IN THIS NEW SERIES, MARTIN CHESTER PROFILES HIS OUT-AND-OUT HEROES IN THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF MOUNTAIN GUIDING. NEXT UP: AL POWELL. OVER TO MARTIN…
Al Powell is a true hero for many reasons. But there could hardly be a better Backcountry Guru for our family issue. Several generations of Powells are committed mountain athletes and have a serious talent for uphill adventure in their genes.
There can be no doubt Al is from Yorkshire: he’s refreshingly blunt, and rarely erratic or excitable. He has a calm, no-nonsense, down-to-earth approach that hides the achievements of a lifetime in the mountains behind a curtain of understated northern modesty.
Al has his roots in competition and is an athlete to the core. You may not think of climbers or mountain guides as competitive but, in Al’s words, “Climbing is the most competitive non-competitive sport on the planet.” He was introduced to orienteering by his parents, and raced for national squads and teams as a youth so no matter how fast you are going, he is not likely to get you lost on the hill.
His love of steep terrain soon led him to the Leeds fell-running scene. He still enters orienteering races and, now in his fifth decade, he had just spent the weekend competing for Wales. He downplays it, saying: “I think they just wheel me out as I am usually consistent and fit.”
Geology and gritstone
Along with Rich Cross, Al now runs Alpine Guides Ltd, which is how most folk know him best. They met at Leeds Uni’s mountaineering club where a strong geology department, plus an abundance of gritstone, has produced many well-known mountaineers. Al quickly realised there was more to skiing than dragging big packs to the bottom of snowy faces to climb.
Combine this love of big mountains with his need for speed and it is no wonder Al got involved in skimo racing. Besides, with his athletic physique, he was never going to be as scared of the Lycra suits as the rest of us! For many years, Alpine Guides’ ski programme was built around the international skimo race circuit.
Al is now my go-to gear guru. As a tight Yorkshire lad, he has always had an interest in designing and sewing his own kit. This led, in time, to working closely with Rab Carrington and, knowing Rab as well as I do, I imagine this was a meeting of minds and a highly functional pairing.
Now, his relationship with Phil at Backcountry UK is a win-win as they generate a wealth of combined knowledge. Phil is on the retail side (drilling, fitting and dealing with returns) and Al is on the testing side: seeing what clients make of the latest gear out on the hill.
The result are some super-informative pages on the Alpine Guides website. Evidence-based, pragmatic and sensitively written, this is advice you can trust.
A family obsession
Al attributes his success to his parents and claims his achievements and drive pale into insignificance compared to that of his octogenarian now-neighbours. There is a family history of competitive orienteering, from their days living south of Abergavenny. His mum is waiting on two new knees and his dad may have trouble with his eyesight, but they both go orienteering (and visit the gym) as regularly as ever.
Al has taken a more chilled approach to taking his kids ski touring. He realised early on that most kids don’t enjoy going uphill (or not for long). Hence, when the Tour de France came to Otley, Al was delighted to see his kids inspired to race their bikes up hill and down dale. After a family hike and bike trip in the Alps, Al saw a chance to convince them.
Slowly and patiently, Al passed his love of ski touring on to his boys. Now, while I’ve resigned myself to my kids skiing better than me, Al laments the fact that his now skin faster than him! Family trips are now ski-touring research. Where once the Alpine Guides programme was built around skimo races; they are now a product of family testing!
Touring kit for young/small skiers has come on in leaps and bounds lately. Developing bones need a reliable and easy release – so Fritschi frame bindings, on a low DIN setting, were the answer. The bindings required holes outside the normal range for kids’ skis, so Al (ever the kit geek) found a work-around and mounted them onto wood-cored skis (you can now buy specialist rigs from Hagan.
We laughed about the philosophical challenges of taking our kids touring: the challenges of avalanche terrain and exposure to risk. Transceivers on youngsters? The consequences don’t bear thinking about. But you wouldn’t drive to school without a seat-belt and it is best to instil good habits and skills early on.
We have both been frowned upon for taking our kids into serious environments: Al talks about arriving at a Swiss hut on a spring day, with a moderate (category 2) avalanche risk. Whilst there was negligible chance of avalanche activity, the locals were scathing until they discovered he was a guide.