Akela.World, Travelling Photographers | Adventure-gram

This awesome Austrian family are doing things differently

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All photos by Akela.World

“I think everybody dreams of making a world trip, or something like this,” says Leander Nardin, his face slightly pixelated on my phone screen as he dials in from Eastern Siberia. Lots of people dream of making a world trip, sure. But not everyone finds themselves driving a converted 1977 Mercedes truck halfway across the world.

Yet this is exactly what Austrian photographer Leander, his girlfriend Maria and their six-year-old son Lennox have been doing for that past year and a bit. “I think it started five years ago,” says Leander, explaining the genesis of this crazy journey. “We went to Thailand when Lennox was one year old. We just went with backpacks for a few weeks but you know when you’re traveling with children, you have lots of stuff. It was way too exhausting and complicated.”

“He was just laughing, he said: ‘No mechanic is coming into the desert.’”

“Our dream destination was always New Zealand,” he explains, but after the Thailand experience they realised that it would be difficult enough as a couple, let alone with a young kid. “Flights only and the campervan for two or three months in New Zealand is about 10 or 15 thousand euros.

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Maria, Lennox, Leander and Akela.

“So I came up with the idea to buy a small bus and drive all the way down to New Zealand. Maria was like ‘man that’s a crazy idea, it’s bullshit’. But somehow it worked out.” So far this ‘bullshit’ idea has taken them almost 40,000km, and through some of the most incredible landscapes on earth. “My favourite has definitely been Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia,” says Maria. “Kyrgyzstan felt a little bit like home, like Austria – all the beautiful lakes and mountains”.

Follow the family on Instagram and you can see instantly why they have no regrets about their decision to pack up and go. Leander is a talented snapper, whose photos include portraits of interesting locals (“the eagle hunters in Kyrgyzstan were people I always wanted to shoot”, he says), and incredible landscapes. In fact, he says, “the only thing I regret is that we travelled through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan way too fast.”

Certainly on the surface, their life looks pretty perfect. Leander’s shots include plenty of Lennox, who’s an almost unbelievably photogenic kid with a cheeky smile and a mop of blonde hair. As we speak, he occasionally chips in in impressively fluent English.

There are also a lot of photos of what they refer to as “the fourth member of our family,” the truck itself. “The truck is named Akela because he’s our leading wolf,” explains Maria. Like the leader of the pack from the Jungle Book, “he protects us when it’s hot outside, when it’s raining, when it’s cold outside”.

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Tajikistan, home to the highest peaks in former-Soviet Central Asia.

However, Akela is not always the infallible guiding force the guys might have hoped for. “When he doesn’t work,” says Maria, “it’s pretty shitty.” But this is the great thing about Leander, Maria and the Akela.World Instagram account and blog they run, and what makes them really worth following.

They don’t try to project the always-perfect #VanLife cliché, they’re more real than that. Neither of them are about to pretend that life on the road doesn’t come with problems, and their account is full of pictures of the truck breaking down at inopportune moments. “Engine overheated with outside temperatures of -10 degree Celsius!! Really?? In the middle of nowhere in Siberia – on a Sunday!” reads one post.

Leander tells another story of a breakdown in rural Iran, “300 kilometres from the last big city. There are not many people on this road so we just waited and stopped a truck driver. Truck drivers actually know about other trucks. But my Farsi is pretty shitty so it was quite difficult. We figured out it’s a big problem, and he couldn’t help us. I asked him if he could call a mechanic. He was just laughing, he said: ‘No mechanic is coming into the desert.’”

As well as the truck the couple also worry about Lennox’s wellbeing. He’s homeschooled, and life on the road has been great for his English, which far outstrips the level you’d expect from a regular 6-year-old Austrian kid. But at the same time, Maria says, “meeting other children on the road is not the same like having friends at home. It’s only for a very short time and language is always a problem.

“He’s missing all his friends. We are two adults so we can speak on the same level, but Lennox is alone, and he misses his friends.”

But for all that life on the road can be tough, overall the experience has been a massively positive one according to Leander. “It’s more intense, for sure,” he says when I ask if it’s brought them closer together. “But more so in positive than in negative ways I think.”

Leander and Lennox take a spin on the motorbike.

Even back in Austria, the family was adventurous. And having brought a motorbike, snowboards, and even Leander’s wingsuit with them, they get out into the mountains at every available opportunity. But for every shot they post of skiing in Japan, or hiking up hills in Mongolia, there’s something self-deprecating to bring things their Instagram account back to earth.

