Half term is one of the busiest weeks of the skiing season – last season a combination of increasing frustration at the cost of mountain food and drinks and long queues left us wondering if we could find a better solution for skiing at this time of year.
Last summer we combined a beach holiday with a few days in the Pyrenees and we stayed in a lovely old spa village, St Lary. When I mentioned to my friends that we had decided to return to there to ski for our family holiday, most looked blank with no idea where we were heading! A local journalist friend of mine who lives near Toulouse had skied St Lary last winter informed me that the locals February break was actually the week after the UK half term – that made me think we’d chosen well, as I knew many other regions of France had the same half term as UK meaning the routes down to the Alps would be busy.
We felt pretty smug with our choice of a Sunday scheduled flight to Toulouse compared to images coming up on social media of traffic queues around Reims and chain-donning self-drivers caught in heavy snow in the Tarentaise valley.
Our drive to St Lary was easy. There’s no hair pin bends to navigate, most of the 1hr 45 journey is on the A64 autoroute and then a 20 minute drive up the valley, past some beautiful old villages takes you in to St Lary. The main village sits at just over 600m, it is hard to tell how much snow is on the mountains as you cannot see the main ski area from the town. We arrived at dusk and I could see a little fresh snow with a clear snow line running horizontally across the forests above the village.
We’d chosen not to ski at Christmas/New Year this season due to a friend’s wedding and various other family commitments; as we’d loved the hotel we stayed in during our summer break, we decided to treat ourselves to the same 4* hotel in the village, the Mercure Sensoria, with its huge family rooms and excellent food.
In the summer we had seen the cable car heading up the mountain about 200m away from the hotel and thought this was to be our route up to ski but on arrival we spotted a different telecabine literally right opposite the hotel, we were all excited about that for a speedy first lift of the day and minimal ski boot walking for everyone.
The ski hire shop was next door to the hotel and I’d pre ordered the equipment we needed which was all ready for us with no queuing, bliss.
Once up on the mountain the new six man chair seemed the logical route to take. We could see the ski school groups using the area above Pla d’Adet but the new Bouleaux chair skirts the side of this area and after a quick warm up run, we headed left along ‘Corniche’ blue all the way across the mountain and on down to the Portet bubble. The weather was fairly ‘socked in’ – snowy, windy and cold so the bubble was a welcome warm up for us all. We even popped in to the little cafe at the Portet lift station for hot chocolates – a fantastically French and friendly, tiny bar!
From the top of Portet bubble the Mirabelle red down to the Soumaye chair was perfect for our small group. We found fresh powder to play in which had accumulated overnight and really enjoyed lunch at the ‘Les Trois Guides’ restaurant. A few runs later and another long blue traverse took us all the way back to the telecabine to head down to the hotel (there is no ski run to the base) for afternoon pancakes cooked to order on the griddle.
Looking at the piste map that evening, and with a clearer second day ahead, we could see there was another whole area to discover ‘Le Vallon’. The same uplift route took us to the top of the Soumaye chair but this time we dropped down the black soumaye run from the top of this summit (invisible in the cloud the previous day). My youngest struggled a bit on the steepest section but after a few nervous snow plough turns he was safely down and schussing across to the ‘Glacier’ button lift. The pistes were empty – great fun cruising blue and red runs with hardly anyone on them and gorgeous panoramic views from the top.
We managed to get everyone at least halfway up the steepest button lift (!) to take the red run l’oule to Refuge de L’Oule for lunch. The most beautiful run through the woods and a short pole along the cliff side path at the end brings you to this special spot. Perched above the lake, this refuge is definitely one not to miss in St Lary. Lovely terrace, more great views and a good selection of food (self service). Less confident skiers can download on the Lac two-man chair which we did later in the week and everyone who skis down has to take the chair back up to connect back in to the main ski area.
For the four days we skied St Lary, we found plenty on the mountain to enjoy – having our own car rental meant we could explore two nearby ski resorts (more of that another time). We only had one major queue and that was on our last day when the sun was shining and the locals were out in force, but with the new six man chair we weren’t queuing for long.
