Category Archives: France

Powder chasing

“Have you seen the snow forecast?” said Dan, grinning from ear to ear.

“Yeah, at last eh?” I replied, relieved that it was starting to look like the season wasn’t going to be a write off after all. It was the end of January, usually one of the best months for snow, and this was the first prolonged forecast of snow there St Gervais powderhad been all season.

“Shall we go this weekend?”

“I thought you were working?”

“I’ll sort it, let’s go”

And before I knew it, my powder hungry boyfriend had booked flights, arranged to stay with friends and even bought us both new avalanche safety gear. It was the best travel service I’d ever had, except for the fact he’d booked us flights at 6.30 in the morning. Surely he knows I’m not a morning person, sheesh.

Snow in St GervaisHowever, there was method to his apparent madness and, having arrived in Geneva at 9.30 am, we were on the slopes of St Gervais by lunchtime, relieved not to have encountered any of the travel chaos that usually accompanies heavy snowfall. In fact, we’d had no problems whatsoever until we arrived at our friends’ chalet and had to put snow chains on to get up the drive!

As we looked down from the chairlift at the trees practically collapsing under the weight of all the snow, there was absolutely no question that the 3am alarm call had been worth it. Off piste the snow was at least knee deep and still coming View from chairliftdown hard. It couldn’t have been more different to when we were here just before Christmas and the slopes and buildings were completely free of snow. In fact, in all the years I’ve been visiting St Gervais, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so snowy.

The next morning we awoke to the beautiful sight of the Aravis mountain range bathed in a pink hue, with the town below covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow. It was going to be a blue sky powder day!

Sunrise St GervaisThe only thing getting between us and the powder covered slopes was the small issue of a foot of snow that was blocking the road up to the chalet, and we weren’t going anywhere until it had been cleared. It took two strapping lads (yes, I am talking about Dan and Chris) close to an hour to clear it, which is probably enough to take the edge off a powder day, especially if, like Chris, you have to do it every time there’s a big dump of snow. Talk about earning your turns!

Clearing snowAs it turned out, we were actually quite happy not to have been up there first. St Gervais is relatively low so the powder can be slightly heavier than it would be at higher altitudes, and as its slopes don’t have the steepest gradient, if you get stuck it’s pretty hard work to get going again. There were still plenty of fresh tracks to be had but we made sure we kept an existing track within easy reach in case we needed a get out! At one point I bailed and was totally engulfed by snow, which was actually a little scary.

Avalanche transceiverIt seemed like quite an opportune time to do some avalanche safety and transceiver training so we took some time out to practice tracking buried transceivers under the guidance of experienced mountain man, Chris.

After half a day of blue skies the snow returned, and it kept dumping for the next few days, which meant lots more road clearing but also plenty more powder turns! In addition to St Gervais, we also took in the neighbouring resorts of Megève and Combleux, all of which have loads of great runs through the trees that were perfect for the snowy conditions. The combination of steeper gradient and lighter snow there also made it a dream to ride, and as the resorts were quiet, there were always freshies to be had.

Megève tree runs For the last couple of days of our trip we’d planned to head somewhere a bit further afield and opted for La Clusaz on the other side of the Aravis, which is a resort I’d never been to before. It’s also pretty easy to get to from St Gervais, in theory, and normally just requires an hour-long drive up and over the Col d’Aravis. As the snow had eased and the roads seemed fine we set off, hoping to get to La Clusaz for an afternoon shred. The road that winds up to the Col d’Aravis had been well cleared, however, just as we approached the top, we came round a bend to find an abandoned snow plough in the middle of the road, which ended abruptly by its enormous blade. It was pretty apparent that we weren’t getting any further.

Les SaisiesWe could hardly believe it – we were practically there, but were going to have to go all the way back down, do a massive detour to Annecy and approach from there. If we hadn’t already booked and paid for accommodation in La Clusaz we’d have sacked it off and gone somewhere else instead, but we were committed now. However, rather than write off the day completely we decided to spend the afternoon in one of the nearby ski areas before embarking on the tedious detour. On the way up I’d noticed signs to Les Saisies, a little resort that I’d visited briefly when I worked for ski tour operator Ski Independence, so we headed there.