“Let’s start with a kistchy sunset at one of Borneo’s beautiful beaches,” reads one post – which sums up exactly why we love Akela.World and why you should follow them. In an environment characterised by ‘hashtag influencers’ on ‘hashtag adventures’, these guys are the real deal.

They’re going all the places we wish we could get to, and taking better photos than we ever could. But they’re not taking any of it – or themselves – too seriously.

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A shot from the Siberian leg of the journey.

Follow Akela.World on Instagram here, check out their Akela.World blog here and their profile on Stocksy here.

To read the rest of Mpora’s Remote Issue head here

To read the rest of the Adventure-gram series go here

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The post Akela.World, Travelling Photographers | Adventure-gram appeared first on Mpora.

Editor’s Letter | The Remote Issue

This month’s issue is all about getting out there

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Reading some adventure stories, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the aim of the game is to get to the remotest location possible – as far away from other people as you can. For the most part however, that’s not been my experience.

Although there is undoubtedly something powerful about being ‘out there’ by yourself (just ask Sarah Outen, featured in this month’s Big Interview) all of my most enjoyable adventures have been ones that I’ve shared. I don’t just mean by posting pictures of it and waiting for your friends to hit the heart button either. Sorry Zuckerberg, that’s just not the same.

“It’s always the people who make the story worth telling.”

Of course, you don’t want every man and his dog along for the ride. No-one likes big crowds of tourists (there’s a reason James Renhard’s story this month is about leaving Las Vegas). But even surfers, those most secretive of creatures, would have to admit that taking a select crew of the right people can make a remote location infinitely more enjoyable.

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Franck Buisson, guardian of the remote refuge we stayed in in France last spring – and maker of particularly strong moonshine. Photo: Tristan

It’s an effect I experienced first hand this time last year, when I headed off to explore the quiet slopes of the Maurienne Valley, one of the few remaining places in France where you can enjoy powder without having to queue at the crack of dawn.

The lack of crowds made the riding great, but it was the people I was with that made the trip truly memorable (despite the lobotomising effects of the local genepi).

The same is true in even more remote places. This month issue tells the story of two Englishmen (or are they mad dogs?) who spent weeks living in the Amazon Rainforest’s “Intangible Zone” – the secluded area set aside for communities who chose to minimise their contact with the outside world.

It was a gruelling experience at times – Benjamin Sadd describes “weeks of runny poo and a multitude of biting insects and giant spiders” – but both the story he wrote and the film they made about it are hilarious, chiefly because they’re so obviously entertained by each other’s company.

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It takes two to tango. Canoeing in the Amazon’s “Intangible Zone” wouldn’t have been the same alone. Photo: Benjamin Sadd

Of course this issue isn’t just about going to wild places. There’s contributing editor Sam Haddad’s incredible (if slightly disturbing) investigation of the subculture of biohacking, which involves people implanting remote sensors or microchips under their skin, adding sixth and even seventh senses to the range of human experience.

There’s also Stuart Kenny’s fascinating piece about one ski resort’s battle to remain independent, and ensure that they’re not overwhelmed by too many tourists.

But what struck me about the majority of this month’s stories was that even if you’re travelling to the world’s remotest places, and travelling alone (like this month’s featured photographer Joshua Cunningham) it’s always the people who make the story worth telling.

On to pastures new. Hiking in Swedish Lapland last summer - read the full story in this month's issue.

On to pastures new. Hiking in Swedish Lapland last summer – read the full story in this month’s issue.

This is, I’m sorry to say, my last month at Mpora. And (if you’ll forgive me the horrible cliché) it’s the people that I’ll miss more than anything.

It’s been my absolute pleasure to share adventures, and stories of adventure, with some incredible folk over the past four years – my brilliant colleagues (who I have no doubt, will do an excellent job of taking over the helm), our amazing contributors, and of course all of you lot reading this.

All that’s left to say is thank you to you for reading, for getting involved, for contributing, for sending us your photos, videos, stories and comments; for liking, for sharing; for occasionally insulting, and always inspiring me. It’s been a trip.

Keep enjoying the adventure.
– Tristan, Editor-in-Chief

Read more of this month’s Remote Issue here. 

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The Fjällräven Classic | Conquering the King’s Trail in Sweden

The post Editor’s Letter | The Remote Issue appeared first on Mpora.

