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.

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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Dave Searle wrote a few words about our trip down Mont Blanc Du Taculs technical South Face

We do love a bit of Spring here in chamonix.  Skiing, Biking and Climbing are all possible depending on what the weather dishes out.  Ive done a bit of everything in the past week which is awesome.  We’ve had a lot of snow this spring but it’s not necessarily been “useful” for skiing.  The last […]

http://davesearle.me/2016/05/08/mont-blanc-du-tacul-south-face/

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.

Kyrgyzstan Expedition 2014

When I was invited on the Navlikin Expedition I first asked myself, “Where the hell is Kyrgyzstan?”, I had heard of Kazakstan, so assumed it was near there; Somewhere past the middle east near China. After a quick Google I found out I was not far wrong. Even though I read about Emilys trip there last year it never occurred to me to look where it was.  I started wondering if I was ready to go half way around the world just to climb. It seemed a bit much. I love climbing but the furthest I normally go is a ten minute walk to the Aiguille du Midi or on occasion a short drive up the valley to Le Tour. More questions popped into my head. Am I willing to risk the possibility of great suffering for the reward of climbing? Not having been involved in any true ‘epics’ in the massif the last two summers (not counting one short heli ride!) I have not had my ‘suffering in a bivi tent in a blizzard at 4000m’ experience. There is also no safety net; I would have to climb well within my ability so that I could ensure my safe return. This was fine by me; I just had to look what was possible before leaving. With lots of pictures available and Google earth this is not that hard to do. Scoping out possible summits and routes before we departed seemed like the best way to maximize our climbing time out there, without having to do lots of reccies.

We had intended to ‘col hop’ when we got to the glacier. Our intended glacier looked too crevassed and open to efficiently get near our planned peak. The adjacent Kotur Glacier was the exact opposite. Flat and gentle with only a few visible crevasses. We would base at its foot, and slowly make our way up 10km of scree and ice and pop over to the top of the Navlikin. Well, that was the plan. When we initially got dropped off we could not believe how close we were to the glacier. The ‘tank’ had done its job and our driver Sergey was regarded as a legend.

We had suspected that we would have a couple of days load carrying all of our gear and supplies (for the 20 day stay) across 10 to 20km of uneven ground before we reached camp 1. Having completely taken this out of the equation we were all in high spirits. Knowing that we were not doing this we stayed at this camp (4100m, est) so that we could acclimatise. These few days also consisted of carrying loads up to camp 2, Roughly 4280m on a small moraine strip on the west bank of the Kotur Glacier. During this time several team members, myself included, battled with a serious case of ‘the shits’. Not the best thing to have at nearly 4000m with no toilet for a couple hundred miles.

Our first climb was Obzhorny 5156m. This peak had been climbed numerous times but the aim of our climb was to acclimatise. We chose a simple route up a 40’ snow slope and along a 2 KM ridge to the summit, crossing over another peak about 4800m. Going along with Sam, James and Dave we took just over 7 hours, and despite high winds on the approach to the summit, we had perfect weather.

For me my trip was successful after this mornings climbing. I wanted to climb a peak over 5000m and return unscathed, these were my objectives. We had a mix of weather over the next few days; it would snow a foot with high winds and then be bluebird for a couple of days . With most of the approaches being up 40’ snow slopes the combination of new snow and wind meant that there could be a high avalanche risk, we would normally wait a day or two for the mountains to shed and snow stabilise. But after waiting it would normally snow again. Receiving weather updates via sat phone we had a rough idea what was going to happen but it didn’t always match up. Our second outing came after a week or so at camp 2. Me, Dave, Sam and James headed up to the glacier to ‘Dead bird Col’ (named shortly after finding a sparrow sized bird frozen with its wings extended, I guess it got too cold mid flight).

Dave and Sam had their eyes on a mixed route on the north face of Letevit, and James and I were going to climb Pik Pyramida on the Kyrgy/China border. At just over 5100m it would be our second over 5000m and a great addition to our climbing list. After a 6 hour slog up the glacier in sometimes knee deep powder, we reached the Col, exhausted, we set up camp on the Navlikin side and we were getting closer to our planned objective of Pik 5611. After a stormy night and a couple of hours sleep we woke to clouds and snow. James and I only brought one nights worth of food as we planned to return to base the following day. Dave and Sam were getting settled for a few days to attempt the buttress in good weather. With no clearing on the horizon James and I headed back to base about 10am, another 4 hours of trail breaking down the glacier in a whiteout. Finding many big crevasses on the way and becoming very tired. An unsuccessful outing involving a lot of suffering. Dave and Sam returned the next day, also exhausted. We saw them after we returned from an attempt on what we aptly named Pik Tonic, named due to its locality to Pik Jjin. We didn’t make the summit of the possibly unclimbed peak but we did climb a subsidiary peak on its approach, which we named Pik Lemon, it stands roughly about 4957m. This would be our last time with crampons on.

 

I have learnt many lessons from this trip and have had the chance to experience a new style of climbing in a distant country. I cannot thank Emily enough for organising  this expedition and all other team member for making it an unforgettable experience. Cora, Dave Searle, Emma, James, Libby, Sam and Simon. Many thanks also go out to Latitude60s for the excellent Merino gear they provided me with and also to Rab and Mountain Hardwear for the tents they provided us for the expedition, allowing us to get a good nights sleep away from the elements and sub-zero temperatures.

