Saturday, 27 March 2010
Saturday, 20 March 2010
Skinning up in Lebanon. By Duncan McCallum
The quiet scheduled flight from Geneva had dulled our senses, but emerging into the damp and cold Beirut evening, we were soon assaulted by the mad rush of apparently uncontrolled Beirut homebound traffic. This titanic rush-hour struggle of wits and nerve was compounded by the complete lack of traffic lights, rights of way rules, street lighting and etiquette. The winners drove with no fear for mortality or material damage. Their cars bear witness to many years of struggle on the street of Beirut.
Thus the pecking order on the roads of Lebanon is established. There are those with no fear, protected by the divine, inshallah, and the menacing ones with blacked out windows. Encountering either could lead to the road of eternal peace.
For those over 30 years of age, Lebanon and Beirut in particular are potent symbols of the ideological struggles between the liberal rich Christian west and the (perception of) embattled Islamic Middle East.
The resonance of these cataclysmic struggles that once ripped out the heart of the formerly beautiful east Mediterranean playground of Beirut now spiral out of control through the rest of the region, leaving Lebanon to a growing number of independently minded travellers attracted by the undeniable appeal of Lebanon.
The majority of the tourism confines itself to the undeniably modern and cosmopolitan centre of Beirut and world heritage sites such as the temples of Baalbek.
So to be invited to join of 10 of the worlds best telemark skiers and mountain guides to ski-tour in the Lebanese highlands, was a welcome chance to travel well off the “Rough Guide” path.
So it was; in early February when the European ski resorts have been struggling for a few meagre centimetres of snow the mountains of Lebanon were groaning under 4 meters of fresh snow.
The road out of the city to the countries premier ski resort, Faraya, is as steep as it is nerve racking, climbing from sea level to 1900m in less than 40km through the suburbs of Beirut. It is obvious that serious money is being made here. Modern SUV’s power up the snow lined road beside us to weekend mountain chalets and second-houses that splatter the hillside.
We arrive in Faraya to be heralded into a “Carlos’s” mountain bunkhouse whose restaurant specialises in the incongruous mountain specialities of Raclet and Fondue. The whole affair resembles a 70’s European mountain town.
The next morning events are conspiring against us, every road in the hinterland is blocked, telephone lines are out and the old VW transporter van which is supposed to transport us to the start of the trek is under 6 feet of fresh snow and going no where.
Time to kick back and go with the flow. This is hardly a hardship. After a 20 min walk up through the “resort” village we arrive at the base of the ski lift system. Acres of lift accessed untracked knee deep powder await us. Faraya, the biggest resort in the country is small by European standards and the lift system, although it boasts new high-speed triple chairs. Comparing it to an alpine mountain is a non-starter but the area stands up nicely to North American resorts such as Keystone or A-basin. The snow today is world class and we have the run of the hill, running “freshies” under the lifts until beer time arrives.
Accompanied by Chateau Kasara 2003, dinner is wonderful Lebanese fair of Tubule, Humus, Garlic paste, olives, skewered lamb and chicken pieces and hand cut french-fries and round bread nappies.
With the perfectly good lifts heading up the mountain to the south, our caravan heads north towards the cave of Magharet Afqua. The Romans believed that this was the place were the legend of Aphrodite and Adonis took place. Wounded, Adonis went to this cave to die, and ever since the river runs blood red every spring (a red clay spring melt).
After a 3-1/2 hour climb we reach the summit ridge on which we lunch. A short 3km ski east leads to our target. No one has ever skied this slope below us and it is laden with fresh deep inviting powder. We cannot see over our chosen slope but the hill to our left has cliff bands all over the place.
Dropping out of site into a 50 degree couloir, Sarah Ferguson (the skiing one) drops out of sight, I follow. The slope is really steep, deep and totally committing, wow! The rush of excitement is tangible, steep deep and virgin snow. Powder washes over my head but I am aware that this is a serious place, moving quickly down the slope the couloir narrows. Behind me I feel I have released a small avalanche, it threatens to force me down farther than I want to go!
Sarah appears below me through the powder veil I am kicking up. It is obvious that 25m below her the slope disappears into a white void. I stop. She has stopped just above a blind roll-off, a small wrist sized tree she hugs provides an impression of protection.
We make our way out of this complex cliff band area; looking back it is clear we had stopped just above a 60foot cliff.
A quick mobile call sees us picked up by mini bus at the mouth of the Afqua cave. Our driver a Messianic Christian, is cheerful enough until a bout of motion sickness welling up in the bus forces us to stop in a village half way to the mountain resort of Laqlouq. The now uncomfortable driver dutifully stops and we all pile out of the bus to breath.
We soon discover he is not as worried about the vomit at all; he is however concerned at stopping in a village he identifies as a Hezbollah strong hold.
Our journey resumes incident free, our driver crosses himself as we leave the valley and pass a small Madonna shrine at the side of the road. Not far below the surface, old scars still exist.
Now we face a really big day, we are heading towards the legendary Cedars of Lebanon. These gracious trees once coved the Highlands of Lebanon as the Scots pine covered the Scottish Highlands. The Cedars were exploited over the centuries; firstly by The Phoenicians as early as 1200bc, then buy the Romans. Only a few tiny stands still survive.
17km and 2000m of ascent into the day we are all pretty tired. We are at 2600m and facing a decision, push on until dark at 6.30 and see if we can reach the Cedars or hunker down on the summit for the night. We decide to push on. The skiers all bugger off down the 300m descent, but I have a problem. My bindings are frozen solid and my short skis are fused to my snowboard boots.
I am left alone on the summit with only a short time before sunset. Desperate situations require radical solutions. There was only one thing for it. I had to urinate on the straps to warm them up to open them. Piss on one, stop, and hold on while you open the binding, then hopefully with enough bladder control do the same again. With relief I clipped into the board and shot off down the hill following the ski troop.
