The less people the more freedom – free the mountains

This has been the driest winter these beautiful mountains and the valley du Giffre have seen in over 15, probably even 20 years. Following a couple of really heavy snowfalls in December last year, almost 7 weeks of high pressure, low temperatures and no precipitation in January and February, the sporadic and very weak storms in March have left us with a very thin and tricky snowpack to deal with. In a normal year, with the normal snowpack of late March/early April, this would be a really good time of year to touring. This year is different though

It’s been interesting reading the avalanche bulletin of Meteo France throughout the season. Here in France, like in all the other countries of the Alpine region, a report with information about weather and snowpack conditions is published daily. In January and February I had to read it very carefully to find out what was different from the day before. Then in March, with the arrival of some weak low pressure systems and the moderate increase in temperatures, the bulletins started to get a bit more interesting. If you understand the terminology and have a general knowledge and understanding about avalanche danger, the amount of information the bulletin provides is amazing

Bearing in mind that every slope is different and that the bulletin cannot be considered a substitute for your own homework, it still provides you with a very good picture of each individual area. That is why I have been reading it every single day, even if I wasn’t planning of going anywhere the next day, even if I wasn’t here. I find it extremely useful to build what I called in one of my previous posts, a mental image of the snowpack. What the forecasters usually do is explaining the different danger above and below a certain altitude and on slope with different aspect, mainly south and north facing. This is the bulletin of the area I am in:

http://france.meteofrance.com/france/MONTAGNE?MONTAGNE_PORTLET.path=montagnebulletinneige%2FDEPT74

One key aspect of avalanche forecasting over the past few weeks – which was always mentioned in the bulletins – was the presence of old buried weak layers in the snowpack, layers which can be rather difficult to identify and therefore very dangerous. I am aware of 2 accidents last week, both in Switzerland. In the first one, in a group of 9, 3 people died. They were skiing a slope with angle between 36° and 40°. In the second one, not far from here 5 people died. Apparently they were not even skiing, they were hiking. I don’t have any other information about the accident but I suspect the mistake might have been the same, travelling on an avalanche prone slope failing to recognise a buried weak layer in the snowpack

You probably won’t remember but in one of my previous posts about avalanche safety, I mentioned something about the snowpack on south facing slopes being generally better bonded than the one on north facing slopes during the cold months (Jan and Feb) and being more dangerous when the temperatures and direct sunlight increase. Well, this spring there isn’t much danger on south facing slopes because there is no snow on them!

Over the past couple of weeks I have been out trying to find safe routes but my attempts haven’t been very successful. The majority of the itineraries around here start around 1,000 mt and finish around 2,000/2,500 mt. over the past week the freezing level overnight has been around 3,000 mt which means that not only the majority of the time I would have had to carry my board on my shoulders, but that once finally on snow, it would have been really heavy and not very fun to ride. I have therefore opted for the much safer but also much more boring option of using skins on ski slopes. After all, what I am really after is not turns in good snow (recently that has been happening only in my dreams), I am only trying to keep the fitness level where it is in preparation of the splitboarding expedition I will be joining at the end of April

The majority of the people I know around here have been dreading the news for the past couple of weeks: the lifts in Morillon and Les Carroz, 2 of the 5 ski resorts in the area of the Gran Massif, will shut on Sunday. “Matteo, are they really closing the lifts on Sunday?” asked me a friend few days ago, with obvious panic in his voice. I answered, with the biggest smile on my face: “I hope so, and I can’t wait!

I have always believed that a simple equation exists between freedom and numbers – the less people the more freedom. On top of that, put the type of person I am, a nature-conscious backcountry lover who is fully aware of how polluting the sport of resort skiing is. Starting from the energy needed to run the ski lifts 8-9 hours every day, incessantly, for months; the diesel needed to run the snow cats and snowploughs to groom the slopes; the environmental cost associated to live and travel to/from ski resorts and I am sure I can find a few more if I think about it a little bit longer. The human traffic on the mountains and the noise generated by the lifts have also a pretty big impact on the wildlife. I am so happy thinking about all the little creatures that are at home in the mountains and that are now finally free to wander and roam again without being scared by the noises and by the people. Free the mountains!

This is how a ski resort without skiers looks like. It feels like a different place

 

 

I am going to skin to the top, Tete de Saix, 2,200 mt. I am going up there because I would like to take a look at one of my favourite faces, certainly the most aesthetic one around here. It’s between Samoens and Flaine. Although I fear that given the recent strong increase in temperatures it might not be very safe, I am curious to see in what conditions it is

Once again my little voice was right. I don’t think this is an option today. Do you see a pretty obvious big red flag? And it’s going to get worse. The temperature forecasted for today at 2,000 mt is 12°!

 

 

I better start looking for something else, something a touch less steep and exposed. Something like this for instance looks perfect. It’s probably around 25°, just what I was looking for. You know me, it’s not the angle that makes me happy. It’s just the sliding I am after

And when you have such an amazing board like mine, you can really have fun anywhere. The Jones Solution 161, the best board on the planet, hands down

I have been hiking for a couple of hours, I wouldn’t mind riding for a bit. What I’ll do is I will ride down to Les Carroz, I’ll skin back up again and drop in on my way back to Samoens. This slope in Les Carroz is one of my favourites. I just love being surrounded by so many trees on both sides

It’s amazing to think what a complete different experience is being on these slopes without people around. The atmosphere is utterly different and despite the stupid empty chairs still occasionally hanging over your head you can feel a lot closer to nature. If you pay attention you can even see things and hear sounds which will remind you of the wildlife that has always been there, but that you couldn’t notice because of the noise made by people and by all the chairs that were incessantly moving up and down in the air

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