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.

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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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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.

Y Couloir, Aiguille d’Argentiere

This winter has made us look away from the norm. With the unstable snowpack and fresh snow falling on an irregular basis we have to consider alternatives. We went to have a look at the Y couloir on the Aiguille d’Argentiere which normally is a spring steep but we found it in condition mid February.

It was a scorching day and with the sun on your back things warm up very quickly. Plodding our way up the 500m+ reasonably narrow couloir we stopped when things started to get very loose and soft. Just after the split on the lookers right branch.

 

The snow was perfect spring corn on a firm base, and allowed for comfortable fast paced turns all the way down to the choke, which plays in your head the whole descent. Its a 20/30m ice and rock band that was definitely worth bringing two axes for on the way up.

A great ski and a classic line. Just need to go back and ski it from the top…

Pas du Chevre Central Couloir & E.N.S.A

Another early start on a monday morning saw me and Ally Hurst heading towards Grant Montets with the hope of sunshine and deep powder. By the time we had our skis on in was 10:30 and the wind was blowing up high. This didn’t stop us from heading straight down towards the Pas du Chevre (Topo Here)  with the main aim of skiing the central couloir. Neither of us had done it before but working from a topo from Dave Searle we roughly knew where we were heading. Keeping skiers left down the normal route we found hundreds of meters of fresh deep snow with only a handful of tracks down it. Only pausing for a couple of photos we were down in no time. Fast, steep and deep is the only way to describe that run! Getting down into the play ground at the bottom we were jumping and slashing our way down to the dodgy icy rock step that we encountered last week. Here we met up with James and Josh who had just skied the Rectiligne and said it was pretty good too. We skied back to town on the James Bond track where both Ally and Josh decided to go home to get ready for work. Me and James were no where near ready to call it a day at 12:30! We got straight on a bus and as we had ropes in our bag and harnesses on E.N.S.A was the next point of call. Quick to the top after a nice double drop to the entrance we had finished the 30m rap in a matter of minutes and were looking down a tracked but surprisingly nice couloir. Getting back to the Brevent lift in 30 minutes after 1000m of nice snow we headed back up to have a look at hotel face. This had been in the sun all day and was not very enjoyable with a crust and some very heavy snow. We then decided to call it! With over 5000m of vertical in it was a good day and we both enjoyed a well deserved burger and a few pints! Thanks to Ally, James and Josh for the fun day out and LocalCHX for the ski service, they are running like a dream! Hit a few rocks later on in the day so you will be seeing me again shortly!

Couloir Rectiligne

Waking up to a beautiful sunrise in Chamonix is one of the many reasons people find it hard to leave here! Another reason is the fact that you have some of the best skiing available in the world right on your door step. Making the most of my last day off work I was heading to Allys house bright and early this morning to see what we were going to do. I had one thing in my mind, Cunningham Couloir on the Aiguille du Midi west face. This has been on my list for a while and its only now that I feel confident enough in my skiing ability to be able to get down it in one piece. Ally was less keen on this route. After speaking to his house mate, Dave Searle who skied the Glacier Rond and Rectiligne yesterday ( read about it here), he knew that it would be a shit storm trying to negotiate the Bossons Glacier if the clouds came in like the forecast said it would!

After much debate and a cup of tea I agreed to go and Ski the Couloir Rectiligne which is accessed from the top station of Les Grand Montets. I knew it would be tracked out but having not done it before I was still super keen. Heading up to Argentiere on a bus about 9:15 we were straight in the queue for top ticket which was only about 15/20 minutes, got to love quiet season!

I was first with my skis on and while Ally was sorting out his kit I headed down to try and find the entrance as we only had a rough idea of where we were going. Upon finding it I saw that it was a narrow side slip for about 20 meters before you enter into the couloir. I started the slip without Ally so it would be free when he got there. After we got home he said he didn’t know where I was when he was looking for the entrance, only to hear the sound of skis on firm snow and rocks then followed the scratching to find me!

