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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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.

Goulotte Profit / Perroux III 4, M5 & Contamine Grisolle (variante Champion du Monde)

Returning to Chamonix after a big storm that saw snow falling on the valley floor I knew that some of the mixed routes on the Cosmiques ridge would be in condition. Spring and autumn are the best times to get on these climbs and after bad weather they are usually at their best. Getting to an empty first bin we knew it would be quiet on the route. I have seen the bridge in autumn and it’s usually a fistfight to get to the abseil point first so you have no one climbing above you. This was not the case on this beautiful calm sunny day.

Our aim was the Profit Perroux and before we set off down the multiple abseils we had a quick look at the whole route from the midi viewing platform, it looked really good.

On our way down the couloir we saw a couple of groups skiing the Glacier Ronde in powder. The climbing was steep and sustained but with bomber ice we saw no real difficulties. We had one group of two who were climbing behind us and only catching us on the belays, as the second was about to climb. They were happy to also have the route crowd free given the amazing conditions.

The triangle du Tacul is in good condition for mixed climbing. Tim Oliver and myself went up yesterday for a variation of the Contamine-Grisolle. There was no wind and the sun was scorching which would explain my sun burnt neck today. We moved together for the whole route and encountered some tricky sections of thin ice and tricky, yet fun, mixed steps. Climbing with skis on your back is a little more engaging and sometimes you can knock yourself off balance when they collide with a rock, but it does however mean that the Tacul north face descent can be done in very little time and making powder turn in late May is always a privilege.

Y Couloir and GM ridge M4 climb.

With unfinished business on the Aiguille d’Argentiere I headed up the Milieu alone to onsight the Y. Perfect corn awaited me and I had a truly amazing solo descent.

 

With the sun going away on Sunday it was time to get back on the tools. Heading up to a M4 climb on the GM ridge North Face with Tim Oliver around midday on Sunday we started the very thin climb with two parties ahead. Catching up with the slower pair at the crux we had a small wait to regain strength which was desperately needed given the tricky moves in difficult thin conditions. An awesome day out and some superb climbing.

 

 

 

 

Kuffner Arête, Mont Maudit 4465m

Kuffner Arête. (700m D, 4465m)

The Kuffner is a true classic of the Mont Blanc range and has been in my sights for a while now. This time it looked like everything was falling in to place and we would have some clear days in this wet alpine summer.

 

I have climbed with Nick and Tim before but they had never met. After introductions at the midi we all headed across the Panoramic towards Italy to start the 2 hour approach to the Fourche bivi. The location of the bivi has to be one of the best in the range. Perched high on a ridge overlooking the enormous south face of Mont Blanc and the Brenva glacier. We arrived at the bivi just after midday and settled in with card games and three middle aged Germans who were there for the Brenva Spur. Looking like we were going to have the hut to ourselves we got comfortable. Before long more and more people started arriving and by 7/8pm there was 16 people in this 12 person bivi. There was bodies and gear everywhere with people on the bench and table. I had a terrible night’s sleep only managing a couple of hours. The first people started to get up about 2am and then you could not escape the sound of crampons clinking and quiet chatting for the next two hours before we got out of our blankets and were heading out ourselves.

The Kuffner follows the obvious ridge up towards Mont Maudit and is generally a 50/60 degree snow slope with a few mixed and rock moves thrown in for good measure. Starting in the dark it was easy to route find as there was a good track and a dozen head torches ahead of us. It`s always a shock to the system when you wake up and straight away you are on an exposed ridge, it takes some time to rub the sleep out of my eyes.

