Ski Touring in and around Bansko and the Pirin

Ski Touring

Ski Touring

The ski season lasts only 100 days, some years even less. The normal routine is that the resort management do everything they can to get the pistes open for Christmas and then it snows and snows and keeps on snowing and no matter how much snow is on the hill the muppets close the resort around easter.

This year was a perfect example in Bansko. With perfect conditions on piste until the 10th of may the resort shut up shop around the beginning of APRIL!!!

For most tourists this is cool, they might ski Christmas, Feb half term or possibly a cheeky weekend over easter. For people who live in countries with skiing this annual moment of madness is very frustrating. With the snow at its deepest all the lifts close!

ski touring in Pirin

The solution? Ski touring, Randonne, Ski Mo, Earning your turns, Ski Mountaineering….. Whatever you want to call it, the solution is hauling your butt up the mountain with all your gear and then skiing down. The ratio of up to down is a little different to lift access skiing but the rewards are well worth the effort. 

Because the off piste was so good this winter I spent most of my time skiing lift access backcountry lines. When the lifts closed the proper backcountry was calling and my god did we rise to the call. I’ve had some epic days this spring going places and skiing lines that just blew my mind for their beauty and general awesomeness.

ski mountiaineering in the Balkans

Bansko and Dobrinishtay have some amazing, easy access and sick backcountry lines (the link to the book below is a great starting point) Most of what you really want to do is within about a 2 hour hike. Lines that will transform your instagram reputation from ski bum to ski god are within the grasp of even the old, fat and unfit (yup that’s moi)

Golden rules of Spring touring:-

  1. Invest in the right kit.
  2. Know before you go. 
  3. Get home by 12 noon,  the snowpack can get a bit avalanchy in the afternoons
  4. Avalanche bag, I’ll do a blog dedicated to this in the near future.
  5. Merion merino merino
  6. Down down down
  1. Invest in the right kit, touring gear can be used for alpine skiing so next time you are buying skis why not make them touring skis. Tech has moved on so much recently that my go to piste/backcountry ski is also my touring set up. Buy Dynafit. Simple. I have destroyed a lot of gear over the years and Dynafit appear to be nearly indestructible, light and versatile. Go for a ski to suit your riding style. 88mm wide if you plan more up and piste skiing than pow. 108  beasts if you are aiming for the pow!
  2. Know before you go, as it sounds. Get local info about terrain and avalanche risk before you set off. Touring puts you in places a long way from help and in strange terrain. Get a book on local routes (link below) talk to locals about classic tours, get a local guide ; for ski touring  , for split board touring 
  3. Get home by lunch, spring  brings a new dimension to avalanche risk. A slope that is as safe as houses at 6am can be death on a stick at 3pm. Warm spring days and freezing nights play a significant role in safe spring skiing. As a rule of thumb you want to be in the pub by 12:00. Allow for some faffing, route finding and photo ops and leave early. |a head torch is your friend!
  4. Avalanche Bag, this is such an important bit of kit that I will dedicate a whole blog to it another time.
  5. Merino, you are going to get sweaty. There’s no nice way of saying this. Hauling yourself up the hill with all your gear is hard work. Merino is your friend, it keeps you warm on those early starts and wicks sweat away from your skin as you start getting moist!
  6. Down, this is the best investment you can ever make if you are into mountains. So work out how much money you can afford then double your budget. A good down jacket will last you for the rest of your life and is a godsend. At the end of a hike when you are tired and wet to wrap yourself in a -25 rated down jacket is heaven. We got to the top of a run an hour early this winter and had to wait for the sun to come up. Wrapped in a gore tex shell and my down puffy I was warm as toast even with minus temps and a howling gale.

Here are some links to gear I own and can vouch for 100% Everything below is something I would buy again and again. I know it all looks very expensive but do the math there is some serious value to be had in buying quality. Hestra gloves are a perfect example, in 25 years of skiing seasons I have owned a total of 3 pairs of hestra gloves. Two pairs partially destroyed and 1 pair still looking like new. That’s 11 years per pair, it takes about 1000 days of abuse to destroy a pair of hestra gloves!!

