Race across the glaciers

The Patrouille des Glaciers is regarded as the world’s toughest ski mountaineering race.

Night-time traces left by the headlamps of competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, May 2014

The race begins at night; competitors wear headlamps © Patrouille des Glaciers

 

This year’s event, which finished today, saw a clutch of records and firsts.

A Swiss-French women’s team knocked 14 minutes off the record previously set for an all-female patrol in 2010, completing the course in 7 hours 27 minutes. More than 4,900 skiers arrived at the finish line, more than ever before. This year’s event also saw the launch of a “Patrouille des jeunes”, for young people aged 14 to 19.

Competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, May 2014

© Patrouille des Glaciers

The ski mountaineering competition has been likened to racing two marathons, back-to-back – with the additional challenges of competing at night and climbing to altitudes of more than 3,600 metres. The full course, from Zermatt to Verbier, involves nearly 4,000 vertical metres of climb over a distance of 53 km, with departures from Zermatt staggered at intervals, starting at 9pm. The “petite” Patrouille follows the second half of the route, starting in Arolla, with nearly 1,900 vertical metres of climb over a distance of 26 km, and staggered departures starting at 3.30am.

The 2014 competition was the 30th anniversary of the race in its modern form. Over the years, the biannual event has attracted so many entrants that racers now compete in two batches, a few days apart. However, the weather has to play along: in 2012, organisers interrupted the race at Arolla because they considered the snowpack too unstable.

For the whole week of the event, Patrouille fever grips the Valais. Local TV runs extensive coverage every evening, with detailed speculation about weather and snow conditions. This year, unstable weather and fresh snowfalls forced the organisers to postpone each leg by 24 hours.

The competition is open to patrols of three, who have to cross the finish line together. Anyone can enter, although you must be able to prove you have what it takes to complete the course. You have be a keen ski tourer who has already taken part in mountaineering competitions, be an excellent skier, have a high level of fitness – and have experience of skiing downhill, roped-up in a team.

Helicopter pilots deployed during preparations for the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, 2014. In the distance, the Matterhorn

© Patrouille des Glaciers

That’s in case one of your team falls down a crevasse as you ski across a glacier. The risk is genuine: an entire patrol fell into a crevasse on the Mont Miné Glacier during the race in 1949, and their bodies were not recovered until eight days later. After the tragedy, the event was cancelled altogether – only to be resurrected in its present form, 30 years later.

The Swiss Army devised the race during the Second World War as a way of testing the operational readiness of its troops in high-altitude terrain along the country’s south-eastern border. The course: the famous Haute Route between Zermatt and Verbier, for which ski tourers normally allow four days. Of the 18 patrols that entered the first race in 1943, only two crossed the finish line intact.

Today, the contest is open to civilians as well as the military. Interest is greater than ever: even though the Swiss Army increased the maximum number of patrols this year by 400 to 1,800 – male, female and mixed – it had to turn away nearly 1,500 would-be racers.

Competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race to Verbier setting off from Zermatt, Switzerland, May 2014

© Patrouille des Glaciers

In all, the 2014 race featured teams from 29 nations including Britain, Canada, USA, China, Singapore, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, with patrols from ten foreign armies. About one sixth of racers were women.

The route from Zermatt begins with a gruelling climb to the highest point of the whole course, the Tête Blanche at nearly 3,700 metres. During the first race this week, the temperature here was -9C at 2am – with wind chill, equivalent to -17C. The course then leads via the Col de Bertol to the resort of Arolla, starting point for those competing in the “petite” Patrouille. From here, racers skin up to the Col de Riedmatten before skiing down to the Lac des Dix and then climbing back up to the Rosablanche before the long descent to Verbier.

The race is a great spectacle for non-participants, too. One of the most impressive viewpoints is the top of the Mont-Fort, the highest point in the Verbier/Four Valleys ski area (3,330 m). From here, the patrollers crossing the vast snowfields on the flanks of the Rosablanche appear like microscopic specks, dwarfed by the sea of snowy peaks that stretches to the horizon.

© Patrouille des Glaciers

© Patrouille des Glaciers

The racers face one short climb up to the Col de la Chaux before their long final downhill: along the foot of the Bec des Rosses (site of the Xtreme Verbier in March, finals of the Freeride World Tour), joining the red piste that runs from Les Gentianes and under the Jumbo cable car to La Chaux, and through the forests below Les Ruinettes down to Verbier.

