Monday, 23 January 2012

on tour

ski touring - skitouren (german) - randonnée (french)

Last week, we tried a new sport - ski touring!  It requires different equipment (of course) so we've been spending lots of time at our new favourite ski store / gas station (a one stop shop) renting touring boots and skis, trying different widths and lengths in an attempt to figure it all out.  Touring is like winter hiking, but even better because you get to make your own fresh ski tracks on the way down.  Skis and bindings are lighter in weight than their downhill cousins which takes some getting used to and the whole idea of layering your clothing is essential to being comfortable - not too warm, but not too cold.

At the bottom, you put the skins on your skis which makes them stick to the snow for the ascent.  You also put your boots on "walk" which gives them lots of flex and they are surprisingly comfortable.  The bindings allow your heel to be clipped in for skiing down or free for skinning up, there is even a "high heel" option for steep climbs!

It's truly amazing.  The pace is perfect - there is time to notice things like how the feeling of the snow changes between north and south facing slopes.  You can really see the shapes of the terrain and trees and take in the colour of the sky.  Our guide even noticed a few Steinbock way above us on a rock face, or so he claimed, I didn't have my glasses on!  Some of our fellow skiers like to listen to music on the way up, but I like to hear the crunching of the snow under my skis, enjoy the peace of the quiet and pay attention to the cadence of my breath (or lack of it sometimes).

For me, touring is not just about skiing, but about the whole experience of spending time on the snow, "climbing" the mountain, being in the presence of impossibly beautiful views.  It makes me feel connected to the landscape, like I'm really a part of our surroundings in a way that more traditional downhill skiing lacks.

Another incredible way of exploring the mountains....

heading up behind Rougemont
almost at the summit of Rodomont Derriere
lunch in the sun at 1900m, Rodomont Derriere

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

ski racing: the real deal

While it's a bit disgusting, the old expression "there is more than one way to skin a cat" is a good one to describe our varied experiences of skiing here in Switzerland.  I have already written about the powder, the on-piste and off-piste and even the barn skiing.

There's also ski racing which is a sport unto itself.  On Sunday, Jeff and I took the boys to the Men's World Cup Slalom in Wengen.  Esmée opted for a sleepover and all-day playmate at her friends' house, so we took the boys' friend George with us and off we went.  It was a pre-dawn start, we weaved through the valley to Interlaken and were meant to take the train to Lauterbrunnen, but instead took a train to Grindelwald.  This happens when the ticket seller waves vaguely in the direction of a train standing at the platform, the whistle blows and you don't quite read the actual sign above the platform. You know that the trains don't wait in Switzerland, so you just assume and jump aboard.

No big deal, we assured ourselves, plan b: go to Wengen from Grindelwald instead which, given the geography, means we can access the top section of the race for the first run.  We are bundled in ski clothes, but are without our equipment.  Having been to Adelboden the week before with Jeff Turner, Ross Kappele and Paul Turner, our resident World Cup groupie Jeff concluded that it's easier to watch if you don't have your skis and poles to deal with.  It took a bit longer, but when we got off the train and half slid, half walked down to the start area, even I was excited.  This was not our usual Nancy Greene or K1 kids race, this was the big leagues baby!

start area at the Wengen slalom

Canadian Mike Janyk in the start

We stood a few gates down from the start and  cheered everyone on, but our "go, go, go's" + "hoop, hoop, hoop's" were exceptionally louder for the 6 Canadians in the race.  The start is much quieter than the finish.  There is a seriousness in the air, athletes are preparing.  Some are warming up their bodies and others, their minds.  You see many of them standing quietly on their own, "skiing the course" with their hands, listening to music, getting ready for the run of a lifetime.

For the second run, we went to the finish area which is wild.  Fans are cheering, music is pumping and everyone is having a good time.  There is a huge jumbotron in the finish area so you can see the top part of the course, but when a racer comes into view over the top of the last, very steep pitch, the crowd erupts and cheers each one across the finish line.

The energy was electric, especially since we were standing with the hundreds of Croatian fans there to cheer on their countryman, Ivica Kostelic.  When Kostelic finished his second run, the Croatians went wild, cheering loudly and even lighting flares and fireworks.  When the 3 skiers who came down after him failed to beat his time, they went crazy.  He won the race for the third year in a row and while he is an exceptional ski racer, there's no doubt that the wave of fan support helps get him to the top of the podium.

Croatian ski racing fans light it up for Kostelic

Graydon was determined to get some signatures on his Craigleith racing jacket.  He went to three different restaurants to find a permanent marker to borrow and with Jeff's help, he sweet talked his way into the VIP finish area and hung around waiting for an athlete to pass by.   If you look closely in the photo below, he is the one wearing a Canada hat, standing on the fence scanning the crowd for a world cup ski racer.  His perseverance paid off and he got 3rd place Fritz Dopfer's of Germany signature.  He was so thrilled and his huge smile made all the standing around in the cold worth it.   Later, at the train station, he spotted some Canadian athletes waiting to load up their van and move on to the next race.  Without any hint of shyness, he marched up to them, introduced himself and got a few more autographs on his jacket!

