After four weeks and two days of skiing (sadly just past the half way mark) we are finally taking a full rest day. We woke up this morning to find Val Thorens in the middle of thick cloud. It's snowing and it is forecast to get worse - a large dump of snow but with 40-60kmph winds. There is poor visibility and my legs are feeling weary so today seemed like a good day to take a break. I also have a very swollen little toe joint. If I could remember hitting it I would suspect it could be broken. Instead it's very swollen and I have no idea why. I just know that it protests alot when I strap it tightly into my ski boot. My boots have never rubbed before so I don't think that's causing it but now it's swollen they certainly are rubbing. Hopefully a day off will give the swelling chance to go down. We've also run out of clean clothes so we need to find the laundrette. Yes, we've been here this long and haven't done any washing yet. Our friends Cath and Dave are coming here on Thursday and we thought they might appreciate it if we smelled nice if we're to live in such close proximity for several days. A rest day also gives us the chance to take our ski boots apart and get them thoroughly dry. Damp boots are not good for keeping the toes warm.
This isn't to say we have been skiing 9-5 every day either. There has been the odd day where we've come back for lunch and the weather has been bad or the pistes have been in such poor condition (when there was little snow) in the afternoon it has been uninviting to venture out again. There has also been more than the odd day where we have retired early to a deck chair and enjoyed a small beer or two in the sunshine.
Since the large amount of snow nearly two weeks ago the skiing has been fantastic. We had several days of powder snow on and off piste. Although it's amazing how quickly this gets tracked out and how quickly the snow disappears. The pistes have been kept in great condition. There is nothing quite like cruising down untouched corduroy snow. I had my skis serviced again last week and new sharp edges are great for the confidence. They don't give an inch even on hard stuff. It's made a surprising difference to my skiing. When I say we have been off piste its mainly been between pisted runs or off piste that can be reached easily from a lift and joins a piste further down. I'm starting to feel more confident skiing off piste and would like to venture further into the back country. This is for two reasons, the opportunity to ski untouched deeper snow and to be somewhere everyone else is not. We could 'go it alone' but we do not know the local area and we don't own avalanche transceivers or a shovel. Transceivers cost around £150-200 which seems expensive but not if you consider it could save your life. I'm thinking that surely not everyone pays the high price for a guide every time they try some new off piste. I'm sure some people don't and some survive on their own. However, there are also stories like the 7 people who died in the three valleys after the large dump of snow a few weeks before we arrived. They were apparently all separate incidents and involved people skiing off piste where they shouldn't have been. Last year we hired a guide in St Anton to take us off piste for the day (when we were somewhat better off than we are now). Although it was one of my most memorable days ever, I remember being rather perturbed on the last run when our guide said several people had died in an avalanche on this run at the start of the season and one of them was never found. They had to wait until the melt at the end of the season. One advantage of hiring a guide is obviously he knows where he's going and he should prevent us from getting lost but secondly he will have knowledge of the snow conditions. This will mean he will hopefully take us to where the skiing is best or where there is a lower risk of avalanches. The downside is that a guide is expensive. To hire one for a day cost €300 (approx. £200). Our best option is to join a group for €70 each (about £50). However, we also need to hire touring skis for the day as there is usually a long walk in. In total it will still be a costly day. We spoke to the mountain guide service yesterday and if there is another large dump of snow he said there is some good off piste to be done from the lifts in Val Thorens so we wouldn't need to hire the touring skis, but I probably wouldn't bother hiring a guide for these anyway. There is one off piste day they do where they walk 1 1/2 hours up to a glacier and then ski for 22 kms into Meribel. Irrespective of cost this may be a must do! He said conditions were good at the moment for people with little off piste experience - about 15cms of snow on top of a hard base making it easier to ski. Now that I'm feeling capable to try such skiing I'm wondering if we've made the most of being here as we haven't skied anything in the back country yet. However, I have to remember that it's only because of the past four weeks of skiing that I have improved enough to feel confident to go and try skiing such things. We'll see..
I guess skiing off piste is like climbing a mountain route. You don't want to set off without knowing the conditions or where you are going. Like I mentioned before there are some off piste runs that can be easily reached from the lifts in Val Thorens and are marked on the piste map. We have tried one of these off La Masse which was great. We knew where we were going and where we'd end up. The avalanche risk was low, it was well tracked out and there were several people ahead of us. Could have been a case of the blind leading the blind of course! These sort of runs I'm happy to try without a guide. I just don't want to set off on a 1 1/2 hour's hike into the unknown back country on my own - I might never be seen again!
On a different note we have both bought helmets since we've been here. They are becoming more prolific amongst skiers and we have been thinking about buying them for a while. Hitting your head on a hard packed piste or a hidden rock off piste could hurt. Something that could be prevented for the cost of a helmet and looking 'uncool'. They recommend the helmet fits perfectly as a helmet that doesn't fit correctly will probably be left on the shelf after a couple of days. It should be tight enough to move the skin on your forehead when you move the helmet but not too tight to hurt. Like clothes there doesn't seem to be a standard for sizes and sizes vary greatly amongst different brands. I could need a small in one but a large in another. Stef apparently has a very large head. After trying several different shops we finally found that a Scott XXL fitted perfectly for the bargain price of €60. As any of you who have had the displeasure of shopping with yours truly before will know, me buying anything is a nightmare. I just couldn't find a helmet that fitted properly. I seemed to have an awkwardly shaped head and always felt like I needed a helmet between two available sizes. I eventually found a Uvex helmet that is adjustable and fits like a glove. It also addresses some other reservations I had. It's so light I forget it's on my head. Being able to adjust the size means I can make it larger if I want to wear a hat/balaclava underneath or smaller if the padding condenses after a while. It also has large vents that can be opened or closed so it shouldn't be cold in bad weather or too hot when it's warmer towards the end of the season. Sadly this of course cost much more than €60! Fortunately the gentleman in the shop was happy to give us discount even though we're not actually working here. I particularly like the sticker inside the helmet that reminds you that a helmet does not make you invincible.
We've had some good news that Rossignol will replace Stef's broken ski. Not his skiing that broke it after all. Unfortunately he's still had to pay for a new pair in the meantime so in true Stef style he now owns two pairs of skis.
Lastly, we've just had a couple of great days skiing with some friends from Bristol. John, who is Lorne's partner who is out here for a season on an instructors course, is out here for a week and two other friends called John and Annabelle have just been here for a long weekend. We all met up for a few days. In true boy's fashion it deteriorated into a who can jump the highest and go the fastest competition. John managed 91kmph through the speed gun. Though this is disputed by the fact there were no other witnesses than Annabelle and previously he'd managed 67kmph! Furthermore, apparently an instructor went though afterwards and it recorded 6kmph. It must have been broken! Earlier, I finally broke the 80 mark and managed 81.33. Not quite Stef's 88. Otherwise much fun was had.