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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Dave Searle wrote a few words about our trip down Mont Blanc Du Taculs technical South Face

We do love a bit of Spring here in chamonix.  Skiing, Biking and Climbing are all possible depending on what the weather dishes out.  Ive done a bit of everything in the past week which is awesome.  We’ve had a lot of snow this spring but it’s not necessarily been “useful” for skiing.  The last […]

http://davesearle.me/2016/05/08/mont-blanc-du-tacul-south-face/

Mont Blanc via the classic Grand Mullets route

With the high pressure settling the snow pack and transforming the slopes into perfect corn I thought it would be a great time to accomplish one of my long term goals of skiing Mont Blanc from the summit. I have been on the ‘Roof of Europe’ twice before and both times suffered greatly on the descent. Almost 4000m of knee slamming agony on hot sunny days feeling very tired after an alpine start. Tim Oliver is usually keen for most things mountain based so after a very quick phone call he was on board and had booked us two spaces at the Grand Mullets for the Sunday night. At only 12.50euro for a bed with an alpine club membership you can afford to splash out on some nice food to build up some reserves for the long morning to come. Pasta, cheese, chorizo, snickers the list went on… Carrying up about 2kg of food and Port was worth it when you know you don’t have to lug it up the next morning.

Thinking of a more interesting route to the refuge we decided to ski Couloir Cosmiques to reach the Bossons Glacier, this turned out to be a bad idea. After the two 30m raps we encountered hard snow, some of the hardest I’ve come across! After 50/100m of back straining side slipping we decided to change to crampons and down climb. Front pointing down 400m of a beautiful moderate ski descent takes its toll on your psych for the day ahead. Skiing the lower 400m to the glacier went much smoother and we were soon skinning along the Bossons Glacier en route to the hut. Passing a guide who told us to follow the signs we reached the refuge in the evening light around 4:30pm. Meeting a Ally Swinton and a couple of his friends we settled in for the evening and enjoyed the surroundings.

The guardians are very nice at the Grand Mullets, offering water for boiling and generally being very hospitable. After a large quantity of pasta, cheese and a glass of port we started to wind down for the night. The Guardians generously gave Tim and I a rice pudding despite us not eating their dinner, a small token of appreciation for the port we gave them. We retired to the room around 20:30 and the lights went off. 30 minutes later I shot up, gasping for air with a funny feeling in my guts. Quickly on with the slippers and I’m darting down the stairs. Before I reach the door I throw up all of the pasta in the doorway and over the railings. Walking back in after a minute cursing I approach the guardians with the bad news. They offered to help clean but I couldn’t let them it was not the prettiest sight. Afterwards they offered me a coke to settle my stomach and I went to bed around 22:30 dreading how I would feel when we rise 5 hours later.

3:30am comes around in what felt like 10 minutes, I didn’t feel that bad except I was starving and very dehydrated. Eating a few snickers and drinking a litre of water we pushed on regardless. 4:40am and we were off on the skin track.

When you are in the big mountains in the dark you feel very small. With freight train rumbles passing close by the sound of falling seracs chills you to the bone. Pushing on almost seems stupid but we do it anyway. The skin track takes you on a wild tour through towering seracs and bottomless crevasses until you reach the Grand Plateau. From here you can see the Vallot and you know the summit is in sight. Tim kept telling me that I looked rough and my inner Welshman wanted to push on despite feeling like I should be in a warm bed 3000m meters below.  Having done the Bosses ridge a few years prior I knew what was in store. Skis on our back and the long monotonous slog continued. 6 hours after leaving the refuge and despite having an empty stomach we were on the summit. 6 of us in total with hand shakes and high fives flying around. A mouthful of sweets and we started the descent down the North East ridge heading towards the north face. Every turn was a struggle, lacking oxygen and energy, but I persevered. The North face is a crevasse and serac mine field, luckily we were following some faint tracks so route finding was not an issue.

One hour of tiring skiing passed and we were back at the refuge. A quick stop to pick up some gear we left behind and we wanted to get back to mid station and return to the valley, where beer is on tap and the burgers were on the grill.