Skiing the Balkans book, this is a great introduction to backcountry skiing and touring in Bulgaria. Classic routes with good descriptions and photos this is a beginners bible. :- 

Ski Boot, you will need a boot that fits a technical binding. Advances in tech now mean you can get the same performance out of technical binding as you can out of a normal alpine binding. If you are planning on hucking cliffs and skiing very agressively I suggest the Dynafit beast binding :-

Skis I bought these seven summit skis this summer, they came as a set as per the link. I was riding them in pow, crud, avalanche debris and on piste all winter. They did the job!!! in super deep pow they were a little bit narrow and on crust they were a little hard to control but most skis would struggle in both those situations:-

Skins there is huge debate about ski touring climbing skins and frankly I am not fit or fast enough to tell the difference. I really like the dynafit ones mostly because I can’t afford the G3 ones that look so cool!!:-

Ski touring crampon, again there is a lot of debate about ski touring crampons. I love them, on crud or ice you have prefect grip. When things are a little laterally slippy they also help. They weigh nothing and are a huge help:-

Leashes, I used these for the first time this winter and they are a god send. I ski on super light technical bindings that really are a bit too weak for a 100kg man skiing agressively. When I have popped out of my skis these little beauties have kept my skis attached! If you want to be charging sweet lines rather than hunting for lost skis get yourself a pair.

Down jacket, I love my puffy, I use it all year. from camping trips in the summer to -25 days in the winter. It is perfect in a tight spot when you need to survive the worst the weather can throw at you and as a little luxury at the end of a long sweaty ski touring climb.:-

Hestra Gloves if I was a poet I would write love songs about Hestra. They are just perfect. Warm, tough, durable and only get better with age. A pair of Hestra gloves will last you a lifetime:-

Icebreaker claim a lot about how good their baselayers are. Odourless, warm in the cold, cool in the warm, breathable, amazing wicking properties. To be honest I didn’t believe a word of the advertising guff when I first heared it and frankly 75 euros for a vest is just nuts. I am now totally coverted. It is all true and more. My record is 30 days and nights straight wearing the same thermals and not a wiff of stink. Great sun protection and cool/warm depending on what you need. Those Kiwi sheep really know their stuff.:-

Head torch, I’ve had a lot of different head torches over the years, even wind up ones and not one has come close to this bad boy. For ski touring before dawn starts the Black Diamond Ion lights up the mountain beautifully. Lots of clever adjustments and pretty lightweight  considering the power this monster is just ideal:-

fresh spring tracks

The Joy of skiing

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The Joy of Skiing.

20017/18 saw another great winter here in Bansko. Conditions were fantastic the hotel was full and the restaurant is going from strength to strength!

I have noticed a bit of a change this year, it hasn’t come suddenly but has crept up on me. I’m still ski touring and skiing off piste (like a god!), I’m still cooking at the curry nights and the supper club. The cocktails are as splendid as ever. The Awesome Avalon team are getting better and better (if that is possible!! ). No the change isn’t in what we do it is who we are doing it with!

I have noticed that more and more of our guests are starting to have children, the party animals of a few years ago have become loved up couples and those couples are now coming with bigger and bigger and bigger children!

Dylan is now ten and I don’t really know how that happened, one minute I’m a dashing young blade and the next I’m the father of a dashing young blade. The little man who used to need daddy to do anything is now a mini ski god and a fantastic helper behind the bar and in the kitchen.

This winter was all about mountain life with Dylan!

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Skiing with Children

Mountain life is a perfect environment for children, fresh air and exercise are part of the daily routine, eating healthily  and socialising with friendly people are the norm, and Dylan withall the others is loving it ! The real shocker has been seeing the number of humongous children. We’ve been open for nearly 15 years now so those 3 and 4 year olds who came to stay for their first ever ski holiday are now 18 and 19 year old giants!

As skiers and snowboarders we want our children to ski with us. The learning is a fun family adventure, skiing together is a joy, being beaten down a piste by your son or daughter is fantastic. Hot chocolate and picnics in the snow, blazing sunshine in January and the buzz of doing sport together are all brilliant.

6 top tips for enjoying skiing with your children

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#1 Know your child.