Fresh tracks, La ClusazMuch of the terrain in Les Saisies is fairly gentle but we managed to find an area with some great blacks and reds, and fantastic snow. On our way up there we passed over some very enticing expanses of untouched snow but when dipping into them on the way back down it was easy to see why no one had ventured in too far as the lack of gradient meant you’d soon grind to a halt.

When we finally made it to La Clusaz that evening we were pleasantly surprised by what a cool town it is and both agreed that it was worth the ball ache of a journey to get there.

Col de Balme, La ClusazThe next day we discovered that the ski area was equally good. We spent most of the day up in the Col de Balme area of the resort which had wide open bowls, challenging terrain and loads of great snow. Despite the fact that it hadn’t snowed for two days, the snow was in great nick and there were still fresh tracks to be claimed. Word had quite clearly got out that the Col de Balme was the place to be and there were quite a few people heading up the lift to get a piece of the action. It was a massive bowl though so everyone dispersed pretty quickly at the top. Next time round we decided to take the other, decidedly quieter, chairlift, which linked to a drag lift that Col de Balme, La Clusaztook you up to a practically deserted bowl that was far less tracked out and had some awesome lines to take, as well as stunning views. We ended up lapping that drag lift for the rest of the afternoon doing “one more run” after another until the light went and we decided we’d really better head back.

If we weren’t already feeling smug enough at having found such a sweet spot to shred, it was intensified further still when, on riding down, we realised that the rest of the mountain had been sitting in thick cloud while we’d been enjoying the sunshine higher up.

It was a fantastic end to what had been an amazing impromptu trip. We’re now back in the UK recovering from a serious powder come down, counting the days until our next trip and praying that we’ll be blessed with similar conditions. That’s the only problem with powder – it’s pretty addictive!

For more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram

Searching for snow

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Morzine

“Maybe we should take our mountain bikes instead”, I said to Dan as we packed our snowboard bag, only half joking. It was mid December and there was worryingly little snow in the Alps. And with only a few centimetres forecast before the return of more mild temperatures, it certainly didn’t look like we were going to get much snowboarding on our first trip of the season. Fortunately we weren’t just going for the snow and were visiting friends who live in St Gervais, but I’d be lying if I said that the chance to get in some early season turns wasn’t a major motivation.

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Avoriaz

It’s always a gamble booking a ski or snowboarding trip before Christmas. Sometimes it pays off, like the year before last, where we experienced some of the best powder we’d ever ridden, and sometimes it doesn’t, as was almost certainly going to be the case this time. Arriving in Geneva it felt like it could easily have been spring, and the temperature didn’t change dramatically as we climbed towards St Gervais. The next day our spirits were lifted when it started to snow, but sadly it soon turned to rain. Our only comfort was that it ought to be falling as snow higher up, but even that wasn’t a certainty.

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The Stash, Avoriaz

With neither St Gervais, Les Contamines nor Chamonix open, the next again day we decided to head to Avoriaz where we hoped the previous night’s precipitation might have fallen as snow. By the time we reached Les Gets and Morzine it became glaringly apparent just how bad the snow shortage was. The slopes were almost completely bare, and a discarded umbrella by the otherwise deserted mountain base was a poetically depressing sight that seemed to sum up the situation perfectly.

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Lower slopes at Les Contamines

It was raining lightly as we climbed up to Avoriaz, and the higher we got, the more desperately we willed it to turn to snow. Sadly it didn’t and on arrival we were disheartened to find almost as many people carrying umbrellas as skis and snowboards. There has to be only one thing more depressing than a lack of snow in a ski resort and that’s rain. However, encouraged by the fact that there seemed to be plenty of people on the slopes, we jumped on the lift, optimistic that it might be snowing at the top. But it wasn’t.

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Upper slopes at Les Contamines

Wiping the drizzle from our goggles and congratulating ourselves for having invested in GoreTex outerwear last season, we strapped on our boards and prepared to make the most of it. Amazingly, other than being a little heavy in places, the snow was actually pretty good and we managed to get some great runs in the limited area that was open. The snow cover was good, however, a chairlift ride over The Stash with its features looking ridiculously unridable, revealed just how much snow was still needed for the resort to open fully. Unfortunately my GoreTex indulgence hadn’t stretched to gloves, and after a couple of hours my usually trusty Hestras were like saturated sponges, and my hands resembled anaemic prunes.

