Sunday, March 17, 2013

Requiem to a Backpack

What's your oldest piece of gear? That one item that has carried you through countless adventures, ever trustworthy? Mine was a 2005 40-liter Gregory Tega backpack (now discontinued). The observant reader of this blog may have noticed that my backpacks change from February vacation part 2 to February vacation part 3 (well, maybe not. It's kind of hard to see in the pictures). When the second zipper broke on the top pocket of the Gregory, and the duck tap on the hole on the bottom fell off in the middle of February break, I decided it was time to replace my dear Gregory Tega.
The Gregory Tega was a wonderful backpack, and it lived a wonderful life. This is its requiem.
It arrived into my life under the 2005 Christmas tree. My family was planning a hiking trip around the Tour de Mont Blanc the next summer, and I needed a 'real' backpack. The week before we jetted off to Geneva for 11 days of hiking in the Alpes, I packed and repacked. I got to know all the pockets; I found the perfect space for each item of gear I was bringing.
Standing in the Geneva arrival terminal, I watched the baggage carousel snake endless rounds, delivering bag after bag. Mom's bag. Dad's bag. Zoë's bag. But my Gregory didn't show up. I was distraught. All of my carefully packed gear was lost - including my brand new backpack.
Fast forward two days. We are at a refuge in Les Contamines, one day's hike outside of Chamonix. It is 2 am, and we are all sound asleep in the bunk room when mom's phone rings, startling us all awake. It's the airport, they've arrived at our hotel in Chamonix with my backpack. Excellent timing - since we've already started the hike it was meant for! Tour de Mont Blanc was the trip the Gregory missed out on. I made sure it didn't miss out on any others. Below: the family poses above Mer de Glace in Chamonix.
Mer de glace

Everywhere I went in the mountains, winter and summer, that pack went with me. We enjoyed powder turns on Ljosåbelgen in Rondane...
And on Alnestind on Trollstigen a few years later.
IMG 5656
For four years I worked every summer in full-service huts in the Norwegian mountains cleaning rooms and serving food, and hiking as much as I could in the time in between. The mountains of Trollheimen were my playground, and my pack and I climbed most of the mountains within a day's reach of the huts.
IMG 4449
 In 2010 it went to Africa for the first time, and accompanied me on my 8-day trek in Tanzania from the Lemosho rain forest….
… to the roof of Africa itself, Mt. Kilimanjaro.
The next year, I went to visit my family on sabbatical in California, and the pack got to enjoy some of the great American National Parks. We went to Zion Canyon, and had an incredible early-morning speed hike up Angel's Landing - to get there before all the tourists...
IMG 2543
… and later we pulled a 30-mile day through Buckskin Gulch and up the Paria river.
IMG 2773
Just last summer it dabbled in the world of alpinism, and climbed the third-highest mountain in Norway, Store Skagastølstind...
IMG 5756
… and in August the Gregory came full circle, and finally completed the Tour de Mont Blanc, as was its original purpose. This time on a bike.
IMG 1186
 So after hiking and biking with me this fall, then skiing with me for most of the season, the Gregory is finally retired. May it go to the heaven of backpacks and get… whatever a backpack could possibly want in the afterlife!
And its replacement? The Mammut Trea Guide. Let's hope it lives up to its formidable forbearer - and gets at least as much wear and tear. Below: The Mammut Trea on its first trip, skiing up Grand Colon in the Belledonnes.
IMG 1656
 - The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Febuary skiing part 3 - the Belledonnes

This is the third part in my series about skiing during February break. The others parts can be read here: Part 1, Part 2
I'd been looking forward to a chance to explore the Belledonne mountains ever since I moved here. These mountains are sharper, and by far larger, than Vercors and Chartreuse, the other two mountain ranges that encircle Grenoble, and they were the first elements of the Grenoble skyline to become temptingly frosted in snow in the fall.
We took a rest day after the traverse in the Aiguille Rouges and emboldened by fresh legs and fresh mountains, I decided I wanted to go up a big one. Perusing the oddly-named Volodia Shahshahani's indispensable ski touring guidebook of the Belledonnes with the criteria "steepish, longish", we settled on Grand Lauzière. The guidebook claimed the trip would take around 5 1/2 hours. I'm going to go ahead right now and say that if you are not on super lightweight gear (Dynafit bindings, skis so skinny you can floss with them, etc) and if you plan to take a reasonable amount of breaks (i.e. you plan on eating at some point during your ski), these guidebook times are extremely ambitious.
With light hearts and heavy legs we set out from Freydieres the next day in perfect bluebird weather. The parking area for the start of the ski was in a town so small that the road to the village was actually not on the car's GPS. Luckily a good navigator riding shotgun with a topo map will get you there every time!
IMG 1648
As the day progressed we were passed by many Frenchmen on floss skis, and my legs grew progressively heavier. As we skirted around the steep slopes of Lac du Crozet, it was passed midday, and the map showed that we still had a ways to go before we even climbed the main flank of the mountain. In the end we decided to climb Le Grand Colon, a peak much closer to the lake.
IMG 1663