I’ve seen 4 year old girls in -20 happy as pigs in poo, I’ve seen 14 year old boys miserable on a sunny day in -5. Know your child. Are they a rufty tufty little bruiser who will keep getting up even after a thousand falls or more of a thinker  who needs to be coaxed and reassured down the hill. Be honest with yourself, just because daddy likes hucking  10 foot cliffs in chest deep pow doesn’t mean Tarquina does.

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#2 The baby is the boss.

You want to ski, that’s why you are here, you love it, you’ve only got a week maybe ten days a year to do it so you fill every day from first lift to last with hell for leather charges down black runs. Now Berti is three it’s time he joined in the fun. 4 hours a day in ski school should do it you’ll get time to ski with the Mrs. If the instructor is firm and Berti would only stop crying like a wimp you should be skiing together as a family by the end of the week!

NOOOOO!!!!! Don’t do it!!!

Let the little beast be the boss. Let your child set the pace. When Dylan was small we used to drive up to Chalin Valog with a sledge and some skis and boots. We would build snow men, have snow ball fights. Play on the sledge. Drink hot chocolate, eat chips and meat balls, make snow angles we would do anything other than ski. It didn’t take long, only a few days of playing in the snow, before he was asking to try on the skis. I would tow him around, he would slide a couple of meters and we would go back to building snow men. He set the pace. He was the one asking for lessons. He wanted me to let him ski …..

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#3 All the Gear All the Time.

The little blighters grow and grow and grow and grow. It’s bad enough buying new shoes every five minutes and then they need equipment. You can rent skis and helmets so there is no problem there but the rest of the kit costs a fortune.

If you want to enjoy skiing with your children that means buying them the right kit. Warm technical jackets and trousers, good quality thermals and gloves, goggles at actually protect their eye. Body armour. YES! Body armour, they will crash and crash badly, a back protector, wrist protectors for boarders, knee protectors the works please!

Being warm and dry, surviving crashes unharmed, being able to see even in the worst weather will make the difference between your child loving and hating skiing. Spend the money, it’s worth it!

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#4 Feed the Beast.

They forget to eat, they forget to tell you they are hungry and then suddenly you are at the top of a red run in full meltdown mode. Tears, tantrums, zero self confidence and they just can’t do it. WTF has happened? The three of you smashed this piste yesterday and now Billy is being a Drama Queen! It’s probably because he’s hungry. Regular snacks, every 45 minutes is best something small something healthy. Regular snacks save the holiday!

www.Freemountains.com

#5 Warm them Up.

One of the great paradoxes of mountaineering is that the first sign of hypothermia is you don’t feel cold. You ask your climbing buddy all the time if they are cold, if the answer is yes then everything is ok. The moment they say no panic! Children are the same but with a lot less internal fat, they get cold and get cold quick.

They don’t notice because they are too busy having fun, but once they are cold they are miserable and once they are miserable so are you. WARM THEM UP! Stop every couple of hours for a 30 minute warm up in a restaurant. Bring extra socks and gloves, a spare layer, a spare jacket if you have space. They are going to fall over a lot and if they get wet they will get cold.

#6 Make it Fun.

Dylan is a better skier than I am. He’s had years of slalom training, hundreds if not thousands of hours smashing gates with the ski team. His weight is forward his knees are bent, edges are well and truly in he can beat me down most slopes in a straight race and beats me every time though gates.

So we mess around on blue runs, he likes it! He likes going over the little jumps on the side of the pistes. He loves getting air (all 6 inches of it!) he likes to play. Yes he can ski powder on 45 degree slopes off piste, but he likes to play, so we play!

If he asks we go off piste, if he asks we go in the jump park, black run? Yes, when he wants. Under the lifts? Yes, when he wants. It’s all about him having fun.  The more your children enjoy skiing the more you will enjoy it.

 

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Ride the Lightning

Ride the lightningRide the Lightning, guilty as charged, but damn it, it ain’t right, there is someone else controlling me. Death in the air. Metallica are not really my thing but the lyrics are epic!

The snow has arrived and my God has it arrived. Relentless snowfall for days has covered all the trees in the back country. Shoots that were stuffed with thickets of dwarf pine are now filled to the runnels with snow. Faces that were a rocky craggy mess two weeks ago are now rolling pillows of fresh tempting snow. The bowl in the middle of the resort has gone from impenetrable forest to powder playground.

