Winter 2015/16: Looking Back

When the snow started to fall in November the anticipation grew for a great winter. People started brushing the cobwebs off their skis and heading up high to find good snow. The Helbronner was the place to search with the Aiguille du Midi being closed. There was some good skiing to be had but it was short lived. The temperatures rose leading up to Christmas and the snow ceased to fall. Most of the early snow melted away and Christmas came and went with no real precipitation. As the new year rolled in it brought with it some snow, a lot of snow. Powder was plentiful and there were too many deep days to count. Spending a lot of time in Italy dodging trees and the odd day up high in Chamonix it felt like winter was in full swing.

As with every year I like venturing into new corners of the Massif to find new lines that I have yet to ski. This is always condition dependant, but this year the conditions have led me to certain areas that I would have otherwise passed by without a thought.

Couloir Chevalier was the first line of 2016. I had been to the top of this a couple of years ago but had to turn around because of the poor build quality of La Sportiva ski boots. Returning to this line in good snow and with Mikko and the Finns was a great morning out and it felt good to get back on the steeps.

Chamonix TOPO

Chamonix TOPO

Table Couloir, Aiguille du Tour . This was my first alpine route and I have wanted to return for 4 years. Heading up there with Tim was great even though it is a long way away from the top of Col du Passon and was a real slog up with deep powder. It is a great small, steep line that rarely gets skied because its not that long and quite far away.

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Mont Oreb North Face was next. Skiing with Mikko and Jesper is great, they always have a plan B. After we were turned around at the midi with ideas about a nice little line we headed back to the cars and straight over to Buet. Smashing the climb up we were treated with powder down this steep and exposed face and a nice little ski back to the car.

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Tricot NE Couloir is located near Bionassay on the other side of Les Houches. This was a new area for me after only seeing this line once when I skied trapper last year. A beautiful little steep tucked away from the crowds of the Chamonix Valley.

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Dent du Geant South Face started what almost felt like spring. Corn decent down to the Italian valley below. Warm temperatures had transformed the snow and with little else to ski it felt right to tick this classic off the list. When the clouds came in it did make route finding difficult but with a big cliff below we knew traversing high was the only option.

the line. Teton Gravity

the line. Teton Gravity

Les Courtes NE Spur is one to return to. Although we made it 2/3rds of the way up we had to stop at the choke because there was too much powder pouring down the face. It made crossing the slough dangerous. Nevertheless we were rewarded with several hundred meters of deep cold snow on this classic steep north face.

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We skied from the circle

Mont Mallet West Couloir is a little known steep line tucked away below the Dent du Geants north face. Deciding to climb the line first we put ourselves in the firing line of some very big searches and in a wild and impressive little corner of the Massif. What Mikko considered as a training day was one of the highlights of my winter.

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The line (Photo- Lucapandolfi.com)

Col de la Aiguille Vert was my baptism into real ‘extreme’ skiing, my first 5.4. This rarely skied line is over 50′ for its entirety and you get a real feel  for its steepness when your standing at the top. Cold snow and good company made the day feel a little tamer than it should have been and it felt easier than some other less steep lines I have skied in bad snow. It goes to show that the snow quality is what can change a grade.

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Camp to Camp Topo

Tour Ronde North Face is another classic alpine climb I have done that I had always wanted to return to with skis. This spring it happened and after flying up the Gervasutti in no time at all we were staring down the upper face in boot top cold powder. What a descent. Skiing above the mandatory raps your mind is telling you you can’t fall the whole time. Once off the rope on the lower section your mind eases and you know you have passed the exposure test.

Mont Blanc du Tacul South Face is about as technical a line as I have skied. Weaving in and out of couloirs and with a few abseils thrown in for good measure it made for a gripping descent. Add to that a 5.4 grade and some hard snow on the cruxes and you have the most challenging day on skis for me. When the face started to pour down on us in the lower section it started to get scary and we were glad to make it out safely. Possibly the last day on skis for me this year, I will have to see what the conditions are like when I return in June after  a couple of weeks back in the motherland.

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Photo – Tom Grant

Another great winter has past with some epic days and also some scary ones. It has been great to explore more areas close to home and to make the most of my skis from Voile, they have been everything I have wanted and more. This summer will be more about climbing and moving faster in the mountains and I’m glad to have Salomon onboard to help me achieve more of my dreams.

