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.

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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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Mont Blanc Traverse 4810m

After doing nothing last week apart from drinking and partying I had to do something to redeem myself, I thought that Mont Blanc could be a tough challenge for a monday morning!

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The route is around 20km long with 1400/1600m ascent and 4000m descent.

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The last time I was up high was two weeks ago when I did the Entreves traverse and this was only 3500m, so with no acclimatising I headed up the Midi first bin with Emily who only discovered that I was going to do it the night before at about 9pm, she is off on expedition soon and needs the high altitude training, and with over 7 hours above 4000m this was perfect.

I wanted to do it solo originally so that I could go as light as possible, Emily had the same idea, and as we did it together we had no ropes or crevasse gear just a harness, sling and ice screw. The only thing we did bring that most others wouldn’t is trainers. After suffering last year on the descent from the Gouter refuge I knew that I would love to put on some new socks and comfy trail running shoes for the scramble and the miles and miles of trails back to Les Houches.

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Leaving the midi station at 7 we were quick down the arete and straight onto the Tacul, the crevasse in the middle of the face is now a bit of a overhang climb for a couple of moves, once over this obstacle we were at the shoulder before 9am, 2 hours in and looking good.

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Once over the shoulder it is on to Mont Maudit, this is a little more technical than the Tacul as there is a section of about 30/50m 45′ snow slope to climb. We started the steep climb as many teams were on their way back down so it was a bit of a mess with ropes and people everywhere. The climbing itself was not too bad, you had to rely on your front points at times as it was icy.

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We were over the shoulder of Mont Maudit just after 11 and we were both feeling good. I didn’t fancy down climbing the slope we had just come up so pushing on and completing the traverse was the only option!

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After the Mudit we could see the summit and this is when the wind really started to pick up and it was howling. The temperature on the Tacul and Maudit was pleasant, and then on the summit slopes we were freezing, hands and face were burning with the cold winds.

We slowly plodded up the summit slopes and got to the summit at 1pm, 6 hours after setting off from the midi. We were both pleased with this time as we had not been up high for a couple of weeks and the wind did slow us down slightly.

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A quick stop on the summit, I took a Finnish Flag up for my Girlfriend Katariina as she didn’t manage to make it up Mont Blanc this summer, then we started the descent. Not a lot of good photos from the top as it was so windy I didn’t want to take my gloves off for very long!

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We descended the ordinary Gouter route towards the Vallot hut, where we stopped for some food and water and shelter form the wind.

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After this short stop we made a quick descent to the old Gouter refuge where we changed into our trainers and shorts, this was so nice to do as it made the rest of the climb back to Les Houches comfortable and more enjoyable than if we had done it in big boots.

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The start of the Gouter scramble.

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Looking back up towards the Gouter face, Still a long way down from here!

Great views of the Chamonix valley on the way down.

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The walk down to Les Houches took 7:45 from the summit and its 3800m descent, we were ringing all our friends for a lift back from Les Houches, we didn’t have much luck at first, Thanks Ally Hurst, but then Emilys friend Bella came to our rescue and picked us up from near the town centre and took us both home, the real hero of the day!!

I am writing this with a very sore and stiff ankle and the tightest quads I have ever had, a good sign that Yesterdays traverse was a beasting! Glad to have been back on top of Mont Blanc and this time in daylight, It was Emilys first time up there so smiles all round. I think I am over it now, maybe once more up there in the spring, but with Skis!!

July 31st and still Skiing!

After a hard days raining on Monday and seeing that the rain snow limit was down to 2700m Me and Tom Grant headed up the midi with the hopes of some good summer powder! Not getting up there too early we were half way down the arête just after 8am with our skis on our feet. The arête was great fun with a few inches of fresh powder and as it was still pretty cold up high it was staying in good shape.

P1050420After having a look about we decided that the North Face of the Tacul was out because there would be a high risk of wind slab, we saw a few groups attempt to break trail up it turning back just after the crevasse after a small slide almost took them back into it. We decided to have some fun on the small ridgeline below the Cosmiques refuge near the Perroux hut. Lapping this a few times we got some good powder turns in and some great photos! It was worth it for the novelty of end of July Powder!

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Fingers crossed for some snow up high in August to be one month away from skiing a solid 12 months here in Chamonix.

Mont Blanc du Tacul Summit 4,248m

After turning back from the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul on saturday I was determined to go back and bag it. Finishing work early on Wednesday I headed up the Aiguille du Midi to bivi at the Col so I could get an early start. I was thinking that if I was feeling good I would have a crack at Mont Blanc!