The second day of the race, Sunday 4 May, was also the final day of Verbier’s ski season – but these lower pistes closed to leisure skiers days ago, through lack of snow. Spectators, even those on skis, rode down on the gondola instead – while the racers in the forest below skied on every last patch of snow they could find before taking their skis off and running through the mud, still in their ski boots.

From Médran, about 1.5 km of shopping street separated them from the finish line. Husbands, wives and children waving placards and balloons cheered on the competitors as they ran, walked, lurched and hobbled to the finish. Out of 1,715 patrols that started the race in two batches, all but 78 made it to the finish line – and if conversations overheard there are anything to go by, most are already dreaming of 2016.

Competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, May 2014

© Patrouille des Glaciers

Patrouille des Glaciers: facts & figures

  • 2014 fastest time for a men’s patrol: 6 hours 1 minute (9 minutes short of the record set in 2010)
  • The Swiss Army deploys about 1,500 soldiers to stage the race
  • 210 tons of equipment – about 50 trucks with trailers
  • 13 special heated tents to accommodate soldiers along the route
  • 40 doctors at 13 first-aid posts
  • 16 trained avalanche dogs
  • 3 meteorologists for 8 days
  • 6 avalanche experts for 15 days
  • 40 cooks: on the four competition days alone, they prepare 75,000 meals
  • Total cost: CHF 7.5 million
Competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, May 2014

© Patrouille des Glaciers

The next race will be held in 2016. Further details: www.pdg.ch. Full news and results in French and German: www.pdgnews.ch

Info on the Patrouille des Jeunes (in French and German): www.patrouilledesjeunes.ch

 

Dancing with the mountain

A white carpet for early risers in Verbier

Above Lac des Vaux, Verbier, looking towards AttelasIt’s the skiing equivalent of stepping out of a limousine onto a pristine red carpet. The door of the gondola clunks open, and stretching out in front of you is a perfectly groomed white carpet of snow, a mile long, unblemished by tracks, for you and your companions to glide down.

You have the luxurious feeling of having the mountain to yourselves – all because you have ridden up on the lift half an hour before it officially opens. And until all the other skiers and snowboarders come up, your select group has its own private ski resort. It’s a bit like being a Russian oligarch – only without needing the money.

A number of resorts in the Alps and beyond offer an experience such as this, but they usually charge a fee. This season, the Swiss resort of Verbier is offering the adventure free to skiers and snowboarders who hold a lift pass; the same deal is on offer in Avoriaz in France, Livigno in Italy, and Formigal in the Spanish Pyrenees. According to Nissan, which sponsors the deal, this is the first time such an experience has been on offer in Europe free of charge.

A couple of days ago I joined the “Freshtracks” group and found myself doodling giant sweeping Ss across the piste. And I realised that ever since I learned how to carve turns, I had been longing for conditions such as this: acres of perfectly groomed snow all to myself. I had the feeling I was dancing with the mountain – and reached the bottom of the run with a huge grin on my face.

Not all the lifts open early. In the case of Verbier, it is the Funispace gondola that you get to loop two or three times before others arrive. But by coming up early, you also can be the first to ride the connecting lifts as soon as they open – and be the first to skim across the freshly groomed pistes that they serve.

In addition to enjoying early skiing at any of the resorts twice in any given week, you can also have a free two-hour afternoon group lesson. In the case of Verbier, the “Coaching Sessions” are with the Swiss Ski School and the Swiss Snowboard School.

The easiest thing is to book from home, before leaving on holiday – but there are also computer terminals you can use at the top and bottom of the Médran gondola.

It’s all free. I read the terms and conditions to see if there were any catches, but I couldn’t find any. You are asked if you would like to receive information by phone or email about Nissan or the resorts, and you can tick boxes requesting not to.

Nissan, apparently, wants skiers and snowboarders to associate the feeling of grip and control you get riding an untracked, freshly groomed piste with the way its vehicles handle. It’s all explained on the website. I am hardly the target market, though: I am no great car fan, and given a choice will always opt for public transport. I do, however, have fond memories of learning to drive long ago in a Nissan Micra – but that could be also because of the soothing aroma of my instructor’s pipe. I doubt if that would be allowed these days.