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A few days up high

With no work and plenty of good weather days I have been spending a lot of my time wandering about up high off the Midi. Starting to work on my climbing strength for the long summer ahead I went into the hills with Nick  for the first time. We were aiming to climb the Tour Ronde north face, which I climbed last summer, and then ski the Gervasutti couloir, which I skied a couple months back. I thought this would be a good link up and with Nick not having done either the climb or ski he was keen. After a short skin we were at the bottom of the north face. Down climbing from the schrund to retrieve my jacket I was back at the start and we were off before 10am. Making reasonably quick progress up the 45/50′ snow slope we hit the ice and saw what we had to climb. Thin, brittle black ice. Nevertheless we started on up over placing screws as we didn’t trust what little protection the ice would give us. Topping out of the difficulties we noticed big fat clouds coming in from the south. Not wanting to get stuck on this mountain we turned back and rapped the ice. We enjoyed good skiing on the steep lower half of the north face just before clouds engulfed the upper face. We made it down to a beer, job done.

 

Summer freeride camp started the next day with James, Dave Searle, Tim and Davide De Masi. Making big turns down the north face of the Gros Rognon in good powder. I managed to find the only patch of bare ice on the whole face and after setting off first was last to enjoy the pow.

 

Next objective. Midi-Plan traverse. This is one of the Chamonix ‘Classics’ and it lives up to its reputation as one to remember. Me and Tim opted to take skis so that we could approach it quicker then ski the Envers du Plan glacier back to Montenvers so we didn’t have to return to the Midi. Quick to the start on skis I could still see my tracks down the Col du Plan as we started the highly exposed traverse on the north face. Placing a few bits of gear as we didn’t trust the wind affected snow we made it to the rognon du plan with no difficulties. From here it all went tits up! Wandering off route I headed up to the highest ridge on the rognon and thought I knew where I was going. We knew there were a couple of raps somewhere so finding a good piece of Tat I thought it would be it, or we could at least get down. I was wrong. At the bottom of one 30m rap I found a good spike to start the next rap. After 30mins of trying to free a stuck rope and Tim failing to climb the impossible slab to retrieve it we were very close to a PGHM call until I gave it one last whip and wiggle and it dropped to our feet. What to do now? Tim led round on a spicy traverse to find a lone piton, where were we? Thinking that it was left from a climbing route we backed it up with a wire and made another 30m rap down to some cord that was looking very old but still strong. Maybe one more 30 could get us to the glacier, if it didn’t we were going to make the call. As Tim went over the edge and out of sight I heard a cheer as he saw the ropes sitting piled on the glacier floor, the end was near. By this time it was too late to push for the summit despite it being in view for 3 hours and so close. I was gutted but just wanted to go home. We had to then negotiate the horribly crevased glacier to work our way down to Montenvers. Wet slides met us after every turn and it was one of the most gripping descents I have made. Two foot crowns and huge avalanches came and went as we finally made it to the safety of the flat glacier floor. We made the last train by 5 mins, that would have been a long walk down if we left it any later.

After these few days up high I have taken away a lot of lessons. Knowing when to bail with approaching weather. Taking a topo of the route and asking people who have done it before. Getting off a wet dangerous glacier before 4pm and generally if I’m going to go up high everyday eat more food and have more energy.  Going back to Wales for a few weeks now which probably means the end of skiing for this winter. Maybe there will be some snow, otherwise it will be full swing climbing season when I return. Watch this space. Thanks for reading, What a winter.

Col du Plan, Aiguille du Midi NF

Fifteen months after making my first off-piste turns I find myself clipping my skis on looking down a windy, powder covered arête with a Midi north face line in my sights.

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Teaming up with Dave Searle we were both excited and psyched to be stepping up our game and taking on the true steep skiing playground that is the Aiguille du Midi north face. Skiing straight out of the tunnel and down the arête was a first for me and it really filled me with confidence as we made our way along the midi-plan traverse towards the top of the Tournier spur entrance to Col du Plan. The wind was howling but the snow still looked good. We saw four tracks going down this entrance. It was nice to let someone else open this highly exposed line. Here we go…

Even after the arête warm up my first turns did take some building up to but once they came and went I was committed and ready to enjoy some steep powder. After the short traverse to the Col du Plan main face we encountered a brief icy section. A few instructional words from Dave I was over the difficulties and we had a couple hundred meters of cold steep powder before we hit the rappel. Waiting for the first group to rap we saw Bird coming in direct from the Col. It looked icy and we were glad we came in from higher up. He ripped it up, making huge turns down the face until he arrived with us and asked if he could tag along on our rope as his partners had abandoned him. Not wanting to leave him stranded, we said yes! After the initial two raps there was a short sideslip before the last small rap with skis on and we were out of the danger. I could see the mid station. Some more steep turns then it was smooth powder all the way back. Arriving at the plan with Dave and Bird it was high fives all round. It still has not sunk in that I had skied the North Face. Earlier on in the season I jokingly said to Tom that I would be ripping it up in my second season skiing but I didn’t say it with much confidence and definitely didn’t dream it would become reality.

 

I felt content with my accomplishment and headed back down as those boys went back up with the Eugster in their eyes. Meeting up with them after they ended up skiing a powdery Rond with big turns all the way down. What a day. Thanks to Dave and Bird for the company and ensuring we all made it home.