2010 - Ski Mountaineering in Switzerland

I’d wanted to go ski touring for a couple of years and had booked this trip with the International School of Mountaineering (ISM) the previous year, but my little avalanche incident in Cogne meant that we had to cancel it, so I was really looking forward to getting to Leysin.

Glenys and I bought new touring boots and had spent a couple of days in St Anton “skinning” up the side of pistes to “break” the boots in. It all seemed good fun and the boots were OK, but my heels were lifting, so I stuck some padding onto my inner boot to try to stop it happening. 

We went to Ishgl about a month earlier and spent two more days trying out our boots and getting used to touring skis. Unfortunately, both of us developed blisters on our heels. I ended up with a big blisters on each heel on the first day, which, even after putting protective tape on, gave me a lot of pain on the second day - it’s amazing how painful blisters can be. Glenys developed a blister on on her heel on the second day. When we got back home, I decided that the padding I’d put on to stop my heels lifting were causing the blisters and cut off it off. 

We had a three week period to heal the blisters, but it was with more than a little apprehension that we set off for five days of Ski Mountaineering.  

27 February 2010  Travel to Leysin, Switzerland
We flew to Geneva, walked to the train station and soon were sat on a train, which with Swiss precision set off exactly on time. We weren't too sure that we were on the correct train. Fortunately, the refreshment trolley came along and the guy said we were only one hour away from Aigle. We had a sandwich and chilled out, gazing at Lake Geneva with the fantastic views of the Alps beyond.

Once at Aigle, it was a short 30 metre walk to the cog railway train that goes up to Leysin. It’s a lovely journey, initially going through the high street of Aigle and then steeply up the side of the valley to Leysin itself. The train goes past vineyards with views over the town of Aigle, then gradually climbs to the snow level where the journey turns into a delight of snow, trees and mountain peaks.

Leysin, Switzerland

When we arrived at the top station, it was a short, if slightly treacherous, walk down to the Grand Chalet Hotel where we collapsed for half an hour before deciding to walk down the steep roads to the Lefti Sport ski shop where we had pre-hired our touring skis.

Big mistake.  It was four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon - just when everyone was bringing their skis back after a good day out. It was chaos. We were eventually given skis and took the time to make sure that the skins and ski crampons fitted the skis. My skins looked OK, but there was no clip to hold the skin onto the back of the ski - would it be OK? The skins also seemed to be cut a bit narrow. The optimum is to have the skins covering all of the base of the ski with just the steel edges showing. Glenys’s skins looked the opposite maybe not enough edges showing. We mentioned it, but were told it was OK, the skins had been specially cut to fit the skis. Only time will tell.

While I was trying to fit the skins onto my skis, I had taken off my jacket and jumper and was just wearing a skiing t-shirt. A French lady came up to me and started to ask me questions. A terse, “Je n'comprend pas”, in a Lancashire accent soon saw her off - she obviously thought that I worked in the ski shop. This happens to me a lot, mostly in supermarkets and DIY shops - I worry that I look like a shop assistant.

We walked back up to the Hotel Grand Chalet, which is high above the rest of the town, finished off unpacking and went down to the bar to have a beer before dinner.  We had a really nice three course meal of Soup, “gambas” and some sort of cake. Collapsed into bed well before ten o’clock.

28 February 2010  Acclimatisation Day, Leysin
We were up at quarter past seven and went down for breakfast which was very nice. My high spirits were slightly dampened by the fact that it was raining.

Slogging up in the mist, Leysin

We managed to drag ourselves out of the door at nine o'clock and walked down the icy road in the drizzle. We walked down to the top of the nursery slopes and were dismayed that the ski lifts didn't appear to be running. We skied down to the ski lift station to find out that all of the lifts were shut until at least eleven o'clock because of very high winds up at altitude.

Well, the only thing to do was to put the skins onto our skis and walk up the mountain. We set off in the drizzle up the side of the piste. The rain gradually turned into driving sleet but eventually we had to give up and shelter under a tree to wait for a squall to pass by.

