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The countdown begins…

Tignes 29 Nov 12

Tignes, 29th November

1st December. The countdown has begun. And I’m not talking about the countdown to Christmas. I’m counting down to my first turns of the season, and it’s much closer than Christmas! 12 days sooner, to be precise. I head out to the Alps in 13 days, and I can’t wait!

What’s even more exciting is that it’s been absolutely dumping in the Alps and it’s looking like it’s going to be another epic start to the season! Tignes and Val d’Isere both opened for the season today, with loads more resorts opening over the next couple of weekends

St Gervais 30 Nov

The mountains above St Gervais, 30th November. Photo: Chris Barrow

Across the pond it’s a tale of contrasts. In Canada, resorts such as Whistler and Banff have had an incredible start to the season. However, resorts in Colorado are suffering from unseasonably high temperatures and a severe lack of snow, even in the highest resorts, such as Breckenridge. It was the same last year, so fingers crossed it starts dumping there soon too, and this doesn’t become a recurring trend. When conditions are right, Colorado is pretty hard to beat.

Snow in Cairngorms - 1 Dec 12

Snow in the Cairngorms, 1st December. Photo: Nikki Lorimer

Closer to (my) home, it’s also been dumping in Scotland, and Cairngorm and The Lecht opened for business today! So, I might get to make my first turns even sooner than I thought…!

To make the countdown even sweeter, many retailers have got great deals running in the build up to Christmas. Check out my blog for Snowboarding Deals UK for details. Today there’s 20% off all snow gear at Two Seasons! I’ll take that over a crappy advent calendar chocolate any day!

Are you heading to the mountains soon? Or are you already there? Leave a comment below and let me know where you’re off to/at. Let’s get excited together!

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Cocktails from Colorado

Last night Aspen Snowmass hosted their annual ‘appreciation night’ to thank London based industry partners for their hard work promoting the Colorado ski resort.

Aspen - definitely not a hard sell

Championing Aspen is hardly a difficult task, but they always reward us with a fantastic evening which provides a great opportunity to hear about the latest developments in resort as well as catch up with their team and fellow London based contemporaries.

The drinks always flow when Aspen come to town and this year was no exception as entertainment took the form of a cocktail mixology session held in Browns Courtrooms in Covent Garden. Groups of Tom Cruise wannabes gathered round individual bar stations equipped with shakers, fruit and, most importantly, lots of booze, and learned how to create a variety of different cocktails ranging from dainty and delicious French Martinis to rather more potent, but still dangerously drinkable, Zombies.

Giving a crowd of ski industry employees free reign of a fully stocked bar and encouraging them to free pour is a bold move and there were some extremely strong concoctions being consumed by the end of the evening. There will undoubtedly have been a few sore heads this morning but I’m sure everyone will agree that it was a fantastic evening!

Many thanks to Ellen Spitzbart and the team from Aspen Snowmass for hosting the event and to Mixology for a giving us a great taste of the art of, well, mixology!

Friends in high places

When planning a summer holiday, most people tend to stick to the age-old formula of sun, sea and sand, and were it not for the fact that I have friends who live in the Alps, I too might have been heading off to the south of France, Spain or, most likely, Scotland! But as the plane fare from London to Geneva was only slightly more than a train fare to Edinburgh and the journey time roughly equivalent, the Alps won hands down.

Chalet la Charme

My friends Chris and Hannah run the gorgeous 4 star Chalet la Charme in St Gervais, a pretty little spa town which sits in the heart of the Mont Blanc Massif, an hour’s drive from Geneva. With St Gervais and Les Contamines ski areas on the doorstep and Megeve and Chamonix within easy reach, it goes without saying that it’s a fantastic destination for winter sports. But it’s also a great place to visit in the summer, whether you’re looking for an action-packed getaway, a relaxing break in the sun or a combination of both.

