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.

Tricot, North East Couloir

With what seems like weeks of high pressure settling in here in Chamonix there has been a lot of great stuff being skied. With the first few days spent finding great powder off the lifts we have started to go further afield in the search of powder.

Having seen the Tricot couloir last year when approaching the Trappier couloir I did some research and found that my dear friend Dave Searle had skied it before so I stole his photo for the topo. Cheers Dave.

tricot

 

Teaming up with my regular partner Tim, we were also joined by Tom Grant and Chippie.  First lift up the Bellevue we headed up the tramway before skiing down to the Bionassay glacier and heading up towards the start of the couloir. We headed up the sometimes waist deep snow at a steady pace until have way up a lone skier popped out from a variant line and made us all question how he was ahead of us when there was no boot pack?! He had come up a different ridge and skied a different line that joins onto the NE couloir. After starting up the bootpack again we topped out just after 2pm. Enjoying great snow all the way down it felt very much like a free ride line and we all enjoyed the ski.

Continuing down the glacier to the village and then skinning back up to Col Voza we were enjoying beers before the sunset.

 

Col du Miage

Once again early season snow has led me into the mountains in the pursuit of powder.  With the last two weekends spent riding piste in Verbier I was keen to get out and find some real skiing and fortunately so was Tim. This time last year Tom Grant and Ben Briggs went over to the Plan Glacier hut in search of good skiing on the Miage NF. With the snow line being so low and the thought of exploring a new area of the massif intriguing I once again found myself thumbing through countless guide books and topos looking for a good season starter.  Not wanting to start too big we thought the Col du Miage west couloirs could offer some steepish 40/45′ slopes with limited exposure.

After a couple of messages and a phone call later, Tim picked me up early on wednesday morning and we started the short drive to La Gruvaz car park, 1090m. Ben suggested driving to the Chalets du Miage with a 4×4 but limited to Tims Fiesta we opted to walk this hour or so track. Arriving at the Chalets we could see the snow cover on the couloirs.

We saw they were plastered in the white stuff. Skis on and we started skinning our way up through the trees towards the Plan Glacier hut, 2680m. The going was slow as we battled our way through dense vegetation and deep snow. It took us over 6 hours but we eventually made the hut just as the sun was setting. Exhausted. Eating food and sleeping was on the agenda.

A sunrise start at 8am we were greeted with deep turns straight out of the door. After 200m of powder we started the skin towards the Col. Making good time we changed to booting as it got too steep and we waded our way up the lower slopes.

Around half way up the main couloir we met our limit, one side Ice and the other firm neve. Not wanting to be heros on our first outing we decided to enjoy the lower half and make our way down. Rewarded with deep snow all the way down the face and beyond.

Once down off the glacier things started to get ropey. Skiing through rivers, over trees and everywhere in-between.  This is what early season skiing is all about and we loved every minute of it.

Getting back to our trainers we still had a 40 minute walk to Tims badly parked car before we could drive to the nearest establishment that was selling beer. Great to get out and enjoy the snow and Im truly  ready for another amazing winter. Thanks Timmy for the company and some quality pics!

Cunningham (Passerelle) Couloir 5.2 TD

Also known as the Passerelle Couloir, the Cunningham Couloir is accessed by a series of rappels from the bridge connecting the two needles of the Aiguille du Midi. It is just over 400m of 45′-55′. Anselm Baud skied the first probable descent in 1979 and described it as “not a very attractive route”, I could not see why. As far as steep couloirs go in Chamonix there are not many that have steep walls towering above you in a true north face environment, and that require three 60m rappels to get into, with the first one being free hanging.

 

After reaching an area where we could clip in to our skis on this 50’+ slope, I slowly side slipped a couple of meters to get a feel for the snow. At the top there was just under a foot of cold fresh powder on top of refrozen hard snow. This was the case for the first 50m of the couloir and it was definitely exciting jump turning on this variable snow. The snow then changed to a small section of wind crust before it opened up to deep cold powder for the last 200m before you hit the Glacier Rond. Here we could open up the turns before we hit the traverse line across the Rond to hit the exit couloir.