However at the end of every down there is an up. The skiers are now skinning up the other side of the valley, which involves me getting into the climbing skis again. The bindings now instantly freeze again (it was minus 10 degrees C). Thank god for good bladder control.
Night descends and we are still moving on the snow, waves of Scottish winter climbing nostalgia wash over me as we all hunker down into a star light rhythm of movement. At 7.30pm we stop.
A snow wind scoop provides the nighttime accommodation at 2500m over looking the Cedars. I like the challenge of snow-holing. It is a mixture of boyhood adventure, survival techniques and simple construction. Whilst some dug, others cooked.
The funny thing about a bivouac, is that it is always most comfortable just before you need to get up. You struggle all night to get comfortable dry and warm and just as you have to get up you find the best warmest position of the night.
The Cedars ski-bowl is huge, you could fit the legendary back bowels of Vail Colorado into this vast area ten times. 900m (3000ft) of unskied hill spreads out below us. We stand above lines of immense size and quality.
In the Ceders “La Cabana” hotel, Château Musar, one of the countries finest wines, is quaffed in great quantities by the team. The same red soil that produces the great Lebanese wines, just over the range from here used to produce tones of “Red Leb” Hashish.
The next day we ski directly into the main production area, the spiritual home of the Hezbollah, the Bekaah valley.
The mountains divide the country physically culturally and spiritually. Muslim and Christian communities do exists on both sides but whilst the western slopes seem somehow European, once the range is crossed you are defiantly into the Arab Middle East.
Our hosts arrive in a convoy of battered Toyota trucks to take us to the house they have given us for the night. We spend that night laughing, eating, sleeping under stashed 303 rifles and a tripod mounted machine gun. Travelling should be like this always. We were welcomed in with open arms and hearts; our hosts prepared beautiful food, cooked over charcoal open fires and all we offered was our company, laughter and appreciation.
Strapping our planks to our feet we climb to the highest point in Lebanon, Qurnat as Sawda, 10,128 ft. (3,087 m). It’s unimpressive, littered with shotgun cartridges and AK 47 and 9mm hand gun casings. It’s blowing a hooley. Backs to the chilling wind blowing from Damascus, we are blow north west towards Tripoli.
From the summit we ski 5km of perfect corn snow (coarse, granular snow) in the evening light. Building snow caves is like building sand castles; it is easy to get carried away. By the time I am finished, I have entrance steps, a veranda, side block walls, spindrift gutters and wind blocking sidewalls.
Sunrise looking towards Syria on the last mountain day is truly beautiful.
Travelling through the dusty city of Hermel yellow flags depict a raised arm holding an AK47. They adorn every telephone pole and streetlight. Black flags of mourning hang lifeless in the twilight. Giant pictures of the mullahs look down from every street corner.
In the evening air, haunting and beautiful calls to prayer blast out from trumpet speakers, each one competing with the other, for the heart and minds of the city
In Baalbek, the ancient seat of the Phoenician empire, and stronghold of the Romans, great ruined temples to Venus and the gods stand testament to the value that invading cultures have placed on Lebanon and its natural resources. These stone wonders are testament to human creativity, the worship of false gods, greed and power.
There are seeds of hope in Lebanon, people are struggling to create harmony and a society where people of differing beliefs can live, worship and live together. However outside influences are still trying to pull the people apart, however they should note the fate of the ancient builders. Like melting tracks in the snow, all great powers fade away eventually. What remains is the spirit of spring and rebirth, after a long lonely winter out in the cold.
Ó Duncan McCallum 16th March 2006 all rights reserved.
Guns and Powder
The Canadian ski patroller looked as though he had seen a ghost. Pale and visibly shaken he said; “after the second slide I just wanted a chopper to take me off the hill and take me home. The hill is lethal today”. Once he recovered his composure, he refined his initial reaction; “Sorry every one, the hill has unpredictable isolated pockets of instability (a freakin understatement)… Its not a public day. We are not going to run the uplift today. Go ski the trees”.
Neil Baxter (an ex world champ kayaker) and I, two snow boarders, are with 6 other telemark skiers in Kashmir’s only ski “resort” Gulmarg (The meadow of flowers). Gulmarg is 50km from Srinagar. We have just witnessed two Canadian volunteer ski patrollers being avalanched whilst “cutting the slopes” in an effort to open the mountain. Having just addressed the 28 skiers and boarders patiently waiting for the word on mountain, the patrollers retire for a well-deserved cup of sweet masala chai. The tempting knee deep powder looks pure and virgin, a boarders dream, however it is the hidden danger under the surface that makes the mountain dangerous today. 4cm of wind blown and sun affected crust under the new snow, waiting for the unsuspecting powder hound to turn their perfect arcs into a raging tumbling mass of white death.
When I picked up my visa from the Indian consulate in Edinburgh 4 weeks before, the Indian official looked very concerned, “that’s not such a good idea….have you checked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advisories?”
This is the “offical” advise, “If travel to Srinagar is essential, it should be by air. There continues to be a high level of conflict and terrorist violence in Kashmir, including car bombs, grenade attacks, bombs on roads and shootings. There have been a number of car bombings in Srinagar….. “
Very comforting, however, after some quick email correspondence with our local fixers and a short telephone call with John Falkiner our mountain guide and not withstanding the fact that we had already parted with the readies, it was time to sh.. or get off the potty.
