Hakuba, Japan: well-prepped Gondolas, sushi mountains and a J-Pow wedding

IMG_3538

Leaving a crisp 6am Salzburg morning, I didn’t think that I’d be returning to Hakuba so soon. Two years ago I’d packed my bags and spent a glorious 4 months in the deepest, driest snow the resort had had for some 15 years. Now, here I was again, a 20kg ski bag on a slightly crushed right shoulder, glad rags in my backpack and heading back to the Japanese Alps.

I was off to my first winter wedding. My buddies Holly and Jaih, who had met on our Hakuba ski season, had now booked out the lodge where we had worked and filled it with their family and friends. It was a rare opportunity to catch up and celebrate with some of my dearest dudes from down under and the UK, and meet some new ones along the way. Plus, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and spend my impending 30th there too.

27 hours of travel later, I arrived at Hakuba House and went head first into the hen party after some rounds of wonderfully aggressive hugging. Sashes, toblerone cocktails, and Holly’s cheeky Nana were all in tow.

The wedding day was gloriously sunny. The guys had set the stage for the ceremony in the forest behind the lodge, and leading down to a natural opening in the trees, they’d carved out a snow staircase into the hillside. The light dusting from the night before was just the right amount to top up the snow on the trees, making the untouched white stuff glisten in the morning sunlight. Magic. Even better was that our beloved Sydney-sider Rob, aka, the mood-maker, was the wedding celebrant, making it an incredibly fun-loving and personal ceremony. The ballast came along for the ride too, although admittedly, I lost my lens cap on the wedding night in a haze of sushi eating, dancing, photo-boothing and shotskis.

Totally worth it.

Apart from reuniting with my ski buddies and being able to wear my beloved Doc Martins to a wedding, I was pretty happy to be back in the land of gyoza, ramen, warm-seated toilets, Japanese bakeries and infamous signage. The only downer was an unexpected reunion with my arch nemesis, red bean paste, which was cunningly disguised in a purple, sweet potato dumpling. Heck, you can’t win them all.

The snow in resort wasn’t as deep and bountiful as it was 2 years ago. I arrived between two storms, so it was either hello-goggle-tan weather or it rained enough to make the UK look soft. Nevertheless, there were a couple of great pow days, one of which was in Tsugaike where the gondolas are always prepared, and the other in Happo, which included a cross-country scramble in those dense Japanese trees. Unexpected adventures are always welcome.

Despite a piste day birthday, who can complain when you’re greeted with bluebird weather and a katsu curry lunch? Not me. When awesome people from all over the world come together for some respite in the Hakuba bubble, it’s always a good time.

Here are some pictures of a fabulous 2 weeks.

DSC_0505

IMG_3504

DSC_0582

photo

DSC_0553

DSC_0486

DSC_0524

DSC_0907

DSC_0517

DSC_0697

IMG_9166

IMG_3492

IMG_8859

Salzburg days out: Hallstatt

image

Tucked away in the mountainous, Salzkammergut region of Austria, at the end of a one-way road and perched on the edge of a crystal blue alpine lake lies the love child of Disneyland and the Grimms Brothers. It’s the village of Hallstatt, where the flowers are permanently bursting with colour, where the apfelstrudel is almost too delicious and where the picture perfection of its views leaves you wondering if you’ve walked into an Austrian version of the Truman Show.

image

This chocolate-box sized settlement, located about 90 minutes from Salzburg, has been occupied since the early Iron Age and today, with a population of around 1000 inhabitants, is part of a wider area protected under the UNESCO World Heritage label.

image

It turns out Hallstatt is so outrageously beautiful that China did infact decide to go full on Truman Show, replicating the whole village, in full size, in Huizhou City, Guangdong Province – window displays, café menus and swans included. You can have a little peak at Hallstatt’s Chinese doppelganger, here.

image

As with many places in and around Salzburg, the only downside is the tourists. Apart from the village itself, sightseers can visit ice caves, salt mines, Bronze Age tunnels, travel up a funiculaire to the top of the local mountain, take a torch-lit walking tour of the village or take a ride on a Swan pedalo, which the girls and I did – of course – when we went earlier this summer. But somewhere in this community is a very curious sway towards something a little more macabre, which makes me like Hallstatt even more.

image

At the top of the rickety steps, located on the other side of the main square, towards the church that overlooks the lake, you’ll find Charnell House, otherwise known as ‘Bone House,’ a small chapel in which there are approximately 600 beautifully painted and gloriously colourful skulls of some of the locals.