The Fjällräven Classic | Conquering the King’s Trail in Sweden

A multi-day hike through the wilderness of Northern Sweden sounded exciting on paper. But we weren’t prepared for just how exciting things would get…

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It’s only day three of our week-long trek, but as we struggle to pitch our tent behind the shelter of a boulder it’s obvious our best-laid plans have already gone out the window – or at least the mesh flap which passes for one. With the winds gusting at over 40 knots (a force nine gale in layman’s terms) we’re lucky the whole thing hasn’t blown away.

The following morning, a grim-faced volunteer at the next checkpoint tells us: “It’s been bad. I’ve just been looking at some statistics. We had 60 tents pitched near here last night and maybe 11 or 12 collapsed.”

“The Classic was dreamt up by Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate the Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv.”

None of this, it’s fair to say, fits with the picture I’d painted to my long-suffering girlfriend Simona when I’d persuaded her to come on the walk with me a month or so before. “Hiking, camping and cooking in the open air. It’ll be fun,” I’d said. “Plus loads of people do it every year, how hard can it be?”

Started in 2005, the Fjällräven Classic is a multi-day trek along a stretch of the trail known as the Kungsleden (or “King’s Trail”) in Northern Sweden. It was dreamt up by the brand’s founder Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate not only the company itself, but also the peculiarly Scandinavian conception of adventure it embodies, known as friluftsliv.

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Twisted fire starters. Wild camping and lighting your own fire is expected in northern Sweden.

Literally this translates as “free air life” but (as you might expect from the people who invented flatpack furniture and the Tetra Pak) there are multiple layers of meaning folded into this neat little word. It’s not just a description of an activity, it’s also tied to a set of beliefs – the idea getting outside is good for you, that access is a fundamental right, and that the outdoors is for everyone, not just the hardcore.

Given the everyman ideals he’s espousing, Nordin’s idea of a fun hike looks quite daunting, at least on paper. The route stretches for 110 kilometres, beginning where the tarmac road ends at Nikkaluokta and winding through broad glacial valleys and past Sweden’s highest peaks. The finish line, which we’re told will take around a week to reach, is in the small frontier town of Abisko, nearly 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

However, I wasn’t lying to Simona when I told her that lots of people complete the trek every year. From its humble beginnings when just 152 took part, the event has grown exponentially. In 2016 more than 2,000 people finished the Classic, and as we line up at the start, it’s obvious that our fellow trekkers have come from far and wide. We see Canadians, Germans, Koreans, Japanese, many of them obviously fans of of Fjällräven, who’ve dressed head-to-toe in the company’s kit for the occasion.

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Simona, wearing the blues, not feeling them.

“There are actually people from 38 nations at the Classic this year, and only one quarter are Swedish,” says Anna-Luisa Stadelman, one of the startline volunteers, who admits to being something of a Fjällräven fangirl herself. “It’s my seventh year here,” she explains. “I’m German originally but I studied in Sweden in 2002 and first came on the Classic in 2008.”

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Toytown. On certain sections of the route, like the Alesjaure Lake here, boats ferry people and goods between huts and the few tiny settlements.

As we set off, it’s easy to see what keeps people like Anna-Luisa keep coming back to the Classic year after year. Everything is as well-organised as you’d expect a mass-participation event to be. Maps, camping gas and free freeze-dried food are handed out to participants, and there are busses to take us to the start line. When we start walking the group quickly strings out, so it never feels crowded however, and by the time we stop to pitch our tent on the first evening, we’re completely alone.

When you’re this far north of the Arctic Circle in August it only gets dark for a couple of hours each day, and even then the light never fully leaves the sky. This means the sunsets are long, drawn out and spectacular. We cook our dinner in front of an incredible display as the sun goes slowly down over the snow-capped peaks ahead of us, painting the sky orange, red and purple as it sinks.

The following morning is equally idyllic. We’re in no rush, and wander down to the shore of a nearby lake to wash before hitting the trail. The water is bright turquoise, the result of glacier run-off further upstream, and icy cold. Simona, who’s Italian, thinks I’m mental for wanting to swim in it, but the sun’s shining and I warm up quickly once I’m out.

The hiking remains relatively easy until we reach the first checkpoint the picturesque fjällstation, or hill station, beneath Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. Fjallraven Classic rules forbid us from staying in the pretty wooden huts (you have to camp from start to finish for the challenge to count). But thankfully they don’t stop us from eating in the restaurant.

Named Elsa’s kök (Elsa’s kitchen) after the legendary hostess who managed the hill station from the 1930s to the 1960s, it’s impressively gourmet given the remote location, serving modern Swedish food to guests seated at long, communal tables.

