Feb 26, 2009

Guest Post by competitive kiter and hot mama Becky Bishop

The spring of ’06 I packed up my life, finalized closing the business I had for twelve years and drove in search of the concept of “kite boarding.” Kiting had cast its spell over me since I watched it for the first time years ago in Baja, California. I had tried it once in the Dominican Republic and after that fleeting experience was determined to do what was necessary to make my dream a reality.

Becky and Teal waiting their turn in the Dominican Republic

First stop on my quest was South Padre, Texas, where I met a dear friend who gave me a parking spot at his campsite and patiently aided me in the humbling experience of learning to become as he quotes, “an independent kite boarder.” After several days of face plants, re-launching trial and error, drifting out into the sound with question if I would ever return, I gained my independence. Evenings of snuggling with my sleeping bag and book in the back of my car, mornings of surf before the wind, and gatherings with the wonderful group of people who migrate towards the wind and seem to pop up all over the world with a friendly wave and a launch of your kite. Sadly time in the warm waters and balmy air of Padre came to a close, but I could now kite on my own. If I could recommend one place to learn, South Padre is the place (but avoid spring break weeks, its “Girls Gone Wild” like I have never seen it).

Augusta, Australia

My childhood stomping grounds, Hood River, was the next on the tour. The world famous, “Gorge,” known for it’s consistent, strong winds, and wind junkies. I traveled to the many kite spots along the river, and the endless locations on the Oregon Coast. This area is not quite as forgiving. Wetsuit donned,  I headed out to the river sometimes running at eight knots, the wind gusting up to thirty with whitecaps and spray beckoning me if I dare - and dare I did. Early on, I learned to depower and dump my wind in hopes not to repeat my experience at Rufus, a kite spot in the Eastern Gorge.

Hood River Gorge
Hood River Gorge courtesy Everything Oregon

On one of these high wind, high current days, I launched into the river, to be swept up into the air moments later for what seemed like an eternity. While thirty feet airborne, I was being directed by my board, bottom faced into the wind against my torso, flying backwards like a superhero, definitely not doing so well in a fight against a meteor. I heard a terrible cracking sound and was sure it was my body breaking. I realized it was the fiberglass of my board being ripped apart by the wind as it was stuck in my harness. Oh, is THAT ALL? So I pulled it out and dropped like a stone into the rushing water, only to see the banks of the river fly by as I was being carried downstream. Luckily, there was an anchor line for a fishing boat I  grabbed momentarily to catch my breath and smile at the fisherman and give him a thumbs up. From there I swam quickly to shore and flopped down, kissing the dry, hot, still stones. I honed my skills that day, and I know what not to do now.

Western Australia solitude

Next on tour for the fall was Flexerias, Brazil. A sleepy, colorful fishing village with endless white beaches and twenty four hours of warm wind that blew like a hot, jet engine. Eleven mile down winders three times a day, only breaking for water, naps in the hammock, and food. The initial launch offered great rolling waves in which to surf. When we got sick of that, we ventured down the beach break waves, skimming on two inches of flat water fanning out on the beach, to a more intense reef break that kept me on my toes. Dodging waves, huge turtles and fairytale looking carp the size of dolphins kept me busy, while my new partner in crime was riding the faces of the waves, not seeming to mind the bus sized coral heads that reared their heads just below.

Flexerias, Brazil
Flexerias, Brazil

Then on to “the playground” as I called it, a shallow, protected bay of flat-water with a sandy bottom where I most aggressively attempted to learn my jumps, rolls, kite loops, and all of the many things I would dare attempt with this wondrous, new sport. The sun would set and we would jump high above the horizon, then roll in on the last of the orange that reflected on the waves, to our little house on the beach. Brazil is magic. Aside from a few setbacks; a broken rib (just before a competition opportunity), a dune buggy engine fire that left us stranded hours from nowhere on a cliffed out beach that would soon be covered by the high tide (we were rescued, and spent days with a new friend who put us up and fed us, in return for kiting companionship and knowledge), it was a dream. We found lagoons, huge waves formed by jetties, other kiting communities, towns like Jericoacoara where ewoks might inhabit with sand streets and all the luxuries one could imagine, and friends from all over the world…that we would see again.