image

This local tradition was at its height in the 19th century and was triggered when burial sites needed to be reused for the more recently deceased. The bones of those who were to be removed were then taken for a second funeral. In order to maintain their identity, their families would decide on a design or motif to be painted on the skull, which was then placed in the chapel. Interestingly, this painting tradition evolved as the years went on, so skulls can be dated simply from the type of motif on the skull. For instance, the skulls with wreaths are the oldest and most traditional. Later, flower ornamentation became popular, followed by a style involving green leaves on the temple. This tradition has  resulted in a rich and unexpected cultural heritage that’s unique to the village.

image

After handing back our laminated info sheets back to the office outside the chapel, we made our way to the opposite side of town for a dip in the lake. It’s much less touristy than expected here, but soon we realised it was probably due to the temperature of the lake. Breathtakingly brisk at best, but hugely refreshing.

image

Hallstatt is a strange and wonderful bubble into the past, and despite the throngs of tourists, is a highly recommended day trip for anyone and everyone, Swan pedalo n’ all.
image

Hiking Salzburg: Untersberg, 1853m, via the Toni-Lenz Hut

image

Legend has it that somewhere deep in the caves of Untersberg, Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa sits at his marble table. His wait in the cave has been so long that his grey beard has already grown round his table twice. They say that as soon as it reaches the length for a third turn around the table he will emerge from his lair, bringing with him an almighty apocalypse.

The end of the world may be due, but don’t let Fred put you off hiking in Austria just yet.

Untersberg – a mountain long associated with myths, legends and folklore – straddles the border between Salzburg and Berchtesgaden in Germany, a stunning area also well-known for its hiking routes. Consequently, there are a few different tracks to the top of Untersberg, the most popular one being the Dopplersteig, ‘steig’ being the operative word here, meaning stairs. This video will give you a flavour of this particular route. But ‘homemade stairs on the open face of a mountain’ seems to sum it up quite nicely.

Speaking to my German housemate about the Dopplersteig, it seemed it would need a little more care and attention. Because my hiking buddy, Michelle and I were after more of a Sunday vibe kind of hike, we decided to do some research and eventually found a route that starts from the little village of Marktschellenberg, just over the border in Bavaria.

The pitstops on this route are: Marktsschellenberg > Toni-Lenz hut > the ice caves or ‘Eishölle’ > Thomas Eder Steig > Mittagsscharte > Salzburger Hochthron

image

As we were expecting a 5 hour ascent, we decided not to rely on the buses, which aren’t so regular on Sundays, and went instead on a 7.30am, 20-minute taxi ride. We also wanted to leave plenty of time to reach the cable car at the top, which we thought stopped at 4pm (we later found out it shuts later, at 5.30pm). This cable car has been running since 1961, so expect families, dogs, and tourists (as ever) wandering around the top. The upside, however, is a fabulous restaurant with beer and hefty, traditional Austrian dishes.

 

image

The route starts in the forest, opposite a large car park used for those visiting the ice caves (if you take the bus, the stop is located just before entering Marktsschellenberg). Marked out by yellow arrows, our path took us past waterfalls and kept us in the shade of the forest until a couple of hours later, where, once we were above the treeline, there was a stunning panorama of the surrounding area.The Toni-Lenz hut came into view not long after this, perched on a ledge at the height of 1551m.

 

image

Toni-Lenz makes for a great lunch stop. There’s also a wee hole in the wall where you can order snacks and beer, of course. Because beer is a constant priority here in Austria, whatever the altitude.

image

From here, the next juicy stage of the hike is a traverse across a rather open, rocky face, where you also have the option of detouring towards the ice caves for a tour. After the ‘eishölle’ come some of those steig. Surprisingly, they’re not too dissimilar to the Dopplersteig, but these ones are carved into the side of the mountain in a tiny tunnel (watch your head) rather than exposed to the elements. Great for those who might get a bit giddy with vertigo, but not so great if you don’t have a head torch. It gets a bit dark in there. And darkness with slippery, narrow wooden planks rather than stairs, makes for an excellent ascent. Especially when there are people coming down as well as going up.

