Winter 2015/16: Looking Back

When the snow started to fall in November the anticipation grew for a great winter. People started brushing the cobwebs off their skis and heading up high to find good snow. The Helbronner was the place to search with the Aiguille du Midi being closed. There was some good skiing to be had but it was short lived. The temperatures rose leading up to Christmas and the snow ceased to fall. Most of the early snow melted away and Christmas came and went with no real precipitation. As the new year rolled in it brought with it some snow, a lot of snow. Powder was plentiful and there were too many deep days to count. Spending a lot of time in Italy dodging trees and the odd day up high in Chamonix it felt like winter was in full swing.

As with every year I like venturing into new corners of the Massif to find new lines that I have yet to ski. This is always condition dependant, but this year the conditions have led me to certain areas that I would have otherwise passed by without a thought.

Couloir Chevalier was the first line of 2016. I had been to the top of this a couple of years ago but had to turn around because of the poor build quality of La Sportiva ski boots. Returning to this line in good snow and with Mikko and the Finns was a great morning out and it felt good to get back on the steeps.

Chamonix TOPO

Chamonix TOPO

Table Couloir, Aiguille du Tour . This was my first alpine route and I have wanted to return for 4 years. Heading up there with Tim was great even though it is a long way away from the top of Col du Passon and was a real slog up with deep powder. It is a great small, steep line that rarely gets skied because its not that long and quite far away.

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Mont Oreb North Face was next. Skiing with Mikko and Jesper is great, they always have a plan B. After we were turned around at the midi with ideas about a nice little line we headed back to the cars and straight over to Buet. Smashing the climb up we were treated with powder down this steep and exposed face and a nice little ski back to the car.

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Tricot NE Couloir is located near Bionassay on the other side of Les Houches. This was a new area for me after only seeing this line once when I skied trapper last year. A beautiful little steep tucked away from the crowds of the Chamonix Valley.

tricot

Dent du Geant South Face started what almost felt like spring. Corn decent down to the Italian valley below. Warm temperatures had transformed the snow and with little else to ski it felt right to tick this classic off the list. When the clouds came in it did make route finding difficult but with a big cliff below we knew traversing high was the only option.

the line. Teton Gravity

the line. Teton Gravity

Les Courtes NE Spur is one to return to. Although we made it 2/3rds of the way up we had to stop at the choke because there was too much powder pouring down the face. It made crossing the slough dangerous. Nevertheless we were rewarded with several hundred meters of deep cold snow on this classic steep north face.

NE-Spur-of-the-Courtes

We skied from the circle

Mont Mallet West Couloir is a little known steep line tucked away below the Dent du Geants north face. Deciding to climb the line first we put ourselves in the firing line of some very big searches and in a wild and impressive little corner of the Massif. What Mikko considered as a training day was one of the highlights of my winter.

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The line (Photo- Lucapandolfi.com)

Col de la Aiguille Vert was my baptism into real ‘extreme’ skiing, my first 5.4. This rarely skied line is over 50′ for its entirety and you get a real feel  for its steepness when your standing at the top. Cold snow and good company made the day feel a little tamer than it should have been and it felt easier than some other less steep lines I have skied in bad snow. It goes to show that the snow quality is what can change a grade.

topo camp to camp

Camp to Camp Topo

Tour Ronde North Face is another classic alpine climb I have done that I had always wanted to return to with skis. This spring it happened and after flying up the Gervasutti in no time at all we were staring down the upper face in boot top cold powder. What a descent. Skiing above the mandatory raps your mind is telling you you can’t fall the whole time. Once off the rope on the lower section your mind eases and you know you have passed the exposure test.

Mont Blanc du Tacul South Face is about as technical a line as I have skied. Weaving in and out of couloirs and with a few abseils thrown in for good measure it made for a gripping descent. Add to that a 5.4 grade and some hard snow on the cruxes and you have the most challenging day on skis for me. When the face started to pour down on us in the lower section it started to get scary and we were glad to make it out safely. Possibly the last day on skis for me this year, I will have to see what the conditions are like when I return in June after  a couple of weeks back in the motherland.

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Photo – Tom Grant

Another great winter has past with some epic days and also some scary ones. It has been great to explore more areas close to home and to make the most of my skis from Voile, they have been everything I have wanted and more. This summer will be more about climbing and moving faster in the mountains and I’m glad to have Salomon onboard to help me achieve more of my dreams.

