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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Grepon: Mer de Glace 850m D, 5c

It had been a while since I had climbed with Ally and he was keen for something big in this never ending heatwave we have been suffering in. Grepon: Mer de Glace seemed like an obvious choice. A long rock route and after climbing the Frendo a couple of weeks ago, I felt comfortable moving quickly on grade 4/5 rock.

It was our first time in the Envers hut and after a 2:45 hour approach we went to scope out the start of the route so we could be quick to start in the dark the following morning. It was very warm in the refuge, sleeping with the window open and no blanket. Leaving at 4am we walked in and after starting up the wrong route (there were lots of bolts, so we knew we had gone wrong) we quickly joined the proper route and were climbing in t-shirts by 5 am, at 2500m, very warm!

We were quick moving together on the grade 3/4 ground and made the abseil within a couple of hours. Starting up the main ridge line to the summit we overtook another pair of climbers who had a little trouble route finding. After all the warnings in guide books, it wasn’t that difficult to find our way. We started up the ridge on grade 4/5 rock and by now the heat of the sun was hitting us hard. We took 1 litre of water each and just before the summit our water ran out. Leaving our sacks at the breche we started the summit block. The famous Knubel crack, the worlds first 5c. It was hard, Ally struggling for an hour and eventually giving up so we could make it down. I am suffering with a bruised rib and with the painkillers wearing off I didn’t fancy a go. Feeling very annoyed we didn’t summit, 5 meters from the top, we headed down the west face via a series of abseils, wrong abseils, climbing back up then finally finding the actual descent route to the col. Reaching the col with a couple hours until last lift we tried to make a quick descent. The deep sugary snow slowed us down, coupled with multiple big holes we reached the foot of the glacier at 6pm. No chance of last lift.

Ally sprinted off to try and make Montenvers last train at 6:30pm but he had no chance. I slowly plodded my way to Montenvers then descended the train tracks to town arriving at the closest beer dispensary at 8:30pm. 16.5 hours after leaving the refuge.

Arête de Flèche Rousse – Milieu Glacier, Aiguille d’Argentière 3901m

The idea of link ups has interested me ever since completing my first one on Mont Blanc du Tacul last year, Climbing the Contamine-Grisolle and skiing it’s north face. I knew Ally had been wanting to climb the Arête de Flèche Rousse for a while and given the near perfect weather we had been having I was keen for a full day in the mountains. It was also a new peak for me so I was all the more ready.

First bin up and we were heading across to the start of the route within no time. Making our way through the moraine and hard early morning spring snow. Arriving at the climb just after 11am we were convinced we would be on the summit before 4 for a nice corn descent. We were not! The initial ridge was fun, with some tricky climbs along the way. We covered this ground quickly soloing and put on a rope as we encountered a narrow snow ridge and the climbing intensified. Roughly following the guide book instructions we found ourselves doubting the route but just carried along following the faint footprints left ahead of us. Coming to a dead end at one point the only option was to squeeze through a narrow gap and passing our bags through one by one, its harder maneuvering  with 178 skis on your pack!

After a short rap we were back on the south face and out of the cold. More came across more mixed ground before a short traverse onto the snow slopes leading to the harder mixed climbing. I found myself really struggling at altitude and we slowed down a little before I could take a break as Ally assessed the 20/30m last mixed pitch. The climbing would normally be not to difficult but coupled with fatigue and skis it took a while. After coming up second I was so pleased to be back in the sun and warm up my hands. The summit was in sight. Traversing the ridge heading into the sun was amazing. It was about 4:30pm and we didn’t have far to go. A couple of short rappels and some more ridge traversing and we took our bags off and got ready to ski just about 5:30pm! It was getting late. We had initial fears that the snow might have re-frozen but the upper section was really good and the only bad snow we encountered was deep slush that was not easy skiing on small skis! 2700m of skiing later and we were back in Argentiere waiting for a bus.