Prevalley, Western Australia

Craig, (my then boyfriend and now hubby) and I, moved to Baja, Mexico, where he had previously lived teaching kite boarding for five winters. It just so happened to be the same place I had sat on the beach longingly watching these colorful things guiding people over air and water years before. Needless to say, we kited, surfed and enjoyed life. We got married on the beach and soon after discovered a baby girl would be making an appearance. At first I didn’t do so well adjusting to my new situation. My dreams of competing and trying to eek out a living as a kiter blurred. I watched as my belly, thighs and hips grew while I walked in a green-faced daze keeping a Mexican toilette close at hand. I kited less and less, and slept more and more. My dreams shifted (but I did take this time to learn to kite on a surfboard, abandoning the “huge” air and “sick” tricks I had been obsessed with learning). On September tenth, 2007 Teal Rio, named after our favorite blue rivers in New Zealand was born.

After the birth of our daughter, we headed to the expansive, windy coast of Western Australia to meet our friends Sky Solbach and Kristen Boese. Kristen is an inspiration to say the least: this graceful lady has held the World Champion title consistently since 2005. We explored and kited from the far North to the far South, finding huge waves, flat water and all in between.

Big air in Abaco, Bahamas

I travel with a quiver of kites made by North Kites. The new Vegas’s with the 5th element bar and lines are my favorite as these kites are well designed, tested and safe if you know how to use them properly. I have a five meter, a seven meter (my favorite!), and a nine meter kite. This set up seems to work pretty well for me, though I could add one bigger kite to my collection as many places I travel have lower wind. I use a full wetsuit in places like the Oregon Coast and the Gorge in the spring (and winter if I dare), a shorty in the questionable temperatures, or just the good old bikini and rash-guard (the best because that means it is warm!) I have a waist harness that allows me to feel more comfortable trying tricks (though I started in a seat harness), and two boards, a free style wake board and a wave surf board. It all packs up pretty well believe it or not.

Snow kiting in Montana

Craig, Teal and I, travel to find kiting in the most unexpected places, the lakes of Montana, snowy plains of Idaho, sleepy Caribbean towns, not to mention the common wind destinations. We have met wonderful people who migrate with us following the wind. My aspirations are a little different now, my husband and I don’t kite together so much, we just eagerly take turns cheering encouragement from the shore while playing with Teal. When Craig and I can kite together the experience is much more dynamic and we are like two giddy kids sneaking off for a big adventure. We can stop out in the water and point out the huge sea ray we just saw, or he can help me with a trick. We will yelp and holler at each other with big smiles and waves, sort of like when you are skiing with your buddies on a powder day. It makes the whole thing more fun, and we create a bond of sharing the same experience. I cherish those times.

More big air in Abaco

Future aspiration include becoming a competitive kiter. There are only a few kiting contests and they are spread out all over the world, so I just need to make a point of entering one. I still want to become solid with some more difficult tricks, like kiteloops with handlepasses, but have taken it easy on that venture since having a kid. I feel much less daring as a mom, and less inclined to injury!

Snowkiting offers a whole new realm of uncharted territory. There are very few snow kite contests and I am going to my second this weekend (the first was last weekend but there was no wind!) in Soldier Mountain Idaho. Also, I would like to explore backcountry snow kiting, which is skiing into the backcountry, finding a great peak or mesa to kite on or launch off of, explore and kite back to the car.

BB will revisit Becky in a few weeks time and explore the snow kiting world! Brava, Becky!

