A look back at how we were able to deliver the best splitboard trips and experiences possible, in a season of two halves in the Alps during 2023
From too little to arguably too much snow.
You may have read a blog post that we wrote a few years back now. It is titled ‘Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket’ and in essence it explains the reasons why staying flexible and being able to move quickly from location to location is the key to scoring good conditions on a splitboard trip. If you haven’t seen it already then maybe have a read of it here
Everything in that blog post remains true. The weather can make or break your splitboard trip or splitboard course which isn’t ideal, especially if its the only one you’ll get to go on that winter. This is why we are (and will always be) supremely mobile as an splitboard guiding company. In fact we’re the only professional splitboard guiding crew who does this and it really does make us unique in that respect.
This ability to move combined with our ethos of staying flexible was the key, enabling us to deliver top tier splitboard experiences for our clients here in the Alps during the 2023 winter season.
It was a difficult start.
Méteo France reported that 2022 had ended with some of the warmest weather ever recorded in France, but even 17 years ago (when we started out here) it always tended to rain a little over the festive period, but nothing of too much consequence. This time it was very different, biblical levels of rain fell below 2000m turning pistes into water parks and dislodging chairlift pylons due to rain induced subsidence.
In the Portes Du Soleil area Morzine and Les Gets were especially badly hit and a lot of the smaller Swiss resorts closed. In contrast Chatel managed to ride out the worst of it and (due to herculean efforts of the piste teams here) remained open throughout the season with only a few pistes closed, mainly in the Super Chatel area. The downside is that it became phenomenally busy both here and in Avoriaz with both recreational skiers and ski schools from other parts of France and Switzerland arriving, as it was the only place left worth skiing in, locally. This led to horribly busy conditions.
Many resorts didn’t recover from this setback and sadly closed down their operations early, which was not only financially disastrous for them but for many of the people helping to service the winter sports industry in resort. We arguably reached a tipping point in winter conditions a while back now and many lower resorts may well face challenging times trying to navigate what might happen in years to come.
How the mass winter tourism model changes due to climate breakdown and how the industry manages to adapt remains to be seen – building lifts to 4000m and / or increasing the amount of un-eco snow making facilities across resorts isn’t the way forward in our opinion.
It is likely that many recreational skiers will now wait until the last moment to book their winter ski trip which makes solid planning for businesses almost impossible. Our agility as a splitboard guiding outfit means we can get you to the best snow when you come on a splitboard trip with us but if you’ve only booked a week long stay in Sestriere, Italy for example then you get what you get.
If you wanted some more doom and gloom, The Guardian published an interactive comparison map which shows the difference between the 21/22 season and the 22/23 winter.
(Props to The Guardian for reporting factually on the situation. A big majority of the UK press resorted to lazy journalistic practises (i.e. none skiers or snowboarders recycling Twitter news) and basically saying that there was no snow, anywhere. There was, in our resort at least just not too much anywhere else below 2000m)
That said, Italy had their best snow coverage for a while last season. During both the 20/21 & 21/22 winter seasons there wasn’t very much there at all, in fact 2023 saw us return to Italy for the first time since 2019! This article from HUCK magazine on the impact of tourism on Italian mountains is an interesting read.
So it wasn’t great anywhere at the start of the winter. Here’s a picture taken on January 1st 2023. It looks over Lac Leman in Switzerland to the Jura range. Not exactly wintery looking eh.
We have had bad starts to the season before, its not a totally new phenomena, and we knew that it would snow again. With the passing of the new moon, we entered a new meteo phase that saw colder temps and light snowfall arrive from around the 10th January 2023. Here’s a picture from our back window, taken on the 10th at an altitude of 850m.
By January 12th 2023 we were back on with conditions here in Chatel, at least. A lot of snow fell quickly but on to a very wet snowpack which meant avalanche conditions were quickly prevalent. After not having ridden any interesting terrain since early December there is always a temptation to go out and ski everything possible. Not a great idea, we saw social media posts from Morzine FB groups re local Brits who got caught out. Thankfully they survived. We stuck to safe and fun, low angle pow laps instead.
