Sunday, December 30, 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

The midwinter light in Norway has a quality I have missed. The sun hangs at an acute angle in the sky, blindingly bright but somehow lacking the warmth of even the feeblest summer sun. The few precious hours of light available beg to be used to their fullest extent. Ski!

Audun in the sun on lake Jonsvatnet.

Unfortunately, the snow cover around Trondheim and most of Norway has been rather thin. But the cold conditions and dry weather had created good ice skating conditions. In fact, it was the arrival of 5 cm of snow just before I flew back that prevented the conditions from being truly great. Wind packed the snow into patches on lake Jonsvatnet, creating a labyrinth of stiff snow on a surface of smooth ice.

Zoë in the snow labyrinth
We had a couple trips to Jonsvatnet, the first of which provided the most dramatic light and conditions. Minus 10 C and blowing snow keeps you skating fast to keep your core temperature up!
Self-portrait in the ice with blowing snow
Christmas eve and day were filled with skiing and skating by day, and food and family by night. On the 27th me and Audun headed over to his parents a couple hours south. Since then we've been eating more traditional Norwegian Christmas food, and enjoying a fresh but short lived dump of snow.
Skiing near Tingvoll
Tomorrow we're heading to a cabin the mountains near Oppdal for New Year's Eve with some friends, which makes this officially the last post of the first year of this blog.

This year has been excellent: I have skiied powder in Chamonix, spent three weeks touring Japan, run a marathon, mountain biked in Morocco, climbed Norway's third highest peak, biked Tour de Mont Blanc, and conquered legendary Tour de France climbs on my road bike...

Hopefully next year will be every bit as epic as this year; I'm certainly laying plans for it to be so. A big New Year's hug to friends, family and followers around the world - see you next year!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Ski Season has finally really started!

 My birthday on November 29 brought a familiar face to Grenoble:

Dad! Here half way up the Bastille, in his famous pencil-necked geek persona.
Unlike Mom, who came to enjoy French culture, Dad basically came to ski. Unfortunately, the week before he came, there was no snow. Anywhere. So we decided we would get some late season hiking in, and Dad didn't bring his skis.

Like the man who leaves his house without an umbrella, as soon as Dad arrived, it began to snow. So with rental skis, we headed off to Les Deux Alpes for the opening Saturday. With, it seemed, the rest of Grenoble. The bus to the ski area left a full 45 minutes late because of the difficulties of loading a crowd of desperate would-be skiers onto a bus. Luckily the combination of Dad (very tall) and me (very small) is useful for violent queuing - I put Dad like a beanpole in the front of the line while I snuck around to stick our skis under bus and then wormed my way back into the queue.

When we arrived a Les Deux Alpes an hour or so later, and dismaying sight met our eyes. The ticket line was absolutely massive. But to go ski at a ski area (without skins) you need a ticket, so we stood in line. This is what I thought about it:

Me considering becoming a hermit because I hate masses of people so much.

But patience and persistence finally got us up on the mountain. Although the base was thin, we found good snow, and spent the day happily living by the motto 'one good turn deserves another'.
Dad on the glacier at Les Deux Alpes

Dad stayed for the better part of a week, and we ate good food, hiked up the Bastille, went to the European Outdoor Film Tour, and many other things which shall go largely undocumented. A visit from home was the best birthday present I could ask for!

And so I shall skip ahead a week to yesterday, when I finally headed out to the slopes of Les Deux Alpes again, this time with three Swedes Joel, Joel and Hannes.
Hannes and Joel lovin' it

The conditions were absolutely legendary - a whole new sector of the mountain was opened, and we had run after run of fresh powder. It was one of those days when stopping for lunch felt absolutely suicidal - why miss a run just to eat?!

Enough powder, Joel?

It was cold and clear for the whole day, and the view was fabulous. Here's to more ski days like that this season! (And now, time to study for exams!)