After the steps, the terrain opens up and gets a little steeper. The signage isn’t always clear at this stage of the hike, but as this mountain is popular with locals and tourists alike, there’ll always be someone to ask if you’re not sure of the way.

image

After 4 hours and 20 minutes we reached the top, the rather brisk Salzburger Hochthron and a fantastic view of Salzburg down below. From here, it took us another 20 minutes or so to walk across the top of the mountain to the restaurant, where a few swigs of beer later, we were pretty glad to be getting in the queue for the descent in the cable car.*

Another sunny weekend, another Austrian climb. I could get used to this. Well, so long as Fred doesn’t stick his head out the window.

DSC_0365

 

 

*From the bottom of the cable car you can take the 25 bus back to Salzburg

Hiking Salzburg: Gaisberg, 1287m

DSC_0212

Ever been walking to the top of something and longed for a cold beer and an overdose of cake at the top, knowing that all your actual options are an apple and a massively average ham sarnie? This sweet dream, surely, is the holy grail of hikes, right? Well, WELL, let me direct your attention to a little mountain called Gaisberg in Salzburg.

Salzburg is my new home. This little Austrian haven, surrounded by mountains, overflows with pastries, lederhosen, tourists, Mozart and Spiegel, the local brew. It really is twee on speed over here.

For the next 6 months, I plan to make the most of my Sound of Music surroundings, so look out for more regular Trail 27 blog posts on some summer related escapades.

And so, to Gaisberg.

Gaisberg is one of those innocent, sneaky looking hills. And I call it a hill because it really bloody looks like one. Staring at the broadcast tower sitting proudly at its peak, I hastily decided last Saturday that I’d climb it the next day. I figured it would be a pretty popular hike, being the local mountain and all. And generally, it is. There’s even a well-kept tarmac road to the top, along with a bus service. So, despite this being a solo hike, it’s not exactly expedition terrain. Consequently, the top of Gaisberg is popular with families, friends, bikers and others with some kind of vehicle to proudly present. But, by whatever means you decide to ascend, the peak of the hill’s popularity is probably also down to Kohlmayr’s, a perfectly located restaurant/ bar with deck chairs a plenty and, after hours of walking, everything your needy, sweaty cake hole desires.

As for the hike, I got off to a slightly unexpected start.

From Salzberg centre, the hike should take around 3-3.5 hours. I, however, ended up detouring for an extra hour, thanks to a local man who sent me up a rather steep and overgrown, slash non-existent garden path. Being on my own, I knew that when it got to the scrambling stage, and no one else was in sight, it was time to start considering my options. Question-to-self number 1: Will anyone hear me scream if I slip and break an ankle? With no signposts and no people, it was time to turn around before the need for question 2.

In hindsight, I should have just carried on the way I was going before I doubted myself and trusted that bloke (*must improve map reading skills*) because a mere few steps after I met him, I would have arrived at an actual signpost that read ‘Gaisberg peak ——>’.

After the wee detour, the route was sweet and steep. There were hikers of all ages and abilities, and the route now reflected what I was expecting from a local mountain hike. Beautiful paths through a thick forest, huge Austrian country barns and the sound of cow bells in the distance. Once you pass the official yellow signs, just keep heading up. All routes lead to the top, as the mountain isn’t big and it’s the only one in town. You can’t really go wrong… *ahem*.

Still, I probably underestimated this little bugger, having thought it looked relatively mild from the bottom. But I also knew there was a good chance of beer and food at the top, so that made the unexpectedly long stints of uphill easier to deal with.

Finally, within hour 4, the broadcast tower came into view. I headed straight for a deck chair and swiftly ordered me some homemade Austrian apfelstrudel. Don’t expect any pictures, because I ate the whole damn thing before I knew it. Kohlmayr’s certainly takes advantage of being the only service on the mountain. But in truth, I didn’t care a hoot about how much I paid after circa 3 hours of uphill. It was totally worth it, as were the views.

I urge you to head up here on the bus, by bike or by foot. It’s a great option if you want respite from the tourist bubble and it’s an even better option for a Sunday out when anything that’s helpful is shut in the city (I’m currently experiencing the joy of trying setting up a bank account when the banks are shut on Saturday AND Sunday).

A great start to hiking in Austria. Now, if only every mountain had beer and apfelstrudel at the top…

 

A Tuscan Pilgrimage: Hiking Via degli Dei, the Walk of the Gods

For 5 years, my sister Lucy and I had been talking about a mission: a juicy, multi-day hike. As with many plans, life gets in the way. But despite the months and years rolling by, our little adventure niggle wouldn’t go away. It persisted and, finally, by the end of 2015 we had set a date. Throughout our to-ing and fro-ing of suggestions, Lucy mentioned a Roman road; a route that stretches 130km (81 miles) between Bologna and Florence called the Via degli Dei, the Walk of the Gods. It was a popular route for centurions and their soldiers, tradesmen and messengers and has now become an official hiking route for all sorts of modern day walkers and pilgrims.