20141231_112545But, and there is always a But in the game of adventure sports, this winter has been a winter like no other. I’m no expert in snow pack analysis but one of the blogers I follow puts it really well McNab Snowboarding .  So the strangest winter in my 20 years of playing in the hills, hot and sunny, rain, wind, hail, sleet, frost, Brutal Brutal cold, more rain more wind and interspersed in all this two or three massive dumps. If you dig through the snow pack the layers are like a Victoria sponge, soft fluffy layers of cake split with sticky dense layers of gak (technical term!)

20141231_112608So what does this mean? Well it means no one has skied the north face of Todorka yet, and I think The Promised Land (West face of Todorka) has been left untouched as well. Fear has crept into the minds of the free riders, we all know that underfoot there is one if not two cracks in the snow pack, we all know that screaming white death is just a foolish move away. But, that relentless But, that drive that pushes you on, that But plays games with your judgement, it convinces you that this slope, this face at this time, is fine.

The avalanche cannons  have done their work on Palashitsa above the top of the gondola, they have done their work on the gullies that drop west from the top chair lift. You can see the layers in what is left behind, 10cm of wind blow crust over 40cm od less windblown slab, over another smooth block of base. It looks so obvious when you see it deconstructed like this, of course the gullies are going to slip, of course there will be loads of rock hard ice debris at the bottom.  But look at that line!!! Clear fresh smooth snow stretching off untouched into the trees, it’s light a fluffy down there it feels like riding velvet, and maybe if you are gentle, touch it only with the softest of turns, ride it fast with one eye always on the exit, be the ninja always ready to respond to whatever surprises arise you’ll be the guy who is ok. Bunderitsa 3 07 02 2015

So now the free ride community splits. Those that lead and those that follow, teams that used to play together all the time in perfect conditions crystallise into nuggets of trust. Who do you really really trust right now, who’s judgement are you going to trust with your life? For me it’s easy I have ridden with Tom for 20 years, we know each other like no other. His drive balanced by my analysis. We ride safe, this ridge line, that section of trees, now into this gully, whoops lets leave that one alone. Just two people watching out for each other, he stops I ride past, I stop he rides on. Sketchy section? We talk it through, Tom goes first, light and fast I follow on to pick up the pieces! Laughter, adrenaline, bellowing joy as we charge off through the trees.

For others it is not so easy, who do you trust? Really really trust, Andy from Oxo will always have a crowd, his judgement is sound, Black George, some of the Mountain Rescue boys, some of the Ulen instructors? Who do you really trust, who really trust you! Around a mutual trust, little groups forming like salt crystals, a recognition of expertise, a recognition of so many intangible factors that combine to create an illusion of safety.

All the bar chat, chest thumping and egotistical strutting are just compensation for this hard cold truth. In this guy I trust my life and he trusts his to me. I respect his judgement and he mine. When it all goes south he will dig me out and I will dig for him. It’s a tight bond that’s more than anything normal life can give you.

Strangely Bulgaria breaks the big international rule for this silly sport. A back country skier or boarder is normally a man, 20 to 40 years old and testosterone fuelled his brain firmly embedded in his pants. He’ll probably talk like he has hit his head too many times and his rollies will smell weird! Not in the land of the Bulgar, the girls here rock, they ride as hard as any bloke, better technique and better judgement, popping whatever jumps are in the way, these are not the prissy snowbunnies of North America or the big bottomed chalet girls of the Alps, these girls put most of the boys to shame!

Enough crap talk, we survived, the snow pack will change, the bruises will heal the muscles will recover and tomorrow we’ll do it all again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skiing above Bansko

Skiing above Bansko

Vihren and Kutelo

Vihren and Kutelo

The Mountain on the right is the one that interests me at the moment. At 2908m and with a pointy top she is a proper mountain, towering above Bansko town and ski area. The idea of skiing above Bansko has grown and grown on me this winter. To be wooshing down untouched faces with the town and ski area down below me in the distance. Removed from all the trappings of lifts and pistes but still being able to see them, it appeals!

Vihren with his broad rugged shoulders and square top is a truly manly peak.  Winter mountaineering on his north face is a daunting and dangers task. His whole presence says come on if you think you are hard enough! Kutelo (that’s her name) is only 6m shorter than Vihren. Kutelo, right next door and only a few hundreds of meters away. Kutelo is a totally different proposition, she is a curvaceous beast, long sinuous ridge lines, voluptuous rolling sides, her come hither faces, distinctly feminine in their allure, whispering, come on baby you know you want to.

