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All the weather, all the time in Chamonix

Another mixed bag of weather in the valley

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Graham Pinkerton | Chamonix Reporter | Published: 13 Mar 2019

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All the weather, all the time in Chamonix

Apparently, Eskimos have 100 words for snow*. The Scottish claim to have even more for rain. I think it would take a Scot speaking Inuit to fully describe conditions on Sunday. I guess the most positive slant would be that at least more lifts were open than the Monday before, and that the inclement weather kept the slopes quiet. It was pretty challenging. 

Then again, there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing (the Norwegians lay claim to that phrase, and they're sort of between Scotland and Greenland). For the brave souls out testing their waterproof layers, the actual slopes were skiing quite well at Brévent, with the saturated pistes running quickly and the lack of traffic saving them from getting too cut up. The wind and constantly changing rain/snow limit did make the chairlift rides back up much less pleasant than usual, though.

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If Sunday was a test of how waterproof you were, Monday was all about the windproofing. And x-ray vision. Good-choice-of-the-day award went to anyone who got up Grands Montets in the morning before the Plan Joran access gondola closed, leaving a private ski area for everyone lapping the magic forest and other variations accessible from the Tabe chairlift. As we didn't get going early enough, it was Brévent again but this time with much more fresh snow and some pretty fun variations to be had in the trees and lower-angled open slopes.

The drop in temperatures and change from rain to snow seemed to have encouraged a lot more folk out to ride but, whilst there was a bit of a wait on the few open lifts, the poor visibility meant you frequently couldn't see any other folk on the slopes. Granted, you often couldn't see the end of your skis either but every cloud has a silver lining even if it is quite a thin one.

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After the cloud and rain and wind and snow of the preceding days, it's no wonder everyone was excited for a sunny day on Tuesday. What could be better after a good storm than a long, powder-filled lap from the Aiguille du Midi? Télécabine reservations were made and alarms were set. Unfortunately, the weather once again had other ideas. The Midi started with info at 09:30. Then 11:00. Then 12:00. We abandoned ship and headed to Le Tour at 11:00 but those who waited it out were finally able to get up the mountain at 12:15. Across the rest of the valley, some lifts opened on time whilst others had a delayed opening as avalanche control was carried out by ski patrol and infrastructure was cleared of a couple of days of storm-blown snow. As a result, there were some pretty big queues at several spots, most notably Brévent.

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Fortunately for us, by the time we arrived at Vallorcine there was no queue for the main télécabine nor any other lifts through the rest of the afternoon. The slopes had obviously been subjected to some very powerful winds, evidenced by huge cornices over lee slopes and bare ice on the scoured windward areas. Despite this, there was some good skiing to be found. The pistes were in fairly good condition, particularly where the weak afternoon sun had warmed the snow a touch to give it a little more density but not enough to make it sticky.

Off-piste, with caution, you could find some nice windblown fresh snow on top of a firm base. Above the treeline, you were actively seeking out the shallower soft snow but once back in the trees with a reduced chance of slab there were some enjoyable deeper pockets of snow. Perhaps not the epic powder session we had in mind at the start of the day but far from a waste of time on the hill.

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The unsettled and stormy theme continues through the week, with a lot of uncertainty in the weather forecasts. Wednesday looks likely to be the start of a 36-hour period that could see some very substantial snowfall, with the precipitation being most intense through Thursday. Over the weekend, the sun looks likely to come back with rising temperatures too, but the wind remains an ever-present threat. After Sunday there's a suggestion of another band of snow hitting the valley with some lower temperatures but, with weather forecasts this volatile, there's a good chance that they will change.

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To summarise, if you're looking for good piste skiing over the next few days, lower areas with trees such as Les Houches or St Gervais/Megeve on the Unlimited lift pass will be a good bet. For off-piste, higher altitude tree skiing such as Vallorcine or at Grands Montets is probably the best place to go. Watch the weather and avalanche forecasts, have a think, look at the lift openings, have another think, then go and enjoy the riding that's out there.

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*As we like facts here at Chamonet, I should point out that there is no single Eskimo language, as Eskimo covers a number of peoples including Inuit and Yupik who in turn speak a variety of languages which deal with snow and various forms in a number of ways. To summarise, nobody knows just how many Eskimo words for snow there are, but general agreement is many.

NB: Exploring beyond the ski resort boundaries is an amazing experience for anyone who's physically fit and has mastered the pistes well enough. There are, however, risks associated with venturing outside the safety of the marked/patrolled ski area, including awareness of your actions on those below you on the slopes. Mountain guides are professionally qualified and have extensive knowledge of the local terrain to provide you with the safest and most enjoyable possible experience in the mountains; as a visitor here we highly recommend you hiring one. Many ski schools also provide instruction in off-piste skiing, avalanche safety and mountaineering techniques. Make your time in the mountains unforgettable for the right reasons, ski safe!

Off-piste skiing and mountaineering are dangerous. The opinions expressed in these articles are very much time and condition-specific and the content is not intended in any way to be a substitute for hiring a mountain guide, undergoing professional mountaineering training and/or the individual's own backcountry decision making.