Our fellow diners are a mixed bunch – day trippers who’ve flown in on one of the distinctive red helicopters that resupply the Kungsleden’s network of huts, hikers who’ve been up the mountain (a hike that’s apparently the equivalent of going up Ben Nevis) and the properly hardcore.

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Still as a millpond. Fresh water is everywhere on the Kungsleden, and you never go long without finding a drinkable source.

One side two wealthy 40-something women from Boston tell us how they come hiking in a different destination every year, travelling from hut to hut while someone else transports their bags. On the other side there’s a young Belgian couple who have already been on the trail for fifteen days. They obviously take this sort of thing very seriously. “We bought a kiln this year so we can make our own dehydrated food,” they tell us.

If the hiking thus far has shown us what attracted the Americans here, then the next few days will give us a taste of the more serious side of northern Sweden – the reason people like our Belgian friends consider the Kungsleden a challenge worthy of their attention.

“As we’re cooking breakfast, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite.”

It’s cold when we wake up, and drizzling slightly. Even through the trees that surround our tent, we can feel the wind is beginning to get up and as we set off and walk out above the treeline, both the rain and the wind get worse. Extra layers are put on, hoods are put up and rain covers are stretched over our backpacks.

We lean forward onto our poles, drop our shoulders and power on. But it’s exposed up here, and the storm seems to make the packs on our backs feel heavier. Suddenly carrying the extra camera gear, which has made my pack a hefty 25kg and taken Simona’s up to 19kg, doesn’t feel like such a good idea.

At one point we pass two fellow Classic participants, a Russian mother and daughter team from St. Petersburg, huddled behind a rock, sheltering against the wind.

They look like they’re struggling, and we’re glad when we see them make it to checkpoint two later that evening.

They’re far from the worst off though. A look at the route map on Fjällräven’s website shows images of happy hikers splashing around in a stream at the next checkpoint, Sälka. Yet it was here that the storm hit hardest, flattening all of those tents. “Some people carried on,” says Marie Olsson, the volunteer who’s been helping people pick up the pieces. “But because they’re staying in the huts it won’t count as completing the Classic.”

One couple have decided to call it a day altogether – as we’re eating our lunch one of the resupply helicopters lands next to us and they climb in, looking very grateful for the rescue. “Their tent was one of the ones that was destroyed,” says Marie sadly. “But also their boots were not good, their backpacks were too thin.” We thank our lucky stars that we’re kitted out in the right gear.

Certainly if the next few days teach us anything, it’s that neither the Kungsleden as a trail, nor the Classic as an event, should be underestimated. The terrain is never particularly steep, but the pathway is often strewn with rocks and can be tricky underfoot. For long sections the trail is just planks over boggy marshland and when the winds aren’t high enough to be an issue, the mosquitoes definitely are.

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Down from on high. The highest point on the Classic route is only 1,140 metres but this far north snow isn’t infrequent even in August.

At the Tjäktja checkpoint we find three volunteers, Mathias, Tomas and Frederick, bundled up in multiple jackets and sheltering inside the check-in tent against the weather. “You wouldn’t believe it,” says Frederick, “but sometimes it’s so hot at this time of year people are walking the Classic with no shirts on. You have to jump in the streams to cool down.”

“Hmmm,” says Simona, as we warm our hands around the cups of tea they’ve kindly poured us. Then we head back out into the rain.

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Somewhere over the rainbow. Stunning moments more than made up for the sometimes inclement weather.

But if there are moments where the Fjällräven Classic doesn’t feel like a summer holiday, they’re few and far between. More often, we find ourselves revelling in the sense of space, blown away by Lapland’s bleak beauty.

As we’re cooking breakfast one morning, with not another soul for miles around, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite. They stop just long enough for me to grab my camera and fire off a few frames, before they disappear over the next ridge.

On our penultimate day we find ourselves heading northwards across a wide open plateau, the sun dipping slowly behind the tents of a traditional Sami settlement to our left. Off to the right, we can see the tongues of two massive glaciers, reminders of the ice age that shaped and sculpted this ancient-looking landscape. “I feel like we might see a dinosaur here,” says Simona. If we did it certainly wouldn’t look out of place.

In the end, we don’t come across any sauropods. But we do come away with an appreciation of why this part of Sweden has attracted generations of outdoor enthusiasts. The Svenska Turistföreningen (the Swedish Tourist Association, or STF), has been managing and promoting this wilderness since it was first formed in 1885.

At strategic points along the trail, they’ve created what they call meditationsplats (meditation spaces) marked by stones carved with quotations by Däg Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat and author.