Sitting in Cham sud you get a very surreal feeling looking back up at Mont Blanc, it was hard to imagine that only 3 hours ago we were suffering on its summit. Content, relaxed and exhausted we hd done what we set out to achieve despite the obstacles that lay in our way. What an end to another great season.

Col du Miage

Once again early season snow has led me into the mountains in the pursuit of powder.  With the last two weekends spent riding piste in Verbier I was keen to get out and find some real skiing and fortunately so was Tim. This time last year Tom Grant and Ben Briggs went over to the Plan Glacier hut in search of good skiing on the Miage NF. With the snow line being so low and the thought of exploring a new area of the massif intriguing I once again found myself thumbing through countless guide books and topos looking for a good season starter.  Not wanting to start too big we thought the Col du Miage west couloirs could offer some steepish 40/45′ slopes with limited exposure.

After a couple of messages and a phone call later, Tim picked me up early on wednesday morning and we started the short drive to La Gruvaz car park, 1090m. Ben suggested driving to the Chalets du Miage with a 4×4 but limited to Tims Fiesta we opted to walk this hour or so track. Arriving at the Chalets we could see the snow cover on the couloirs.

We saw they were plastered in the white stuff. Skis on and we started skinning our way up through the trees towards the Plan Glacier hut, 2680m. The going was slow as we battled our way through dense vegetation and deep snow. It took us over 6 hours but we eventually made the hut just as the sun was setting. Exhausted. Eating food and sleeping was on the agenda.

A sunrise start at 8am we were greeted with deep turns straight out of the door. After 200m of powder we started the skin towards the Col. Making good time we changed to booting as it got too steep and we waded our way up the lower slopes.

Around half way up the main couloir we met our limit, one side Ice and the other firm neve. Not wanting to be heros on our first outing we decided to enjoy the lower half and make our way down. Rewarded with deep snow all the way down the face and beyond.

Once down off the glacier things started to get ropey. Skiing through rivers, over trees and everywhere in-between.  This is what early season skiing is all about and we loved every minute of it.

Getting back to our trainers we still had a 40 minute walk to Tims badly parked car before we could drive to the nearest establishment that was selling beer. Great to get out and enjoy the snow and Im truly  ready for another amazing winter. Thanks Timmy for the company and some quality pics!

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.

Summer is here.

Going back to Wales at the end of May I knew that it would mean the end of another winter skiing. Seeing what I was missing on the internet was annoying but finishing on the Col du Plan NF was an amazing end to a exceptional winter.

Upon my return to Chamonix I was keen to start my training for an expedition to the Tien Shan mountains in Krygyzstan in September with Emily, Dave and a few others. When asked to join I was nervous as I have never done anything like this, but knowing that it could be the adventure of a lifetime and a chance to climb some previously unclimbed 5000m+ peaks and routes I could not say no.  Flights have been booked and I have started to put in the work to make it a succesful trip.

With some great weather and equally good conditions it has been easy to get up high and get some easy routes in such as Point Lachenal traverse and Cosmiques arete. These are quick and in close proximity to the Midi and they can both be done in a little over two hours. Great to get something done in the morning before most people are out of bed. I am planning more big routes for this summer and a lot of training. Keep checking back for more condition updates and trip reports.

Grassi Marone Stratta, Petit Mont Blanc

Monday. A relentless day boot packing on the Nantillions Glacier, failing once again to ski the Spencer Couloir. But at least I came away with one good photo.

 

Sleigh on the Nantillions

Sleigh on the Nantillions

Living with Tom Grant I often hear tales of great skiing around Chamonix. On Tuesday, while I was looking through many guide books and reading conditions updates on the web, he spoke of his recent adventure with Caroline Gleich and Liz Daley in Italy on the North Face of Petit Mont Blanc. They had skied a little known couloir over there and reported great conditions.

Armed with this information and a desire to explore every corner of the Mont Blanc Massif I found myself in a van with James Sleigh and Ally Hurst making our way through 11.5km of tunnel with Courmayeur in our sights.

