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.

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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 Blanc via the classic Grand Mullets route

With the high pressure settling the snow pack and transforming the slopes into perfect corn I thought it would be a great time to accomplish one of my long term goals of skiing Mont Blanc from the summit. I have been on the ‘Roof of Europe’ twice before and both times suffered greatly on the descent. Almost 4000m of knee slamming agony on hot sunny days feeling very tired after an alpine start. Tim Oliver is usually keen for most things mountain based so after a very quick phone call he was on board and had booked us two spaces at the Grand Mullets for the Sunday night. At only 12.50euro for a bed with an alpine club membership you can afford to splash out on some nice food to build up some reserves for the long morning to come. Pasta, cheese, chorizo, snickers the list went on… Carrying up about 2kg of food and Port was worth it when you know you don’t have to lug it up the next morning.

Thinking of a more interesting route to the refuge we decided to ski Couloir Cosmiques to reach the Bossons Glacier, this turned out to be a bad idea. After the two 30m raps we encountered hard snow, some of the hardest I’ve come across! After 50/100m of back straining side slipping we decided to change to crampons and down climb. Front pointing down 400m of a beautiful moderate ski descent takes its toll on your psych for the day ahead. Skiing the lower 400m to the glacier went much smoother and we were soon skinning along the Bossons Glacier en route to the hut. Passing a guide who told us to follow the signs we reached the refuge in the evening light around 4:30pm. Meeting a Ally Swinton and a couple of his friends we settled in for the evening and enjoyed the surroundings.

The guardians are very nice at the Grand Mullets, offering water for boiling and generally being very hospitable. After a large quantity of pasta, cheese and a glass of port we started to wind down for the night. The Guardians generously gave Tim and I a rice pudding despite us not eating their dinner, a small token of appreciation for the port we gave them. We retired to the room around 20:30 and the lights went off. 30 minutes later I shot up, gasping for air with a funny feeling in my guts. Quickly on with the slippers and I’m darting down the stairs. Before I reach the door I throw up all of the pasta in the doorway and over the railings. Walking back in after a minute cursing I approach the guardians with the bad news. They offered to help clean but I couldn’t let them it was not the prettiest sight. Afterwards they offered me a coke to settle my stomach and I went to bed around 22:30 dreading how I would feel when we rise 5 hours later.

3:30am comes around in what felt like 10 minutes, I didn’t feel that bad except I was starving and very dehydrated. Eating a few snickers and drinking a litre of water we pushed on regardless. 4:40am and we were off on the skin track.

When you are in the big mountains in the dark you feel very small. With freight train rumbles passing close by the sound of falling seracs chills you to the bone. Pushing on almost seems stupid but we do it anyway. The skin track takes you on a wild tour through towering seracs and bottomless crevasses until you reach the Grand Plateau. From here you can see the Vallot and you know the summit is in sight. Tim kept telling me that I looked rough and my inner Welshman wanted to push on despite feeling like I should be in a warm bed 3000m meters below.  Having done the Bosses ridge a few years prior I knew what was in store. Skis on our back and the long monotonous slog continued. 6 hours after leaving the refuge and despite having an empty stomach we were on the summit. 6 of us in total with hand shakes and high fives flying around. A mouthful of sweets and we started the descent down the North East ridge heading towards the north face. Every turn was a struggle, lacking oxygen and energy, but I persevered. The North face is a crevasse and serac mine field, luckily we were following some faint tracks so route finding was not an issue.

One hour of tiring skiing passed and we were back at the refuge. A quick stop to pick up some gear we left behind and we wanted to get back to mid station and return to the valley, where beer is on tap and the burgers were on the grill.

Sitting in Cham sud you get a very surreal feeling looking back up at Mont Blanc, it was hard to imagine that only 3 hours ago we were suffering on its summit. Content, relaxed and exhausted we hd done what we set out to achieve despite the obstacles that lay in our way. What an end to another great season.

