This is default featured slide 1 title
This is default featured slide 2 title
This is default featured slide 3 title
This is default featured slide 4 title
This is default featured slide 5 title
 

Monthly Archives: January 2017

Winter sports in the Slovenian Alps

Unspoilt wilderness in Vogel

The only ski area situated within the Triglav National Park, Vogelbenefits from an almost unbelievably picturesque location, surrounded by towering mountains and with views over Lake Bohinj towards Mt Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak. The terrain is unusually beautiful too – an array of snowy hillocks, which feels like skiing on the contours of a fluffy cloud or through a Renaissance vision of heaven.

Despite its relatively diminutive size (22km of pistes), the area’s varied topography makes it feel much bigger, and there’s a magical laid-back atmosphere, perfect for carefree coasting down the well-groomed blue and red runs. When conditions are right and there’s plenty of snow, it’s also a great destination for off-piste skiing and ski touring.

Most skiers stay down in the pretty Bohinj Valley, taking the high-speed gondola up from Ukanc, but there are restaurants, bars, ski-hire facilities, chalets and even a hotel up on the mountain.

Family-friendly facilities at Kranjska Gora

Uniquely for Slovenia’s major ski resorts, Kranjska Gora’s ski area is located directly adjacent to the village, allowing many of its hotels to offer ski-in, ski-out access. The piste layout is compact and straightforward, with several parallel lifts providing access to a range of side-by-side nursery, blue and red slopes. It’s a perfect proposition for families and beginners, as it’s virtually impossible to lose anyone and super-easy for parents to swing by and check on their kids in ski school.

Plenty of artificial snow cannons make up for the relatively low altitude, and night skiing until 10pm makes it easy to pack plenty of slope time into even a short visit. More advanced skiers can test their mettle on the steeper red and black runs over the hill in Podkoren, including a challenging world-cup downhill run that seems almost vertical in places.

Cross-border skiing at Kanin

Slovenia’s highest ski area, right on the border with Italy, Kaninreopened in the 2016–17 season after refurbishment of the cable-car connecting it to the town of Bovec in the Soča Valley below. In contrast to the Cold War era, when the border with Italy was guarded by soldiers with guns, skiers can now pass freely across into Italy thanks to a state-of-the-art cable car connection with the resort of Sella Nevea.

Kanin’s runs are sunny and south-facing, ideal during chillier conditions, whereas Sella Nevea’s north-facing runs come into their own as conditions warm up. The scenery on both sides is spectacular, with dramatic rocky outcrops and views all the way to the Adriatic sea on clear days.  Thanks to high altitudes of up to 2300 metres, conditions remain good into the spring, allowing the unique possibility of a combining winter- and water-sports in the same holiday once the rafting season has begun in mid-March down in the Soča Valley below.

Slovenian Alps Regional Ski Pass

Although most of Slovenia’s ski areas are relatively small, suitable for beginners, families and those on short breaks, a great option for more experienced skiers is to combine more than one resort in the same holiday, using the regional ski pass (slovenian-alps.com). This currently covers Vogel, Kranjska Gora, Krvavec (30km of pistes located close toLjubljana’s airport), Cerkno (a family-friendly area incorporating a thermal spa) and Dreiländereck, just over the border in Austria, and may be expanded to include Kanin in the 2017–18 season.

Though not a winter-sports hub itself, picture-postcard Bled, with its pretty lake and castle, is located just a 35-minute drive from Vogel, Kranjska Gora and Krvavec. You can get a great deal by buying your ski pass as a package with accommodation in Bled, with some three-star hotels charging as little as €69 for one night’s accommodation and a two-day lift pass.

Cross-country skiing and biathlon at Pokljuka

The Pokljuka Plateau is the perfect place to get back to nature, skiing through towering coniferous forests and beautiful alpine meadows, without the infrastructure and hustle-bustle of a major ski resort. The heavily forested plateau is situated on the eastern edge of the Triglav National Park at an elevation of around 1,100 to 1,400 metres.

