Winter 2014 has not seen a great start. Chamonix saw some snow in early November but we are still waiting for a top up. With the recent foehn winds and relatively high temperatures the snow line has been going up rather than down. That being said there is good skiing to be had. With the Aiguille du Midi set to remain closed until the 20th of December it requires a short trip through the tunnel to La Palud to ski off the Italian side of the Vallee Blanche.
Tom leaving Torino
Out of the clouds for the summit
Last Wednesday Jon Luckhurst and I hiked up and skied down the East face of the Tour Ronde. It was in excellent condition and only required a small down climb half way down the face to avoid some big rocks. We were treated to cold blower powder but it was a trade off with high winds and truly Baltic temperatures!
Jon on upper face
Jon looking down lower half
Jon off the face
Snow (and shiny new skis)
Knowing that the Gervasutti on the Tour Ronde was skied that day by the likes of Briggs, Grant and Kilian (who reportedly lapped it 3 times!) I was keen to go back and ski this classic steep in good condition, direct from the col and better than I skied it in the spring.
The Gervasutti Couloir
Tim Oliver and Sleigh were psyched to get ‘radical’ even if it meant braving more arctic temps and an early season 350m bootpack at 3500m.
Tim on the up
North face conditions
Don’t look down
Setting off from the Torino refuge we knew it was going to be busy. Seeing crowds of people heading towards the Tour Ronde and Cirque Maudit we were a little apprehensive of what we would find. Upon arriving at the bottom of the couloir we saw 7 people booting up it. After digging deep and catching up with them only 4 were going back down, the others either skiing the North Face, which was in excellent condition or traversing to the east face via the summit. After a short wait for Sleigh we started off. Two skiers had gone down quick and steady on what looked like good chalky snow. The other two side slipped all 350m of the couloir and were a constant annoyance with the never-ending lumpy sluff. After some fast combat skiing I managed to get ahead of these two and exit the couloir as fast as I could. Fighting hot aches in the shade I awaited the other two before we headed back to the Torino for a sandwich in the sun.
sleigh and tim
Tim in upper half
The Gervasutti Couloir
Looking down the VB
Overall the conditions are good up high. Not sure how tracked out the east face was but people were up, skiing and climbing everywhere. It looked more like a spring day off the midi rather than the start of December! The Vallee Blanche is in desperate need of some snow before the midi opens to avoid a long and nervous walk out.
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.
Jacket gone walkies
Steep and deep
Still my favorite peak here
Nick on the last ice with big clouds looming
Black and brittle
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.
The freeride face. (Davide)
Sleigh turning it up to 11
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.
The first exposed traverse
Tim on the ridge
Searching for the route
Climbing the slab to retrieve the rope
Holes, slides and slush
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.
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.
The wrong couloir! Between the Grand and Peiti Cap
Looking down 200m of steep spring snow.
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.
Tour Ronde Summit
I loves it.
The down climb through the rocks
Looking down from the top
Gervasutti, Tour Ronde
relief, looking back up after skiing it
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…