As the second Secretary General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld was a man who gave his life to the cause of peace (quite literally – he was killed on the job in 1961). And when he wasn’t working this part of the world, where he had a house, was where he came in search of it.

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A sun-soaked section of trail near one of the meditationsplats.

Taken from his book Markings, the quotes are carved here in Swedish and Sami. Neither are languages that I speak. Nor am I normally given to meditation. But standing next to the stones and looking out at the rugged landscape which surrounds them, I start to understand why it was that Hammarskjöld thought this place was so special.

It’s the same reason Åke Nordin was so keen on enabling other people to explore it. Friluftsliv might be a tricky concept to define in English, but spend a few days hiking here, in Fjällräven’s home country, and it’s instantly obvious what the whole thing is about.

Do It Yourself:

Getting there:

Norwegian Airlines (norwegian.com) and SAS (flysas.com) both fly from London to Kiruna via Stockholm, from £305 return.

Accommodation:

Contestants on the Classic must stay in the tent that they carry with them. However, you can stay in the STF huts along the Kungsleden if you’re not part of the event. Visit swedishtouristassociation.com for the English language version of their website.

At the end of the Classic, we stayed in the Abisko Guesthouse (abiskoguesthouse.com)

Joining the Fjällräven Classic
You can sign up for the next Fjällräven Classic Sweden (or any of their global spin off events) at classic.fjallraven.com.

As a way for international visitors to explore this unique part of Sweden, it really is hard to beat. Fjällräven provide food and gas to participants, as well as organising a finishing party. Navigation is very straightforward but it’s worth remembering that while there are regular checkpoints, you’re on your own for the most part, so make sure you have everything on Fjällräven’s helpful packing list.

The Fjällräven Classic Sweden usually takes five to six days to complete, although you can definitely do it faster – the first pair across the finish line when we took part were trail runners who completed the whole thing non-stop in under 20 hours!

Tristan and Simona’s trip was hosted by Fjällräven. For more info visit fjällräven.co.uk

To read the rest of The Remote Issue, click here.

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Ski Touring in France | The Secret Powder Stashes of the Maurienne Valley

Incredible terrain, cheap lift passes and its own microclimate. This valley really has it all

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It’s still early, my breakfast has barely settled, and yet here I am halfway up an icy, 55-degree slope, kicking footholds and digging my board in with every step to stop myself from slipping. Most guides would start a new group of skiers off with a cruisey red or blue run to assess their level. But Sylvain Rechu, who’s bounding up the hill ahead of me with the sure-footed self-assurance of the proverbial mountain goat, has no such time for such niceties.

The experience is all the more discombobulating because less than 24 hours ago I was at home in London. In between there have been two high-speed trains, a metro journey in Paris, a taxi to resort and three chairlifts rides, but it’s definitely still one of the more rapid ascents to 3,000 metres I’ve ever made.

“In winter the road is closed, so the valley remains a hidden secret, tucked away from the tourist crowds.”

In Sylvain’s defence, our group is pretty experienced, and no-one is uncomfortable getting stuck straight into this kind of terrain. Also, we have a lot of ground to cover if he’s going to show us the best that the Maurienne valley has to offer in just three and a half days.

Although it’s home to no fewer than 24 separate ski resorts, the Maurienne remains something of an unknown quantity, at least to most British skiers. Between us, our group, which includes my friends Matt, Cat and Abi, have spent decades exploring the French Alps, both for business and pleasure. Yet most of us have never been here, and none of us knows the area well.

Stairway to heaven. Matt scales the steep ascent in Bonneval-sur-Arc on our first day.

Stairway to heaven. Matt scales the steep ascent in Bonneval-sur-Arc on our first day.

The zone we’ll be exploring, the Haute Maurienne, is just a stone’s throw from some of France’s most famous mega-resorts as the crow flies. From Bonneval-Sur-Arc, where we met Sylvain this morning, you can actually drive to Val d’Isere in under two hours in the summer. But in winter the road, which winds over the Col d’Iseran, is closed. And so the valley remains a hidden secret, tucked away from the tourist crowds. As Eric Provost, Bonneval’s directeur de domaine skiable, tells us: “We have two kinds of visitors here – families who want something a bit quieter, and freeriders.”

The advantages of the Haute Maurienne’s lesser-known reputation are instantly obvious as we reach the objective that Sylvain’s set his sights on – a ridgeline just below the 3,217 metre Pointe d’Andagne. Down the other side we can see a broad, open valley which looks like it could provide a whole season’s worth of lines. Incredibly, although it’s five days since it last snowed, it’s nearly all untracked.

