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Alpine Climbing & Skiing: Frost Guiding Blog

Skiing!

~ Saturday 8th December 2018

Hoji update: Quite a few days touring in the Hojis now and I like them better each day. Inners are easing off a bit - I had them heat-fitted but they were tight at first which is good, but cold! Several days at -10 didn't change much but they're getting there now. It's a thick inner boot so there's plenty of material to pack down. The Hoji is supposed to be a 1 buckle ski/walk operation where you can leave everything done up and just undo the rear lever for skinning. That works fine but I find for longer ascents I get much more ankle movement - ie longer stride - if I ease of the top buckle too. Skinning is great - nowhere near a TLT/Backland style boot, but plenty for proper touring. I think you can feel the difference with the toe pivot, but without comparing back-to-back it's hard to tell. Not a game-changer anyway. Downhill it's all good news - stiff enough, soft enough, really progressive flex. The TLT/Backland are too soft for big skis for me. The Mercury always too stiff going slowly, fine at mid-speed, but beyond a point would suddenly fold forwards. The Hoji seems to manage to be "just right" everywhere. Phew.

Today, we went skiing. First day of the winter and guess what? I saw a unicorn! Not really - the mythical creature I glimpsed was just possibly the perfect ski touring boot. A true "unicorn" boot would be stiff enough to race the kids whilst subtle enough to deal with powder, bumps, crust and the rest. It would tour like a Scarpa Alien, walk miles down springtime paths, climb grade 5 ice when needed, cost less than a pair of trainers - and also last forever. Sadly, unicorns don't exist but the Dynafit Hoji might be as close as you can get in touring boot world. I'll update this as the season goes on but first impressions are good - very good.

First thing to note - it's wide. Very wide. I've had Scarpa Spirit 3 and 4, Dynafit TLT 5, 6 and Mercury, Atomic Backland...and the Hoji is wider. Much wider. Everywhere. I had to have all the above boots stretched and my TLTs stretched to the maximum. The Hoji forefoot isn't particularly high - just wide. It might not fit if you have narrow feet, especially around the heel, but the inner boot is very thick and responds well to heat-fitting. Try them before you buy them!

Buckles are brilliant. The Hoji ski/walk system is so complex that the shop have a transparent shell to show how it works. And it does work, but will take a bit of getting used to - it's like nothing else on the market. No pins locating in holes, nothing to freeze up or wear loose...and no "clunk" when you slot into ski mode! The fastenings are all very streamlined too (so they shouldn't snag when walking or cramponning) but in big gloves there's not much to get hold of when adjusting fit.

Powerstraps. All boots should have these. No more rubbish velcro! It's bit fiddly to thread but it stays done up!

The "very Dynafit" toe. No toe lug! This boot won't work in Alpine bindings or frame touring bindings. It doesn't work with the Dynafit Beast either. It skis fine in a Fritschi Tecton although some people report issues uphill with the Tecton - the short toe box means the front of the boot hits the binding and limits stride length. In Plum bindings and all other Dyna bindings it's great.

The toe means you can't use wire toe-bail crampons, but the new Petzl toe-bails fit just fine.

Ski-boot stiffness is much discussed, but stiffer isn't always better - you want smooth, progressive flex whatever the stiffness. Boot flex is like car, mountainbike or motorbike suspension - you need spring rate and damping to work together. The Hoji manages to feel softer than the Mercury at first but smooth through the full range of flex. I found the Mercury too stiff on easy ground but beyond a point it would suddenly fold. Push harder on the Hoji and it doesn't give up. It's like a soft Alpine boot.

Finally: Strong/Light/Cheap - pick 2, as Keith Bontrager said. The Hoji is strong and light(ish) but it certainly isn't cheap! Hoji is apparently the nickname of the boot's designer, but I think it's just an abbreviation of what people say when they see the price. Holy Jesus, this is an expensive boot. But it might just be worth it...

Winter is Coming!

~ Friday 7th December 2018

"Winter is coming!" This is my current favourite SBO* (and my second favourite TLA) Duh! Of course it's coming. (There's an outside chance that this is a subtle twist on the Christmas Turkey heuristic)

I've been trying to prolong the summer in Spain while others have already been out skiing - 3 weeks on skis already for some! - but looking at the forecast it's definitely time to start the pre-winter checklist...

