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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Couloir Angelique, Les Courtes South Face

I first met Jesper at the bottom of the West Couloir last spring and have been in similar circles for the last year. Watching him make big descents with the likes of Mikko and Ben I have always been excited to see what he has been up to. When he asked me to go and ski Couloir Angelique I couldn’t say no. Knowing that it would be a big day out I tried to pack light and think strong. Starting early from GM top bin we headed straight up the NNE face of Les Courtes. After 1130m of ascent, 800m being a boot pack, we were at the top of the Couloir at 13:00. The climb was on my mind the whole way up, as if conditions were not looking good in the Angelique I knew we would be down climbing the NNE. Hearing about a fatality on this face last week I was focused on reaching the top and optimistic for good conditions. Making the first small rap conditions were a little icy as the sun was hiding behind some thick clouds. Jesper made a few turns and reported not great snow. Not wanting to make my first turns on 50′ ice I made another small rap and then started skiing.

The snow was less than ideal as it saw no sun all day. It was firm but grippy and as we got lower the snow softened and we could make some nice turns. Im not sure if it was the situation I was in, Skiing a big 5.3 E3, or the fact I was beasted from the boot pack, but I found myself constantly puffing and panting the whole way down. I was gripped. The skiing consists of 200m 50′ then 600m of 45′. The couloir ranges between 5 and 30m in width. Nearing the bottom of the couloir I felt relieved, I had completed what I set out to do, after bailing on a few big lines this year due to less than average conditions it was nice to get out and accomplish something new. It was my first time in the Talefre basin and it is epic. A long slushy descent to the James Bond track. Not the best for getting down but as Jespers ski pass is somewhere on the NNE face of Les Courtes it was the only way down, and I couldn’t leave him to do it on his own!

All in all a great big day out. Traversing Les Courtes and enjoying a big ski line. Thanks to Jesper for the invite. Lets see what the rest of the spring brings.

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.

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.

Aiguille De L’Ecrenaz, North East Couloir, 2385m

After Mondays big day touring off the Midi we wanted more. I remember reading Lornes write up of the North East Couloir last year and it has been in the back of my mind ever since. Knowing that the north facing slopes would still be in good condition me James and Tim headed up Brevent-Flegere for first bins heading for the Rouge.

Traversing around the floria you get your skins on quickly. We were the only people taking this route and after passing over 50 people at the bottom of the floria all putting skins on we knew we had made the right choice. An hours skinning put us at the bottom of the couloir. The sun was baking hot and hitting our backs as we plodded up the 500m couloir. The snow on this south facing couloir was horrible. Changing from knee deep slush to bullet hard ice where we were glad we brought crampons. The boot pack felt like it went on for ever, The bad snow mixed with the hot sun really drained us and we were happy when we reached the top.

Looking down the North facing couloir we saw some good snow. There is a 40m side slip to get to the rappel then a 30m rap. Putting skis on we had over 500m of nice steep skiing ahead of us. The first few turns came and went and it felt fluid all the way down. The snow varied from nice powder on the sides of the couloir to soft chalky powder in the centre. Out of the couloir and it was more powder skiing down to Buet. Still not convinced by the La Sportiva Spectres, there is now 5mm walk mode play, which does not fill me with confidence skiing, steeps and back country.

Thanks to James and Tim for a great day out.

E.N.S.A

Over 8 inches of lovely cold snow fell in Chamonix yesterday. This put a hold to my Cosmiques first bin idea as I knew I couldn’t make it home for work at 1pm if the midi was late opening. Change of plans. Ally Swinton and I were at Brevent for 9am. Waiting until 10:15 when they finally opened top ticket, we were in the first group heading towards E.N.S.A. Watching 3 balls-out riders huck the 3m cliff into the narrow couloir while we set up our rope for the rap! The snow was perfect. Nice and cold, deep powder. Charging down the couloir we found nice snow all the way back to town where we headed home. As quickly as we were in, it was over. Both with big smiles and plenty of snow on our faces! Cheers Ally for the photos and for being nice and quick!

Picked up some alpine boots yesterday from Footworks. I have never worn a pair and they are nowhere near as comfy as my La Sportiva touring boots! What a baptism of fire they had! Should be able to charge harder than in my touring boots, and they wont fall apart as quick now!

Couloir Rectiligne

Waking up to a beautiful sunrise in Chamonix is one of the many reasons people find it hard to leave here! Another reason is the fact that you have some of the best skiing available in the world right on your door step. Making the most of my last day off work I was heading to Allys house bright and early this morning to see what we were going to do. I had one thing in my mind, Cunningham Couloir on the Aiguille du Midi west face. This has been on my list for a while and its only now that I feel confident enough in my skiing ability to be able to get down it in one piece. Ally was less keen on this route. After speaking to his house mate, Dave Searle who skied the Glacier Rond and Rectiligne yesterday ( read about it here), he knew that it would be a shit storm trying to negotiate the Bossons Glacier if the clouds came in like the forecast said it would!

