Cowabunga! Kiteskiing!

Kite Skiing - Soft Snow

Kite Skiing – Soft Snow (Photo credit: SteveSchwarzPhotography)

Deutsch: Skifahrer startet den Drachen.

Deutsch: Skifahrer startet den Drachen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Snowkiting (also know as Traction Kiting,  Power Kiting, Kite buggyingkite skiing and kite land boarding) is an outdoor winter sport where people use kite power to glide on snow or ice.   It is similar to kite-surfing, except that the skier wear skis (obviously), does it on snow instead of water.  It has been popular for years in Europe where it first became a sport.  Today, it is gaining in popularity elsewhere.   Instead of gravity and hills, power kites or traction kites provide the pull.  In fact, the pull allows you to go uphill!   Just like on skis or a snowboard, you can get air.  Kite skiers perform all sorts of tricks and stunts.

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Just make sure you have wind… and that the kite doesn’t pull you off the edge of a cliff.  Avoiding trees, pylons, rocks, ski-lifts, tow ropes and other skiers is probably a good idea too.

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Chris Cousins kiteboarding in Switerland.

Chris Cousins kiteboarding in Switerland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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A Hot Topic (Literally), Hot Drinks To Warm You Up

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Whether it is hot cider, toddy, coffee, tea, atole, wedang jahevin chaud, mulled wine, or hot chocolate, when it’s cold outside people warm themselves up with a hot drink.  For some, après-ski is a big part of skiing.  It refers to socializing and having drinks after swooshing down the slopes.   On the slopes and après-ski (which translates to after skiing), people sometimes drink something with a little kick.   As you can see below, not all après-ski beverages are hot.  Nevertheless, in the cold of winter, there’s nothing like a hot beverage to warm you up.  Here, we’ve seen things other than your normal piping hot tea… and they’re dangerously delicious.

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Vin chaud (which translates as “hot wine”) is red wine mixed with a bit of sugar, cinnamon, and lemon.  Other countries call this mulled wine, Wassail,  Glühwein/glow-wine, Glögg/gløgg, bisschopswijn/bishop’s wine, greyano vino, cooked wine, quentão, vinho quente, boiled wine, vin brulé, karstvīns, hot wine, grzane wino  vin fiery, or Glintwein.  Clearly, it’s a popular beverage.  Just be careful, all that sugar can leave you feeling less than sweet if you are, ahem, over served.  Thankfully, it’s available everywhere.

Friends from the Nordics make it when they have people over.  They add almonds and raisins to their glass.  It adds a nice flavor and soaks up the liquid so they’re extra yummy.

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Hot spiced rum/hot buttered rum is a little more British than traditionally Swiss.  Then again, the Brits have been vacationing in Switzerland for centuries. Byron, Churchill, Prince William and Cate Middleton have all been, so maybe it’s not so unusual after all.

IMG_0563Yum!  Hot cider.  With all the whipped cream and, um, additives, it may not be as healthy as pure apple cider but it feels cozy and helps fight off the winter chill.  It’s not widely available here.  In fact, I’ve only seen it a couple of places.
IMG_0636Hot coffee is my favorite beverage.  I freely admit it.  I’m an addict and drink coffee every morning.  Sometimes, adults like to add more than just cream or sugar to their coffee.  Popular additions include: Bailey’s, KahluaGrand MarnierAmaretto, brandy, Irish whiskey, Amaretto and Cointreau.   On the slopes, I don’t want anything alcoholic, so I love a good cup of strong coffee with some cream.  Here, it’s usually real cream or milk and not the inferior (but great in a pinch) creamer cups you get in the US.

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Warning:  In researching this, I found at least one article about insurers rejecting claims from drunk skiers.

But What Do I Know? My Favorite Posts Of 2012

I listed the top viewed posts of 2012, but thought I would post a list of my favorite posts of 2012 too.