It’s hard not to be excited as we remove skins from our skis and splitboards. But this expectation is tempered by a certain amount of rationalisation. It’s the middle of April and it’s sunny. Even though the bowl isn’t tracked out, the snow surely can’t be fresh, can it? Yet as I follow Sylvain down into the face, I find myself letting out an involuntary whoop. It is fresh! At least a lot of it is.

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A man of many talents. Sylvain Rechu, the guide, trades in his skis for a snowboard one day and kills it on both.

The long, 600 vertical metre descent (named Anselmet after a local guide) winds its way down chutes and around ice cliffs. On the north facing aspects and in the shade of the rocks, the snow feels as if it could have fallen just hours before. Stopping to gather the group before the runout, there are high fives and broad grins all round. It’s some of the best snow we’ve had all season.

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Lads & lasses on tour. The group in La Norma, high above the Haute Maurienne.

I don’t care how hardcore you are, one of the best things about skiing in spring is the leisurely lunches in the sun. Thankfully the Haute Maurienne doesn’t disappoint. A quick tour up and a run down a more sun-affected lower slope takes us to the village of l’Ecot. Beyond the absurdly pretty stone church and down the winding streets we find Sylvain’s favourite restaurant, a converted farmhouse called Chez Mumu. It’s been a solid morning’s workout and we wash down our plates of pasta and boudin noir (French black pudding) with a couple of well-deserved beers.

As we eat, Sylvain explains more about the surrounding area and its unique microclimate. The valley benefits from a weather system called the Retour d’Est, which spirals up northwards from the gulf of Genoa and regularly dumps snow on the Maurienne even when the more northerly resorts in France are missing out. Could this place be much better for freeriding?

Our impression of the area as something of a secret backcountry paradise is reinforced the following day. Sylvain drives us down the valley (past a 19th century chateau perched improbably on the edge of a cliff) to the resort of La Norma. Unseasonal clouds swirl around the peak as we ride up the chairlift, but they begin to clear as we put skins on skis and boards and begin the tour up to the ridgeline below the peak at 2,917 metres.

From here, a series of steep couloirs plunge down towards a red piste some 400 vertical metres below, offering a whole plethora of different lines. The chute we drop into has a few tracks down it, and the snow is more chopped up and challenging than what we’d ridden the day before. But there are still some of the same miraculous pockets of fresh, and the run out – fast and open – sees us slashing and spraying each other all the way down to the piste.

Our next stop is Aussois, another of the resorts that are covered by the unified Haute Maurienne Eski-mo pass. Like La Norma and Bonneval-sur-Arc, it boasts fewer than a dozen lifts, but that still doesn’t explain how they can justify selling their six-day, five-resort passes for the ludicrously low price of €158. That’s more than €100 cheaper than a 6-day Espace Killy pass, which covers Tignes and Val d’Isere in the Tarantaise.

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Crusin’ – Cat Weakley enjoys a sunny run down to the refuge.

This difference in price between the two valleys is something Franck Buisson is fond of reminding his guests of. We meet Franck, the long-serving guardian of the Refuge de la Dent Parachée, after an hour or so of touring off the top of Aussois through the late afternoon sunshine. A jovial man with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye, he welcomes us with a bottle of genepi and a whole slew of stories, most of which involve the stuck up rich folks from the Tarantaise getting their comeuppance at the hands of the wily Mauriennais.

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To be franck… The man, the myth, the legend in full swing.

It’s apparently a fairly common stereotype round these parts, but Franck is such an excellent raconteur that even the guides bringing clients over from Val d’Isere can’t help but chuckle. As dinner arrives and the genepi keeps flowing he tells the story of a friend who’s a helicopter pilot stopping in for lunch one day, and accidentally taking off with one of his chickens in the cockpit. “And then I went to Courchevel and they were trying to sell me chicken and chips for €120 – not only did my chicken get taken to the Tarentaise but now they’re trying to sell it back to me for €120!” He laughs, outraged.

Sleeping arrangements in the refuge are basic – there’s one main dorm which fits around 30 guests, who have to share the wide on wooden bunks in groups of three or four. But whether it’s the genepi, the long day outdoors, or the quiet of the remote location, I sleep soundly, despite the inevitable snore-chestra that cranks into action after lights out.

“A jovial man with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye, he welcomes us with a bottle of genepi.”