A long day out but it was just what I wanted. Alpine Adventures resulting in a huge thirst for beer. Tidy

 

Pas du Chevre Central Couloir & E.N.S.A

Another early start on a monday morning saw me and Ally Hurst heading towards Grant Montets with the hope of sunshine and deep powder. By the time we had our skis on in was 10:30 and the wind was blowing up high. This didn’t stop us from heading straight down towards the Pas du Chevre (Topo Here)  with the main aim of skiing the central couloir. Neither of us had done it before but working from a topo from Dave Searle we roughly knew where we were heading. Keeping skiers left down the normal route we found hundreds of meters of fresh deep snow with only a handful of tracks down it. Only pausing for a couple of photos we were down in no time. Fast, steep and deep is the only way to describe that run! Getting down into the play ground at the bottom we were jumping and slashing our way down to the dodgy icy rock step that we encountered last week. Here we met up with James and Josh who had just skied the Rectiligne and said it was pretty good too. We skied back to town on the James Bond track where both Ally and Josh decided to go home to get ready for work. Me and James were no where near ready to call it a day at 12:30! We got straight on a bus and as we had ropes in our bag and harnesses on E.N.S.A was the next point of call. Quick to the top after a nice double drop to the entrance we had finished the 30m rap in a matter of minutes and were looking down a tracked but surprisingly nice couloir. Getting back to the Brevent lift in 30 minutes after 1000m of nice snow we headed back up to have a look at hotel face. This had been in the sun all day and was not very enjoyable with a crust and some very heavy snow. We then decided to call it! With over 5000m of vertical in it was a good day and we both enjoyed a well deserved burger and a few pints! Thanks to Ally, James and Josh for the fun day out and LocalCHX for the ski service, they are running like a dream! Hit a few rocks later on in the day so you will be seeing me again shortly!

E.N.S.A & Bellin Couloirs

With a morning off work and some visibility I was keen to go skiing and get something done. After seeing that Colin, Graham and a few others skied E.N.S.A yesterday and it looked good I was keen to go and give it a go. Reading through my Chamonix off-piste guide I knew roughly what I was going for and now just had to find a partner willing to ski it with me!

Nick and Sandy were keen but both had to work (or so Nick thought) so It looked like I was going solo. Carrying two 30m ropes for the entrance I had a bigger pack but minus the shovel and probe it didn’t feel that bad.

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Topo from http://forums.ski.com.au/xf/threads/tr-two-days-in-chamonix.35760/

E.N.S.A in Blue, Bellin in Red

Getting a 9am bubble at Brevent I was at top of Brevent about 9:30 and headed skiers left from the piste following the obvious ridge, staying well away from the cornices! After watching a video of the boys skiing it yesterday I knew there was a small drop just before the entrance so decided to down climb it as I didn’t fancy dropping onto some slightly covered rocks. The down climb was fine and as I got down I saw a guy from Evo2 setting up a belay to lower his clients over the drop. So I knew I had to be quick to get to the rap 1st.

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Starting the rap and the snow was deep!

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It is possible to ski into this couloir when there is good snow but I heard there was a rap needed to get over the first 5m drop, then a small down climb before you can safely put your skis on.

Skis on and I was looking down hundreds of meters of fresh knee deep untracked snow! Alone, Nervous but very excited!

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The snow was fresh and light and after a few initial turns I was being chased by some slow moving sluff so cut off to the side of the couloir to let it pass. Being alone I couldn’t afford any mistakes so I continued this process of 5/6 big fast turns then stopping to the side as a lot of snow passed down the couloir.

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looking back up the couloir at my starting point and first few turns.

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The great snow continued all the way down to where it opened up to the main Brevent bowl. Nice fast turns in deep snow, what a great start to a Work day!

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The couloir opens slightly then narrows before tightening again before the main bowl.

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Following the main snow strip down to the zig zack track I followed this back to the Savoy slope and was back at the Brevent lift before 10:30 heading back up for another look!