  1. Duomo’s Rooftop, A Sculpture Garden In The Sky – I just like the pictures.
  2. Dubai’s River, It’s Other Waterfront – I liked how different Dubai was from Geneva and loved its mix of cultures.  While you can see cool skyscrapers lots of places, there aren’t many where you can see the old wood dhows and the people from all over the world who trade on Dubai’s waterfront.
  3. Millennium Trilogy Walking Tour Of Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm – Part Two – I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Men Who Hate Women in Swedish).  When we went to Stockholm, I toured the sites mentioned in the books.  Most of them were in the super-cool Sodermalm neighborhood.
  4. Mohawks Welcome But Not Required At The Groezrock Festival– We love live music and a European Music Festival is something to experience.  This one had a great lineup and was well worth the resulting fatigue (better described as exhaustion).
  5. The Toblerone Line, One Sweet Barrier– We looked all over Switzerland for this puppy.  Once we found it, we couldn’t stop seeing it places (Reichenbach Falls, near Thun, etc.).
  6. Why I Love Running– One of my favorite things.
  7. Weingut Otto Laubsenstein – Fantastic people + fantastic wine = unforgettable time.
  8. It Wasn’t Premeditated, Our Hike Up Rochers-de-Naye – A reader suggestion and one of the best views in Switzerland.  If you’re not up for hours of hiking straight uphill, you can always take the train there.
  9. The Shock Of Your Life – Culture Shock – I tried to keep it real.
  10. Les Contamines – Although we’ve done a lot of skiing, this was one of our favorite days because we spent it with wonderful fr

The Winter Wonderland Of Les Mosses

We went to Les Mosses, near Aigle and Chateau d’Oex, in the Lake Geneva region, to watch a sled dog race.  This charming, picturesque, plateau is situated in a mountain pass.  As a result, it is surrounded by mountains. Covered in snow, it is a winter wonderland.  We almost expected music to fill the air and Santa’s elves to appear.

While it isn’t exactly extreme, and doesn’t have much nightlife this resort offers plenty of activities year-round.  It has a reputation as a good family resort.

Pimp my stroller, Les Mosses edition

In summer, it has nice pedestrian, hiking and mountain bike trailsLake Lioson is known for its fishing.  In winter, well, take your pick.

  • There are T-bars all over the surrounding mountains and beautifully uncrowded slopes.
  • It has almost 20 miles (32 km) of snowshoeing trails.
  • We saw cross-country skiers everywhere, enjoying the almost 27 miles (42 km) of scenic trails.
  • Believe it or not divers enter Lake Lioson in the winter for under-ice diving!
  • Les Mosses approaches learning how to ski from the viewpoint that it is also important to have fun, making it popular with families.  As a result, it has a park with a moving carpet, drag lift, short gentle slopes and enormous inflatable frog.  The park has obstacles, figurines and slaloms to encourage play.

 

Chamonix, Skiing In The Death Sport Capital of the World

Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924, so it was a no brainer.   We knew we had to go check it out.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know much about it. The day before skiing Chamonix, I did a bit of research to figure out where to go.

Chamonix is a valley and there are many different places to ski.  Unlike, Saas Fee, Crans Montana, or La Clusaz, there are separate ski resorts, each with their own characteristics and character.

Here’s more or less what I learned about them:

