Warning: This is a long piece I wrote in 2010 about spending a winter in France doing rad things with the local alpine club. Skim the photos – only read it if you really must.
On 31 January 2010 at 9am in heavy snow, with below zero temperatures, unfamiliar equipment and almost zero experience I lined up with 50 other people on a small track in the Vosges mountains in France for the start of my first ever ski-mountaineering race, the Rainkopfraid. The race was 15km long, with just over 1400m of ascent and descent through forests and over mountains by ski and on foot.
Ski-mountaineering involves skiing uphill using detachable bindings on the skis, with adhesive ‘skins’ underneath allowing the skis to slide forwards while stopping them sliding downhill.
I was feeling a bit nervous before the race, I hadn’t been able to do much training due to a bad knee, but more importantly it was also only the third time I had ever tried ski-mountaineering. The other two times were Saturday and Sunday the previous weekend. My confidence wasn’t helped by seeing men in fluorescent lycra speed-suits warming up with short sprints around the car-park.
The Rainkopfraid is an annual race organised by my club the Hautes Vosges branch of the Club Alpin Français. I’d joined the club because I was spending seven months in France teaching English, and had been posted to the small town of Saint Die des Vosges.
The Vosges mountains are a small massif in the east of France like the Tararua ranges back in New Zealand, except that there were maybe 50,000 people living there in small villages instead of just a couple of DOC rangers.
I am not a particularly accomplished skier, so I told a few white lies to the club organisers exaggerating my ski-touring experience and off-piste ability so they would sign me up, and that was how I found myself lined up at 9am on a Sunday morning on the starting line.
I started the race at the back of the pack, and soon lost sight of everyone as I stopped in the heavy snow to strip off two of my four warm layers. Despite that delay, I went well on the uphill, with the course winding through wooded gullies and across exposed ridges and peaks. Only one gully was steep enough that we had to sling the skis on our backs and climb on foot.
The descents I found to be a different story. The course wound downhill through the trees in many places, so making the turns was critical to say the least. More than once I bailed out intentionally before a turn rather than risking going straight into an oak tree. On the open hillsides however, I was able to ski through light powder snow up to my knees courtesy of 50cm of fresh powder over the last two days.
Despite keeping my expectations realistically low, I was a little disappointed to be publicly announced at the prize-giving as the last-placed finisher ‘from New Zealand’ in 4 hours 1 minute. Fortunately for my wounded pride, the official results later showed two others had arrived after me, bumping me up into a credible third to last.
The post-race celebration was typically French, and even more typical of the Vosges hospitality, with heavily loaded tables of brioche, baguettes, camembert, and hot bacon. Even better was the 30 litres of mulled wine, which had rapidly become my favourite French winter time treat.
My enthusiasm for the mulled wine was noted by the ladies organising the function, and when I helped pack up there was enough left that they gave me a three litre cask to take home. Tragically, in the confusion of loading the cars I left it behind. I haven’t felt so much like crying outside of an All Black world cup game, which unfortunately was something my French friends reminded me of often.
The Rainkopfraid was actually my second club outing. The first trip I had joined was a three day alpinism initiation just after Christmas for new members. It was a chance to get some practice, with older members there to show us the ropes.
Despite having several years of mountain climbing behind me, I joined the initiation as a new and un-tested club novice and was desperate to prove myself as competent and capable. I knew that my ability to join future trips would be based on whether the experienced members I met that weekend thought I was skilled enough to go on their outings.
My attempts to show-off my existing knowledge was complicated by the fact that there are a range of basic mountaineering techniques taught differently in Europe. I was corrected a number of times for carrying my ice axe with the pick facing backwards as I learnt in New Zealand, instead of forwards in the European style. I defended my New Zealand training the first couple of times, but with each instructor taking a turn correcting me I decided it was just easier to do it their way. I stuck with that policy from then on to make life easier for all of us.
Besides learning the local climbing techniques, the trip also gave me a chance to try ice-climbing in the trees. The woods sheltered a surprising number of rock banks with seams and plates of ice frozen over them. It was a truly strange experience to be ice-climbing in a forest instead of on a mountain, using a couple of the stout trees as anchors and throwing our limited number of technical ice axes back down the hill for the next person in line.
After a day of practice I got to spend my first night in the club refuge. I had heard many stories of the luxury of European huts, and I wasn’t disappointed. It had individual bunks, hot showers and indoor toilets, and a large dining room where the chefs served us breakfast, dinner and drinks.
The Christmas trip was, as intended, a great chance to get to know the other club members. I think I went some way to proving myself capable in the eyes of the senior members, although I got more points for enthusiasm when I went out ice-climbing in the rain than for any actual skill I may have displayed.