Feb 22, 2009

Le Glacier Rond

le Glacier Rond on the right, courtesy of webskirando.fr
le Glacier Rond on the far right. Courtesy of webskirando

Its a waiting game in Chamonix. Skiers pray for more snow and stable conditions in order to attempt some of the more challenging or “big” lines that come into their own later in the season. With so much snow in the Alps this year the spring could yield amazing steep skiing up high. Friends recently attempted the Col des Cristaux, and found it wind hammered, I was relieved I did not join them. There is nothing worse than arriving at the top of a fifty degree slope and finding the Chamonix horror show - sheet ice or hardpack making for some intense skiing. Part of the exploration is always useful as skiers are able to survey the conditions. Skiers can gage what future snow conditions might be like by checking stability and seeing what slid and what might be wind-loaded.

Some years certain lines are in great shape, and others Mother Nature may decide its not right to ski them at all. This year one of the classics and fairly accessible, le Glacier Rond, has proved to be elusive. The Rond is chunk of hanging glacier off the Northwest face of the Midi easily visible from town. High winds and cold temperatures has made it very icy not allowing snow to stick and bond to the surface. So we wait.

The Glacer Rond and exit couloir courtesy webskirando
The Glacer Rond and exit couloir courtesy webskirando

Two years ago, the Rond was in primo condition and believe it or not it was my first ski off the Aiguille du Midi. I was with friends Martina Palm and Roger Knox, both veteran Chamonix skiers. I met them at the bottom of the cable car station among a flurry of mountain guides and their charges. After two kisses each they inspected my gear. Harness, ice screws, rope, slings, a biner through the center of my harness and few extra hung off my harness loops. I felt pretty cool. Only having been in Chamonix a month, this was a whole new world to me.

Cable car on its way down to midstation

Le Telepheric du l’Aiguille du Midi (meaning needle of midday as the sun sits directly over the peak at midday) has two stages, the first bringing skiers, climbers and foot passengers from Chamonix to Plan de l’Aiguille at 2300 meters. The second stage crosses the les Pellerina glacier arriving at 3842 meters directly above town. It was built in 1955 and is the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car, 2800 meters in twenty minutes and when it stops short, it is enough to take anyone’s breath away. All packs must be on the floor in the bins (no one wants an ice axe in the eye), and passengers are squashed in like sardines. Once at the top, skiers rush out of the bin to encounter perhaps the most dangerous part. The walkway is cement and is constantly thawing and refreezing into sheet ice. Needless to say on plastic ski boots its very dangerous. Someday a friend insists he will leave money to the Compagnie du Mont Blanc to purchase rubber mats.

The bridge courtesy of Chamonix.eu.com
The bridge courtesy of Chamonix.eu.com

After gingerly skidding down the iced path and assisting the poor souls who fell, we arrived on the bridge. I followed Martina’s finger as she pointed out the Rond below. I inhaled a bit. The Rond is a hanging glacier beginning at 50 degrees, and then changing to 45 degrees. Its an amazing few turns, but there is no room for falling at a high speed. If you don’t self arrest, its an express trip to Chamonix.

Heading across into the tunnel, we put skis on packs and attached crampons for the walk down the arret, a narrow path equipped with ropes and a fairly steep drop either side. The walk can be rather chaotic with the amount of people walking down during high season. We skirted by a big guided group gearing up and headed out the tunnel to the bright sunlight. Roger made sure my crampons were on tight and told me to follow him with Martina bringing up the rear.

Walking down the arrete

The view was stunning, I could see the Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, the Weisshorn, and The Grand Paradiso. The Vallee Blanche stretched out for miles below. I enjoyed the walk but can see how it could be terrifying to some. Crampons away and skis on feet we skied down the first pitch gathering speed. We were heading to the other side of the Midi behind the summit, to the Col du Midi near the Cosmiques hut to the entrance to the Cosmique Couloir and the Rond. Martina went first.

Lyndsay at the top

The entrance was good this year, a high, small traverse with an icy spot where there would be no stopping. “Let me go first, and then you come across - are you happy with this?” she said. I nodded and we all made it gingerly across having to dodge an old cable. Another option when this traverse is too icy is to lower in from above. I felt confident with my ability so on we went. This run is not for beginners.