Riding low angle terrain during high avalanche risk conditions here in Chatel.
Things were starting to look up again. However, and we can’t stress this enough, it was a really dangerous time to be splitboard touring, even if you already know what you were doing. The snowpack was being more unpredictable than usual.
Anyway, I guess the point is that things were starting to look promising again in terms of conditions. Our first group was due out towards the end of January, an intro group for a 3-day session and led by our new splitboard guide Quentin Keller. We had a little bit more snow arrive ahead of the groups arrival which was fortunate as the off-piste base wasn’t great still. That said, the crew not only learned all about splitboarding on our Splitboard Chablais session but enjoyed some pristine pow runs, in safety too.
Quentin will be back in 2024 to lead select sessions for us, we’re very pleased to say. Here he riding in our local Chablais region, where he grew up.
We don’t usually run any of our longer splitboard courses during the busy February holiday period, its not until March each year that the schedule really kicks in for us.
Lets fast forward through a relatively tropical February to March 5th and our next session, a Break Into Backcountry trip.
Did we mention it hadn’t snowed again since around the 20 something of January?
We had a group of intermediate splitboarders arriving to experience a trip to altitude and overnight refuge stay, for the first time.
4 of the crew required equipment from us. We had set up 4 Never Summer splitboards (hand finished, made in Colorado from a company with 24 years experience of making splitboards) to their specified angles and stances before they arrived. These were teamed with splitboard bindings from Spark R&D, boot crampons, harnesses, axes and safety equipment – transceiver, shovels and probe.
The first day was spent in and around the local resort of Chatel, getting the crew warmed up. An ascent & descent of the Pointe De Vorlaz, and the Pointe De Chesery ( climbing on the ladder route ) made for a good start. A shorter 600m vertical ascent day in resort allowed us to familiarise the group with using backcountry access equipment. They learned how to correctly fit and walk wearing boot crampons, how to carry items properly on bags and other introductory alpinism techniques
The plan for the next 3 days of the session was to move to a zone holding the best conditions where we would spend 2 nights in mountain refuge accommodation and enjoy 3 days of splitboard touring and freeride snowboarding. We had to think – we knew it had recently snowed potentially 15 – 20cm over in the Italian Aosta region, but choosing the best place to take the crew wasn’t obvious. We needed somewhere at altitude with decent freeride terrain that wasn’t super technical. It also needed snow..
The weather wasn’t looking clear either. Across the Alps it was grey bird skies and everywhere the possibility of some big snow storms coming through were on the horizon. It was still really quite dry in the Alps still. In fact it was across most of Europe at that time, whilst the States were getting hammered with snow.
(The irony wasn’t lost on a returnee client, Mike, who flew over from California to join us. His local mountain? Mammoth, of course! Can you believe it took 900inches of snow over the course of the season – another unusual weather pattern. Climate breakdown is all about extremes though)
After a bunch of research and phone calls to his network, our lead UIAGM splitboard guide Paul Verdier (known as Polo)) decided on a zone that provided all we needed. We briefed the crew on the plan for the next 3 days, what they would need to bring.
The chosen destination was to be a zone in Italy that we have visited before. It was an early start on the Monday morning, we picked up the crew from their accommodation in Chatel, loaded T5 Multivan and headed through the Swiss and French borders into the Italian Aosta Valley
We parked up, transitioned the splits to walk mode and got ready to make the ascent to the refuge.
The route we’d normally use to go up to the refuge is through a fairly steep but tranquil forest. However, that forest didn’t have a decent enough snow cover to make for a comfortable ascent.
The better looking option was to take a slightly longer route around even though it would mean navigating a fairly steep traverse. We set off and all was good until halfway up where the skintrack turned very icy on the traverse and made for a very technical walk. I can’t recall walking on such a tricky section during a splitboard intro trip, even using splitboard knives it was slow progress.
The guys did brilliantly though and never complained. This trip was always going to be a step up for them on so many levels and they rose to the occasion. We can honestly say they now have some pretty advanced skinning techniques under their belts.