Unsurprisingly it is Kutelo that has caught my attention. The hike up from Bunderitsa polyana (top of the gondola) follows the old deserted ski lift on cherno mogila. After a while you break left and start up the broad shoulder that eventually becomes the easterly ridge line to the summit. The north east face is the line I plan to descend. From below it looks near vertical but I have been assured that from above it is a more manageable 40 degrees. 40 degrees of wide open untracked snow, 1000m of pristine face plunging towards the tree line, it should make an epic run!

So I started training two weeks ago and I’m thinking 1 more week of training and I will be ready.

Watch this space…..

Well the week of training has passed and the route is becoming clearer and clearer. I have found the way up through the woods from the top of the gondola to Academica and from Academica up to the ridge in the forest. The next step is to find the way through the last bit of forest but as the trees start to thin out up there it should be easier!

Tales  of wolves and bears are being batted around but I think it is mostly just to scare me rather than there being any truth in it! Either way I now have my pen knife close at hand.

The initial time of 1 or two weeks looks like it will be more like 3 or 4 but slowly slowly I will get there! The Altitude difference between Bansko and the top is nearly 2000m so I allowing 7 hours for the ascent. I imagine the descent will be closer to 45 minutes than the 4 hours it takes in the summer. A friend did point out that it might be interesting trying to ski down with legs that have just done 7 hours of up. Jelly legs and skiing??? Probably not the best combo!

When it comes to the final attempt for the top I am planning to try and get back from the summit by mid day so I’ll probably have to do the first few hours in the dark when the snow is at its safest, head torch it is then!

Watch this space…..

 

Ski Touring in National Park Pirin, Bansko, Bulgaria

Ski Touring in Pirin

Ski Touring in Pirin

Ski Touring in Pirin is a strange mix of wild, remote, untouched nature and glitzy modern ski resort.

Yesterday I went out for my first tour of the winter, just a short 2 hour walk along the cliff top above Damianitsa valley. A thin crust of snow gliding under my skis, blazing sunshine filtering through the trees and silence. That magical silence of a forest bound in winter. A silence of everyone sleeping away the winter months. A communal breath held while we are crushed under the pressure of short cold days and even colder long long nights.

A few of the forest beasts had been around as their tracks littered the trail that was as much a road for them as a track for me. Rabbits, deer, boar maybe a trace of man… But then, at that moment, I was  alone just the sleeping forest and I.

Ski Touring is a strange pastime, a mixture of brutal physical exercise and transcendental peace. There is a Zen like place where your body works at a tempo that can be maintained for ever, your brain is all but shut down just a small fraction of it keeping track of direction and place and you arms and legs just swing and slide, swing and slide swing and slide, eating up the meters in a wonderfully efficient symbiosis of man and kit.

vihrenroadwinter Most people head off into the hills in ski touring groups in the winter,  the danger and remoteness of a winter bound environment is daunting. A sprained ankle or twisted knee can suddenly turn a nice little stroll into a life and death nightmare. Having a group to share the work of cutting the trail, friends to offer moral support and the camaraderie of an adventure shared all add to a jovial time.

Fortunately yesterday I was within close range of civilisation so forgetting simple things like water, food and other survival basics didn’t matter much, O.K. I was pretty hungry and thirsty by the time I got home but nothing fatal. I’ll re-pack the bag before I go out again! I normally take at least a litre of water and loads of raw almonds. These two can keep me going for days and weigh nothing! There will be my Opinel  , a lighter and some matches  in the back pack next time. On the kit front I am still on my Rossignol B3’s a great all mountain ski just as good going up as down, they will charge through powder, crud and ice with abandon. O.K. they are a bit all purpose so not “The Best” at any one thing and my god they are old (2006) but we get on and they do their job well.