I've got a pair of Dynafit Hoji this winter. The short toe and lack of conventional lug mean you can't use a metal toe-bail crampon, but this is a 12 point Petzl Vasak. Seems a good fit. The 10 point Petzl Irvis is lighter but has the same toe-bail and also fits fine.

*"Statement of the Bloody Obvious". Not "Small Bowel Obstruction". I googled it.

Dynafit Ski Touring boots

~ Monday 12th November 2018

Just picked up a new pair of ski touring boots today from Lá-Haut in Sion - all we need now is snow!

At the end of last winter I got the chance to try a prototype of the new Dynafit Hoji boot. It's very different in a few ways, not least that it's built on a really wide last. Most Dynafit boots are pretty narrow - I've had TLT 5 and 6 and the Mercury, and all have needed lots of stretching on the shell to accommodate my very wide feet. The Hoji is wide to start with and I'm confident it won't need stretching; ideal for me, but maybe too wide for some people?

It has a great power strap with no velcro (phew!), neat, low profile buckles that shouldn't snag on things, and no toe lug at all! This is a Dynafit "thing" - the boot will only work with "pin" bindings (and not the Beast, Marker Kingpin or Fritschi Tecton apparently) and you'll need crampons with a plastic toe bail not a wire one.

The biggest innovation is the Hoji Lock ski/walk system - it's a complete re-think of touring boot design and unlike any other boot on the market (the shop even have a transparent demo shell to show how it all works) My less than thorough in-shop test suggest fairly stiff with very smooth progressive flex. Hopefully I'll get out on real snow this weekend and find out how it works with skis on!

Motivation for Alpine Climbing

~ Sunday 11th November 2018

It's hard to beat a book of beautiful pictures as a source of ideas for next summer's Alpine trip, and as a motivator for keeping fit in through the winter!

British Mountain Guide Ben Tibbetts has come up with the great idea of combining his stunning photos with detailed route descriptions and topos for routes on all the 4000m peaks. This isn't "just" a guidebook though - it's the culmination of a 6 year personal project which has seen Ben climb all 82 routes in the book. You can pre-order the book here and buy one of Ben's prints at the same time. The book won't be ready for Christmas but the prints will - a perfect present with only 43 shopping days to go...


The Rain in Spain (my summer holiday)

~ Wednesday 7th November 2018

Just back from a trip to Spain to the beautiful Siurana area. Expecting "Spanish" weather, I packed enough warm clothes to survive the autumn return trip to the Alps by motorbike - then hit Siurana in temperatures more typical of January and wore everything I had most days! Still, it's a great area with a friendly (but chilly!) campsite, good food, cheap wine and good climbing from 5b to 9b!

Rock Climbing in the Val d'Hérens

~ Sunday 21st October 2018

La Maya is the prominent tooth of red rock on the ridge separating the Val d'Hérens from the Vallon de Réchy. (I'm not sure what a "Maya" is, but there are several of them around). From a distance it looks like a huge monolith of Torridonian sandstone - close up it's somewhat smaller and looser, but still good fun with fine views and pretty much guaranteed peace and quiet. It's difficult to know where this sort of climbing sits in the 21st century pigeonholes - maybe a new category of "adventure-plaisir"? It's well bolted, generously over-graded at 5b, but quite a few of the holds might break off!

Oberland - Monch and Jungfrau

~ Tuesday 11th September 2018

Plan A had been to climb the Eiger but as is so often the case, plan A didn't work out! Bad weather over the weekend left the Eiger plastered in snow, and the Mitellegi hut closed. Instead, we climbed the Eiger's bigger neighbours, the Monch and the Jungfrau. The Monch is definitely getting narrower each year as the summit snow ridge melts away, but the Jungfrau had actually benefited from the recent weather with good, fresh snow making a solid trail on the upper slopes.

Climbing the Obergabelhorn

~ Friday 31st August 2018

The Obergabelhorn has 2 very different sides - a huge, snowy North face and a steep cliff of red rock to the South. The fine West-East ridge that splits the two faces is one of the finest ridge traverses in the Alps with a steep ridge of solid gneiss on the West and a fine, airy, mixed ridge dropping East off the summit before climbing back over the Wellenkuppe and down the glacier to the Rothorn hut.

