Friday, April 24, 2009

From Z to A ... a trip report from the motherland

by John Atkinson

Zermatt to the Argentierre Glacier, that is.

Hannah and I recently celebrated our upcoming July betrothal with an early honeymoon to Europe. Given that we were on a well-deserved (and mellow) vacation, our goals did not include major extreme routes, so don't expect any 50 degree couloirs or 50 foot bergschrund hucks. That's for another trip. However, do expect deep culture, fun skiing, inspiring landscapes and a little amour. Tres bien!

A little powder on the Grand Montets ...

As I was packing for the trip, I realized that this was not just a personal pilgrimage to one of skiing's major meccas, all my gear was returning home too.

Garmont boots are designed and made in Italy, Dynastar skis are born in the Chamonix Valley and of course Mammut is a Swiss company. In fact, I couldn't believe how much Mammut has a presence in these areas.

Welcome back to the motherland!


Arriving in Geneva, we spent a night in this cool city and then boarded a train to Zermatt.

Geneva ... extreme traveling.

We only had time for one run on our first day, so we went right to the top of the Kleine Matterhorn cable car at 12,500'. That's 7000' of skiing back to town.

Good thing I've been training with non-stoppers on Liftline and Ripcord all season. The weekly skinning missions and sporadic gym time helped too.
I've had great results using ginseng to prevent altitude issues and experienced no problems going from basically sea level at JFK to this elevation in just over a day. If you don't like diamox and don't have a history of altitude-induced edema, it may work for you too.
As we stood on top, with so much mountain below us, we were reminded of just how insignificant and fragile we really are. Despite the close proximity of civilization, you could quickly disappear here and never be found. Between the real dangers of glaciated terrain and the pure vastness, we decided not to wander very far on the first run.

However, even on-piste, the views were pretty special. The Matterhorn dominates the skyline, even when it's mostly hidden.

We skied down and down and down, eventually getting near the bottom, where we began to see restaurants along the edge of the trail. Rounding a corner, we ran into a full-blown raging party, complete with an English band playing '80's cover tunes.

Sweet child o' mine, normally we wouldn't stop for this kind of fun, but when in Rome ... Hennu Stall rocked!

We spent the next day exploring Zermatt and wandering over the Italian border to the Cervinia ski area.

Two ski areas, two countries, two prosciutto and brie sandwiches at a mountaintop refuge, too much vertical, too many runs, too much fun! We skied almost all the way around the Matterhorn.

While on a cable car on the way to the top, I overheard a woman talking about skiing at Sugarbush. Half a world away and we're still close to home.

With our wanderlust partially satisfied, we decided to look for good snow and sunshine for our final day in Zermatt. We found it. Plus, we found another cool restaurant to chill our hot feet. Lots of corny vertical builds up quite a thirst! With appropriate gratitude and reverence, we started calling it "our daily beer."

It's funny how "off-piste" in Europe may be right under a lift. The hazards are clear though, you need to duck under a rope every time you leave a piste. No mistake about who is responsible for your actions.
We saw a lot of helicopter rescues and very few ski patrol. We also bought the rescue insurance and had conversations with locals about our liability-based system. No matter how hard we tried to illuminate them, they couldn't understand the logic. Frankly, after trying to explain it, I don't understand it anymore either.
Personal responsibility rules!

Fun is universal. These kids were pounding away at each other with snowballs, providing entertainment for the adults wining and dining just below them.

All too soon, we ran out of time and trail. Yes, it was a little bit of a bummer, but rain was moving in and the Easter weekend crowds were growing rapidly.

Oh well, on to the Burgerbad hot springs!

This was a true bouillabaisse of European, and thanks to us, North American, germs. Yummy!

However, the hot water did wonders for sore muscles. We felt like pruny jellyfish after an hour and a half of soaking.

The floating relaxation helped work up an appetite too.

Did I mention that meat, cheese, beer and wine are the four basic food groups in Europe? Cigarettes and coffee are also primary sources of nutrition. We tried to avoid the tabac, but heartily sampled the espresso.

We spent the night in Martigny and then jumped on a train to Chamonix from there. The ride up the valley was incredible, with sheer walls on either side that were covered by farms.

The extensive hand-built terracing mellowed the terrain a little, but there were extremely steep pastures, vineyards and fields being cultivated. Later in Chamonix, our buddy Dean would describe how surprised he was to see summer herds of cows at 11,000 feet at the top of some of the gnarliest ski runs.

