Tag Archives: Skiing

Mid-term in Chamonix

Last week was mid-term and I had a few days skiing in Chamonix in the French Alps. Chamonix lies in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the highest of the Alpine peaks, and the area is famous for its challenging snowsports and mountain climbing. It was surprisingly easy to get to (1 hr 30 mins from Geneva airport) and the skiing certainly didn’t disappoint.

I stayed with my brother and his family in a tiny chalet in Les Praz, a small village just outside the town of Chamonix. The great advantage of this village is that it offers easy access to La Flègere, a large ski area on the opposite side of the valley to the crowds at Chamonix. We had one day’s skiing out of Flegère, another at Argentière, the next resort along the valley, and the final day at Le Tour, further down the valley again.

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The village of Les Praz in Chamonix

The skiing was great in each case; lots of snow, steep pistes  and clear skies almost every afternoon. An extra thrill was the fact that one could ski over the Swiss border and have lunch in Switzerland. Of the three resorts, Flegère was my favourite; plenty of trees, nice unpisted runs under the lifts and not too many people.

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The lonely skier

That said, I retain my preference for skiing in Austria. One reason is that, like many French resorts, Chamonix has relatively few gondolas, a large number of button lifts  and uncovered chairlifts. Button lifts are quite tiring on the feet after a while, while exposed chairlifts can get very cold – a concern at altitudes above 1500 m where the midday temperature is often below -10 degrees Celsius. In Austria, almost all the main resorts have installed a healthy distribution of small, efficient gondolas and covered chairlifts (in the latter case, the chairs are heated by solar panels in the plastic cover). There were also far fewer restaurants and cafes on the Chamonix slopes, which I found quite surprising for such a famous resort (coffee breaks are important for the tired skier). So while the French are justifiably proud of their resorts, I still prefer Austria!

All in all a very good ski holiday, highly recommended…

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Sun, snow and clear skies in Hinterglemm

This week I’m spending half-term in Saalbach in the Hinterglemm valley in Austria. I have a ton of work to do but given the current snow conditions in Europe, I couldn’t resist a cheap last-minute package deal. I’ve never been to Saalbach before and it’s lovely, one of those tiny Austrian towns where the village centre consists of a single cobblestone street lined with traditional buildings (pedestrianized of course), with ski lifts to the peaks branching off at the top and bottom ends of the street.

Saalbach in the Hinterglemm valley

It doesn’t hurt that the British half-term is over; the main language in the resort is German and it seems to be mainly German and Austrian skiers on the slopes, always a good sign. The snow is as good as I expected but visibility was terrible until today. It takes a lot of the fun out of skiing if the light is poor – it makes the skier stiffen up and tire easily (not to mention taking the wrong turn at every intersection). However, the sun was out today and we had a dream combination of clear skies, sun and powder. The weather is expected to remain like this for the rest of the week, yippee.

It really does look like this on a clear day

I usually go skiing with clubs like the Ski Club of Great Britain or the Frankfurt Ski Club, but this week I’m on my own, skiing during the day and studying in the evenings. It sounds better than it is – I’d forgotten how tiring on-piste skiing becomes after a while, a bit like driving on the autobahn except worse because you have to avoid a lot of out-of-control skiers and boarders. Luckily, there are plenty of ‘ski touring’ routes just off the main pistes, always my favourites, with plenty of powder. That said, I’m joining an Austrian group tomorrow for some real off-piste ouch! I know my legs will be jelly after an hour (‘we’ll just walk up to that ridge over there’), but it’s worth doing if only for the views.

Update

The ski-tour turned out to be a sort of group lesson whilst touring around the mountain and was absolutely great. It’s amazing the bad habits that develop if you don’t have a checkup every now and then, I must do this more often. That said, it was no easy stroll through the woods – one of us clocked our group doing a speed 96.7 km/hr down a Schuss!

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Switzerland

This week I’m back in Zermatt, Switzerland, one of my favourite ski resorts. Teaching term ended on March 29th and then it was straight into the Spring Weekend Meeting of the Institute of Physics in Ireland (more on this in next post). I figured I’d be in need of a good holiday after all that so I booked myself a week’s skiing in Zermatt, the famous little town just below the Matterhorn.