On the Brevent cable car I stood where I could see the Bellim couloir and got a good look at it and saw one track going down. This was next!

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Heading around the front piste then cutting under the ropes you follow the summer route towards the start of the frison roche.  This had 2 tracks down it by the time I got to it but it still looked great and there was still lots of fresh to be had, just watch out for the occasional rock!

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This couloir was lightly less steep and a bit more open in parts.

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It closed in again before turning back into a bit of bush wacking to avoid the crusty, icy and rocky exit couloir. Back onto the zig zags down to Brevent and I had my trainers on by 11:45. What a morning! With more snow forecast these could be an option on bad visibility days!

One of the best days I have spent on my own in the Mountains and two huge ticks of my ski checklist!

Petit Aiguille Vert 3512m

Yesterday I skinned up from the Bochard gondola at Grand Montets towards the top station, Upon reaching the col on the left hand ridge I changed to crampons and scrambled up the rocky snowy ground towards the top station at 3300m. This was good fun and I was keen to go that bit further and continue up to the summit of the Petit Aiguille Vert. Deciding against it at the last minute I headed back down.

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Alone on the summit of the Grand Montets.

Going back up with Ally Hurst today the plan was to repeat what I did yesterday and then climb the ordinary route on Petit Aiguille Vert. After getting the second bin up GM at 9:30 we were on our way up the Bochard Gondola and soon we had skied the short traverse to where we would skin from. It took us just under an hour to get to the Col du Rachasses, 3037m, from here we changed to crampons and continued up the north ridge of the Grand Montets towards the viewing platform on the summit.

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Ally Changing into his crampons with the North Ridge of GM behind him. You can see my track from yesterday on the right.

This ridge is very similar to the first section of the Cosmiques Arete and is good fun and relatively easy with a few moves thrown in for good measure, maybe grade 3/4. We flew up the ridge in under an hour with about 250m height gain.

Pausing on the summit for a few minutes we then headed down the steps that lead out of the back of the top station and started up towards our main goal, Petit Aig. Vert.

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The red line indicates our route to the summit, We came down the same way apart from near the Bergschrund, I will say why later.

We made quick progress up the snow slope but then hit a problem at the Bergschrund. Ally found a way over but on the other side was 50′ bullet hard black ice, this would not normally be a problem with two axes and a rope but we only had one lightweight mountaineering axe and no rope, harness or anything! After I ran up the steep slope another 30m and found no other way across, Ally came back down and we started to look for another route up.

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We eventually decided to climb up the mixed ground to the right of the normal way up to avoid the ice and this turned into somewhat of a challenge. The above photo shows the way we went up in red and Ally down climbing the way we didn’t feel would be easy going up. The route in red we took was harder than the exit couloir on the Cosmiques Arete and coupled with loose powder snow and no protection it felt like AD or even D grade, and for some reason I went up first, clearing the snowy ledges as I went. Next time ill send Ally up first!

Once we were through this mixed ground and onto the main ridge it went quick and it was pretty easy going.

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Following the obvious ridge to the left of the rocks you follow a series of snow slopes and small mixed steps to come to a short but steep rock move up to the summit ridge.

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Me coming towards the short rock section. Photo Ally Hurst

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Ally freeing it up the upper rock section, Some tricky moves to make without a rope!

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Once over the rock section there was some more mixed ground and snow ridges to get to the summit. Ally is one step away from the summit here, with the Aiguille Vert to his right.

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Me following Ally on to the final summit ridge with the Aiguille Rouges  and Mont Buet behind. Photo Ally Hurst

After reaching the summit there are two ways down. In the summer me and John Vincent rappeled down the north face with 3 50m raps. With no rope Ally and I had to reverse the whole route, Down climbing in soft sugary snow was somewhat precarious but we made quick time.

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Me down climbing the upper section. Photo Ally Hurst

We had no problems and then when we came to the section of ice above the Bergschrund I went down first kicking in big steps in the snow until we got to the ice then it was front points only for the last 20m.

