A Week in Pralognan-la-Vanoise

It’s hard to believe we are already half-way through our 6-month journey.

Our time in Europe has been truly amazing so far and packed with quality time with friends and relatives and lots of traveling in between and we feel it’s time to re-centre and get back to a quieter routine, unpack the suitcases and have some family time, just the three of us.

We have obviously spent lots of time with the in-laws so far and even a little more than anticipated, with Hervé’s torn meniscus and related surgery. We have visited Ardèche and the Italian Riviera. We have spent some time with our friends near Albertville and a full week in Val d’Anniviers, Switzerland.

 

Every day feels a bit like Christmas as everywhere we go we get to enjoy feasts and celebrations (along with the odd heartburn and overhang it brings), lots of time outdoors, a big share of adaptation and improvisation, of packing and unpacking, of searching through our bags and trying to keep some sort of order and tidiness and attempts to maintain a healthy routine for our 4-year old daughter.

 

After doing some research on the web for affordable accommodation in small family-oriented ski resorts, we settle on Pralognan-la-Vanoise. Around mid-January, we are outside of the busy school holiday periods and other major events that could disturb our peace and quiet AND our tight budget.

 

Our choice isn’t completely random, however. Pralognan, although I only have a vague memory of the village itself, is reminiscent of very sweet memories for Hervé and I. It was the starting point of my first ever overnight ski tour, some fifteen years ago. I remember the jagged peaks and impressive glaciers of la Vanoise range as well as the bright blue skies and the spring weather. I remember the warmth of the hut, how good the evening meal tasted after a day of skiing and the good times we shared with our companions.

 

I also remember and laugh at how much of a beginner skier I was, the tears I shed skiing back down to the valley and the huge blisters on my feet from the way-too-small ski boots I had borrowed. I remember the pride I felt and the endless admiration I had for my man who taught me everything about the mountains.

 

Since we have also climbed few classic routes in the Parc National de la Vanoise, one of France’s largest and most diverse mountain ecosystem protected through the National Park designation, but we have never really spent time in Pralognan.

 

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It keeps dumping!

 

I know that the ambiance of the village is exactly what we are looking for this time for our family stay: a pedestrian village, outdoor activities for kids and adults alike including some great options for backcountry skiing, a small kid-friendly ski hill with an affordable ski pass, some genuine mountain culture and a small alpine village feel and of course, SNOW!

 

Well, a few days in I can say that all our expectations were exceeded. More than that, I think am officially in love with this place.

 

Anne-Marie, the owner of the little flat we rented on AirBnB is just adorable and so thoughtful. Her place is sparkling clean and just right for the 3 of us and equipped with all we need, including a washing machine, thank goodness! The price for the week was more than fair and most of all, we have a little nest on a quiet street where we can settle in and most importantly feel at home. Upon our arrival, we find a hand-written greeting note, a bottle of local pear juice and a jar of local honey. God does Savoie ever produces good food!

 

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The lovely view from our balcony with fresh snow piling up on the railing

 

During our first day here, the snow started falling and it hasn’t really stopped since. Over a metre of snow has fallen upon Pralognan in 5 days.

 

On the second day, the whole ski resort was shut down because of the wind and heavy snowfalls.

 

On the third day, it was still snowing and we got to enjoy this one-in-a-season amazing day. We had the brilliant idea upon our arrival to sign our daughter up for some ski lessons and to the local “kids club” for afternoon child care, which she was ecstatic about. Hence, Hervé and I had the day to ourselves to ski fresh powder snow and explore the resort.

 

Pralognan in January has many pros one of them being that the very few vacationists around are mainly retirees and family with young children, most of them with limited skiing abilities if I may say so without any disrespect. For us, that meant that the competition for fresh tracks was non-existent and so were the lift lines. Pure bliss!

 

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the joy of skiing in knee-deep powder! Feels like BC…

 

The scene is quite a bit different in the spring when spandex-dressed ski mountaineers and herds of French Alpine Club adepts rush to the nearby peaks early in the morning and stop in for a beer and a tartiflette en masse after their tour and wander through the streets in their high tech gear and colourful clothing.