Sunset from the terrace

The chalet itself perches just above the town centre and offers stunning, unobstructed views of the Chaine d’Aravis. It can accommodate up to 10 people in 5 luxury en-suite bedrooms, on either a half board, B&B or self catered basis. It has a large, comfortable living room with a wood burning fire which is perfect for relaxing in on cold winter evenings, and there’s a great terrace for summer barbeques which gets the sun until it drops behind the mountains, creating the most magnificent sunsets.

Only 20 minutes drive from St Gervais is the adrenaline sports mecca of Chamonix. It’s just as great a place to visit in summer as it is in winter whether you want to partake in one of the many activities on offer, or would rather just wander round the town centre, stopping off at one of the many bars and restaurants to indulge in some local specialities, take in the stunning views and watch a very different world go by.

Summer is peak season in Chamonix and interspersed among the tourists are countless sickeningly fit looking men and women dressed in the latest technical clothing and laden down with ropes and other climbing paraphernalia, the quantity of which is apparently directly proportional to their level of expertise, or so they’d like you to believe!

View of the Aiguille de Midi and the Glacier des Bossons

People watching in Chamonix incites both adulation and amusement. While the physiques and rugged appearance of many may attest to their ability to negotiate the treacherous terrain which looms above, there does seem to be a certain degree of posturing which is entertaining, if not a little irritating. But perhaps that just betrays a hint of jealousy resulting from the aching limbs that we were experiencing after our relatively straightforward venture into the mountains!

Looking down on Chamonix and the Glacier des Bossons

We may not have summited Mont Blanc or scaled the Grand Dru, but hiking up alongside the Glacier des Bossons was breathtaking (literally as well as metaphorically) and there wasn’t even a need for a rope or ice axe, even if we did wish we’d taken one (or better still, two) for effect!

Other activities available for us mere (albeit plucky) mortals are rafting, mountain biking and paragliding, but we chose to focus more on the alternative alpine pursuits of ultimate cheese consumption and extreme wine tasting which we were easily able to justify after our alpine ascent!

After conquering Chamonix, we moved on to Megeve, a 10 minute drive from St Gervais, for more of the same. The inviting restaurant terraces which line the pretty streets of the old town made it the perfect location to push ourselves to the limits of our waistbands.

After five fantastic days in and around St Gervais I’d experienced everything that’s great about a beach holiday, and more. We’d chilled in the sun, explored beautiful old towns and (over) indulged in local food and wines, but we’d also had the extra dimension of some of the most stunning and awe-inspiring scenery in the world and the immense adventure playground that it plays host to.

Annecy. Or is it the Med?!

And after stopping off at the beautiful town of Annecy en route to the airport, with its gorgeous lake complete with sandy beaches, and more ice cream parlours per square mile than I’ve ever encountered, the only ingredient that was still missing was the sea. But let’s face it, who likes salt water anyway?!

Given a choice between the beach and the mountains, I’ll take the mountains every time. So, while I’d much rather they still lived closer to home, sometimes it does pay to have friends in high places!

*Massive thanks to Hannah and Chris for being such fantastic hosts and giving me the most amazing holiday!

Click here to find out more about the area and book your own summer or winter break at Chalet la Charme.

A rail contrast

When travelling to Engelberg in Switzerland last week I was blown away by just how efficient and state of the art the Swiss rail service is. Within minutes of stepping off the plane in Zurich airport we were boarding the luxurious double-decker train that was to take us to the mountains.

Swiss Rail - a far cry from British trains

It was such a pleasurable experience that we didn’t want the journey to end. However, being Swiss Rail, there was no chance that our journey was going to be delayed in any way whatsoever and we arrived at our destination bang on schedule.

It’s a far cry from the frequently delayed, dirty and overcrowded trains run by British rail companies. So, when three days after my return to the UK (during which time I’d had to wait half an hour for a local train, been left stranded part way home as a result of engineering works, and been charged £6.50 for a journey which should have cost £1.50) the news came that British rail companies are to increase fares by as much as 13%, I was astounded.

