Snowmaking, Skiers Response To Mother Nature

When Mother Nature doesn’t deliver, man takes things into his own hands.  Usually, it involves some sort of big, noisy machine.  Snowmakers are no exception.  Those are snow cannons in the photo above.

Snowmaking creates snow by dispersing water and air-under-pressure into freezing ambient air. They can even choose whether to make it into light powder or a wet base snow (which lasts better at higher temperatures) by regulating the water content of man made snow.  Still, the lower the temperature, the better for snowmaking.  It usually needs to be below 25 degrees fahrenheit (-3.89 Celsius) for it to work, which is part of the reason it is done at night.  The lower the humidity, the higher the temperature can be.   Aaah… the miracles of modern science….

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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

Interlaken, Your Starting Point For Canyoning, Base Jumping, Skiing or Hiking in the Bernese Oberland

Interlaken is a main town in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland.  It is conveniently located on some flat land between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. The best reason to go there isn’t the town itself, but its proximity to the lakes, storied mountains like the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, fabulous valleys (like Laterbrunnen) and stellar views like that from Schlithorn.  As such, it is a convenient starting point for many outdoor activities.

The town has been a tourist hub since early in the 19th century.  Interlaken has an assortment of cute old buildings. With a few exceptions, they have been able to keep many older buildings and retain their impressive mountain views (we find the views from areas further back town the mountains even better).

The Bernese Oberland Railway and the Jungfrau Railway made Interlaken a convenient transportation hub.  It remains one and Interlaken generally seems more diverse and cosmopolitan than most of the smaller mountain towns.  We saw Indian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and many other diverse restaurants.  At breakfast, we heard a plethora of languages.

Paragliding, base jumping, skiing, hiking, canyoning, whitewater rafting, kayaking, etc. are available from the area.  If they aren’t your speed, you can sit down at a café and watch others shop for supplies or land in the park at the center of town.  Although we didn’t pay them a visit, we walked past the casino and an adventure park.

 

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.

 

Snowshoeing, It’s Like Hiking But More Awkward.

Last weekend, we went snowshoeing.  The snow here is melting…quickly.   We knew that we wouldn’t have too many more opportunities.  If you need confirmation that the season is over, just take a look at the snow above.

St. Cergue is in the Jura the lake, where there’s only a thin white band of snow at the top.

We strapped up our hiking boots, went to St. Cergue and rented snowshoes, having no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  Thankfully, some nice Swiss snowshoers helped us make sure they were on correctly.  They let us try their poles.  Not knowing much of anything about snowshoeing, we didn’t rent poles.  Ooops.  It was definitely easier with the poles, but we only went about four miles so we were fine without them.  The lack of snow near the parking lot was more problematic.

Luckily, this was the only area where the snow was sparse.

We encountered a few other Swiss on the trails and learned that the usually reserved Swiss are pleasantly chatty on the trails.  In Geneva, expats don’t always get the opportunity to have meaningful interactions and conversations with native Swiss.   We learned a lot about the area from them.  For example, these stone walls mark the borders of farms.  They aren’t relics.  In the Jura, they still build them!

When we weren’t chatting with other snowshoers, we enjoyed the peace and tranquility.  It was a gorgeous day.   It was a pleasure to be out in the woods and going “off piste” through the snow was a blast.

In this area summer farmhouses become winter restaurants that cater to the area’s snowshoers and cross-country skiers.  We got a recommendation from a nice Swiss lady on the trails and she did not steer us wrong.  The restaurant, Le Vermeilley, was fantastic.

It was a cozy room with wonderful traditional dishes and a nice proprietor.  After a nice lunch, we headed back.

We’d expected snowshoeing to be more difficult than it was.  I want to try it again  next year.   He wants to do some cross-country skiing more.   We have friends who snoeshoed at night under a full moon.  That sounds like a rocking’ good time so I’m pretty sure I can talk him into it.

Some trails around there are only for cross-country skiers, no snowshoers. I guess we’ll have to try that next year.

 

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

 

The News From Geneva

A month ago, Geneva (and Europe) was in the middle of a giant cold snap.  Pictures of a frozen car in Versoix, Switzerland made headlines around the world (and was featured on this blog).  Waves and spray from Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) covered the lakeside with ice.  While it isn’t exactly warm here, it is much warmer.  The owner of the storied car made headlines when he finally retrieved it this week.

The front page of the paper 20 Minutes with the headline “The frozen car leaves without coughing.”

He had to wait for the ice to melt because chipping it off damages the paint.  We still see little bits of snow here and there, but it is melting fast.  Boats are going back into the lake.  I even saw a girl sunning herself in a bikini top.  She had to have been freezing, but no one was complaining.

The title of 20 Minutes article is “My notoriety is to have poorly parked my car.”

Problems with the weather and natural disasters continue.  Sion and Zermatt experienced avalanches.  Luckily, no one was injured or killed.

Also from 20 Minutes

Also in the Alps, a helicopter crashed near Les Diablerets.  The two people on board survived, but were injured.  This is the second crash there in as many months.  As much fun as the mountains have been, there are daily reminders of their dangers.

In other news, Micheline Calmy-Rey, the former Swiss President, received a pie in the face after attending  the opening of the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights.. Actually, it was a Black Forest Cake.  She is not pressing charges.

Also from the paper 20 Minutes

a photo of the article in 20 Minutes

A 66 year-old Swiss retiree gave birth to twins. She was artificially inseminated at a clinic in the Ukraine.
In Switzerland, just like just about every other country, women make less than men for doing the same work. Today is Equal Pay Day, the day women break even with men… for the work they did last year. The average woman worked all last year through to today to make the average salary that a man made from January 1, 2011 through December 31, 2011.

from 20 minutes

From 20 Minutes

From 20 Minutes

Finally in sports, Swiss superstar athletes (Roger Federer and Fabian Cancellara) continue to win.  Skiing is big.  Quel surprise.

 

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.

Saas (Not SaaS) Fee, Another Cute Swiss Ski Town

Sorry, this post about Saas, is not about Software as a Service (SaaS), but about the town of Saas Fee, Switzerland.    While there are several reasons to go to Saas Fee, the real attraction is its location surrounded by some of Switzerland’s tallest mountains.  Saas Fee sits at over 1800 meters ( 5,905 feet, 1.18 miles) and is surrounded by over 13 peaks of over 4000 meters (13,123 feet, 2.485 miles)!

Like nearby Zermatt, it is an adorable car-free ski town with gorgeous views.   Because it doesn’t have a view of the Matterhorn (only other giant, stunningly beautiful mountains) and doesn’t have a rail stop, Saas Fee is smaller and slightly quieter.  As a result, it is a bit more of a family destination.  Don’t be fooled into thinking Saas Fee is quiet or sleepy.  Whether it is an apres-ski bar or clubbing at night, you will be able to do it in Saas Fee.

Until a two-lane road linking Saas Grund to the village of Saas Fee was completed in 1951, Saas Fee was inaccessible by car.  The buildings are a mix of modern hotels, shops and small traditional, weathered farm buildings.

We enjoyed strolling Saas Fee’s car-free streets.  It was great fun to look at the at shop windows.  Although shops keep typically Swiss hours (with the exception of ski shops), there are many and varied.

If skiing isn’t your thing, you can try curling, ice skating, indoor swimming, mountaineering, sleigh riding, indoor tennis/badminton, dog sledding/mushing tours, sledding, night sledding, snow tubing, snowshoe trekking, or ice climbing (which sounds both dangerous and beautiful).

Saas Fee is where Wham‘s “Last Christmas” was filmed.  Just click on the link to enjoy (and search for a new hairstyle).