 

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Skiing right down to our doorstep

 

In very high avalanche risks conditions all week, we are staying very conservative and sticking to low angle off-piste itineraries well within the ski area. Hervé is also taking every opportunity he has to chat with local ski patrollers and mountain guides to learn about the conditions. Everyone is very friendly and generous with information. The current conditions are quite unusual and haven’t been observed by the locals for at least 20 years. All around us, roads are closed and mountain hamlets are being evacuated. We feel blessed that Pralognan is a relatively safe haven.

 

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Out on a tour with my love

 

Meanwhile, our daughter who is now entering her third ski season is taking her first ski lessons: 2 times 2 1/2 hours of skiing with other little French kids. Even though her ability to manage her speed with snowploughs and turns is improving highly when skiing with us, we feel that some lessons are going to help improve her autonomy and her ease in the transitions like putting her skis on, riding the t-bar on her own, going up small hills, walking around, getting back up after a fall, etc.

 

She is so proud of getting her “ourson” medal. She can now ski at the level of a bear cub, whatever this means!

In the French culture, everything is very standardized and there seems to be tests, levels and categories in every sport as I have learned over the years.

The ski instructors in their very French way don’t put on white gloves to tell your kid that he or she isn’t doing things the right way. If at first, it makes my teeth cringe as a firm believer in positive reinforcement, I acknowledge that life isn’t always easy and that my child will have to face her share of frustrations and failures… might as well start now.

At the end of our ski day we like to meander in the village to check out the lovely storefronts, have a drink and some appetizers or buy our loaf of bread or a bottle of wine to go with dinner before retreating to our cozy nest, tucked away at the dead end of a quiet street.

 

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Farmer’s market day

 

In my suitcase, although space is very limited, I will be bringing back a few bottles of locally made génépi and verveine liqueur, a piece of Beaufort, one of my favourite cheeses in the world and perhaps a picture to hang on the wall of our apartment in Kimberley and dream of this unique adventure we’re currently living. The village has no shortage of cute little artisan stores, bakeries and sports shops that we try to stay away from…

 

On the weekend we have our friends Fabrice and Magali and their three kids Zian, Liv and baby Dolma come over for the day to try out the Nordic trails. By the end of the day it’s snowing so hard they can barely make it back home to Albertville. Meteo France, the French weather office, has issued a special warning for heavy snowfalls in our area and urges travellers to stay home or plan alternative accommodation in case the roads close.

 

During our time here, we are also experiencing all the many amenities the village has to offer. It’s impressive to see a place of 700 souls residing year round with an indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, skating rink, indoor climbing wall and even a spa!

 

Savoie – Mont Blanc is definitely a wealthy district and the fact that Pralognan is located nearby the infamous resorts of the “3 Vallées” is certainly contributing to the wealth.

 

Skiers staying in Pralognan for the week can purchase a 6-day ski pass for a mere 170 euros and have a free entry to the pool, the skating rink, unlimited access to the Nordic loop and the ability to ski in La Plagne or Courchevel for a day with a free shuttle!!

 

For that amount, a skier in BC barely gets a 2-day ski pass at one resort like Fernie or Revelstoke. Now you get why Canada isn’t a competitive destination on the world scheme of ski holidays…but this is a story I save for later on how to ski for cheap in Europe. Stay tuned!

 

As the sun goes down on our last day in Pralognan, I know for certain that we will return to enjoy more of the high alpine, the magnificent meadows and the peaceful atmosphere of Pralognan.

 

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The Bouquetin or Ibex: Pralognan’s icon

 

We are now packing our winter gear and clothing away for a two-week hiatus as we take off for Tenerife and the Canary Islands on Tuesday to meet up with my mom.

 

We hope all this fresh snow settles a bit for when we return and pursue new adventures in the Southern Alps…

À bientôt Pralognan!

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3 Hot Drinks to Pack on a Cold Day

This winter has been the coldest and snowiest in about 30 years in BC.

I am a Quebec girl and I was raised with snow banks four times my height, 4-5 snow days every winter and temperatures colder than below 20 as the norm.