Afternoon sun on the mountains; Hannes and Joel triumphant after a wonderful day of skiing!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Vitamin Ski

The November Blues arrived shortly after I returned from Morocco. Grenoble had become a dark, lonely place, and the grueling French school system often kept me occupied until well after sunset. Where I had seen endless possibilities of hiking and biking trips earlier this year, I only saw wet trails in the dark.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel of in-between seasons that is the month of November. The start of a new season; the return of vitamin ski. Today, I finally got it and the dose has cured me - at least for now.

Sophie admires the view from the top of the Grand Motte lift, Tignes
Tignes in Haute-Savoie has lifts that go all the way up to 3400 meters, and is also partially located on a glacier. So the skiing there is pretty much year round. A light dusting covered the mountain tops around and the sun shone gloriously.

I combed the hills for possible powder stashes - and managed to make a few joyful turns in fresh, loose snow. The snow cover wasn't great however, and even the tiniest of offpiste expeditions was likely to hit a few rocks.

Sparse cover in the valleys, but winter is coming!
This was day 1 this season - I can wait to see how many I can do this year!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Morocco, part 2: Other stuff we did

In Morocco, drivers seem not to follow traffic laws. Scooters are the most popular form of transport, and they zoom along the highways and through the tight alleys of Marrakech with equal carelessness. According to Wikipedia, the rate of traffic-related death in Morocco isn't particularly hig. I cannot fathom why.

Transport for the whole family. Letting the 8-year old drive is definitely a good call.
Here are some other things I observed and/or learned while in Morocco.

Food and Drink
The Moroccans break fast like the French - as if it is just a warm up to lunch, or maybe an afterthought of dinner, as a opposed to an actual meal. Most often, breakfast consisted of bread with jam, and coffee or hot chocolate. As my growling stomach would have told you every day at 10 o'clock if you asked it, this can be quite insufficient for an active day.

Luckily they do other meals better. The traditional way of cooking is called 'tajine'. A tajine is a special clay dish that you fill with potatoes, vegetables, and meat, and then cook over charcoal with a conical lid.

Tada - lunch by locals in a small town in the Atlas Mountains
We ate a lot of different tajines in the Morocco. By far the best were those served to us in a traditional Berber house in the Atlas Mountains. This particularly family does bustling business letting tourists into their house to poke around, and then serving them lunch.

Audun, Øyvind, and Ingvild inspect the Pepsi soccer-themed cups we got. Host Mohammed looks on.
Apparently the host, Mohammed, has been doing quite well. According to Pierre-Alain, our mountain biking guide, he has built a new story onto his house. The second story is wider than the first story - one has to question the structural stability! The house stands 'Insha'Allah', as they say.

We were served food on matching, Christmas themed plates and large Pepsi cups. It was a bizarre experience compared to Western restaurants. The perfectly spiced lamb tajine served on them was, however, delicious.

After the meal, Mohammed showed us how to make mint tea. I should preface this by mentioning that sugary mint tea is ubiquitous in Morocco, and is drunk after each meal. Learn to like it.

Making tea, like a boss.
The proper way to make tea involves 3 teapots, a precise mixture of green tea and fresh mint leaves, and large chunks of sugar. Watching him make tea was kind of like watching juggling - pretty impressive.

Impressions of Marrakech

Arriving in Marrakech after 4 days in the mountains is like being woken by a cold glass of water in the face - shocking, but refreshing. We stayed in a traditional Riad on the interior of the walls of the Medina, or old city. Accessing our riad involved a trek through tiny alleyways so convoluted I half expected to find a minotaur at the end.

Instead of a half-bull, half-man, we found a Moroccan man and women who spoke broken French and broken English, eager to welcome us into the spacious, open apartment.

Moroccan decor in our riad
Bike storage in the open-air courtyard of the riad. Marius shows off his headlamp.

From this base we explored the old city. Marrakech's old Medina is best described by sounds. The sound of tiny scooters buzzing by you, honking their horns. The sound of shopkeepers asking you to just come and look at their wares. Snake charmer's flutes. Cheap mosque loudspeakers calling people to prayer five times a day. Tourists haggling with shopkeepers. Locals haggling shop keepers. Arabic, French, English, even snippets of German or once Swedish, all imploring you to buy something.