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Freshies at Les Contamines

While it certainly wasn’t the first day of the season we’d dreamed of when we booked the flights back in October, full of hope for a stellar start to the season, we left feeling pretty happy with the day we’d had given the way things had panned out. Unexpectedly ok as it was, we weren’t exactly desperate to head back the next day, especially as conditions weren’t forecast to be any different. There was, however, a decent dump of snow forecast in a couple of day’s time, which coincided with Les Contamines’ (rescheduled) opening date of Saturday 20 December.

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Powder butters

Fortunately the forecast came good and we headed up to Les Contamines for first lifts on the Saturday morning. The snow was pretty average lower down so we went right up to the top as soon as the upper lifts opened. As we rode up the top lift we could barely contain our excitement at the sight of an open bowl full of fresh, untouched snow. As we climbed higher, the people who’d been ahead of us on the lift started to descend, leaving deep tracks in the snow and us even more desperate to get up there. By the time we got to the top there was still plenty of untouched pow for us to get freshies too, which we took great pleasure in doing. We lapped that lift until the entire bowl was tracked out, and then some more. It was better than we could ever have hoped for and we left feeling totally elated. When we got back down to the town it felt like spring again and was hard to believe that we’d been blasting through fresh powder less than an hour beforehand.

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Happy!

We left a few days before the massive storm that caused travel chaos on the busiest weekend of the season but saved the resorts from a disastrous New Year’s week. Unfortunately the turnaround in conditions didn’t last long and the slopes are once again in dire need of replenishment. Hopefully things will pick up in the Alps soon but until they do I’ll be sticking to the slopes of Scotland, on my mountain bike!

Have you been riding yet this season? How was it?

From slush to pow in 24 hours

Just when I thought this season couldn’t get any stranger, on my most recent trip to the Alps I experienced the most dramatic turnaround in conditions I’ve ever seen.

Horses on piste

Horses on piste!

When we arrived in Morzine, mid March, it felt like summer. Temperatures were in the high teens in the town and people were wandering around in shorts and flip flops. It hadn’t snowed for three weeks and although there had been loads of snow prior to that, the high temperatures were starting to take their toll on the slopes, with bare patches starting to appear lower down. There were even horses out to pasture on a run that was still open to skiers!

Spring shredding is a lot of fun, especially on a board, and beers in the sun are an added bonus, but after three weeks of spring conditions already this season (in December, February and March!) we were craving a bit of snow.

24 hours later, at the same altitude. Photo: Chris Barrow

24 hours later, at the same altitude. Photo: Chris Barrow

Typically it was forecast to snow on the day that we were due to leave, and when it became apparent that it was going to be more than just a sprinkling, we were helpless to resist the urge to stay out, especially as our flights would only cost £30 to change and we were able to go and stay with friends in nearby St Gervais.

On the Saturday morning we left Morzine it was pissing with rain and we were starting to doubt our decision to stay, but consoled ourselves with the thought that it must be falling as snow higher up.

Sure enough, as we drove towards Chamonix later that afternoon the rain gradually turned to sleet and then snow the closer we got. It was still snowing when we got to St Gervais that evening and we went to bed early, excited at the prospect of our first proper powder day of the season.

Photo: Chris Barrow

Photo: Chris Barrow

The next morning we awoke to find winter restored and the landscape once again covered in a white blanket of snow. However, it was only when we got up to the ski area that we were able to appreciate just how much snow had fallen overnight. The snow was at least knee deep* in unpisted areas and it was still coming down hard. It wasn’t the lightest powder I’ve ever ridden but it was powder nonetheless, and after a winter of spring conditions, it was heaven.The slopes were also empty and we were still enjoying fresh tracks well into the afternoon.

It continued to snow for the rest of the day and most of the night, so the next morning we headed up to Les Contamines for first lifts. The snow was even deeper and up to waist deep* in places, which was awesome, unless you fell and had to dig yourself out! Visibility wasn’t great early on but by mid morning it had brightened up, allowing us to take full advantage of the conditions. Once again, the slopes were quiet and there was untouched powder in abundance all day long.