Martina leading the way

Arriving at the top of the Rond, we took a few photos and admired in the view while looking back up at the people on the bridge where we had just been. I followed Martina down, the pitch and snow was perfect. A little bit of ice underfoot here and there, but other than that epic turns. She stopped about halfway down. “This is the exit couloir, we will have to walk over some rocks, are you happy with that?” she asked again.

Steep skiing
Steep skiing

I was quickly learning its very important to function in the mountains as a unit, if one person is not confident, then you must adapt, you act as a team. I said I was feeling good and and we began to sidestep down over some smaller rocks. I was happy I didn’t buy a new pair of skis, adventure skiing is hard on the bases.

Entering the exit couloir
Entering the exit couloir

Safely into the couloir, we took more photos and enjoyed the 400 meter ski down to the main Bosson Glacier. Here we hugged the rocks and slowly picked through the crevasses. Crevasses are the large holes that break apart on the glacier when it changes terrain and are very dangerous. The gear we carried was to ensure that if someone fell in one, we could get them out by devising a rope and pulley system complete with an anchor. I had taken a few classes with Chamonix Experience to teach me the technique.

Ready to ski the exit couloir
Ready to ski the exit couloir

Safely across the glacier, we traversed back to the mid station of the Midi and looked up at our line. It was an amazing first run and if time had permitted, we would have gone up and done another lap.

It just so happened that the Rond remained in great condition that winter, but I will always be grateful to Martina and Roger for taking me up there for the first time - you never know when you will be able to ski something like that again.

Martina leading and Lyndsay following
Martina ripping and Lyndsay bringing up the rear

Brava Martina! (Roger too)

Feb 14, 2009

Mid- Season Skimo Race Re-cap

The ski mountaineering season in the Alps is in full swing thanks to the amazing snow year we are having. Nina and I are training and ramping up for some of the bigger events to follow later in the season. Best way to get in shape for racing? Race. One of our first big dances was the World Cup Pyramid d’ Oz in Oisans, France, very near the famous Alp d’Huez. We stayed in a hotel that catered to Tour lovers with photos and signatures of racers all over the walls. The rest of the race can be summed up by this photo of the phone in our room.

The event was poorly organized and international racers that we not on the main teams were treated with indifference. It was not the attitude needed to encourage others to get involved and grow the sport. I could go on and on, but my mother taught me if you can’t say something nice about something, don’t say it at all. Next!

John and Nina at the les Contamines Uphill

After a few days rest we hit up a local monte seche, or night uphill race about an hour away in Les Contamines. I love these events, while painful, they are low stress and very social. The Contamines race was part of the Rhone Alps SOMFY Tour. We arrived around 6:00pm to get a good warm up - often for a fast effort such as this we warm up for forty minutes. The course was 700 meters (2300 feet) of up over about 8 kilometers (5 miles), there were long sections of flat areas that would favor the cross country skier. After mellow warm up with a few fast accelerations, we ditched our warm clothes in the bags provided with our bib numbers, and threw it into the snow cat before it made its way to the top of the course.

We almost never hear the official start called, but rather are clued in by yelling, pushing and the rattling of poles. The course had been groomed - a total luxury for the alps, but not for long. Halfway up the route turned onto a steeper section highlighted by fire-lamps. Having never done the race before, we sprinted for what we thought was the finish, and realized there were ten more minutes to go, ten minutes of pain. Nina and I finished forth and fifth respectively, enjoyed our dinner at the restaurant at the top and started out ski back down to the car - always an adventure. There was no moon, so we used the blue line marking the course and the marked reflective tape to find out way down, hightailing it out of the way for the French Chinese Down-hillers coming down in waves behind us. It was a good night, a needed positive effort after the last disappointing race.

Nina, descent Les Contamines

Next up was our favorite race from last year the TSF- Millet (Tournette Sources du Fier), a two day race held near Thones and Faverges in France. It is an old school ski moutaineering race that climbs the peaks Mont Charvin and La Tournette. Completely off-piste, it included technical climbs with crampons and clipping into fixed lines. Confidence is required not only with exposure and crampon climbing, but also with skiing ability, there is a steep section with a forty degree slope and a few narrow couloirs.