  • Grands Montets – This is one world’s most renowned ski areas with runs for all levels. It is located on the southern side of the valley (translate that into it’s not too sunny).  It is also means that its north face has good snow.  It is one of the Chamonix’s most famous resorts.  It has a snow park with a skier/boarder cross course with various tabletop jumps and rails.  It is open all season.   People go hard and fast here, really hard, really fast.  Experts enjoy the lift that heads 10,820 feet (3 297.9 meters) to some of the world’s steepest, most technically demanding runs.  We’re not that good yet, maybe next year.
  • Les Houches – The upper part is sunny, glorious in the afternoon and good for beginners.  The lower part, below the tree line, doesn’t receive direct sunlight, shielding skiers on windy days.
  • La Flégère – Its location on the northern side of the valley ensures plenty of sun, attracting people on colder days.  Its northern location also yields astounding views of the valley and Mont Blanc.  This is a haven for snowboarders (freestylers will be very happy) and has great natural terrain for it.  It has skiing for a variety lf levels and is a great starting point. The pistes are the valley’s best maintained.
  • Le Brévent – Le Brévent is on the northern side of the valley above downtown Chamonix. Its southern face lots of sunshine and spectacular views across the valley to Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.  It has something for all levels of skiers and boarders.  While it is not large, there is a cable car link to La Flégère.  We skied both.
  • L’Aiguille du Midi/La Vallee Blanche – The Aiguille du Midi is on of the most famous runs in the world, Valley Blanche. It is 10.5 miles (17 km) long with a decrease in altitude of 12601 feet (3841 meters) into Chamonix.  The real star is the incredible alpine scenery.   While this epic run isn’t appropriate for beginners, advanced, or even upper intermediate skiers who very fit can ski this piste.  While guides are not required, they are recommended in this potentially dangerous environment to avoid danger.  Snowboarders should seek advice on equipment before attempting this.   You don’t want to be one of the ones that goes over the edge.
  • Le Tour – Snowboarders (especially freestylers) go for its sunny, wide-open slopes that are well above the tree line, with varied terrain and have great powder.  There are also runs for beginners and families.  It is popular with locals.
  • It was hard to get good information about Le Levancher (although it is slang for avalanche), Les Tines and Les Praz.  Sorry.  Perhaps someone will post it comments about them.

At the bottom of the valley, there are some slopes for children and beginners that present virtually no challenge.  They include:

  • La Vormaine
  • Les Chosalets near La Tour
  • Le Savoy in Argentiere
  • Les Planards in the center of Chamonix by the cable car to Le Brévent

Chamonix is an adorable town.  In addition to skiing, it is a mecca for extreme sports like mountain climbingice climbingrock climbingextreme skiingparaglidingrafting and canyoning.  Mountain climber Mark Twight christened Chamonix  “the death-sport capital of the world” because of its base for the large number of dangerous sports practiced there.  The less adventurous can take a cable car up, sit and enjoy the view.

Cozy Yet Elegant Megève

The Rothschild’s developed Megève as an alternative to St. Mortiz in the 1920’s.  It’s high end, filled with pretty people, money and stylish places to spend it.  The center of the village is medieval, but don’t start thinking Megève is quiet, sleepy and/or antiquated. There are stylish modern boutique hotels and chalets that look like they were decorated by Axel Veervoordt.  Gourmet restaurants (many rated in the Michelin Guide), chic watering holes and hip clubs abound.  Non-skiers can shop ‘til they drop at upscale boutiques, visit the spa or hit the casino.  If you want to take a nap then rip it up apres ski, this is a good place to do it.

A pedestrian friendly atmosphere dominates Megève and the streets practically invite you to stroll through them.  You can walk from town to the lifts.  Snow melt forms a small river that meanders its way through the village.  In its center is the main square with its traditional church belfry.

While we didn’t see any of the famous horse-drawn sleighs, we were able to see signs of them.  Ski slopes, chalets and around forty active farms surround Megève, adding both character and fresh culinary delights.

 

Paragliding, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

French, Germans and Swiss are paragliding enthusiasts.  In this adventure vacation paradise, paragliding is huge.  Many weekends (in summer and winter) we see paragliders soaring over valleys… from the (relative) safety of a mountain.

When we were skiing in Chamonix, we saw paragliders jump off the mountain!  They soared over the valley next to Mont Blanc.  We watched them from the cable car all the way down into town.  Someone even landed down there wearing skis!  It was impressive (sorry I couldn’t get a picture).

Paragliding involves a manual launch, in other words, you run off the mountain!  Paragliders have “flown” off almost all the US and Europe’s major peaks.  A couple of paragliders have even launched off Mt. Everest!

