Off-piste training - Meribel, January 2011

After doing a lot of BASI courses over the last few years I was really wanting to do some off piste skiing and find a few places outside the resort boundaries. After looking around a bit I got some info on the Eagle Ski club and took the plunge. Most of the people on the course seemed to be climbers, mountaineers and experienced ski tourers. We had a warm up day on our own and although it turns out I am probably the most technically proficient skier on piste I am by far the biggest chicken with a serious fear of heights. I really, really don’t like exposed terrain and because of this only have little “serious” off piste experience in steep terrain. I was hoping the course will force me to have a go at some things that I wont do on my own. The rest of the group are avid climbers and a few have made serious assaults of Mount Blanc, et. One guy is a full time mountain leader and another rocks up with a climbing helmet ! We have two Daves so I christen them Gung and Ho as they jump into anything ;)

We meet our guide for the week, Tom Saxlund who runs New Generation ski school, a BASI trainer, keen mountaineer and long term resident of the Three Valleys.

Day 1
A leisurely ski over to La Masse to try to find some decent snow, very hard pistes and no fresh snow for several weeks was going to make our week challenging. A spell of warm weather just before our trip along with heavy rain up to 3,000 Metres crusted over the snow pack and we found lots and lots of breakable and not so breakable crusted off piste runs that may as well have been icy pistes.

Very tentative first day turns in the horrible snow


The run down Lac du Lou from the top of the La Masse bubble was pretty lousy with almost a piste laid down from all the skiers taking a single line and rock hard crust everywhere else. But a good lunch spot near the bottom.


After lunch we headed back to Meribel and did some drills on piste along the way to work on our fore aft balance so the crust wouldn’t throw us about so much.

Now we were warmed up we went into the Meribel Couliour off the top of the saulire cable car. I had never gone in there as it looks terrifying to me and a few raised eyebrows  where seen on the climbers when we saw the rocks and avalanche debris on one side.


 we skied down a path and came in below the rocks at the top and tried to stay clear of the avi debris skiers left.


It was pretty much survival skiing with really heavy snow with some small bumps and plenty of rocks poking out. View up from below after we finished. 

The ridge is the flat bit on the top of the photo. Once in I skied it okay so was quite chuffed.


Day Two

We did some simulated narrow gullies on the ridges at the edges of some red runs with rough snow on the slightly off piste bit. Then just to test our side slipping skills we went into a gully that we couldn’t see the exit just below the panoramic restaurant at the top of the Saulire cable car. Tom stopped half way in and motioned for one at a time and one of the experienced climbers went in first and took ages to get down… gulp.


Wasn’t too bad but it was a very, very narrow 2 m wide gully which Tom measured at 50 degrees. My hand was on the uphill side and I thought I was leaning into the hill but it was that steep, but very short and a good learning experience.

 A close up of one of the Lads sliding down.


After our little warm up we went back up to ski the Emile Alaise coulior, Tom naturally took us into the more difficult south entry


Better snow in there and only a bit of crust on the top section, a couple of jump turns and into rough crud snow but lots better than the first day.

The gully is just above Tom’s head to the right of the biggest rock.


Over to Les Avals valley after lunch and video review. I had done this route before and was looking forward to it but again the snow was really bad, rock hard crust and really tough to turn in.


looks good but terrible crust and very, very difficult snow 


About half way down I kinda lost my nerve as it was really tough to make turns in the snow conditions whilst on a ridge above the canyon and a fall would have been bad. Tom poked his head over the ridge into the canyon and jumped in.

Very steep and this photo doesn’t do it justice but the snow was great.  I was rubbish after getting a bit dizzy on the ridge and took ages to side slip over the very small cornice and make a turn. Bummed as I wasted the only good snow in the valley.


Day 3 VT and col du frenie

To try to find some decent snow we head high to VT and up to the top of the Col chair and duck under the ropes to enter the Orelle valley up through the Col du frenie. A path has been kindly put in to show us the way


 As we get closer we have to boot up as  it is too short to worry about donning skins.


Final boot pack up to the Col, already had been tracked out so wasn’t too bad even in my slippery bottom race boots, everyone else had on rando boots and had climbing experience. I was a bit nervous about traverses and boot packing and although not steep at all I lost my nerve at the top when I had to scramble down some rocks and had a bad ski in the Orelle valley once we got there.


The views were good though.


And a nice lunch spot.


We went back up the highest chair in the Three Valleys (which is actually in the 4th valley of Orelle ) and jumped over the back side back into the same valley we just came down. I was in a bad place and wasn’t going to go over the ropes but Tom assured me a plan B route could be had to avoid exposed terrain he had pointed out. I chickened out on the steep section that most did but got back some confidence skiing some breakable stuff on an open pitch which saved the day a bit.

Then into a secret spot on the way back to Meribel, with good chopped up snow and a place I shall be returning to when the snow is better


Day 4 The Cucumber valley

After the pretty rock hard snow of VT we go back over to La Masse and we are planning to ski in the valley Encombre, the Cucumber. Up to the top of La Masse and all the tracks go left to the Lac du lou run but we go right into a completely untracked valley. No tracks for reason as the snow is very thick breakable crust and some very very tentative stem turns to get into it and as the speed builds up me and Brad go through the layer at the same time and both go tumbling. Only crash of the week other than a few lazy sit downs. Tom reconed before we went in that this would take most of the day… !!  After hating my fat long skis early in the week in the gullies  I am now happy to have em on. !

Very tricky skiing but as we got lower it began to soften up a bit and the breakthroughs were a bit more consistent.


And then it softens up


Tom route finding , can you spot the green suit?


We had spaced out a bit to avoid crashing into each other got a nice shot of the tracks we made.


I am starting to get a hang of the breakable stuff and open it up a bit and make some decent turns


Tom decides to take us onto the North side of the valley so we skin up for 45 minutes, first time I had done a proper skin and I really enjoyed it, nice easy gradient and at the top we had a wide flat spot to get our skis back on. Happy days


We have a nice ski down to a ridge and find a patch of perfect powder, fantastic


After a lunch break we have about an hour of skating, poling and side stepping over avi debris on the long path down. See two chamois and the taxi arrives 10 seconds after we do to take us to St Martin. Fantastic day of skiing and I will be back there once the snow improves. Best day of the week.

Day 5 Col du Fruite

For our last day Tom takes us up onto some exposed terrain and I am feeling good as I had previously skied it a few years ago so knew what to expect.


After a bit of poling and side stepping up paths the ridge develops


Onto the bit I was dreading…



We get through this but instead of taking an easy ski down we carry on and find a narrower bit! One guys falls into the entry and I’m bricking it. But finally man up a bit and instead of side slipping down made some pretty good jump turns


Finally get to the top of the Col


Great views but sadly the snow wasn’t as good as the views and was very patchy at the top having melted away in places.


we space out a bit for safety


Overnight we had a few inches on top of the crust to soften things up a bit and Gung dives straight in.


Followed by Ho in the red


Not very good snow sadly but a little bit of fresh on top of the crust. It got real hard on the bottom and a few crashes ensued and I lost a pole basket. A ski down to Lac Tueda and nice lunch and coffee followed by a wee skate out along the lake.

Then back to Courchevel and skied under the Vizelle bubble and found some pretty good snow to finish the week


End of the Week smiles


Athough we had to search for it we managed to find a few patches of fresh powder and the week was great to help me build some confidence and learn how to ski the crusty stuff.

Scott Pleva, January 2011