It’s just as well because the following morning we’re out early, strapping harnesses over our ski pants and adding ice axes and crampons to our touring packs. From the refuge at 2,520 metres we’re aiming to tour to the 3,300 metre Col d’Abby. The snow here has definitely been affected by the sun, and where it’s refrozen on the steeper slopes, the ice is slippery enough that skins are no longer enough.

Strapping on crampons and using axes makes everything feel instantly more sketchy, but in the end the final ascent isn’t too taxing. Once again we’re treated to an incredible panoramic view, with fun-looking lines in all directions. Unfortunately despite Sylvain’s dynamic leadership, we’ve reached the ridge a little bit late and won’t have time to drop down the other side and make it back over. There’s a last lift we need to catch in Aussois if we’re going to make it back up the valley to Val Cenis, our final stop of this trip, tonight.

But if we’ve not quite completed the full tour Sylvain had planned, no-one in the group is hugely disappointed. Instead, we opt to take our time over the sunny line back the way we came at a leisurely pace. Arriving at the refuge earlier means we can enjoy another long, sunny lunch too, and a few more of Franck’s stories.

We might not have seen everything the valley has to offer – that would have been impossible in such a short space of time. But we’ve certainly seen enough to get a sense of the potential. With its 3,000 metre-plus peaks, its peculiarly consistent snow, and its lack of crowds, this place offers everything a freerider could want, and all at a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere. And then of course there are the friendly locals.

As the TGV whisks us back across France after an entertaining final morning in Val Cenis I reach into my bag and pull out the bottle that Franck had pushed into my hands as we left.

“This is a your payment,” he’d said with a wink, after I promised to send him some photos of the refuge to hang on his wall. Franck hasn’t bothered listing such trifles as the alcohol percentage on the homemade label, but needless to say it’s powerful stuff. Whether it’s the speed of the train, the strength of the moonshine, or simply the excellent company, the journey flies by in a blur. And when we pull into London’s crowded St Pancras station with a bump, I feel a little like Lucy coming back from Narnia. Were we really exploring a secret powdery paradise just a few hours before?

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Happy valley… The sun setting over the Maurienne.

Do it yourself:

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Getting there:

Train fares from London to Modane, in the Maurienne Valley, start at £116 standard class return. Book with SNCF (voyages-sncf.com).

Accommodation:

In the valley, we stayed at he 2-star Hotel La Clé des Champs in Val Cenis Lanslevillard (hotel-lacledeschamps.com) where rooms start at €68 per night.

Up the mountain we stayed at the Refuge de la Dent Parachée (refugeladentparrachee.ffcam.fr) which is open from March 1st and offers Bed, Breakfast, Dinner for €45.20.

Guides & Liftpasses:

We were guided by the awesome Sylvain Rechu, who kills is on skis and a snowboard equally. He works for the French/Swedish outfit Off Piste Maurienne (offpistmaurienne.com)

The 6-day Eski-Mo liftpass includes a day at each of the five Haute Maurienne member resorts (Aussois, Bonneval, La Norma, Val Cenis, Valfréjus) and a second day at the resort at which the pass is purchased. Prices range from €158-€198 depending on the time of year. Book from the Eski-Mo website (eski-mo.com)

Tristan’s trip was hosted by the French Tourist board and the Haute Maurienne region. For more info on the area, visit haute-maurienne-vanoise.com.

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How Woodsy Played a Blinder in ‘The Best Skiing Slopestyle Competition in History’

Woodsy might not have got the result he wanted today, but in the context his performance was insane.

James Woods (Great Britain) during the men’s ski slopestyle finals at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on 18th February 2018 at Phoenix Snow Park in South Korea © Sam Mellish

To misquote Radiohead, for a minute there we lost ourselves. To every Brit standing at the bottom of the slopestyle course in Pyeongchang, and I’m sure all of those watching at home, it seemed for a short while that history might be repeated.

James Woods had put down a blinding run in the men’s ski slopestyle final. Like his team mate Izzy Atkin in yesterday’s ladies’ competition, he was sitting in the bronze medal position with just a few skiers left to drop. Once again, the wait was agonising. But in the end it was not to be.

Nick Goepper of the US, always a threat on a pair of skis, came through with a run that was cleaner than Woodsy’s, landing himself in the silver medal position and bumping Woodsy into fourth.

“The switch triple cork 1440 octograb is a hammer of such magnitude it would put Mjolnir to shame.”

“Fourth isn’t that great, it definitely sucks,” said Woodsy afterwards. “You’re so close to the action.” But while he was disappointed “results-wise” he was proud of the way he’d skied, and rightly so.

