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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Col de l’Aiguille Verte

When Dave suggested this line I instantly became nervous. Even though I knew it was in good condition I had never skied anything this steep or this big before. With a toponeige grade of 5.4/5.5 E3 it is at the very upper end of skiable slopes. Known as one of the steepest sustained ice faces in the Alps it is not to be underestimated. I knew my ability could allow me to make turns on 50/55 degree slopes for short sections, usually cruxes on easier routes. This face would require me to make these controlled turns for over 700m of descent.

We could see tracks coming from the top and they looked good. With no signs of big sloughs coming down we headed up with light bags after stashing our gear just over the bergschrund. There was some evidence of a bootpack still there but we (Dave) mostly had to make a new one. Half way up the slope we were joined by a lone Frenchman Boris, who accompanied us to the top and enjoyed the descent with us. Near the top you make a traverse to the right and into the sun. Reaching the col my nerves were peaking and I knew what I had to do to get back down safely.

The first 100m was east facing and had a slight sun crust but still skied well. After the traverse back to the shady face the snow improved and so did the skiing. Making powder turns on 50+ degree slopes was a great feeling. Being in control and at the same time feeling madly out of control due to the location of the skiing, surrounded by towering faces and steep ice slopes.

Once we jumped the schrund it all sank in. A big fist bump and pat on the back and you could see our smiles from Argentiere. A short trip to retrieve our gear then a fun and fast descent to Argentiere and a quick drive to work. It is amazing how good snow can turn even the steepest line in to a fun day out, I have skied the cosmiques on crusty ice and I felt a lot more gripped! Thanks Dave for the fun day and for suggesting this truly superb line.

Dent du Geant SF & Les Courtes NE Spur

A good couple of days spent in the mountains. Meeting Mikko at the lift for first bin we were already a couple of people short of our original 4 team so it meant more boot packing for the both of us. Heading over a very ominous looking bergschrund we started the boot pack up the NE Spur. Soon we were joined by Jose who came along with us and shared the effort. After being plastered by howling spindrift and heavy sluff for the most of the climb we came to the diagonal ramp about 2/3rds of the way up. Here the couloir narrows and the only way up was to climb through the heavy spindrift/ sluff that was puling down the face. We called it a day here. Strapped on our skis and enjoyed a great ski back down. At the bottom we crossed the bergschrund on a bridge that was not there 2 hours earlier when we started. Lots of moving snow!

The day after I was heading through the tunnel with Sleigh to search for some spring corn. I have admired the south face of the Dent du Geant for a couple of years now. Its a great looking hanging face that requires you to traverse to avoid the cliffs below. After a 2 hour mixed climb in the baking hot sun we reached the top of the line by 11:30. Starting off down the steepish couloir we found great spring powder that then turned into corn. Enjoying the descent we soon realised that we would have to start making the traverse to skiers right. Just as we started the traverse the thick cloud came in and we were in a white out.  Moving from ridge to ridge in the dense cloud was unnerving but we eventually found the exit ramp down to the Marbrees. Lots more spring skiing came after until we arrived back at the car. Great morning out.

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.

Capucin Couloir

Eager to start my two months off work with a good ski I teamed up with Tim to ski the Capucin Couloir. Getting first bin at the midi we were heading to the Italian side of the vallee blanche. Using this approach to the Col du Tacul you save a good half hour climb than if you were to ski the VB.

We were quick on the climb and the 1000m of ascent allowed me to break in my new boots. With my La Sportiva Spectres giving me nothing but problems all winter I managed to get some Spitfires and just in time for spring touring and climbing. They look like there is less that can go wrong on them compared to the spectres and they are so light!

Arriving at the col we saw that we could do two 30m raps then side slip a small crux to start the skiing. The snow was a mix of chalk, powder and some icy re-frozen snow that was a bit of a struggle to ski smoothly. After a short while we were over the massive bergschrund and onto the mellow open glacier below heading towards Montenvers.

It was nice to ski another new couloir and a great test for the new boots. Fingers crossed for some new spring snow soon and maybe some big ski/climbing mission soon. got to make the most of no work.

 

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.

Couloir Poubelle – Grand Montets

Skiing E.N.S.A and Bellim on sunday had me in the mood for more couloirs, and after some more snow on sunday night and a good powder day up Flegere on Monday I thought that the Poubelle could be a good choice. Easily accessed from the Bochard gondola at Les Grand Montets you ski the 50 m towards the obvious roped off couloir. It is possible to side slip in which someone had done already but with the ropes in the bag and our harnesses on we thought it would be quicker and definitely safer to rap. After a 30m rap we had our skis on and it looked good. Slightly choppy boot deep light powder on a firm base.

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After  a few initial turns the couloir became narrow and it was very icy.

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You could see that the people who skied it before side slipped it so we did the same until it opened back up and we could make some turns!

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There was a small rock step just after the dog leg, this was made tricky by the ice underfoot and the slight exposure below.

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Into the main straight of the couloir we could make some nice turns in the deep cold snow. Although it was well tracked it was still a great ski and gave me and Ally some practice in making quick jump turns in variable snow conditions! There was a lot of sluff that would follow you down and build up around you if you stopped, it was light snow so it didn’t really affect your balance.