The 4000m peaks guidebook says the ridge is "best climbed when dry and snow-free" - that's good advice, but the evening storms had left a thin dusting of snow which made the climbing quite awkward!

The summit is only halfway there! Descending the East ridge isn't easy, needing careful down-climbing and some abseils on steep, mixed ground with the huge drop of the North face below.

Alpine Progression Course

~ Wednesday 22nd August 2018

A couple of nice photos from this week's Alpine Progression course. Starting at the Orny hut and then a day trip to the Perrons traverse. Thanks James Thacker for the guiding and photography!

Portjengrat, and the return of cooler temperatures

~ Saturday 18th August 2018

People often ask if I get bored repeating the same routes - not when they're as good as the Portjengrat! After 2 days dodging showers on the perfect granite around the Orny hut we went back to Almageller again this week, walking up in rain but (phew!) finding dry rock on the excellent, sustained and tricky Portjengrat the following day. A sunny morning on the Dri Hornli rounded off a really good trip (sometimes written "Horlini" but it turns out "hornli" and "horlini" mean the same thing)

Long, Hot Summer in the Alps

~ Wednesday 8th August 2018

It's a record-breaking summer in the Alps with temperatures reaching 36.2 degrees in Sion - the hottest ever recorded in Switzerland. Memories of the cold, snowy winter are fading fast, but there's still been some great conditions in the mountains with Frostguiding teams climbing the Eiger, Matterhorn, Dufourspitze, Dent Blanche, Eveque - and lots of other peaks!

Dufourspitze

~ Saturday 14th July 2018

Success on the Dufourspitze this week. The second highest summit in the Alps is a tough 1800m ascent from the Monte Rosa hut, and with the difficulties lying above 4200m on the final ridge it's arguably a harder climb than Mont Blanc.

Mont Blanc Success

~ Saturday 23rd June 2018

Perfect conditions for our ascent of Mont Blanc this week. Safe and snowy in the Grand Couloir, but warm and windless up high meaning we could spend half an hour on the summit appreciating the feeling of standing on the highest peak in Europe.

Aiguilles Dorées from the Trient hut (Mont Blanc)

We had 3 days of blue skies for our acclimatising trip around the Orny and Trient huts, where we climbed the Aiguille du Tour and Tete Blanche as well as brushing up on crampon and rope skills - and enjoying the stunning views.

Aiguille du Tour Tete Blanche

Trekking on the Orny Glacier

Climb Aiguille du Tour Mountain Guide

Aiguille du Tour summit

Gouter ridge Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc Summit view

Gouter ridge Mont Blanc Mountain Guide

Climb to Mont Blanc Summit Mountain Guide

Descending Mont Blanc

Allalinhorn, Via Ferrata and Perrons Traverse

~ Saturday 16th June 2018

The snowy winter has slowly turned into a snowy summer - no surprises there! - but then there's always something to complain about when it comes to snow. Too much, too little, wrong sort...

After some more snowfall up high at the beginning of the week and torrential rain in the valley the weather happily turned into gorgeous summer, hot in the valley but cold clear nights giving good re-freezes and some really good conditions. It's still pre-holiday season too, so the hills have been very quiet.

Ski Season Catch-up

~ Sunday 13th May 2018

A few pictures from the end of a long and varied ski season - it's been a while since the last blog!

Way back at the beginning of April the BMG ski assessment ran over 2 weeks. The first week in some wild and windy weather!

...and the second in mostly perfect, settled spring conditions.

Next, it was back West to Zermatt for Castor and Pollux.

The last week of the winter was planned for Mont Blanc, but in the end the weather changed our plans and we had a great week around Arolla - Mont Blanc de Cheilon, Pigne and Pointe de Vouasson. Some fine spring snow, winter room living and deserted mountains!

Slightly Steeper Arolla

~ Friday 30th March 2018

Sitting in the office on a rainy Friday afternoon it's easy to forget what an amazing ski season we've had - and the last 2 weeks have seen some of the best ski conditions for years. The popular routes around Arolla have been quite busy (especially with the build-up to the Patrouille des Glaciers) but a little bit of skinning has found us plenty of un-tracked snow - thanks everyone for making it such a good couple of weeks.