skiing in bansko

skiing in bansko

I’ve fitted them with some Marker Baron bindings which are super heavy duty. They can take the beating of being thrown in and out of cars, clipping trees and rocks on the downhill as much as being clouted against trees and rocks on the up hill. The only downside is their weight. By touring standards their 2600g is properly in the heavy weight category! Especially if you compare them with some of the less than 400g modern stuff. When it comes to  Ski Touring skins I have fully embraced the modern trend of cut to fit skins. Colltex offers some great skins mine have a ridiculously cool snake ski pattern on them! Their grip on the snow is incredible offering access to much steeper  slopes the my old thin 1990’s specials! My big investment this year has been in a new pair of boots. Light and sturdy they ski like a dream. If you put them in walk mode they are more comfortable than my hiking boots. Yup you heard it here first, ski boots that feel like shoes!!! CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO

Vihren and Kutelo

Vihren and Kutelo

The plan for this winter is to get fit enough to get to the top of Todorka from the Secret chair. So if you see a huffing and puffing fool slogging his way up the piste stop and say hi! I will probably be in need of a rest.

Klang

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N.B. updated since originally posted

The Picture is of Shane McConkey playing the part of saucer boy in one of his films, he is a bit of a hero of mine! Saucer Boy is pretty much the embodiment of Klang. This strange phenomenon where by men feel they can buy tallent, the thinking goes “I look the part therefore I am” You see it in every sport whether it is   MAMIL’s (middle aged men in lycra) pretending they are Bradley Wiggins on a Sunday ride or ramblers going for a stroll in the countryside with enough goretex and high spec gear to equip an expedition to the north pole.

When it comes to skiing I call it Klang, enough metal work, ropes and harnesses to keep your average bondage freak happy for weeks. All with the intention of making the wearer look extreme.

Grandad (my name for him as he has been on walking sticks for the last year) was caught red handed waving an avalanche transceiver around at Bunderitsa Polyana  before the last dump of snow. Avalanche risk = zero, “Look how extreme I am” factor = 11 !

Sofia Boy, down in Bansko for the weekend, everything but the harness! Skis so fat they could be two snowboards, transceiver on the outside of the jacket, ABS rucksack, probe, shovel carabiners attached to everything. Chances of him going anywhere more extreme than for a pee in the woods = zero.

Klang doesn’t always have to involve equipment, if you can’t afford the gear positioning works just as well. Hanging out next to the park with a reefa holding your bits talking about how sick your back flip would be if you didn’t have that injury caused by some uber extreme  trick you tried last time. Is totally acceptable Klang. Chilling (again with reefa) on the corner of an exit route of some badass gullies as if you have just ripped some sick lines is pure Klang.

So next time you are in a ski resort be it on the lift, in a bar or in the back country look out for Saucer Boy, Shane McConkey might be dead but he lives on in every resort in the world as Saucer Boy strutting his Klang .   

 

N.B. Update below  Ref:- Anti-Klang

Since this was originally posted it has been brought to my attention that both The Polak and I are guilty of another sort of Klang or Anti Klang. Still shouting from the roof tops how extreme we are but not buy buying the best kit, but by not buying anything! Gaffa tape on the ski trousers, dirty old jackets, more gaffa on the gloves, scratched skis boots held together with tooth picks, a water bottle so dented and worn that it must have seen enough extreme S**t to fill a book! Wow we must be hard core, we don’t even have time to buy stuff, we are soooooo good we can ride with f****d gear, all those battle scars can’t be from drunken night in the pub they must be from when we were wrestling polar bears in the arctic! Anti Klang is not unique to the two of us, Chamonix has its own breed of specialist in this strange genre. I remember my neighbour there sitting on the bench outside his chalet solemnly sandpapering his brand new ice axe to make it look old, jackets are hung up in the sun all summer to give them that bleached look that can only be got from years of hanging “Bond like” off some ice wall. Suncream?! but how will I look like a walnut by the time I an 30 if I use sun cream…..

 

Dragon Alliance

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Respect to Dragon Alliance click here for their website I bought a pair of goggles from them last season and due to some unlucky defect with the pair I bought all the film came off the lens. After a disappointing experience with their agent in BG I pretty much gave up on them and decided to write off the 150 euros they cost as an expensive lesson. Last month a friend suggested that I should get in touch with head office.

Well Dragon are not the sort of company to leave a client in the lurch. Amazing customer service, polite, friendly, fast and helpful and a replacement pair of goggles in the post within a month!

Great gear made by great people, THANK YOU DRAGON!