IMG_1829

It helps that Lucy lives in Bologna, a city nestled in the hills of Emilia Romagna. Its nickname is “La Dotta, La Rossa, La Grassa”, which translates as “the educated, the red, the fat,” which is one reason alone to visit, thanks to its university – the oldest in the world, founded in 1088 – its distinct red brick, and what many, including Italians, see as the best food in the country. With the realisation that we could walk from Bologna, over the Apennines, into Tuscany and eventually to the home of the Renaissance, and frankly, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the decision to go for it was swift.

If you’re keen on doing this beauty of a hike too, read on.

 

The Prep

 

The level of prior training you do before any event always depends on your chosen pace. Most people today do this hike in around 8 or 9 days, which is rather on the leisurely side when compared with the 16 hours it took Roman soldiers. Lucy and I had 4.5 days to do the whole hog, which meant we’d have to average around 26km a day, whilst also crossing those Apennine mountains. Yowza. My main concern was having to keep up with my big sister, who swims at competition level and has the lung capacity of a whale. So, I felt like I had some work to do. By the time Lucy and I left, I’d done a few 3-hour walks around Sussex, and around 3 times a week for 4 weeks worth of cardio and resistance training at the gym. I’d also done some spinning classes, which went fine after my first class when I felt like I was going to throw up during the third hill climb and a very upbeat Jackson 5 hit. Not a natural, clearly.

At the same time as trying to get moving, I got my gear geek on. There’s another post to come about what to take with you on a multi-day hike, but for a full kit list, see the bottom of this post. My main tips in a nutshell? Salomon XA Pros are a joy for anything but steep, hardcore Alpine terrain, buy decent socks, and say hello to your new little friends: walking poles.

The Route

You’ll find several guides about the VDD, as it’s a popular pilgrimage. The route includes on-road to off-road terrain, long ascents, and longer descents. It leads you to lush meadows, thick forest, through Tuscan countryside, past Medici castles, abandoned monasteries, and over sections of surviving Roman road. Despite the lack of level terrain, there are alternative routes for cyclists and for those who’d prefer not to hit an hours’ worth of heart-pumping uphill, which is why the VDD is popular for all ages and abilities.

We stayed in a mixture of campsites, lodges and treated ourselves to a hotel on the last night. Thanks to its 2000 year history, there are plenty of B&Bs and places to rest your hazy head along the way. Despite that, the hike gets busy during summer, so I would advise booking accommodation in advance. Roughly, this was our route:

Day 1: Sabbiuno > Monzuno

Day 2: Monzuno > La Futa

Day 3: La Futa > Bivigliano

Day 4: Bivigliano > Olmo

Day 4.5: Olmo > Firenze

As we had limited time, we decided to knock off the first 10km by hopping on a bus from the centre of Bologna to the hilltop village of Sabbiuno. As we disembarked, an older man asked us where we were going. It seemed quite surreal to tell him we were taking a walk to Florence. But he knew the way. He said he’d done the Walk of the Gods 6 times, gave us some tips on the route and wished us a ‘buona passegiatta’, a good journey. So, at precisely 9.30am, perched on the hilltops outside Bologna, we began.

 

The Walk

Our destination on the first day was Monzuno, a beefy 29km away. As expected, much of day 1 was on road. But by lunchtime we had turned onto a track and were trying to settle into a rhythm with our pace, each other and with the click-clack of our walking poles. We came across cyclists, couples and groups of walkers. Later, we gave a limping young man a rehydration tablet and went up and over the famed Monte Adone, which certainly got us into gear. It was hot and we’d already started dreaming of fresh watermelon, pineapple, and juicy nectarines.

By the time we got to Monzuno it was 6pm and had assumed we were nearly at our lodge. It wasn’t until we’d had a wonderfully crisp beer and a good sit down that we were informed we’d need to walk another 40 minutes over a steep incline and out of town before we’d make it to our home for the night. Oof.