 

 

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Tour Ronde North Face

After a week away in Corsica I was keen to get straight back out into the mountains. Seeing that Pete and Grant had skied the Tour Ronde North Face the day I arrived back and reported great snow I knew it was the time to go and bag this classic I had admired for years. The Tour Ronde is the first mountain I set my eyes on climbing on a summer trip to Chamonix 5 summers ago. When I climbed its north face for the first time in 2013 I was over the moon and have dreamt ever since of skiing it. I had already skied its east face, south face and the Gervasutti Couloir so the only face left was the North!

Heading towards it that morning with the intention of going solo I managed to convince my friend Ally Hurst to leave his group of four heading to the Diable and join me for some great snow. After he saw the face it didn’t take much convincing. We nervously crossed the big schrund on the Gerva and he stormed up the 350m couloir in 35 minutes. I was just behind with a chest infection, coughing my guts up in a time of 50 mins. Arriving back into the sun we took a look down the face. It still looked great, only 2 tracks and lots of good fresh snow to the sides. It was go time.

Dropping straight in and making controlled turns in the great snow felt amazing and I was so happy and content skiing this big and exposed face. Arriving at the abseil after 10 or 15 minutes we clipped in. Knowing that the exposed top face was the only thing playing in the back of our minds. Once on to the lower face after abseiling our worries were behind us and we could ski care free down and over the schrund. Arriving back at Montenvers just after 1pm we both had grins from ear to ear.

Col de l’Aiguille Verte

When Dave suggested this line I instantly became nervous. Even though I knew it was in good condition I had never skied anything this steep or this big before. With a toponeige grade of 5.4/5.5 E3 it is at the very upper end of skiable slopes. Known as one of the steepest sustained ice faces in the Alps it is not to be underestimated. I knew my ability could allow me to make turns on 50/55 degree slopes for short sections, usually cruxes on easier routes. This face would require me to make these controlled turns for over 700m of descent.

We could see tracks coming from the top and they looked good. With no signs of big sloughs coming down we headed up with light bags after stashing our gear just over the bergschrund. There was some evidence of a bootpack still there but we (Dave) mostly had to make a new one. Half way up the slope we were joined by a lone Frenchman Boris, who accompanied us to the top and enjoyed the descent with us. Near the top you make a traverse to the right and into the sun. Reaching the col my nerves were peaking and I knew what I had to do to get back down safely.

The first 100m was east facing and had a slight sun crust but still skied well. After the traverse back to the shady face the snow improved and so did the skiing. Making powder turns on 50+ degree slopes was a great feeling. Being in control and at the same time feeling madly out of control due to the location of the skiing, surrounded by towering faces and steep ice slopes.

Once we jumped the schrund it all sank in. A big fist bump and pat on the back and you could see our smiles from Argentiere. A short trip to retrieve our gear then a fun and fast descent to Argentiere and a quick drive to work. It is amazing how good snow can turn even the steepest line in to a fun day out, I have skied the cosmiques on crusty ice and I felt a lot more gripped! Thanks Dave for the fun day and for suggesting this truly superb line.

Mont Mallet West Couloir

Mont Mallet West couloir is tucked away on the north side of the Dent du Geant, along the ridge of the Periades. Normally you ski this line by climbing up the Breche Puiseux and climbing some mixed group to reach the shoulder of the Mallet. We decided to climb the line. This is not normally done because of the time spent exposed beneath the Noir seracs. We moved fast to minimise this exposure. First bin on weekend is now 7:30 and after Mikko exchanged multiple lift numbers we managed to get on the second bin and had our skins on by 8:30. I had skin malfunction within the hour and resorted to climbing with crampons.

The snow was very firm on the glacier and this did not slow us down. Upon arriving at the base of the couloir we started to get deeper with each step and soon we were wading up the couloir in nice powder snow. Ditching all our unnecessary gear at the bottom we made reasonable progress up the line sharing the trail breaking whenever I could. The sun had softened the harder sections of snow by the time we started skiing and it was good powder all the way down.

Somehow we made it to the train for 3:30 and I rushed to work at 4:40, ten minutes late. Very tired, and surprised to find good snow so long after the last snowfall.