Photo: Daniel Leadbetter

Photo: Daniel Leadbetter

By the next again day it felt like spring again but the snow was still great, if starting to get a little heavy and tracked out in places.

We headed to Argentière in Chamonix for our last day where the snow was deep but chopped up off piste. It was fun but after nine full days of riding, we were definitely starting to feel it in our legs.

Sitting in the sun after our last run, beer in hand, we felt tired but elated after such an unexpectedly awesome end to our trip and possibly the season. I’m hoping to get out to Spring Break at the end of April, but if those turn out to be my last few days of the season, I couldn’t have hoped for them to be any better.

* Measurements are based on my diminutive 5’3 stature.

For more photos check out the Riding Switch Facebook page.

 Over to you…

How was winter 2013/14 for you?

A strange season

Finally, fresh snow in the Alps!

Finally, fresh snow in the Alps!

It’s been a funny old season so far in Europe, and not in the laugh out loud sense of the word. Loads of early snow in November got people excited about the prospect of another great snow season, but other than a dump over Christmas and New Year, conditions have been pretty spring-like on the whole.

Forecasts for fresh snow have kept coming, only to be pushed back or diminish in substance. Things were starting to get pretty desperate but fortunately the Alps received a big dump of snow on Monday night, which has revived not only the slopes but spirits too.

Dan Tignes Jan 14 rockThe mister is out in Tignes at the moment and the fresh snow has quickly turned his grumbles into gloating. Not sure what’s worse! I am, of course, just jealous as it looks amazing, and certainly a far cry from the footage of sketchy conditions that he was sending me a few days ago, which was infinitely more bearable.

However, it’s not all good news. Unfortunately this cycle of snow followed by prolonged periods of thaw that we’ve experienced so far this season, combined with a weak layer of hoar frost that formed in November, has resulted in an extremely unstable snowpack and one of the highest avalanche risks in years. There have already been at least 20 fatalities and as many injured in avalanches throughout the Alps and we’re only a matter of weeks into the season.

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Today in Tignes

There has been much debate over whether or not people should be venturing off piste at all this season, and while it may seem a little extreme and premature to be making such sweeping statements, there’s absolutely no doubt that any forays off piste should be treated with extreme caution.

Until yesterday, with such little fresh snow around, the off piste hasn’t really looked all that enticing anyway, but it’s when fresh snow comes to snow starved slopes, not to mention snow starved riders, that the real danger arises. The temptation is to hit the fresh pow hard to make up for lost time, but it’s easy to forget that under that fresh stuff is a layer of bullet proof snow, and lurking further below that is particularly unstable layer that’s already been responsible for an inordinate number of deaths. As avalanche expert Robert Bolognesi described it: “It is as if there are ball bearings under the more recent snow. The layers have not adhered to each other”. For more info on this check out Peter Hardy’s article in the Telegraph.

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Current conditions in Breckenridge. Yeah, whatever.

The overriding message is be very careful out there. If you’re determined to venture off piste, make sure you know what you’re doing; are with people who also know what they’re doing; and that you’re all properly equipped. And there’s no point just carrying a transceiver – you need to know how to use it! Lecture over.

Of course, on the other side of the pond they’ve got the opposite “problem” of extremely low temperatures and shed loads of snow. Great if you’re in the mountains, but possibly not so much if you’re trying to go about your daily business in New York.

And Scotland’s actually not looking too bad either. It’s the resorts on the west that are faring the best (that bit closer to North America, I guess!) and there are some stunning pictures emerging from Nevis Range. The Scottish mountains are no stranger to strong winds but recently they’ve taken a real beating. Storms have caused damage, prevented uplift and blown away precious snow in the ski areas, but fortunately it seems to have calmed down now and is looking pretty good.

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Nevis Range looking awesome

I’m planning to get up there soon, but in the meantime the relatively mild weather in the lowlands has meant that I’m managing to get in plenty of mountain biking, which is helping to curb my cravings to shred.

