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Shock horror the 'guide' is wearing walking shoes! That was certainly the reaction a few years ago when I turned up to meet my group of Tour du Mont Blanc hikers with low cut walking shoes. The walking shoes in question were North Face Hedgehogs and five years later I am still guiding wearing 'Hedgehogs'. Certainly, since then it has become more and more common for 'walkers' to be wearing low cut 'shoes' rather than heavy duty walking boots and from my own experience the benefits are clear.

Perhaps the biggest difference you will notice is that the traditional 'ankle support' is absent. My ankles have never been twisted, and they seem to be much stronger since I shunned my walking boots! Don't get me wrong, boots are essential mountain wear, and there is always a pair of boots in my luggage just in case there is snow overnight or the terrain is super rough.

So why wear walking shoes? Well, they are lighter, more comfortable, not so hot in the summer sun, allow me to move faster and let me keep going all day without discomfort. Perhaps the biggest difference is that I can do major ascents and descents day after day during the guiding season without any knee problems. Think about it - our ankles are designed to move from side to side, but with high ankle support they are trapped in position which means our knees have to absorb more of the movement and shock.

A few things to consider -

Comfort

Hiking shoes usually have thinner soles than walking boots, but with a shoe like the 'Hedgehog' the sole is stiff enough to absorb any rough or sharp rocky terrain. On very hot days my feet do not overheat and on very wet days the Goretex liner keeps them dry. However, I would normally wear a very short gaiter to stop the water running into them. Again I go for 'light' and in fact use trail running gaiters, which are also handy when walking on scree as they stop any small pieces of grit getting into your shoe. For maximum comfort I have indeed guided in Trail Running Shoes such as the Scott eRide Grip. These are great, but the sole is thinner than the Hedgehog and they are best for good paths and trail where the terrain is not mega rocky. Last autumn I wore the eRide while guiding in the Sikkim area of Indian Himalayas.

Weight

No one likes to feel like every step is an effort and with hiking shoes you will find you are indeed much lighter on your feet. Shoes are usually about half the weight of leather walking boots and when every day involves thousands of steps then the difference does mount up. Almost all the major walking boot manufacturers now make a 'shoe' for walking. A good page to check which shows a range of shoes available is the one from Merrell.

Weather

We've already touched on the heat factor, but what about water. Walking boots definitely win out when it comes to crossing streams! You can usually rock hop across and keep your feet dry. Walking shoes usually mean damp feet if you actually have to put your feet in the water. However, the plus side is that shoes, because they are made of thin synthetic materials do dry quickly, whereas if you do actually get your walking boots saturated then they are going to take a long time to dry out. I have crossed streams ankle deep with my shoes full of water, only to have them dry out in about an hour on a sunny day. In cold snowy weather, then yes, it's once again the boots that win out, though I have crossed snow fields very comfortably in shoes. Some shoes have soles which are tortionally rigid and can cut reasonable steps! Though as stated at the start - I always keep a pair of boots in my overnight bag in case 'winter' arrives overnight. There is a list of top ten hiking boots to be found in The Independent newspaper.

Protection

There is no doubt that boots protect your ankles from scrapes and bangs on rough and rocky ground, and I am first to admit that I have on more than one occassion had a bloody ankle! However, I would argue that wearing shoes generally means I am lighter on my feet and take more care about where I step. The side support on boots does protect your ankle from sprains and twists, and offers more protection when crossing wet terrain or streams. The stiffer sole on a boot also protects the sole of your foot, but if you choose your walking shoe carefully you can get a decent enough sole which will work well on a large variety of terrain.

Getting Started
As walking shoes offer less support it's a good idea to get used to them gradually and give your ankles a chance to become stronger before fully committing to a long trip. I did once have a female client, however, who at the end of the first day of the Tour du Mont Blanc decided her knees where too sore from the first big descent to Les Contamines and who popped into a mountain shop and bought a pair of walking shoes and proceeded to wear them for the rest of the trip with zero problems.

Final Word

Walking shoes may not be for everyone, and if you have weak ankles then boots will definitely give more support. It's a subject which generates plenty of debate, and there are strong supporters of both. All I can say from personal experience is that walking shoes have saved my knees, and hopefully I will be working as a hiking guide for many years to come. NB: my 'boots' are always in my overnight bag - just in case! If you join us on a Tracks and Trails trip you will be asked to bring boots with you in case the weather turns wintry, but we will not object if you wear hiking shoes on the trail.

