So the start of January was the time for the next round of courses for BMG candidates to attend, and with it hopefully get a step closer to completing the induction process and becoming a British Mountain Guide. The three courses were all ski / snow safety based and where all to be held in the Alps. First up was the Ski Technique course which was to be run out of Leysin, Switzerland then the Ski Induction and Avalanche courses the following week in La Grave, France. I really enjoy skiing and spending time in the Alps during the winter months, so it will come as no surprise to hear me say I was very much looking forward to this block of courses and the learning they were sure to offer. We (myself and Kev Avery, a good friend and fellow BMG candidate) had decided to rent an apartment in La Grave for the duration of the courses and headed out on the 27th December to find our ski legs and get to know the area. With us was a mutual friend James ‘Parky’ Parkinson who was along for the ride and together completed our alpine possy. Upon arrival in La Grave we were met with 30cm of fresh snow, a promising sign for the weeks ahead. We wasted no time in getting out over the next week, remembering how to ski and exploring around. The following Saturday came and I was off to Grenoble aeroport to pick up my girlfriend for a small alpine break. It was on the way back I received a txt off Parky saying Kev had slipped skiing, hurt his knee and had been choppered off the hill. Thoughts immediately came in the form of obvious concern for his wellbeing, then as to whether he would be able to continue with this year’s Guides’ programme with the ski induction just around the corner. A tense and (for Kev) problematic few days followed, the result of which was that he was now set to miss out on the ski / avalanche courses this year and would need to head back to the UK for treatment. I felt so unbelievably gutted for him that such a small, innocuous fall could end his season and delay him a year on the scheme, especially after having put so much effort in over the last year. I also felt sad that after spending such a large part of the last 12 months climbing and skiing together and after such a lot of memorable times in the hills, I would at least for this year be continuing without Kev. A full write-up of this period is available on Kev’s blog-https://truenorthalpine.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/trouble-at-knee/
A few days later and I made the 3 hour solo drive to Leysin for the Ski Technique course. This is a course that has been running now for around 15 years and has helped dozens of BMG scheme participants improve their skiing. The course was setup by the Fred Harper Memorial Trust in memory of Fred Harper who was a BMG and past Principal of Glenmore Lodge. Fred had held a particular passion for skiing during his time as a guide and his friends and family began the trust in his memory in 2000. The course was to last 3 days and include a heavy focus on technical skiing skills, both at a personal level and also how best to coach clients when out working on skis. The course was to be instructed by Alex Languetin (trainer and assessor for Swiss ski instructors, part of the Swiss demo team and technical advisor to Hefti Sports), Fabian Pavillard (ski instructor, expert trainer and Mountain Guide) and Jean Pavillard (a well-known Swiss Mountain Guide, ski instructor and past director of the Crested Butte ski school in Colorado). With these credentials I felt sure it wouldn’t disappoint! On the first day we all met in Leysin and split into 3 groups. The weather was good and the plan was to spend the day practicing techniques off the local lifts. Despite there not being an abundance of snow, the pistes were in a good condition for our needs and our group (instructed by Alex) progressed well. It was also an excellent opportunity to quiz Alex on any questions about kit or any more technical queries we might have. Alex’s knowledge on anything skiing seemed all-encompassing and not a single question was left unanswered. In the afternoon we had a short classroom based session to discuss the theory behind the techniques we were learning, and again Alex’s knowledge and passion for anything skiing really shone through with a very thorough and animated presentation. The second day brought us more good weather and it was decided to head to Les Diablerets ski area which was around a half-hour drive from Leysin. The main skiing to be done here is up high on a glacier and as such brings reliable conditions for a large part of the year. I had been here before many years ago to start the tour of the Western Bernese Oberland (a brilliant little tour- get on it), and it was great to be able to return and make use of the ski area I passed through all those years ago.
As well as the chance to improve our skiing over the 3 days it was also great to be able to meet so many BMG members in different stages of their training and get to chat to and find out more about them and their work. The folk present for the few days ranged from BMG candidates like myself, right up to honorary guides with 30+ years guiding behind them. Members attended from all over the UK and many parts of the Alps and the wealth of experience was vast. They were all very friendly and open about their experiences of guiding and I was impressed by what a tight-knit community it was.