 

 

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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…

Frendo Spur, Aiguille du Midi 3842m

Climbing on the Aiguille du Midi is ideal. To climb a small or big, alpine or rock route then get the cable car back to town has major advantages. Given that they say the majority of accidents happen on descent you are completely taking this out of the equation. I have climbed one route previously on the Midi North Face, The Eugster diagonal couloir last June with Emily. This was a long climb but with no real difficulties. Returning to the foot of this 1200m high wall of rock, snow and ice I was ready for another go. Teaming up with Nick after our recent success on the Migot Spur, Aig. du Chardonnet, we opted to climb in a true alpine style. Over two days with our bivi gear on our backs. You can climb this route in one day but it was long enough over two and having the upper 80 degree ice in cold morning condition was much better that the scorching afternoon sun. So here we go, The Frendo Spur

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Leaving the station at Plan d`aiguille around 10am we started the 1.5 hour walk up the moraines to the foot of the Spur. Moving together for the first hour we covered much of the grade III and IV ground before changing to rock boots and pitching the first grade V crux, the Rateau de Chèvre. This was straight forward and involved a small traverse along a narrow ledge, normally easy but with heavy packs on you had to keep your ballance. After this there was more grade IV rock which we moved together on again. Just as we set off Nick rested his hand on a fridge sized rock that must have been resting on grit on a slab, it came shooting past me before exploding below me, thankfully missing me and the rope. A couple more hours moving together and stopping for a coffee break and some fruit cake on the way and we were over the exposed col and onto the second Grade V crux. This steep corner was very exposed but offered great protection with large cracks and big flakes. It then mellowed to grade IV and was one of the best pitches of rock I have climbed.

We were getting tired and knew there was not far to go. Avoiding the new crux (fallen block) we pushed hard to get up to the proposed bivi site. Moving quickly so I could take my rock boots off and eat food I was placing little gear but the rock was solid and not too hard. The time was just after 8pm when we arrived at the top of the rock spur, and we quickly found the perfect bivi. A 2 meter wide ledge on the north face with a drop of several hundred meters overlooking Chamonix. Food, water, Port and Bed. We were tired, we had been on the move for over ten hours and were glad to take a rest.

5am came quickly after a(nother) rubbish nights sleep at altitude. I was eager to get going but Nick was not. I had to re-heat his coffee by the time he traversed the bivi ledge to meet me. After the slowest wake up call we were on the snow slopes with crampons and axes just before 7am, Tired and wanting to get on with it. The snow was firm and the sun was rising. The arete that leads up from the rock was the most exposed I have felt. Almost on all fours I lead the way up bfore Nick swung back into the lead for the 80 degree ice. Craving a cafe Bluebird sausage sandwich we powered on up the arete and got the cable car back down. Following our route up the face while going down the cable car you get a true sense of the scale of the North Face and we were overjoyed at our achievement. It was the biggest route both of us had climbed and we were glad we worked well together, First the Migot Spur now the Frendo Spur, whats next? Maybe the Tournette Spur!

You can read what Nick had to say about the climb HERE!

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.

A few days up high

With no work and plenty of good weather days I have been spending a lot of my time wandering about up high off the Midi. Starting to work on my climbing strength for the long summer ahead I went into the hills with Nick  for the first time. We were aiming to climb the Tour Ronde north face, which I climbed last summer, and then ski the Gervasutti couloir, which I skied a couple months back. I thought this would be a good link up and with Nick not having done either the climb or ski he was keen. After a short skin we were at the bottom of the north face. Down climbing from the schrund to retrieve my jacket I was back at the start and we were off before 10am. Making reasonably quick progress up the 45/50′ snow slope we hit the ice and saw what we had to climb. Thin, brittle black ice. Nevertheless we started on up over placing screws as we didn’t trust what little protection the ice would give us. Topping out of the difficulties we noticed big fat clouds coming in from the south. Not wanting to get stuck on this mountain we turned back and rapped the ice. We enjoyed good skiing on the steep lower half of the north face just before clouds engulfed the upper face. We made it down to a beer, job done.

 

Summer freeride camp started the next day with James, Dave Searle, Tim and Davide De Masi. Making big turns down the north face of the Gros Rognon in good powder. I managed to find the only patch of bare ice on the whole face and after setting off first was last to enjoy the pow.

 

