Trip Report: Ski Vacation to France Part II

After eating a wonderful meal at La Cremailliere we met up with Thomas Barnier, former professional French Freestyle skier who now works as a ski instructor. Thomas met us at the top of one of the lifts of Avoriaz. Avoriaz is part of the Portes du Soleil, one the largest ski areas in the world with 12 interconnected resorts in France and Switzerland and over 650 km of slopes.

Shall we ski in France or Switzerland? Photo credit Scott Shepler.

Our group of 12 was here to ski/snowboard the alps by day and eat our way through the regional specialties, especially the cheese and wine, by night. Avoriaz (pronounced “ah-vor-ee-ah”) also sounds like it could have figured prominently in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy e.g. “on the third day look north to Avoriaz for help.” Anyway, we were greeted by Thomas who was tall, had long hair, a surfer accent in French and English, and was wearing the nearly calf-length red parkas of the ESF (Ecole de Ski Française). Thomas is the close friend of a friend of mine named Sylvain, a musician who sells vegetables at the farmers market for Denis Dutruel, my former boss.

Thomas, with his duster style ski jacket, looked like some kind of ski cowboy. Photo credit Nick Green.

Thomas began our lesson by talking about the principles of carving, of edging our skis, keeping our weight forward, flexing our legs. This group was all experienced skiers and were all familiar with carving. Thomas led us on slope to watch us carve. The sloped he happened to pick (on purpose I am quite certain) had about the same incline as a road in Kansas on its way to Missouri. Lacking any speed (mostly we were poling to arrive at the lift) we had scant opportunity to carve, though we did manage. At the bottom of the “slope” Thomas greeted us each individually.
“Aaron did you feel the sensation of carving” he asked.
“Oh yeah, I definitely felt it, lots of carving going on, I love to carve” we responded (or some version of that answer).
“No you weren’t carving, I was watching you and you didn’t carve at all!” Thomas rebuked us.

“What? I thought I was carving” says Nick. Photo credit Aaron Schorsch.

After that he had our attention (I guess he figured that since we were all accomplished skiers we would be reluctant to accept his teaching, unless he crushed our egos a little). Luckily, he took us on some steeper slopes where we could show off our carving techniques. Then he did a mogul workshop with us, showing us how to put our weight in the front part of skis and swing the backs around. He was enthusiastic and doled out compliments, but there was always his no-nonsense side with quick, unequivocal corrections at the ready.
“The moment your weight is in your heels, its too late!” he told us.
We were preparing for a guided backcountry 20-kilometer-long descent of the famous Vallée Blanche on the Mont Blanc Massif. This is an optional day trip and is for strong intermediate or better skiers and snowboarders who have some experience skiing “hors piste” (off piste, not “horse piss” as one of group wrongly claimed). Our preparation involved skiing our way through various resorts in the Portes du Soleil area, even make a good-sized loop into Switzerland and back in a day. At the French resort of Châtel we found some good fresh powder, and everyone got a chance to work on their off piste powder skiing technique. There were some spills on a steep run through some sheltered glades but mostly the group look somewhat competent.

We were mostly getting better…Photo credit Scott Shepler.

Raclette cheese is quite mild in a solid state but when melted this creamy cheese has all kinds of delicious flavors! Photo credit Lily Zhang.

We were also preparing by eating delicious sausages, lots of pastries, some beautiful salads, and Raclette (cheese scraped onto boiled potatoes and served with huge platters of charcuterie, cornichons, and pickled onions). Raclette is from the French and Swiss Alps and was originally a dish that herders made while up in the high pastures. They would place a half-wheel of cheese with the flat (cut) side next to an open fire. When the edge exposed to the fire started to bubble and melt they would scrape (“racle” in French) the cheese onto bread or boiled potatoes.

You can use a raclette machine that holds a half wheel of cheese on an incline and has a heating element that recreates the open fire. However, most raclette machines are an electric broiler that you place in the center of the table and can place small pans containing a slice of cheese (Raclette is now a type of cheese, but others will work as well) to let it melt and bubble. When eating that much cheese, charcuterie and rich food it is important to drink enough wine. The group followed that advice to the “t”.

Scott says: “Mark, can I go on the Vallee Blanche descent? Please…” Photo credit Sue Shepler.

The descent of the Vallee Blanche is weather-dependent, and I had been in touch with our French high-mountain guides, Ludovic and Fix. Our arranged day was Wednesday and the weather was looking very promising. We had an early departure to travel the 1 hour to Chamonix. Ludovic and Fix suggested that everyone obtain skis that were at least 90mm underfoot as there was a good chance of encountering lots of fluffy fresh powder.