After skiing down the arete I soon found a nice bivi spot that someone had left and settled in for the night with a wake up time of 3:45am.

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The Bivi gave me plenty of time to look at the face again and scope out the best possible ski line down so I could get most of the untouched snow. My decision to bivi was rewarded with a stunning sunset, with all the higher peaks turning their usual pinkish red.

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It rained earlier in the week and this put down a fair bit of snow up high and a friend had skied the Gervasutti Couloir on the Tuesday and said it was nice powder up on the north faces of the Tacul and Maudit.

Leaving the bivi just after 4am there were already dozens of head torches working their way up the Tacul, mostly on skis but there were some parties who were heading for Mont Blanc on foot. I made quick progress in the dark and soon reached the Bergschrund.

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Starting off in the dark is great. You have more of the day and you don’t get too hot starting out. It does mean you have to take more care in your route as you may not see things that you would in daylight.

Just over a third of the way up the face I was having trouble with my skins sticking and my skis staying on the skinny track, after using a lot of extra energy trying to pull myself up I decided to just put crampons on, skis on the back and carry on up the walking path which was firm and well travelled.

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The sun started to rise about 5:30am when I was just over half way up the face, this was nice as I could see better and the warmth gave me a little extra spurt of energy to push on to the top. I hadn’t settled to the altitude as well as I would have hoped to and was starting to get a headache so made the decision that I would just go to the summit of the Tacul and then head back down.

There is a small mixed climb to get to the summit, about 50m, and as I was on my own with no rope I did bring two axes which made it easier as there were some tricky moves with long run outs below, two axes also made down climbing after a lot easier and safer.

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A small part of the summit climb, photo is taken with GoPro which takes away some of the steepness.

On the summit for 6:30am I found I was quicker than saturdays attempt and the sun was well and truly up by now and I sat on the summit for 20 minutes soaking up the sun and taking in the views.

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I was pleased to have climbed the Tacul after failing due to weather on saturday. Next comes what all the effort was for…The Skiing!

Putting my skis on just below the rocky summit the snow was hard pack and quite wind affected for the summit ridge, this soon changed as I dropped into the North Face, It was two day old powder with a very thin breakable crust on and there was loads of fresh! As I was on my own I didn’t get a photo of any skiing and as I went light I didn’t take a helmet so no p.o.v pictures. All I managed was a little photo of some fresh turns I made on the lower half of the face.

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It was a little less deep here than up higher but it was really nice snow, I didn’t want to attack it with full speed as the parts that I had decided to ski were above the larger parts of the Bergschrund and some large seracs, but that was where the best snow was to be found!

I was back down to the bivi about 7:45 and after packing up my gear headed up the arete to the Aiguille du Midi to go back to town. There were hoards of people coming down the arete and thankfully they all gave way to me, partly because they could see I had little energy to notice them let alone move aside! On to the 8:45 bin and back to town for just after 9am! Is it too early for a well done beer?

I am glad I set off early as I am writing this at 12pm and its over 25’c in Chamonix, It would be roasting if I had set out from first bin!

Mont Blanc du Tacul – 4,248m

Another first bin at the Aiguille du Midi except this time I am with Emily because last night I convinced her to come up Mont Blanc du Tacul with me.

After climbing with Ally yesterday you could see the amount of people that were still going up with skis, so as I had today off work and the weather looked good until the early afternoon I though I should give it a go as I have not been up there before and I still don’t want to put my skis away!

Arriving at the Midi at 7:30 there was no one there but then by 7:45 there was easily a few bins worth of climbers and skiers waiting to go up, well worth getting there 15 minutes earlier and eat breakfast at the front of the line!

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The Aiguille du Midi at 7:35!

At the top by 8:30 and a quick ski to the start of the climb just to the right of the Triangle. There is a over 600m of vertical from the Col to the summit, and then you have to climb back up the Midi arete when you have skied back down.

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This climb has to be done early and quite quickly because the snow warms up quickly in the sun and also there is a lot of exposure above you on the first half of the climb, very big seracs looming above.

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Have to make it a quick drink of water!

The going was quite good to start off with then Emily started to feel the altitude a little when we were over 3900m, this only slowed us down a little.

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Emily charging up with the Sallanches valley way in the background.