That being said, I have lived in more temperate climates for almost half of my lifetime by now and therefore I am completely de-acclimatised to cold. Cold has been bothering so much this year that I had to turn down a few days of skiing earlier this winter, and believe me, this was though.

For once, I was also quite happy to be working an office job and sip a warm cup of tea at my desk while my husband was working on the mountain as a ski patrol all day by 35 below plus windchill index.

Every morning however, in addition to packing high-calory food to bring him energy and warmth throughout the day, I would see him religiously prepare a hot concoction of some sort to put in his thermos.

There are a thing or two that I learned over the years about hydration, exercise and cold weather (and that I confirmed through a few reliable sources referenced below).

The first important thing is that we don’t feel the thirst as much when it’s cold; and the thought of a cold drink is less than appealing, which makes most of us drink less.

However, dehydration also occurs in cold weather from three mechanisms: perspiration, urination and the vapour exhaled from the lungs. As we climb in elevation, the air gets drier and the loss of vapour is even more rapid. Dehydration in cold weather would reduce the blood flow into the fingers and feet, causing this pain and discomfort and eventually leading to frost bites.

The second thing is that caffeine is a diuretic and contributes to dehydration which means tea and coffee must be avoided when adventuring outdoors during any season.

Sodium also contributes to dehydration and is contained in high quantity in most commercial energy drinks. Although some sodium is necessary to help balance the level of electrolytes in the blood during high intensity – high perspiration activity, it should be consumed in moderation. The human metabolism needs more water to balance the level of sodium in the blood which causes an even worst feeling of thirst and accelerates dehydration.

Needless to say that alcohol, although providing a “feeling” of warmth, is the enemy #1 in cold temperatures. With the effect of bringing more blood to the surface of the skin and the extremities through dilation of blood vessels, alcohol is more likely to speed up hypothermia than provide a positive warming effect in the long run. Moreover, it anhililates one’s ability to sense and feel cold and proactively work toward warming the body up. We’ve heard more than one stories about some guys drunk on “Caribou”, a house-made alcoholic drink drank from a red hollow cane, being found frozen on a snow bank the morning following an epic Carnaval night…

Finally, sugar contained in drinks shouldn’t be of more than 10% of the content for optimal hydration, which transfers to no more than 2 table spoons per liter of liquid. Most commercial energy drink also present a higher concentration in sugar then necessary.

Mug of hot-chocolate in the snow
Hot & Steamy credit: pixabay

I must say that I find my husband’s favourite recipe delicious, hot & spicy and so comforting that I decided to steal it from him to write this post. Some spices such as turmeric, ginger root and hot peppers are known to provide instant warming and increase blood circulation and I love the idea of incorporating them (moderately !) into a drink. I have named his recipe  “Honey’s Hot & Spicy Tea”.

I am also sharing two other hot drinks recipe that I like, just for the sake of changing it up once in a while or for the ones who don’t quite enjoy the heat of cayenne and prefer sweeter tasting options. Here we go.



Mug with hot tea on a wooden railing


Useful tip: I usually like to heat up the thermos bottle first by letting some boiling water sit in it with the lid closed while I prepare the drink. It keeps the beverage warmer throughout a cold day.

For a  500 ml thermos bottle

Honey’s Hot & Spicy Tea

2 cups boiling water
1 lemon – juiced
2 tbsp fresh ginger root – grated
1 pinch ground cayenne pepper
1 tbsp raw honey
1 pinch sea salt

Anti-inflammatory Hot Choc

1 cup milk (Cow’s, soy, almond…)- heated
1 cup boiling water
2 tbsp cocoa powder
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp raw honey
1 pinch sea salt

Hot Apple-Maple Cider

1 cup natural apple juice – heated
1 cup boiling water
2 tbsp Real Quebec Maple Syrup
1 pinch sea salt

Finally, don’t forget to drink even if you’re not thirsty. Drink up! Do you happen to have some good hot drink recipes?