When I saw the Guardian Newspaper, image of Austrian daredevil, 24 year old, Mich Kemeter balancing precariously high above the Verdon Gorge I felt quite ill. Having peered from the top of these magnificient jagged cliffs into the depths I know just how stomach churning the experience can be, so what possessed Mich to tight-rope walk across the chasm without safety ropes defies belief.

I spent last Spring guiding a walking trip to, and through, the Verdon Gorge, which is know as the Grand Canyon of Europe. It is truly an amazing place - I had been prepared to be impressed and I was ! The Gorge is about 25 kilometres long and in places it is 700 metres deep. The turquoise-green waters gave the river its name, the Verdon, and aside from the jaw dropping depths of the Gorge itself, it's the colour of the water for which it is also famed.

The most impressive stretch of the Gorges du Verdon lies between the beautiful towns of Castellane and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie which are themselves well worth a visit. Without doubt the spring is the best time to walk in the area, the countryside feels fresh and clean, and the scorching heat of the summer is still to arrive. The wild flowers emerging in the Provencal landscape bring a burst of colour to the scene and can only add to the experience.

I am hoping to be heading back there this spring to guide our trip which is based in the area, and takes in the Gorge itself. I could never get too much of the stunning, wild, jagged beauty that is the Grand Canyon of Europe.This wonder of nature is a spectacular sight to behold.

http://www.tracks-and-trails.com/index.php/eng/Walking/Scheduled-Departures/Verdon-Gorge-Grand-Canyon-of-Europe

Lindsay

Scott Icerunners and the ion-mask!

Just when you think Spring is in the air this week the Alps were covered in another metre or more of snow and that's just at valley level. What a season - this winter just keeps on giving! But for many runners this can be a tricky time to get the miles and speed sessions in due to the challenging conditions underfoot. From fresh snow, slush, hard packed snow or ice – you can see how it can be tempting to skip a training session or two! In previous years I've worn spikes over my shoes (see previous blog) to keep me running but this year I've been delighted to try the new Scott Icerunners. A big plus for Icerunners too is that they feel like a normal trainer/sneaker on the different surfaces, where as when you wear spikes as you change surfaces you can often feel them underfoot. The Icerunners certainly offer an excellent compromise for an 'all terrain winter shoe' however on long steep sections of technical ice I would still recommend more of a crampon – such as the Kahtoola Microspikes over the top. That said, whilst trying out new equipment like this don't commit yourself and run into tricky terrain where turning back becomes awkward.

The Scott Icerunners are not only stylish to look at but have been really well designed, offering a trainer which provides excellent traction in pretty much all conditions and can truly promote itself as an "all terrain" running shoe. I've taken it on snow, mud, ice, road, gritty trails and rock and so far I'm really impressed with them. I had a half size larger than normal to enable me to wear warmer/thicker socks which allows for a little warm air to circulate – important for those sub 10 runs.

Their science:

  • Water repellent/breathable 'ionmask' treated upper
  • Contain the eRide midsole
  • Icetrek traction Vibram outsole
  • Weighing in at 250gm

They have a sleek design in attractive colours (good for the bar as well as the trail!), a neat minimal lacing system with a simple waterproof cuff/gaiter to prevent the snow from getting inside. A waterproof feel to the upper and a stiff rubber sole with little rubber studs for traction.

So what is the Ionmask?

A protective layer, invisible to wearers, and is said to be over one thousand times thinner than a human hair! The technology is molecularly bonded across the surface of the shoe making it extremely durable, waterproof & breathable without affecting the look or feel of the product. Scott state that the ion-mask™ lasts as long as the material itself and is not compromised by everyday wear. By resisting the absorption of water and dirt, ion-mask™ should guard against stains, making products look newer for longer.

The Scott eRide component adds a biomechanically efficient and stable midsole. Vibram have added the latest Icetrek rubber outsole giving a secure winterised fit, good surface traction and cushioning on pretty much all surfaces. As the Icetrek sole is designed for a variety of surfaces and is therefore quite stiff, my only thoughts are that you wouldn't want to run for too long a period on normal tarmac....but you're unlikely to find too much of that in the Alps for a while yet!

Over all Scott have certainly created a superb quality shoe which combines; good winter traction, breathability & water repellency, style and comfort, therefore creating a versatile, high performance all-round multi-terrain winter trail shoe.

Next on the Scott shoe list when Spring does finally appear are the T2 KINABALU.

Julia

Last month the record for running the winter Ramsay round was well and truly broken.

The 'Ramsay's Round' is a 24-hour hill circuit of 60 miles taking in 24 summits of Scottish Munros including; Ben Nevis, the Aonachs, Grey Corries, the Loch Trieg group and the Mamores with a total climb of around 28,500 feet / 8686m. First run by Charlie Ramsay in 1978, this is one of the world's toughest mountain running challenges and taken on and completed by very few.