After much debate and a cup of tea I agreed to go and Ski the Couloir Rectiligne which is accessed from the top station of Les Grand Montets. I knew it would be tracked out but having not done it before I was still super keen. Heading up to Argentiere on a bus about 9:15 we were straight in the queue for top ticket which was only about 15/20 minutes, got to love quiet season!

I was first with my skis on and while Ally was sorting out his kit I headed down to try and find the entrance as we only had a rough idea of where we were going. Upon finding it I saw that it was a narrow side slip for about 20 meters before you enter into the couloir. I started the slip without Ally so it would be free when he got there. After we got home he said he didn’t know where I was when he was looking for the entrance, only to hear the sound of skis on firm snow and rocks then followed the scratching to find me!

We took turns leading, half each, so we could get a few photos. The snow was still pretty soft but well tracked out. There was the occasional area of untracked powder on the sides that was good fun. After completing the couloir we were both pleased to have skied it reasonably well and saw it as training for when conditions are not perfect. Its nice to know where it is now for future powder days, maybe one day we will get it like Dave did yesterday.

After exiting the couloir you are still in a reasonably dangerous place. The Dru is towering above you and there are hanging seracs pointing down on you so we had to move fast. The snow on the lower part of the Pas du Chevre was still soft and untracked but it did feel a bit wet. We had another few hundred meters of descent before joining the track to Montenvers. On this track is a short abseil,  there is some in-situ rope but it is not quite long enough to get you over the ice underneath, as one Swede found out climbing back up and asking us to use our rope! A quick 15m rap and your past this difficulty and heading down the rocky chutes towards the glacier. Another day and another 420 steps back up to the train! What a week it has been, 4 days and 4 amazing couloirs. More snow forecast for the weekend so lets see what next week brings!

Thanks to Big Man Ally Hurst for the company and photos, Maybe I can build up his Psych for Cunningham next week!

Winter is here

Winter feels like it has finally come to Chamonix. After 3 great days skiing I can now have a morning off and relax and let my body heal.

It started Tuesday morning with heavy snow still falling and early bins at Grand Montets. There was about 30-40cm of fresh snow and it was nice and light at the start, Lapping the forrest we had great fun, then it started to get windy and there was more snow! I rode with about 20 different people as I was not in the mood for any waiting, this was a good move because I rode most of the lower section of GM where the best visibility could be found.

Roll on Wednesday… Meeting at LocalCHX at 8am I got my hands on a pair of DPS Wailer 112. I know of a few people who use this ski and judging by the masses of tip rocker I knew they would be good in the powder. There were about 8 of us that were riding together in the first Midi bin and we were quick down the arete, Just behind the likes of Andreas Fransson and Seth Morrison. Cruising over to the Petit Envers we were digging trenches through waist deep snow, taking our turns to blast down the track and get a little further. The lower pitches to skiers left of Petit Rognon were superb. Open powder field with no tracks and bottomless powder, What more can you ask for. Meeting back up with the crowds breaking trail down on the flat we knew we had montenvers stairs to battle with but then we were on the train and back at the Midi ready for lap number 2.

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Angus, Deep in it.

The weather had closed in around the arete and everyones goggles froze which made keeping your speed up to get to Gros Rognon very hard. At the top of the Gros Rognon we all lined up and rode it together, not ideal on a glacier but we were having too much fun, and could see a fari few tracks, so we could avoid the holes.

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Dave Searle Charging the Gros Rognon.

Taking the same exit down the steep couloirs just after the Requin we were back at the train again, this time too destroyed to do another lap but with the biggest smiles on all of our faces!

Check out the Video Here.

Then Thursday came and I still wanted to go skiing. Heading up Brevent then straight across to Flegere I met up with Mike and Started skinning up the Col above Floria, With the intention of skiing it back down. Half way up I noticed this steep narrow couloir lookers left of the col about half way up. The snow was still soft and we had to break trail up but we had our skis on after 20mins of effort. Mike chose to ski down the open face putting in some nice big turns in the untracked snow.

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As I stared down the steep narrow couloir contemplating the best way in, I could see that the snow was heavily wind packed and would be hard work to ski. With the big opening below and Mike there waiting I gave it a go.

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Looking down the steep entrance.

Side slipping in the first steep 10 meters I set off the avalanche that I knew would come. It cleared most of the hard wind affected snow down the couloir and left a soft heavy cover for me to ski.

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Half way down the 100m couloir it got very narrow.

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Making a half dozen slow turns I was out the bottom and was satisfied with my skiing, This was a small training couloir for the Rectiligne Couloir at Grand Montets that I really want to ski this winter.

So, 3 fantastic days skiing with great people. More snow forecast for the weekend. Fingers crossed for 3 more of the same next week!