When it comes to getting to your next pitstop after 7 hours of walking, I learned this: don’t trust anyone when they say that “It’s just down there”. It won’t be. It’ll be much further. Double – at least – whatever length of time or distance someone tells you your accommodation is. Luce and I learned this on every single day of our hike, and every day it got worse. When someone says “It’s about 1km away” my brain tells my body to start getting ready for a sit down in around 800 metres time. To then find out you’re not even close, is SO. HARD.
Nevertheless, we marched up, up and along. The beer had worn off, and as we arrived 40 long minutes later, we plodded up to the lodge like two overweight labradors. We had dinner with a group of 3 couples who were clearly very fit, 50 plus, experienced hikers. We shared pasta, pizza and wine, sojourned and had a good stretch, ready for another day.

 

In the mornings, be prepared for uphill from the get-go. There’s zilch warm-up terrain. On the upside, you’ll be burning about 2500-3000 kkals a day, so you can eat to your heart’s content, as I did. Lucy was far more reserved, which baffled me. I would firmly defend my eating of cake at 10am: “BUT I LOVE FOOOD!!” I would shout proudly, despite spitting crumbs and my words being muffled by the sheer amount of chocolate sponge in my face. Lucy would either ask me to repeat what I’d said or utter something along the lines of ‘I wonder where you get that from’. My Dad also likes food. And bad jokes. But that’s what Lucy inherited. Really, we balanced each other out in our inherited habits. Thanks Dad.

The second day, after an almighty breakfast of homemade cake, freshly baked bread, fruit, coffee, cereal and yoghurt, our path took us through orchards, over ridge-lines and rolling hills. By now we’d found a rhythm and a pace. As we settled into an afternoon of forest walking, however, we came across our first inkling of what was to come. The last thing that comes to mind when hiking in Italy is colossal amounts of hillside mud. But that’s what we got. For over 6 hours: 3 hours on day 2, and another 3 the next morning. Much of VDD is under a thick jungly canopy, meaning little light hits the ground. Combine that with a succession of hikers and you have a perfect recipe for awe-inspiring sludge and exhausted legs in no time. And so, we come to walking poles: not the coolest kid in the bunch, but sweet JESUS, do they help a girl out when the terrain gets rough. From day 1 we’d seen many, relatively young hikers with severe limps, and we knew our trusty sticks had helped us from heading down the same path. As Luce puts it, it’s like having a 4×4. By taking a little weight off your feet, you’ll go further for longer and be much more efficient and balanced over tricky terrain, e.g. an uphill, clinging-onto-branches sludge climb. Plus, they illiminate the risk of those bulbous Shrek fingers after an hour of walking. No brainer.

Every evening we’d shower our legs in cold water and hot box our room with Deep Heat and arnica oil. We suffered no blisters, but my pack had caused a plum-sized knot in my right shoulder by the end of the first day. Much massage ensued. Before we turned out the light, we’d review the day and laugh at how, by around 4pm daily, we’d started walking like Julie Walters in the Two Soups sketch.

By the time we had honed in on our hotel on day 4, exhaustion had set in. I was testing out how I could nap and walk at the same time, while Lucy would seize up if we stopped for so much as some water or a photo. Nevertheless, we were pretty happy with how our bodies just kept on keepin’ on.

By this time we were firmly in Tuscan countryside and Florence wasn’t far. In fact, our hotel overlooked Florence and in the pinky haze of dusk, we could see the tiny but glorious dome of the cathedral, far in the distance.

DSC_1237

Our energy had picked up by the next morning. We couldn’t tell if it was because our bodies had become used to the hours of walking, or because we knew we were nearly at the finish line. We still had 4 hours ahead of us, but that didn’t really matter. The pace came naturally now. As we entered Florence, walking with poles suddenly seemed a little silly. The city was bustling, as ever. Noise, horns, tourists. We walked up the street from Piazza di San Marco to the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. “Look!” Lucy snapped, and pointed. There she was, between two buildings was the Duomo. We’d made it, just in time for lunch.



The Camaraderie

Along our route, we exchanged words with people from all walks of life. As we put one foot in front of the other, we chatted with them, laughed with them, and sang with them (a naughty medieval song, to be specific). Despite my pigeon Italian, I felt like Lucy and I instantly had something in common with our fellow walkers, because we were all on the same journey, heading in the same direction. As such, this hike was rich with camaraderie: strangers helped us if we thought we’d taken a wrong turn, and vice versa. We problem solved together, reassured each other and shared our social backgrounds with each other. We met ex-pro runners, pen makers, archers, hippies and teachers. It was also an opportunity to spend time with my lovely sister, who should absolutely take all the credit for guiding and map reading, but no credit for trying to read a compass. Honestly, 180° wrong.