Friend and fellow fell runner Jon Gay ran the 24 Munros solo over 23rd/24th February 2013 in 23 hours 18 minutes. That's a whole four hours quicker than the previous record set in 2012. It's difficult to imagine - but it's a bit like ascending Everest from sea level, mostly at night, on your own. Only four people are known to have done it in winter in the 34 years since the summer round was first completed. Anyone into winter 'munroing' will know that just one or two Scottish mountains can prove to be tricky, even in the summer.

"I was pleased to complete a Ramsay's in summer 2010 along with Pete Duggan. I am an average runner especially on the flat, but ok at ascending or general hill bashing. Completion for me in winter seemed a long shot."

The required winter skills, physical fitness and understanding of the 'round' is an achievement in itself taking years to develop. Tackling any of these mountains in winter, at night and alone at this speed is definitely noteworthy. The Round.

"Ascending the Ben the cloud was down and there was fine snow falling. Here we go again I thought, whilst struggling with my crampons/ reviving my fingers. But emerging down Carn Mor Dearg Arete (runnable due to snow cover) I entered an Alpine wonderland with rime on the rocks and full 'styrofoam' neve (hard snow) underfoot.

Shortly after I started feeling sick, weak and dizzy- completely debilitating. I gave in a number of times and had to lie briefly in the snow, before becoming cold. It was a thorough effort of will to move. If there had been any weather threat or higher wind chill I would have force marched myself immediately down, I guess, to the bothy. But it appeared to be temporary low blood sugar or the body generally protesting
as it does on these long routes. Glucose gradually brought me back to life.

Jon added: "Besides the mountains being so 'runnable' and the weather perfect, the near full moon topped everything. The solid snow may have made it faster or marginally less exhausting than summer. I have been extremely lucky. I am obviously delighted to complete but feel humbled to have got a decent time in winter when many runners could have gone faster in such wonderful conditions."

What an impressive achievement and example of dedication - an amazing achievement, Jon: this will be a touch record to beat!

Julia

Factbox 

Jon lost 6 kgs and just carried 1.4 kgs of food!

Jon's Kit Notes:

Thin Lowe Alpine Balaclava - Less likely to get lost than a hat.

Led Lenser H7 headtorch - Light weight, very bright with a penetrating/focussing beam, helped navigation. AAA batteries faded after about 8 hours on full beam. Took 2 spare sets of 3.

Smartwool tee shirt - Warm when damp from sweat.

Omm 'Smitten' long sleeve top - Thumb loops to help keep hands warm.

Montane 'Event' jacket

Inov 8 Roc lite 318 fell shoes - A size and a half too big to fit socks. They have a rand at the front which seems to help keep toes warm-ish. Roclites can be bought via the online shop Facewest.

Karrimor 'Xlite' 15 litre running sack - £15 incredibly light, sculpted and comfortable.

Camp XL20 200 gram ski touring axe - Carried between back and rucsack strap for immediate access, string leash clipped to chest strap.

Kahtoola 10 point flexible walking crampons - Great on fell shoes. When you need them you really need them? Wore them on Ben, Aonachs, Easains and most of night in Mamores. Avoid Kahtoola micro spike copies from ebay or you will be tying them together on the move. Postman's rubber crampons- never again. Instep crampons made from the back of a climbing crampon - painful.

Cut down Silva compass tied to sac belt.

Harvey Ramsey Map - Includes East Loch Treig area.

Ortleib waterproof bag - Bag tied to rucsac.

Schedule and pencil. Idiot card with pacing/ timing etc. For when the brain cells die!

Tesco bag to keep 'downstairs' warm. Essential and better than using a hat. Try 2!!

Download Jon's full report, split times and full kit list here.

To run barefoot, or not?

Barefoot running is getting a lot of attention these days. Should you retire those well-worn shoes and go 'au naturel'?

Seems like more and more runners, including a fair few trail runners, are making the switch to barefoot running. Most aren't exactly running completely 'au naturel', but instead are choosing the latest foot attire from well-known manufacturers such as Vibram, VIVOBAREFOOT, Nike and Merrell. Indeed, there's quite a difference between the different models, and some you'd hardly call 'barefoot models' - Nike in fact talk of 'barefoot-like running' and still seem to place quite an emphasis on putting a bit more rubber (and cushioning) between your feet and the trail. Vibram (at least styling-wise) appear to have bought in most to the concept: the look of the fivefingers models are not for everyone!