Slovenia’s prime destination for cross-country skiing, it has over 30km of cross-country tracks that snake through the wonderfully peaceful forests and out into sunny meadows that become pastures for cows in summer. Visitors can hire equipment and take lessons in cross-country skiing, and also try their hand at biathlon (a combination of skiing and shooting), using an air rifle.

Learn to ice-climb in the Mlačca Gorge

Adventurous types who dream of strapping on crampons, wielding a pair of ice axes and hacking their way up a frozen waterfall will find that it’s easy to turn their ice-climbing dreams into reality in Slovenia.  The ideal place to get started is the Mlačca Gorge (lednoplezanje.com), not far from Kranjska Gora, where local ice-enthusiast Pavel Skumavc creates artificial waterfalls each winter by trickling water down the frozen cliffs each night.

Switzerland for nature lovers

On a high in Valais

Nothing says Switzerland more than that mountain. As the train chugs from Täsch to the ritzy outdoor resort of Zermatt, the pop-up effect of the Matterhorn is surreal. The 4478m fang of rock and ice forces your gaze skywards and elicits gasps of wonder.

Closer, you say? Kein problem. The Gornergratbahn, Europe’s highest cogwheel railway, has been trundling up to Gornergrat (3089m) since 1898. At the summit, the view of the Gorner Glacier and 29 peaks rising above 4000m – including Switzerland’s highest, Dufourspitze (4634m) – opens up. Skiers, mountaineers and hardcore hikers are in their element at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, Europe’s highest cable-car station on the Klein Matterhorn (3883m), with views reaching deep into the Swiss, French and Italian Alps.

Ever since British climber Edward Whymper made the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 – albeit a triumph marred by rope-breaking tragedy – Zermatt has been the Holy Grail for mountaineers. Here you can tackle some of Europe’s most epic ascents: the Matterhorn, say, or Monte Rosa (4634m), with an Alpine Center guide. Hikers, meanwhile, can set out along the two-hour, 6.5km Matterhorn Glacier Trail. When the flakes fall in winter, the car-free resort is laced with 360km of ski runs in the Matterhorn’s shadow, some of which dip over the border into Italy.

Among alpine giants

The Matterhorn gets a lot of love, but swing north and follow the Rhône River east along the serene, remote valley of the Goms in Valaisand you enter another world. Here tiny hamlets with baroque churches and sun-blackened chalets are dwarfed by the dramatic backdrop. FromFiesch, take the cable car up to Fiescheralp, where paragliders catch thermals on clear days, then beyond to Eggishorn for one of Switzerland’s most unforgettable sights: the mighty Aletsch Glacier.

The icing on the cake of the Unesco World Heritage Jungfrau-Aletsch region, this is the longest and most voluminous glacier in the Alps: a 23km swirl of deeply crevassed ice that powers its way past waterfalls, spires of rock and the dagger-shaped summit of Aletschhorn (4193m) like a six-lane glacial superhighway. You can admire it from the viewpoint, but you’ll get much closer on the 17km, five- to six-hour hike from Fiescheralp to Bettmeralp, which is where you can be at one with the phenomenal views and perhaps spot the odd Valais blacknose sheep. For more of an instant thrill, walk (if you dare) the Aletschji–Grünsee Suspension Bridge, which spans the terrifyingly untamed, 80m-deep Massa Gorge.

Over the mountain as the crow flies lies the Bernese Oberland, presided over by its ‘big three’: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau (Ogre, Monk and Virgin), all hovering around the 4000m mark. The picture-perfect resorts of Grindelwald, Wengen and Mürren are great bases for hitting trails like the 6km Eiger Trail, with fearsome North Face views. More spectacular still, the full-day, 15.9km trek from Schynige Platte plateau via Faulhorn to First has views of lakes Thun and Brienz to make you yodel out loud. Or enjoy knockout peak and glacier views with zero effort by taking the train from Kleine Scheidegg up to 3454mJungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station.