We’d often sit down to dinner and say “I can’t believe we just did that”, with utter glee. We marched together, in the footsteps of Romans. We tried to imagine what the road would have been like 2000 years ago and we were grateful that we had comfy shoes, rather than leather sandals and 100kgs worth of armour on our shoulders.

It’s easy to idealise this trip now that I’m home, conveniently forgetting that one time we took a wrong turn, the achey hips and heavy packs. But they were all minor issues, of course. Along with the Italian panoramas and the history that lies in that beat up Roman road, it’s the pilgrim way of life that will be my over-riding memory of this hike.

And the mud. Never forget the mud.

 

Kit list

Clothes / outerwear

1 x walking shoes

1 x trainers / back up shoes

3 or 4 x socks

Cap / headband

2 x shorts

1 x hiking trousers

1 x casual leggings

2 x hiking T

1 x casual T

1 x long sleeve top (mid layer)

1 x hoodie

1 x shower proof shell

1 x waterproof jacket

2 x sports bras

Swimming kit

 

Food

1 x sandwich per day

2 x Trek bars / protein bars

3 x cereal bars

A bag of scroggin / trail mix

3 x gels for that last push of the day

2.5L water minimum

1 x Nuun rehydration tablets

 

First Aid Kit

Ibruprofen + paracetamol

Compseed plasters (2-3packs)

Iodine drops

Savlon

Cotton wool

Cotton wads + fabric strapping

1 x knee + 1 x ankle tubular/compression bandage

Deep Heat + Arnica oil

Pen knife

 

Other essentials

Pen + notebook

Suncream

Phone / camera chargers

Travel towel

Walking poles

Compass

Carabiner

Maps

Five businesses bringing tech to the ski industry

There’s no doubt the ski industry and the tech industry are still getting to know each other. It’s a second date situation. They’re not strangers anymore, but they’re still sussing each other out. The result of all this is a curious array of gizmos that have either made it to the honeymoon period (think GoPro, Snowtrax) or have sent the ski/tech duo towards a classically awkward ‘it’s not you it’s me’ conversation.

Take Oakley’s AirBreak smart goggles, for example. Once strapped on, the built-in heads-up display will tell you your location, your speed, distance, vertical drop and your current altitude. There’s a ‘buddy tracking’ feature, which includes a messaging system and GPS integration, so you’ll never lose your friends on the hill. Although, they’ll also need a pair of these goggles for that particular friendship feature to work, and at £480 a pop, I’m just going to agree with you – for free – to meet me at the main chairlift at midday if I lose you. Sorry, (not sorry) WHO HAS £480 TO SPEND ON GOGGLES??  Aside from the Verbier, punter-party price tag, they’re heavy, absolutely ENORMOUS and, for me, totally contradict what skiing is all about: escaping into nature, being outdoors and adventuring with some buddies. The hill isn’t somewhere I stare at my phone, speed checking, totalling how many kilometres I’ve covered, or analysing my rotation. And don’t even get me started on backcountry snow blades.

But there is a place for skiing and tech to meet, comfortably. Especially when it comes to snow safety. As freeride and backcountry skiing become ever more popular, both well-established and new businesses are bringing innovative new products to the ski industry table, enhancing, rather than smothering your ski experience. Here are 5 businesses combining intelligent design with your next day on the hill.

 

PowUnity

3_large

PowUnity’s nifty little Neverlose nuggets mount onto your skis or snowboard and are designed as an anti-theft and tracking device. Used in conjunction with a smart phone, these guys are definitely worth considering should you ever unclip during a wipeout or tomahawk in serious amounts of pow terrain. Trust me, it doesn’t matter how fat your skis are, if you take a fall in the Japanese deep stuff, your skis are GONE. I once watched a bloke probing for his skis for hours, missing out on a major pow day. And this wasn’t off-piste, this was right under the chairlift. He never found his planks that day, poor bugger. Hence, for €135, Neverlose attachments are significantly cheaper than a new pair of skis.

