Whenever the pros start to talk about steep, deep, off-piste snow lines, Chamonix is never far from their lips. But it’s also an amazing destination for cutting your teeth in the backcountry, as well as developing your off-piste skills.
RSNG found out how a week of guided off-piste riding can boost your fitness, dial in your mountain skills and leave a massive grin on your face, when we travelled to Argentiere in the French Alps, with Action Outdoors…
It’s been a warm winter in the Alps, so the last thing I expect is to spend the first day of my trip hunting out fresh powder lines between the trees down at Chamonix’s Le Tour ski area.
There’s just so much off-piste terrain here that, in many areas, last night’s snow is unspoilt by the track of skis. We drop off the side of the piste and traverse through beautifully soft powder to the top of a bowl nestled between the trees.
The visibility is low, with low clouds and mist wreathed around the slopes, but the trees help to clear the air enough for us to rip down into the bowl, single file and whooping all the way.
I am reminded of the powder snow riding technique on a snowboard, leaning back in a ‘surfers’ position, but also really pushing down with the back leg to drive it into the snow and carve out those rooster tails behind me – the sensation is awesome. When we stop for a break, I find myself thumping my on-fire back quad to help pump the lactate out of it, while wearing a massive grin!
The overnight fresh snow has made for an epic first two days on my Action Outdoors UCPA Expert Off-Piste Snowboard Course. Having a full week of guiding is transforming the terrain around me from bands of piste and no-go, to seeing the groomers as the motorway to get to the off-piste!
‘At 3,842m or 12,600ft, the Aiguille du Midi is the highest mountain peak that you can reach by cable car’
The Vallee Blanche Is A Bucket-List Ride
The highlight of the week actually falls on my ‘rest’ day, which just goes to show that in the Chamonix Valley, every day offers adventure. The night before saw some fresh snow at high altitudes, and the day cleared to perfect bluebird conditions without a cloud in the sky. When it comes to the best day to shred, the mountains decide!
It’s the ideal time to head up in the gondola to the Aiguille du Midi, so we pile on in the company of a new guide we’ve hired for the day. The crowds at the lift are an amusing mix of backcountry skiers and snowboarders, loaded with avalanche kit and technical outerwear, and puffer-jacket clad tourists, heading up for the head-spinning views.
At 3,842m (12,600ft), the Aiguille du Midi is the highest mountain peak that you can reach by cable car, and holds the world record for the car with the highest vertical ascent; from 1035m (3,385ft) to 3,842m (12,600ft). Stepping out of the cable car and into the rocky tunnel drilled through the mountain takes us on the wind-blasted peak at the top of the Vallee Blanche.
Kitting up in the tunnel, and roping together as a group, using our climbing harnesses, builds anticipation before we head into the blazing sunshine to inch our way down the knife-edge ridge-line. The drop each side plummets down into the white nothing of clouds, below us.
It’s hard to process the fact that we're actually going to ride all the way down to the end of the Mer de Glace, the mighty glacier that churns its way down the valley in a slow-motion, heavy-as-the-earth, grind.
The White Fields
Strapping my board on, then dropping into the high-altitude powder fields of the Vallee Blanche, facing the jagged-toothed peaks on the other side of the Mer de Glace, is a feeling that manages, in a single stroke, to validate my entire trip.
Following the guide across the steep, white fields, carving through brilliant fresh powder – while staying in the 10m horizontal safe zone to either side of him – is a memory that I can literally feel being written into my mind as I go. It’s a real rush.
Once again, I am learning the value of preparation. I did a program of leg-strengthening heavy squats and lunges before I came to Chamonix, and I use that strength, and knee stability now, to drive my snowboard into the powder, powering through the deep, uneven lines of previous tracks as I go. The ground has levelled out, and falling here means a fight to get back onto your feet and restart, which is why I am glad I had the first two days of the course to refine my technique.
Not only that, our UCPA guide, Benji (who also works at Chamonix’s Zero G snowboard shop), gives us some good tips for riding very steep, off piste lines: ‘It’s important to turn quickly, because you don’t want to go too fast. It’s almost like a jump, where you push your weight into the board then lift up. You can also have your weight forwards and spring off the nose, like a nose press.’
