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Traverse of the Chablais

A fabulous week dicovering the skills required to guide a group across a stunning winter landscape.
A winter training course is part of the route to gaining the International Mountain Leader Award and in March 2014 I attended one on the mountain plateau of Hardangervidda in Norway. The course was provided by Plas y Brenin (http://www.pyb.co.uk), one of the UK's National Mountain Centres. It was led by British Mountain Guides, Simon Hale, Martin Chester and Steve Long, and included such delights as snowshoe journeys, micro navigation, transceiver work and animal tracking.

The IML award qualifies leaders to guide trekking groups in all mountain areas, except on glaciers or where alpinism techniques are needed. An IML can also take groups across snow covered mountains in winter, allowing access to some amazing scenery. In the debrief to my training course, and in preparation for the assessment, I expressed an interest in observing a qualified and experienced IML using the required skills 'for real'. The work of Tracks and Trails was immediately recommended to me, so that I might witness the best practice possible. And so almost a year later I found myself traversing the Chablais in the Haute Savoie with Lindsay Canon and Alex Langdon, as they guided eight clients through dramatic scenery in some exciting snow and weather conditions. The recommendation had been a good one.

The Chablais traverse itself was the brainchild of Lindsay. It's stats are impressive. In 6 days participants clock up over 90kms through snowy terrain - 5310m of ascent, 4710m descent—and, due to the shortness of daylight hours, this is all completed in as little actual walking time as 40 hours. The selected route takes in some impressive scenery, from high cols, ridges and optional peaks to forested valleys. In good weather there are views over to the Mont Blanc Massif, the Cornettes de Bise and Northwest to the Jura. And just when you feel the route can’t get any better, you come across the beautiful winter-deserted villages that make up the high Alpages and enter magical forests with trees transformed by snow into mythical creatures, before starting the descent via a balcony route to the shores of Lake Geneva: a final masterpiece that is entirely satisfying. Careful logistics mean that the clients luggage arrives ahead of them each day and a great selection of hotels provide three course meals, hot showers and comfortable beds, and the occasional jacuzzi and sauna. Did I mention free wifi?

These were the delights of the journey - but of course the trip was full of challenges, too. All participants were required to make each step towards their goal with a level of commitment not necessary on simple day walks. Basecamp was moving and so must they. This is why I was so privileged to be on this walk, both individually and professionally. No view was the same and neither was any decision that needed to be made. It was great to watch Lindsay and Alex using their skills to judge the constantly changing weather pattern of the week in relation to the route. It is hard to catalogue all the excellent practice I observed, but it included a teaching session on snowshoes and avalanche transceivers, group/expectation management, route and day planning in relation to the forecasted and actual snow conditions, liaison with taxi and hotel staff, as well as the soft skills of encouragement and genuine care for client welfare. All this took place in the context of winter conditions, with sometimes thigh-deep snow, when rigorous route finding and navigation skills were needed to minimise the clients' exposure to some truly harsh conditions and to allow for the extra fatigue involved in snowshoeing.

The happy smiles of the group each night, when - after being blasted by dramatic weather and amazing views -they arrived safely at their well-earned hotels, said it all. The sense of achievement by the shores of Lake Geneva were bitter sweet, as it is after all journeys that are completed in such style. The goal had been reached, but the fun was over and it was time for the parting of new friends. And as for me, I can only be truly grateful to Tracks and Trails for allowing me to be part of such a fantastic week, for the advice, instruction and encouragement received and for a clear demonstration of the standards required for the IML award, which has put me one step closer on the journey towards qualification.

David Barber, Trainee International Mountail Leader

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