 Skiing the Vuibé glacier, Arolla

Off Piste Skiing Nax Mont Noble

Tsijiore glacier Arolla

Skiing La Cassorte Arolla

Ski Mont Noble NE face

Ski Tour Palanche de la Cretta

Zermatt Ski Safari

~ Friday 16th March 2018

Written by Mark Walker

A ski safari "par excellence" and for me, pastures new. Sensible use of lifts achieved a ridiculous amount of descent and with a little skinning, a pretty special glacial descent into Zermatt. “Classic” doesn’t come close…

As we headed to Nax for a cheeky warm up it was clear to me the week would be a ‘right laugh’. Riding high on a few lifts plus a little boot packing accessed a truck load of cracking powder off M. Noble. Having filled our boots (literally!) we hopped back in the vehicles and drove the short distance to Tasch.

Discretion appeared to be the better part to valour as we arrived at the Klein Matterhorn. Pretty high and pretty poor vis. Glacier skiing is pretty traumatic when you can’t see your nose! The pistes gave access to Cervinia and a short, comedy and equally traumatic taxi ride had us drinking cold beer in the sleepy Antagnod.

Champoluc seems to have the right number of lifts in exactly the right places. Our team donned skins and pulled a few laps off the Saleroforko and Rothore. A few of the crew were still getting used to their kit. In many ways it was the perfect place to learn with diverse but not overbearing terrain and excellent snow. A couple of lifts accessed the Battforko and we descend to a rather fine hotel in Gressoney la Trinite. Excellent service and fantastic fodder awaited.

Using the lifts back to the Battforko a 400m skin had us enjoying a second breakfast at 3060m. It was pretty atmospheric up there but the cloud lifted as if on queue, revealing an immaculate north facing powder descent to St Jacques (1300m). A James Bond run for the last couple of hundred meters had us drinking top notch coffee and ‘stand your spoon up’ hot chocolate in the sleepy hamlet. A negotiated lift in the proprietor’s pickup truck soon had us on the lifts once more heading to Alagna.

We had a morning to fill before heading to the Gnifetti hut…this wasn’t going to be a problem. With the blue bird day and plenty of North facing powder the obvious choice was the Salsa. A two minute wander off the Gemschore had us descending a couloir into the main valley. An adventurous 1800m descent all the way to Merletti had no shortage of challenges. All good stuff. We passed on the coffee this time (I missed the restaurant!) and using the lifts for a final time a 400m skin in rather blustery conditions had us sitting pretty in the hut at 3600m. Erika, the hut guardian, was a total legend. With only us and a comedy Spanish team in situ she bustled around making us feel very much at home. The sunset was pretty amazing but then again I always say that!

As we fell out of the hut in the morning it was difficult to know how the day would go. Forecast cloud and strong winds preceded a period of significant instability in the evening. We pressed on into the ‘ming’. On arrival at the shoulder above the Lisjoch it was still looking doubtful. Over a tactical coffee we prayed for a weakness. It came, and a tentative 200m descent revealed the Grenz Glacier in all its glory. Magical! Bordered by seracs and rock running off Liskamm and the Dufourspitze, the Grenz was the magic carpet to Zermatt. A 2600m descent followed. We didn’t see a soul until the piste at 1900m and there was no sign of any tracks until we cruised passed the Monte Rosa Hut at 2500m. Awesome... A fitting end to an incredible week!

Atomic Backland Ski Touring Boot - second season

~ Wednesday 7th March 2018

My first impressions of the Atomic Backland Boot were really good. Probably designed by someone who'd had a good look at the old Dynafit TLT 5 and 6, it seemed to offer the same light weight, great skinning comfort, a proper crampon toe-lug, stiff enough to ski a medium ski, and a big plus in the amazing heat-formable shell - it's still the best-fitting boot I've ever had straight out of the shop (I have very wide feet and every other boot has to go back several times for shell work)

A big weakness of the TLT boot was the ankle pivot. After 2 seasons mine developed a lot of play in the joint as the metal slowly wore away the cuff material and there was really nothing you could do about it. Atomic seemed to have seen this and used a plastic bush - the "Frictionless Pivot" - hoping to avoid wear on the cuff, and with the option of replacing the bushes. After only one season however, my boots have a fair bit of play.