From the top we decided, with Volodia's help, to ski the north-facing couloir straight down from the top. This particular couloir was about 40 degrees at the top, which seemed practically flat compared to the Couloir of Terror in Chamonix. The snow was hard and skied off, but on the low slopes we traversed out to find powder (!) on the lower section of the couloir.
IMG 1666
The next (and last) day we summited Orionde, a small peak slightly further north. There are no pictures of this event. I was extremely slow and grumpy all day - I literally felt as though my skis were two anchors dragging me down.
As Audun said, "All of our vacations are bootcamps!"
This is basically true. What does that say about me?
- The Wild Bazilchuk

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

February Vacation part 2 - Chamonix

This is the second post in my series about skiing during February break. The first can be read here.
Twilight had begun to engulf the Swiss road up Col de la Forclaz, and sparkling flakes of snow drifted down through our cars headlights. The altimeter on our GPS climbed steadily. 900 meters… 1000 meters.
"How high is the pass again?" asked Audun.
"Around 1200?" I answered, not really sure. We had stayed at Col de la Forclaz for the our last night out on Tour de Mont Blanc in August, but I only had vague recollections of the height of the pass.
"It's getting icy," said Audun. "We should stop and put the chains on." So we pulled over and got out in the cold to put snow chains on the summer tires of our rental Citröen, then inched over the col as cars with winter tires whizzed past us and night fell completely. I was completely off - the pass topped out at 1500 meters, and we descended slowly into Chamonix valley with our snow chains still on.
Pleased with our success in surviving the drive to Chamonix, we enjoyed a meal at a small restaurant near our chalet and made a plan of attack for the next day. With nearly 3000 vertical in our legs from the weekend, we decided to head for a day in the slopes at Grand Montet.
Forty-three euros and one cramped gondola rid up later, we had what (unfortunately) turned out to be the worst ski day of the trip. Although the weather was gorgeous, it hadn't snowed for a week except a slight dusting the night before. We did some ok runs in the 'magic' forest tucked away between two lifts and then headed for the (tiny) park to do some jumps. Towards the end of the day we headed higher up on the mountain and tired ourselves out skiing off-piste moguls in the side country.
IMG 1603
The next day we decided to forego the skied off slopes and head out for a ski tour. I had bought a ski tour guide, but to my frustration most of the trips in the guide required glacier equipment and experience. If I ever go back to Chamonix, I want to know how to handle glaciers! We did  manage to settle on an interesting-looking tour: a traverse from Col du lac Cornu (towards the top of the Brevent ski area) to Col de Berard and down almost to the Swiss border.
The next day dawned even sunnier than the last, and we took the bus into Chamonix center and walked up the ticket counter at Brevent (I'm going to take a moment to mention that I felt incredibly hardcore trooping up to the ticket counter of a ski area with an ice ax on my backpack. There, I've said it).
"Two one-way tickets to the top of the Cornu lift," I said.
The ticket lady blinked at me. "Do you want a ticket to the mid station, or to the top of Brevent? Those are the only single-ride tickets we sell." Five minutes later we left the ticket counter with 38 euro four-hour ski passes for all of Chamonix. This was apparently the cheapest way to get up that particular lift one time. "This better be worth it," I grumbled under my breath.
"It will be," said Audun, "Especially because our alternative is skinning up the blue ski trail for 1000 vertical meters." And he was right.
IMG 1609
The from Col du lac Cornu was incredible - every spiky peak in the Mont Blanc massif seemed to have been polished for our enjoyment. Mont Blanc herself was shyly draped in some clouds (far right in the picture above). We had also left all the tourists behind, and were alone on the mountain except for one French man on light rando skis.
"Can you take our picture?" I asked, in French. He did:
And then we took a few pictures of him, posing with Mont Blanc behind him. We chatted for a bit, and then he asked the question that made my day.
"Are you Swiss?"
Let me explain the significance of this. As far as I've understood, if a Frenchmen asks if you are Swiss, that means:
1) You speak fluent French, but...
2) You have a strange accent that he can't place.
So for someone still learning French, this was a huge complement. Then Audun pointed out that is was almost 11 o'clock, and that we should get going as we had barely started our tour. So the photo session and the chitchat ended. The view continued to be not too shabby:
IMG 1628