On the Dublin-Geneva flight on Monday morning, I found myself sitting next to ‘Lord of the Rings’ Steve Myers! Steve is the director of accelerators at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN; he gave us a fascinating overview talk of the LHC operation at the weekend IoP meeting, so it was certainly an interesting flight..

Gornergrat station and observatory with the Matterhorn in the background

Here in Zermatt, the snow is fine both on- and off-piste, if a bit icy in the mornings and a bit slushy in the afternoons.The Ski Club of Great Britain are here in force as ever, with two different reps, and I’ve been doing plenty of off-piste powder skiing with them  in safe conditions.  It really is a unique service they offer, perfect for the skier who arrives out solo. Not to mention a ready-made gang of fellow skiers to hang out with after skiing..

Off-piste at Stockhorn

Re skis, this year I’ve deserted twin-tips for the Rossignol ‘funski’ – however although they’re lovely and light on the moguls, they’re not really heavy enough for the deeper snow off-piste. Tomorrow I’ll change to a heavier, allround ski by Atomic, best for variable conditions on and off piste.

Zermatt Hauptstrasse

Zermatt itself is as gorgeous as ever, the archetypal Swiss ski resort, with superb restaurants, no cars and unbelievable views. I often come down off the mountain quite early, just to stroll up and down the Hauptsrasse and look at the sights.

News

Tuesday’s LHC switch-on got very good coverage in the French, German and Swiss newspapers on Wednesday. All the big nationals had a picture of the LHC control room on the front page, backed by well written, informed articles. The Irish Times also had a front page picture and some nice articles (including one quoting me on the question of Irish membership of CERN: apparently I’m an eminent scientist) but there was very little coverage in the British papers. As for the Americans, the International Herald Tribune had quite a jaundiced article, emphasising all the faults and delays, explaining none of the science and questioning the rational of the experiments…hmm.

Update

The conditions in Zermatt are so good I’ve stayed on an extra week. Between powder snow, sun and clear skies, it’s hard to leave. Even my hotel is closing for the season today and they’re moving us dedicated skiers to a different place for the rest of the week! I never did change the Rossignol 8O funskis, they just got better an better. Sadly, one of our party twisted a knee in a mogul field yesterday and got helicoptered off; I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened on a softski. Ah well, them’s the risks..

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Skiing in Tignes

College holidays fell early this year so I’m taking my ski holiday before Christmas. On the web last week, I saw a cheap last-minute chalet offer at Tignes, a well-know ski resort in France that is very high so off I went.

So far it’s worked out really well. The ski conditions are very good and there are few other skiers around. No queues and no crazies. One surprise is that the chalet is not actually in Tignes itself but in a village 20 kms away. There are pros and cons to this; it makes it harder to hook up with friends and guides in the Ski Club of Great Britiain as the lifts open late and close early. On the other hand, the village is a far nicer place than Tignes town and there are plenty of people to ski with in the chalet. Even better, I’m staying in a lovely little house in the woods and go down to the main chalet for meals and socializing…perfect.

The village of Les Brevieres near Tignes

Up until now the weather has been beautiful if very cold. Today, the temperature drooped to -26 degrees up top (3000m) which was a little uncomfortable. We stayed on the slopes facing the sun as much as possible but one of our party very nearly got a mild case of frostbite.

The eye of the needle near Tignes

Meanwhile, the recent news from the CERN is good (passing through Geneva airport made me think of the LHC). Last week the collider broke several new energy records, finally bringing us into a long-awaited new regime of high energy physics. Even in this brief period before the Christmas powerdown. a great many particles were detected (‘rediscovered’) whose discovery originally took years of labour. That’s the thing about science, it’s cumulative – each step affirms the former. This is such a nice story, I’ll do a separate post on it in few days.

In a different life, I would be heading off to CERN at Christmas instead of the slopes!

