Tested Tough With ColumbiaGear
John Summerton // Photography: David Carlier // Aiace Bazzana // Giuseppe Di Mauro
Powered by gravity and fuelled by the confidence that only a couple of shots of Abricotine (a local apricot-based spirit) can provide, we sped down a dark ice track on tiny plastic sleds, high above the Swiss town of Verbier, with the ambition of an Olympic bobsled team. I was representing the UK and facing stiff competition from the American, Canadian and Italian teams.
Gaining on the lead, I approached a tricky hairpin, lit up by our headtorches – the crux of the descent. I snatched at the brake in an attempt to drift the corner, only to be flung from the sled and bounced along the churned-up ice, ending up in a heap and nursing a bruised ego. Tested Tough: day one.
Earlier this year I joined Columbia to put the new Autumn Winter ‘17 range to the test in Verbier and Courmayeur. The plan was to seek some off-piste routes, experience a range of winter activities in both areas, and rigorously test the new clothing – gear for big hills in winter needs to be warm, manoeuvrable and flexible. For me, coming back in one piece would be an added bonus.
I’m the first to confess that I love throwing myself into circumstances that will push my boundaries, but there are times when the skills just don’t match the enthusiasm – as my tumble from the sled forced me to admit. When I saw what lay ahead I realised it was probably the right decision.
And so I left the extreme team as they joined Columbia sponsored athlete Géraldine Fasnacht for a steep skiing tour of the area.
Géraldine is renowned for her wingsuit flying and base jumping as well as her snowboarding. She has been competing on the International Freeride circuit for over eight years and is three-time champion of the Verbier Xtreme event, for which she also acts as an ambassador. She keeps exploring new lines with her wingsuit, climbing and flying in the most remote places on Earth – from the top of the Matterhorn to as far afield as Antarctica and many others in between (including the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai).
The conditions were near-perfect. The fine weather prompted a frenzy of enthusiasm and the team explored legendary off-piste descents, finding seemingly impossible lines.
For me though, it was a chance to take to the skies with a taste of ski-paragliding. The ski part was easy going – ‘just point your skis downhill and let’s go,’ and before I knew it we were spiralling up and up high over the peaks surrounding the Swiss town. Verbier itself is at an altitude of roughly 1,500m (higher than Ben Nevis) and the mountains climb to well over 3,000m. Before long my pilot found a magical thermal and we were ascending rapidly. There was little for me to do but sit back and enjoy the ride, wind in my face and adrenaline surging, as we cleared the snow-covered Alpine summits and traversed the region, the world beneath my skis, before landing back in the resort with a slightly sketchy manoeuvre on a blue piste run.
Columbia firmly believe in Tested Tough. It’s the mantra behind the products and the people. But the brand is also all about having fun and enjoying a life outdoors, doing what you love, and they’ve designed a range of clothing that offers you the best possible protection whilst you do it. The new product range is rock solid with fine attention to detail in the materials, design and construction. As usual with Columbia, there’s been a huge amount of innovation and clever thinking behind the materials, and all that expertise results in clothing that is super warm when you’re inactive, but very breathable when you’re working hard. Most importantly, though, the garments are designed and manufactured with the environment in mind. Protect where we play.
Earlier this year we reported on the leave-no-trace Extreme ECO Jacket, and now the new OutDry Extreme ECO Down jacket that we were trying out has been awarded the bluesign® seal of approval.
The bluesign® system eliminates harmful substances from the beginning of the manufacturing process and controls standards for an environmentally friendly and safe production. This not only ensures that the product meets stringent consumer safety requirements worldwide but also gives the consumer confidence that they are acquiring a sustainable product.
It’s so good to see outdoor brands realising that action needs to be taken to protect the environment and reacting in such positive ways, planning and future-proofing to ensure that our pursuits leave a minimal footprint. And Columbia are amongst the leaders of this pack.
Our Tested Tough programme took us from Verbier over to Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley, Italy – a different and contrasting experience but no less enjoyable. From the luxury, high-end and exclusive Verbier, Courmayeur felt more homely. Warm and inviting and with a relaxed Italian vibe to it, compared to a more efficient Swiss way of life.
Trail running, fatbiking and plenty of beer, pasta and pizza were on the menu but the icing on the cake was skiing the world-famous Vallee Blanche. A 20km off-piste ski route winds between crevasses and séracs down one of the mightiest glaciers in the Alps towards the Chamonix valley.
The clouds from the previous day had disappeared and we were rewarded with infinite views across the Alps from our start at the Pointe Helbronner, surrounded by some of the greatest peaks of the Mont Blanc massif. It was time to ski!
Two hours passed in a blur of blue and white as we threaded our way down the glacier, passing impressive but daunting séracs, icy-blue crevasses and sparkling icefalls. The world felt strangely calm, despite the occasional whoops and hollers echoing around the valley, and I was reminded how important it is to spend time outside, doing what you love, but also incredibly important to ensure that future generations can do the same.