Monday, 21 February 2011

Action Man 45

My snowboard was flapping behind my head, acting like great big heavy black sail. Each gust of wind forced me to admit that John Falkner, mountain guide, guru, ski man and my wife’s cousin, was right. Carrying a snowboard up a mountain was stupid and I should abandon being a “gay on a tray” and take up skiing. This feeling of being from “another tribe” was compounded by the fact that as I passed under the trees on the trail my 168cm Winterstick would catch on the branches inviting the entire tree to unload its snow load in a mini avalanche down the back of my neck.

We were hiking up Point De Marcilly just above the ski resorts of Praz de Lys looking for some untracked powder in the early part of the ski season. Just above the tree line at 1600m the tree branch challenge was replaced by the wind balance one. The ridge we were climbing was too steep and narrow to skin up and a bit too exposed to the wind for my liking. As we neared the ubiquitous summit cross found on many a French mountain, things were beginning to look good. However a bit of care was required as there was some wind slab avalanche prone snow just below the ridge crest where we wanted to cross.

Gustav my Swedish boarding mate and I removed our snow shoes in an effort to puncture the weak layer and penetrate into the solid snow below and avoid the potential of starting a slide that might take us over a small cliff below. I crossed the weaker snow layer whilst Gustav stayed back by a rock to watch and avoid loading the snow with too much weight. In a few moments the snow became consistent again and we took stock. 50m above us stood the cross but the snow getting to the true summit looked a bit wind blown and grey so we decided to stay on the ridge and start the descent from a safe distance away from any avalanche area.

The entrance to the face looked steep and a bit unsighted which meant that once Gustav had dropped in I would not be able to see him and if it slid (avalanched) I would have no chance of seeing him at all. We decided that I would watch him from a rock outcrop where I could see as much of the run as I could and not come on to the face until he had boarded down and had stopped in a nice safe spot. It all sounds a bit dramatic but this is defensive skiing and as such it is imperative to look after one another. Envious of the virgin tracks he would carve but also glad he was the slope guinea pig, I watched him fly off down the 40 degree entrance slope and float down the North Face in plumes of sky lifted powder. A little shout of Swedish joy the only audible indication of pleasure from an otherwise impassive Scandinavian. Gustav stopped just under a boulder and shouted the all clear. I stepped into my bindings, took a deep breath and popped over the small cornice onto the steep wall of snow. The first few turns of a run like this are always a little scary and heightened. You need to measure the angle, feel the snow, listen for strange bumps cracks and swooshes, and also make sure that it is only you that is moving downhill and not the entire slope you are carving through. It is by far and away the most dangerous moment. I boarded in a series of left trending turns allowing the sluffs from each turn to run to my side. After five or six small turns I was happy that the slope was safe and took the brakes off, concentrating on relaxing and flying fast down the hill. The plumes of super cold powder flew over my head, their crystals dancing in the air momentarily before rejoining there cloud mates lying on the mountain. I learnt two things that day: to enjoy good things some effort must always be made, and that Swedes do actually make a lot of noise if the time is right.

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