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Back in Switzerland

This week I’m back in Switzerland; in fact I’ve been here a bit more than a week and am not leaving until Sunday. I figured I’d be in need of a good holiday after a busy term and the Institute of Physics Spring Meeting (see previous post) so I booked myself 10 days skiing in Zermatt, the famous little town just below the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn

On piste at the Klein Horn

The snow is fine both on- and off-piste, if a bit icy in the mornings and a bit slushy in the afternoons (I quite like variable conditions).The Ski Club of Great Britain are here in force with two different reps and I’ve been doing plenty of skiing with them on off-piste days. Such a joy to ski with experienced skiers, thanks Alaistair and Chris! (For ski bores out there: I’m trying the K2 Public Enemy twin-tip skis and find them superb for the variable snow, although the plume they kick up in spring snow drives some people nuts). I like the way free-ride technology can work it’s way into the mainstream…

Off-piste at the Stockhorn

Zermatt itself is drop-dead gorgeous, the archetypal Swiss ski resort, with superb restaurants, no cars and unbelievable views. Did I mention the world’s best apres-ski, rockin to an outdoor live band in the serious sun half way up the Matterhorn?

Zermatt Hauptstasse

Update:

It snowed all night on Wednesday. Snow conditions were excellent on Thursday, but visibility was poor.  Today, the sun came out and the conditions were fantastic. Best powder I’ve ever experienced, particularly off-piste. In fact possibly the best skiing I’ve ever had, despite witnessing the best skier of our group take a serious tumble on hidden ice off-piste at Stockhorn – no less than six somersaults on the way to the bottom. Happily, no serious injury resulted…photos to follow!

More ski cronies are arriving late tonight – the Frankfurt Ski Club are due in at midnight on their ski bus (if past trips are anything to go by, most of them will be hammered before they even get off the bus). I have some very good friends in this club; although the actual skiing can be a bit chaotic due to varying levels, the craic is mighty.The Frankfurters are staying until Monday, but yours truly has to finally return to Ireland on Sunday. Ah well, I expect some serious partying on Saturday, my last night in Zer…

And then it’s back to a hysterical week at WIT. The last week of term for the students (and all that entails) + Prof Joan Centrella of NASA’s Goddard Space Centre is giving a talk on Black Hole formation and gravitational waves on Wednesday + Peter Woit of NOT EVEN WRONG is arriving in Ireland on Friday. Jesus. I need a beer…

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Off-piste or piste off?

Yesterday, I was travelling through the snow in beautiful Switzerland once more, returning from the ski resort of Verbier to Geneva airport. The snow was so heavy that some regional trains weren’t working for once, but the pragmatic Swiss laid on extra buses so tourists could make connections with the Intercity trains.

Travelling through Switzerland in the snow

It’s a tale of two holidays. I spent the weekend 13-16th in the lovely Swiss town of Martigny with the Frankfurt International Ski Club. We were bussed into Verbier for skiing every day, but as ever it was the social aspect of the club that stood out (see previous post below). It’s hard to beat staying in a posh hotel with thirty friends from Germany, Britain, the US and other countries, with multiple languages over dinner & drinks every evening. Best of all, the hotel bar happened to be the town hotspot, so we  got to meet plenty of the local Swiss French …

Tooling up before the downhill

The rest of the club returned to Frankfurt on Monday, while yours truly decamped to Verbier village (this week is the midterm holiday for teachers). What a contrast! Verbier is picture postcard pretty but almost entirely anglicised. A huge number of British tourists, and nothing but English spoken in the bars and restaurants. Quite a disappointing village socially, full of young Brits on the piss…

Choclate box -pretty Verbier village

On the other hand, the skiing was fabulous. The Ski Club of Great Britain have a ski rep in Verbier, a service that is very useful for dedicated skiers. Essentially, members are guided around the mountain by an advanced skier who knows the resort well, both in terms of challenging runs and where best to have lunch! It’s also a great way of meeting other skiers of the same level. All week, we got a superb tour of the mountain – plenty of difficult skiing, mostly slightly off-piste, but never too far from the main lifts and pistes…

The only snag was the day we took a tour with a mountain guide. As so often, the guide justified the expense by doing a bit more than we really needed (I sometimes think these guys are so incredibly fit they can’t relate to the rest of us). I’ll ski most things, but I get fed up trudging up steep ridges at high altitude with skis, transciever, probe and shovel on my back, gasping for oxygen at 3000m – all for a few minutes of deep powder. I just don’t have the fitness any more. Basically, I end up more piste off than off-piste!