The cacophony of the streets combined with the blazing colors of the plethora of wares in every store and on every street corner make for quite an experience.

Just chilling on my scooter.
We spent the whole day exploring and shopping for tidbits. I am an extremely weak haggler - I don't want to deprive anyone of their livelihood! Luckily Ingvild and Synne are harder to cheat, and although we probably payed a tourist premium it was still pretty satisfying to haggle a necklace to half of the suggested price.

Synne considers how much she's willing to pay for a pair of leather sandals.
In stark contrast with the stressful souks (markets) are Marrakech's hammams, or traditional spas. When we discovered that there was a spa literally 20 meters from our riad, Synne, Ingvild and I had to give it a try. We spent 2 hours being steamed, slathered in mud and massaged, and returned thoroughly relaxed.

We also found peace our second night in Marrakech, after a full day of sightseeing, in a third floor restaurant far above the bustle of the streets. Across the city rooftops in dark, the Koutoubia Mosque was a beacon of light.

Marrakech cityscape by night, the mosque to the far left.

Marrakech was a beautiful, really different city - but one day was enough.

One last thing
Why are there so many cats in Morocco? And what do they want?

Take me to your leader.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, November 9, 2012

Morocco, part 1: Bring a bike

What do you get when you load up 7 full-supsension mountain bikes, 6 Norwegians and 1 American on a plane to Marrakech? A week of biking in the Atlas Mountains, exploration of the souks of Marrakech, good food and good company.

Steep switchbacks down to a Berber village.

I'll start by introducing the cast of characters on trip:

Couple #1: Ingvild and Øyvind 
Couple #2: Synne and Ap

Couple #3: Me and Audun (We do the photogenic couple thing really well)

Watch out, Morocco, Marius is in town - and he loves to bike!
Pierre Alain, the founder of Marrakech Bike Action and our guide

Biking in Morocco
Ingvild shreds

The mountain biking is Morocco absolutely incredible. Unfortunately, there are no guide books, and the last map was made during the 70's. So basically you need a guide. Our choice, based on recommendation on a mountain biking forum, fell on Marrakech Bike Action. Our guide was Pierre-Alain, the founder of the company, a tough Swiss who's look sort of remind me of a pirate, and who has been mountain biking in Morocco for 18 years.

We did 5 days of guided enduro mountain biking. "Enduro" means that we didn't do most of climbing ourselves; we were shuttled up to the tops of passes and would bike down, although there were occasional climbs involved. We biked a lot of challenging trails, however, so I was glad to save my legs and my head to the downhill.

Headed down the hill

What surprised me most about the biking was how varied it was. From smooth singletrack through the forest to rocky switchbacks through a Berber village to tiny, exposed trails across the sides of steep slopes, I was challenged in a variety of ways. The climate in Morocco is dry, especially compared to Norway, and this provides really nice surfaces to bike on, although Pierre-Alain said that is can get too dry and loose when there's no rain at all.

Ap takes in the view
Personally, the hardest trails for me were the really exposed trails. Especially one trail called 'the String' brought me to my knees. It is so narrow there really was only space for one bike at a time, and the valley floor was far, far below.

My personal favorite trail, and I think most of the groups', was 'the Magic Carpet'. This is one of the more famous trails that Pierre-Alain has discovered. The trail is rolling, at times open, a times tight, and the ground is grippy - the sort of trail that allows for going fast!

Synne, Ap, Øyvind, and Audun enjoy the Magic Carpet

The sights you see while biking through Morocco are also quite different from European countries. In the High Atlas Mountains, there are countless tiny Berber villages. I was fascinated to see how differently these people live. It's like turn the clock back a couple hundred years. These people spend most of their lives in and around their villages, and the idea of someone flying all the way to Morocco just to mountain bike around on their mule trails must seem strange.

The Berber village at the top of the Magic Carpet trail - complete with a mosque.

