I’ve never been one for a lazy poolside holiday – it’s not really in me to sit still. So when a friend told me about their recent ski touring holiday in the Alps it seemed like the perfect excuse for a challenge and an alpine adventure. At Atlas & I we hear so many amazing stories from people who want to commemorate an adventure or an achievement, I thought it was time to make some memories myself.
After persuading four unsuspecting friends to join me on the trip, we set off to La Grave, France on a ski touring adventure. None of us had much touring experience, just a thirst for something different, a holiday that left you feeling like you’d accomplished something and ticked one more item off the “to do” list. Armed with our rucksacks, ski skins, shovels, ice crampons, avalanche transceivers and ice axes…we headed to the mountains.
I had been recommended a company called Alpine Guides who provided us with an itinerary that suited our abilities and a guide who would become part of the team for the week. We met our guide Mark, a Scot from Avimore, and knew he would be a great addition to the adventure with his alpine knowledge and sense of humour.
When attempting to scale mountains in the un-inhabited alpine landscape, it’s essential that you have the right equipment to ascend (and descend) safely, as well as the knowledge to use it. Day 1 was all about training. With fresh snowfall from the night before, avalanche risk was high and mountain safety was at the forefront of our minds. How to find someone who had been caught in an avalanche, and what to do to rescue them, was first on the agenda.
A nearby “col” named Col de Galbier was to be our first accent. We set off at 8.30am in relative cloud coverage on the mountain, but as the sun started to shine the weather took a turn for the best. Breaking through the cloud at the top of the mountain and seeing the setting that would be home for the next 5 days took our breath away. It was hard work, with our muscles getting used to the repetitive movement of dragging one ski in front of the other, multiple “snack” breaks were needed and our fit bits told us we had hit our “daily target” before 10am. 24,000 steps later, we reached the top of the mountain and time for the skins to come off and to enjoy the fresh powder on the ski down!
Training day done, it was time to leave the luxuries of running water and hotel rooms behind and start on the real adventure. The area around La Grave is well known for its ski touring terrain and the local ski authorities maintain “refuges” where intrepid tourers can rest their heads for the night. Our route was based on two refuges where we had reserved our bunk beds for three nights and the path we took in between was planned by Mark.
To gain essential height the first day was purely an uphill climb to our first hut Refuge des Drayeres. The pace was soon set at a brisk shuffle which is all you can muster when carrying 14kg of kit on your back and a pair of skis clamped to your feet.
We were very lucky with the weather and on early arrival at the refuge, the t-shirts came off in the sunshine and a spot of book reading and a cold beer was welcomed. After a hearty meal and an early bed we awoke at sunrise to start on the next leg of the tour.
The morning was a stark contrast to the balmy afternoon the day before. Overnight the warm spring snow had frozen solid and our first mountain of the day was icy and perilous. It was time to get the Ice Crampons out! When the slope became too steep for our skins on the base of the ski to grip we stopped in a safe place and attached what I can only describe as a pair of metal pronged teeth to the base of our ski. These quickly became my favourite piece of kit and our skis held fast on the 50 degree slope we were attempted to ascend. It was worth the climb at the top when we reached the south face of the mountain and were bathed in the morning sun. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief that we had survived our first ice crampon ascent.
Now for the first descent of the day (what we were really all there for). Un-touched fresh powdery snow, which made every drop of sweat from the exhausting walk up worth it. Sadly, it was all too short for our 4 hour climb and before we knew it the skins were back on and we were off to find our next adrenaline fix. After 7 hours of touring and skiing we finally arrived at our refuge for the next two nights, Refuge du Thabor.
Another 6.30am start and stunning sunrise saw us walking to the top of the mountain that shadowed our namesake hut, Mont Thabor. After two days of hard ascents our legs were getting used to the repetitive challenge of dragging skis uphill and we stormed up to the summit, to one of the most breath-taking panoramic views of the Alps. Today was a shorter day and on arrival back at the hut we were given the challenge of collecting fresh drinking water for the hut from a nearby lake. After an impromptu face and hair wash using the freezing water from a jerry can, we tugged the containers back up the hill to the hut and enjoyed another hearty meal of much needed carbohydrates.
Our last day was what we had all been waiting for. After climbing over 1500m in the previous three days, we had to get down the mountain and that meant casting aside our skins and crampons for some downhill skiing! A short walk in the morning got us over the last Col which meant downhill, all the way back to the car. We waited a while in the morning sun to make sure the snow had softened after a freezing night and had the most blissful few hours skiing our way down the mountain. Careful to appreciate every turn knowing full well we had earned every meter of descent with the blood, sweat and tears that we’d shed over the previous few days, we made our way down the mountain. The pain was definitely worth it – the snow was perfect
Want to plan your next alpine adventure? Check out Alpine Guides online.
Huge thanks to Mark, Nixie, Huw, George N and George D for making it such an enjoyable trip.