Arête des Papillons, Aiguille du Peigne

This classic granite ridge seamed with clean cut cracks offers great climbing in exceptional surroundings. Situated at the base of the Aiguille du Peigne it covers over 250m of vertical height with the grades topping out at 5c+. I very rarely climb rock as I am bored with the valley crags and have little experience with alpine trad. Teaming up with Emily in preparation for our Krygyzstan trip we started early at the Midi so that we would have plenty of time before the afternoon showers and cloud rolled in. With its close proximity to the mid station we were at the base of the route within the hour and started up the easier lower climbing before hitting the first small wall where we roped up. The route follows a series of 4 towers with their being a difficulty on every one but the first. Within 15m minutes of climbing the route the clouds came in and we could feel a few drops of rain. We waited it out on a small ledge for 30 mins hoping that it would stop so we could continue, as we were close to the point of no return. The sun came back out and we carried on up the ridge climbing mostly 4c. Over the 1st tower and onto some harder pitches. There was a very exposed step across onto the first 5b slab and it was a shock for me. Glad Emily led the entire route as I had difficulties climbing the 5b and 5c+ let alone placing gear as I went. Over the 2nd tower we could sit in the sun for a little and enjoy the views, before tackling the crux wall. Emily started up the cracked slabs before coming to the hard move. Placing a cam high up in a crack before moving around a corner it created a lot of rope drag that left her, and me, not feeling confident. She would ask for slack and no matter how much I would pay out she would still be pulling on the rope. Fair play to her she made it up and over and was glad to find some bolts. Now it was my turn. As she started pulling in the excess rope I started coiling it up as with the drag it was taking a long time. For the first half of the pitch I did have a lot of slack but the climbing was relatively easy so no bother. I did wait when it came to the overhanging slabs so she could keep the rope tight. Even though I pulled on an in-situ sling it was still one of the hardest pitches of climbing I had done. Exposed and awkward with a slack rope! On to the 4th tower. Just as Emily was half way up the 5c slab it started to rain. I was next. With this tricky slab that required a lot of smearing I had a nightmare. It was very greasy and wet and my hands were freezing with no chalk left in my bag. Probably some of the worst climbing I have done. We were glad to get this last slab out of the way as it led to a small traverse and we were at the raps. One 30m rap brought you to the exit couloir that was fairly dry, maybe 20m of snow to downclimb. Back to the midi for about 3:30 and we were happy. Slabs, cracks and smiles.

 

Capucin Couloir

Eager to start my two months off work with a good ski I teamed up with Tim to ski the Capucin Couloir. Getting first bin at the midi we were heading to the Italian side of the vallee blanche. Using this approach to the Col du Tacul you save a good half hour climb than if you were to ski the VB.

We were quick on the climb and the 1000m of ascent allowed me to break in my new boots. With my La Sportiva Spectres giving me nothing but problems all winter I managed to get some Spitfires and just in time for spring touring and climbing. They look like there is less that can go wrong on them compared to the spectres and they are so light!

Arriving at the col we saw that we could do two 30m raps then side slip a small crux to start the skiing. The snow was a mix of chalk, powder and some icy re-frozen snow that was a bit of a struggle to ski smoothly. After a short while we were over the massive bergschrund and onto the mellow open glacier below heading towards Montenvers.

It was nice to ski another new couloir and a great test for the new boots. Fingers crossed for some new spring snow soon and maybe some big ski/climbing mission soon. got to make the most of no work.

 

Grassi Marone Stratta, Petit Mont Blanc

Monday. A relentless day boot packing on the Nantillions Glacier, failing once again to ski the Spencer Couloir. But at least I came away with one good photo.

 

Sleigh on the Nantillions

Sleigh on the Nantillions

Living with Tom Grant I often hear tales of great skiing around Chamonix. On Tuesday, while I was looking through many guide books and reading conditions updates on the web, he spoke of his recent adventure with Caroline Gleich and Liz Daley in Italy on the North Face of Petit Mont Blanc. They had skied a little known couloir over there and reported great conditions.

Armed with this information and a desire to explore every corner of the Mont Blanc Massif I found myself in a van with James Sleigh and Ally Hurst making our way through 11.5km of tunnel with Courmayeur in our sights.

Starting in Val Veny you take five lifts finishing on the Arp before you can start the traverse to the foot of the Miage Glacier. Arriving here at 10:20 we started the skin to the base of the couloir and reached it within 45 minutes. Stashing unneeded gear at the base we started the long and monotonous boot pack up this beautiful, atmospheric and steep couloir. With every step we took up it we knew we would soon be enjoying every turn down it.