We were making good progress, reaching the Pointe Androsasse around sunrise. It was at this point that I started to feel unwell. I haven`t really suffered with altitude before but this time it wasn`t going down well. I didn`t feel confident in my abilities and felt sick despite eating and drinking regularly. I didn`t want to slow the group down so with regular short breaks for more food and water we moved together until we reached the top of the ridge after 5 hours of climbing. As the morning unfolded at no point did I feel like my condition was improving. Not wanting to be a burden on the guys I pushed for the summit of Maudit hoping that I might feel better with a long rest and more food. This did not happen. Tim and Nick had not been up Mont Blanc before and they didn`t feel half as bad as me so they were keen to summit. About 50m below the summit of Maudit I threw in the towel, I was beat. I offered to descent on my own. I unclipped from the rope and started the 150m down climb down the north face of Maudit heading towards the Col where I roped up and descended with the Brenva guys from the Fourche, who took good care of me with tea and chocolate. I still felt bad the whole way down reaching the midi just before 2pm after topping out of the Kuffner 5 hours earlier. It was very hot, I had no water and I was tired. What a day. Hearing from Tim after I had gotten down, they had managed to reach the summit within a few hours of leaving me, and despite a cloudy summit shot they were heading back down via the three monts route. They were also tired but were happy that they had both finally made it up to the roof of Europe.

Contamine-Mazeaud, Triangle du Tacul

Relatively straight forward and easy climbing can be found just 30 minutes from the Aiguille du Midi. The Triangle du Tacul offers many routes of differing grades and can be found in good condition all year round. Last year I climbed the Chere Couloir and the Contmine-Grissole so the next obvious route was the Contamine-Mazeaud.

Mostly a 60 degree snow slope this route offers varied climbing with great views back towards the Aig. du Midi and looking down the Vallee Blanche. Failing to climb this route on Friday due to high winds I went back up yesterday with Tim and we were quick down the arete, reaching the bottom of the route by 8am. After pitching the first 70/80 degree ice pitches we moved together until we hit the easy mixed ground so we could change the lead. Reaching the summit of the triangle in under 4 hours we then abseiled down 120meters onto the Tacul north face and then walked the normal route back to the Midi, Taking just over 6 hours from bin to bin.

The climbing was superb with good ice and firm snow up the central slope which made trail breaking a joy. These quick routes are great for days where the weather is deteriorating in the afternoon. Get there quick while the boot pack is still in.

Migot Spur, Aiguille du Chardonnet 3824m

Aiguille du Chardonnet is one of the most aesthetically pleasing peaks in the Mont Blanc range. It is also one that neither Nick nor I had set foot on. There are many routes up its north face with the Migot Spur being the most classic option. This is what I had my eyes set on. We arrived at Le Tour about 15:30 on friday afternoon and as I set off on the cable car Nick started the grueling 3 hour trek straight up to the Albert 1er refuge. I took the rope as I only had about 500m vertical and just over a hour of walking in front of me. When we arrived at the refuge it was clear that the builders who are working on the new summer refuge didn’t want climbers waking them up at 3am so after some food we set off onto the cloudy glacier to find a bivi spot closer to the start of the route. We found a small outcrop of rocks about 45 mins walk from the refuge and set up camp there. Awaking at 3am to clouds we had a little doze until I shot up at 4am with stars lighting up the sky. Shaking Nick up we had a quick coffee and we on our way at 4:30am.

We arrived at the Bergschrund just before 6am and this gave us 6 hours before the storm was forecast to roll in. We had to get a move on. The initial mixed ground was easy to cover and we made fast work of the first snow arete. Hitting some deep slushy snow before the steeper mixed ground this did take its toll on Nick and added some more time on the accent. We took the left hand route below the serac as there was a nice streak of ice. This was a relief after the soft snow and we had no problems flying up the 70/80′ ice gully. A brief period was spend climbing under the serac but it was still cold and didn’t have much sun hitting it so we avoided any potential problems. We had made the upper snow field before 9am so we were on target for a 10am summit. This last snow slope seemed to go on forever. I led it with fast 10m bursts followed by a few minutes of heavy breathing and swearing. We were so close. The wind was picking up and the clouds coming in so we dug deep and continued on to the summit ridge. A few meters of rock and we were there. Another great summit to add to the list.