Next objective. Midi-Plan traverse. This is one of the Chamonix ‘Classics’ and it lives up to its reputation as one to remember. Me and Tim opted to take skis so that we could approach it quicker then ski the Envers du Plan glacier back to Montenvers so we didn’t have to return to the Midi. Quick to the start on skis I could still see my tracks down the Col du Plan as we started the highly exposed traverse on the north face. Placing a few bits of gear as we didn’t trust the wind affected snow we made it to the rognon du plan with no difficulties. From here it all went tits up! Wandering off route I headed up to the highest ridge on the rognon and thought I knew where I was going. We knew there were a couple of raps somewhere so finding a good piece of Tat I thought it would be it, or we could at least get down. I was wrong. At the bottom of one 30m rap I found a good spike to start the next rap. After 30mins of trying to free a stuck rope and Tim failing to climb the impossible slab to retrieve it we were very close to a PGHM call until I gave it one last whip and wiggle and it dropped to our feet. What to do now? Tim led round on a spicy traverse to find a lone piton, where were we? Thinking that it was left from a climbing route we backed it up with a wire and made another 30m rap down to some cord that was looking very old but still strong. Maybe one more 30 could get us to the glacier, if it didn’t we were going to make the call. As Tim went over the edge and out of sight I heard a cheer as he saw the ropes sitting piled on the glacier floor, the end was near. By this time it was too late to push for the summit despite it being in view for 3 hours and so close. I was gutted but just wanted to go home. We had to then negotiate the horribly crevased glacier to work our way down to Montenvers. Wet slides met us after every turn and it was one of the most gripping descents I have made. Two foot crowns and huge avalanches came and went as we finally made it to the safety of the flat glacier floor. We made the last train by 5 mins, that would have been a long walk down if we left it any later.

After these few days up high I have taken away a lot of lessons. Knowing when to bail with approaching weather. Taking a topo of the route and asking people who have done it before. Getting off a wet dangerous glacier before 4pm and generally if I’m going to go up high everyday eat more food and have more energy.  Going back to Wales for a few weeks now which probably means the end of skiing for this winter. Maybe there will be some snow, otherwise it will be full swing climbing season when I return. Watch this space. Thanks for reading, What a winter.

Col du Plan, Aiguille du Midi NF

Fifteen months after making my first off-piste turns I find myself clipping my skis on looking down a windy, powder covered arête with a Midi north face line in my sights.

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Teaming up with Dave Searle we were both excited and psyched to be stepping up our game and taking on the true steep skiing playground that is the Aiguille du Midi north face. Skiing straight out of the tunnel and down the arête was a first for me and it really filled me with confidence as we made our way along the midi-plan traverse towards the top of the Tournier spur entrance to Col du Plan. The wind was howling but the snow still looked good. We saw four tracks going down this entrance. It was nice to let someone else open this highly exposed line. Here we go…

Even after the arête warm up my first turns did take some building up to but once they came and went I was committed and ready to enjoy some steep powder. After the short traverse to the Col du Plan main face we encountered a brief icy section. A few instructional words from Dave I was over the difficulties and we had a couple hundred meters of cold steep powder before we hit the rappel. Waiting for the first group to rap we saw Bird coming in direct from the Col. It looked icy and we were glad we came in from higher up. He ripped it up, making huge turns down the face until he arrived with us and asked if he could tag along on our rope as his partners had abandoned him. Not wanting to leave him stranded, we said yes! After the initial two raps there was a short sideslip before the last small rap with skis on and we were out of the danger. I could see the mid station. Some more steep turns then it was smooth powder all the way back. Arriving at the plan with Dave and Bird it was high fives all round. It still has not sunk in that I had skied the North Face. Earlier on in the season I jokingly said to Tom that I would be ripping it up in my second season skiing but I didn’t say it with much confidence and definitely didn’t dream it would become reality.

 

I felt content with my accomplishment and headed back down as those boys went back up with the Eugster in their eyes. Meeting up with them after they ended up skiing a powdery Rond with big turns all the way down. What a day. Thanks to Dave and Bird for the company and ensuring we all made it home.

Tour Ronde North Face 3792m

Another day up the mountains, this time with Alex. We were excited for a couple of days up high with the aim of completing 3 routes, This turned into one because of a few different reasons, but the one we completed was amazing.

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Starting up another last bin at the Midi we were aiming for the Perroux hut for another bivi, after helping some English 50 something year old put on his harness and crampons we escorted him down the arete and off to the Cosmiques refuge where he would await his guide, If we were not there who knows what would have happened to him. Before we settled in and started cooking some food we took time to fix the door on the small old hut, this meant digging out some ice, clearing the door way and salvaging some nails, we made that baby wind proof and were chuffed with our refurbishment’s so started cooking some ravioli and noodles, it was the first time I had used the hammer on my axe, not sure if that is its intended purpose!

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We were in bed early for a 3am wake up and out by 4am after some coffee, orange juice and a couple of cereal bars. Rapping in to the dark is good fun and we were on the move roped up just after 4.

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After a 1hour 15min approach we started heading up the snow slopes with only one team of two ahead who were pitching the north face, We caught them up before the ice and passed them soon after. The conditions were perfect, re-frozen snow at the bottom then neve all the way to nice ice in the middle with good neve on the upper snow field.

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We opted to take the left couloir with a longer ice section, this took us higher up the upper snow field and was great fun with a small rock and ice crux at the top. The sun started to come up as we were half way through the ice offering amazing sunrise views down the Vallee Blanche with the sun coming up behind the Dent de Geant.