 

The snow was perfect despite the last 100m being a little crap. I stopped a little below the boys who continued to very near to where the couloir tops out. Perfect chalky powder awaited us and after a couple of jump turns we got a good feel of the conditions and we made some quick tight turns in the narrow sections and we opened up some fast aggressive ‘freeride’ turns where it widened. 700m of steep couloir later and we were back on the Miage. Some of the best, most enjoyable and atmospheric skiing I have ever done. The spring snow descent down Val Veny to catch the lift back to the car was good fun, but the few miles of skating on the flat was less than enjoyable but the smile on my face from the couloir was still evident! The couloir is graded 5.3 but it didn’t feel like it should be given the perfect conditions. Maybe with firm snow or icy hard pack it could be justified!

 

Sitting with a Pie and a Pint back in Chamonix we were discussing camping on the Miage to fully explore every little couloir this magnificent North Face has to offer. Petit Mont Blanc I will be back, Watch this space…

Thanks to James and Ally for some great company, a memorable days skiing and some out of focus photos.

Gervasutti Couloir 5.2 E2

When I bought my first pair of skis last year I didn’t think I would be jump turning myself down one of the classic Chamonix ‘Steep’ lines 14 months later.

The Tour Ronde has been my favourite mountain in Chamonix ever since I first saw it while crossing the Panoramic 3 summers ago. Last summer I achieved my main climbing goal, which was its iconic North Face. Completing this route left me wanting more from this beautiful, stand-alone summit situated in the heart of the Mont Blanc Massif. Seeing people like Ben Briggs and Tom Grant ski the north face I knew it was too big a step for me to undertake so I had to look for other options.

The Gervasutti Couloir is a west facing 200m line that has a relatively constant gradient of 50’. My first 5.2. I had been hearing reports of people skiing it and getting good conditions despite the severe lack of snow we are having here in Chamonix. Skiing a lot recently with James Sleigh he was my first choice of partner for this classic steep descent. Stopping at his house at 7:30 he was not feeling good and decided he wasn’t going to come. Whether you call it stupidity, commitment or a just a massive love of skiing I headed into the mountains alone, aware of the risks and seeking the rewards.

My first point of call on the day was the Breche du Carabinier, after seeing Dave Searles solo mission there last week I thought it could be a good warm up for something steep. Getting my topo reading all wrong I started up the Couloir Aiguillette which is just lookers left of the Carabinier. Getting about 200m up the couloir the strong spring sun started to warm up the near by rocks and the mountain started to come alive. Being alone with no helmet I quickly put my skis on and enjoyed the steep spring snow descent. Back on the flat I started skinning again, heading below the Tour Ronde north face towards the Aiguille d’Entreve to traverse its east ridge. Getting around the corner I could see a group of people going up the Tour Ronde east face and there was a good boot pack in. Deciding quickly in my head I started moving towards the face, soon enough I was on the summit again looking down the Gervasutti, It looked not just ski able but pretty good considering.

Traversing under the north face of the summit on black ice was a little daunting and seeing a couple of British climbers who just came up the north face looking exhausted was a strong reminder of my climb last summer. After a little chat and them telling me ‘Your Nuts’ I started the 10/15m down climb through the rocks to find somewhere to put my skis on.

With my skis on I felt a little safer and started to realise what I was about to do. The first turn took about 5 attempts; Building up the strength and courage on steep exposed lines is different for everyone. For me turning from right to left is strongest but I had no option here. Making that first turn was a big moment for me, my tiny little 82mm Dynastars gripping the very firm upper section and reassuring me that I was not going to slide down this couloir upside down. A few more turns came and went before I came into a rocky section that had been side slipped before. Taking the axe back out for a little safety I was clear of the obvious rocks and had over 150m of nice spring chalk to enjoy. I put one headphone back in, turned up Sultans of Swing and linked some of the best fast jump turns I have ever made and was over the schrund in what felt like a few minutes. Looking back up at the couloir with my body still in one piece I let out a huge roar, I had done it and I loved every minute of it. The smile on my face was still as big as ever as I made my way down the horribly hard and wind blown valley blanche to the James bond track.

This was the realisation of a dream that has only been around for a year. A massive stepping-stone in knowing what I can ski and the process I can now go about skiing these iconic steep lines.

Bring on the next one…