Whatever your attitude to cars and car makers, Freshtracks offers a wonderful high, and the ski and snowboard lessons are with professional, qualified instructors. Plus it’s all free – and you won’t read that about many treats on offer in ski resorts.

Looking towards Verbier from the Savoleyres pistes

  • Freshtracks and coaching sessions are available for the 2011/2012 season in Verbier, Avoriaz and Livigno from Monday to Friday, and in Formigal from Thursday to Sunday. Register and book at www.nissan-extremegrip.com.
  • Further general travel information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)

Aline Bock’s top 5 resorts

The Womens’ Snowboard Freeride World Champion for 2010 picks her favourite five spots for snowboarding

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

Interview by James Bedding 

“When people ask me the best resort to ride, I always say: it’s the place you know best. You know the danger points, you know what it looks like in summer, you know about all the cliffs, what’s underneath the surface of the snow.

For me, that would be the mountains near Lake Constance, where I grew up, and around Innsbruck, where I live now.

I totally recommend the Arlberg  – places like St. Anton and Lech. The whole area is amazing to ride. It has everything – tree runs, steep faces, gnarly faces if you really want to go crazy. I’ve been riding there since I was a little kid – it’s just an hour away from Lake Constance and an hour from Innsbruck. I know the danger zones, I know which cliffs are kind of gnarly, and where I should take care.

If it’s really safe and stable, there’s always a lot of lines to do, but if it’s just dumping with snow, you can always hide in the trees – where there’s a good feel, and it’s not so dangerous because it’s a lot less steep.

If friends come to visit, and there’s not a lot of powder, I love going to one of the parks. We often go to Mayrhofen – I really recommend the Mayrhofen Vans Penken Park. I’ll still do some kickers and rails – it’s like going back to my past.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

Before freeride, I started with competitions in the half-pipe and slopestyle. In fact, I think it’s important to do all kinds of riding. You shouldn’t be just a freerider, or a freestyler, or do just boarder cross – being an all-round snowboarder is what makes a snowboarder good. So every time friends come to visit and we go riding in a park, I’m totally stoked.

One place that is special because it is so close to the city – Innsbruck – is Axamer Lixum. It has really nice, steep slopes, but it’s also a great family resort. If there’s powder you can also go in the trees. It’s not super-gnarly, but the mountains are amazing – you feel like you could be in Chamonix, the views are like – wow!

Outside Europe, I have been riding quite a lot in Squaw Valley lately – but I would recommend the whole Lake Tahoe area.It’s not known for super-speed gnarly lines, but it’s great fun to ride there. It has super-nice mountains with an amazing view down to the lake, and tree runs all over the place.

If they have a storm, it goes on for three days, and you can have a metre of fresh powder – and then you can be sure that you’re going to have a week of sun, because it’s California. It never gets that cold, either – here in the Alps you have sometimes minus 20 degrees; over there, minus 5 to minus 10 is the coldest it gets. Sometimes it gets really warm, so you have to get up really early.

Number five would probably be my home town, where I learned skiing. A lot of people haven’t heard of it. It’s called the Bregenzerwald, in the Vorarlberg in Austria.

It’s where Gigi Rüff comes from – he’s an amazing snowboarder. It consists of lots of different villages; but Damüls would be the one for me – it feels like home. It has everything you could ask for – you can go backcountry and find really nice slopes. And it’s great for learning, too.

If you want to go off-piste, though, you should always check out the avalanche risk, and make sure you know how the snow layers built up over the season. It’s really important to get training in off-piste safety.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

Resort details

Axamer Lizum (www.axamer-lizum.at) was the venue for many of the alpine events of the Winter Olympic Games that were held in Innsbruck in 1964 and 1976. The ski area is 50 minutes by bus from the city, one of the most appealing in the Alps; the journey is free with a local lift pass. Ski packages to Axamer Lizum are available from Crystal (www.crystalski.co.uk), and city/ski breaks based in Innsbruck from Inghams (www.inghams.co.uk).

Lake Tahoe is one of the deepest and clearest freshwater lakes in the world, surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra Nevada – which tend to have gentler contours and thicker tree cover than, say, the Colorado Rockies. The best views of the lake, arguably, are from the ski slopes of Heavenly (www.skiheavenly.com). There are seven ski areas around the lake, including the venue for the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, Squaw Valley (www.squaw.com). Trips to the two resorts are available from Ski Safari (www.skisafari.com) and Ski Independence (www.ski-i.com).