With swimming in the thermal spa alongside the hotel (Sensoria Rio) – whose water comes from a nearby well emerging at a toasty 32 degrees (from 1200m deep)- the children were really happy – built to look like a series of caves with jets and currents it was full of playing small people, but the adult sauna, gym and separate pool offer more peaceful options. We only made the short walk into town twice – this was busy with an ice rink, jazz band playing and lots of shops with open fronts selling local produce: the black pig in all its forms, delicious cheeses and homemade nougat and another speciality from the area ‘gateau a la broche’ – like a Christmas tree-shaped cake.
As the professional ski circuit hit Kitzbuhel, Austria for the infamous Hahnenkamm, with big name skiers getting injured on the mountain in tough conditions; just across the Alps, in Switzerland, a ski race on the amateur level was taking place. No less impressive in its backdrop or in the numbers taking part – this was ‘The Inferno’.
Now running in its 73rd year, The Inferno, in Mürren, combines tricky steep downhill skiing sections with stamina challenges over uphill stretches and long straight schuss’ to test the legs. This year’s race had the finish set at ‘Winteregg’, just 9.5km long (rather than the 14.9km when snow allows a finish at the bottom of the valley in Lauterbrunnen). The 2016 winner’s time, just 8.16 minutes, but more on that later.
Last year I posted a photo on the Mürren Facebook page and won a VIP place in this year’s Inferno ski race. That meant I had a very special start time of 8.56am, but what a double edged sword that turned out to be.
All VIPs (a mix of media, sponsors, photographers and me), as well as the ski patrol and the big Inferno chief Christoph Egger, had to be on the first cable car up the mountain at 7.10am. Skating on my race skis through the pretty, sleeping Mürren village in the dark, just before 7am was a strange experience – nerves already kicking in, I’d barely slept a wink and had woken practically every hour to make sure I hadn’t slept through the alarm.
Birg, the mid station at 2677m glowed in the darkness as we arrived into the rock face. Then, with just a few minutes wait we were on our way up the second cable car to the restaurant, Piz Gloria, at the Schilthorn, at 2970m. It was just after 7.30am and a strong wind didn’t do much for my nerves, the cable car bumping sideways into the top station.
Shortly after breakfast, Egger took to the microphone to explain, to nobody’s surprise, that due to bad weather, the race would have to be delayed without doubt and dependent on a helicopter being able to fly, the course may be moved lower down the mountain.
As the restaurant vibrated to the blast of avalanche bombs we knew that the chopper was out there making the course safe for the 1850 racers. Then the announcement came that we had lift-off, as it were, albeit with an hour’s delay.
Just after 10am, the first racers set off down the Inferno ski course. The top schuss was clear of the thick cloud that had been billowing in and out all morning. My early start number, a confusing number ‘1819’ meant i was about the 30th racer down the course. In my head I’d envisioned a corduroy course and a faster time (this being my 6th consecutive year of racing, but not with this early start).
The top section of my race went ok. My skis wobbled a bit on the first steep pitch before the long schuss, which was unnerving. After the second schuss and climb out I was pretty tired, but nothing prepared me for the thick cloud, snow and fog which appeared as I careered around the corner above the narrow Kanonenrohr section. My goggles had completely fogged up and were snowed over, I could not see anything between the gates and the blue painted lines on the snow that show the course had vanished. I found myself stationary without a clue where I was.
Trying not to panic I sort of snowploughed around for a bit and suddenly saw someone way over to my left (skiers are set off in roughly 12 second intervals). Realising I was way off track I skidded through the narrowest section of the course, veered way off the next section and before I knew it was on the ‘shoulder’ at the top of the Allmendhubel funicular, normally a place for tucking straight for the crowd followed by a huge left bend. I managed the tuck – see picture below – but was too late to get much speed up for the climb up ‘woodcutters’. After a slow climb and a painful few last piste stretches, and one final uphill climb to Winteregg – I’d pretty much written off my run. At 16 minutes and 17 seconds this my slowest time and worst Inferno race ever.
copyright image Robert Webb
Less than two hours later, the weather had cleared and my friends were flying down with super-fast times. I was pretty gutted for myself, having had high hopes with my special early start number, but the feeling didn’t last long as the local bands started playing, the beer started flowing and the camaraderie of everyone supporting each other took over.
image copyright Rhan Francis
Everyone has an inferno story, a tough climb, a fall on the corner, a faster time, a slower time. The Inferno 2016 winner, Brian Brog from Meiringen, came through in bib no 1753 at around 4pm in 8 minutes and 16 seconds – the temperature having dropped and the course running faster as the day progressed.