Vibram also seem to have cottoned on to the fact that some runners experience a little discomfort when adapting to the new shoes. They've produced a handy FAQ section on their site, which you'll find here. That said, there are some genuine concerns as to whether the switch to minimalist shoes is the right step - or leap - for everyone. You'll read on the websites of the manufacturers that the new models all help you run 'more naturally', with 'a closer connection to the ground'... but we should remain conscious that, after all, they're also trying to shift new shoes in an already crowded market. The move to minimalism represents a great opportunity for Nike et al to encourage everyone go out and buy yet another new piece of kit. This is where science steps in and raises a few questions...

A new report published in February adds to the ongoing debate. This latest research, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, suggested that some runners are ill-suited to adapting to the barefoot-style shoes and develop new aches and injuries. Conversely, others found that the more minimalist shoes didn't hamper their running technique and had no impact on raising their exposure to running-related injuries.

These results represent just the very start of the ongoing research into barefoot running equipment and running techniques associated with the new shoes. The researcher, Dr. Sarah Ridge, is now reviewing additional data about the volunteers in the programme and analysing information about each runner’s mileage, running form, body weight, etc. She noted that the results don’t necessarily mean everyone switching to minimal footwear will court foot injuries, just that in making the transition you'd do best to do so slowly. Be cautious and listen to your body (as always!!!).

Julia

Interesting article in the New York Times on exercise and why we are "physiologically lazy...Using treadmill testing, scientists have definitively established that, like other animals, humans naturally aim to use as little energy as possible during most movement."

No surprise there really, but do read on... "when we walk or run, our bodies tend to choose a particular cadence, a combination of step length and step frequency, that allows us to move at any given speed with as little physiological effort as possible." Bring it on I say, anything to make going up and down those alpine hills easier and I am with it!

A study carried out by Simon Fraser University in British Columbia asked volunteers to walk on a treadmill at an easy pace where they measured steps per minute. They then increased the speed and analaysed how quickly people responded. In two seconds our bodies naturally adapt to this change with the amount of oxygen in our blood rising or falling because our muscles require more or less.

Runners are no different with the same process occuring when they studied people moving at speed.

One of the conclusions according to the New York Times was "our brains very likely contain huge libraries of preset paces... step cadences for any given speed and condition. It seems probable, in fact, that over our lifetimes... our brains develop and store countless templates for most pacing situations. We learn and remember what cadence allows us to use the least energy at that speed, and when we reach that speed, we immediately default to our body’s most efficient pace."

Now, this is the bit I like ! Findings suggest that MUSIC is one of the best ways to affect the pace of your running or walking. If you want to go faster load your iPod with uptempo music, simply as that. However, do be sensible and build up any changes gradually. A new app has recently been launched called Cruise Control which means you can coordinate your pacing with your playlists.There's also the Nike + app, which is available for iPods, iPhones and Android devices.

The overall impression from these studies, however, is that your body will adapt to the pace which is the most efficient for what you are doing! Love it, go body, go....

Lindsay

What an amazing experience! Recently spent a day at the Foire de Saint Ours, in Aosta, Italy. For over one thousand years artisans have gathered at the end of January in the beautiful Roman city of Aosta to celebrate their craft in wood and stone. I was dragged along by a friend who said he wanted to check out the Fair - I interpreted this as a few stalls and a quick Italian coffee then home again. In fact I was bemused that my friend, an avid ski mountaineer, should want to visit town on a blue sky powder day !

It soon became apparent why people travel from all over this lovely part of Italy to spend several days at the Foire. This is the 1013th Foire, or Fair, to take place in Aosta, and exactly one thousand craftspeople had set up stalls in the heart of the town. Such was the throng that a one way system existed for the pedestrians. A really fabulous atmosphere with people singing, dancing, drinking vin chaud, and stirring pots of polenta on wood burning stoves set up just for the Fair.

I had thought it would be full of carved wooden Bears of varying descriptions given that Ours means Bear in French, however, it turns out that Saint Ours, originiated from the town of Saint Ours, and was not, as I had thought, patron of fuzzy wuzzy mammals.