Having reached the fabulous Walter Bonatti refuge we quickly settled in for the 2 nights. The refuge faces the Grandes Jorrases on the Italian side which provide a stunning backdrop. It was the right decision by Polo and we scored cold snow. It wasn’t deep but we had found the crew untracked powder during a very dry spell in the Alps.
We saw Instagram posts from other crews’ who had attended different splitboard camps and trips in Chamonix, at the exact same time we were in Aosta, just around the corner. They had nowhere near as good conditions as the ones we were enjoying.
It’s really not down to luck though. Its down to an ethos to move to where the best snow is going to be – it could be France, Italy or Switzerland. If you have a highly experienced UIAGM splitboard guiding team combined with a flexible, mobile operator then you do get to ride in the best conditions around.
(We’re now starting to see a few other trip providers advertise the France, Italy & Switzerland thing. Please do note though that this is slightly misleading as they only operate a week in each of those places. They won’t, for example, be able to travel to Switzerland from Italy during your session if the conditions are better there, they’re not set up to do that….)
Check out this little edit – its really quite hard to stress just how little snow there was anywhere during this period, March 5th – 8th 2023, yet we still found turns for this crew without needing to rappel into obscure couloirs.
It was a fun few days. On the last morning it was clear we were going to be in a race, trying to beat an approaching weather system. A strong foehn wind had started to blow and we were mindful of the route back down. The foehn would warm the snow pack significantly and it was a steep descent in places, there was very little hanging around in order to mitigate any potential avalanche danger.
We arrived back in France to our home resort of Chatel on the Wednesday, late afternoon. After a farewell beer with the guys Polo and I had a short break 2 day break before we set off again, this time it on a 5-day Trip and Split session.
On the Saturday afternoon by the time new crew had arrived it was clear that we were about to get HAMMERED. The approaching storm systems looked set to be locked in for a good few days at least battering most of the Swiss and French side and on the Italian border front too.
Locally up to 2 metres of snow was in the forecast and we had good reason to believe it was all coming through. With a splitboard trip to high altitude now out of the question we were having to search for a zone with not too much new snow. It also needed some sort of natural protection from the incoming storms.
We toyed with driving down to Turin in order to find some sunshine. There are some beautiful zones down that way. However, not only is this a long way to go we couldn’t be 100% sure of the snow conditions would be when we got there. It was a starting to look a little tricky and once more it was down to Polo to think hard and work out a plan.
Polo has a network of UIAGM guides across the Alps, they are invaluable contacts and a source of real-time information on conditions for us. Even so, to find a spot that wasn’t going to take too much snow and provide us with good visibility took some next level zone finding savvy. This is how we ended up back in Italy, but much closer to home than Turin.
We had located the proverbial needle in a haystack and a relative oasis from the storms. This was also a new splitboarding zone for us, so the stress levels for Polo were also running fairly high. He was about to take a group out in a new place with a lot of fresh snow around.
Also, we needed to change the trip schedule around in order to maximise the weather window we had found. Instead of warming up for a day locally in the PDS on the Sunday and heading off on the Monday returning Thursday, we left Chatel on the Sunday morning instead. The plan was to come back on Wednesday afternoon in order to make the most of the new snow in France on the Thursday
Just another example that how by being flexible and able to move quickly opens up your options on a splitboard trip.
Early on the Sunday morning we headed into Switzerland in order to take the Grand St Bernard tunnel through into Italy. En-route we stopped at the Grand St Bernard col, situated at 1800m, for a stretch of the legs and also to have a look at the snow conditions there.
We started walking from the car park in some fluffy powder which quickly turned into a crust. The wind had been active above 2200m and the morning sun hadn’t yet softened it up. After a quick 400m ascent we decided to ride back down. The crust was just about breakable, not the easiest ‘easy’ descent we’ve ever made.
After a quick sandwich back at the bus it was time to head off again, to our new zone.
Saint-Barthélemy Valley. Italy.
The Saint-Barthélemy Valley is largely uninhabited and surrounded by a natural ring of mountains that are high enough to shield it from the light of the large cities near it such as Aosta, Turin in Piedmont, and Milan in Lombardy. And, crucially, from the worst of the storms..