The paraglider, also known as the pilot, sits in a harness, manipulating the fabric wing made of rip-stop nylon to soar upwards on currents of air.  They maneuver Kevlar suspension lines and to control the pressure of the air entering the vents to catch air currents to gain height and change direction. They can stay aloft for hours (the record is 11) and travel long distances (the record is 186.4 miles/300 km).

We saw an introductory, tandem launch.  Beginners must learn to launching, turning and landing to fly by themselves.  Paragliders risk their lives by running off a precipice.   As such, pre-flight is of paramount importance.  They research the site, the weather forecast, and carry out pre-flight checks to their gear is in perfect condition and ready to deploy.   The maxim “it is better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the air rather than in the air, wishing you were on the ground” reminds paragliders to abort takeoff if their flight is compromised.

Other popular paragliding spots include:

Now We Understand Why Everyone Likes Megève

We’d heard wonderful things about Megève and heard of its reputation as the “jewel” of French alpine ski resorts.  It’s a major ski resort and there are good reasons for Megève’s popularity.  We had a great day skiing there last weekend. The wonderful weather and virtually cloudless skies didn’t hurt.

It offers fantastic skiing, stunning views, lots of restaurants and just about every convenience you can imagine. Its location is idyllic in the “Pays du Mont Blanc”.  Many runs have a nice view of Mt. Blanc’s summit.  Many of the other resorts in the area, like Les Contamines, are above the tree line.  Megève has runs cut through the trees. It was quite busy, there were so many runs that we never felt that it was never crowded.

Megève offers great skiing for all levels. Megève’s slopes are have more easier runs than Chamonix or Courcheval’s.  Don’t worry though, there are plenty of red and blacks.  While there is plenty for beginners, the upper intermediate skiing terrain predominates and there are opportunities to go off piste.  Although, if you read yesterday’s avalanche post and watched the videos, you may not want to.

There are restaurants everywhere.  The food, atmosphere and crowds vary.  We got a later start on the slopes and just had a waffle (gauffre de Liege) at about 4:00.  It was beyond tasty; the wonderful view of Mt. Blanc made it even better.

By the end of the day, the snow at low altitudes was turning to slush.  We realized that if this weather keeps up, we wouldn’t have too many more weekends to ski.  In fact, I’m posting this at six something on a Saturday morning before we take off to ski.  As always, I’ll report back.

The slushy bit (and horses) on our way down

Danger!!!!! What We’ve Learned About Avalanches

No, I’m not talking about the Chevrolet Avalanche, or any other SUV.  It will come as no surprise that the last time I saw one of those was before we moved to Switzerland.  This post is about snow, lots of it…tumbling down mountains.

3 = Marked Danger of Avalanches

The Alps have around 250,000 avalanches every year!  To have an avalanche, all you need is a mass of snow and a slope for it to slide down.  Specific topographic, snow and weather conditions increase the likelihood of avalanches.  They include:

  • Steep slopes of 30-45 degrees are more likely to avalanche.
  • Convex slopes are more prone than concave slopes.
  • Just looking at bowls and gullies, should alert you to their avalanche danger.  What happens when you pour water into a funnel?
  • Slopes that gather drifting snow, accumulate more of it and do it more quickly.  The snow is also looser, less compacted.  You can see how these factors all increase the likelihood of an avalanche.
  • Smooth, grassy slopes are much more dangerous because there is nothing to anchor the snow to the mountain.
  • Moist, dense precipitations are typically less dangerous than loose, dry snows.
  • Wind. It moves snow about the slopes and exerts pressure.  Need I say more.
  • Changes in temperature.  Change is destabilizing.  High and rapidly rising temperatures create wet snow prone to slides.  That’s likely what happened in the pictures below.
  • Thawing and refreezing.  When old snow melts, it becomes smooth (or icy after a rain).  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out new snow on top might slide off.
  • Similarly, loose, underlying snow is unstable.  It doesn’t take Copernicus to predict what is likely to happen.
  • A foot or more of soft, new snow is dangerous. It puts pressure on the existing snowpack.  New snow has to go somewhere, right?  Some of it might rest where it lands.  Some of it might come tumbling down.
  • Even the shape of the snow crystals can make a difference!