The final day saw us back skiing around Leysin, only this time on a deteriorating forecast and with overcast conditions. Although it is always nice skiing under blue skies and with good conditions, this was a ski technique course so the less than ideal conditions the last day had to offer gave us a good opportunity to practice skiing in less than perfect visibility and practice using ‘the force’! The day was spent bringing together the techniques we had learnt the previous couple of days and applying them to our off-piste skiing. Some good snow was found and much fun was had! We also had another classroom based session after lunch, this time to discuss equipment and the various pros and cons of different pieces of kit. Again, this was all delivered expertly by Alex.
After the Technique Course it was time to head back down to La Grave for the Ski Induction. This was a one day assessment of the candidate’s skiing ability and was run by Bruce Goodlad (BMG Technical Director) and Mark Diggins (head of the SAIS). Both Bruce and Mark are very experienced mountain guides and it was really good to meet and ski with them both. After weeks of blue sky and no snow the morning of the assessment brought mist and rain to La Grave and with it strong winds and a shut lift, so It was decided to head over to Monetier to see how conditions were over there. The area was open and so skiing commenced with Bruce and Mark taking turns skiing with the candidate’s in 2 different groups on whatever terrain the area had to offer. The weather improved throughout the day as per the forecast, and I’m pleased to say the end result was that all 6 candidate’s passed and could now move onto the final induction (UK Winter), in Scotland at the end of February. Last up was the avalanche course. This was set to last 5 days and promised learning on transceiver usage and search strategies, weather observations, hazard evaluation, terrain choice, snow analysis and many other practical aspects of winter travel / guiding. The course was to be run by Mark Diggins and Bruce Goodlad again, this time with Steve Jones, Nick Parks and a local Swedish guide also on hand to offer their experience. Day 1, and after introductions it was onto the importance of understanding the history of the snowpack and the events that led up to the present time. This was really interesting listening to the ‘story’ of the snow and how we had ended up with the current conditions. After the days’ weather observations and avalanche bulletin reports (a daily theme), we headed out to the Col du Lautaret for an afternoon of practicing with safety equipment and transceiver searches / search strategies. Day 2 and we began with a classroom session looking at basic snow science and the how / why avalanches occur. This was followed up with a practical session of avalanche hazard observations, group management / dynamics and safe travel in avalanche terrain. We also began looking at snow profiles and the different types of stability tests.
Day 3 and the practical session was spent looking further into travel in avalanche terrain with more snow profiles / observation, this time in pairs. This was followed by an afternoon session back in the classroom plotting the morning’s findings and interpreting the data we had found. We also looked at how to use all the information we had gathered from the previous few days when planning a ski tour for the following day. Day 4 began with the final preparation and planning of the tour for the day and then heading out to see what we find. I was with John Crook and Gareth Hughes with Mark Diggins as our instructor and we had planned a ski tour up towards the Col du Galibier from just below the Col du Lautaret. We looked carefully at route selection with reference to our planning and how it was important to be observant to change and flexible with plans whilst out in the mountains to allow thoughtful and good route selection. Mark introduced guiding strategies to us throughout the day to help us manage groups in future. We rounded off the practical element of this day with more snow profiles in our groups. The day was finished off with a presentation by Bruce on avalanche considerations for ice climbers. Day 5 was a chance for us to bring together all we had learnt throughout the last 5 days. This day was based of the La Grave lift and with very unsettled weather. There was around 30-40cm of fresh snow that had fallen the previous night which made for great skiing but also a lot to think about with the change in conditions. The day was finished off with another snow profile / analysis (this time individually) and a multiple burial transceiver test before a debrief and course evaluation back down in the valley. So all in all a brilliant few weeks out in the Alps and a huge amount learnt. I would like to extend a huge thanks to all the guides who assisted in any way with the courses and in particular a massive thanks to the Fred Harper Memorial Trust for all their help on the Ski Technique course (more details of which can be found here-http://www.bmg.org.uk/index.php/eng/Guide-Training/Fred-Harper-Memorial-Trust). See you all out there on the slopes! Dave.