domaine de Balme
For our final day of skiing we headed up the valley to Le Tour, I had the intention of skiing off the back of the Col de Balme down to Vallorcine to take Jane for lunch in the nice little restaurant in the train station, however there were aggressive winds damaging the snow so I opted against it, for the better.
Instead we found this charming little restaurant where I had the best Tartiflette I’ve ever had, I think it was called Belle Alpage… it was on the skier’s left of the Aiguillette piste. There was also some excellent fresh snow to be found to the ascenders left of the Aiguillette drag lift (see short video).
Stuck in Geneva
We joked about not being able to get home whilst skiing, but this in fact came true. During our descent to Geneva there were heavy snowstorms laying on the roads faster than they could be cleared and Swiss sent me an SMS informing us that the flight was cancelled so we spent the night in Geneva with Simone and Wendy and had a nice pizza.
The next day we arrived at the airport at about 0915 and Swiss put us on the next flight only 45 mins later, great service.
Last week Jamie, Alistair and myself decided to head over to Austria for the early snow on the Hintertux Glacier in Zillertal, Austria.
We flew with Lufthansa to Munich at an insanely early hour on Thursday morning so that we could drive down to Austria and get at least a few hours of skiing on the first day. I drove so I was very tired when we finally reached 3250m at the top of Hintertux, but that wave of tiredness soon gave way to exhiliration. It was a beautiful blue sky day
We stayed in the charming Bruekenhof gasthaus in Finkenberg, down the valley. This is a lovely place run by a charming Austrian lady and her family, and very cheap at €90pp for 3 nights. Recommended. The ski bus leaves from right outside.
It snowed heavily for 24hrs straight on our second day, giving white out conditions and very hard skiing. The powder was almost sticky under the ski, I don’t think I had the right wax on to cope with the -10 conditions.
Thankfully our third day of skiing was another blue sky special, with the added bonus of all of the snowfall from the previous 24hrs.
Apres ski in Hohenhaus Tenne wasn’t half bad either, you simply cannot beat Austria for actually feeling like you are amongst the mountains.