We took turns leading, half each, so we could get a few photos. The snow was still pretty soft but well tracked out. There was the occasional area of untracked powder on the sides that was good fun. After completing the couloir we were both pleased to have skied it reasonably well and saw it as training for when conditions are not perfect. Its nice to know where it is now for future powder days, maybe one day we will get it like Dave did yesterday.

After exiting the couloir you are still in a reasonably dangerous place. The Dru is towering above you and there are hanging seracs pointing down on you so we had to move fast. The snow on the lower part of the Pas du Chevre was still soft and untracked but it did feel a bit wet. We had another few hundred meters of descent before joining the track to Montenvers. On this track is a short abseil,  there is some in-situ rope but it is not quite long enough to get you over the ice underneath, as one Swede found out climbing back up and asking us to use our rope! A quick 15m rap and your past this difficulty and heading down the rocky chutes towards the glacier. Another day and another 420 steps back up to the train! What a week it has been, 4 days and 4 amazing couloirs. More snow forecast for the weekend so lets see what next week brings!

Thanks to Big Man Ally Hurst for the company and photos, Maybe I can build up his Psych for Cunningham next week!

Couloir Poubelle – Grand Montets

Skiing E.N.S.A and Bellim on sunday had me in the mood for more couloirs, and after some more snow on sunday night and a good powder day up Flegere on Monday I thought that the Poubelle could be a good choice. Easily accessed from the Bochard gondola at Les Grand Montets you ski the 50 m towards the obvious roped off couloir. It is possible to side slip in which someone had done already but with the ropes in the bag and our harnesses on we thought it would be quicker and definitely safer to rap. After a 30m rap we had our skis on and it looked good. Slightly choppy boot deep light powder on a firm base.

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After  a few initial turns the couloir became narrow and it was very icy.

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You could see that the people who skied it before side slipped it so we did the same until it opened back up and we could make some turns!

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There was a small rock step just after the dog leg, this was made tricky by the ice underfoot and the slight exposure below.

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Into the main straight of the couloir we could make some nice turns in the deep cold snow. Although it was well tracked it was still a great ski and gave me and Ally some practice in making quick jump turns in variable snow conditions! There was a lot of sluff that would follow you down and build up around you if you stopped, it was light snow so it didn’t really affect your balance.

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Ally making some nice turns down the main section of the couloir.

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Me mid turn. The last time I went down this couloir was last January on a snowboard and it was more filled in. Some more snow fall and it should be better.

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Skiing this aspect of Les Grand Montets offers some amazing views of the Mont Blanc Massif.

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The couloir opens up after a couple hundred meters and joins on to the Pas de Chevre. This huge open powder field gave us some great skiing before we hit the main route towards the moraine banks and the exit couloir to get to Montenvers.

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Another short rap from a tree on the way down but it is shaping up nicely for a ski to town, just need a little more snow.

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Below the Dru is an amazing place to be!

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The route is in red.

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What a great day, even with a hangover! Thanks to Ally for the company and Photos. Always good to have someone with the same idea of what a good days skiing is!! Couloirs all the way! Lets see what tomorrow brings. Maybe 4 Couloirs in 4 days.

Col d’Argentière 3552m

After the recent snowfall in Chamonix I was keen to get up skiing on Monday after finishing a weekend of work. We rushed to the Hotel face at Brevent just to find some heavy untracked spring snow. Moving along the Aiguille Rouge towards Flegere we found more of the same. I knew I would have to go touring if I wanted to ski something nice.

John Vincent and his friend Francesco were keen and had suggested the Col d’Argentiere, Not having done it before I was ready and because of its west facing aspect the snow had a better chance of being less affected and more stable.

Jumping on an early bin at Grand Montets and meeting Francesco at the mid station after he opted to skin the homerun, we then took top ticket and skied down to the glacier. The snow of the back side was well tracked but still nice and cold.

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John heading to towards the Col d”argentiere, marked in red. The weather on tuesday was quite mild in the sun with some cloud passing over, when you hit the higher slopes it became windy and it was quite cold in the shade.

There was a track in across the glacier as many people had headed towards the Toir Noir and the right bank of the Col d’Argentiere so we made quick progress to the start of the climb.

