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.

tricot

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.

NE-Spur-of-the-Courtes

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.

Tricot, North East Couloir

With what seems like weeks of high pressure settling in here in Chamonix there has been a lot of great stuff being skied. With the first few days spent finding great powder off the lifts we have started to go further afield in the search of powder.

Having seen the Tricot couloir last year when approaching the Trappier couloir I did some research and found that my dear friend Dave Searle had skied it before so I stole his photo for the topo. Cheers Dave.

tricot

 

Teaming up with my regular partner Tim, we were also joined by Tom Grant and Chippie.  First lift up the Bellevue we headed up the tramway before skiing down to the Bionassay glacier and heading up towards the start of the couloir. We headed up the sometimes waist deep snow at a steady pace until have way up a lone skier popped out from a variant line and made us all question how he was ahead of us when there was no boot pack?! He had come up a different ridge and skied a different line that joins onto the NE couloir. After starting up the bootpack again we topped out just after 2pm. Enjoying great snow all the way down it felt very much like a free ride line and we all enjoyed the ski.

Continuing down the glacier to the village and then skinning back up to Col Voza we were enjoying beers before the sunset.

 

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!

A mixed start to 2016

The start of January was not looking great until the mother of all storms rolled into the North West Alps and dumped a load of the cold white stuff on Chamonix and its surrounding mountains. Taking full advantage of this fresh snow meant traveling through to the tunnel to Italy where the Italians were working hard to open lifts, unlike here in Chamonix. Courmayeur delivered several deep days and then a few more followed here in Chamonix when the lifts finally opened.

Then once the storm had passed the sun came back along with  rise in temperatures, which seems now to be the trend. As people searched high and low to find the remaining good snow we found ourselves going to new places and having fun adventures.

A new ski for me was the South Face of the Tour Ronde. A short access from Pointe Helbronner takes you there and we made the most of the snow line riding back to the car park, all be it in varying snow conditions. HERE is a short video.

Meeting up with Mikko and another couple of Finns at Grand Montets we headed for the Chevalier with the hope of finding powder. I had come close to skiing this line 2 years ago, but just as I was about to drop in my boot broke and saw me skiing back to the top lift with one boot in walk mode. Thankfully this didn’t happen this time and we had it in great condition with powder turns all the way down this steep and varying line. HERE is another little video.

Top of Chevalier

Top of Chevalier

A few years back I watched a Xavier de la Rue video of him snowboarding a ramp near the Swiss boarder. Back when I was a boarder I dreamt of taking on this hanging ramp. Noticing it in good condition a few days ago while touring near Col Forclaz I asked Mikko and Jesper if they wanted to join me to ski this short, but beautiful line. They were keen for an adventure so along with my usual partner Tim we headed along from the top of Le Tour to find the entrance. Greeted with great snow for the ramp and a nice spring decent back to Trient it was a great morning out.

 

Snow has finally arrived in Chamonix

 

The North West Alps have received the snow it has been waiting for. Chamonix has seen heavy snowfall for the last week with day after day of powder turns. Having most of the valley shut due to high winds we have been heading through the tunnel to Italy and riding the trees of Courmayeur.

Here is a little Video of last tuesday.

Today the sun was out in Chamonix and Brevent had lots of fresh snow on offer.

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Aiguilles Crochues Traverse – East Couloir

Its been over three months since my last post as I have been working away from Chamonix for the inter season. Arriving back at the start of December I had high hopes for a snow filled winter with heavy snowfall in the valley just days before my arrival.  Two weeks back in the valley and we have been exploring all options for something worth skiing.  This winter I will be an ambassador for Voile Skis. Voilé make great back country skis and snowboards made in Salt Lake City, Utah. Light and solid they will fit right into my style of big mountain ski touring in the Mont Blanc Massif.

Grand Montets has been fun cruising the pistes and there has also been some powder on the backside. But with rocks starting to emerge I have been forced to look elsewhere. Hotel face and a trip to Bel Oiseau near Emosson Dam have proved fruitful and it was fun exploring a new area.

Today me and Ally Hurst headed up Flegere to climb the Aiguille Crochues Traverse. A great summer climb that can be done in trainers was a fun challenge in deep cold powder. Our initial plan was to ski the Col du Card back to the Flegere ski area. Just after reaching the summit we noticed a great looking couloir heading back to the Floria bowl. Chocked full of cold powder we decided to give it a go and hope that it didn’t cliff out. After a few hundred meters of great snow we only had the long descent back to the lift in heavy wet snow. Not that much fun on 160cm rando planks!

 

Goulotte Profit / Perroux III 4, M5 & Contamine Grisolle (variante Champion du Monde)

Returning to Chamonix after a big storm that saw snow falling on the valley floor I knew that some of the mixed routes on the Cosmiques ridge would be in condition. Spring and autumn are the best times to get on these climbs and after bad weather they are usually at their best. Getting to an empty first bin we knew it would be quiet on the route. I have seen the bridge in autumn and it’s usually a fistfight to get to the abseil point first so you have no one climbing above you. This was not the case on this beautiful calm sunny day.

Our aim was the Profit Perroux and before we set off down the multiple abseils we had a quick look at the whole route from the midi viewing platform, it looked really good.

On our way down the couloir we saw a couple of groups skiing the Glacier Ronde in powder. The climbing was steep and sustained but with bomber ice we saw no real difficulties. We had one group of two who were climbing behind us and only catching us on the belays, as the second was about to climb. They were happy to also have the route crowd free given the amazing conditions.

The triangle du Tacul is in good condition for mixed climbing. Tim Oliver and myself went up yesterday for a variation of the Contamine-Grisolle. There was no wind and the sun was scorching which would explain my sun burnt neck today. We moved together for the whole route and encountered some tricky sections of thin ice and tricky, yet fun, mixed steps. Climbing with skis on your back is a little more engaging and sometimes you can knock yourself off balance when they collide with a rock, but it does however mean that the Tacul north face descent can be done in very little time and making powder turn in late May is always a privilege.

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.