The Accession of Kashmir and Jammu to British /Indian rule in late October 1947 signed by the Maharaja of the State of Jammu & Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh's and Lord Mountbatten Governor General of India, has sealed Kashmir’s fate to this day. The Maharaja’s choice was simple; be overrun by Pakistan or nuzzle up closer to India for protection. The festering legacy of this complex situation is continuing violence and insurgency. At the height of the tourism boom before the main period of insurgency between 1989 and 1996 it is estimated that close to 5,000,000 per annum visited Kashmir, at the moment figures suggest less than 300,000 visit annually. Kashmir, India’s only majority Muslim state is desperate for a lasting solution. The worst of the violence at the moment seems over, but with estimates of between 20,000 and 60,000 dead, only a trickle of brave tourists ignore the travel advisories.
Within the ski intelligentsia though, Gulmarg has been an open secret. The French installed Gondola took six years longer to complete than planned because of the violence. Its first stuttering season of winter uplift was only in 2004/5, so our trip was very much an exploratory early foray.
La Grave in France is Europe’s serious off-piste Mecca; un-pisted, steep, and uncompromising in its rawness. You don’t see ski suits and fur in La Grave. The skiing is the preserve of those who wear mountaineering clothing, carry steel bladed avalanche shovels and avalanche transceivers. If you don’t know the mountain, you hire Mountain guides. Compassions with Gulmarg are hard to resist.
Our arrival typified the trip. The 50km journey from the heavily fortified Srinagar Airport via Indian TATA jeep took 2 1/2 hours. Checkpoints, machine gun posts and stray dogs formed the back drop to a staccato bald tyred weave through a mass of humanity and animals. Car horns in Indian normally get a beating but in Kashmir the punishment is exceptional. The recent heavy snowfall exacerbated the issue. Everyone and everything was moving on the road, pavement and paths were impassable. Roadside refreshments were soon called for, but Bashir our driver declined to stop in the next obvious town, “bad people here we’ll stop in Tangmarg”.
30 mins later, huddled around a steel bellied wood-burning stove, friendly hands thrust pots of steaming Masala Chai and coconut biscuits from the “Snow Bakery” towards us. Snow chains were tied onto the trucks with ropes and the last 7km were negotiated in the oncoming darkness. We had opted to stay in the Hilltop Hotel as it had the reputation for being the most reliable. Many slightly bemused but willing helpers off-loaded our bags and boards. Mid way up to the second floor one of the nightly power failures occurred. Plunged into complete darkness a hand grasped mine and led me into my room. Bags were deposited and tea ordered, all in the tip hunting hovering gloom.
“Is there hot water?” “Oh yes sir” the bag carrier said wanting to please. The tap spluttered forth its fridged contents. In India you must learn how to ask questions. I should have asked “is the water hot, now?”
It dumped 30cm of fresh light white powder that night. It was still snowing at breakfast. In a Euro alpine resort a charge to the lift would ensue, however this raw mountain is not opened unless the weather clears and settles. One group last year spent 7 days cooped up in hotels whilst 4m of snow dropped in one storm.
However we were no ordinary ski group. We were prepared to hike for our turns. Dawning synthetic seal skins on the base of skis, we set off in search of the POW.
In Alaska and Canada the trend is to heli-ski if you want virgin territory. In Gulmarg, Jeep Skiing is the way forward. We skinned for 30mins to above a local Mosque. The path drops off into incredible north facing trees; steep and deep.
The skiing here has some of the best wooded terrain I have ever boarded in; perfectly spaced 60-foot pine trees. We whopped and whistled to keep in touch with the group. Floating through the over the head powder in this magical forest, we popped over huge buried tree stumps and slid over massive snow-covered logs. All too soon we reached the ice covered road below and patiently waited for the jeeps.
Until we got the system sorted, we wasted many hours waiting for the trucks on the road. On a good day, without too many hold-ups we squeeze in 4 runs of Jeep uplift, skinning into fresh lines each time, our worst day, a frustrating 1. Only the most placid or stoned could cope with the Jeeps for more than 3 days in a row. The bone jarring road was often completely blocked for hours with military trucks, over laden busses and taxis all trying to fight their switchback way up or down the mountain.
The heavens cleared on day three to reveal a dream sight. A huge even topped 4km mountain ridge rising from 3800m to 4200m with a lift running slap dab in the middle to about 600m below the summit cornice. With no history of established runs, no mountain maps and no avalanche control beyond the main bowl, caution was required. This day was declared the best they had ever had. Neil and I, on snowboards, managed 6000m vertical, all powder fresh tracks whilst the telemarkers between 4000m and 5000m, exceptional figures. The days slid on. We skinned and walked further along the ridgeline left and right, one-hour, then two hours, dropping into uncharted territory. 1st descents, naming lines on the hill and runs up to 20km long. We had 6 days of stable weather; sun and powder.
One of my prerequisites for this trip, was to try and keep away from anything that could conceivably be a terrorist target; police, check points and army installations. In this we failed dismally, almost laughably. At every turn, camouflaged soldiers guns and generals popped up. On one of the Jeeps skiing days we were stuck in a massive snow bound traffic jam beside the head of the Jammu and Kashmir police. During the wait, Neil and I chatted to his Special Forces bodyguard, well spoken, friendly but armed to the teeth we passed the time whilst the melee of busses, army trucks and armoured cars inched past each other.
Getting slightly weary of travelling in a large group Neil and I (the boarders} opted to go it alone. Standing above an unnamed 100m wide 1000m long couloir of untracked powder is a humbling experience. Its pristine beauty, inviting & tempting, when out in the boonies like this you never jump-off into what you can not see. Never fire down rollers that dip away from the skier. Never cut across the convexities, as these are points of weakness. I send Neil off first, he is slightly spooked by the feeling of vastness and exposure
“Why am I going first” retorts Neil through apprehensive dry lips, “Because I can find you, if this (slope) goes you wont be able to find me”. He is also avalanche transceiver virgin. A couple of hidden beepers found by the road side is all well and good but not when this thing is so f..ing big, and anyway, he is heavier than me.