The Bregenzerwald (www.bregenzerwald.at) consists of 22 villages, little known among British skiers, in the far west of Austria, close to the borders with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany. Damüls has access to 109km of piste rising to an altitude of 2,100 metres, and is regarded as reasonably snow-sure. You can buy day passes for the different ski areas; passes of two and a half days or longer cover all 17, plus a couple of neighbouring regions. For advice on arranging an independent touring holiday, contact the Austrian Tourist Office (www.austria.info/uk).

The well-known resorts of the Arlberg (www.stantonamarlberg.com; www.lech-zuers.at and Mayrhofen (www.mayrhofen.at) appear in the brochures of most ski companies.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

 

Haring down the Hahnenkamm

Skiing Austria’s notorious Hahnenkamm can be terrifying – both when watching the experts and when tackling it yourself

Stand above the first big jump on the Hahnenkamm racecourse, where the icy piste falls away at a giddying gradient of 85 per cent, and you wonder why it is called the Mouse Trap.

Were they thinking of one of those cages in which a trapped mouse flails around – like a skier losing balance while flying 80 metres through the air? Or one of those traps that go splat in the way a high-speed impact with an icy slope might creatively rearrange a skier’s skeleton?

Whichever one, this notorious leap guarantees heart-stopping thrills for the tens of thousands of spectators who come to Kitzbühel in Austria to watch the most famous race in the World Cup ski circuit. From January 21 to 23 the mountain overlooking the resort – the Hahnenkamm – will once again host a series of events, including Slalom and Super G races.

However, it is the breakneck Downhill on January 22, at which skiers pick up speeds of up to 90mph, that will attract the biggest crowds – who then enjoy one of the loudest and liveliest parties of the whole Alpine winter.

By Monday morning, most of the fancy-dressed, cowbell-ringing revellers have left, but a new treat is in store: the chance to ski the Downhill course, called the Streif, which opens to the public only after the race. I wouldn’t recommend tackling it on the first day of a holiday: by the time you get to the lip of the Mouse Trap, you’ll be saying goodbye to your stomach.

A good way to psych up is with a visit to the little museum at the top of the Hahnenkamm gondola. It tells the history of the resort, complete with antique, rickety chairlifts and black-and-white photos of early skiers – including the future King Edward VIII, being shown how to “bend ze knees” by a suitably blue-blooded instructor, Count C Lamberg.

One of the main attractions is a simulator inspired by the Streif. It is shaped like a giant skier, crouched down in a racing tuck. You climb inside him via his backside, place your face against a pair of goggles inside his helmet, and your feet on a couple of metal plates. When you put a euro in the slot, a film of the run plays through your goggles, the pine trees whip past at increasing speed and your feet rattle as if you’re skiing on corrugated iron.

Halfway down, just as I started feeling queasy, everything went blank. The film had cut out, but my feet continued to rattle uncontrollably. Was this simulated concussion? What would hitting a virtual tree at a simulated 90mph feel like? I staggered out of the juddering contraption and decided to wait a couple more days before trying the real thing.

There is, however, an alternative way down the Hahnenkamm: the Streif Family Trail. This follows the flatter, straighter parts of the racecourse, but misses out the stomach-churning drops, opting for longer, gentler loops instead. Use a little imagination and you can still hear the crowds cheering you on as you glide through the forest of snow-festooned pines down to the little walled town.

Many of the chunky, multi-storey medieval houses date from the mid-16th century, when the town grew rich from nearby silver mines. Kitzbühel remains one of Austria’s most historic and atmospheric resorts, with its elegant churches, cobbled streets and mouth-watering cake shops. My favourite was Praxmair, which still has the zithers, fiddles and alphorns nailed to the walls from the days when après-ski meant kaffee und kuchen followed by Schnapps and dancing to a traditional Tyrolean band.

Nowadays you have to imagine the live music, but the cakes are as yummy as ever – from apricot jam-filled krapfen (doughnuts) to buttery, boozy esterhazytorte and marzipankartoffeln – “marzipan potatoes” made of a sponge ball with a chocolate-hazelnut filling, coated in pale marzipan.

