Jon Morgan takes us through his pre-season preparation for competing on the ISMF ski-racing circuit. First stop a training weekend with Leanne Callaghan in Cervinia.
It was with a slight air of trepidation that Leanne Callaghan and I joined 35 members of the Chamonix Ski Alpinisme Club, for their pre-season training weekend in Cervinia last weekend. We were blessed with unbroken blue skies, powder and training from Yann Gachet, who is the Chamonix-Zermatt record holder on skis.
Most people doing the classic Chamonix Zermatt Haute Route on skis start in Argentiere. He ran there from Chamonix with skis on his back. Most use ski lifts from Argentiere. Yann skinned up.
Most people cheat in the middle with ski lifts again in Verbier or taxi from Champex to Bourg St Pierre. Yann's route was continuous with no transport of any description other than skis or on foot. Most people take about a week. Yann took 20 hours. The guy is a legend.
'Ski Alpinisme' doesn’t translate that easily but this is in essence ski-mountaineering racing. It is a huge sport in continental Europe, and is almost as big in winter to the Alpine nations as cycling is in the summer. Akin to fell running in the UK, there is a densely packed calendar throughout the winter and spring with races every weekend. In addition, there are many night races, usually uphill only.
The races range from sprint races taking 15 mins to multiday epics such as the www.pierramenta.com There have been World Championships held every other year since 2002, with nearly 30 countries taking part usually. Britain has sent a team every time since 2004 and Leanne and I will be organising the Brits to compete in the Worlds again this winter.
So we thought we’d better sharpen up and reawaken our legs and lungs to this incredibly exhilarating but technically demanding sport. It is physically demanding too of course, but less so than fell running once you get your ski legs and acclimatise. No impact (unless you fall off a cliff or hit a tree..) means you can half kill yourself with effort one day and then do it all again the next day. Your legs do feel cumulatively fatigued- sure- but nothing like the crippling stiffness from a typical Lakeland Long fell race, such as Wasdale. And it is seriously addictive!
Our French is passable but we weren’t entirely clear what the format would be when we got out of the minibus, two hours from Chamonix. Starting from the carpark of the ski lift in Cervinia it was reasonable to assume we might use the lift to get at least part way up the mountain- what a suggestion! five hours later I had skinned from the village at 2000m to the summit of the Breithorn at 4160m.
Reasonably challenging for day 1 on skis of the season, unacclimatised. At least we had time to stop for pasta and a cappuccino at the Testa Grigia hut on the Swiss Italian border. Distant views of Monte Viso, Mont Blanc and la Meije more than made up for the effort. The Italian side of the Matterhorn dominated the foreground. The Breithorn might be one of if not the easiest 4000m peak in the Alps, but not with this approach…
Day Two was another 2000m of skinning- at least we knew the form- followed by transceiver training to finish the day. With our legs nicely warmed up from the previous days our third and final day concentrated on skiing (well we did- I think they nailed another 2000m of skinning) and specific race training. Akin to triathlon there is a lot of skill and time to be saved in the transitions.
At the top of a climb skinning uphill you need to tighten your boots, change the bindings to downhill mode, take your skins off and stow them away- it can be done in 20 seconds but 20 minutes is pretty common in a lot of ski touring parties. At the bottom of the hill you have to take your skis off, find your skins, and put them on carefully so they don’t come off halfway up the next hill, loosen your boots and readjust your bindings. Put your skis on and set off- a minute for that transition!! But this is free speed - training here does not require increased fitness, bigger legs or a lung transplant. And we weren’t very slick, so it was highly instructive.
Back in the bus, leaving the stunning larches and fiery autumnal colours below the snowline behind us, we nauseatingly negotiated the hairpins down to the Aosta valley and back to Cham. We had been welcomed by our new club, nurtured and taught so much. The rat had been fed, at least briefly. The racing starts for real in 4 weeks. Oh and we are STILL short of racers, especially women and especially 16-21 year olds (men and women) for the World Champs in February. Any takers?