Some good reads on exercice, hydration and nutrition in cold weather:

Abigail Meisel, Stay Hydrated in Cold Weather, Summit Medical Group, Feb. 2016, http://www.summitmedicalgroup.com
Dr Felicia Stoler, 8 Tips for Hydrating in Cold Weather, http://www.active.com
Odile Dumais, La Gastronomie en Plein Air, Québec – Amérique, 1999
Dr Michel Batard, Sports de Montagne et Nutrition, Editions Artulen, 1993

The Little Skier Gear Check-List

“Children of winter never grow old”  Warren Miller

 

 

From all the passionate skiers I have met, whether they’re 2 or 82, I do not know any who acts old…

Personally, sometimes I do wish I had embraced this passion earlier.

If I started skiing at the ripe age of 4 and snowboarding at 10, it isn’t until I turned 18 that it really started being more than this casual hobby you do a few weekends here and there.

It could have been worse…my husband didn’t start skiing until he was 20!

Ski adventures is really something that brought us together as a couple, and therefore, there was no question that we would want our child to learn to ski…To love to ski would be up to her obviously.

Learning the skills and confidence required to be a proficient skier is much easier at an early age, no matter how athletic one is.

We also feel like there’s a few things we can do as parents to at least spark a tiny light of passion into our child.

We believe that passion for skiing in comes with 3 crucial things. On the parents’ side : a laid-back attitude and a good sense of humour and from the kid’s side : good gear.

In a previous post, I have listed the items we take on climbing trip to BC in the (wet) spring time. Now it’s time to share what I have learned about gearing a child up to enjoy BC’s Interior cold snowy winters.

#1. Clothing

Nothing is more whiny than a cold kid!

Here, the same principle applies as for adults who know a thing or two about dressing up for the backcountry: love your layers!

It starts with good thermal underwear #goodoldlongjohns that will wick away moisture and keep the skin dry. Polypropylene, merino wool, polyester…many outdoor companies now make excellent first layers for infant & toddler as small as size 0-3 months! We usually like to stock up at MEC (REI in the US or Decathlon whenever we go to Europe) as their home brand is pretty good and inexpensive. Long sleeves thermal underwear, top and bottoms, are a must every season in the great outdoors!

Avoid cotton like plague as it will keep the moisture in and make your little guys cold…and whiny. Even if they typically don’t have a stinky sweat, children sweat too, even in cold weather.

Over the thermal underwear comes the insulation layer in the form of a fleece or wool sweater (here again, no COTTON). The thickness can vary depending on the temperature and multiple insulation layers can also be added depending on your child’s tolerance to cold temperature.

A good pair of ski socks to keep the little feet & toes warm to complete the outfit and voilà!

I personally love the brand Kombi for their ski socks and mitts. This Canadian company sometimes sells socks and mittens in combo-packs, which is great when a pair is wet and makes it a great value for your money. The ski socks are thick and super stretchy which will often allow you to get two or more seasons out of them. The “animal” mittens are super cute and greatly contribute to the fun of getting dressed up.

The outer layer, the protection layer, has to be warm and waterproof, well-fitted and allow a great ease of movement. My preference for ski suit goes to the fabulous “one piece”that, although not practical for toilet-trained children is warmer and more snow proof than the two-piece bib & jacket.

This year I have invested in the Kids Legacy Ins Suit by Helly Hansen and I rate it 5 stars.Well designed with a fully waterproof shell and fully seam sealed, it is light and thin yet real warm as insulated with PrimaLoft. It also features some great details such as an adjustable elastic waist, arm and leg cuffs for a perfect fit over the boots and mittens, snow gaiters with a removable rubber band that prevent pants from riding up, removable hood, and real zippered pockets. While a little more pricey than the average kids ski suit (great to strike on and end-of-season clearance), I am really impressed by the design and functionality as well as the style.

The infamous MEC “Toaster” suit that we had when my daughter was littler is also very popular at our local ski hill and also offers great warmth and style at an affordable price point.

Finally, to top it all up, a nice fleece balaclava keeps the head, neck and face warm and the helmet well fitted.

From my husband’s experience in working as a ski patrol, and from my own experience spending so much time outside in the winter and absolutely despising the cold, the quality of clothing does make a huge difference and is essential in having a positive relationship to winter.