 

Side slipping the 10m into the exit couloir we had a little breather and knew that the main difficulties of the day were over and we were relatively safe, just the Bossons glacier to contend with!

The Rond exit couloir was as ever very enjoyable and the Bossons descent was also very good. One rappel over a serac and we were able to ski 500m below the tunnel when we had to change to walking for the last couple of miles back to Chamonix and a cold beer in Elevation.

Sitting in Elevation watching the clouds come in around the Midi we were glad to be safe back in town taking in the days skiing. Both of us had wanted to rappel off the Midi bridge for a while now and having skied the Cunningham in great conditions we knew it was worth the wait.

 

The day before I went to ski the Chevalier couloir on the Petit Aiguille Vert. Having a look in I was about to drop when I had an issue with my boot that left me side slipping the north face with one boot in walk mode. It was a huge disappointment as it looked very good. This more than made up for it!

 

Col de Beugeant

There are two things needed for a great days touring, Sunshine and snow, and on Wednesday we had them both. Coupled with a new route in the Aiguille Rouge, Col de Beugeant, Me, Tim, James and Hunter headed up to Brevent at 8:30am looking forward to a day in the sun. With high hopes of nice powder on the north facing slopes down to Buet we made quick progress over to Flegere and were on the Floria traverse passing the crowds at 9:30, and skins on before 10am. Hunter had a bit of a faff with his split board as it was his first time out with it, but once he finally got it together we headed up to the col a few people behind the trail breakers!

Me and Tim were about 30 minutes ahead of James and Hunter when we reached the start of the mixed scramble and with the south facing slopes starting to come alive we decided to push on over the climb and wait at the col. Moving around a group roped together to get to the start, I went first and found the climb quite easy and told Tim it was easy too. It might have been too easy for Tim because when he arrived at the top he didn’t even notice he had lost a crampon on the short climb, which James picked up half hour later! Reaching the top we could see that two people had skied it and not wanting to wait for 10 others to ski it before James and Hunter arrived we dropped in and waited in the sun and out of the wind. The top section was really good and quite steep at above 40′. By the time James and Hunter got there it was chopped up and they down climbed the initial 5 meters.

We all met up at our snow hole/ bench seat and had a little lunch before setting off down the right hand descent path.

The first 50m of skiing was wind affected but then as we came around the corner and into the sun it was perfect boot deep powder. Skiing in a group of four was good fun and there was snow going everywhere and smiles all round. Trying to find our own exit down to the valley we found ourselves boot packing back up for ten minutes. Then following the right hand traverse to get to the safety of the valley floor and starting the long, fun rat run back to Le Buet.

Arriving just after 2:15 at Hotel le Buet we got straight on the bus which was thankfully a few minutes late. A nice tour with some great skiing and accessible to most. Thanks to Tim , James and Hunter for a sun filled Wednesday.

Aiguille De L’Ecrenaz, North East Couloir, 2385m

After Mondays big day touring off the Midi we wanted more. I remember reading Lornes write up of the North East Couloir last year and it has been in the back of my mind ever since. Knowing that the north facing slopes would still be in good condition me James and Tim headed up Brevent-Flegere for first bins heading for the Rouge.

Traversing around the floria you get your skins on quickly. We were the only people taking this route and after passing over 50 people at the bottom of the floria all putting skins on we knew we had made the right choice. An hours skinning put us at the bottom of the couloir. The sun was baking hot and hitting our backs as we plodded up the 500m couloir. The snow on this south facing couloir was horrible. Changing from knee deep slush to bullet hard ice where we were glad we brought crampons. The boot pack felt like it went on for ever, The bad snow mixed with the hot sun really drained us and we were happy when we reached the top.

Looking down the North facing couloir we saw some good snow. There is a 40m side slip to get to the rappel then a 30m rap. Putting skis on we had over 500m of nice steep skiing ahead of us. The first few turns came and went and it felt fluid all the way down. The snow varied from nice powder on the sides of the couloir to soft chalky powder in the centre. Out of the couloir and it was more powder skiing down to Buet. Still not convinced by the La Sportiva Spectres, there is now 5mm walk mode play, which does not fill me with confidence skiing, steeps and back country.

Thanks to James and Tim for a great day out.