Woods’ run, which he’d been “constructing for a good amount of time” mixed up techy rail tricks up top (including a transfer over the goal post reminiscent of Red Gerard) with a triple cork 1440, a 12, and then his signature trick – a massive switch triple cork 1440 octograb, a hammer of such magnitude it would put Mjolnir to shame.

Having put it down once in qualifying, Woodsy then stomped the same run twice in the three-run final. But he couldn’t quite keep it clean from top to bottom. On his first run he fell on the final trick, taking a heavy blow to the chin. His second was marred by coming off a rail slightly early, and on his third he sat down slightly on the landing of a 450 out. They were minor mistakes, but enough to cost him a medal.

Men's ski slopestyle final during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic

Woodsy with his coach Pat Sharples. Photo: Sam Mellish

Of course, throwing down a run like that, Woodsy hadn’t just been going for any medal, he’d been going for gold. And he wasn’t far off. As his coach Pat Sharples said afterwards: “I know I’m probably biassed but I think if he’d landed it cleanly, he would have won.”

Pat wasn’t the only one. Might the podium have looked different if Woodsy had kept it clean, we asked the gold medallist Oystein Braaten afterwards? “Yeah, I think so. It’s hard to say, but with the run he did, it was looking really good.”

“It was such a good last trick, I’m bummed for Woodsy,” Alex Beaulieu-Marchand, who took the bronze, agreed. “And also for the other skiers who were putting it out there.” Because Woodsy wasn’t the only skier who’d tried to tear the Phoenix Park slopestyle course a new one. As Nick Goepper said afterwards, “that was the greatest skiing slopestyle competition in history.” He wasn’t exaggerating either.

Oystein Braaten, the Swedish skier who claimed gold with a super clean run including two switch 14s. Photo: Sam Mellish

Woods himself had set the bar early when he landed his run in qualifying, but he’d known he would had to come out all guns blazing. “When Sharpey [Pat Sharples] brought me the startlist last night, I had a look at it and I thought ‘goodness me’,” he said. “It was like staring at a brick wall. Just to make it to this finals was incredible.”

The field was one of the strongest ever assembled in skiing slopestyle. The course was excellent, pushing riders to be as creative as possible. And the conditions were spot on, with barely a hint of the winds which had derailed the women’s snowboard slopestyle contest earlier in the week. It was a perfect storm. One look at the heavy hitters who didn’t make it through to finals was enough to show you the quality of the skiing on display.

Swedish skier Henrik Harlaut, who’s won enough X Games silverware to sink a galleon, was one of those who fell by the wayside. His countryman Jesper Tjader didn’t make the cut either. Russ Henshaw, Jackson Wells and McCrae Williams all put down runs, but none were deemed good enough. Woodsy’s team mate Tyler Harding skied amazingly well through the rails, landing probably the techiest trick of the day with a 450-on 450-off. But without sticking his kickers there was no way he was going through.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics Men's Freestyle Ski Slopestyle

Gus Kenworthy was just one of the big names gunning for gold in the finals, but he couldn’t put down a clean run. Photo: Sam Mellish

The judges must have been relieved that qualifying was only two runs. They’d given Woods a 90.20 and the top place qualifier 95.40. It wasn’t a question of tweaking their scoring scale so much as ripping it up and starting again.

Runs that would win any other competition were dismissed out of hand. Andri Ragettli of Switzerland who had qualified through in second was given a mere 85.80. Oscar Wester, the owner of that top qualifying score, put down a run that included a massive alley-oop double rodeo 9. It was only good enough for 11th place.

“Qualification was mind-blowing and the final was two times that,” was Goepper’s analysis, and Woodsy agreed. “Everybody brought their A Game,” he said, “I couldn’t be prouder for freeskiing.”

“Runs that would win any other competition were dismissed out of hand.”

It was a sentiment that the medallists shared. As ABM said: “Today was an incredible contest for ski slopestyle, showing the world what our sport is.” Goepper said. “I’m an athlete first but I’m a super fan second. Even in training, I kept commenting to the guys on the lift, like ‘wow’.”

All of which helps put Woodsy’s achievement into context. The day may not have ended with the result that he wanted. But in the best freeskiing slopestyle contest the world has ever seen, he’d given it his all, and he’d smashed it out of the park.

And seeing him standing there with blood dripping down his chin (the result of that nasty first run crash) there was no doubt in any of the spectators’ minds that the boy who grew up on Sheffield dryslope could hold his head high. He’d skied out of his skin, pushing the world’s best right to the wire, and driving the sport he loves forward in the process.

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