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We love to ski…because we’re wearing proper cloths

#2. Safety and protection

Because we all can deal with a broken limb but no parent wants to deal with a head-injured child, a well-fitted proper ski helmet is mandatory.

Unlike feet, a child’s head grows at a very slow pace and therefore it is not recommended to pick a helmet that is too big, hoping the child will grow into it.

The helmet also has to be snow sports certified and hold at least one of the following international standards ASTM F2040, CEN 1077 or Snell RS-98. A ski helmet should also be regularly inspected and discarded at any show of apparent damage of after a significant impact. More information on helmet safety standards and how to choose a helmet properly can be found here: www.skicanada.org

Goggles are also very important as they protect the eyes against the wind, the cold, the snow, potential poky entrants and the UV rays, which are accentuated on the snow.

Because I always look for great performance and style (#skiprincess) but I am also very mindful of value (#Iamcheap), I like that Smith Optics propose a helmet/goggle combo for kids in many fun colors.

Without any major accident and if properly cared for, helmet and goggles could last for 2 to 3 seasons at least.

img_0592-2Another piece that can fit in this category is the ski harness.

Currently in the middle of her second season, my daughter still skis in her harness as she isn’t 100% able to stop on her own nor turn quickly to avoid obstacles. Because we all find more exciting to ride the big chairlift as a family rather than doing laps on our double black diamond bunny hill, we are big fans of the harness.

A mom once offered the advice to wear it around the hips and waist rather than on the shoulders and we do feel that it works best as it isn’t pulling the child backwards and allows for a more neutral leg position and straighter torso. It also makes it easier for us to help stir the hips and correct the trajectory.

# 3. Skis & boots

If I wouldn’t advise on saving dollars and cents on cheap clothing, I am a little more flexible when it comes to gear for small children. One thing I would recommend however is to pick boots that are recent enough to provide cushy padding for comfort and warmth. I recall the boots weren’t all that cushy back in the ’80’s. I think it’s okay to pick next or second next size up as the boots are nicely tied around the ankle with the single buckle #pragmaticmom.

The second thing would be to pick the appropriate length of ski for your child’s weight and leg strength. I regret picking 77cm-long skis last winter as even this year, they feel a little too long and hard to put on the edges for our lean 26 lbs 3 1/2 year-old. With the assistance of the Edgie-Wedgie, a little piece of rubber that tie both ski tips together and another controversial accessory amongst parents and ski instructors #lifeordeathmatter, she is able to perform a nice-enough snow plough #pizza.

Gear exchange stores, ski swaps, hand-me-downs and online clearance are all excellent ways to put your hands on new or used ski gear as toddlers rarely shred damage their skis. Your local ski shops may even have a trade-in or seasonal rental program. In Kimberley, Kootenay Mountain Works offer an excellent  trade-in deal and the KAR rental shop offers a seasonal rental program with an end-of-season purchasing option. Check them out!

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All geared up and ready to rip

#4. The little extras…

A large sled can be useful to haul child and gear from the parking lot (or from home in our case) to the bottom of the slopes, or to haul a toddler in melt-down mode back to the car at the end of the day #wetnoodle.

Packing lots of healthy snacks and even a nice home-made healthy lunch can also prove a great way to make the skiing more fun. As well, bringing a whole whack of small change to be spent on ski hill french fries, hot dogs and sugary hot chocolate is considered good planning, as those items will always be more appealing to a kid (and a father) than the healthy lunch you spent precious energy to make.

To make the skiing experience enjoyable for the whole family, I recommend bracing yourself with a relaxed attitude as a ski day with a toddler is sometimes made out of a single run and lots of warm-up breaks.

To conclude on a quote full of wisdom:

” The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway ” Queen Elsa

We love to ski..and to eat snacks with our buds

The Best Cheese Fondue Recipe

…and it’s Backcountry-Friendly!