A black and white world

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It has finally snowed and snowed and snowed! I went up the hill to have a proper look today and found a black and white winter wonderland. It’s not much maybe 15 or 20 centimetres and it is really wet and heavy but it is snow and with a bit of work it should keep the pistes open for weeks!

I’m planning to get fit enough to be able to ski tour to the top of Kutelo by the end of the winter. today I managed to get as far as the Bunderitsa car park which is not very far.  To put it into perspective I am now fit enough to walk to the bottom of the hill! I need to get fit enough to walk to the top of the hill! It’s going to be a struggle!

If you believe all the hype on the snow-forecast sites it looks like the mother of all storms is on its way! 54cm of snow was forecast for Sunday, training might have to go on the back burner, if it turns out to be true I will mostly be ripping it up in the pow for the next week!

Boots and blisters

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Freeride skiing is all about, well if you’ve read some of my older posts you’ll know what I think it is all about. What it is not about is sunny days loafing around resort waiting for the snow to come. The winter is a shockingly emotional time for me, sleep deprivation due to the long hours added to exhaustion from all the skiing, the highs and lows of good, bad and best days on the hill. Amazing guests, lovely guests, repeat guests, regulars that come every year, guests that make me work, guests that really really make me work it’s a roller-coaster of emotion!

Then every once in a decade the snow god lets you down and the winter starts late, 2013/14 is one of those years. A big blob of stable weather is sitting over the Balkans, not a breath of wind, I check the long term forecast twice a day, I watch the satellite images most mornings, snow-forecast.com , Accuweather.com  , these are my friends, I’m pretty much stalking both sites and both just predict wall to wall sunshine. The dumb thing is I know it doesn’t matter, a bad start normally means a great mid and end of the season but experience and logic mean nothing all I can see are those little yellow sunshines.

All this pent up emotion is coming out in strange ways, anyone who is positive about the season is instantly hated, friends in Verbier, St Anton, Courcheval are no longer friends. Wars are started over nothing arguments spring up. Weirdly, considering all the rage, I’m feeling huge amounts of affection for Vania, my only partner in the war against the lack of snow! The snow gods are cursed, I’ve even thought about some sort of voodoo sacrifice, madness has set in!

So in an attempt to remain sane I have thrown my brain at some huge tasks, learning about this and that, writing essays, but the body is still craving release so I have dusted off my touring skis and my bike and I’m spending an hour a day beasting myself around the hills.

This is where the boots and blisters bit comes in.Llast week in a fit of rage I stomped off up the ski road, music blaring and mind switched off. I tried to wear myself out. It wasn’t too hard, Christmas and New Year have taken their toll, a couple of pre-season weeks eating too well in Italy and France  really took their toll.

Knackered I stopped and skied home to find that my boots and feet don’t get on. It’s strange as I have been skiing in the boots for 18 months but the damage caused by touring was shocking. Claret and yellow muck soaked my socks, skin flapping all over the shop generally a disaster. Fortunately some of our regular guest are marines so a brief consultation and a couple of days in slippers meant I could walk and work but now I need to find a long term solution. The last week has been spent studying blisters and I feel I can almost say I’m an expert! I’m now stocked up on iodine, jelly-like plasters and zinc oxide tape. God willing it will snow and I can go back to skiing via the lifts but in the mean time I’ll wrap myself up like a mummy and keep on keeping on!

 

New toys

abscare

 

Bansko is having a pretty shitty start to the season this year, poor snow conditions and mild temps mean that there are only a few pistes open and those only because of man made snow. So this is the ideal moment to talk about toys!

This year I will finally be going into the back country with the correct kit. I’ve been free riding, ski mountaineering or back country skiing for most of the last 18 years and to be honest I’ve been a bit of a prat about it. For many years I have been relying more on chat than knowledge, luck than judgement and a 6th sense for danger rather than snow pack analysis. In the last 10 years I have been learning more and more about how the snow pack evolves and how it responds to various climactic changes and what is now at the fore front of my mind is how little I really know.   Fortunately I have survived all the little lessons the mountain has given me and I’m also rich enough to be able to buy the right equipment. So what is the right gear! Below is a list of what I use and also some dream items if budget is no issue.

