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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Tour Ronde North Face

After a week away in Corsica I was keen to get straight back out into the mountains. Seeing that Pete and Grant had skied the Tour Ronde North Face the day I arrived back and reported great snow I knew it was the time to go and bag this classic I had admired for years. The Tour Ronde is the first mountain I set my eyes on climbing on a summer trip to Chamonix 5 summers ago. When I climbed its north face for the first time in 2013 I was over the moon and have dreamt ever since of skiing it. I had already skied its east face, south face and the Gervasutti Couloir so the only face left was the North!

Heading towards it that morning with the intention of going solo I managed to convince my friend Ally Hurst to leave his group of four heading to the Diable and join me for some great snow. After he saw the face it didn’t take much convincing. We nervously crossed the big schrund on the Gerva and he stormed up the 350m couloir in 35 minutes. I was just behind with a chest infection, coughing my guts up in a time of 50 mins. Arriving back into the sun we took a look down the face. It still looked great, only 2 tracks and lots of good fresh snow to the sides. It was go time.

Dropping straight in and making controlled turns in the great snow felt amazing and I was so happy and content skiing this big and exposed face. Arriving at the abseil after 10 or 15 minutes we clipped in. Knowing that the exposed top face was the only thing playing in the back of our minds. Once on to the lower face after abseiling our worries were behind us and we could ski care free down and over the schrund. Arriving back at Montenvers just after 1pm we both had grins from ear to ear.

Mont Mallet West Couloir

Mont Mallet West couloir is tucked away on the north side of the Dent du Geant, along the ridge of the Periades. Normally you ski this line by climbing up the Breche Puiseux and climbing some mixed group to reach the shoulder of the Mallet. We decided to climb the line. This is not normally done because of the time spent exposed beneath the Noir seracs. We moved fast to minimise this exposure. First bin on weekend is now 7:30 and after Mikko exchanged multiple lift numbers we managed to get on the second bin and had our skins on by 8:30. I had skin malfunction within the hour and resorted to climbing with crampons.

The snow was very firm on the glacier and this did not slow us down. Upon arriving at the base of the couloir we started to get deeper with each step and soon we were wading up the couloir in nice powder snow. Ditching all our unnecessary gear at the bottom we made reasonable progress up the line sharing the trail breaking whenever I could. The sun had softened the harder sections of snow by the time we started skiing and it was good powder all the way down.

Somehow we made it to the train for 3:30 and I rushed to work at 4:40, ten minutes late. Very tired, and surprised to find good snow so long after the last snowfall.

Mont Oreb, North Couloir

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

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

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

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

Aiguille D’Arpette, Champex-Lac

Beer gardens, sunshine and guide books resulted in a short drive around the massif to a little town called Champex-Lac. A classic stop on the TMB and from what I could see only has two small two man lifts. A 14chf rando ticket saved us over an hour of skinning and took us straight to the best point to scope out a nice line. We took three pages of the guide book but totally disregarded them all. Picking the closest line that looked like it would ski well. After returning home we found out the name of the face but couldn’t see our line in the book.

Starting the skin at 10:30 we were at the top by just after 13:30. We went up lookers left then traversed the ridge to ski the line we scoped from the bottom.

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…

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!

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.

Rond- West couloir, Aiguille du Midi

Early doors at the Midi with James and Tim off on another adventure. Skiing down the south face and traversing to the Rond we had a few people for company but it was quiet for a bluebird day up high. The top of the Rond was its usual icy side slip but once you traversed the blue ice sections at speed using the softer snow on the right bank to slow down, it was nice skiing all the way over the bergschrund. After waiting for Tim to pull himself out of it we carried on past the usual exit point and headed for the short boot pack up to the West couloir. We were alone. A short boot pack and a couple of rappels later and we were putting our skis on deep in this atmospheric couloir, there was no going back now.

After skiing some 50m we encountered the crux of the descent. A narrowing that was unskiable for the likes of us. A couple of meters wide with a foot deep three foot wide icy runnel right in the middle of it. I managed to get some tat on a nice flake and set up a rap down the first section of it but then the rope ran out, and we had no more anchors. Problem solving time. I started the ski using the last 5m of rope hanging below us. After coming to the end of the rope on the left side of the runnel It was axe and side slip for 10m before I had to figure out a way of crossing the ice. At this point James and Tim had already opted for down climbing but I was not in the best place for a safe transition. Using James and Tim as my anchor I traversed over the ice and managed to ski my way out of it. James and Tim downclimbed to me and then we could enjoy some more skiing. The snow in the lower section was a mix of old powder, neve and hard snow. Some enjoyable skiing but mostly just getting down! One by one we made our way down, extremely exposed to the gigantic serac hanging above us. No time to stop for lunch. We initially wanted to ski para face and walk to the tunnel but with the clouds coming in quick we decided mid station would be the safer bet. An eternity passed while we side stepped our way up the traverse to gain enough height to get back in one go. 3pm lift down and we hit the pub. It feels good to have skied the last route on the west face for me despite the bad snow conditions. I will have to return to this couloir with some better snow or maybe one day ski it direct! One can only dream…