Saint-Barthélemy isn’t a downhill skiing destination but this scenic zone is home to a well established Nordic / XC ski community. It boasts a 30km track that winds around the valley and its aspect allows for plenty of sun virtually all the way round. It is also tucked well away from roads and regularly inhabited villages, in a beautiful, natural environment.
Our refuge is situated at around 2000m altitude. A winding forest track takes you up into the higher mountain pastures, deep into the heart of the valley. Its not a big skin in terms of vertical metres made but it is a long way in terms of km walked. We were glad to reach the refuge towards dusk, it is actually more like a small mountain chalet, tucked away in the middle of this secret and mysterious valley.
Rifugio Magia had an instant welcoming vibe to it. Rustic Italian chalet styling décor, a huge ceramic stove pumping out heat, comfortable rooms, hot showers and a well stocked bar made us feel at home straight away. This was an absolute pimping ‘refuge’. Oh, and the food – well put it this way I think we put on weight this trip, seriously. It was super hard to not to eat ALL of the homemade Italian food served to us each evening.
Early on the Monday morning we set out to make our first reconnaissance of the immediate area and very quickly saw its potential as a playground for backcountry splitboard touring. But, that exploration will have to wait for a future session as we still had to contend with around a metre of fresh , wind loaded snow this time around.
How amazing does this line look from the summit, finishing in that natural rock walled couloir. Its on the list of things to go back and ride, one day.
We headed up through the trees, rapidly gaining altitude. Breaking the trail was ludicrously hard work and the tail guide quickly moved up the line and settled in behind Polo, to help set the track for the guys coming up behind.
We snowboarded down in the trees as best we could. Its hard to make quick turns tight in snow as deep and as heavy as that was. The guys did well though and it was still fun, but fairly exhausting work. We were looking forward to finding some more open terrain the next day. After another enormous homemade Italian dinner, a glass of wine and a few rounds of Uno (the card game ) we retired for the night. *pro tip – Polo wins 85% of the time at Uno. Never play him for money. Seriously, he’s annoyingly good at it – haha
The next two days were spent exploring this cracking new spot. The walking in splitboard mode was technical at times, steep skintrack ascents in the forest with lots of kick turns were a particular feature of this new splitboarding zone. Another pole got broken by a crew member so once again the backmarker gave up his and managed with just one for the rest of the trip.
The descents were generally fabulous though and the views, outstanding. The highlight of the session here was finding a stable face holding a lot of cold snow, which we lapped 3 or 4 times on the 2nd day of the trip.
The big takeaway from this is all the time we were there the surrounding Alps in Italy, France and Switzerland were being pummelled (and I mean pummelled) by wind and snow storms (check back on the dates 12-16 March if you want)
Polo had pulled this new zone and its unique weather window out of the very top drawer.
Its another benefit of your UIAGM splitboard guide having grown up in and around these big mountains and having a solid network of guides on the ground to share information with. If you had booked a week of splitboarding in say, Sestriere, you’d of lost 3 days of the trip to the storm. Sure, you’d possibly ride something but it possibly wouldn’t of been as noteworthy.
Over the course of this Trip and Split session we had moved from France to Switzerland, through into Italy and back to France again. This gave us the weather windows and conditions necessary to deliver the best experience for the crew.
We headed back to Chatel on the Wednesday, late afternoon ahead of the final day of the trip. Thursday was spent locally riding the new snow that had fallen the days prior in bluebird skies. It couldn’t of gone better – just as we planned it.
Once again, being flexible and mobile ensured the guys got the best splitboard experience possible. Here’s a little edit of that session.
Polo and myself were pretty tired by now and would of liked a few days to recover but we had a 9:35am flight to Romania to catch, the following morning…..
If you’d like to see what we got up, and learn a little more about splitboarding in Transylvania during March click here
It’s now April & we’re back from Romania, in the French Alps
The start of April was unusually quiet for us here in terms of splitboard trips. Perhaps the UK press had done enough to put people off coming out by then with their woeful reporting on conditions, not sure.
What we do know is that for the last couple of seasons April has seen some of the best conditions. We quite often get asked by folks ( who don’t have much experience of splitting in the higher mountains) if its not too late in the season to go. The answer is no.