Rampant snowboard wildness suppressed by the sight of the 8000m Nanga Parbat in the distance. A powder trail flicks up behind him. Long lazy turns ebb on for 400m. I cannot wait.
I find my rhythm after two turns, the tail of my massive powder board submerges into the powder. The prow sits out and away from the steep slope. After a deep breath and exhale to release the tension, I am totally “in the moment”. I can hear virtually nothing. On every toe side turn the snow punches up and laps onto my trailing hand. On the heel side turns, for a moment the down slope view is obscured by the rising powder. Gentle cold powder flows over my face, the sharp coldness of the “face shots” adding an extra-heightened sense to the descent..
Two days later that the ski patrollers got caught. Luckily they both managed to swim out of the avalanches. That was a good day to eat, drink tea, and read.
The following day however was a whole new story. A 15,000-foot powder hound day.
It hard to describe great powder days. They are rare and to be savoured. If they are rushed, you can get caught in a frenzy of movement and you end up thinking about the next turn, the next run and next lift to catch. Then it becomes about “doing” and “telling” and not about “being” (there in the moment).
After all if you do not travel with your eyes and mind open what’s the bloody point.
The Kashmiries have had a hard time if it. Their beautiful land has become a no-go area and their biggest cash earning opportunity, tourism, has dropped off to a thin trickle. However everyone we met and talked to welcomed us in with warmth and humour. The people were genuinely pleased to see us.
Gulmarg is best enjoyed with ski-touring equipment, at the moment. During the snowy and cloudy days the lift does not work. St Moritiz it is not, however, if your idea of fun is hunting for powder and hiking in the big hills, enjoy. Après Ski is your own and you mates company. Gulmarg has big ambitions with two new low level lifts and Cat skiing planned for the coming seasons (Inshallah). Verbier it aint and I hope it never will be, an Asian La Grave well…maybe.
Flights- Any London -Delhi flights, then to Srinagar with Jet or Sahara Airways.
Jeep Pick up from Srinagar can be organised by firstname.lastname@example.org
When it storms it can dump many meters of snow in one go. Travel even in the village and to the tree runs is difficult. Getting out of the village to flights can be difficult in a storm. It has been known for flights to be delayed for some days. Buy flexible tickets with a good carrier.
Ski Season – Its short, Mid Jan to Mid March
Top Tip - Try and Stay for three weeks, otherwise you might not see the hill.
Hill Tops Hotel – Dry
Pine Palace – Dry
Highland Park – has a bar.
Forget the star system. Food in all three is local, ethnic and pretty good. The Hilltop is slightly more modern, the other two have wood stoves in the rooms, so getting out of bed and drying kit can be a challenge.
Gulmarg is predominately Muslim and therefore dry (no beer) however if you are lucky the bar in the Highland Park will have alcohol. Drink indoors only. There are chai shops in the tiny Gulmarg Village where you can buy very basic supplies. The Khan Cloth House is the only spot for “shopping” and he (Mr Khan) makes great Phiran’s, the traditional tweed over dress. There is one ski shop, well it’s a shop selling peanuts where you can get skis waxed. There is ski hire (but you would not want to) and no ski clothing or spares in all Kashmir. So if you need it, bring it.
People and Culture
Before the insurgency Kashmir was a big tourist destination. Expect a friendly welcome (in English) and enjoy the open hospitality. Kashmir is 85% Muslim so respect the obvious codes and customs, after all you are guests. Travelling in these places you are ambassadors, don’t screw it up.
Take only pictures, leave only footprints - the Dali Lama
Mountain Guides with Gulmarg experience
John Falkiner - email@example.com Organised our trip.
Dave Green - firstname.lastname@example.org
Paulo Tassi – email@example.com
It can vary from +5oc to -25oc in a short time, in the sun at altitude you will burn easily so grease up often, especially after a hike when sweat removes any creams and lip protection. It extreme cold, skin will burn in the wind. We had every snow condition from Powder to Corn, crust to wind slab. When it snows or is cloudy the lift (there is only one) does not run, if the snow pack is dangerous even on blue sky days it remains closed
Top tip- take a big fat book, and learn how to ski tour
On my Body
Wear high quality breathable fabrics that are wind and snow proof, (rain is rare)
Full mountain shell clothing e.g. Gore-Tex XCR shell or Patagonia Regulator Softshell
Mid Layer of high quality pile fleece and soft shell or ultra fleece pants. Avalanche Transceiver (Ortavox or BCA). Base layers of merino or “Smart” wool, merino wool socks. Leather palmed gloves
In My Pack
Spare warm layer, head torch, emergency hill food, Bivi-bag or emergency shelter, Freeze proof water/fluid container, Spare Hat & Gloves, Goggles and Glacier Type Glasses, Spares for your bindings, Avalanche kit, i.e. Steel Shovel, Probe, (and know how to use it).
Skinning and Skiing at altitude is very dehydrating so drink a lot, avoid to much caffeine as it promotes water loss, ski and walk at an output so you don,t sweat, when you stop moving any sweat will immediately chill you down, stay dry. Eat a little and often. Wear good glasses and goggles. If the slope does not feel right avoid it. Don,t ski directly above others. Skiing off-piste with headphones/music is a mugs game; you need to hear the mountain and those around you. Only go with people you can rely on.
Be in the moment.
Canada Cat Ski Stories by Duncan McCallum
Powder Hunting –Mini Guide to the Eastern Rockies (BC Canada – North Montana USA)
One hour into the experience and without the promise of fresh powder tracks, all but the masochist would have bailed, preferring to face the 20 mile snow covered hike back to one-horse-town; Olney, Montana. We are crammed into an ex-Norwegian military Hagglund dual cab. We are in the rear trailer; bumpy, hot, damp and noisy with 6 others, riding to a backcountry yurt that is the temporary winter home of the aptly named Valhalla Adventures near White Fish, Montana.