The next trip is to Bansko in Bulgaria in a couple of weeks, where I’ve been invited by British run chalet company, Snomads. Unfortunately they’ve also been cursed by a slow start to the season so I’m crossing fingers for a miraculous turnaround in the next fortnight! Who says it’s all about powder anyway? 😉

Over to you…

How’s your season been so far? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

The early season gamble

Early season snowboarding trips are always a bit of a gamble, as you never know what conditions are going to be like. It could be dumping with snow one year and St G Dec13barren the next. However, by the time December comes around I’m always desperate to get out to the mountains so am prepared to take the chance, especially as the number of people who’re not means that it’s invariably cheap and quiet.

I’ve just returned from five days in and around St Gervais in the French Alps and conditions were strangely spring-like. Despite the fact that the season got off to a great start in early November with heavy snowfall across the Alps, sadly it wasn’t sustained and by the time we arrived on 13th December there hadn’t been any Les Contamines Dec 13substantial snowfall for around three weeks. Sunny days and mild temperatures had also accompanied the lack of precipitation although cold nights had allowed for plenty of snowmaking, which meant that the slopes were in surprisingly good shape considering.

During our stay we rode St Gervais, Les Contamines, Argentière and Flaine, and conditions were pretty similar across the board. Most resorts had only opened recently and had limited terrain, but low numbers of visitors meant that the slopes hadn’t taken too much of a beating. Minimal snow cover meant that loose rocks and exposed patches were fairly common lower down, but rock hopping was quite fun and our boards emerged relatively unscathed!

That cloud means snow's on its way!

That cloud means snow’s on its way!

However, higher up the snow was pretty good and we even got a few turns in what could loosely be described as powder. On the whole though off piste was either not really worth venturing into or, in the case of Flaine, very dangerous. This wasn’t necessarily due to an unstable snowpack but rather massive holes everywhere.

It was a far cry from the same week last year when we were out in Courchevel. It had already been dumping for ages by the time we arrived and continued all week, providing us with deep fresh pow for the duration. It was undoubtedly the best early season conditions I’ve ever experienced if not the best ever.

Snow the day after we left!

Snow the day after we left!

By comparison, this season’s early conditions may have seemed a little disappointing, but in reality they really weren’t that bad. It’s not unheard of for there to be next to no snow until well into December. Two years ago there was a worrying lack of snow at the start of December and everyone was freaking out, but then it started to snow and didn’t stop for weeks! You just can’t predict how it’s going to pan out, but in my mind it’s always worth a punt.

Needless to say, it started to snow the day after we left and delivered 20-25cm in the St Gervais area over a couple of days. And the good news is that there’s even more forecast over Christmas, which hopefully bodes well for the next trip out in the new year!

Over to you…

Have you had your first turns of the season yet? Are you lucky enough to be out there for Christmas or New Year? How is it? Feel free to share your photos on the Riding Switch Facebook page and make us jealous! I’ll post more of mine there too…

HAVE A GREAT CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

Broken

If you chuck yourself down a mountain with a waxed-up, fibreglass coated plank strapped to your feet on a regular basis, hurling yourself off rocks, hard packed ramps and an assortment of metal structures… at some point you’re going to get hurt. And by hurt, I don’t just mean bruised knees or a bit of whiplash, as that happens fairly regularly. I’m talking about the kind of hurt which requires hospitalisation, surgery, great expense and inconvenience, and which brings your holiday, and invariably your season, to an abrupt end.

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If only I’d stuck to the soft stuff!

Unfortunately getting hurt seems to happen to me with inordinate frequency and I’ve managed to clock up three season-ending breaks in the past six years.

The most recent one happened towards the end (thankfully) of an otherwise amazing trip to The Three Valleys a couple of weeks ago. This time I snapped my radius quite spectacularly, rendering it alarmingly S-shaped and requiring urgent surgery.

French healthcare may not be cheap, but it’s good and efficient, so as long as you’re covered by the appropriate insurance, it’s not a bad place to smash yourself, as places to smash yourself go.

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Makeshift splint

Having ridden (cautiously) down to the medical centre in Mottaret, I was on the operating table in Moutiers Hospital within a couple of hours. Not bad at all when you consider that you could easily wait that long just to be seen in A&E back in the UK. Sadly they weren’t able to fast track my recovery and I was hospital bound for a further three days, but I’ve had worse hospital stays. Fortunately I’m able to speak French so was able to communicate with the nurses, doctors, surgeons and fellow patients, which made the whole experience a lot less traumatic. However, given that I was to have a metal plate drilled into my arm using ten screws, under local anesthetic, it might have been better to be blissfully unaware!