We carried on up the run which turned into a red run and was quite steep. This gave us a chance to experiment with the “heel raisers”. This is a simple bit of plastic on the binding, which allows you to adjust the angle of  your foot relative to the ski. The idea is that you keep your foot level even though the slope (and consequently, the ski) might be at 30 degrees. I’m not sure whether it is better to have my foot horizontal, heel down or heel up. Heel up makes you put too much weight on the toe (causing the ski to slip back on every step), but is easier on the thighs  muscles. Whereas having the heel down puts more pressure on the heel and the skins stick better, but it pulls on the top muscle of your thigh. Horizontal is hard to achieve because the slope changes so much. In addition, every time you stop to change the heel lifters it wastes time, so you don’t want to do it too often. I guess that the best strategy is to look ahead, try to judge  the slope and suffer most of the time.

We carried on up through the trees on a blue run and, after 90 minutes of trudging up hill, gradually emerged into the upper slopes.  We stopped at the top of a run, removed the skins and skied back down to the bottom ski lift station in about fifteen minutes.  There was no-one else on the mountain, which was fantastic.

When we arrived back at the bottom of the ski lift, it was apparent that only one chair lift was running. Most people were getting back onto the ski bus and giving up. Only a few hardy souls were bothering to go up the chair lift (probably because they had season tickets.) Glenys enquired about buying a lift pass and the girl looked at us like we were mad, “But there’s only one chair lift running”. Glenys persevered and bought two tickets for £16 each - bargain.

We skied until lunch time and then went down to Leysin and had lunch in a small hotel next to the ski lift station - nice warming soup and a plate of dodgy looking cured meat and salami. We spent the afternoon skiing on the single chairlift, which was made better by our discovery of a black run which was a bit more testing than the other red and blue runs. The skis that I have hired are Rossignol Bandit Legends which are very light Touring skis and are very soft, which doesn't seem to suit my aggressive skiing style. If I lean back too much, the back end of the skis seem to break-away and I go down like a sack of potatoes. I need to be a bit more delicate.

End of a good day, Leysin

There were quite a few groups of people skinning up the side of the pistes. We noticed that most of them seemed to be very fit, young men. This didn't bode well - the last thing that we wanted was young, fit men on our course...

We arrived back at the bottom by about four o'clock and put our skins back on to walk back up closer to the hotel - a good day's skiing.

Back in the hotel, we inspected our heels and, while I was OK, Glenys’s old blister was a bit sensitive. We’ll see tomorrow.

We went down to the bar at quarter to seven to meet the guide from ISM. We bought a couple of “Grand Bierres” and sat down. Looking around the hotel bar, it soon became apparent that there were three very fit looking young men chatting in English. Oh God! 

I wandered over and asked them if they were with ISM. Yes. Oh God... We joined them and made polite conversation. They seemed a bit perturbed that an “older” couple were on the trip. 

The ISM Guide, Terry Ralph arrived. Glenys had already done a week long course with him about three years earlier and we had met him on the path up to the Moiry Hut a couple of years ago, so he knew us and I think that gave us a little bit of credibility back in the eyes of the others.

Terry told us what were going to do for the week - tomorrow would be avalanche rescue training followed by  a short tour of a peak above Leysin, Tuesday would be a 900 metre ascent of a peak nearby and the last three days would be touring based at at hut. Another guide, Steve Monks, will be joining us on Tuesday, which is great news. I know Steve very well having spent a couple of weeks with him, including climbing the Matterhorn.

We were each handed a shovel, a collapsible 2 metre long probe and a transceiver. This equipment allows us to find a person buried by an avalanche and then dig them out. Terry also handed out mountain mix (dried fruit and nuts) and some chocolate bars. Apparently, we will be given sandwiches for lunch tomorrow. Terry told us to meet him at quarter past eight and left, so we all took our booty back to our rooms then went down for dinner.

The hotel had reserved a big table for the six of us. Mark and Mike are two barristers and long time friends. They are in their late thirties. It sounds like Mark does about four skiing trips per year and Mike is being dragged along on this one. They are like a married couple, loud, and say lots of half sentences during which they dissolve into raucous laughter. Mark went to Canon Slade, which is my old grammar school. 

Silvano is part Italian, works in London and seems to be a fairly quiet chap. The other member of our party is Omar, who looks very fit - he didn't say much and left the table early. Both Silvano and Omar are in their mid thirties.

We went to bed a little nervous about keeping up with our young, fit group.