Dent du Geant SF & Les Courtes NE Spur

A good couple of days spent in the mountains. Meeting Mikko at the lift for first bin we were already a couple of people short of our original 4 team so it meant more boot packing for the both of us. Heading over a very ominous looking bergschrund we started the boot pack up the NE Spur. Soon we were joined by Jose who came along with us and shared the effort. After being plastered by howling spindrift and heavy sluff for the most of the climb we came to the diagonal ramp about 2/3rds of the way up. Here the couloir narrows and the only way up was to climb through the heavy spindrift/ sluff that was puling down the face. We called it a day here. Strapped on our skis and enjoyed a great ski back down. At the bottom we crossed the bergschrund on a bridge that was not there 2 hours earlier when we started. Lots of moving snow!

The day after I was heading through the tunnel with Sleigh to search for some spring corn. I have admired the south face of the Dent du Geant for a couple of years now. Its a great looking hanging face that requires you to traverse to avoid the cliffs below. After a 2 hour mixed climb in the baking hot sun we reached the top of the line by 11:30. Starting off down the steepish couloir we found great spring powder that then turned into corn. Enjoying the descent we soon realised that we would have to start making the traverse to skiers right. Just as we started the traverse the thick cloud came in and we were in a white out.  Moving from ridge to ridge in the dense cloud was unnerving but we eventually found the exit ramp down to the Marbrees. Lots more spring skiing came after until we arrived back at the car. Great morning out.

Mont Oreb, North Couloir

After making it to the Midi at 8am on a windy day we only made it as far as the mid station before they informed us the top was closed for the day and we had to think of another plan. Luckily Jesper and Mikko had a Plan B, the North Couloir of Mont Oreb. After ditching the glacier gear and 60m ropes we originally planned on using we got into the car and headed to Buet for the 1500m climb to the summit of Oreb.

As we were nearing the top of Buet we turned off the skin track and headed along the traverse to the top of Oreb to find the entrance of the Couloir. Ross and Tom skied this line a month or so ago and had difficulties entering the corniced couloir. After we were convinced we found the right line Jesper went in on a rope to test the snow. After he was convinced it was a ‘go’, he quickly took off the rope and skirted away from the looming cornice just meters above his head. Making the first turns above the large cliff you then traverse in to the main couloir.

Once we were in the couloir we were welcomed with cold fresh snow and a fun and fast 700m of descent. With some pockets of unstable snow we went one by one and played it safe in the flat light enjoying every turn.

A quick ski down the river back to Le Buet and we had a round trip time of 6 hours. A fun day and a great line given the conditions!

Aiguilles Crochues Traverse – East Couloir

Its been over three months since my last post as I have been working away from Chamonix for the inter season. Arriving back at the start of December I had high hopes for a snow filled winter with heavy snowfall in the valley just days before my arrival.  Two weeks back in the valley and we have been exploring all options for something worth skiing.  This winter I will be an ambassador for Voile Skis. Voilé make great back country skis and snowboards made in Salt Lake City, Utah. Light and solid they will fit right into my style of big mountain ski touring in the Mont Blanc Massif.

Grand Montets has been fun cruising the pistes and there has also been some powder on the backside. But with rocks starting to emerge I have been forced to look elsewhere. Hotel face and a trip to Bel Oiseau near Emosson Dam have proved fruitful and it was fun exploring a new area.

Today me and Ally Hurst headed up Flegere to climb the Aiguille Crochues Traverse. A great summer climb that can be done in trainers was a fun challenge in deep cold powder. Our initial plan was to ski the Col du Card back to the Flegere ski area. Just after reaching the summit we noticed a great looking couloir heading back to the Floria bowl. Chocked full of cold powder we decided to give it a go and hope that it didn’t cliff out. After a few hundred meters of great snow we only had the long descent back to the lift in heavy wet snow. Not that much fun on 160cm rando planks!

 

Pyramide du Tacul East Ridge 250m, 5a, D-

With the relentless baking sun beating down on the glaciers it has become the norm this summer to avoid snow routes. I had not been on the Pyramide before and hearing great things about its east ridge I headed up with Grant for his first Alpine adventure.

Knowing the crux of the day would be finding a good point to get off the glacier and onto the rock we headed up first bin to maximise our time. The glacier has opened up some big holes around the base of the climb and the start looks alot different from the topo i was working from taken just two years ago by Jon Griffith.

We made it onto the rock after a couple of dead ends in the endless crevasses and started up the rock, moving together about 08:30.