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John set up the glacier first breaking trail through some boot deep powder and we followed up behind.

Just over half way up the glacier we noticed some nice looking couloirs off to the left so we decided to go and have a look at the snow conditions with the intention of skiing them.

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Skinning up to the narrow exit we then changed to boot pack and after about 1 meter of trying to climb the deep heavy snow we changed back to our original plan of the col! They are now on my tick list for the future.

Back on track to the Col we topped out after a few hours on the move. The wind on the Col was pretty strong and John was quick to help us get ready after sitting up there for 5/10 minutes alone. Skipping the summit lunch we headed down to find some shelter from the wind.

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We made it!

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Looking back down the Col towards Aiguille Vert and the Argentiere basin.

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The windy summit ridge.

The decent was quite varied with the first 100m being very wind affected. It then opened up into huge powder fields with only one track on, the skin track. The snow was firm but still deep and rip-able.

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One by one we enjoyed some big turns down the perfect angle slope. I opened it with no hesitation! John v photo.

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Francesco was next with some big Tele turns.

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The only photo I have of John and there was water on the lens!

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Half way down and there were only 3 tracks behind us, that doesn’t happen often in Chamonix!

The lower slopes were a bit heavier but you were still able to open it up.

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Getting the knee down!

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Enjoying the moment, soft snow and smiles.

Back down the glacier in about 20 minutes and we started the flat ski back to the mid station. after stopping for some lunch in the sun we had a quick blast down the home run to finnish a great day up the mountain with some superb skiing!

Many thanks to John and Francesco for the photos and company.

Petit Aiguille Vert 3512m

Yesterday I skinned up from the Bochard gondola at Grand Montets towards the top station, Upon reaching the col on the left hand ridge I changed to crampons and scrambled up the rocky snowy ground towards the top station at 3300m. This was good fun and I was keen to go that bit further and continue up to the summit of the Petit Aiguille Vert. Deciding against it at the last minute I headed back down.

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Alone on the summit of the Grand Montets.

Going back up with Ally Hurst today the plan was to repeat what I did yesterday and then climb the ordinary route on Petit Aiguille Vert. After getting the second bin up GM at 9:30 we were on our way up the Bochard Gondola and soon we had skied the short traverse to where we would skin from. It took us just under an hour to get to the Col du Rachasses, 3037m, from here we changed to crampons and continued up the north ridge of the Grand Montets towards the viewing platform on the summit.

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Ally Changing into his crampons with the North Ridge of GM behind him. You can see my track from yesterday on the right.

This ridge is very similar to the first section of the Cosmiques Arete and is good fun and relatively easy with a few moves thrown in for good measure, maybe grade 3/4. We flew up the ridge in under an hour with about 250m height gain.

Pausing on the summit for a few minutes we then headed down the steps that lead out of the back of the top station and started up towards our main goal, Petit Aig. Vert.

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The red line indicates our route to the summit, We came down the same way apart from near the Bergschrund, I will say why later.

We made quick progress up the snow slope but then hit a problem at the Bergschrund. Ally found a way over but on the other side was 50′ bullet hard black ice, this would not normally be a problem with two axes and a rope but we only had one lightweight mountaineering axe and no rope, harness or anything! After I ran up the steep slope another 30m and found no other way across, Ally came back down and we started to look for another route up.

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We eventually decided to climb up the mixed ground to the right of the normal way up to avoid the ice and this turned into somewhat of a challenge. The above photo shows the way we went up in red and Ally down climbing the way we didn’t feel would be easy going up. The route in red we took was harder than the exit couloir on the Cosmiques Arete and coupled with loose powder snow and no protection it felt like AD or even D grade, and for some reason I went up first, clearing the snowy ledges as I went. Next time ill send Ally up first!

Once we were through this mixed ground and onto the main ridge it went quick and it was pretty easy going.

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Following the obvious ridge to the left of the rocks you follow a series of snow slopes and small mixed steps to come to a short but steep rock move up to the summit ridge.

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Me coming towards the short rock section. Photo Ally Hurst

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Ally freeing it up the upper rock section, Some tricky moves to make without a rope!