Into the Engadin

Evocative of a golden age of travel, Switzerland’s train journeys are some of the world’s finest. There are big mountain views on repeat aboard the Glacier Express, which negotiates the Furka, Oberalp and Bernina passes on the eight-hour ride between Zermatt and St Moritz inGraubünden’s Upper Engadin.

Switzerland’s cradle of winter tourism since the mid 19th century, St Moritz is enshrined in sporting legend, home to slopes of Olympic fame and host to world championship events. Skiing ramps things up a notch in winter, with 350km of pistes, first-class freeriding opportunities, forested cross-country trails and heart-stopping black runs on 2978m Diavolezza.

The resort is every bit as alluring in summer. Hiking trails thread for mile after lovely mile, mountain bikers are in their element on 400km of terrain – the Suvretta Loop single trail is a classic – and wind- and kite-surfers drift across Silvaplana’s startlingly turquoise, wind-buffeted lakes in wonder.

For a taste of the Alps before the dawn of tourism, head northeast to theSwiss National Park in the Lower Engadin. Easily accessed from the quaint villages of Scuol, Zernez and S-chanf, Switzerland’s only national park is a nature-gone-wild spectacle of high moors, pastures, glaciated mountains, larch woodlands and topaz-coloured lakes. The only way to see it is by striking out on foot on one of 80km of marked trails. Go solo or hook onto a guided walk with the visitor centre in Zernez. With an expert in tow, you stand better chances of spotting rarities like wild edelweiss, ibex, chamois, golden eagles and bearded vultures.

Land of lakes & legends

Sitting on the mountain-rimmed shores of its eponymous lake, Lucerne, with its pristine Old Town, medieval wooden bridge and promenade, is every inch as genteel as it was back in the 19th century when Goethe, Wagner and Queen Victoria fell for its charms. And Lake Lucerne is no ordinary lake: this is where the Swiss legends were made and born. Cruise the fjord-like waters of Lake Uri and you’ll glimpse Rütli Meadow, hallowed birthplace of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, and the Tells’ Chapel, where apple-shooting hero and Swiss rebel William Tell apparently escaped from the boat of his Hapsburg captor, Gessler.

Lucerne itself is a cracking base for striking out into the surrounding lakes on low-key adventures. Without venturing too far or expending too much effort, you can marvel at the Alps cycling the trails rimming the waterfront, taking a refreshing dip at lakefront beaches in the warmer months, or hiring a boat to explore Lake Lucerne at your own steam.

Gearhead’s guide to rock climbing in Yosemite

Getting started at rock climbing in Yosemite

There are climbs for every ability imaginable somewhere in this park. First-timers should hit up the Yosemite Mountaineering School to do intro courses. In these intros, you’ll learn to safely belay your climbing partner, how to use your feet and hands properly to ascend the rock, and the basics of rock climbing safety. You’ll have a blast doing it, but it’s important to remember that climbing is dangerous. You should only go out on your own if you (or your partner) already know what you are doing. You can take more advanced courses at the Mountaineering School, or, if you’re confident that you’re ready for action, head to the notice board at Camp Four, where you can find climbing partners.

Rock climbing essentials

You can gear up before you depart for the park or wait to do your shopping at the Yosemite Mountain Shop to round out your equipment. Either way, the basics will probably cost you about US$200. It’s of utmost importance that any climber is going to need a well-fitting harness (costing between $50 and $150). Some top climbing manufacturers include Black Diamond (blackdiamondequipment.com), Petzl (www.petzl.com) and Arc-Teryx (www.arcteryx.com). Look for something that fits snug but allows for good freedom of movement.

What you’re really interested in, though, is the glorious hardware – even a few pieces of jangling metal can make you feel heroic. Early on in your climbing career, you’ll just need the basics to help you safely belay, rappel and attach yourself to anchors set up in the rock by a qualified guide or leader. Start with a good locking carabiner (an oval-shaped device with an opening gate that can quickly attach to bolts on the rock or pieces of gear that a qualified leader places in cracks in the rocks to protect from falls and create bomber anchors used to belay climbers from below). These come in myriad sizes – generally, the bigger the better. Add a belay or rappel device (Europeans call it ‘abseiling’) like a simple Black Diamond Super 8 (blackdiamondequipment.com). Add on a few carabiners for effect and grab a helmet to protect your melon.