Starting in Val Veny you take five lifts finishing on the Arp before you can start the traverse to the foot of the Miage Glacier. Arriving here at 10:20 we started the skin to the base of the couloir and reached it within 45 minutes. Stashing unneeded gear at the base we started the long and monotonous boot pack up this beautiful, atmospheric and steep couloir. With every step we took up it we knew we would soon be enjoying every turn down it.

 

The snow was perfect despite the last 100m being a little crap. I stopped a little below the boys who continued to very near to where the couloir tops out. Perfect chalky powder awaited us and after a couple of jump turns we got a good feel of the conditions and we made some quick tight turns in the narrow sections and we opened up some fast aggressive ‘freeride’ turns where it widened. 700m of steep couloir later and we were back on the Miage. Some of the best, most enjoyable and atmospheric skiing I have ever done. The spring snow descent down Val Veny to catch the lift back to the car was good fun, but the few miles of skating on the flat was less than enjoyable but the smile on my face from the couloir was still evident! The couloir is graded 5.3 but it didn’t feel like it should be given the perfect conditions. Maybe with firm snow or icy hard pack it could be justified!

 

Sitting with a Pie and a Pint back in Chamonix we were discussing camping on the Miage to fully explore every little couloir this magnificent North Face has to offer. Petit Mont Blanc I will be back, Watch this space…

Thanks to James and Ally for some great company, a memorable days skiing and some out of focus photos.

Rebuffat-Terray, V5 M 550m, Aiguille des Pelerins 3318m

After living with Tom Grant for over a year this was my first climb with him. He could find no-one else to climb this challenging mixed route so in the end he had to settle with me, even though I thought that the route might be slightly above my level, but with nothing else to do I would give it a go! What we climbed was mainly an ice and snow route because it was so filled in; normally there is more mixed ground and ice filled corners.

The black dot indicates roughly where we turned around.

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We arrived at first bin at the Aiguille du Midi cable car at 8:30 and we were well on our way, after a quick toilet stop, by 9am.

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The nice footpath quickly changed to breaking trail through huge boulder fields in the moraines in sometimes thigh high crusty snow. After an hour we had made it through this minefield and onto the lower slopes of the Aiguille des Pelerins and we were ready for crampons to start the climb.

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To get to the start of the serious climbing we had to start up the small mixed gully to reach some 55/60 degree neve slopes that took you up to the first pitch.

Once at the start of the first pitch I could get a grasp of the extremity of the climb and it didn’t look too difficult, I changed my opinion after the first pitch difficulties though!

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The first mixed pitch. 65/80 degrees of mixed ground.

I was still feeling ok after this first mixed pitch and then there was another 60m or so of open neve to climb before the next mixed pitch which was steeper than the first one.

We had a little trouble when Tom was trying to get over a 80/90 degree ice bulge which did not look very safe, and three Italian climbers were rappelling over him and kicking down a lot of ice and spindrift. He made it over after a short wait hanging from his tools and then it was my turn to second it.

The next pitch was the hardest climbing I have done on rock or mixed. I really had to trust my front points and tools as I tried to reach over the bulge and get a strong hold before putting all my weight on two axes, which are very blunt and in need of new picks!

After I managed to use brute strength and no technique to overcome the crux move I had to stop for a minute or two to regain my breath before joining Tom at the belay.

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Me just after the vertical wall and just after my five minute breather!!

The next pitch looked very manageable but I insisted to Tom that we head down, I was pleased to have made it as far as we had and I really didn’t want to miss last bin at 4:30 and have to walk from the plan down to Chamonix! We had climbed about 350m of the 550m route.

Tom was fine with this as I only agreed to climb with him if I decided when were done! So with this we started the 5 or 6 rappels we did to get back down to the start of the route.

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The next pitch above where we turned around, The route is in a much fatter condition than Tom remembers it the last time he climbed it about 3 years ago.

The rappels went smoothly and we made quick ground back down.

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Me on one of the last rappels, you get a feel for how steep this route was.

We had a much quicker walk back to the Plan as there was a more established path in by this time. We made last bin and I still had a smile on my face!

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Thanks to Tom for the climb and for wearing my GoPro and getting some cool shots!!

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!!