The kids really get a kick out of seeing tourists. In broken French, they asked to try our bikes or for some sweets. They would try to help us fix flat tires, and loved it when we gave away old water or soft drink bottles.

Ingvild and the local kids

Speaking of flats - we had a lot of them. My boyfriend Audun had no fewer than 6 in his 5 days of riding, probably due to his aggressive riding style. By the last day, we had no extra usable tubes, but luckily no one punctured (Insha'Allah!). Riding tubeless is definitely a good idea if you are headed to Morocco.

After giving such a good review of mountain biking in Morocco, I should mentioned the one day that didn't go so well. After a rain storm in the night, several rivers had flooded the roads we need to cross to get to the trails we intended to bike.

Flooded road. The guides try to decide what to do; Marius looks on

So we ended up driving to the hills just outside of Marrakech and climbing up a rocky, godforsaken pass. At the top of the pass, it started pouring rain. There was no proper trail down the pass, and the steep descent was on loose, spiky rocks. The landscape was completely barren, except for thorny bushes which would leave a good 5-6 thorns in you hand if you brushed in to them.
The descent of mountain biking Hell

After descending the pass, we got completely soaked biking around on dirt roads to meet the car with our luggage. I personally remember this particular ride as 'mountain biking Hell', although with so much other good bike, some bad luck was expected.

I'll sum up this post with a quiz:

1) Do you like mountain biking?
2) Do you like having fun?

If the answer to both those questions is yes, go to Morocco. And bring your bike!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

P.S. As you may have noticed, this part 1. Yes, that means I have more to write on Morocco! More to come in the next couple of days.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Another Big Tour de France Climb

Last Saturday my legs were ready for another road bike climb of epic proportions.

In the same region as Alpe d'Huez, this climb has been featured 16 times since its introduction in the TDF in 1947. The top of the col is at 2067 meters, a full 200 vertical higher than Alpe d'Huez.

Col de la Croix de Fer.

I opened my eyes and saw that it was light. In fact, the sun was shining. Maybe the God of Weather had decided that me and Roddy had been punished enough on Alpe d'Huez. Then I realized the implication of it being light out - my alarm should have gone off while it was still dark! I sprung out of bed and into a flurry of small preparations.

By the time breakfast was ingested, my jersey was stuff with snacks, and the water bottles on my bike were filled with sugary energy drink, the day had really dawned, and I thought that maybe this would be must easier than Alpe d'Huez. We had the weather on our side.

I biked over to Gières to meet Roddy and the two Germans, Jonas and Andreas, who joined us now that the sun was shining.

From the left: Roddy, Jonas and Andreas are ready to go!
We pedaled up the well-known hill to Uriage, enjoying the sun and the road and anticipating the day ahead. In Uriage, Jonas and Andreas requested a stop to buy more snacks. Andreas bought an entire baguette and stuffed it in the back pocket of his jersey. I bought a Kinder Bueno, immediately demolished it, and 3 Lions which I saved for later. My theory is to keep my blood sugar so high all the time I can't possibly bonk.

German disguised as a Frenchman
The bike from Uriage to the base of the climb was basically the same as Roddy and I had done for Alpe d'Huez - minus the rain.

(Slightly blurry) action shot of Roddy and Andreas on the road towards Vizille.
The kilometers flew by, as did the beautiful, deep valley that I had seen almost none of on my previous bike ride through there. We reached Allemond, and climbed up to Lac de Verney. We had turned into a new valley, and although the mountains seemed even bigger the slopes were gentler and covered in colorful trees.

We had reached the start of the climb.

A quick snack near Lac de Verney
Once we hit the climb, I realized I would be doing the next 30 km alone. The boys quickly disappeared up the hill, and I couldn't justify racing to catch them at the beginning of such a larger climb. And so there will be more selfies!

The road was pleasantly isolated, winding its way up through the forest.