Next up comes a good pair of climbing shoes. Climbing shoes are all about feel. For long climbs and cracks, you might want a stiffer sole. For shorter sport climbs, most people go with something that’s a little softer to the touch. No matter your choice, you generally size these down one-and-a-half sizes, and often wear them without socks. Yes, climbing shoes get stinky as hell, but that’s part of the charm.

Finally, round out your climbing gear with a chalk bag, comfortable pants – Prana (www.prana.com) makes some pretty cool stuff with plenty of room to stem your way up big chimneys or just bop through the Yosemite Valley Food Court and grab a coffee.

Real adventure: bouldering, free climbing and beyond

The adventures to be had on the vertiginous playgrounds of the Yosemite Valley are seemingly endless. In fact, people are still climbing new routes to this day.

On the one hand, a great thing about Yosemite is there is plenty of bouldering (climbing low to the ground without ropes or harnesses) to be had. There are about 700 established bouldering problems in the Valley. The most famous of these in Yosemite (and probably the world) is right in Camp Four. Midnight Lightning was first climbed by Ron Kauk in 1978. An iconic lightning bolt marks the spot. Don’t expect to get to the top of this one unless you’ve really honed your skills.

Many beginners, though, will start with traditional free climbing (not to be confused with free soloing, where you don’t use a rope). Most climbing in Yosemite is done without fixed bolts or anchors, meaning an experienced leader will climb up the route, placing gear (such as expanding cams) into cracks every five or ten feet and connecting the rope to the protection using a carabiners. The second climber stays down below, belaying the leader with their belay device that is used to stop the rope from sliding if the leader falls.

At the top, the leader will connect several pieces of protection to form an anchor (these are so strong they could hold a Mack Truck). From there, the less experienced climber follows the route, pulling the gear out as they go and meeting the leader, where they will connect to the anchor with their locking carabiner. This can continue for 3000 feet pitches of about 100 to 150 feet each.

The Grack on Glacier Point Apron is rated at 5.6. Perfect for newbies, this low-inclined apron is a great place to familiarize yourself with footing techniques such as edging (on a dime) and smearing (putting your heals down to stick to the rock like a gecko).

New heights: tackling the big names

Once you’ve worked out some of the systems (and any lingering fear of heights), try out classics like The Nutcracker (a 5.8 that’s no gimme with a big mantel move at the top) or Bishop’s Terrace on Church Bowl. After mastering the shorter three- to five-pitch routes (that’s still like 500 feet off the ground), try some of the longer day climbs. Tuolomne Meadow’s Fairview Dome has a classic 12-pitch route right up the center. It’s 5.9, so you probably need to be a pretty strong intermediate climber with a solid leader to get up. But the views from the top are nothing short of glorious.

With more experience under your belt, you can consider three- to ten-day Big Wall Climbs on the major monoliths like El Capitan and Half Dome. Big Wall climbing is where the hardware gets really ridiculous. You’ll need an assortment of ascenders, nuts, cams, bivvy ledges, sleeping bags, haul bags, and poop tubes (yes they take that whole ‘carry in, carry out’ thing seriously) to make these routes. But spending days on end in the vertical playgrounds of the Valley may just make it worthwhile.

Hiking through Patagonia

Warm and cozy

Patagonia’s weather is influenced both by Antarctica and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field – that great glacial mass larger than California’s Death Valley. Coping with this influence will take attention to detail. It’s the little things. The best investment is seamless wool socks like those from Darn Tough (darntough.com) to keep you warm and comfortable. Happy feet mean uninterrupted walking: the difference will be miles of splendor that you can’t put a price on. A few extra pairs can be a godsend when you’re hiking nonstop without a day off to do the wash.