All in all, it was a great trip in one of my favourite countries. Now it’s back to rainy, monolingual Ireland and endless meetings about cutbacks in college. Sigh. Maybe I should look for a job in CERN…

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The best skitrip

Now that was a holiday. I just got home from one of the best snow holidays ever, a trip to Switzerland with the Frankfurt Ski Club. The club consists of American, British, French and Germans ski enthusiasts who work in Frankfurt and take a coach south to the mountains at every possible opportunity. (Yours truly got involved through a very good friend – I go as often as I can as the trips are always really well organised).

The trip got off to a great start with a gala dinner on New Year’s eve in our hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva. Although I moaned about having to bring a full tuxedo in my ski baggage, I must admit it was nice when I arrived from Zurich to find everyone at the hotel reception dressed to the nines and quaffing champagne. It really added to the occasion and it was great talking to old friends over dinner and making new acquaintances..

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Next day we were bussed to Villars, the nearest ski resort. The conditions were fantastic, lovely deep snow from a recent snowfall and beautiful sunshine. One of the best day’s skiing I ever had. Incredibly, these conditions continued for the next four days as we visited resorts like Verbier and Portes du Soleil. I hooked up with some other off-piste skiers in the club and we had some very challenging skiing, including the famous Wall on the Franco-Swiss border in Portes du Soleil.

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More FSC photos at http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/album.php?aid=71716&id=587171690

At the end of the trip I  took the club coach back to Frankfurt – a first as I’ve never been there! I’d heard it said that the coach journeys are one the best features of the FSC trips and it was certainly true on this occasion – it was more like a mobile bar full of friends than a normal bus journey. When we finally got back to Frankfurt, a few close friends decided to celebrate my arrival in their city, so the party went on til late..

This morning, I woke up in a strange city covered in snow. I made my way into the city center to meet a friend for lunch and then took myself on a mini-sightseeing tour of the city. Frankfurt city centre seemed surpisingly nice – an interesting mixture of beautiful old buildings and impressive new skyscrapers, not unike a large version of the financial district in London. Fantastic public transport of course, like everywhere in Germany.

Frankfurt in snow by Max Heidenfelder

Then it was on to the airport and back to reality. There’s no snow in Waterford and it’s too cold to surf. Sigh. Why can’t I live in a civilised country like Germany? Maybe I should apply for a job at CERN – I’d settle for Geneva alright…

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Winter wonderland

Last week was exam week for our students, so I took the opportunity for a week’s skiing in St Anton in the Austrian Alps. The snow conditions were pretty good as winter came early this year. I also got plenty of off-piste skiing as I was staying with a ski crony who is a guide for the Ski Club of Great Britain. That said, I find a week’s skiing more than enough these days – although I love the snow and the winter atmosphere, skiing itself doesn’t really give me the same rush as surfing, even off-piste

St Anton am Arlberg

As ever, what I enjoyed most was the travel. I flew into Zurich and took the train along the main Zurich-Innsbruck route. You simply haven’t experienced the beauty of winter until you’ve taken this train. The spectacular route through the snow-laden alps has few equals and should be listed as one of the wonders of the world. In fact, it still forms part of the route of the famous Orient Express. If that weren’t enough, I got 3 hours of uninterrupted conversation in my school German with a lovely young Austrian returning from Switzerland to visit her family. That’s why I love to travel in Europe, it’s the people you meet, the languages you hear and the places you see…

Ein Zug im Winter

Even Zurich Hauptbahnhof was a sight to behold, with snow falling heavily outside and the famous Christkindlmarkt in full swing in the great hall. I managed to get quite a good bit of present shopping done before boarding the train.

I read somewhere that the whole White Christmas thing in fact comes from the Alps, got imported to the United States by European immigrants in 19th century, and then got redistributed all over the planet like most American culture. It makes sense, as no-one does Christmas carols, Christmas trees and snow like the German-speaking countries!

After all that, St Anton could only be a let down and it was in a way. There were so many British tourists, I heard remarkably little German. Still, the skiing was good and the journey back a pleasure. Now, I’m back in rainy little Ireland and getting ready to start exam corrrections…groan

P.S. Lisa Lorenz has a nice description of a similar week in St Anton over at her blog Happy Hour. However, I was fascinated to read that she and her party had a totally different experience of the Zurich-St Anton journey. I guess travelling alone is always that bit easier…or maybe I’m the sort of sad person who is never in a rush to arrive at the destination.

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