Earning Your Turns
Sidetracked Challenge Series
Sophie Radcliffe // Photography by Daniel Wildey
In the second part of the Challenge series Sophie and Charley Radcliffe head to the mountains to put their newly learned ski touring skills to the test whilst venturing into new areas high above the Chamonix Valley.
I arrange my kit the night before a ski touring adventure. Everything that goes into my bag is crucial for me to take and I can’t risk forgetting something in the sleepyness of an early morning start. Avalanche transceiver, skins, skis, boots, poles, down jacket, warm hat, two pairs of gloves, sunglasses, goggles, helmet, camera, water and food. My kit is all set and I head to bed.
I’ve always dreamed of ski touring; of the concept of hut-to-hut tours, spending day after day exploring the beautiful, life-giving mountains by skis. It was on my to-list in my ‘One Day’ pile. Not the pile that I’ll get round to when I have time, or money. The pile I’ll get to when I’m good enough.
In my mind, I had a series of boxes that needed to be ticked before I could ski tour. First I needed to be a competent skier, following that I could learn to ski off-piste. Once I felt confident off-piste and knew how to deal with the conditions, then I would be ready to ski tour. Sound familiar?
I believe that in order to make big leaps in progress, I need to make big moves. I didn’t tick all those boxes before I learned to ski tour, I found friends who were willing to take me under their wings and threw myself in at the deep end. This winter Charley learnt to ski and I had previously skied for just three weeks. We are not expert skiers, but we started small and built from there.
Today is our first ski tour together, just the two of us. We’ve chosen the Col du Belvedere at 2780 metres, above Flegere, on the Aiguilles Rouges in Chamonix. The clouds are clearing in the early morning light as we gear up at 2385 metres having taken the lift to our starting point. We chat about our plan for the day, sharing what we’ve read about the route and know about the risks we need to be aware of; crevasses, avalanche conditions, weather.
Over the next few hours we ski tour through snow covered rocky boulder fields, along steep ridges, across frozen high alpine lakes, up wide-open colouirs and to the top of the col we have set our sights on.
We remember everything we’ve learnt from our season of living in the mountains and the trips we’ve shared with friends. Charley and I are always honest about our experience amongst people we venture into the mountains with. Never in a rush to prove strength or expertise, almost always assuming we have everything to learn. This means people are happy to show us the ropes. We’re quick learners and have bags of enthusiasm which has helped us make big leaps in progress.
This morning, the hours blend from one into the next with a constant flow of sweat, smiles and gratitude for this beautiful life, this amazing sport we are discovering and the incredible natural beauty of the world around us.
I can’t decide which view is more spectacular, the stunning and huge Col du Belvedere we are inching our way up and the dramatic curve of the rocky outcrops around it. Or the Vallée Blanche behind us, majestically curving it’s way through the mountains on the opposite side of the valley. Made all that more eye-catching by the clouds and sun playing a game of hide and seek in the sky.
Charley and I move in single file, pushing our skis up the mountain by sliding our feet forward, our toes clipped into the bindings but our heels unlocked. I notice how much he’s sweating and feel better about the constant drip I can feel under my baselayers. The truth is, I love it. I love the burn in my legs, and the endurance element in this sport; slow and steady wins the race. I’m in my element and focus on my technique, on really gliding each of my legs and gaining a few extra inches to help propel me up this mountain.
I let my mind drift whilst we climb to the top of the Col. At the top it’s hugs, high fives and a water break. We take a few minutes to catch our breath and enjoy the immensely beautiful view before our eyes. To get to the top we’ve been skinning up hill for two and a half hours and are feeling it. Charley looks at me and I can guess by the look of wonder in his eyes the sentiment of what he’s going to say: “what a wonderful life we lead,” he says.
Next it’s skins off, flick the bindings into downhill mode, shell layer, gloves, helmet and goggles on, and we’re off. Within minutes we’ve covered the distance it took an hour to skin up. We take a quick break to bask in the sunshine and discuss who makes the best brownies. He’s convinced it’s him, I think it’s me. Today we’re eating my oreo brownies and we both agree they’re very good!
On the way back to the lift that will take us to the Chamonix valley we learn from the mountains with every turn. We’re feeling adventurous and decide to drop into a gully for a few beautiful powder turns. The snow is quite heavy due to it being early afternoon, our legs are tired and there is a fair bit of traversing which always makes me feel tense.
I think about a recent conversation with a friend, Steve, who said “the mountains are giving me everything right now, and rightly so”. I’ve found the world is there to give us what we want, need and are looking for, if we give it the chance to do so. It’s been less than a year since Charley and I moved from London to Chamonix and changed our lives in so many ways. Learning to ski tour, running in the mountains and living in a place that feeds our souls has probably been the best decision we’ve ever made.
Sophie Radcliffe, 29, is an adventure athlete living in Chamonix with her husband Charley. She’s cycled from London to Paris in 24 hours, climbed Mont Blanc, is a two times Ironman finisher, run from London to Brighton and recently completed the world’s first Alpine Coast to Coast by cycling the Alps and climbing their highest mountains in 32 days. She believes that through challenging ourselves we develop the confidence, resilience and drive to achieve extraordinary things across all areas of life.
Daniel Wildey is a lover of adventure and wants to tell the world. His photography and writing reflect a passion for inspiring others to head to the hills.
Produced in partnership with Salomon.