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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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.

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.

 

Mont Oreb, North Couloir

After making it to the Midi at 8am on a windy day we only made it as far as the mid station before they informed us the top was closed for the day and we had to think of another plan. Luckily Jesper and Mikko had a Plan B, the North Couloir of Mont Oreb. After ditching the glacier gear and 60m ropes we originally planned on using we got into the car and headed to Buet for the 1500m climb to the summit of Oreb.

As we were nearing the top of Buet we turned off the skin track and headed along the traverse to the top of Oreb to find the entrance of the Couloir. Ross and Tom skied this line a month or so ago and had difficulties entering the corniced couloir. After we were convinced we found the right line Jesper went in on a rope to test the snow. After he was convinced it was a ‘go’, he quickly took off the rope and skirted away from the looming cornice just meters above his head. Making the first turns above the large cliff you then traverse in to the main couloir.

Once we were in the couloir we were welcomed with cold fresh snow and a fun and fast 700m of descent. With some pockets of unstable snow we went one by one and played it safe in the flat light enjoying every turn.

A quick ski down the river back to Le Buet and we had a round trip time of 6 hours. A fun day and a great line given the conditions!

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.

 

Couloir Angelique, Les Courtes South Face

I first met Jesper at the bottom of the West Couloir last spring and have been in similar circles for the last year. Watching him make big descents with the likes of Mikko and Ben I have always been excited to see what he has been up to. When he asked me to go and ski Couloir Angelique I couldn’t say no. Knowing that it would be a big day out I tried to pack light and think strong. Starting early from GM top bin we headed straight up the NNE face of Les Courtes. After 1130m of ascent, 800m being a boot pack, we were at the top of the Couloir at 13:00. The climb was on my mind the whole way up, as if conditions were not looking good in the Angelique I knew we would be down climbing the NNE. Hearing about a fatality on this face last week I was focused on reaching the top and optimistic for good conditions. Making the first small rap conditions were a little icy as the sun was hiding behind some thick clouds. Jesper made a few turns and reported not great snow. Not wanting to make my first turns on 50′ ice I made another small rap and then started skiing.

The snow was less than ideal as it saw no sun all day. It was firm but grippy and as we got lower the snow softened and we could make some nice turns. Im not sure if it was the situation I was in, Skiing a big 5.3 E3, or the fact I was beasted from the boot pack, but I found myself constantly puffing and panting the whole way down. I was gripped. The skiing consists of 200m 50′ then 600m of 45′. The couloir ranges between 5 and 30m in width. Nearing the bottom of the couloir I felt relieved, I had completed what I set out to do, after bailing on a few big lines this year due to less than average conditions it was nice to get out and accomplish something new. It was my first time in the Talefre basin and it is epic. A long slushy descent to the James Bond track. Not the best for getting down but as Jespers ski pass is somewhere on the NNE face of Les Courtes it was the only way down, and I couldn’t leave him to do it on his own!

All in all a great big day out. Traversing Les Courtes and enjoying a big ski line. Thanks to Jesper for the invite. Lets see what the rest of the spring brings.

Cornes de Loriaz, NNE Couloir

 

I have already reposted Tims account of our awesome day above Buet away from the holiday makers of the Chamonix valley.  I have a few more words to add and some more pictures.

I am more often than not quite reluctant to leave the Valley in pursuit of good skiing and powder simply because with all of the terrain in the Mont Blanc Massif I like to challenge myself to find new spots and fresh snow without the use of a car.

However, What Timmy had in store for us just a 20 minute drive from home looked superb and with the possibility of no other tracks I was on board and up at 6am to get ready while the sun was still sleeping hard. Skinning into the mountains as the sun is rising has some magical feel to it. Similar to the experience you get with a 4am alpine summer start. Keeping cool in the early morning light is easy too and leaves you feeling dry and fresh by the time you start the long deep bootpack up the 40/45′ couloir.

We wanted to have a look over the Col to suss out Buet NE face conditions but the last 10 meters of climbing looked to sketchy so we just skied what we knew would be great, the way back down…

Gervasutti Couloir 5.2 E2

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.

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.

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…