 

We spent a few minutes celebrating on the summit before making a speedy scramble along the highly exposed ridge in gale force winds to find the decent route. I came across a couloir with foot steps in and went for it. Quickly finding some tat we started rappelling. We ended up not on the right descent route but going down a climbing route. After 6 30m abseils on some dodgy gear, one piton I pulled out before hammering it back in solid, we could see the normal descent route. To get to it involved crossing a 10m wide icy couloir and by this point it was blowing a gale and snowing quite heavily. We wanted to get down. Nick led across on belay and then I seconded. It felt like winter with the blizzard and it made finding the cairns tricky. A 20 second window allowed me to spot the next ab station and I went for it. Communicating with Nick at this point was hopeless. He could not see me and I could barely hear myself let alone him over 30meters away. With a few big tugs on the rope he came down to me and we could make the last 4 30m raps. With the gale still blowing the sun came back out and we finally made it on to the glacier. There were 2 more 30m raps to get over the schrund and we then ran down to our bivi to get out of the wind and rest for ten minutes.

Packing up our gear we had just over one hour to get to the Le Tour mid station to make our descent easier. Nick took the heavy wet rope for the first half then I had it to the lift. My feet were in agony from the 2000m descent and I was happy to get on the lift, Nick was also as he had no lift pass but the Lifty saw the exhausted look on his face and let him on for free. We had been on the go for over 12 hours and climbing for 10. We wanted nothing more than a feast as we had only had coffee and a couple of chocolate bars all day. Straight to the shops for pizza and milkshakes. What a day, it was so close to becoming an epic but with the correct decision making we made it down safely. This was my second time climbing with Nick and I think we make a good team. I hope to get back into the mountains with him soon.

Here is a quick video I made of the route.

Chèré Couloir & Cosmiques Arete

With no real ski objectives in mind James and I headed to the Tacul triangle so he could try his hand at a bit of ice climbing on the Chere Couloir. This is where I first learned the skill just one year ago with Ally (Read Here). The approach to the route took no time with our skis on, compared to over 2 hours last year in deep snow!. Once at the bottom of the route we roped up and crossed the Schrund. It consists of 4 pitches of ice and a small section of mixed, with the difficulty increasing as you climb higher. Last year I led the final pitch but this year it was good for my confidence and gear placement skills as I led all the pitches. James had no problems despite this being his first time with two axes on anything steeper than a snow slope. It was in perfect condition with its usual kicked in steps full of neve. back down safely and the clouds had come in. Leaving the clouds by the Gros Rognon we had a slushy afternoon descent to Montenvers. Perfect day out.

 

After a couple of days drinking and getting sunburnt I needed to do something. Not feeling skiing I headed up the midi with a Cosmiques speed solo in mind. Running down the arete and around to the start of the route the altitude was hitting me after a few days off! Making good progress to the first rap I was caught up by 3 Germans who had not roped up yet and they used my rope for the two raps. After this I offered them to go ahead and break the trail through the 8″ of fresh wind blown snow, but they didn’t know the way so off I went again! I have done this route 5 or 6 times before but never alone and never with fresh snow on it. The rock section was not too bad but the traverse to the exit chimney and the chimney itself was very daunting and I was treading very carefully as a slip here would have meant the end and They would have found this picture on my iPhone somewhere down the Cunningham couloir…

Nearly home! Love going solo

Nearly home! Love going solo

At the top of the chimney there was a lot of fresh snow, It was hard to get a good footing and at this point I just wanted to be on the platform. Digging deep I buried my axe in and pushed off a tiny front point and reached the safety of the ridge and the ladder was in sight. Getting over the ladder the 2 minutes to next bin alert rang out as I started sprinting to the lift. Puffing and panting in the cable car I got some funny looks and a few “are you OK?’s”. Maybe I will wait for the snow to go before I try that again! 1:08 was my time from Ice tunnel to the viewing platform. Maybe a sub 1 hour next?