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Ally making some nice turns down the main section of the couloir.

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Me mid turn. The last time I went down this couloir was last January on a snowboard and it was more filled in. Some more snow fall and it should be better.

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Skiing this aspect of Les Grand Montets offers some amazing views of the Mont Blanc Massif.

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The couloir opens up after a couple hundred meters and joins on to the Pas de Chevre. This huge open powder field gave us some great skiing before we hit the main route towards the moraine banks and the exit couloir to get to Montenvers.

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Another short rap from a tree on the way down but it is shaping up nicely for a ski to town, just need a little more snow.

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Below the Dru is an amazing place to be!

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The route is in red.

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What a great day, even with a hangover! Thanks to Ally for the company and Photos. Always good to have someone with the same idea of what a good days skiing is!! Couloirs all the way! Lets see what tomorrow brings. Maybe 4 Couloirs in 4 days.

E.N.S.A & Bellin Couloirs

With a morning off work and some visibility I was keen to go skiing and get something done. After seeing that Colin, Graham and a few others skied E.N.S.A yesterday and it looked good I was keen to go and give it a go. Reading through my Chamonix off-piste guide I knew roughly what I was going for and now just had to find a partner willing to ski it with me!

Nick and Sandy were keen but both had to work (or so Nick thought) so It looked like I was going solo. Carrying two 30m ropes for the entrance I had a bigger pack but minus the shovel and probe it didn’t feel that bad.

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Topo from http://forums.ski.com.au/xf/threads/tr-two-days-in-chamonix.35760/

E.N.S.A in Blue, Bellin in Red

Getting a 9am bubble at Brevent I was at top of Brevent about 9:30 and headed skiers left from the piste following the obvious ridge, staying well away from the cornices! After watching a video of the boys skiing it yesterday I knew there was a small drop just before the entrance so decided to down climb it as I didn’t fancy dropping onto some slightly covered rocks. The down climb was fine and as I got down I saw a guy from Evo2 setting up a belay to lower his clients over the drop. So I knew I had to be quick to get to the rap 1st.

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Starting the rap and the snow was deep!

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It is possible to ski into this couloir when there is good snow but I heard there was a rap needed to get over the first 5m drop, then a small down climb before you can safely put your skis on.

Skis on and I was looking down hundreds of meters of fresh knee deep untracked snow! Alone, Nervous but very excited!

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The snow was fresh and light and after a few initial turns I was being chased by some slow moving sluff so cut off to the side of the couloir to let it pass. Being alone I couldn’t afford any mistakes so I continued this process of 5/6 big fast turns then stopping to the side as a lot of snow passed down the couloir.

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looking back up the couloir at my starting point and first few turns.

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The great snow continued all the way down to where it opened up to the main Brevent bowl. Nice fast turns in deep snow, what a great start to a Work day!

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The couloir opens slightly then narrows before tightening again before the main bowl.

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Following the main snow strip down to the zig zack track I followed this back to the Savoy slope and was back at the Brevent lift before 10:30 heading back up for another look!

On the Brevent cable car I stood where I could see the Bellim couloir and got a good look at it and saw one track going down. This was next!

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Heading around the front piste then cutting under the ropes you follow the summer route towards the start of the frison roche.  This had 2 tracks down it by the time I got to it but it still looked great and there was still lots of fresh to be had, just watch out for the occasional rock!

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This couloir was lightly less steep and a bit more open in parts.

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It closed in again before turning back into a bit of bush wacking to avoid the crusty, icy and rocky exit couloir. Back onto the zig zags down to Brevent and I had my trainers on by 11:45. What a morning! With more snow forecast these could be an option on bad visibility days!

One of the best days I have spent on my own in the Mountains and two huge ticks of my ski checklist!

Le fee Des Druides 5c/150m

Le Fee des Druide is a 4 pitch rock climb situated on the slab wall directly behind the Aiguilette d’argentiere, 45 minutes walk from the Col des Montets.

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The route is in red and continues diagonally left to the start of the grass at the top

It is mostly easy climbing around 5a/b with the first pitch being 5c. Stef and I had attempted this route a couple of weeks ago and had to bail with a crab in a bolt as we didn’t have enough rope for the abails. Surprisingly my crab was still there when we went back!

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Me on the first pitch.

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Looking back down towards the Aiguillette and Stef on the second pitch.

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Some amazing views on offer throughout the route.

After the tricky first pitch you are on mostly mellow slab with a lot of smearing and relying on the grip on your climbing shoes! It is fun climbing and it never feels easy as there is generally not much to hold on to.

To return to the bottom there are 4 rappels that go straight down to the left hand side of the climb.

We used a 50m tag line so that we didn’t have to carry an extra 50m single rope. The first rappel was over a small lip and the tag became stuck so it was my first go at tib locking back up a 50m rope, after freeing it it was back down to continue with the other 3 rappels.

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Stef on the 1st rappel, before the rope became stuck!

This route is a great starter for multi pitch climbing you just need to make sure that you are comfortable setting up multiple rappels, if I did it again I would take two light 50m twin or double ropes and just put up with the extra weight on the walk in and out!

Photo’s from iPhone so not great quality sorry.