It was an action-packed day full of new and exciting experiences.  We all got to be a part of the World Cup action, watch some incredible skiing and take in the dramatic beauty of both Grindelwald and Wengen...  Kitzbuhl anyone?

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

catching up

I'm not really a maker of new year's resolutions, but if I were, I would resolve to be a more active blogger. 

However, I'm only allowing myself to feel gentle guilt as the last month has been busy - festive, fun and truly memorable.  Some highlights.....

At the beginning of December, for the first time in 30 years, there was skating on Lauenensee (the Lauenen Lake).  What made this an unusual occurance was the combination of cold temperatures and a lack of snow.  For about one week the entire lake, surrounded by rolling hills and dramatic mountain peaks became an enormous and natural skating rink.  Locals, transplants and what few tourists were left flocked to the lake.  During this time, we skated during the day while the kids were at school and again after school with the kids, often catching the last moments of daylight and watching the alpenglow along the ridges of the surrounding mountains.  The lake made disconcerting noises.  It belched and gurgled from deep below the frozen suface as the ice shifted with the change in temperatures throughout the day.   If you banged your skate against the ice, it felt solid, but sounded a little hollow.  It was very clear, you could see the bottom, bubbles were trapped in the ice.  I have never experienced anything like it. 

even this poor fish got trapped in the freeze
About a week before Christmas, it started to really snow and it hasn't stopped until this week.  We have been skiing, snowshoeing and building snow forts.  I honestly don't think I've ever seen so much snow.

the last week of school before the break
Opening Day at the Saanen Eggli - first skiers on the lift 
We live near the bottom of the Saanen Eggli chairlift which opened for the season on Friday, the 23rd of December.  Given that we live within walking distance to this lift and that it is connected to a fabulous ski area called the Videmanette, this was a banner day for our family.  Jeff had us up at the crack of dawn and we were out there, waiting for the lift to open.  We were rewarded with the distinction of being the first "guests" of the season on the Saanen Eggli!

The skiing has been, to quote my kids, epic and sick.  We've had knee to thigh high powder most days due to huge amounts of snow, a surprisingly low volume of skiers and snowboarders and terrain that seems to go on and on.  Often, it's like we have the place to ourselves and can do the same runs over and over, making our own tracks each time.  It's insane!

We've been exploring all sorts of skiing - piste and off piste, jumps and bumps, glades and even barns... The boys, their friend Anastasia and I were on a beautiful south facing slope on the Videmanette.  It was all deep powder, the kind that you can just float through and it makes you feel like a rock star skier.   The kids set off before me, I did a few turns (like a rock star), looked up and just below me, the there they were, on top of a barn!  I am sure that the Swiss farmers do not appreciate skiers on top of their barns, even when there is so much snow that the barn has literally become part of the slope.  I can't remember the exact details, but seeing those kids on the barn and then jumping off the side, triggered a vague memory of a tv commercial years ago where a skier skied down a mountain and over a barn or restaurant, racing towards a cup of coffee maybe?  

barn skiing

out of the valley fog and into the sunshine at the Saanen Eggli

the top of the Saanen Eggli

Christmas festivities started with a school choir candlelight service and then a JFK concert where each class preformed songs and acted out the traditions of many of the students' home countries.  We went to a friend's property in Rougemont and cut our own christmas tree - probably against the rules, but driven by the romance of an alpine christmas .  Ryan and Ali sent us a "Canadian Christmas" package which included iconic tree ornaments like a polar bear, beer bottle, beaver and skidoo.  The kids make paper snowflakes and pipe cleaner angels.  Our Swiss tree was simple and beautiful and perfect.  

My mother, aka Jimpy, arrived on the 19th to spend a week with us.  It was great fun to have her here and to be able to share parts of our new life with someone from home.  She didn't catch the ski fever, but she always loves the Saanenland and particularly the part of European culture that gives a universal and warm welcome to dogs and smokers alike.  A school friend of the kids', Anastasia, also spent Christmas with us.  She is from Russia and despite having never celebrated Christmas before, she easily joined in our traditions and even Santa managed to figure it all out!

our local "charlie brown" christmas tree
Christmas Eve - Jimpy, Eli, Graydon, Esmée, Anastasia and Jeff
Christmas dinner was at the Mountain Lodge which houses Lovell International Camps, Bryce and Vickie's new business.  It was a wonderful collection of about 30 family, friends and Lovell Camps staff.
Bill Lovell orchestrated a magnificent dinner
I got to do the gravy, my fave!
On Boxing Day, we had to say goodbye to Jimpy.  Eli and I accompanied her to Geneva by train, making the 6 minute connection at Montreux with only minutes to spare.  Having to get over 4 tracks while dragging 2 large suitcases, a heavy carry-on and making sure that Jimpy got a quick smoke while she could was almost more than the three of us could handle.  Somehow we made it and after a tearful goodbye at the airport and we were off on our next adventure - four days of skiing in Chamonix....