 

 

 

Arête de Flèche Rousse – Milieu Glacier, Aiguille d’Argentière 3901m

The idea of link ups has interested me ever since completing my first one on Mont Blanc du Tacul last year, Climbing the Contamine-Grisolle and skiing it’s north face. I knew Ally had been wanting to climb the Arête de Flèche Rousse for a while and given the near perfect weather we had been having I was keen for a full day in the mountains. It was also a new peak for me so I was all the more ready.

First bin up and we were heading across to the start of the route within no time. Making our way through the moraine and hard early morning spring snow. Arriving at the climb just after 11am we were convinced we would be on the summit before 4 for a nice corn descent. We were not! The initial ridge was fun, with some tricky climbs along the way. We covered this ground quickly soloing and put on a rope as we encountered a narrow snow ridge and the climbing intensified. Roughly following the guide book instructions we found ourselves doubting the route but just carried along following the faint footprints left ahead of us. Coming to a dead end at one point the only option was to squeeze through a narrow gap and passing our bags through one by one, its harder maneuvering  with 178 skis on your pack!

After a short rap we were back on the south face and out of the cold. More came across more mixed ground before a short traverse onto the snow slopes leading to the harder mixed climbing. I found myself really struggling at altitude and we slowed down a little before I could take a break as Ally assessed the 20/30m last mixed pitch. The climbing would normally be not to difficult but coupled with fatigue and skis it took a while. After coming up second I was so pleased to be back in the sun and warm up my hands. The summit was in sight. Traversing the ridge heading into the sun was amazing. It was about 4:30pm and we didn’t have far to go. A couple of short rappels and some more ridge traversing and we took our bags off and got ready to ski just about 5:30pm! It was getting late. We had initial fears that the snow might have re-frozen but the upper section was really good and the only bad snow we encountered was deep slush that was not easy skiing on small skis! 2700m of skiing later and we were back in Argentiere waiting for a bus.

A long day out but it was just what I wanted. Alpine Adventures resulting in a huge thirst for beer. Tidy

 

Glacier Mort & Col du Belvédère

Glacier Mort & Col du Belvédère

When your aiming to do two Aiguille Rouge tours in one day you need everything to fall into place. Getting to Brevent at 8:45 without my ski pass was not a good start. Running to Cham sud for a lift home and back to Brevent I caught up with the boys at the top of Floria drag just before 10am.

We were quick up the first col and then the Mort bootpack was also dealt with in 25 mins. The snow on the descent was variable. Chalky snow at the top with some nice powder pockets, some wind slab and nice spring snow. Flying down through the trees we caught the 12:18 bus back to Argentiere and after getting some food we were back at Flegere about 13:30.

Heading back up the Floria drag lift and traversing to where you start the skin to the Col things were starting to get very hot.

We started the 1 hour skin to Belvedere in roasting hot sun. We were feeling pretty good at the start but the sun took its toll on James and I and we started to slow down falling behind Tim who was cruising off in the distance. When we reached the top we saw the side slipped entrance and wished we had brought a rope and a harness. Using the fixed 60m rope we slowly made our way down the icy gully and just about managed to ski from where that ended. Nice chalky snow again down the north face and similar snow as the Mort descent. We made it back to Buet for the 16:18 bus. Very sweaty, very smelly and very tired. A massive day touring in the Rouge. Thanks to the boys for more fun in the sun.

Midi conditions update.

On wednesday Me and Sleigh skied over 11,000m descent and about 70km off the midi. He had to ski 4 midi laps for a bet and I had nothing better to do. Valley Blanche, Petit Envers, Grand Envers and Gros Rognon. The conditions were all the same. Hard snow and wind blown. Deep mogles by the requin and a slushy James Bond track. All good fun and a real test of the legs.

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This morning I also went up and climbed the Cosmiques Arete. Perfect conditions. Firm consolidated snow and very well filled in. Think climbing season might be upon us if we don’t get any new snow!