Luckily the ever-helpful La-Haut in Sion were able to find me some new pivots (plus new cables and velcro straps, which had also fallen to bits!) The pivot comes apart with a 16mm socket and a Torx T25 bit and the new bits go in easily enough.

Tighten everything up and....

Still a fair bit of play. It looks like, despite the bushes, the cuff material still wears away, meaning the outer bush now moves in the cuff. Oh well...

Winter Room Haute Route

~ Thursday 1st March 2018

The Chamonix-Zermatt "Haute Route" is probably the most famous multi-day ski-tour in the world - it's usually called simply The Haute Route. Completing it is a real challenge needing fitness and good weather, but in the main touring season the huts will be full and it can feel busy. The idea of the Winter Room trip is to attempt the journey before the huts open, when the classic route is often totally deserted. This year we didn't quite make it to Zermatt, but we definitely found an adventure on the way!

We started up the Col du Passon with a few other people, but everyone else turned left and skied to le Tour, leaving us alone in the high mountains.

Day 2 dawned windy, cloudy and snowy. Not ideal!

Still, we had a great ski down the Val d'Arpette.

A quick taxi and a careful journey through the Verbier lift system got us out into the wilds again just as the weather closed in - tricky conditions down to the Prafleuri hut.

Despite having a quirky coin-meter electricity supply the hut proved un-heatable - it was a relief to get moving in great weather the next day!

No tracks at all along the Dixence valley.

The Pas du Chat is a key passage on the route - steep and serious ground, which feels very remote with no-one else around!

The weather started to break on Thursday so we avoided the Pigne d'Arolla and escaped through to Arolla in the morning before making the long climb to Bertol in the afternoon. We now had only a short stage through to Zermatt - if the weather held!

Sadly, after a promising start, the clouds rolled in and despite a patient wait on top of Tete Blanche we eventually had to admit defeat and return to Arolla - which wasn't that easy at first in zero visibility.

The descent from Bertol is a good one and went some way towards making up for disappointment in not making it through to Zermatt.

So again the Winter Room trip provided adventure. Despite a "failure" of sorts - if success means reaching Zermatt - we had a great week, with good skiing, good fun and a real team spirit. Thanks everyone for making it work!

Off Piste in Arolla and Grimentz

~ Tuesday 30th January 2018

It's been a fast turn-around - from road closures, avalanches and landslides to perfect, stable off-piste conditions in a few days. The mountains never cease to amaze! Relatively warm temperatures and settled weather have created some excellent ski conditions in the Swiss Alps.

I started the week in Grimentz with the British Mountain Guides Off-piste training course. The popularity of off-piste and lift access day-touring has exploded in recent years and now provides the bulk of many guides' winter work, so a specific training course seems like a really good idea. The Val d'Anniviers is no longer a "secret spot" - it has joined the Magic Pass scheme and is much busier than a few years ago, but with a little imagination it's still not hard to find untracked snow.

Next, back home in Evolene with a few days off work - and perfect ski conditions!

Ski season update

~ Sunday 21st January 2018

"... above average snow depths for this juncture of the season; far above average snow depths on the northern Alpine Ridge, in the Valais, in northern Grisons and in the Lower Engadine."

Swiss Avalanche Bulletin

Well, that sums up the 2018 ski season in a sentence. It started snowing early prompting the usual excitement and forecasts of "bumper" snowfall, but this time they were right! Snow depths in the Valais are currently around double the average - this time last year we were still skiing on rocks and grass!

Heavy snowfall has disadvantages and has taken a particularly heavy toll on the mountain roads - keeping them open is hard enough and needs an army machines and drivers, but rockfalls and landslides have made life even harder this year. Arolla has been cut off for a record number of days, Zermatt has been inaccessible by road and now by train, and the Col de la Forclaz is closed until at least early March!

It's good news for skiers though. Exceptional conditions in resorts and (between storms!) some excellent touring. It now looks certain that there's going to be plenty of snow for the main touring season too.

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