The going gradually got steeper as we headed along the ridge until we had to put our skis on our packs and boot it.
IMG 1629
Then we stopped for lunch and had a Norwegian moment with the Norwegian chocolate Kvikk Lunsj, obligatory for every Norwegian mountain trip.
After lunch we headed over the top point of the day at about 2800 meters. We were supposed to ski down to a glacier before skinning up to to Col de Berard, and I could see the glacier below us. I could not, however, see how we were supposed to get down from the spiky, vertical ridge we were standing on. This is when I started to get nervous. We rounded a corner a saw a steep couloir covered in ski tracks that dropped down to the glacier. Well, if so many other people did it, I guess I can, I thought.
Standing on top of the couloir with my skis and helmet on, I wasn't so sure. I wasn't looking down a hill to the glacier, I seemed to be looking directly down on the glacier. I kind of think just agreeing to start skiing the couloir is among the braver things I have done, considering I was seeing my life rush past my eyes as I stood on top. Once I started down though, I was committed. I did kick turns and side slipped most of the way down, but I made it.
The glacier was covered in heavy powder snow and had a more appealing steepness to it. As we skied down it, I had to take several breaks because my legs were literally shaking. It like my dad always taught me, it takes more energy to fight the hill (i.e. sideslip down it) that to work with it (i.e. ski fast).
I didn't take any pictures in the couloir (I was to busy trying to stay upright and conscious). I did, however, snap a shot of the ridge and the glacier as we started climbing up the other side to Col Berard. Here's what it looked like (see if you can see where we skied down from the top of the ridge!):

For illustration, I've cropped the photo so you can see the couloir we skied:
The rest of the day was a mellow climb up to Col de Berard and then an easy slide out through the trees to le Buet near the Swiss border. We caught a free bus back to Chamonix valley and got giant burgers at Jekyll and Hyde, and decided to head back to Grenoble the next day, as Chamonix was basically pretty skied off. Luckily there are mountains near Grenoble, so the adventures were continued… in the next post!
- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, March 3, 2013

February vacation part 1 - Switzerland

This past week was French February vacation, a godsend of a vacation conveniently placed smack in the middle of prime ski season. Luckily, Audun came for a visit, and happened to bring his skis. We picked up our rental car, a dark blue Citroën C4 and headed for Lausanne, where we met up with a Norwegian friend, Vibeke. Saturday morning we headed out for a full day of ski touring with some Swiss friends of hers.
Vanil d'Ecri
Grandvillard, a tiny hamlet between Lausanne and Berne, was so bucolic it made me want to puke. I'm sure if there had been no snow there literally would have been milkmaids dancing through the streets with garlands of flowers on their heads. As it was, the streets were empty, the air was cold but the skies above promised a beautiful sunny day. As we pulled into the parking lot (or farmer's driveway, really), I felt the wheels of the car spin. Odd.
"We have summer tires!" Audun exclaimed incredulously. I looked at the tires. Unbelievably, the car rental company had given us a car with summer tires. And we were somewhere in the middle of the Swiss Alpes in February. This could get interesting. We decided we would worry about it later, however, and began to get our gear out of the car.
Then Vibekes friends pulled up (with winter tires of course) and came over to say hi. Since I've been in France for a while, I thought I had this down.
"Bonjour", I said, and leaned in to give a bisou or kiss on each cheek. After the second kiss I pulled away, while the Swiss continued to bob around for a third kiss. Awkward!  And that's how I learned that in Switzerland, unlike Grenoble, they give three bisous.
Twenty minutes later, the skis were out, the skins were on, the backpacks ready, and we set off. Our goal was Vanil d'Ecri, a full 1600 vertical meters above the parking lot in Grandvillard. Audun and I were on the heaviest gear by far, as we both have big powder skis and tele bindings, while the Swiss opted for light Dynafit bindings and skinny skis. Today was going to be hard.