An all too familiar sight in British railway stations

If our rail service was anywhere near as good as those in Switzerland, France and many of our other European counterparts, or if there was even a remote chance that increased fares might result in the provision of an equivalent service, I wouldn’t object quite so much to these disproportionate price hikes. But the reality is that even after numerous fare increases over recent years which make our average fares some of the highest in Europe, our rail service falls a long way short of those of our neighbours on the continent.

What makes these increases all the more perverse (if the fact that we’re currently in the depths of a recession isn’t enough) is the fact that in many instances it is actually cheaper to fly between British cities than it is to travel by train. When travelling back to my home town of Edinburgh, it’s invariably a toss-up between taking the train or flying, with the train only winning out due to the lower hassle factor (in theory!). With the standard train fare from London to Edinburgh being in the region of £100 it can even be cheaper to fly to the continent. Indeed, when making plans for the Bank Holiday weekend I easily managed to justify a trip to visit some friends in the Alps by the fact that the flights were only £30 more than a train fare to Edinburgh. Sorry Mum, I promise I’ll make it back up some time soon… I’ll start saving now!

At a time when we’re trying to encourage greener travel, it seems crazy that train fares are being pushed up. With the ski industry as my reference, although rail is a great way of getting to the Alps (assuming you live in the south of England and don’t have to rely on British trains!), when faced with the option of flying for the same price (or even cheaper), only the most dedicated environmentalists will opt for the train.

However, there are companies out there who are striving to promote greener travel and make it more affordable. Snowcarbon is a website which was set up by ski travel journalists Daniel Elkan and Mark Hodson to promote and facilitate rail travel to the mountains. It offers advice on which resorts are most easily accessible by rail and the best deals on fares and packages, which you can book via the site.

Eurostar - a great (and green) way of getting to the Alps

The Ski Club of Great Britain is also heavily involved in promoting rail travel to the Alps and offers an additional travel allowance to Ski Club Leaders travelling out to resort by train. Also, in its winter 2011/12 programme, their holidays operation, Ski Club Freshtracks is offering a holiday to Les Arcs, travelling by Eurostar, which has been heavily subsidised by the Club’s environmental working group in order to offer the package (which also includes 7 nights half board accommodation and mountain guides for 3 days) for the incredible price of £799 pp. Check out the Ski Club Freshtracks website for more information.

Travelling by Swiss Rail or Eurostar isn’t necessarily particularly cheap but the stress-free and pleasant journey on a fast and reliable service is well worth the fare. Which is more than can be said for British trains where the experience is invariably stressful, the service unreliable and you have to pay top dollar for the privilege.

Indeed, as I write this post, I am waiting for a train which should have been here 20 minutes ago but has been inexplicably delayed, the inordinate fare having already been deducted from my Oyster card.

And now they’re predicting travel chaos on the railways over the Bank Holiday weekend (just for a change!). It wouldn’t happen in Switzerland, that’s for sure!

Escape to the mountains

This week, one of the perks of my job took the form of a very timely staff trip to the Swiss alpine town of Engelberg. We left early on Tuesday morning in the midst of the London riots and as we drove out to the airport past scenes reminiscent of a war zone, we couldn’t be happier to be escaping this madness for the tranquillity of the mountains.

From this...

By the time we arrived in Zurich airport we already felt a million miles from the chaos that we’d left behind, even if we were still shell-shocked from the events of the past 36 hours. The ease of getting from the arrivals hall and straight onto a luxury train which ran like clockwork, provided a stark contrast to the transport disruptions and station closures we’d been faced with that morning in London.

After two and a half hours spent drinking in the stunning mountain scenery from a carriage resembling a fancy bar, we arrived at our destination. Stepping off the train onto the streets of this pretty alpine town I could instantly feel the stresses of the previous few days disappear. There’s something about being in the mountains which always has this effect on me. The combination of the stunning scenery, fresh mountain air and the fact that you’re so far removed from ‘normal’ life, serves to instill an unparalleled sense of well-being.