If you are ever in Italy at the end of January this is one event not to be missed. Needless to say I came home clutching various wooden items with my 'polenta stirrer' taking pride of place. Lindsay

The great snow conditions continue here in the Alps giving us a fabulous start to the New Year. The view from the office window this morning offers another blue sky day with the sun sparkling on the mountain tops. Ski conditions on the downhill pistes in Chamonix are excellent and the town is buzzing ! Off piste a lot of the terrain is ‘skied out’ but offering good descents in what are ‘stable’ snow pack conditions. For the French avalanche bulletin check here and if you are in Switzerland this provides a good service and an App called White Risk, which I would recommend. One of the best snow forecasts is from snow-forecast.com

Cross country ski tracks are also offering really great ski conditions just now right across the Alps. In Chamonix there are no icy patches to catch you out and good snow with great grip for those glides! We have been looking at France’s most famous long distance cross country race the Transjurassiene which this year is the 9 and 10 February. Last year Lindsay took part in the 30km skate and won her category, and was 21st woman overall. She reckons that if she can do it, then you can! An event coming up before too long is the Fox Trail at Col des Mosses, in Switzerland where many champions have trained over the years. You can check out the details and enter here. Julia also did well last year coming 2nd overall in a two person team in the popular Run and Skate event in Chamonix. It was great to see her on the podium for Tracks and Trails! This year the event is the 24 February and you can register here.

Higher up the mountain we have been very busy with snowshoeing and have introduced quite a few people over the last week to this winter activity. It’s an ideal way to escape the crowds and enjoy the solitude of the mountains in winter. A world of silent forests and sparking snow crystals, blue skies and views of the glaciers. The group yesterday were pleasantly surprised at how snowshoes have developed into high-tech pieces of kit. I think they were expecting ‘tennis racquets’ and instead got very efficient, lightweight gear. We use TSL who are the main manufacturers in France and offer a wide range of snowshoes for all levels of snowshoeing, from a quiet wander along the valley bottom, to more adventurous mountaineering on much steeper ground. They even have a snowshoe for running in the winter months.

So, for us 2013 is off to a good start with bookings coming in and excellent snow. Hopefully we will see you this winter?

PS do let us know if you decide to enter for either of the above races!

Festive Madness

Our base in the Alps, Chamonix, makes one of the world's greatest Christmas destinations. What with the snowy activities, festive lights and warming vin chaud it's hard to go wrong and impossible not to get in the spirit to celebrate.

Have you been Naughty or Nice?

Following Lindsay's recent work on the BMC 'Rock Climbing Essentials' DVD we still have a few copies to give away for FREE to our clients. The DVD is the 6th in a series and covers skills for rock climbing in the UK. To receive a copy just drop us a line.

Winter Tasters for Women

As ambassadors for Lolë (active women's clothing) we are offering FREE cross country ski lessons & snowshoeing tasters for women in Chamonix. Lolë offer 'Meet Up's' every week for women in activities like yoga, pilates, running, skiing, boot camps (to name a few) to help encourage an active lifestyle and all the sessions are free to attend. Our next session is:

An Introduction to 'Skate Skiing', Thursday 3rd January 2013 at 10:00-11:30 (places are limited to 8)

To receive a copy of the DVD or to join a Meet Up please drop us a line via our Contact Us pages.

Late Availability

If you are still thinking about escaping to the mountains this winter then do contact us for current availability on scheduled trips or on how to create a tailor-made holiday, as bookings and trip statuses change daily. We would be delighted to share our winter wonderland with you.

Snowshoeing - Dates, Prices & Availability

Cross Country Skiing - Dates, Prices & Availabilty

Lindsay and Julia would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and we look forward to seeing you again in the mountains.

What a fantastic start to the season in the Alps - waist deep powder in the mountains and searing blue skies to dazzle even the most jaded eyes! It must be the best early season snow in ChamonixFrance for at least ten years, or certainly that seems to be what my memory is saying.

The Grand Montets and Les Houches ski areas are already open and the squeals and yells of delight can be heard all over the valley. The other ski areas are gearing up to open this coming weekend on the 22 December at Flegere, Balme and Brevent.

The Nordic ski tracks in Chamonix are in excellent condition right now and I had a fabulous time this week when I managed to get my first cross country 'skate' session done. A real joy to be cruising with light ski gear in a snowy wonderland and great to remember what a lovely way it is of travelling across the landscape. I am not suggesting you need to be an Olympic athelete to try it, but I have given a link HERE to a great film of atheltes 'skating'. We take a much more leisurely approach at Tracks and Trails.

The other style is of course 'classic' cross country which is more like the traditional running motion, but with skis on! This is also done on the same cross country ski area/track and literally runs along side the skate area.

We should also be set for an excellent snowshoe season as the forests and high meadows and tops are absolutely covered in a deep blanket of power snow.

Today I was checking out the Samoens area for our snowshoe week starting 13 January and it's looking good! Pines coated in crystals, the cliffs shining with ice, and the mountains sparkling as far as the eye could see. The full itinerary is HERE if you fancy joining us. We already have five people booked and it should be a good group.

We have more snow forecast over the next few days so I will be spending more time digging out the car!

Best wishes for Christmas

Lindsay

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