 

Fat Map

 

FATMAP-Ski-App-Release-Image2

 

When planning a backcountry mission, the key is planning and gathering as much information as possible about the terrain, conditions, snow pack and ideally, prior experience from those who have also skied the area. If you’re interested in developing your off-piste or backcountry skills, consider Fat Map. This ‘(m)app’, as they call it, is a 3D mobile mapping system that gives you incredibly detailed information for your next adventure from every angle. Alongside the stunning high-res visuals, the Fat Map team have collaborated with locals from all over the world who have written in-depth descriptions of recommended lines, how to approach them and what to expect. Routes include information on varying gradients and altitudes, aspect analysis, and what risks you should plan for, including avalanche zones and crevasse zones. It also has a track and share option, so routes can be accessed by future users. Just pay for a particular time (2 weeks or up to 12 months), download your maps for a specific resort area, and you’re good to go. Once downloaded, the software is accessible offline.  All in all, a great product that helps others who like to explore make better decisions, thanks to a collaborative, functional and user-friendly format.

 

Ortovox Freerider ABS backpack with M.A.A.S (Modular Airbag Safety System)

free_rider_26_abs_black

Hunting for an avalanche airbag that’s right for you can be a bit of a mine field. Size, fit, weight and of course price, are all factors. My favourite so far is the Ortovox Freerider series, which comes in a 24 and 26L pack.

The basics of airbags are much the same, but the Freerider stands out due to a number of extra features, giving you more flexibility and efficiency when you need it most. Many airbags only have a diagonal ski carry option (which I personally find quite an unbalanced position) due to the need for the airbags to inflate on the sides of the pack, and therefore blocking the popular A-Frame ski carry option. The Freerider however, offers an X-frame option which enables an equal amount of weight distribution on both shoulders for those longer hikes. Further, the release handle can be used on the left or the right shoulder strap (nice thought for the cack-handers out there, *thanks*). The back protector can be removed and/or worn separately, and the airbag system itself can be removed, giving users the chance to use it a regular backpack for less hardcore days. Thanks to the wide hip strap, the fit is also super comfortable.

The main downside of this pack? It’s HEAVY. It’s 2. 5 kilos just by itself, before you’ve chucked in a probe, shovel, some water and an extra layer. It’s still early days for the airbag industry, but weight is the focus for everyone at the moment. Clearly, it’s not really an argument if it saves your life, but if weight is an issue for you, have a look into Scott’s Air Free AP Alpride airbag. It’s one of the lightest on the market.

Prices online range from £450 – £580 (cartridges are sold separately).

 

Pieps iProbe

iprobe_1_carbon260_open

Once switched on in an emergency, this electronic avalanche probe gives out varying beeps depending on how close it is to a buried beacon, and hopefully helping the user navigate quicker to a buried victim. The iProbe is compatible with any beacon on the market, although if you use a Peips beacon, the iProbe comes with a useful feature of being able to deactivate the buried beacon once found, making it easier to locate others in a multiple burial situation.

Prices online start at around £70.

 

Nikon 1: AW 1

AW1_11_27.5_WH_frt34l.high

Now, it’s not ski specific, but I’ve had a few adventure buddies on the lookout for a robust, weatherproof, nimble, camera that’s not too bulky as to weigh down their pack, but that also doesn’t sacrifice on quality if it’s a little on the smaller side. Something between a DSLR and a compact/pocket camera, that’s intuitive and relatively easy to use. Enter Nikon 1. This mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera will give you 14.2 megapixels and full HD video to play with, alongside features including built-in wifi and a geotag feature enabling users to share as they go. It’s waterproof down to 15 metres, shockproof, dustproof and freezeproof.

This is the sturdy snapper you need for those long hikes and long ski days, when lightweight is everything. But the weight isn’t the only up-side. This little gadget boasts 15 frames per second with AF, (compared to my heavy weight Nikon which currently does 3) and allows for JPEG, as well as RAW image capture. It’s forte is action, and comes with a Slow View feature, so you can pick the best shot on the reel during high speed moments.

The design of the camera has also taken into account the user wearing gloves, allowing some aspects of playback and function to be processed by tilting the camera, rather than trying to press small buttons.

Price: £549

 

So, there it is. These guys prove that skiing and tech both have the potential to bring out the best in each other. Sure, there’s still a little trial and error during this ‘getting to know you’ stage, but who knows, maybe Rollerman and his Buggy Ski are really on to something.

Maybe. But not quite yet…

A Spring time day tour: Les Grandes Aiguilles

 Leon1

When the the warm air blows in, the lawn mowers fire up and the snow line gets higher, there comes the realisation that it’s time to work that little bit harder for your turns.

With ski buddy Leon, we decided to check out an area behind Bourg St Maurice, a mountain that stands proudly in the way of the Mont Blanc Massif: Les Grandes Aiguilles, otherwise known as The Big Needles (sounds a bit more dramatic in French…).