We had to change to a bus then wait for another train to get into Chamonix proper, so we decided to have lunch at the stop. The proof that we were leaving staid Switzerland and entering freaky France was when our waiter appeared.

Bonjour! Comment t'allez-vous?

A plate of meat, a bowl of melted cheese and some boiled potatoes ... health food! I came very close to doubling my lifetime consumption of proscuitto and other similar ham products on the trip.

By the way, I have to applaud the French for not pulling any punches when it comes to bacon. Their word for bacon is "lard." Mmmm, lard.

Soon, we entered Chamonix, got off the train, grabbed our key to the apartment we rented and settled in. The Aiguille Du Midi and Mount Blanc were literally in our backyard.

Welcome to advanced base camp!

Very civilized.

Downtown Chamonix ... not a bad seat in the house.

We woke the next morning to bright skies, although our plan to go up the Aiguille du Midi had to change because of persistent clouds around the summit area.

Sugarbush Coach Dean Decas, the unofficial American Ambassador to Chamonix, was our fearless and knowledgeable leader. He has spent the last twenty springs in Cham and has the place dialed.

It was great to reconnect with him on the other side of the pond after many adventure together in the Green Mountains. We even visited a moose in Slide Brook the last time we skied together in March.

Hannah was happy to get some hiking in and check out the views of the rooftop of the Alps.

"We're going down there. Careful of the crevasses, ice and sun-affected snow. Have fun!"

"Down there" was a long way to go. Lots of different couloirs, faces and snowfields. Nicely steep, not too soft yet. All right!

After a couple of hikes and runs though, the sun started get to the lower elevatiuons and we decided to hightail it out of there.

That's a four foot crown of an avalanche that ran all the way to the ground, without a human trigger. This slide happened some time between one run and the next.

This area is also where Dean was recently flushed over a 25 foot cliff in an avalanche. Despite the locals calling this spot "Mini-Golf" due to its relatively small size compared to the rest of Chamonix's gnarl, it proves that even small fractures can be dangerous. Sometimes more so, because it can be easier to let our guard down.

Headed towards the Grand Montets!

Grand Montets hors piste. Big seracs and hidden crevasses kept up on our toes.

On the way down to the bottom after a day of sweet turns, Dean pointed out a local legend. Maybe you've heard of Sylvain Saudan? The Skier of the Impossible, himself! It was a real honor to meet him and see that he is still breaking new ground.

Extreme dirt skiing!

Hannah and I explored Le Brevent and Flegere the next day, skiing corn and checking out the enormous views of Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles.

These areas are large in their own right, with lots of great touring possibilities and plenty of challenging skiing.

The next day was raining in town and a whiteout on the mountain. Vertigo isn't all that much fun, so we took a break to rest.

The Grand Montets delivered nicely after the clouds opened up again.

Skiing down the edge of the Argentierre Glacier. Little ants on skis!
Go Muppet! Some stuff was melting out down low.

Hannah was feeling a little worked after the heavy powder the day before, but I wanted to keep the skiing going. While she took a walk in town, I went up Brevent again and did a little straightforward tour off the top of the cable car.
Not too shabby!
When I got down to the turn-around point, I pulled out lunch and started to eat, marveling in the surrounding scenery.
This is St. Gervais, out the end of the Chamonix Valley.
Brevent is a popular parapenter launch, so I wasn't surprised to see a few. However, a few quickly turned into too many to count, as Mont Blanc's skies were engulfed multi-hued nylon.
This is the Aiguille Du Midi from across the Valley.
It was so calm, I could hear them talking to each other. I heard a few whoa's, but otherwise, they flew like birds in a flock.
This turned out to be a competition of some sort and I watched them fly all the way down the Chamonix Valley and out to St. Gervais.
Climbing back up the face, my legs enjoyed some skinning time, working out the lactic acid from several days of cranking turns.

On our last ski day, two Sugarbush regulars, Will and Dave, showed up and Dean led us all around the Grand Montets in a whiteout.
Watch for the seracs and crevasses!
The moon was setting over the Aiguille Du Midi, as we packed up and headed back to Geneva.

These mountains were inspiring from beginning to end and we felt lucky to be able to share them with good friends, both old and new.
Many thanks to Mammut, Garmont, Dean Decas,Vermont North Ski Shop, Alpine Options, Sugarbush Resort, our parents, Paul the caretaker, and all our friends who helped make this trip possible and fun.
Au revoir!