The founder of Valhalla and his cohort Vernon, a committed petrol head have adapted the 2.8 Hagglund diesel engine to travel at 12mph. It worked flat out to get us to the yurt 21miles in to the snow-covered bush. Valhalla (the home for those slain gloriously in battle) was a fitting end to our journey of avalanche blocked roads, 60kmph ski-doo rides, drunken fisherman, late night ice covered roads, coincidences, friends missed and new ones made; but story starts here…
Any committed skier will tell you tails of icy trips to Vail, snow-less trips to Austria and rain soaked pistes in France. Powder hunting can be frustrating and expensive, so how do you lessen the odds? Well, heli-skiing, the most well-known powder junkies fix, is no guarantee. Low cloud, and high winds ground choppers all the time. It’s also hard to justify the extortionate fees. However there is a solution; Cat skiing.
Having suffered an El Nino European ski season, we were ready for snow, any snow. Powder would be a bonus so we were prepared to work for it a bit. Our journey and task was to find guaranteed powder snow within a few hours drive of Calgary following a direct flight from Scotland.
Our mission was to find guaranteed powder snow within a few hours drive of Calgary following a direct flight from Scotland. Despite the massive start to the Canadian season we had arrived into a 2-week drought. Things were looking lean, or so we thought.
We chose three areas we had always wanted to visit; new kid on the block, Kicking Horse, the now legendary, Fernie and the little known Big Mountain, Montana. To shorten our odds a bit and to lighten our wallets a lot we also hunted out a Cat ski operation within easy drive of each of the established resorts visited.
Whilst travelling to Canada in search of reasonable snow conditions is a good bet, if you want to find powder you may have use a bit of detective work and a solid 4x4 with snow tyres.
Although unheard of in Europe, due to historical, legal and environmental conditions, Cat skiing, in North America, is growing steadily as a mid- priced alternative to Heli-skiing. Imagine a standard Piste Basher or Pisten Bully and put a 12 seat Cab weleded onto the back and you have a Snow Cat. The cat operations are generally established in old logging areas and using the forest road infrastructure to access ridge lines for drop-offs and valleys, these diesel guzzling fun tanks usually provide a good group of skiers with between 8-10 runs per day, of between 1000 and 1500 feet per run. Cat skiing operations come in many shapes and sizes, from multi- day catered lodge operations such as Chatter Creek, near Kicking Horse/ Golden or the close to resort operations offering single day blasts, such as Fernie Wilderness Adventures and Valhalla in Montana.
Any wilderness development deserves critical viewing, it seems almost an anathema that the experiences we all seek whilst backcountry skiing, solace, solitude and some sort of conversation with nature always seems to involve burning hydrocarbons, building buildings or cutting down trees, essentially destroying the thing we are seeking to enjoy. So jumping into a machine with a high-powered engine instead of hiking into the wilderness and ski touring seems slightly perverse, however there are some large factors that seem to contribute to the growth of Cat skiing operations. State forests in the USA and Crown forests in Canada are essentially managed commercial “wilderness” areas, forested in the summer and redundant during the winter, the governmental view seems to be that these areas are fair game for commercial activity in the winter also. Another contributing factor is job creation, travel to any small mountain community and you will soon realise that winter jobs are hard to come by, all house and road building stops, the logging industries close down, even the forests parks and snowed in and empty and unlike Europe, back country ski touring is a serious business.
Its an interesting tension. I am not sure what the answer is, however being aware is a good start, try make decisions that impact least, and try and follow the adage “take only pictures and leave only ski tracks” and with any luck they will be buried under the next snowfall overnight.
We were not completely convinced at the start of our journey if Cat Skiing was either worth the extra expense, as ski holidays are expensive enough anyway or worth leaving great inbounds skiing to go to. On both counts we were proven wrong. The experiences were enormous fun, the skiing even in the lean snow period we were out, exceptional, with great fresh tracks every Cat day. So if you want to get close to guaranteeing powder snow or you fancy a wild day out whilst in resort book it and get out of bed early.
Town: Golden, British Columbia
Resort name: Kicking Horse
Hours from Calgary: 3-4 Hours
Directions to Golden could not be simpler. Turn west on to highway one, stop in Canmore for coffee and continue until you reach the Logging town of Golden.
In Bounds – Kicking Horse has been one of those well-kept secrets for some time now. The upper part of the mountain was once the preserve of the Purcell Heli Ski operation but now the three bowls are served by two high-speed lifts with more planned for the coming years. Kicking Horse is steep if you want it to be. Short hikes right off the Stairway to Heaven lifts and left from Golden Eagle Express lead to large steep couloir lined bowls where some pretty daring skiing can be had. The locals call this the “Slack Country” not quite Back Country but serious enough that you better know what you are doing. After a dump (of snow) and for a few days following, many of the “spots” remain untouched inbounds. We heard Kicking Horse referred to as ‘cowboy country’; untamed and edgy, slightly lawless. It certainly has the feeling that the mountain is on a journey to somewhere. If it is heading towards the corporate blandness of Whistler go there now before it gets spoilt. But we reckon it will retain its superb wild inbounds skiing and that the legend will grow.
Cat Skiing Operation: Chatter Creek
Package: 3 or 4 nights in Helicopter accessed backcountry Lodge.
Cat Skiing – Chatter Creek is a short Helicopter ride from Golden. It offers some of the most challenging fun and well appointed backcountry skiing in Canada with over 90 square miles of terrain to pick from. Even after their longest dry spell of three weeks, they were still pointing clients down fresh powder lines. Their 85% repeat business statistic it testament to the operation. Chatter Creek offers Alpine, Glacier and tree skiing of the highest quality. Due to the quality it also attracts some of the best skiers and guides to work for the operation. Chatter Creek is not a beginners ski destination. The regulars here can huck and surf with the best of them, so if you find yourself spending most of your time off-piste buried in the powder looking for lost skis or you prefer a Vin Chaud and a deck chair, stay in Kitzbuhel. The uplift here can offer up to 15,000 feet of powder every day of your stay; bumps, jumps, steep trees, cliff bands and couloirs are all here. Remote rustic and homely, this family run lodge and ski operation should be on every good skiers must do list.
