“Book on a Snoworks Backcountry Course, you’ll love it”, were Mark McKeller’s words of advice at the end of my first Snoworks Off-Piste course one December in Tignes. Hmmm, I thought, really?
Summer passed, next season arrived and I followed Marks advice, booking onto my first Snoworks Backcountry Course in St Anton. All day off-piste split between mountain guides and Snoworks instructors. With Lee as our instructor, we explored the off-piste around St Anton, developing skill and understanding with challenges growing throughout the week culminating on the final day. With no visibility, low cloud and snow falling gently “I’m going to try and find some definition in the couloirs”, Lee said over the radio as we boarded the Schindlergrat Chair. “What? Are you mad, you’re taking us higher into the cloud?” As it turned out no, in fact a perfectly sane and rational decision, visibility did appear improved. What a thrill, my first couloir. Like buses, the second and third followed quickly after. Each a little narrower and more challenging than the previous, till we got to Lee’s favourite; a narrow little number with imposing, monolithic, vertical walls of dark granite, eventually exiting onto an open face. Stood at the top it was only natural to ask “what am I doing here?” But eventually your turn comes and you’ve got to do it. Descend it? Yes. Ski it? In a fashion, side slipping, stepping, turn, rest, turn and a whole load of heavy breathing and expletives, but what an experience, more of the same please! What a day! What a week! I ended each day physically shattered, never having worked so hard on a pair of skis before. However, it was without doubt the best holiday, ever!
More backcountry holidays followed, Tignes, The Three Valleys, Courmayeur and even a bit of skinning out of St Foy. All different, all amazing, made up from any combination of powder, bumps, crud, spring snow, chutes, adventures and great days out. But how could I tell if there was improvement? Only one way I thought, go back to where it started. So I returned to St Anton last year, hoping to ski the couloirs again, only to be let down by the snow conditions. Rock bands across the top and no access; damn, we wouldn’t be going near them. Despite the snow, the course was awesome – following Emma, her feet going nineteen to the dozen as she zipped around the mountainside finding powdery snow on great routes (more couloirs!), failing to be hindered by the paucity of precipitation. Still no measure, no closure on the question of improvement. There was only one thing to do, book again for 2016. Thanks to the recent snowfall, conditions were excellent. Having spent the week skiing endless powder fields, we moved to steeper terrain on the Friday, the chutes off the side of the Schindlergrat. Finally, a chance to ski them again. This time though, stood at the top, I was looking forward to the descent, and thanks to Snoworks, much better prepared: firstly, I had a toolbox of skills to call upon, push, edge, twist; just dial in how much of each based upon where I wanted to go and how fast. In addition, Snoworks had exposed me to similar terrain in the past, expanding my comfort zone. And finally, I was fitter! My first St Anton trip taught me that the sedentary lifestyle of a “desk jockey” job, a genuine passion for take away food and summers playing cricket do not count as good preparation for a weeks backcountry skiing in January. Who’d have known?
The challenge, thrill and fun of skiing it was just as great as before. But, like a Labrador puppy, a massive wave of satisfaction and sense of improvement greeted me as I exited the couloir, along with some reinforcing positive feedback from both Dave and Lee. Mission accomplished. Another amazing week led by Lee and Dave, skiing great snow, with great skiers, fantastic instructors & guides. If, like me, you’ve been in resort, often looking up at the remote faces or chutes , wondering how do you get there and who is putting in the tracks in these amazing places, well, turns out with Snoworks it could be you!
Stuart Nixon – Now a Snoworks All-Mountain Skier
Photo: Stuart Nixon in the Schindlergrat Couloirs, St Anton January 2016