 

At least five different people have asked me for my cheese fondue recipe this past month. Last winter alone, we must have hosted at least 5 or 6 fondue dinners at the request of our friends who have all wanted to reproduce the feast at home…Each time I have happily explained the recipe how-to verbally, or in a text message, or scribbled the instructions on a post-it…until I reminded myself: “eh, don’t you have a blog about skiing, climbing, adventure travel AND food?!”

 

So, I have decided to share my recipe for this traditional alpine dish we all love so much, but also, to tell you a bit about how and why it became so special to us, in addition to being so darn rich, smooth and delicious.

 

Those of you who have read my first food-related blog will recall that I have a pretty special relationship with cheese.

 

Maybe my deep interest for everything cheese has something to do with why I became so close with my dear friend Rachel Martin from La Grave, Hautes-Alpes, France.

 

Rachel owns the most incredible cheese shop right in the Village. She is one of the first individuals I met when we moved to La Grave in 2004, but also the one who has been so kind and caring to me that she became like my second mom.

 

Not only does she hold this very special place in my heart, she also taught me how to make real cheese fondue.

 

In Rachel’s shop, you find the finest looking display of cheeses and charcuteries one can find in the whole Alps. From Gruyère to Abondance, Comté, and Beaufort, from Tomme de Savoie, truffle cheese to Jura’s very own Mont-d’Or and the best goat cheese around, from boar saucisson and speck ham that melts in your mouth, there is more than one’s eyes and belly can take in.

 

If you happen to spend some time in La Grave one day, which should obviously be on every skier’s or mountaineer’s wish-list, La Fromagerie de Montagne must not be missed.

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Rachel’s Fromagerie de Montagne under one of the most majestic mountains on Earth, La Meije (3983m). Photo courtesy of Ben de La Grave, our dear friend and Rachel’s son http://www.bendlg.com

 

At Rachel’s I would pop by for tea every second day if not every day during the six years we lived there. She would send me home with a bag full of most amazing cheeses each time, which is worth a little fortune by-the-way. At the time, being a dirtbag student with not much to put on our table, Rachel’s cheeses and cured meats made us feel like millionaires.

 

She also throws the best dinner parties out there. I recall squeezing in her great big living room with 20 or 25 other fine folks for voluptuous meals, usually a cheese specialty of some kind, and eating and drinking and listening to the latest indie music hits (Rachel also has amazing musical tastes) until late at night…

 

You will now have guessed that I hold my cheese fondue recipe from her. I obviously had to find an adaptation somehow, to Kimberley’s ingredients supply (between Crème Cheese Shop and Overwaitea you can actually find all you need at a fairly decent price).

 

I am pretty satisfied with the result and I hope you will too. Once you try, I promise you will never go back to packaged fondue ever again. Here we go…

 

For The Best Cheese Fondue, you will need:

200 grams of cheese per adult. 3 types of cheese minimum. Grated.
Gruyère, Emmenthal or Comté, and the local touch, some Kootenay Meadow Alpindon
1/2 bottle of dry white wine (the best is Vin de Savoie but it’s hard to find around here so Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio will do. For the record, I have tried it with Champagne once when we were out of wine and it tastes great too!)
4 cloves of garlic
fresh ground pepper, to taste
a pinch of ground nutmeg
a pinch of baking soda

 

For the bread:
1 large loaf of white or whole wheat sourdough (a day old is best)

 

Instructions:

Cut the bread into 2″ cubes ahead of time and set aside for an hour or two so it’s a bit dry. Alternatively, you can also place it in the over on a baking sheet at low temp for a few minutes.

Cut one of a garlic clove in half and rub the pot with it.
Add 250ml of white wine and turn the stove on a medium-low temperature.
Add half of the grated cheese and stir gently while it melts.
Alternate between wine and cheese so the texture is liquidy enough.
Add the rest of the garlic (chopped), the freshly ground pepper, nutmeg, and baking soda.
Keep stirring until the texture is a smooth as possible.

 

Transfer to the burner. Dip a chunk of bread and savour!

 

I like to serve my fondue with some small Mailles pickles (cornichons extra-fins) and a bit salad with slices of apple, walnuts, and a Dijon-based vinaigrette.

