The Short Bus ski touring adventure (Because you might just be dumb enough to sign up)

By Eric Yotz 

Skiing the Grand Desert Glacier in Verbier

- As I sit in a Geneva cafe, relaxing after a whirlwind backcountry ski trip through some of the most scenic terrain that the Alps have to offer, I have a chance to contemplate the events of the last 6 days. 
As an avid backcountry skier in the Pacific Northwest I go out into familiar local terrain whenever the weather and the conditions happen to coincide with my precious days off. The Cascades have plenty to offer, much of which is still beyond my current skill level but despite that, it's still local territory.....you can read the signs, people speak your language and you can still hit a Denny's afterwards to carbo re-load after a big day in the mountains. In order to challenge that familiarity I signed up for Pro Ski and Guiding's "Short Bus" trip in Europe's central Alps. 

Kirk Swanson climbing up to the Col des Aig. des Crochues in the Chamonix backcountry

Starting in Chamonix, this trip is unique in that rather than having a set destination, goal and objective from a fixed location, we had available to us an 8 passenger VW van (probably not offered in the U.S.) that gave us the flexibility to go wherever the conditions dictated. 
Each day became an alpine crap shoot; we would be presented a plan over dinner, then during the night our guides, Martin Volken and Borra Rinaldo would compare the multitude of available weather and condition forecasts with their intimate knowledge of the subtleties of the complex micro-climates of the region to present to us over breakfast what we were really going to be doing that day. Every morning was like Christmas, and we couldn't wait to wake up and find out what that day held. 

Rinaldo Borra pointing out a fraction of the terrain he is familiar with in the Zinal Valley
Each adventure was unique in both content and challenge, but the one constant was the quality of the experience we enjoyed. We would routinely have sunshine and fresh snow in our area while only one valley over there might be storm clouds and 80km winds. We learned that on the Short Bus, don't ever make reservations for hotel rooms in advance because with this kind of flexibility you're unlikely to sleep there......
Our crew consisted of Jim from Albuquerque who has toured many times with Pro Guiding, and along with myself, two of my very good friends, Tony and Kirk from my home state of Washington. 
Though we each have a solid foundation in backcountry skiing and have been enjoying it for several years, our basic skills compared to our guides sometimes made it more like the alpine version of "Take your children to work week". But at least Martin had malleable clay to work with, and the easy going vibe of the group left behind hardcore dogma and preconceived expectations. 

Jim Bailey on board of a world class Air Zermatt helicopter to go have a 9000 foot descent off the Alphubel
That vibe worked both ways as Martin and Rinaldo exuded an aura of friendliness and competency. They seemed to be able to sense our skills and comfort levels and were able to challenge us without exceeding our abilities, too often....

https://www.facebook.com/martin.volken.14/videos/1318908401458686/


There is also a subtleness in the way that the Pro Ski guides communicate and as the week went on we began to gradually tease out the meanings of their phrases, such as; "Stay in my tracks...!" Which means, go much to the left or right and you could end up in a hidden crevasse or trigger a wet slide avalanche. 
And when Rinaldo says; "I think you should go left." It really means that if you had gone right you would have poached his secret stash of untracked powder.....

Eric Yotz skiing off the Fluehhorn in the Zermatt backcountry
And finally when Martin says; "Gentlemen, enjoy the shit out of this." It means you're about to ski the run of your life. 
It was a pleasure watching these two professionals at work. And at the same time it was humbling that I, wearing a helmet, holding and ice axe and outfitted with toe crampons only achieved a marginal level of comfort where Martin had been standing serenely moments earlier wearing nothing but his ski boots. 
The time went by all to quickly, and in the unusual way that time often contorts, the days were long but the week was short. 
Some say that "life begins at the edge of your comfort zone." If so, trips like this add to a life well-lived. My thanks to Martin, Rinaldo, Pro Guiding and the great guys that I spent the last 6 days with.