The entry to the Vallée Blanche is impressive and beautiful. Photo credit Aaron Schorsch.

There was a lot of excitement and nervousness in the group. To enter the Vallée Blanche requires a walk along a very narrow, steep ridge that has a fall of several hundred feet to one side and considerably more on the other side. To be continued…

“What the heck is Upski?”  I asked.

“It comes from your country,” responded Johan quizzically. “I think it started in Colorado and has been around for almost 30 years.”

Upski is a method used to ascend snow-covered mountains via parachute and wind.  It differs from randonée skiing in that it’s easier. It differs from kite skiing in that it is less dangerous.  Upskiing uses a harness attached to a parachute, or canopy (the preferred nomenclature) that can be completely depowered by releasing a Velcro tab that allows the wind to flow through it via an adjustable hole in the middle.  This advantageous feature hopefully helps the user avoid crashing into rocks, plummeting off cliffs, or having to cut the lines.

Catching wind with an Upski can sometimes feel like hooking a big fish!

Catching wind with an Upski can sometimes feel like hooking a big fish!

Saltoluokta is apparently an ideal place to Upski owing to the plethora of treeless, snow-covered mountains and almost constant supply of wind.  While many backcountry skiers will wax poetic about their love of skinning up mountains, most are probably lying, and too broke to afford a lift ticket. I count myself in that proverbial boat.  Skinning up is a good workout and peaceful and blah blah blah. The downhill is what puts the ear-to-ear grin on our faces and the spring in our step.  So Upskiing seems like a sweet deal; let the wind pull you up the mountain, then stow your lightweight nylon canopy in your backpack and ski back down to the bottom to do it all over again.

I had the opportunity to try Upskiing with a small group of beginners led by a Swedish mountain guide and two American Upski ambassadors, imported to introduce people to this newish sport.  In the morning, we packed our canopies and headed up the mountain holding on to a tow rope attached to the snowmobile like a ski train.

Here we come!  A momentary lack of wind causes the canopy to bounce off the ground like a helium balloon on its last legs.

Here we come! A momentary lack of wind causes the canopy to bounce off the ground like a helium balloon on its last legs.

The day started off as one of the most windless we had felt in weeks, making for perfect learning conditions that piqued our desire for more speed.  During most of the first hour we traveled slightly slower than the speed of a walking penguin. There are of course no penguins here; you are thinking of the South Pole which is spelled and pronounced differently from Saltoluokta.  There were moments of ephemeral excitement when a stray gust of wind would momentarily whip up the canopy, the lines would draw taught and we slide along for 20 or 30 meters (that’s right I count in meters now).

When the wind did arrive, our canopies eagerly jumped into the air, pulling us forward with a start.  One can steer the canopy by edging the skis and pulling on the ropes in the direction one wishes to go.  The feeling was exhilarating and with a steady wind the kilometers slip by quickly.

The straps in the middle of the canopy allow for more or less wind power.  Seeing what is ahead of you can be a bit difficult at times...

The straps in the middle of the canopy allow for more or less wind power. Seeing what is ahead of you can be a bit difficult at times…

Due to the speed created by the wind it is extremely advisable to have fixed heel skis (not cross country skis). However, cross country skis are what most people are wearing on their feet here (sometimes even in bed!).  My coworker Mats was eager to try Upskiing. Lacking the necessary equipment, he fashioned a haphazard binding system out of old telemark skis, zip ties, NNN-BC boots (not at all compatible with the telemark bindings), rubber straps, and I think I saw aluminum foil, cornichons, and bobby pins, but I might have had snow in my eyes.

The terrain where we were was only slightly uphill, so I never got to experience a wind assisted summit, but it seems like it could work under the right circumstances.  Perhaps eventually a new breed of wind skiers will be born that enjoy the Upski more than the downski.  Rich Upskiers could even engage in “Heliskiing” (Helicopter skiing). Instead of being dropped off at the top of the mountain, they would be picked up there!

If I wake up a 6:30 am I have time for a ski tour before I start work at 11 am.  I have skied most of the close, smaller, peaks around Saltoluokta, but larger peaks are visible in all directions, some of them with ideal slopes for skiing.  The biggest visible peak is Måskostjåhkå, which measures a little over 1400 m and is completely above tree line.  The approach to the base is about 5 km long over gently sloping terrain and the ascent has two steep parts and then follows a ridgeline to the pointy top.  My friend Sofia had a day off on Friday, and I rearranged my schedule to start at 3 pm instead of 11 am. Tommy, the head chef, gave us a ride in a sleigh pulled behind his snowmobile. In addition to Sofia and her border collie, Vessla, there were two other coworkers that came along for the snowmobile transport, necessitating two sleighs.  Even though the terrain was not very steep the smaller snowmobile had problems pulling the load, so we periodically had to jump off and push up the steeper parts.