Cheers went up just before this for the main ‘celebrity’ racer of the day, Pippa Middleton. She had raced all three events in the Inferno, the x-country, the GS and then this main downhill event. Her first Inferno and she completed it in just over 12 minutes.
Image Copyright Rhian Francis
I guess I’ll just have to go back and try again next year!
After a short hike uphill and along a 500m traverse to the left, we stepped over the small snowy pass and looked towards an open plateau. We were greeted with views over to the Bec du Bosson hut – a breath-taking panoramic with the Zinalrothorn, Weisshorn, Dent Blanche and even (in the far distance) Mont Blanc peaks all in view.
Nick Parks, a mountain guide who set up Grimentz Zinal Backcountry Adventures last winter (and also of Mountaintracks) had brought us up to this area to ski the Torrent de Lano route back down to Grimentz from behind the Bec du Bosson mountain. There hadn’t been any fresh snow for at least 10 days, so picking the best routes is tricky stuff for guides who have clients after those perfect days on the mountain all week.
The previous day without our guide, we had cruised the pistes and ‘side country’ as Nick calls it – chalky, grippy snow on the sides of the pistes made it easier to navigate than the super steep pistes in Zinal, and especially the Chamois run to Grimentz which was like an ice rink in places. Grimentz has more pistes than Zinal, long sweeping reds and a small children’s area at the base area, but it is still small compared to the huge French linked resorts. No queues, few people. We loved it!
Back to our guided day beyond Bec du Bosson – we had an insider with us, Ray, ex-Chamonix ski bum who moved to Zinal a few years back for different terrain and less people. Instead of negotiating the slippery black Chamois piste down to Grimentz, he took us to a little area he had skied the day before and there, for a handful of turns, we had… powder! Incredible after such a snow-free time. This, we are told, is typical of this Val d’Anniviers region – if you know where to go with a guide or, as we had, our very own local ski bum for the day! Beyond the powder field, Ray and Nick took us down through the trees, bush-hopping at times but again through lovely deep powder snow and finally emerging out on the track to Grimentz.
Back to our hike… with skis back on, we headed down the open plateau, not a person in sight apart from our little group – down firm ‘spring’ snow, gradually making our way to the steeper narrower section, following Nick, picking the best route through the valley. Some touring tracks in the distance were the only sign that other people had been in this area.
Half way down, Ray and Nick’s wife Nicky, who had also come with us for the day, split left and took a steeper route down a couloir which they hadn’t skied before, and which we subsequently named ‘Ray’s couloir’. Watching from below they had perfect spring snow, avoided the scratchy gulley which we had side-slipped through and joined us on the main run out of the valley.
In Grimentz we sat outside the Hotel Alpina in the spring sunshine and looked back up to see the huge mountain we had descended, a fantastic feeling!
These big mountain descents are what make this area special – wild mountains with mixed terrain – steeps, trees, open plateaus and few people. It’s a valley which is relatively untouched by tourism. Mostly simple chair lifts and long single button lifts, although the opening of last year’s 32 million cable car link from Grimentz to Zinal has made moving between the two areas much quicker and easier.
Across the valley, Nick shows us the mountains along the Imperial Haute Route, less well known than the popular Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route – it looks impressive.
On the slopes, there is a noticeable lack of ‘on mountain’ restaurants, just the 60s built cafeteria style buildings at the base of each resort and perhaps one in each resort higher up the slopes (Orzival at Grimentz and La Marmotte in Zinal). But step further afield with a guide and you can find the gems.
“L’Ecurie” with its charming owner Etienne, is cooking up a storm with his flame-fried Rosti – locally made cognac thrown over – served with succulent, local pork stew. Snow shoe-ers walk up for lunch, and two days earlier we’d skied down another lovely long off piste route ‘Orzival’ to find the little restaurant above St Jean.
Our final treat after our back country ski was back in Zinal, at ‘La Marmotte’ where there was a real sense of spring and the end of the season. A local accordion band was playing beside the restaurant and a few couples joined in to dance. The biggest paella-style pan was serving delicious plates of huge garlic and butter-fried prawns, and parapents were flying close overhead. Ray had fetched up his dog Saffy and we relaxed together in the afternoon sun. A perfect end to probably my last ski of the season.