We arrived at the briefing Friday night and race technicians confirmed what we already knew, due to heavy snowfall that week, and more in the forecast, the course would be changed. We would not get to climb either peak. Nonetheless, the parcourse for the first day was 2100 meters (6900 feet) and included two crampon sections with fixed lines. This year automatic biners were required to clip into the rope, I had to practice with my gloves on, tricky for sure - sort of like operating a child proof lighter.

We had booked lodging through race organizers at a Masion Familial Rural which unknown to us was basically a hostel. We had not brought towels or extra blankets and were completely unprepared. A clue about our rural local was when Nina’s cell phone read, “emergency calls only.” We threw our gear bac into the car with sincere apologies to the hosts, and headed over the pass to Thone to the FASTHOTEL. It was out kinda place  internet, television and adjustable heat to dry all our gear after use for 22E each per night. After unpacking four bags of ski mountaineering kit, we repacked ski packs, laid out our outfits, put Shot Bloks in out pockets, checked the weather report and set the alarm for 6:00am for and 8:30 am start.

Drying out for day two

Dragging myself out of bed while thinking man I would love to be a morning person, I looked out the window - it was DUMPING. “I don’t think we are going to start on time today.” I said to Nina. We crawled up to the start in a long line of cautious cars. Most people were parking at the base of the turn-off to Belchamp and the start. Skis on packs, we walked in boots up the road for forty-five minutes, only to be told there would be a delay while the guides attempted to secure the course. An hour passed as we skinned around to stay warm, and then another. Abruptly around ten o’clock we were called to start and in a flurry of poles, helmets and spandex, we were off.

TSF-Millet start

The course was beautiful, but the snow was wet making the skinning slippery. The powder facilitated the long descents in white out conditions. We reached the crampon climb and tried to jostle for good positioning. There was only one rope for all 400 racers creating a huge bottleneck. We watched helplessly as the female team ahead of us gained time as we sat for fifteen minutes to wait clip into the line. No chivalry here. Mid-climb there was a loud echo, we turned and watched an avalanche far across the valley.

Day one consisted of four climbs and descents, two of which involved crampons. The last downhill was very technical and was interrupted but a steep ravine requiring the removal of skis, running down pell-mell, and clicking back in again to ski to the finish to arrive in fifth place for women. Tired, we ate while for a few friends to arrive and then walked the half hour back down to the car to our oasis at the FASTHOTEL, our carrot the last hour of the race during such difficult conditions. All in all it has been close to a seven hour day.

After a nice nap and some Eurosport downhill skiing World Cup coverage in German and French, we fueled up at the local pizzaria and prepped for day two. The snow had cleared a bit, and our room resembled a busy laundromat that smelled like socks. We had brought two suits with us and would wear our US team suit designed by Texner tomorrow.

Day two started the same, Groundhog Day here we come. I opened the shades and laughed. MORE SNOW. This morning we drove to a pretty village called Manigod. The start was only thirty minutes late this morning as we were on mellower terrain in preparation for the snowy weather. We started at 8:30 with a “nuetralization” that involved following a race official and walking about twenty minutes together down and across the river, and back up to the start which was literally in someone’s back yard.

Day one parcours

The start was even more chaotic that yesterday, and we just put out poles and arms up and walked as fast as we could. Five climbs today, 1800 meters (5900 feet), over who knows how many kilometers, but it was a long friggin’ way complete with long flat traverses across the mountain. The visibility was a little better, and we established a good rhythm and with efficient transitions. The last ski down was 1200 meters with fresh powder, through small mazots (small chalets), and over cow fences. Nina would point and scream to alert me yelling, “FENCE.” As we passed one cheering section I heard the French yell, “GO GO GO, YES WE CAN!” I had forgotten I had my suit on, I raised a pole in salute and we continued down.