April and May are generally the prime months for splitboard touring, especially at altitude. By this time in the season the snowpack has settled into its freeze thaw cycle, this means the snow has frozen overnight and gradually thaws during the course of the morning, softening up enough to become like riding on velvet almost. It’s perhaps better than powder in some respects as its less dangerous and the ride down becomes way more predictable. It also opens up the bigger lines in the mountains. However, its all about timing the day to enjoy this transformation in the snowpack before the suns radiation makes it too warm and therefore dangerous.
On an April or May session if you join us at altitude then its going to be an early morning – starting to walk at 5:30am isn’t uncommon in order to safely make an ascent. After riding this awesome snow its back down to the refuge where its lovely to have a beer on the sun terrace with lunch before heading off to your room for a cheeky afternoon siesta : )
That said, we have been lucky enough to catch for late season snowfall in April over the last couple of winters and have enjoyed more bluebird powder days than at any other time in the season.
I digress, its early April and Polo was still super busy with other clients. I wasn’t too bothered as it meant I had some time to catch up on home life after nearly 3 weeks away from home during the busy March period. Re-proofing the Gore-Tex and dealing with admin etc etc.
By now the French Northern Alps not only had a good base again but was also benefitting from a series of storm cycles. It was time to go and do a little splitboarding in our immediate backyard.
Polo, Quentin, Magali and myself took the opportunity to climb some of the bigger couloirs on the Mont De Grange mountain here in the Abondance Valley.
There are some pretty impressive chutes to ride and climb on the Mont De Grange. The big Pertuis couloir is 50 degrees steepness in pitches and around a 300m ascent.
It’s the sort of zone you might find yourself splitboarding in on one of our local warm up days – depending on the trip you’ve booked.
Here’s an edit highlighting the kind of terrain we’ll ride on #splitboardchablais session.
We still had one more 5-day session to run in April before our Splitboard Norway trip.
Two new clients, Tim and Graham, were supposed to of joined us in March for their first splitboarding experience but had to cancel and move their trip to April. We knew from talking to them that they were strong snowboarders who would be comfortable in the bigger mountains.
However, they hadn’t any previous splitboard experience but we were confident that with the correct splitboard technique tuition that they would quickly get the hang of – we were right.
We decided to pair them with another couple of guys who had done a 3 day intro with us in January, they were now looking to go to higher altitudes.
The first day of this session was a Sunday and we spent it warming up here in Chatel. We found a mixture of conditions to ride in. The weather was stormy and it was snowing. The wind drifted snow had also made it fairly deep in places. We rode in the resort slack-country and made a few splitboard transitions in the cold storm. A perfect introduction, haha, but Tim and Graham now had a handle on the splitboarding side of things and we were ready to move the next morning.
We made the call to head into the big mountains of Valais, Switzerland It was here that we thought the falling snow would be coldest during the storm cycle. We were also keen to finally get to a decent altitude and ride some bigger lines.
The crew was ready and we set off early on the Monday morning to our chosen destination – Leukerbad in the Swiss Canton of Valais. With Crans Montana behind us in the South East and the Bernese Oberland to the North, it is another little splitboarding gem of ours.
Our accommodation was to be the refuge, Lämmerenhütte, situated at 2500m. It is an ideal base for either a few nights or as part of a multiday splitboard hut to hut tour. There are 4 huts here that we could link here, all a part of the Bernese Oberland Haute Route. It is another itinerary we can offer to more advanced splitboarders.
Leukerbad is only a 90 minute drive from Chatel. We arrived at the carpark in time to unpack the bus and ready ourselves for the first cable car of the morning.
We knew it would be a a stormy start and on exiting the cable car we found that the altitude wind storm was whipping around us and the snow was swirling, hard. We needed to ride down a little before we could start skinning. It was tricky, very little visibility and deep wind drifted snow had us slowly feeling our way down for the first 300m. Our poles were soon out and we were pushing along to the where we needed to make the first transition.