ABS-AIRBAG , this system is praised and dammed in equal measure, ABS claim a 97% survival rate for people taken in avalanches using their system, the worst analysis I have seen on the internet suggests a 47% survival rate. Either way this little backpack looks like it will increase your chances of survival in an avalanche by more than 50%. A total no brainer. The base unit is lightweight and has enough space for shovel, probe, medical kit, spare gloves, spare hat and lunch. You will need to buy a supplementary pack that zips on the outside if you are planning anything more than lift assisted skiing into the side country. I know of one friend who has deployed his and he believes it saved his life.

Avalanche Transceiver , a proven life saver for many many years, no need for details here. Anyone who goes off piste should have one of these. The device emits a signal while attached to the skier. The device also has the ability to locate signals emitted by other devices at the flick of a switch. You must practice using these as it is not easy but with practice the “PEEPS” as they are sometimes called are the second best life savers, available. I’ll come to the best life saver later on. The  BCA tracker 2 that I have is a tried and tested device offering some of the best value for money on the market. If money is no issue and santa is feeling generous the Pulse Barryvox  is the best money can buy.

Shovel and Probe I bought a pretty basic set up from K2 which can with a free back pack, I use the back pack for cycling in the summer as it is super slim and light. There is a huge spectrum of qualities and prices available on the market  but as long as you are not buying something totally mickey mouse most of them are acceptable. you are looking for something STRONG and LIGHT. In use you are going to be shifting up to a ton of snow so spend the extra quid and get something decent.

Boots  The amount of crap talked about boots is really pissing me off at the moment. Sadly most of it is totally correct, yes if you are a pro skier every millimetre matters. I recently spent 1/2 a day in Snow and Rock in Exeter getting some new boots for the old man. (they have an amazing deal on at the moment!) Now the old man started skiing in leather boots when Mammoths were still roaming the westcountry and has never owned his own boots. I on the other hand just ring up Salamon and order boots from the catalogue . So you must pity the poor bastard in snow and rock who was sticking to the training manual. Yes I am sure he is right but at the end of the day I am not Alberto Tomba, I want more space than normal, the old man likes his boots loose, some people want their boots to hurt. Just remember, don’t listen too much to the guy in the shop and buy what feels right!

I ride in Salamon Quest 110’s simply put they are awesome, lightweight, stiff for the downhill, flexible and grippy for climbing and they look cool!

Jacket and trousers There is only one brand for me when it comes to the last layer between me and the elements, and that is Arc’teryx, indestructible ( I have been trying and failing  for years to trash my trousers), comfortable, waterproof when they need to be breathable when they need to be, warm, fashionable…. what more do you need. Perfect mountain clothing. Thank you Arc’teryx for 10 happy years.

Silky underwear I grew up in the countryside and I love sheep but not until I discovered Icebreaker did I realise quite how much I love sheep! Every bit of hype you read on their website is true. I’ve just just come back from the Himalaya where for 3 weeks 24/7 I wore my Icebreaker thermals sweating up hills, sleeping in scanky huts you name it they didn’t come off and at the end they didn’t smell, I wasn’t covered in sores, they didn’t rub, chaff or get crusty!

Skis, bindings and Skins This is a slightly silly topic as it is so personal, and really depends on what you like and what you can afford. I have two basic sets of skis one are the mighty K2 Ob’sethed a truly mental pair of powder munching, sick ass bad boys that turn any normal skier into GOD! What they do to me is beyond the realm of modern science! This winter I have swapped my old Rossignol bindings onto these as they are way too heavy for touring and I moved the pair of Marker Baron touring Bindings that used to be on them onto my old Rossignol B3’s . These legendary all mountain skis have done me proud for many years and have now been “relegated” into my touring catagory. Not a bad place to spend their retirement, they work for everything from rock hard crud to powder a true all mountain ski!

Gloves One word. Hestra. Every other pair of gloves on the market is dog poo by comparison. I have been using a variation of the Classic Czone for the last 18 years, I have replaced them once. This is the only pair of gloves you will ever need. If you are a girl these ones if you are a snowboarder these ones. End of.

The best kit money can buy? Experience, training and caution have saved more lives than any piece of hardware. Be prepared to retreat if conditions do not look favourable and never forget you are in the mountains to have fun so take as few risks as poss!