Packages include fat ski’s (if you want them), Avalanche transceivers, lodge accommodation of 3-4 nights and great food.
Resort name: Fernie Resort
Hours from Calgary: 3.5 Hours
In Bounds Fernie
31/2 hours south of Calagary is Fernie. Once the preserve of in-the-know snowboarders, Fernie is now an established good snow hunters resort, surprisingly steep in places. In bounds Fernie, although it has skiing for every level, is best suited to good to “expert” skiers and boarders. It is big too, not of the scale of Verbier, but even though some of the popular steeps get tracked out before lunch there is enough here for a few days of inbounds powder hunting. Fernie bowls leave Vail standing with steeper terrain, better lines and much better snow records and you are less likely to bump into a film star or shiny all in one suit. For the adventurous a bit of hiking will always reward the tenacious.
Fernie has two great programs if you need to deepen your powder experience. The steep and deep camp is recommended to anyone wishing to learn to ski or board in more challenging terrain, and the First Tracks program is a must if you want to be the first out on a powder day. First Tracks offers guided powder skiing in bounds before the masses (that is a relative term) are allowed onto the lifts.
Fernie old town is quite funky too and offers a good alternative to the mountain resort. Mid week the mountain is quite quiet and, in comparison to a European resort, deserted.
Cat Skiing Operation: Fernie Wilderness Adventures
Package: Day trips or basic overnight accommodation for large group bookings
Price: 300Cnd per day
Cat Skiing - Fernie Wilderness Adventures offer either lodge or day cat skiing. We recommend staying either on mountain or in the town and booking days out in the back-country when the conditions are best or the mountain is tracked out. The day starts meeting the guides in Fernie town then driving 15 minutes to the lodge base. Expect a slightly more mixed ability group than in Chatter Creek but the terrain is great and gets steeper if the Cat guide feels the group is up to it. The best way to guarantee the skiing you want, either steep or mellow, is to book a complete load or fill the cat with as many hounds as you can muster. FWA is pretty good value as well; about the same price as a mountain guide in Europe for the day. After a 30-minute Cat ride you start your ski day with transceiver instructions at about 10am. After an initial viewing run where you are scoped out by the guides (2 per cat), the terrain is ramped up or remains as is, to suit the balance of the group. We had two powder virgins in our Cat. Even though the runs were slightly slower there was enough variation in the ski run zones to put smiles on everyone’s faces.
FWA is best suited to intermediate to good skiers with some off-piste powder experience. If you are wanting to progress to powder skiing, we recommend doing a Steep and Deep course or powder lesson in bounds in Fernie before committing yourself to a day in a Cat.
Town: Whitefish, Montana
Resort name: Big Mountain
Hours from Calgary: 5 Hours
Big Mountain Montana
90 miles from Fernie once your fingerprints have been stored on the FBI files at the border crossing, is Whitefish, Montana. More of an established town than Fernie and Golden, Whitefish is the cheapest pace to buy classic American work-wear and outdoor gear. It is also the town base that supports Big Mountain ski resort. Established in the sixties, Big Mountain is set to undergo go a bit of a renaissance with the development of a new lodge building. Although the resort map looks as though there are a large proportion of black runs, these are not alpine in proposition, and the mountain offers a good mix of skiing for all levels. There are loads of secret spots to be had once you have learnt a bit about the mountain. Whitefish also has a lot to offer with some Cowboy bars and some great eating in the Tupelo Grill.
Cat Skiing Operation: Resort Cat Skiing
Package: Day trip
Price: $150 plus lift ticket
Uniquely for this triptych, Big Mountain also runs its own Cat operation and is an ideal starting point for anyone wanting to learn how to powder ski in the trees. A 10 minute hike from the Bigfoot T-bar can take you to the same terrain as the resort’s Cat, but if you want a guide and can afford the $150 for the day to ride the cat you will be rewarded with some fine instruction through the trees.
Cat Skiing Operation: Big Mountain Resort Cat Combo
Cat Skiing Operation: Valhalla Adventures
Package: Day trip
Price: $175 including lunch and snacks
Cat Skiing – Valhalla… back where we opened the story. For a fraction more than the Big Mountain resort Cat, you can ride the wild wind with Fred Detrich. Maverick and in its second full season, Valhalla is well worth the trip… not just for the skiing but to absorb some of Fred’s massive energy and enthusiasm. During our day with Fred, we skied powder, watched young Whitefish bucks leap off 35 foot cliffs, hiked the ridges where the cats have no access (as yet), skied great trees, got towed up trails by Skidoo (locally called a ‘Sled’) saw Moose, Bald Eagle, skied until dark and drank beer in the yurt post sun down; a pure experience for any powder warrior or deep snow virgin. A day with Fred at Valhalla will leave you with great memories of good skiing, the smell of the trees in snow, and a smile on your face.
Kicking Horse and Chatter Creek (BC Canada) – For experts and experienced powder hounds
Fernie and Fernie Wilderness Adventures (BC Canada) – for experienced powder lovers and good skiers with some powder experience
Big Mountain and Valhalla Adventures (Montana) - Best place to learn (cat) powder skiing with the Big Mountain resort Cat. Graduate, if you dare, to Valhalla for a blast in the steeps of the Montana back country.