Follow the leaf-strewn road
If the day was great, I was not. Five minutes into the climb, I wanted to give up. My legs were leaden, I was on my lowest gear and struggling to keep a high enough cadence to move forward. The following selfie is an expression of how one feels when one has 30 km of climbing left and feels as though this is impossible:

What. Am. I. Doing.
I kept climbing though. I kind of hated myself for a while - for not enjoying the day enough, for being a whimpering puppy who just wanted to turn around, bike home and lie down. But if the boys were going to the top, then I was too.

Col de la Croix de Fer is psychologically very different from Alpe d'Huez. There are no 21 numbered switchbacks with the altitudes signs. Col de la Croix de Fer starts with a seemingly endless road up through the forest, with no indicators as to how far you've actually gotten. You then arrive in the tiny town of Rivier d'Allemont.

Rivier d'Allemond - look at those mountains.
Then the road does a couple of switchbacks. Downhill switchbacks. Downhill?! I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn, but then I remembered that there had been no turn off. I was on the only road through the valley - and it was descending steeply. At the bottom of the descent the road crossed a river, bringing a welcome draft of cold air as I crossed it. I saw that the side of the valley I had come from was boulder-strewn, and the road probably descended to cross the river and take the other side to avoid avalanche danger.

I started to think about the boys. How long ago had they descended the switchbacks? Were they waiting for me at the top already? What if I was way slower than them? How long would they wait?

The road climb painfully steeply upward again, and I ground stubbornly away on my smallest gear.  It then mellowed out and opened into a whole new world of scenery. I had turned another corner in the valley, and a shafts of light illuminated the mountain tops and slivers of the hillsides below.
Incredible light.

I was alone, just me and the mountains. And then I heard a noise. Vroooooom... Suddenly three motorcyclists came flying passed my, snapping my tranquility in two and leaving me with the brutal reality of my aching legs. I really don't like motorcycles.

It was then that I encountered The Sign. It looked like this:
The second line reads: Col de le Croix de Fer 11
This how I felt when I realized I had 11 kilometers of climbing left:

I figured this would take me somewhere in the vicinity of a hour. Breath in. Breath out. Pedal. That's one of the beauties of cycling, really. It takes almost now effort to force yourself to turn the pedals one more revolution, even if you're tired. And then you do it again, and again. And all of a sudden, in the distance, you see the iron cross marking the top of the col.

Shortly after cross into the region of Savoie, with the Lac de Grand Maison in the background. I can see the top!
The last kilometers were more barren as I climbed above tree line, and more and more spiky alpine mountains popped up. They were also relatively flat, but still quite a grind because I saw the top long probably a few kilometers before I actually got there. And I was met by the familiar smiling faces of three tired cyclists.

The boys with the Alpes stretched out behind them.
"That was like three times as hard as Alpe d'Huez!" I exclaimed, and Roddy agreed with me. It turned out the boys had only arrived about 5 minutes before me (actually 9 minutes according to Strava). Then I felt pretty good about myself.

I ate the rest of the my snacks, and put on some more clothes before we took a couple of photos using timers:

The iron cross for which the Col is named, and the proud climbers.
On the way down I stopped to snap a few photos I didn't feel like taking on the way up:

Lac de Grand Maison in the afternoon light
The long descent was really rewarding. I felt like the climb disappeared into nothing as I whizzed down all the meters I had struggled up. When we reached the village of Riviere d'Allemont (after climbing up the switchbacks we had ridden down on the climb), we decided that the nothing would do but we had to have a celebratory beer.
Andreas, diggin' it
Jonas also picked up some crazy goat cheese from a farmer who had a shop in the village.

Best beer ever. The goat above my head is on the building of the shop where we bought the cheese.
The ride back was speedy and pretty much unremarkable, except that I kept getting hungrier and hungrier, to the point that I would just draft someone so all I had to focus on was the wheel in front of me.

We stopped for snacks in Vizille, and a got a mini quiche and some sort of chocolate pastry that disappeared mysteriously before I was able to photograph them.

The patissier in Vizille in charge of the caloric needs of 4 cyclists who have done 135/150 km.
We celebrated in the evening with tartiflette, wine, and goat cheese, and I went to bed early, thoroughly satisfied with my Saturday.

 - The Wild Bazilchuk