Avoid shorts – there’s plenty of thorny brush to get at your legs even when chilly gusts of wind aren’t whipping. Bring top and bottom thermals, light gloves and a hat, an insulating layer like a fleece, rain gear and a down jacket for cool nights.

And remember, crisp climates can still pose issues for your eyes and skin. Sunglasses with a leash, waterproof, high-SPF sunscreen and shade had will protect you from overexposure – a crucial matter as a hole in the ozone layer moving over Patagonia and Antarctica leaves you extra vulnerable.

Keeping your footing

Sure, you might be able to hike in trainers some days, but sturdy, broken-in waterproof boots will do you a solid in shallow stream crossings, snowy passes, and puddles around town. Speaking of streams, if you bring sandals, make sure their soles are rigid enough to clamor across river stones. Gore-Tex gaiters come in useful here too – not only do they keep your feet dry, they also keep mud off your pants and prevent you from needing to relace your boots over the course of a day. Rinse them in a stream at the end of a day on the trail and they can dry overnight.

One final piece of necessary hike gear: trekking poles. The collapsible kind fits easily into luggage. Not only do they save knees from downhill pounding, they provide stability during river crossings and keep you grounded when the famous Patagonian wind blows.

Gearing up for a hut-to-hut hike

While the rugged bulk of Patagonia is straight-up wilderness, there are a few hut-to-hut hiking routes. Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park andParque Nacional Nahuel Huapi in Argentina have classic hikes punctuated by dry sleeps. That means shaving pounds off your back. No tent is required, and in Torres del Paine, no sleeping bag either, as both Fantastico Sur (fantasticosur.com) and Vertices (verticepatagonia.com) huts in Torres del Paine offer the option of sheets and blankets. Do make reservations well in advance.

On top of your trekking gear, you’ll want to invest in a good day pack like the Osprey Talon (ospreypacks.com). Make sure you have enough room for a hydration bladder, extra layers, a blister kit and food. Pack cover? Skip it. Chances are, the wind will snatch it away. Instead, keep the contents in plastic bags in case of rain. You can also get away with a day pack when hiking in Argentina’s Fitzroy range, since most trails link to the town of El Chalten. Solar chargers and single-charge units can keep your phone and camera going, though an extra camera battery adds greater insurance. Headlamps are useful in nature, on night buses and at hotels without bedside night lamps.

Camping out

Backpacking requires finding the delicate balance: bring enough to be comfortable but not enough to drag you down. There’s one way to do it: stick to an essential gear list. Prioritize a comfortable, well-fitted pack. Try it on with all the contents and decide what you can live without. Usually that’s an extra change of clothes. In general, it is helpful to have a set of camp clothes and a set of hiking clothes – it’s nice to get into something dry and relatively clean at the end of the day. Also, try to pack a week in advance. Take your loaded pack on a hike. At this point, most people further edit their selections. Invest in a cheap, lightweight duffel to keep your backpack clean on bus rides and prevent luggage belts from chewing up straps.

Restrictions to check before your flight

In Chile, both Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales have banned plastic bags. Bring a couple of small cloth grocery bags for market trips, they can also serve for sorting gear. Ditto for water bottles and coffee thermoses – bring from home and you will carry less guilt.

Blades aren’t allowed in an airplane cabin. A pocket knife with multi-use tools is your best defense against a hunk of cheese or slivers but it belongs in checked luggage. Also, some airlines won’t let you travel with camping stoves, so do some research before buying your ticket. Both camping stove fuel and lighters are no-nos – you can get them when you arrive to regional bases like Punta Arenas, El Chalten or Bariloche.

Because of customs, snacks can also be an issue when you fly. Chile has strict restrictions on food imports in order to protect its robust agricultural industry. They prohibit outside fruit, dairy, and meat, which means no nuts, jerky or dried fruit either. Most of these items can be picked up in country at grocery stores in major cities. Small towns offer a more limited selection. Tostadurias usually offer bulk supply dried fruit and nuts. Energy bars, rehydration tabs or gels can be a harder find, so if you do bring your own supply, be sure to declare all on your customs forms.