Just as we were over the 4000m mark the clouds started to move in, I could see the summit at this point and it looked very close. The wind had also picked up and it became very cold. Emily had said that if I wanted to go to bag the summit that she would have waited where we had got to which was around 4100/4150m judging by where the summit was. I didn’t fancy it, by this point you could only see it every now and then and it was not looking like it would improve.

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The summit just before the clouds came in, we went a little closer than this.

We then decided just to head back down before we couldn’t see a thing, we still had over 500m of decent with big seracs and crevasses to negotiate.

The snow on the way back down was pretty good considering it hadn’t warmed much and was still quite firm. There was no crust and you could even kick up some snow with more aggressive turns.

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There were lots of patches of untouched snow that was much nicer than the chopped up walking and skin track parts.

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Overall the guide book says its 30/40′ slopes on the descent, it was not very steep overall but with a lots of clear danger you still had to take care where you were going!

I think we made a good decision by turning around, as we noticed that many of the other skiers that had set out from the first few lifts had aso turned back just before the summit and speaking to others in the lift after, only people staying at the Cosmiques refuge and lycra clad ski-mo types made it to the top before the clouds came in. Arriving back at the Midi at 1:45 it was a white out, we just made it up the arete in the last bit of sunshine.

It looked a lot different at 9am!

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Another quality day up the Midi and its definitely  something I will have to go and finish off, Maybe next week!

Chèré Couloir – Mont Blanc Du Tacul

After coming back from the UK on the 15th I was keen to start some alpine climbs. Going up the Midi on Sat 18th and being put off by howling winds and cloud I decided to give it a miss, and then with over a foot of snow falling at 3800m it was definitely  a no! The following Monday we saw there was some good weather but I only had until 1:30pm to do anything because of work so decided to ski Grand Envers which turned out to be really good considering it is nearing the end of May.

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After skiing Monday with Alistair we decided that because the weather the following day would not allow us to ski again, despite there being a couple of feet of snow up there now, we would aim for the Chèré Couloir on the Tuesday.

It was another work day for me but I managed to change with work and start at 3:20am and then have my second pick up at 6:10pm, this would give us all day for the climb, which we needed!

Tuesday morning we met up at the Midi at about 9 with the first lift going up at 9:30. Walking out on to the arete at 10 there were no tracks going down and alot of fresh snow, this already started to slow us down. After some whiteout navigating we arrived at the start of the climb at 12:00 with only two people just starting the 3rd pitch, there was so much snow!

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My 100m trail breaking, with Ally doing the rest, as usual!

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Just approaching the start, The Chèré Couloir is the obvious Ice route up the centre of the photo. Difficulty D 200m

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Ally on the second pitch.

The conditions were excellent, with really good ice and snow for climbing. We didnt place any protection until I led the last pitch, just clipping on to a couple of pieces of cord on the side of the route.

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Me leading my first big alpine route, I placed a couple of screws on this pitch as it was near vertical. Throughout the climb we were being pelted by powder snow avalanches and big spin drifts which resulted in us being very cold all day long and experiencing my first climbing hot aches and screaming a little!

After reaching the top of this last pitch it was on with the down jacket to wait for Ally to top out and start the decent.

To get back down you rappel the same couloir using the bolted belays on the left hand side, opposite side from the accent. There were a total of four raps with the fourth taking you back over the bergschrund way below the start of the climb.

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Ally on the first of four rappels.

When we got back down over the schrund we had noticed that our track that we put into the climb had now completely disappeared and that we would have to put another one in to get back to the Midi. We had 2 1/2 hours until the last bin at 5:30pm left so we thought this would be plenty of time. Once again we only had a rough idea of where to go as it was still a complete whiteout with only the Cosmiques Arete coming into view every so often. The snow was even deeper than the morning and the going was slow and tiring.

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The snow was over Ally’s knee and he isn’t a short man!

As we slowly got closer to the Midi we could start to hear the announcements over the tannoy that the last departure was in 30mins, then 15, then 10. At this point I rang the office to say that I might not be able to make my pick up at 6:10! This didn’t go down very well, and with a call back almost straight away saying that there was no one else to work it I knew we had to dig deep and get up the arete quickly, this was very hard work as there was no track in and well over a foot of snow. We made it to the top and into the cave at 5:28 and with a quick dash we just made the bin with moments to spare. Down the cable car and into my van and straight to work. This was a very long, very good and very challenging day of Alpine Climbing. Although there was a great deal of suffering throughout the day I loved every minute of it!