The rock is superb and the route finding pretty straight forward, following the odd stuck piece of gear and countless belays. The sun was hot and we were moving fast, just next two another British team of two.

Grant moved quick considering he forgot his rock shoes on his first rock climb off the midi, slabs in Scarpa Nepals are not great at the best of times. After 4 hours of amazing cracks, flakes and slab we hit the top. Rapping straight off the summit down the south face we had one rope jam, that came free after some loud cursing, then made quick work getting back to the Panoramic on the Italian side by 4pm. The traverse was made scary by some very wide, very thin melting snow bridges. Not for the faint of heart. Greeted by some Germans in the small bubbles who offered us some much needed water. A great day up high, and nice to escape the crowds of the high street.

Made it to the panoramic

Made it to the panoramic

Goulotte Profit / Perroux III 4, M5 & Contamine Grisolle (variante Champion du Monde)

Returning to Chamonix after a big storm that saw snow falling on the valley floor I knew that some of the mixed routes on the Cosmiques ridge would be in condition. Spring and autumn are the best times to get on these climbs and after bad weather they are usually at their best. Getting to an empty first bin we knew it would be quiet on the route. I have seen the bridge in autumn and it’s usually a fistfight to get to the abseil point first so you have no one climbing above you. This was not the case on this beautiful calm sunny day.

Our aim was the Profit Perroux and before we set off down the multiple abseils we had a quick look at the whole route from the midi viewing platform, it looked really good.

On our way down the couloir we saw a couple of groups skiing the Glacier Ronde in powder. The climbing was steep and sustained but with bomber ice we saw no real difficulties. We had one group of two who were climbing behind us and only catching us on the belays, as the second was about to climb. They were happy to also have the route crowd free given the amazing conditions.

The triangle du Tacul is in good condition for mixed climbing. Tim Oliver and myself went up yesterday for a variation of the Contamine-Grisolle. There was no wind and the sun was scorching which would explain my sun burnt neck today. We moved together for the whole route and encountered some tricky sections of thin ice and tricky, yet fun, mixed steps. Climbing with skis on your back is a little more engaging and sometimes you can knock yourself off balance when they collide with a rock, but it does however mean that the Tacul north face descent can be done in very little time and making powder turn in late May is always a privilege.

Early season steeps. Tour Ronde playground

Winter 2014 has not seen a great start. Chamonix saw some snow in early November but we are still waiting for a top up. With the recent foehn winds and relatively high temperatures the snow line has been going up rather than down. That being said there is good skiing to be had. With the Aiguille du Midi set to remain closed until the 20th of December it requires a short trip through the tunnel to La Palud to ski off the Italian side of the Vallee Blanche.

Last Wednesday Jon Luckhurst and I hiked up and skied down the East face of the Tour Ronde. It was in excellent condition and only required a small down climb half way down the face to avoid some big rocks. We were treated to cold blower powder but it was a trade off with high winds and truly Baltic temperatures!

Knowing that the Gervasutti on the Tour Ronde was skied that day by the likes of Briggs, Grant and Kilian (who reportedly lapped it 3 times!) I was keen to go back and ski this classic steep in good condition, direct from the col and better than I skied it in the spring.

 

The Gervasutti Couloir

The Gervasutti Couloir

Tim Oliver and Sleigh were psyched to get ‘radical’ even if it meant braving more arctic temps and an early season 350m bootpack at 3500m.

 

Setting off from the Torino refuge we knew it was going to be busy. Seeing crowds of people heading towards the Tour Ronde and Cirque Maudit we were a little apprehensive of what we would find. Upon arriving at the bottom of the couloir we saw 7 people booting up it. After digging deep and catching up with them only 4 were going back down, the others either skiing the North Face, which was in excellent condition or traversing to the east face via the summit. After a short wait for Sleigh we started off. Two skiers had gone down quick and steady on what looked like good chalky snow. The other two side slipped all 350m of the couloir and were a constant annoyance with the never-ending lumpy sluff. After some fast combat skiing I managed to get ahead of these two and exit the couloir as fast as I could. Fighting hot aches in the shade I awaited the other two before we headed back to the Torino for a sandwich in the sun.

 

Overall the conditions are good up high. Not sure how tracked out the east face was but people were up, skiing and climbing everywhere. It looked more like a spring day off the midi rather than the start of December! The Vallee Blanche is in desperate need of some snow before the midi opens to avoid a long and nervous walk out.