We were now sheltered from the worst of the weather, the splits were transitioned to walk mode and the guys were about to test their newly learned kickturn and skinning skills in the wild. It was still very cold and one of the crew had an issue with his poles freezing up. To make his life easier the Rider Social backmarker gave away his poles and carried on with none (again, lol).
It also gets fairly steep in places. A shot of the crew making their way up a technical pitch in the skintrack
After 90 minutes of walking we arrived at the refuge. The Lämmerenhütte is a great refuge, its modern inside with comfortable beds and decent food. The beer is also on draught, which is a treat. Situated at 2507m altitude it offers access to an incredible variety of terrain.
After a quick lunch we headed out for a reconnaissance split to asses the snowpack and make some powder turns. It was also time for a mountain safety workshop. The crew practiced searching with their transceiver, probing and shovelling techniques. We’re pleased to say that everyone individually found the (well buried) backpack in good time and extracted it correctly.
The second day of the trip was done and the worst of the weather was also now behind us. We made an early night of it to be ready for the next day. The storm had passes and the sun was going to shine, we also knew we had 50cm of untracked fresh to ride.
Even though it was fairly quiet at the refuge (another reason why we run our hut nights in the week, it avoids busy weekend traffic) we knew that there was going to be a lot of fast ski touring folk coming up in the cable car to take advantage of the incredible conditions.
One of the classic summits is the Wildstrubel, topping out at 3,244m. This mountain straddles the Swiss cantons of Bern and Valais, a glaciated massif about 15 km wide, extending between the Rawil & Gemmi Passes and it was to be our first summit.
We started early with Polo setting a fast pace, breaking a trail in deep snow. Once again the Rider Social backmarker moved up behind him to help manage the skintrack, making it less of a lung busting ascent for the rest of the crew.
It was the right call. Long lines of ski tour groups could be seen making their way up behind us, fairly rapidly too. We kept the rhythm going enjoying the beautiful views until we reached a steep pitch, just ahead of the summit, which needed managing. We stopped, setting off one by one to ensure that there was a 30 metre safety distance between each splitboarder, in case of avalanche.
We were the first crew to the summit of the Wildstrubel. The guys made a fast transition and after a quick photo we were ready to ride down
The ride down was amazing and it was the first time we’d ever had very first tracks on this particular descent – we’ve generally always scored fresh there but to be the first crew down is pretty rare.
Descending one by one, each big floating powder turn elicited whoops of delight from the group. This had naturally set the bar for the rest of the trip and with the refuge starting to get busy we needed to be up and out each morning to make the best of the conditions, before it got tracked.
Early alpine starts are the norm at this time of the year and we had no problem in being up and ready early each morning. Often we were the first out, splitting in the dark in order to be the first crew to the top of our chosen objective each day.
There is something very special about watching the sun rising at altitude as you make your way up a mountain in the skintrack.
We were the first crew down on each decent we made on that trip. It was getting busy too, so we played the game and farmed the snow, Swiss ski style in places so as not to enrage the other ski-tour groups by being typical hooligan snowboarders and trashing all of the fresh snow!!
After 3 more days of riding fresh, deep snow it was time to head back to the Abondance Valley. What a trip -incredible riding conditions and first tracks all week. It reminded us of a session we ran on the same April week in 2022, splitboarding in Les Contamines. Perhaps we’ll write about that one too, sometime.
In the meantime, here’s an edit of what went down last April
We arrived home on the Wednesday afternoon and said goodbye to the crew. We had barely 24 hours to decompress, do some laundry and pack for an 18 day Norway trip, returning in early May. The plane left on the Friday morning….
So, there it is. A brief recap on just a couple of our splitboard trips in and around the Alps during 2023. We hope you enjoyed reading about them. I think what we really wanted to put across is that we do things differently here at the Rider Social. Our unique set up means we can alter the trip schedule at the drop of a hat to ensure you get the best conditions. We’re not aware of anyone else offering a similar service at this level.
Our organisational skills as a splitboard tour operator and the UIAGM splitboard guiding brilliance of Polo Verdier makes this all possible. Come give us a try someday.
Until the next instalment, here’s to world peace, climate love, powder turns and grippy skin tracks