Après-ski nowadays is usually more alcoholic – sip sparkling sekt with the fur-coated schicki-mickis from Munich at venues such as Stamperl, or down pints with holidaying Brits singing along to live music at the Londoner pub. Alternatively, choose from the many activities on offer that make this resort popular with non-skiers: snowshoe hiking (also by moonlight or torchlight), tobogganing, curling, ice skating, ice climbing, or steaming in the saunas and playing on the slides at the Aquarena pool complex.

Skiers and snowboarders, meanwhile, get to play on about 170km of piste served by 54 lifts in a series of interconnected areas draped over the mountains neighbouring the Hahnenkamm.

To reach the further pistes, you board a gondola that glides a giddying 400 vertical metres above a ravine – on super-smooth triple cables. You can also ski over, following an unpisted itinerary through the woods and along a valley floor, festooned with frozen waterfalls, until you reach a little car park where for two euros a minibus will drive you to the next chairlift.

Strong intermediates, however, will probably want to tackle the Streif. My advice: take your mind off the descent by tucking into a cake from Praxmair during the ride up the Hahnenkamm cable car, and when you get to the run, take it very, very slowly.

Go easy on the icy stretch that leads down to the Mouse Trap; you’ll fly for 80 metres if you hit the lip at top speed. After that, you can always sideslip down. Locals will tell you to tackle the Streif in the morning, before the snow lower down gets too soft – and an early start also means you’ve got all day to finish.

Further down you join the Streif Family Trail, whose gentle gradient will help restore your shattered ego – before the Streif lurches off to the right. If you visit a few weeks after the race, as I did, you will find that the run feels like a choppy sea with wave upon wave of giant moguls that fling you around like a shirt in a washing machine.

One last, smooth, calm section, and you face the final humiliation: another stretch of steep, monster moguls, in full view of the resort and bemused walkers wondering why people take up skiing. When the slope flattens out and your last fall is over, collect your poles, goggles and what’s left of your dignity, and smile: you’ve survived the Hahnenkamm.

  • James Bedding travelled with Inghams (020 8780 4447; www.inghams.co.uk), which offers seven nights half-board at the four-star Sporthotel Reisch from £829 per person in March, including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers. £Admission to the Hahnenkamm Downhill costs £21, Super G (January 21) £14, and Slalom (January 23) £17; under-16s free (www.hahnenkamm.com)
  • Further information: www.tyrol.com; www.kitzbuehel.com

Other top spectator events

Lauberhorn Race, Wengen, Switzerland

January 15, 2011

The longest (4.5km) and the fastest (record top speed 98mph) event on the World Cup circuit, set against the most spectacular backdrop of all: the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Last year this downhill ski race drew 32,000 spectators. For a calendar of other World Cup races, see www.fis-ski.com and www.lauberhorn.ch

FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

February 7-20, 2011

Held every second year, this is the most prestigious event in alpine skiing after the Winter Olympics – but tickets are easier to get and cheaper, and there is still availability for all events. Nearly all cost £22 standing, £38 or £76 for a seat (except prestige slalom events on the final weekend: £25/£47/ £110). www.gap2011.com

Engadin Ski Marathon, St Moritz region, Switzerland

March 13, 2011

For most alpine skiers, cross-country looks too much like hard work. But nothing beats looking at people working hard while you are on holiday – and the sight, from up on the pistes, of 12,000 skiers snaking over the frozen lakes on the floor of the spectacular Engadin valley, is mesmerising. The record for the 42km is 76 minutes, 10 seconds. www.engadin-skimarathon.ch

Nissan Xtreme, Verbier, Switzerland

March 19, 2011

You need a strong stomach to watch skiers and snowboarders, male and female, freeride down the vertiginous 3,222-metre Bec des Rosses – and free-fall the cliffs en route. Verbier hosts the final of the Freeride World Tour; other stops are in Chamonix, France, January 22; Engadin St Moritz, January 30; Kirkwood, US, February 26; Sochi, Russia, March 5; and Fieberbrunn, Austria, March 12. www.freerideworldtour.com

The Brits Music & Winter Festival, Laax, Switzerland

March 20-27, 2011

Incorporating the British Snowboard & Freeski Championships, this is a week of freestyle events (big air, half-pipe, boardercross, skiercross, slopestyle) twinned with live music and DJ acts – bands for 2011 include Pendulum and the Correspondents. Packages cost from £255 for seven nights’ accommodation, lift pass and entry to club nights. www.the-brits.com