“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”
John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900)
This isn’t the article I was going to write; I was going to do a follow-up to my article on the clothes I use while working as a snowshoe guide in the Swiss Alps and discuss the gear I was carrying in my rucksack. But, having left it all to the last-minute and suddenly getting a rush of work I missed the deadline!
There’s no particular day that winter arrives, there’s no day that the delivery of snow for the season occurs, but the rough pattern for us in this part of the Swiss Alps is that it turns colder during October and November and we start to get snow accumulating higher up and on north slopes. By Christmas we’ve usually had one or two reasonable snow falls and we’re all set for the main tourist season. Traditionally, people have considered anytime before Christmas as having unpredictable snow and that’s pretty much correct, although it’s probably generally good more often than it’s bad.
This year didn’t look any different from normal really, at least back in November. In the first week of November we got some snow and I set off to climb a local peak, the Tour du Famelon, carrying my snowshoes up to around 1800m (5,905 feet). That first photo above is from the top looking out over the local area.
And here, in the photo at the right, it’s 10 days later and we’re up on Pierre du Moelle descending by a summer farm, or alpage as we call them here, all closed up for the winter. Actually, that was about our high point, a couple of metres above there was some heavy gunfire and the Swiss Army started shelling the valley on the other side. It’s a military range and they were holding an exercise. There’s a sentry posted on the ridge to keep the public out and it’s all perfectly safe but it adds a hint of (artificial) jeopardy to our snowshoe trip.
Christmas, Les Diablerets
But a month later, lower down it really wasn’t looking great at all. During the week of Christmas the ski stations around the area were struggling to get runs open for visitors and most of our lower level terrain for snowshoeing was still green.
Luckily, some of the ski stations were running ski lifts so we were able to hitch a ride with our snowshoes and explore the high, snowy and windswept ridges. Here in Les Diablerets we found great views over the local region. This is a place I wouldn’t normally take people on snowshoes as you’d need to hike through the ski area which I prefer not to do. I often ski off the back of the ridge so it was a great change, and a first for me, to snowshoe there.
New Year, Leysin
By a week later, the weather had turned again and we’d gotten a good fall of snow. In fact, too good! The snow that started to fall on Boxing Day carried over the weekend, blanketing the roads around the Alps and causing chaos on one of the busiest alpine travel days of the year as visitors arrived for the New Year’s vacations in the mountains. It was so bad that some travelers en route to French ski stations were forced to spend several nights in emergency accommodation in schools!
Here in Leysin, the sun came out and we went out to enjoy it. With deep snow all around our chalet we stepped right out of the front door and headed up the mountain, making a trail through the forest above the village. The last time I’d been in the forest was a month or two earlier and we’d got a great crop of wild raspberries!
As we headed higher up the hill we encountered deeper and deeper snow and the day turned into a classic winter afternoon with a weak winter sun just making itself felt through cloud cover as another snowstorm rolled in.
By now, we were feeling quite relieved; the snow was here in time for the season. It may take the guys in the ski areas a day or so to get their equipment to work and build ski pistes, but it all looked quite positive.
Well, that was until we read the weather forecast which correctly predicted high temperatures and rain up to quite high altitude levels. Still, it wasn’t all gone yet so we were able to go out and enjoy some great snowshoeing, nordic skiing and alpine ski touring in the meantime.
Monts-Chevreuils, or deer mountain in English, is an old ski station that has not been in operation for over 10 years. But at the top, there’s a mountain refuge that used to be the ski restaurant. It’s run by the local ski club now and it’s a brilliant place to visit when on a snowshoe or ski tour. They serve a legendary croûte au fromage, a local dish using bread soaked in local white wine and covered in our local Gruyère cheese before being baked. And this is just the most perfect place for that dish; we’re in the Gruyère region and we’ve climbed up to build an appetite for this classic local meal.
Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard
As predicted, the new year brought high temperatures and some rain, washing out some of our snow. If we wanted to go snowshoeing then we’d need to go somewhere pretty high up… somewhere like the Col du Grand Saint Bernard.
High up on the Swiss-Italian border the statue of St. Bernard, patron saint of the Alps, looks out over the high mountains. It’s an amazing place to visit, site of the historic Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard high alpine monastery which has welcomed travelers for over a thousand years.
It’s also got snow, packed and sculpted into strange shapes by the wind but it’s a high remote pass and provides some of the best snowshoeing available.
I come here a lot and I’ve written about this journey before for Snowshoe Magazine. (You can read that article here: Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard Hospice: A Night with the Monks.)
The hospice is only reachable in the winter on skis or snowshoes. In fact, in the summer snow storms aren’t unknown and there are only a few months of the year it’s possible to travel over the pass easily.
It’s an iconic destination, and it’s hard to think of anywhere quite like Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard. The closest I can think of are the Buddhist monasteries I’ve seen in the Himalayas when I’ve been working there. We’re running quite a lot of mid-week trips now, and the monastery fits in nicely for people taking longer trips and it’s on the wish list for a lot of people!
We spend the night in the hospice enjoying the simple hospitality offered by the monks before heading down the mountain on a fine, cold winter day.
But even though it’s cold on the pass, it’s not really cold enough further down the mountain where the snow is taking another pounding in high temperatures.
Pointe d’Arpille, Col de la Croix
There are a variety of challenges that come with working in conditions like these. There’s the obvious problem that no one wants me to take them snowshoeing on grass. Actually, we’ve not explored that but I’m guessing they don’t! But, when we do get up in the snow it’s often quite dangerous in terms of avalanche danger. In fact, in these conditions we see the two main problems of avalanche safety combined: the technical ones about snow stability, but also the way our minds trick us into underestimating risks.
Thin snow packs are often quite dangerous because there’s cold air above the snow with the ground itself at freezing point. Cooling down to the ground, with heat evaporating up into the cold sky, creates delicate structures and fragile layers of snow/ice crystals. These interludes can be quite long, over days or even weeks, thoroughly destructuring the snow. Often we find strong winds come along, picking up snow and building wind slabs delicately balanced on these weak layers. But our mind tries to trick us. We look around, see limited snow and get mental signals telling us it’s safe when it’s not. And later, when it’s snowed, we have to remember all those fragile layers of snow are still there, under the fresh snow, waiting to trap the unwary.
Over this weekend we climbed the Pointe d’Arpille. That’s a nice little peak above the town of Les Diablerets. We ride the ski lift to get some easy height before climbing on snowshoes up the summer road and heading through the summer farm near the Col de la Croix. We then zig-zag our way up to the rounded summit to enjoy a picnic before heading down the ridge, first through high alpine meadows and then pine forests.
When the snow isn’t great it’s actually quite a satisfying time to be working as a snowshoe guide. These are the times that your technical training and local knowledge come together to help you find great routes and experiences for your clients. It’s also often the time when you get to go to places you don’t normally visit.
While we sat on Pointe d’Arpille that day, we looked over at the ski slopes with some crowds picking their way down on thin, icy slopes and felt really happy with our choice to put snowshoes on and head into the backcountry. Over three days, we actually saw only one other person out in the mountains, so it felt like the local knowledge had really paid off.
How is the snow really? Higher up, it’s pretty much business as usual. Over 2000m (6,561 feet), although temperatures have been higher than normal, it’s not impacted the snow too much and the snowfalls have been fairly reasonable. Some lower slopes have been quite variable, alternating between great cover and no snow a couple of times. As I write this (January 17) it’s snowing pretty heavily here at 1400m (4,593 feet) and some colder weather is on the way.
So where did we end up on Sunday? Back on Monts-Chevreuils, this time with only us and the guardians of the refuge, but another chance for some more local food!