Contact and Accommodation Details
Kicking Horse-Chatter Creek
Accommodation on mountain- Palliser Lodge http://www.kickinghorseresort.com/
Cat Skiing- http://www.backcountrywintervacations.com/
Accommodation at Lizard Creek Lodge http://www.lizardcreek.com/
Cat Skiing http://www.fernieadventures.com/
Accommodation at Morning Eagle Lodge http://www.bigmtn.com/?a=lodging/bmrl_main
Cat Skiing http://www.valhallaadv.com/
Zoom Airways with flights from Glasgow, Manchester and London, http://www.flyzoom.com/
Enterprise Car hire http://www.enterprise.com/car_rental/home.do (This is not Europe! We were very grateful for a 4X4 with snow tyres.)
Chop Sticks and Winter Sticks – Snowboarding in The Japanese Alps - written for Scotland on Sunday Travel -2009
Chop Sticks and Winter Sticks – Snowboarding in The Japanese Alps
By Duncan McCallum. Pictures by Neil Baxter and Duncan McCallum
I reached into the storage pocket on my rucksack’s hip belt, pulled out the small white explosive handle and pushed it into the standby position on my the Avalanche safety ABS Rucsac, “god, I hope I never have to use this” I thought to myself. We all stood at the top of the couloir, staring at the 40 degree slope, none of us quite wanting to be the “first in”. However, staying where we were was not an option, the air was starting to tingle and the clouds were taking on a slightly odd orange/brown tinge, the distant lightning flashes were moving closer.
Sixty minutes earlier we had stepped through the rope barrier without any trouble from the ski patrol and had headed up the ridge towards Mount Tengu a 1.30 hour hike above Hakuba Goryu the ski resort, in the Japanese Alps. Out of the safety of the ski hill we snow-shoed along the mountain ridge just about 2200m above sea level, the wind was blowing hot pockets of air through the morning chill.
30m from the summit ridge, Matt stopped in his snowshoe tracks, “err guys, I’ve just seen a lightning flash”. We were exposed, very exposed. Six snowboarders all in a group carrying our snowboards vertically attached to our backs. Six ripe sweaty lightning conductors. The air suddenly felt electric. The soft billowing clouds now contained danger. The decision was easy, get off the ridge fast and into safety. We all quickly dropped 50m down off the ridge into a stand of tall solid Japanese birch trees, “ spread out a bit more” I said “its much better we don’t all stand in one big clump”. Feeling a bit less little exposed we all rapidly started to make the transition from climbing to sliding down hill. Now however, the issue was that we were at the top of a wide eastern facing gully. 3 days before this gully was alive with avalanches and laden with large pockets of unstable wind blown snow (wind slab). Our objective, a long beautiful tree lined north facing ridge offered us our best safest and least avalanche prone descent, but that was now out of the question, the risk off a lightning strike felt greater than being caught in an avalanche.
Calmly and swiftly we all strapped on our boards, packed away our walking poles and snow shoes and looked down the gully, 800 meters of elevation, the 25 to 40 degree gully was nearly 2km long. Just 12 months ago three young Kiwi skiers jumped into this couloir. it slid and the two were killed, they carried no avalanche transceivers, and no self rescue equipment.
Craig, a Kiwi and Hakuba long term resident and joint owner of the Morinio skiers lodge with North Berwick born Matt Dunn, lead off, boarding smoothly into the gully, a hundred meters down he pulled out of the gully bed on to an “island of safety” a small ridge out of the main slide path route and signalled to me to follow. I dropped in listening and feeling the snow under my powder board, the wind-slab was evident but it seemed well bonded to the layers below. This was difficult mountain boarding, wind scoured hard packed snow with pockets of slab and powder in places, steep too. The north faces of the gully contained powder. Turning quickly sent plumes of powder high over my head obscuring my vision momentarily. Great fun, but I backed off a bit as this was now not the place to rip up the powder, much safer to see and feel the hill today, enjoy it, but get off without incident. For the next hour we leapfrogged our way down the gully, stopping in safe spots, then moving quickly through the terrain traps (spots in the gully with no escape from potential avalanche burial). We crossed massive amounts of avalanche debris from the warming the week before; the full 5km journey finishes conveniently at the one and only bar in the region with Belgian beer. In a good year this is the best of Japanese back-country skiing, steep complex and fun. This year despite the worst snow in 10 years, we were having a blast.
The Hakuba valley lies 60km to the north west of Nagano city home of the 1998 winter Olympics, the residue of these games still lie dotted around the mountains, large white elephant ski jumps, empty stadiums and fading signs, the local officials seem proud of the legacy, ignoring the cost and the bills still to be paid, sighting them as great adverts for Japanese skiing. They just could not get there heads around the fact that to us powder hunters they meant nothing, a tedious distraction from the real deal, they also did not understand that to Europeans, the games did not register as a marketing signal that snow in Japan is exceptional.
Whilst most European resorts struggle for a 7m fall average per annum, the Hakuba valley boats a 12m average, huge deep and in normal years, stable. The storms blast in from the China Sea, dumping up to a meter at a time, the wet snow sticks well and the temperatures are generally cold but not extreme, creating great off-piste conditions.
Neil and I were guests of Classic Resorts of Japan, an alliance of 4 resorts all in the central island. To those in the know, Japanese powder is legendary, but as we were planning the trip it was a surprise how many people do not associate Japan with great skiing. They have over 800 resort hills. In the nineties just pre Olympics skiing was in fashion here. They build hundreds of lifts, new villages and developed ski hotels and towns everywhere. However as the economics of boom and bust took hold, post Olympics, the towns went into decline. There have been few new developments in the last 10 years, and some of the resorts are struggling to stay alive.