Skis off at the bottom for the last 150 meter climb back up to the main village. The path was icy and slick, I had to put most of my weight on my poles to gain purchase. Again we finished fifth, but today we were much closer to the national teams - our hard work was paying off. The lead girls still had their suits and helmets on, we were not that far behind. People were talking to us, asking us about the growing US team, congratulating us for our finish. Fifth out of twelve in such a difficult race with French and Swiss national teams present is not half bad, we’ll take it!

Feb 02, 2009

Accidental Couloir

There is a small deck out back of the apartment I share with my roommate Ali. When weather permits we sit outside as the sun sets staring up at the jagged needles of Aiguille du Midi, and watch the mountains turn pink. Sometimes we change direction and and stare at the imposing peak of the Chardonnet behind us. But recently we focused our attention on “our” couloir, the couloir that if we skied, we could ski right onto the deck. It looked something like this:

After a year of commenting on how we should really ski it, seeing at its really our backyard couloir we asked a friend if he had ever skied the line. He replied. “Sure, I took a friend there - you can almost kinda sorta accidentally find it if you are lucky.” Hmmmm…. Why so hard do you ask? The reason being is it accessed by the Grand Montets ski domain, but it is most definitely off piste and in the middle of a heavily wooded area. No problem. Out came all our contour maps, as well as Google Maps. We sat down with some tea and had a bit of a planning session. Really the thing to do (like many Chamonix skiers) is to scout the line while hiking in the summer. We had not thought that far ahead.

Using the main restaurant le Plan Joran as a guide, we deduced that we needed to ski around back of the building and head about thirty degrees to the left, and then do some serious bush-whacking and hanging off tree branches. There are many couloirs one can find themselves in if not careful and we wanted to make sure we skied the correct one, too far right and we would run into a narrow one with a nasty exit.

Ali - expert bush-whacker

The next day was a bluebird day in Chamonix. Perfect for exploring. Fortunately temperatures had cooled stabilizing the snow pack making exploration reasonable. Donning avalanche beacons and carrying shovel, probe, and rope in our packs, we walked up the street to the bottom of the Grand Montets. After taking a few runs in the actual ski area to warm up, we were ready.

The mission began with us skiing behind the restaurant, passing by the picnic area getting a few stares as we ventured into the bush. If you didn’t know what was below, we definitely looked insane. Thankfully the first section was lovely snow and fairly open. Some old tracks led the way left. “Looks good to me,” Ali said so we followed them. The forest closed in around us and we lost tracks for a bit just staying left until we could actually see home through the trees. We were almost lined up with where the couloir should begin.

We can see the house for the trees…

A few more turns to the left, we crossed some old tracks again and I began to see a large white opening through the pine trees. “I think we found it.” I said and skied over and looked down. We had brought a rope in case we got into trouble, but there was no lowering into this part of the couloir, very steep sides and numerous trees. Instead I turned around to scope out another possibility.

Ali grabbing some tree

“Follow the animal tracks, they know best.” Ali said. I followed what looked like chamois (or small deer) tracks, and they led us to the entrance of a smaller ravine. We cut right and with the help of some branches, entered a very narrow and icy section. It appears our run had been skied before us! Using more branches to lower ourselves, cautiously side-stepping down, we ended up in an open are of what we hoped was the upper portion of the correct couloir. A few more exploratory turns and I whooped with excitement, it funneled into the main chute with lovely powder off to one side.

Me pointing the way home

The run was about thirty to thirty-five degrees and roughly four hundred meters (1300 feet) in length. It funneled up on each side a little like a halfpipe. Dense powder covered one side of the chute making for amazing skiing. The bottom part had sluffed in the previous rains before the snow had stabilized. Carefully avoiding that section, we found a path through the trees that exited on to the cross country piste which we followed to our door, mission accomplished!

The snow may not always be the lightest and the best in Chamonix, but the terrain and the endless adventures more than make up for it!

Back home, mission accomplished