During the winter months there’s obviously the additional appeal of hitting the ski slopes for that ultimate mountain high, but there are also plenty of adrenaline packed activities to do during the summer. During the course of our short stay we did zip trekking, sledging on the glacier and speeding down the lower slopes on trotti bikes (a cross between a scooter and a mountain bike) as well as more leisurely pursuits such as riding the cable car to the top of Mount Titlis to take in the views and crossing the lake in a rowing boat.

... to this*

I love the Alps in the winter when everything’s covered in a blanket of snow, but they are possibly even more beautiful in the summer. The lush, vivid green lower slopes and valley floors dominated by snow-capped peaks and striking rocky outcrops, and the gorgeous emerald-green lakes which add to the ethereality. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the constant (slightly surreal, yet strangely soothing) chime of cow bells to serve as a reminder of your whereabouts, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that you were in another world. The Benedictine monks who named this place ‘Angel Mountain’ certainly considered it to be celestial.

We were definitely worlds apart from the riots and looting that we’d left behind in the UK. The only worry that we were faced with here was the plundering of our bank accounts as a result of the diabolical exchange rate!

I’ve experienced the beauty and serenity of the Alps in the summer before but it seemed to be intensified further in contrast to the violence and destruction occurring back home.

Fortunately we managed to bring the calming effect of the mountains home with us and by the time we arrived back in London on Wednesday night, a sense of normality had been restored. It was still busy, hectic London though, a city now reeling from events which will leave a scar on the national psyche for some time to come. The sense of unease and anger is tangible and I, for one, can’t wait to escape to the mountains again.

*Big thanks to my colleague, Rosie Barcroft for letting me use her photo, which perfectly captures the beauty and serenity that I was trying to describe 🙂

Dreaming of snow while the sun shines

It’s a sweltering 30 degrees in London and here I am starting to write a blog on snowsports. This might strike you as a little strange, but when you work in this industry and skiing/snowboarding are your bread and butter (as well as your bread and butter pudding!) they tend to be at the forefront of your mind all year round.

Swapping the beach for the mountains. Photo courtesy of Tom Dixon and his feet!

As the sun beats in through the office window, I’m looking at pictures of fresh powder in Saas Fee and talking about snow conditions in Tignes in December. And as I bake on the common during my lunch break, I’m thinking about saving up for the snowboarding camp that I desperately want to do in March.

When you work in the ski industry one of the most common questions that you get asked is “what do you do in the summer then?” The simple answer is “a lot”! While you do have a reprieve from the chaos that ensues as soon as the first lifts of the season open, in many ways, planning for the season ahead can be an equally busy time. There are contracts to negotiate, programmes and training courses to plan and promotional materials to produce, to name but a few of the tasks that are currently in hand.

The same is obviously not true of seasonal jobs, so unless you take on a summer season job or choose to prolong the winter by heading to the southern hemisphere, the answer to the question may not be quite so straightforward. Securing a decent full time job for a short period of time can be difficult, and particularly so given the current climate. As a result many seasonaires find themselves taking on whatever they can get to tide them over during the summer months.

However, none of us are in this industry for the money, and it’s a love of the sport rather than a big pay cheque that keeps us here. It is ironic though that we should earn such a pittance when skiing/snowboarding are such expensive pursuits. Fortunately we do get quite a few discounts, freebies and work trips though! Like many snowsports enthusiasts, it does mean that we will invariably forgo a summer holiday so that we can afford to spend more time (and money!) in the mountains.

So, at least the sun’s shining here in the UK, allowing us to enjoy the distractions that summer offers, even if it is sometimes difficult to quash those cravings for the white stuff. I guess it probably doesn’t sound all that surprising to be dreaming of snow when it’s 30 degrees and 80% humidity outside, but this longing to be back on the slopes is definitely more than just a reaction to the hot weather.

And besides, with the air conditioning unit above my head spitting out icy cold air, for a fleeting moment I do actually feel like I could be at the top of the glacier in Tignes! If only…