 

For the backcountry lovers, cheese fondue is a fun dish to serve on a hut trip. You can just grate the cheese ahead and store it in Ziploc bags, the pepper, the nutmeg and baking soda already mixed in another bag and garlic on the side. Bring wine in a tetra pack box and heat it over a camping stove. It is such a comforting and high-calorie dish, it will fuel you up for the next day for sure. It is, of course, great for sharing too.

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A backcountry fondue shared with family on a snowy autumn hike to the Jumbo Pass Hut for my daughter’s second birthday

 

I hope you will enjoy this fondue as much as my family and friends do. Every time we have it we create more great memories and still recall with so much joy the amazing time we’ve had and we will still have over fondue, here in the Kootenays or at Rachel’s house.

 

Cheese it up!

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Cheese fondue is the ideal party dish on a cold winter night

October Snow in the Wild Purcells

The Purcell mountains stretch on a north-south axis over approximately 400 km in the southeastern corner of British Columbia.

 

With the Columbia river and the Rocky mountains to the right  and Kootenay Lake to the left, this ancient mountain range has been the local’s centre of attention for many years. It also has recently received world-wide consideration in relation to the  most recent developments to the controversial mega-resort project on Jumbo Glacier, a few kilometres west of Invermere.

 

A land of high spiritual value for the Ktunaxa First Nation as well as a sensitive habitat for grizzly bears, these mountains also represent a very special place for the residents of the valley and beyond: an enclave of relatively untouched wilderness of a surreal and mystical beauty. They also offer the significant hope that the term “public land” still means something here in BC and that capitalism won’t have the last word.

 

My  recent and limited experience in these mountains reveals that winter lives there ten or more months of the year.

 

A Labour Day weekend at Jumbo Hut in a total snow blizzard and an October day hike into Monica Meadows in knee-deep snow make me wonder if summer ever gets invited up there and if the wildlife ever gets to enjoy the warmth of sun-filled days and the sweet taste of chlorophyll between snowfalls. The presence of massive glaciated areas proves how temperatures rarely climb above zero and the massive amount of snow these mountains get coated with.

 

This year, cold and snowy weather has arrived early, just as meteorologists predicted. This is certainly received like a promise to an excellent winter for us, backcountry snow sports enthusiasts.

 

And since all the planets seem to align and lead to our greatest enjoyment, my husband, a few friends and I were able to get out for an early season ski outing to Farnham glacier.

 

I would normally be the one to say that a 500km return trip to do one lap in the backcountry is a little excessive.  However, when it comes to visiting the wild and magical Purcell mountains, even for a few hours, I am the first one to say: Let’s go!

 

Dry road and golden larches at the valley bottom
The mighty and impressive Commander glacier under a fresh layer of snow
Such a bliss to start our ski directly in the alpine and forego the usual bushwhack
A little wind effect towards the top
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Jumbo Mountain: in the clouds and wild forever #Jumbowild

 

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Summit selfie and deep valleys

My Awesome Cat-Skiing Weekend

It’s 4 am and I am wide awake. I am so excited and anxious I have barely closed my eyes all night. The eight-hour road trip from Kimberley to Monashee Powder, near Cherryville, should have exhausted me (in fact it has!) but the anticipation is just too high. The temperature, which was very high yesterday, has dropped a lot and the rain turned into snow early last night. I look out the window. The sky is clear and I can see some stars. The snow has stopped falling.

Warm and cozy between the soft flannel sheets, I can hear my sister’s regular breathing. I smile. I am here with her for 3 full days to experience cat skiing for the first time and to see with my own eyes what her job is all about. It’s her second season as a Tail Guide here. Her alarm should ring soon; the days start pretty early for MPS’ staff. I smile some more and think about the day ahead. It’s the first time that I will be away from my family for so long. 5 long days of “me time”, which is so precious when you’re a young mom. I feel so grateful to have a wonderful husband who also understands the value of it and also welcomes some alone quality time with our daughter. 

6:30 am. I am granted access to the guides’ morning meeting. I hear them talking temperature, wind, new snowfall, avalanche rating, weather forecast, what runs are “safe” to ski and which ones are to be avoided. Truly fascinating. The guiding team is very knowledgeable and professional and listening to them makes me feel like I am in good hands.