The club’s winter trips kicked off after Christmas. Ski touring was the definite strength for my club during winter, with mountain climbing and tramping mainly left for summer when the weather was better and the snow wasn’t as deep. With little other option, I had to launch myself as a beginner into yet another new sport. I picked up a set of skis and skins in brand new condition at the club’s second hand ski sale and invested in a new set of ski-touring boots, and I was ready for the season.
After completing the Rainkopfraid in January, I did several other ski-touring day trips in the Vosges mountains, before managing to join a two day trip with the club in the Swiss alps, followed by a six day school holiday trip back in France.
The Swiss trip was my first real taste of the Alps. At the end of the first day, I skied almost to the top of Cristallina peak, stopping just before the final walk up the summit ridge as we ran out of daylight. The ascent had been quite tricky, with the zig-zag track up the hard, steep face allowing only the edges of the skis to be used at times. It made for an excellent introduction, and another reminder that I still had a lot to learn about ski-touring techniques.
The six day trip that followed was in the Queyras regional park, a section of the French alps near Italy. We were based for four of the six days in a mountain village Gite, which is a combination of restaurant and dormitory accommodation. It wasn’t cheap at 38 euros a night, but it was certainly enjoyable with delicious three course dinners and excellent breakfasts of croissants, brioches and home-made jams.
I hadn’t been very active during the French winter, and I found it very hard to keep up with the group each day. At 32 I was the youngest, with many of the group in their sixties, but they could climb uphill at a rate that I could barely keep up with. They also had decades more experience than me at skiing off-piste in the deep powder that we often found.
The weather in the alps had been perfect, and we had six days of powder skiing on warm sunny days. The couple organising the trip always knew the right places to go to find the best snow. We stayed two nights in mountain refuges deeper in the alps, and even ventured into Italy for about an hour when we dropped into and climbed back out of a valley on the other side of the border.
Despite the great infrastructure of huts and trails, it was still a genuine back-country mountain adventure. Avalanches were a constant danger on the trip, with the risk usually rated at 3 or 4out of 5. On one occasion, Alan, the leader, triggered a small avalanche skiing across the brow of a hill, and was lucky to be able to ski out of its path.
Avalanches were something that the club took very seriously. On all ski trips each person wore an avalanche beacon and carried a probe and shovel. Before I was allowed to do any of the trips it was compulsory for me to attend a two hour avalanche transceiver training session with the club.
During the trip the CAF Hautes Vosges members definitely showed a French enthusiasm for food and wine. Their lunches on the day trips were often crusty loaves of bread, cheese, salami, and terrines of potted meats, with at least one or two bottles of wine appearing from amongst the group. They would usually look pityingly at me with my hastily made jam sandwiches, like an orphaned child who couldn’t afford to eat properly, and offer me a selection of their own food. I ended up eating embarrassingly well, sometimes leaving my sandwiches entirely untouched.
Despite my love of French food, my favourite club tradition was perhaps their habit of a carrying strong spirits on trips. Many club members would bring a hipflask, to be passed around for a quick sip after meals. They were also brought out to celebrate after reaching the top of a peak, along with handshakes from all the men, and a kiss on both cheeks from the women.
Many members made their own alcohol in good country tradition with the favourite being the iconic Genepi, a herbal plant only found high in the Alps. The club president was know for his home-made Genepi, made from 90% medicinal quantity alcohol he bought from a pharmacist friend.
My final outing during my time in France was another six day ski touring trip to the Vanoise region of the French Alps, this time with a different club branch based in Nancy, a neighbouring city. As a member of CAF, I was allowed to join other branches’ trips and training if they had space.
This second trip was a full six day ski-tour, spending each night in a different refuge high in the Alps. The group from Nancy was again a very sharp bunch of skiers, but fortunately not quite as fit and fast as my club. I was able to keep up with them on the uphills, and they patiently waited during my regular falls when we found some deep powder snow.
The Nancy club didn’t seem to share the penchant for carrying hip-flasks of spirits with them like my club, but the trip was great nevertheless. We summited two peaks at over 3500 metres, which were the highest mountains I’d ever climbed. It makes it all the more enjoyable when you can ski back down too.
As the winter wound down in April, along with my work in France, the club was preparing for the summer climbing season. The French penchant is for most of the country to go on vacation around August, and the CAF branches all organise a range of one or two week long climbing camps and hiking trips around that time. Sadly, I was leaving France in May, and had to miss out on the summer adventures. It was a pity to miss such a great chance to see even more of France, but in particular I’m sad to miss the summer with all the friends I’ve made in the club. One day I will have to return and find a whole new set of outdoor sports to try during the French summer.