We drove up a beautiful, if slightly tight and winding summer track, which led us past the tiny French village of Versoye. In winter, this road is often too blocked with snow to drive much of the way up. It’s this time of year that it gets all Goldilocks and the balance is just right: enough snow has melted from the road to be able to access the terrain, but there’s also still enough white stuff on the hill left to ski on.
image
As we pulled in near to the snow line, there were other cars parked there too – always a good sign – and after kitting up on the grass, we started our ascent to see what was round the corner.
 Leon4
Reassuringly, about an hour in of rhythmic one foot in front of the other steps, we saw a few locals skiing down and a couple stopped on their way by.
 image

First, there was French Senior wearing an old pisteur jacket and a beaten red rucksack, both from circa 1982. He was well-weathered and looked delighted to be out on the hill as he descended towards us. After a smile and a “bonjour” he gesticulated towards the heavy snow with much enthusiasm. He was on his way almost as soon as he arrived, and we nodded towards him and wished him a “bonne journee!” A few minutes later, a French lady approached us and was shortly followed by her furry mountain dog. Despite looking like a wee, round bear, the dog looked worn out, panting away and gulping down mouthfuls of snow, while she spoke to us about how long it would take us to summit. Another hour and a half, it turned out.

As she skied away I was quick to pull out The Ballast to capture her, her bounding dog and the patches of light moving across the hillside.

DSC_0891
We decided it was too late to summit. It was warming up and the clouds were slowly building. We headed up a little further above a small gorge, until it joined and we could get to the other side to start our descent after over 2 hours of skinning up.
Man, that snow was heavy on the way down.
 Leon2
Then the snow ran out.
But no matter. We were outside, making our own way up and our own lines down, whether that was on skis, or on now very muddy ski boots.
 Leon5
Sometimes, the little adventures are just as memorable as the big ones.
 Leon3

Les Arcs day tour: Crête des Lanchettes escapism

image

Sometimes, it doesn’t always go to plan. Whether it’s a day trip or a season, sometimes, expectations run just little too high and bam, there you are on yer face, wondering what Plan B was.

Then once in a while, a day out comes along and makes it better. Just like that.

This week included one of those days. After what seemed like more than a while, the sun was out and it was blinding. By mid morning, the bags were swiftly packed for a day of Les Arcs touring.

We headed to the top of Grand Col, then Leon and I traversed skiers left, and boot packed to the top of an untouched run. The snow was a little wind affected on this particular aspect and the hike was tough. But the ride down was worth the sweat. With nobody else around, we put in some big fresh lines down into the valley below. After an “oh my GAD” and a brief stop to take in our vast, serene surroundings, the skins came out, the layers came off and we zig zagged our way up the other side.

image

image
It’s always the last couple of steps of a skin up that screw you over.

From here it was a beauty of a run down, where I took the photo at the top of this post, and post-snap, it was another beefy skin up, back into resort. (Here’s a video edit of the day).

Some folks ask if I’m tired of skiing. Without sounding like one of those heinous philosophical ski movie monologues, the answer is this: being on planks, away from the crowds, is freedom. It’s therapy. It’s a natural reset button. The mountains can conjure up all kinds of hope, elation, nervousness, joy, disappointment, fear, peace, excitement and the rest. But when you’re wondering what Plan B is, being able to find a quiet valley, looking across an expanse of peaks and fields of untouched snow, breathing deeply, taking in the brisk mountain air and being allowed to play in this still mountainscape, for me is brief, glorious escapism.

image

 

 

 

This one time, at X Games…

WDd2

Last week came the news that 13-year-old Estonian Kelly Sildaru had won gold at the Aspen X Games for the women’s freeski slopestyle event. Here’s her winning run if you haven’t seen it. 13 years old. THIRTEEN. For me, 13 was when dreams were made of Leonardo DiCaprio and Haribo, and my main concern was which scented gel pen to use at school the next day. Yep, that’s what I was doing at 13, not really winning international competition hardware.

My first experience of the X games was in Tignes in 2010 (from a spectator point of view, obvs). The camera was a little less bashed and the beer stamina was far more on point. But fresh from studying photography, I took along The Ballast, set on finding something to frame.

After watching this years X Games I thought I’d dive into the archives, and found this photograph. Kelly may have won gold at 13. But at 28, I’ve just got myself a new watermark, and that’ll do me nicely, thanks.