Those four days were undeniably worse for my other half who had to find a hotel in what is hardly a tourist hotspot, and spend the hours, when not “letting me win” at Scrabble, wandering the streets of the suicide capital of France.

My second most expensive accessory

Four grand buys you a built-in wrist guard.

Four days and four grand later (a drop in the ocean compared to 20 grand to fix a broken ankle in Colorado a few years ago) we were finally able to resume what was left of our holiday: two days, which we spent recovering from the ordeal at our friends’ chalet in St Gervais.

Even though it’s only been a few years since my last break, I’d forgotten how frustrating it is for a part of your body which you rely on heavily (typically it’s my right arm, and I’m right handed) to be suddenly reduced to nothing more than a limp and painful appendage, which is not only rendered useless, but also becomes an obstructive annoyance that impedes even the simplest of tasks. Unless you embraced the return of the poncho, it’s nigh on impossible to find an outer garment with sleeves big enough to accommodate the massive cast that’s housing your wounded limb, forcing you to adopt an awkward shawl-like arrangement on one side of your body, which hardly serves to shield you from sub zero temperatures in the Alps, or Scotland.

Escape from hospital to take in the sights of Moutiers.

Escape from hospital to take in the sights of Moutiers.

Showering is also a slow and laborious procedure in which the bandaged limb has to be wrapped in cling film and tentatively held as far away from the water flow as possible, while you fight to open, squeeze, and attempt to catch the contents of the shower gel, all with one hand. And you can forget about attempting to wash your good arm.

However, you do learn to adapt, out of sheer necessity. Pretty early on I learned to do a one handed ponytail, or at least some semblance of one, when, on asking Dan to do it for me, he couldn’t even figure out how an elastic hair band might work!

There are certain things that are simply impossible though. You have to be pretty dexterous to tie shoelaces or fasten a bra using only one hand. Unsurprisingly the boy was able to help with that one though!

It’s tedious, but I just keep reminding myself that I’ve had worse, and far more inconvenient injuries, and that there are a great many out there with far worse afflictions.

I’m hoping to get back on the slopes again before the season’s out, but in the meantime, I’m just looking forward to being able to type with both hands again!

Have you had any season-ending injuries? Leave a comment below and let me know it’s not just me who’s accident prone!

Pre-season snow fix

It’s been dumping with snow in the Alps over the past few days, generating much excitement and anticipation for a great start to the ski season. And with still two months until most alpine resorts open for business, things are certainly looking good!

Les Arcs this morning (16th October)!

The first snowfall of the season came even earlier this year though, with snow falling in Canada, The Alps, and even Scotland, as early as the end of August! As it happened, I was travelling out to the French Alps when they received their first substantial snowfall, which settled as low as 1800m.

We were actually expecting to catch the end of the alpine summer, but the driving rain that hammered our car on the journey from Geneva to St Gervais seemed to suggest that summer had well and truly ended. The next morning snow was clearly visible on the Aravis mountains, which is almost unheard of at the end of August! Fortunately the weather had improved dramatically overnight and by the end of the day the sky had cleared and the sun reappeared. However, the snow remained on the mountains for the duration of the weekend, serving as a tantalising reminder that winter is just around the corner.

La Vallée Blanche from the top of the Aiguille du Midi

A trip to the top of the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix increased our hunger for winter even more. At 3842m, its precipitous peaks and glaciated valleys are permanently shrouded in deep ice and snow, in the form of La Vallée Blanche glacier, and overlooked by the formidable Mont Blanc, which looms above.

The views from the top are absolutely stunning and you can’t help but be transfixed and humbled by your surroundings. In winter it’s possible to ride down La Vallée Blanche, with a guide, but although there’s still plenty of snow in summer, the crevasses are too exposed for it to be safe. Instead, our descent was made in the vertiginous cable car, and as we plunged back down to Chamonix, we were already planning our next ascent, which will be with our boards, and a guide, in tow!

To see more pictures of the stunning views, check out the album on the Riding Switch Facebook Page.