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We were along side the other team at this point as they decided to get out onto the upper snow field as soon as they could, leaving us to have the whole left hand ice couloir to ourselves.

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After the tricky moves we were out onto the upper snow slope and heading towards the summit.

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After 2 hours of climbing we were on the summit and we sat and enjoyed the views for about 45 minutes whilst Alex looked for his sunglasses unsuccessfully.

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After borrowing some goggles from a German Guide we headed back down the East ridge with not enough time or the correct glasses to climb the Entreves traverse which is what we wanted to do after the Ronde. We then headed back to the Helbronner and came back to the Midi, we bailed on our plan to stay at the Torino hut and climb the Dent du Geant the next day as the weather did not look good in the afternoon and I could not afford to be stuck in Italy the following night!

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The next day me and Alex went to retrieve our sleeping bags from the Perroux and came back up the Cosmiques arete, we did the round trip Midi to Midi in just over a hour and had great fun in the sun wearing t-shirts!

A great few days in the mountains and I am really pleased to have climbed the North Face of the Tour Ronde, something I have wanted to do for a couple of years and my main objective for this summer.

Thanks to Alex.

Eugster Diagonal Couloir, Aiguille du Midi North Face

Back up the mountain again and this time taking on a big one. My initial plan was to do the Midi-Plan traverse with my housemate then we heard there was a lot of snow on it and you have to be early and quick, then plans changed to the Tour Ronde north face with Tom Grant and a friend of his. After discovering that the Panoramic to Helbronner does not run until 9:30 and that would be too late as the isotherm was around 3800m and it would not have refrozen. I then had a text from Ally saying he and his housemate were going to go up the Eugster from first bin. From mid station to the top is over 1500m hight gain and the climb itself is just over 1000m.

I wasn’t keen to start with because it is a seriously committing climb as there is no where to go unless you down climb from where ever you are. That said, it is a ski line in the spring so I knew it wouldn’t be difficult climbing, if you had good conditions.

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We got first bin to the Plan D’Aiguille and then headed off on our approach, the guidebook says it takes 1.5 hours and it was spot on, we did have to negotiate some moraines but we were at the start of the route just after 9:30. First bin didn’t leave until 7:45 delayed from it summertime of 7:10. I teamed up with Emily so we could move in two groups of two as Allys friend Francis had also come along for the climb. Those boys had already started up the couloir as they got there a little before us.

We were questioning whether to climb or not because the snow had not refrozen at the bottom and we thought it might be a long slushy climb as a result. Ally and Francis made quick work of the first section so Emily and I thought we should get on with it also. Straight away we ran into a section of ice about 5-10m high and it had running water beneath it and was very hollow and thin. A quick belay over this and then we started storming up the couloir which had nice footsteps in.

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A few hundred meters of climbing and we hit another ice band, this one was too dangerous to climb so we headed around it via a small rock band, it was nice to put some protection in so you can have a relaxed rest. Moving up the couloir again after in the nice footsteps we came to the start of the Diagonal. This is usually a rock climbing section of the route in the summer but as there is still so much snow there was only about 10-20m of mixed climbing before we were on the snow slopes of the Diagonal and back onto a traverse to the left bank of the diagonal.

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Further up the Diagonal we cam into another rock and ice section, this was hard to protect and it was around midday so it was starting to get very warm with lots of water running down it.

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Moving slowly over this problem we were on the final push out of the diagonal and on to the North Face snow slopes with the Aiguille du Midi station in sight. Seeing the lift only made things harder as you can see your goal and we were feeling pretty tired by this point. We slowly plodded up the north face snow slopes stopping every know and then to catch our breath.

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Just below the top station there are a couple of big crevasses to work around to reach the arete. We chose the path that traverses between the two. This took us nearly one hour as the snow was very soft and we didn’t want to make a mistake so near to the top of the climb.

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Ally snapped a few photos from the viewing platform as he arrived over two hours before us. Here we are just crossing the first crevasse. We carried on the traverse and over the second snow bridge and then up the final few steps to the arete, I was physically and mentally destroyed.

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Arriving just after 3pm it had taken us 5.5 hours for the climb and a total of 7 hours for the ascent. I was pleased with this time as I didn’t know if I had the fitness to get up the thing in the first place. It was so nice to sit on the viewing platform in the hot sun and eat my pastries that I carried the whole way up. Getting back to town a hour later and the heat was unbearable, 33’c on some thermometers, No wonder the snow was soft. I think I will be avoiding the Midi North Face for a while but I might go back to take on the Frendo spur sometime in the next couple of months.

Thanks to Emily for the climb and Ally for the photos.