Måskostjåhkkå at 1420m catches sun and beckons to be skied.

Måskostjåhkkå at 1420m catches sun and beckons to be skied.

Wind is very common in the mountains and it whipped at us as we rode in the sleighs, sitting cross-legged on reindeer skins, our backs to the wind.  Fortunately the wind was not so strong, and it was blowing in clear skies, a welcome sight.  Forty minutes of riding (and pushing) brought us to the base of Måskostjåhkkå where our two friends donned their skinny touring skis and set off back towards the lodge.  Tommy loitered for a moment; snapping pictures of us and watching reindeer make their way up a steep slope.  Sofia and I did an avalanche beacon check, strapped on our backpacks, and clicked into our skis.  We looked at the topo map and chose a route that would afford us the most protection from avalanches, opting to avoid a ravine and instead traverse a wind-scoured slope.  A group of seven reindeer had chosen the same path and were steadily traversing the slope single file. We waited for them to reach the top and then set off following their tracks.

Snowmobile transport makes the approach quicker.

Snowmobile transport makes the approach quicker.

Thousands of acres of un-skied snow awaited us; only reindeer stealing our powder turns.  Fortunately the reindeer are very considerate of powder conservation, consistently walking in each other’s footprints.  Our first traverse was the steepest of the day, but the reindeer had chosen an elegant line and the snow had a firm base with about 4 inches of soft snow on top, promising blissful turns on the descent.  At the top of the first pitch we picked our way through rock gardens on a plateau while heading towards the next pitch, which also proved to have a layer of soft snow.  At the top it became icy and windblown and we erred in our route and had to remove our skis and walk over wind exposed rocks for several hundred meters before clicking back into our skis.

Sophia and I layered up and ready to gain elevation!

Sofia and I layered up and ready to gain elevation!

The approach to the summit was gradual, but the snow was carved in windblown chunks, that looked not unlike currents in a river.   Vessla the border collie loped in front of us, occasionally pausing to roll in the snow.  We traveled along the bumpy snow for about half an hour, steadily gaining altitude until the top of the mountain was visible.  Here the snow was harder and wind-carved more dramatically and ornately, resembling sea corral in places.  The wind was strong enough to occasionally blow my hood off.  The weather had been cloudy with occasional bursts of sun, but as we reached the summit, the clouds cleared and we were treated with a magnificent view.

Sophia with lots of snow and mountains behind her.

Sofia with lots of snow and mountains behind her.

We donned extra layers and ate an early lunch out of the wind under the watchful eye of Vessla.  The decent of the upper section was much better than expected.  The wind carved snow was soft enough to break through and didn’t throw our skis off course.  We skied the bumps, occasionally getting air as we carved our way down.  We picked our way through a few rock gardens before reaching the first steep downhill.  The snow was soft and the angle was perfect for controlled turns with lots of speed.

Vessla with her snow makeup on.

Vessla with her snow makeup on.

Vessla ran hard to follow us as we gleefully made arcs.  A long traverse followed, ending at another excellent slope with great snow.  We had reached the point where Tommy had left us with the snowmobile but we were able to continue downhill for another half mile or so. We followed a shallow ravine that snaked its way through the foothills and deposited us out in a small flat valley floor.

Back down on the valley floor.Back down on the valley floor.

Skins were reapplied to our skis and we crossed the valley and climbed a small hill on the far side.  From here we could see Saltoluokta lodge below and to the east.  We removed the skins and tackled crusty snow, our tired legs fighting their way down the last long descent.  The slope eventually led into a dwarf birch forest where we found better snow.  Without the firm snow below, Vessla labored to keep up.  Sometime it looked more like she was swimming than running.  Finally the trees and slopes disappeared and we emerged onto the frozen lake that Saltoluokta fjällstation overlooks.  We skated on our skis for the final leg of the journey.

JokkmokkSpring2014 176

Back at the frozen lake!

I had time to eat a hearty lunch of moose stew with mashed root vegetables, take a shower and a quick nap before starting work.  My legs were tired but my mind was carefree and happy, a great way to start work.  Should I consider this trip as my commute?