IMG 1555
 After a first mellow stretch upward through the trees and farmer's fields, we hit a huge avalanche path which we either had to circumnavigate or climb up. Vibeke, Audun and I opted to strap our skis to our packs and head straight up the slope. The avalanche debris was hard and icy, and the sun had begun to beat down, making the climb a sweaty affair.
IMG 1557
The further we climbed the more it became apparent how much the sun affected the slopes in this area. Most of the south side of the valley had avalanched, leaving bare ground, while other slopes remained pristine. Just look at the bare hills behind these guys:
IMG 1559

 This just goes to show how much the orientation of the face matters when you're picking a peak to ski! Around lunch time we round a corner in the valley we were climbing, and saw the couloir up to Vanil d'Ecri for the first time. It was in the shadow, and the snow appeared to mostly untouched. Score! It pays to ski with locals. We still had several hundred vertical meters of hard climbing to do, and I felt my blood sugar drop. The Swiss behaved like Frenchmen and refused to show the slightest inclination of a need to eat as they charged upward on their lightweight skis. I swallowed some chocolate and steeled myself for the climb.
IMG 1567
 We began to zigzag up the couloir, which was wide at the bottom. I felt the snow with my pole, and started to get excited. The loose, powdery texture spelled fun! All of a sudden I heard a whoop of joy and saw a couple skiers appear from the couloir. They looked like they were having a great time - and they were stealing first tracks in the couloir! Oh well, there's plenty of snow for everyone.
IMG 1579
The couloir steepened and narrowed as we climbed higher. As we stopped to put our skis on our packs, another group of skiers came down the couloir. With them came a steady stream of sluff, or top layer snow, as well as chunks of harder snow that bounced down the couloir. I struggled to attach my skis to my pack as the snow showered down. The skiers finally passed, and I was able to hoist my backpack onto by back and start booting up the steep couloir.
 After a lot of huffing and puffing up the couloir, we scrambled up on the summit ridge to a breathtaking view. The Swiss alpes seemed to stretch endlessly in every direction.
IMG 1588

A final 15 minute walk along the ridge brought us to the summit of Vanil d'Ecri, where the Swiss were waiting, happily snacking in their down jackets. I felt pretty spent, but was excited about the descent. Powder!  We took a quick summit photo and got busy taking off our skins and getting ready for the descent. 
IMG 1592
The top of the descent was pretty steep, probably 45 degrees. Steep skiing is one part scary, one part exhilarating and one part exhausting. You have to stay in control all the time - falling and sliding is not a great idea. So the challenge is to link super controlled turns and have enough speed so it's still fun. I did choppy parallel turns for the first half of the couloir, and then relaxed in to my preferred mode of gigantic, flying telemark turns as the snow grew softer and the couloir less steep. Audun, as usual, flew down the couloir at a break-neck speed, jumping of rocks and seeming to be just on the edge of a giant, tumbling fall. 
As we came down to tree line, the clouds came in and the visibility decreased. We still managed to do some nice turns through the trees before traversing out under the avalanche path and down through the farmers' fields, out to the cars.
That evening, at Swiss David's chalet, we made cheese fondu and scoured a map of the area for tours for the next day. Our bellies full of cheese, we finally agreed to try for a summit not far away called Le Tarent.
Le Tarent
The next day dawned cloudier, but the visibility was still ok. This time the group was much smaller (just me, Vibeke, Audun and David), and all of us had 'heavy' skis except David, so the pace was more moderate.
IMG 1595

My legs, however, were heavy from the tour the day before, and as we headed up above tree line I felt a growing resistance in my mind. This is stupid,  I thought,  your tired and weak and you should be lying down. You should just stop, put on your down jacket and eat chocolate.  Luckily, the Nazi in my head kicked in. You will not be putting on your down jacket, he said, You will go to the summit. You're tired and weak because your lazy. And so I kept going.
The summit was quite exposed and I felt pretty nervous at the top. In the rush to get my skins off and head downhill, I didn't even take a summit photo. The ski down was basically the opposite of the ski up. As I flew down the hill my legs lightened and I felt fearless and fast. The terrain was super fun - lots of steep parts with big, powdering lumps to jump off of and trees to swerve around. I'm not usually a big jumper, but in those conditions (soft powder) even I got some air. Look, there's even proof:
IMG 1602I ended the run with a huge smile on my face.
"That was my best run so far this season!" I enthused.
"That was my best run this season and last season!" said Vibeke.
We stopped at a small café to drink vin chaude (mulled wine) and discuss the finer points of the descent (Did you see when I almost hit that tree after that drop?!), before me and Audun parted ways with Vibeke and David. We were headed off to Chamonix. Over the Col de Forclaz pass. On summer tires. But that's a story for the next blog post...
- The Wild Bazilchuk