Part of the issue is the nature of the local Japanese custom. Holidays in Japan are short, so its mostly only weekend trade and there is almost no foreign tourist services. Infrastructure is limited for long term stays. Almost nothing is available in English and there are very few English speakers. However if it were easy the magnificent powder would be tracked out in a day, like the high-pressure resorts of Verbier and Chamonix.
This is the reason to come to Japan. The tree skiing, and off-piste back-country skiing is as good as anywhere in the world. This combined with huge snow falls make this a special destination, however If you not a dedicated powder hound and prefer the groomers, stay in the Alps. The pistes, although smooth can be low angled and by Alpine standards, small. These towns and hills are not family destinations. There are to many difficulties with food, language travel and infrastructure for a relaxing family ski holiday from the UK. And many of the lifts do not have safety guards, so if you have small kids under 10 they can easily fall off them.
Hakuba reminded us of a run down Breckenridge in Colorado, poor building quality and spread out and lacking a real centre, whilst Myoko Kogan looks like its slowly falling apart, unloved and underused, but this is part of its charm and its blessing. However the jewel in the crown is the ancient sulphur bath town of Nozawa Onsen (onsen = hot tub), Nozawa has narrow streets, family cafes, and the best garage pub in the world.
Even for the dedicated, it’s not all-plain skiing. Many resorts have rules that are restrictive and incomprehensible. A lot of the best terrain is out of bounds and the ski patrollers will take your pass if you are caught ducking ropes and barriers. The stories of the Japanese not skiing in the trees are true, however this is not an issue of the trees being sacred. They don’t, because its not allowed.
This tension is mounting as vast numbers of Australians visit Japan each year, flaunt the rules and taunt the ski patrollers, however luckily, most antipodeans head for Niseko on Hokkaido island. The off-piste problem is getting worst and soon the resorts will have to get to grips with the needs of the Western visitor or ban them completely.
One way to avoid running the gauntlet in the resorts is to hike into the back country where once out of the resort, you are on your own. The mountains are beautiful, complex and provide fantastic back country skiing in the winter and good spring ski touring from April to the end of May. It is recommended for the first couple of days at least to use a local mountain guide. There are plenty of small local Japanese guiding operations but almost none of the companies have English speaking guides or web sites. An additional complication is that most Japanese mountain guides are not internationally qualified have limited avalanche and rescue training. One notable exception to this is The Hakuba Based Evergreen Guides company run by UIAGMA certified Canadian Dave Enright. They offer the best guiding service in Japan in my opinion, and employ a number of International Mountain guides and aspirants.
Unlike the rest of Japan, the ski towns are pretty limited, and don’t expect any off piste action in the form of big clubs or pubs, but the cultural experience especially in Nozawa Onsen is fascinating and very welcoming. The Onsen hot bath is a real treat, hot volcanic springs bubble to the surface and provide beautiful natural hot baths, where its traditional to bath in the nude So I suppose the tester questions is would I go back? The answer is defiantly YES. The cultural adventure is fabulous, the mountains fun and the snow maybe the deepest in the world.
Japan Top tips – Nagano prefecture (District)
Nagano is the hub for the Classic Resorts of Hakuba, Myoko Kogen, Nozawa Onsen and Shiga Kogen with busses and trains into the resorts at regular intervals from the city. For contacts and more info www.snowlove.net/japan
Travel - Tokyo to Hakuba/Nozawa Onsen.
London to Tokyo Flights with various airlines
JR Train from Narita Airport to Tokyo Central Station 1 hr
Bullet train to Nagano 2 hrs Total about 8,000 Yen,
Bus Transfer for Nagano Station East Side to Hakuba Central 1.15mins 1500 yen.
The train from Tokyo to Nagano is the calmest way to travel, pre booking ski delivery to you lodge or hotel from Tokyo Airport is recommended and costs £10, it saves you trawling your kit though the underground. Public transport is great, clean and unthreatening.
The simplest way to travel though, is by hiring a private Chofu Taxi direct from the airport to the resort, but 4-5 hours in a mini bus is not my idea of fun but it’s a good simple and cheap option http://www.chuotaxi.co.jp/index.php?id=8
Accommodation in Hakuba – Remember when you are booking a room you have two styles, Western with a bed, or Japanese, with a futon and low seats.
4 Star Tokyu Hotel Twin Rooms aprox 30,000 - 50,000 per night, 5 days or longer discounts available. http://www.tokyuhotelsjapan.com/en/TR/TR_HAKUB/index.html (western style)
Morino Lodge – The best lodge in Hakuba, about 7,000 per night - http://www.morinolodge.com/ (Western and Japanese)
Hakuba HiFumi Hotel, a lovely Japanese Lodge Hotel http://www.hakubahifumi.jp/eigo/ 17,000 per room for two
Kiriya Ryokan – a very nice and established Japanese style Hotel www.kiriya.jp
Akakura Kanko Resort and Spa http://www.akr-ski.com/english/
Tokyo – Park Hotel www.parkhoteltokyo.com a great place to see Tokyo from.
For general tourism info http://www.jnto.go.jp/ Japanese National Tourism Organisation
Money and costs and other stuff
When the yen is strong i.e. under 180 yen to the pound, Japan is frankly unaffordable, so watch the exchange rate
Travel in Japan is quick easy and on time, but there are no or almost no sign in English once you leave the Tokyo Area, but people are very helpful so with a little patience travel is relatively easy.
ATM machines are in short supply, so travel to the resorts with enough cash in Yen to last a few days, also almost none of the resuratnts and cafes have card facilities.
Travel and fixing service – Hakuba Snow Connections – Contact Steve – firstname.lastname@example.org
Mountain Guiding – Evergreen Outdoor Center – Dave Enright – email@example.com
Bring your own skis as most of the hire shops only hire on piste equipment, and shoe sizes are limited to the smaller sizes. If you have space alos bring energy and granola bars for the hill as rice parcels and Japanese chocolate don,t do it.