Avalanches can be deadly, but people buried in avalanches have a good prognosis if they are found and dug out quickly (within 15 minutes to have a reasonable chances of survival).

  • Much of North America is so large that the chances of a professional rescue team arriving in that time frame can be slim.  Nevertheless, Canada‘s average time to dig someone out is 18 minutes (with a survival rate of 46%)!  In Europe, where everything is closer, things vary by country.
  • In France, the average time to dig someone out is 45 minutes.  As a result, France’s death rate from avalanches averages 25-30 per year (60% of extracted victims die).  France (where we do most of our skiing) had more avalanche fatalities than any other country.  The winter of 2005-2006 was a difficult avalanche season and over 50 people died from avalanches in France alone.
  • Switzerland takes 35 minutes (with a survival rate of 47%).

Just last month, Prince Frisco of the Netherlands was caught in an avalanche in Austria.  He was buried under the snow for over 25 minutes and it took nearly 50 minutes to resuscitate him.  He remains in a coma and may never recover.

Avalanche deaths have been on a rise.  Equipment has improved over the past couple of decades, making “off-piste,” backcountry skiing without the benefit of marked trails composed of compacted snow, possible for many more.  It looks like tons of fun, but many are ill-prepared and not sufficiently knowledgeable.

This was taken at Les Contamines, near Mt. Blanc. If you look closely, you can see the aftermath of the avalanche.

Several technologies are essential for anyone backcountry skiing as they help improve the chance of survival.

  • Transceivers, otherwise known as avalanche beacons, send and receive radio signals, helping rescuers to quickly pinpoint the location of a buried victim.  Nevertheless, not even half of those with beacons survive.  It cannot save you if you are severely injured or buried deeply.
  • Avalanche airbags are recommended and gaining in popularity.  We have even seen them advertised at bus stops.  Worn like parachutes, the ripcord causes an airbag to inflate, encircling the head.  It  protects their head and their neck and provides floatation, decreasing the likelihood of burial.
  • Other crucial safety tools include: collapsible probes and shovels.
  • The best defense is a good offense.  It is best to avoid an avalanche altogether.

You can see where the snow slid (and might again).

Here are some YouTube links to videos of Avalanches:

During our Swiss travels in Switzerland, we have seen evidence of the Swiss infrastructure to prevent and deal with avalanches.

An avalanche shelter in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley

Avalanche snow fences in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland

Don’t worry mom, ski resorts try to eliminate the possibility of an avalanche on the slopes by compacting the snow or using explosives.  We aren’t good enough (or brave enough) to really go off piste.

Covering to prevent snow from covering the road into the Lotschental Valley

 

Les Contamines

Late one night, a group of us decided to ski the next day.  When you make plans late at night for the next day, sometimes (shockingly) they aren’t well thought out.  As we would be a large group of all levels, we decided to go to Les Contamines. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a good choice and a great day.

We chose it because:

  • It is close to Geneva.
  • It is not crowded.  There are rarely any lift queues.
  • As it is at the back-end of a valley, it is less traveled.  It has a reputation for having a calm, laid back atmosphere.
  • It is a small, relatively unspoiled town.  There’s no trendy après-ski or clubs.  In fact, there isn’t much nightlife.  As a result, it is calmer.
  • Fewer people means snow stays untracked longer.  Who doesn’t love unskied powder?
  • It offers a wide variety of terrain for all levels.  We had a diverse group and there were pistes to suit everyone.
  • The prices are reasonable.
  • When the weather is clear, it has a wonderful view of Mt. Blanc.  Heck, when the weather is clear, it has wonderful views.  Period.  Contamines is known for its beautiful mountain panoramas.

Oh yeah.  It wouldn’t be a skiing post if I didn’t do something stupid.  This time it yielded a cool photo.  While I was lying with my face in the snow, I got my camera out and snapped a pic to show you the view from down there.