After getting past this section we were down and back at our skis within 25 minutes. Getting our skis back on we headed down the north face towards the upper slopes of the Bochard and found some nice sections of soft snow, then down some steepish couloirs we had some nice chaulky snow to finish.

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Me skiing half a mile away from Ally. Photo Ally Hurst

All together another great day climbing and skiing up at Les Grand Montets. Some powder would be nice now! Thanks to Ally for the company!

Eugster Diagonal Couloir, Aiguille du Midi North Face

Back up the mountain again and this time taking on a big one. My initial plan was to do the Midi-Plan traverse with my housemate then we heard there was a lot of snow on it and you have to be early and quick, then plans changed to the Tour Ronde north face with Tom Grant and a friend of his. After discovering that the Panoramic to Helbronner does not run until 9:30 and that would be too late as the isotherm was around 3800m and it would not have refrozen. I then had a text from Ally saying he and his housemate were going to go up the Eugster from first bin. From mid station to the top is over 1500m hight gain and the climb itself is just over 1000m.

I wasn’t keen to start with because it is a seriously committing climb as there is no where to go unless you down climb from where ever you are. That said, it is a ski line in the spring so I knew it wouldn’t be difficult climbing, if you had good conditions.

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We got first bin to the Plan D’Aiguille and then headed off on our approach, the guidebook says it takes 1.5 hours and it was spot on, we did have to negotiate some moraines but we were at the start of the route just after 9:30. First bin didn’t leave until 7:45 delayed from it summertime of 7:10. I teamed up with Emily so we could move in two groups of two as Allys friend Francis had also come along for the climb. Those boys had already started up the couloir as they got there a little before us.

We were questioning whether to climb or not because the snow had not refrozen at the bottom and we thought it might be a long slushy climb as a result. Ally and Francis made quick work of the first section so Emily and I thought we should get on with it also. Straight away we ran into a section of ice about 5-10m high and it had running water beneath it and was very hollow and thin. A quick belay over this and then we started storming up the couloir which had nice footsteps in.

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A few hundred meters of climbing and we hit another ice band, this one was too dangerous to climb so we headed around it via a small rock band, it was nice to put some protection in so you can have a relaxed rest. Moving up the couloir again after in the nice footsteps we came to the start of the Diagonal. This is usually a rock climbing section of the route in the summer but as there is still so much snow there was only about 10-20m of mixed climbing before we were on the snow slopes of the Diagonal and back onto a traverse to the left bank of the diagonal.

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Further up the Diagonal we cam into another rock and ice section, this was hard to protect and it was around midday so it was starting to get very warm with lots of water running down it.

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Moving slowly over this problem we were on the final push out of the diagonal and on to the North Face snow slopes with the Aiguille du Midi station in sight. Seeing the lift only made things harder as you can see your goal and we were feeling pretty tired by this point. We slowly plodded up the north face snow slopes stopping every know and then to catch our breath.

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Just below the top station there are a couple of big crevasses to work around to reach the arete. We chose the path that traverses between the two. This took us nearly one hour as the snow was very soft and we didn’t want to make a mistake so near to the top of the climb.

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Ally snapped a few photos from the viewing platform as he arrived over two hours before us. Here we are just crossing the first crevasse. We carried on the traverse and over the second snow bridge and then up the final few steps to the arete, I was physically and mentally destroyed.

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Arriving just after 3pm it had taken us 5.5 hours for the climb and a total of 7 hours for the ascent. I was pleased with this time as I didn’t know if I had the fitness to get up the thing in the first place. It was so nice to sit on the viewing platform in the hot sun and eat my pastries that I carried the whole way up. Getting back to town a hour later and the heat was unbearable, 33’c on some thermometers, No wonder the snow was soft. I think I will be avoiding the Midi North Face for a while but I might go back to take on the Frendo spur sometime in the next couple of months.

Thanks to Emily for the climb and Ally for the photos.