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Once over the rock section there was some more mixed ground and snow ridges to get to the summit. Ally is one step away from the summit here, with the Aiguille Vert to his right.

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Me following Ally on to the final summit ridge with the Aiguille Rouges  and Mont Buet behind. Photo Ally Hurst

After reaching the summit there are two ways down. In the summer me and John Vincent rappeled down the north face with 3 50m raps. With no rope Ally and I had to reverse the whole route, Down climbing in soft sugary snow was somewhat precarious but we made quick time.

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Me down climbing the upper section. Photo Ally Hurst

We had no problems and then when we came to the section of ice above the Bergschrund I went down first kicking in big steps in the snow until we got to the ice then it was front points only for the last 20m.

After getting past this section we were down and back at our skis within 25 minutes. Getting our skis back on we headed down the north face towards the upper slopes of the Bochard and found some nice sections of soft snow, then down some steepish couloirs we had some nice chaulky snow to finish.

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Me skiing half a mile away from Ally. Photo Ally Hurst

All together another great day climbing and skiing up at Les Grand Montets. Some powder would be nice now! Thanks to Ally for the company!

Argentiere Glacier Ski Tour, Conditions and La Sportiva Spectre

We have had no new snow here in Chamonix for over two weeks so Looking for something good to ski is out of the question. Alex was keen to get out and do something and suggested Petit Viking at the top end of the Argentiere glacier. Reading up on the climb it appears that the bergschrund is near impossible to cross so we looked at other possible routes up that way. The Charlet route on Mont Dolent looked like something that would be possible for me with my level of climbing and It also is on a mountain that has been on my list for a while now. Mont Dolent shares its summit with France, Italy and Switzerland.

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Leaving Grand Montets Lognon station just before noon we headed up towards the bottom of the glacier and found a well run in track that would lead us up the right bank of the glacier towards the Argentiere refuge.

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Negotiating some parts of the moraine with skis was tricky and we had our skis off a couple of times, as it was too icy.

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Looking up the Glacier with the refuge behind the first moraine bank on the left and Mont Dolent at the back centre of the photo

Reaching the refuge about 3pm we had made good time and had enough time to go and play on some ice with our new boots.

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Alex has new Dynafit TLT6 and I have La Sportiva Spectres. We were both looking for a boot that was lighter than our current tech boots and something that we could use to climb with also.

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I had bought my boots the day before from FootWorks and was keen to get a good test out of them. Overall skinned about 10km, climbed a small free pitch of mellow ice and skied over 10km back to town on a windblown glacier and 700m of pistes. The boots were great overall. The had a bit of work done to them when I had them fitted to improve the fit on the last as they pinched, something which has been mentioned in other reviews. They felt good climbing in walk mode with the top two buckles open and the power strap still tight. I found that the power strap could stay on the whole time you are skinning too. I went to Grand montets yesterday and skied over 7000m of vertical on nice firm pistes, they performed better than my old Dynafit Zzeros.

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After another sleepless night in a refuge we set off just before 5 to go and climb the route. Both very tired but heading up the glacier steadily we reached the route just after 7. Skinning up there in the dark was amazing, It was very clear and still and the snow being firm made the going easy.

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The route runs up the gully that tops out to the right of the summit.

At the bottom of the route we could see that it was not in good condition. The right hand gully was very dry and what was there didn’t look good. The left hand gully was a grade harder and looked slightly better, although what we could see looked ok but we were not sure of what was above it and we were uncertain if it was possible to rappel the route which was a big concern for us from the beginning.

After all this effort we decided to go home! We were umming and arring for a good half hour in the shade and getting very cold and loosing psyche quickly, add to that I noticed my crampon was broken! Now all we had to do was ski the 8/10km back down this relatively flat windblown crusty glacier. This was not fun.

I managed to snap a couple of photos of the Droits and Courtes to show current conditions for those who want to climb them.

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After failing up the Le Tour glacier a few weeks ago I see these outings as training sessions and at least this time I got a good testing out of my new boots. With this good weather set to continue here in Chamonix I should hopefully get out and do something over the weekend and climb a route for a change.