‘In deep powder, if you have a powder board like a fish, then you can almost ride it as you would a normal board. But if you have a regular board in deep powder then you will need to put more weight onto the back foot so that the nose rises up over the snow and does not sink,’ he says.
‘When picking a line, take it easy but also look further down the mountain to anticipate the flats and the jumps. And have fun!’ Not for the first time, I’m grateful for the superb clarity offered by the Zeiss lenses in my Koo Elite Pro goggles, which let me take in every detail of the terrain around me.
‘To everyone’s great relief the pummelling storm of an avalanche does not sweep down upon us’
It Pays To Listen To Your Guide
After the elation of riding the Vallee Blanc’s upper section, we stop for a break and some food. I amuse myself by digging a ‘snow throne’ out of the powder behind me and take a moment to bask in the Spring-like sunshine.
Suddenly I hear an ominous rumbling sound behind me, closely followed by a startled shout – spinning around I see a huge cloud of snow dust roiling down the slope towards us, like smoke. My gut tells me that the cold, furious kiss of an avalanche, is sure to follow milliseconds, later.
Everyone panics, jumping to their feet, but I swing back to the guide to see him nonchalantly gazing up at the advancing cloud like he’s judging for style points. To everyone’s great relief the pummelling storm of an avalanche does not sweep down on us – instead, the guide explains that he has positioned us in the lee of a towering rock wall to deflect any snow falling down on us. It worked!
If any proof were needed, this goes to show that high mountain guides really do possess the knowledge that separates the living from the dead – so listen to yours!
The UCPA Way
Something that sets UCPA Argentierre, through Action Outdoors, apart from your usual snowboard, or skiing holiday is that everything is provided, from the equipment, to food and accommodation, to all-day guiding and instruction.
All you have to do is decide what course you want to do, and how experienced you are, and UCPA takes care of the rest. This means that these holidays are amazing value, and you get to fine-tune your gear set up in their in-house ski service area!
UCPA Argentierre has been refurbished and the dorm rooms are perfectly fine - you will only need them for sleeping anyway. And having a set kicking off time in the morning, with your group, also helps to motivate you out of bed, no matter how heavy the apres ski sessions get…
As our guide Benji tells us, the set up is ideal for getting in a lot of volume each day, which he says is vital once when you’re trying to improve – it really is a case of getting out there and riding, lots!
Beyond your powder riding technique, the other essential skill in the backcountry is to know how to search for, detect and dig out an avalanche casualty. Even if you carry the mandatory avalanche transceiver – which sends out a signal to rescuers, but can also be switched to search mode, probe and shovel – having ‘all the gear and no idea’ would be deadly in a search and rescue scenario.
As our guide tells us, the time you have to save one of your friends once they are buried in an avalanche is just fifteen minutes. After that it’s too late – they’re probably dead. Everything you do and every second will count.
Every step is important, to remembering the point where your friend disappeared into the avalanche, to knowing how to zigzag from there, down the avalanche slope with the transceiver, to then searching with the ‘cross’ pattern, once you are within three metres. And then using the probe perpendicular to the slope, to make sure you don’t miss them.
I manage to get the steps right and by injecting a bit of pace, soon locate the backpack. The experience is invaluable for giving you the confidence to step forward in an emergency.
A Grand Exit
At first light, the last day on the course looks a bit overcast and grey. Fortunately, Benji knows exactly where to go to get the best chance of some sunshine and fresh tracks.
We walk from UCPA Argentiere to the Grand Montets gondola and head straight to the top. Heading off the shoulder of the mountain, we drop into open bowls, studded with the occasional rock.
There’s a cloud layer directly below us, and it’s hazy to each side, as ice crystals fall around us. Sensing this is our window, we all drop down into a glittering plain of unbroken white powder, carving our own precise lines across it, like unruly brushes on a giant, painter’s canvas.
All I can hear around me are the whoops and hollers of our crew having the time of their lives. I pop off a little jump and then attack the fresh snow, digging in the tail of my snowboard to detonate a pocket of powder, sending it flying ahead of me so that I shoot through it, like a surfer in a tube.
We carve down towards our guide and come to a giddy, laughing halt, with the same intense light flickering in all of our eyes. I’ve said it before, but backcountry is a buzz.
WHAT NEXT? Want to read about the spring snow in California? Then check out our destination guide for Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.
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