A mixed start to 2016

The start of January was not looking great until the mother of all storms rolled into the North West Alps and dumped a load of the cold white stuff on Chamonix and its surrounding mountains. Taking full advantage of this fresh snow meant traveling through to the tunnel to Italy where the Italians were working hard to open lifts, unlike here in Chamonix. Courmayeur delivered several deep days and then a few more followed here in Chamonix when the lifts finally opened.

Then once the storm had passed the sun came back along with  rise in temperatures, which seems now to be the trend. As people searched high and low to find the remaining good snow we found ourselves going to new places and having fun adventures.

A new ski for me was the South Face of the Tour Ronde. A short access from Pointe Helbronner takes you there and we made the most of the snow line riding back to the car park, all be it in varying snow conditions. HERE is a short video.

Meeting up with Mikko and another couple of Finns at Grand Montets we headed for the Chevalier with the hope of finding powder. I had come close to skiing this line 2 years ago, but just as I was about to drop in my boot broke and saw me skiing back to the top lift with one boot in walk mode. Thankfully this didn’t happen this time and we had it in great condition with powder turns all the way down this steep and varying line. HERE is another little video.

Top of Chevalier

Top of Chevalier

A few years back I watched a Xavier de la Rue video of him snowboarding a ramp near the Swiss boarder. Back when I was a boarder I dreamt of taking on this hanging ramp. Noticing it in good condition a few days ago while touring near Col Forclaz I asked Mikko and Jesper if they wanted to join me to ski this short, but beautiful line. They were keen for an adventure so along with my usual partner Tim we headed along from the top of Le Tour to find the entrance. Greeted with great snow for the ramp and a nice spring decent back to Trient it was a great morning out.

 

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.

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.