After assisting my sister with some preparation tasks such as checking avalanche beacons, filling up the water bottles for the guests, etc. we fill up on a hearty and delicious breakfast buffet. Not far from there in the dining room, another buffet is set up for the guests to prepare their lunches. Salads of all sorts, meats & cheeses, baked goods, fruit, vegetable sticks, dips and different types of bread make up a very inviting selection. It seems like no one will go hungry today, unless one forgets to take his own lunch bag to the cat!

By 8:30 am sharp, the beacon search training begins, following up to an informative avalanche safety and research technique refresh provided the night before by the Lead Guide. In my group, everyone seems fairly savvy on how avalanche beacons work, yet everyone listens carefully to the instructions and welcomes the refresh.

Then we all load the cat after a few more safety instructions. Once again, guests on my group all listen carefully to the Tail Guide’s speech. As she says, the snowcats are big hard machines with lots of blind spots and we humans are small and soft in comparison…no one wants to be crushed under their oversized tracks.

A 15-minute ride up a steep road takes us to our first run. The other 13 guests in our group are not on their first experience at Monashee or at cat-skiing in general. A few of them even mention they are celebrating their 15th anniversary visiting MPS this year. Now that’s loyalty!

Unloading the skis and poles happens very quickly and within minutes of reaching the “drop off”, we’re all clicked into our bindings and ready to go, smiling with excitement. Our guide assesses the slope and drops in. The fresh powder, nearly 15 cm, flies light and fluffy behind him. This sets the tone to our day.

After one, two, three runs of effortless turns in pure “blower”, we all realize our group is made up of solid and experienced skiers so we are able to step it up a notch. Everyone is paying attention to the Guide’s instructions, staying close by and making the transitions very fast and smooth, which will allow us to link

the runs faster, ski more vertical and more challenging terrain. The visibility being fairly low at this point means steep tree lines will be on the program for the rest of the day.

Monashee Powder’s tenure is huge, 17,000 acres total, and the terrain extremely varied, although the visibility doesn’t allow me to gauge the extent of it on that very first day. The Lodge itself being located at 1600m of elevation, the rain and warm temperatures has only had a moderate effect on the snowpack above it so the skiing is absolutely fabulous. At the end of the day, I am in awe and so stoked about what I just got to experience. I am even happier thinking that I have two more days of this ahead of me. As the forecast predicted, it’s snowing hard again!

Back to the Lodge, guests disperse to soak in the hot tubs, take advantage of the Registered Massage Therapist and Acupuncturist on duty or enjoy some Après in the bar where some tasty appies and cold beverages are served.

A little later, a gourmet 4-course dinner is casually served in the dining room by the Lodge’s friendly staff. Helping bringing the plates really works up my appetite. To the sound of chatter, laughter and tales of the extraordinary day, guests and staff all replenish their energy with a fine albacore tuna tartare, split pea and roasted garlic soup, bison tenderloin cooked to perfection and sweet delicacies crafted by the on-staff pastry chef, all paired with a selection of fine BC wines.

Jokes and stories are flying around and I can tell that a long-lasting friendship links Carolyn and Tom Morgan, the owners of Monashee Powder, to their guests and staff. This extraordinary couple, originally from the oil & gas industry in Calgary, literally got addicted to cat skiing and to this little corner of the Monashee mountains back in the 90’s. Back then, guests were hosted in prospector-type tents (Tom would tell you the exact make and model of those tents!) heated by wood stoves…and skiing long straight skis. The Morgan’s have invested all their heart in this unconventional business, making this place unpretentious, warm, authentic, and extremely welcoming, where people gather around a true passion for skiing. This is certainly the reason why their guests return over and over and the Lodge almost sells out a year in advance.

While guests and staff make their way to the bar for some after-dinner drinks and live music, I head right for my cozy little bed. One thing is certain, tonight my eyes won’t stay open and my dreams will certainly involve some white, fluffy snow and steep untracked lines…