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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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.

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.

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!

 

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!

Col de Beugeant

There are two things needed for a great days touring, Sunshine and snow, and on Wednesday we had them both. Coupled with a new route in the Aiguille Rouge, Col de Beugeant, Me, Tim, James and Hunter headed up to Brevent at 8:30am looking forward to a day in the sun. With high hopes of nice powder on the north facing slopes down to Buet we made quick progress over to Flegere and were on the Floria traverse passing the crowds at 9:30, and skins on before 10am. Hunter had a bit of a faff with his split board as it was his first time out with it, but once he finally got it together we headed up to the col a few people behind the trail breakers!

Me and Tim were about 30 minutes ahead of James and Hunter when we reached the start of the mixed scramble and with the south facing slopes starting to come alive we decided to push on over the climb and wait at the col. Moving around a group roped together to get to the start, I went first and found the climb quite easy and told Tim it was easy too. It might have been too easy for Tim because when he arrived at the top he didn’t even notice he had lost a crampon on the short climb, which James picked up half hour later! Reaching the top we could see that two people had skied it and not wanting to wait for 10 others to ski it before James and Hunter arrived we dropped in and waited in the sun and out of the wind. The top section was really good and quite steep at above 40′. By the time James and Hunter got there it was chopped up and they down climbed the initial 5 meters.

We all met up at our snow hole/ bench seat and had a little lunch before setting off down the right hand descent path.

The first 50m of skiing was wind affected but then as we came around the corner and into the sun it was perfect boot deep powder. Skiing in a group of four was good fun and there was snow going everywhere and smiles all round. Trying to find our own exit down to the valley we found ourselves boot packing back up for ten minutes. Then following the right hand traverse to get to the safety of the valley floor and starting the long, fun rat run back to Le Buet.

Arriving just after 2:15 at Hotel le Buet we got straight on the bus which was thankfully a few minutes late. A nice tour with some great skiing and accessible to most. Thanks to Tim , James and Hunter for a sun filled Wednesday.

Petit Aiguille Vert 3512m

Yesterday I skinned up from the Bochard gondola at Grand Montets towards the top station, Upon reaching the col on the left hand ridge I changed to crampons and scrambled up the rocky snowy ground towards the top station at 3300m. This was good fun and I was keen to go that bit further and continue up to the summit of the Petit Aiguille Vert. Deciding against it at the last minute I headed back down.

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Alone on the summit of the Grand Montets.

Going back up with Ally Hurst today the plan was to repeat what I did yesterday and then climb the ordinary route on Petit Aiguille Vert. After getting the second bin up GM at 9:30 we were on our way up the Bochard Gondola and soon we had skied the short traverse to where we would skin from. It took us just under an hour to get to the Col du Rachasses, 3037m, from here we changed to crampons and continued up the north ridge of the Grand Montets towards the viewing platform on the summit.

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Ally Changing into his crampons with the North Ridge of GM behind him. You can see my track from yesterday on the right.

This ridge is very similar to the first section of the Cosmiques Arete and is good fun and relatively easy with a few moves thrown in for good measure, maybe grade 3/4. We flew up the ridge in under an hour with about 250m height gain.

Pausing on the summit for a few minutes we then headed down the steps that lead out of the back of the top station and started up towards our main goal, Petit Aig. Vert.

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The red line indicates our route to the summit, We came down the same way apart from near the Bergschrund, I will say why later.

We made quick progress up the snow slope but then hit a problem at the Bergschrund. Ally found a way over but on the other side was 50′ bullet hard black ice, this would not normally be a problem with two axes and a rope but we only had one lightweight mountaineering axe and no rope, harness or anything! After I ran up the steep slope another 30m and found no other way across, Ally came back down and we started to look for another route up.

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We eventually decided to climb up the mixed ground to the right of the normal way up to avoid the ice and this turned into somewhat of a challenge. The above photo shows the way we went up in red and Ally down climbing the way we didn’t feel would be easy going up. The route in red we took was harder than the exit couloir on the Cosmiques Arete and coupled with loose powder snow and no protection it felt like AD or even D grade, and for some reason I went up first, clearing the snowy ledges as I went. Next time ill send Ally up first!

Once we were through this mixed ground and onto the main ridge it went quick and it was pretty easy going.

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Following the obvious ridge to the left of the rocks you follow a series of snow slopes and small mixed steps to come to a short but steep rock move up to the summit ridge.

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Me coming towards the short rock section. Photo Ally Hurst

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Ally freeing it up the upper rock section, Some tricky moves to make without a rope!

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Once over the rock section there was some more mixed ground and snow ridges to get to the summit. Ally is one step away from the summit here, with the Aiguille Vert to his right.

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Me following Ally on to the final summit ridge with the Aiguille Rouges  and Mont Buet behind. Photo Ally Hurst

After reaching the summit there are two ways down. In the summer me and John Vincent rappeled down the north face with 3 50m raps. With no rope Ally and I had to reverse the whole route, Down climbing in soft sugary snow was somewhat precarious but we made quick time.

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Me down climbing the upper section. Photo Ally Hurst

We had no problems and then when we came to the section of ice above the Bergschrund I went down first kicking in big steps in the snow until we got to the ice then it was front points only for the last 20m.

After getting past this section we were down and back at our skis within 25 minutes. Getting our skis back on we headed down the north face towards the upper slopes of the Bochard and found some nice sections of soft snow, then down some steepish couloirs we had some nice chaulky snow to finish.

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Me skiing half a mile away from Ally. Photo Ally Hurst

All together another great day climbing and skiing up at Les Grand Montets. Some powder would be nice now! Thanks to Ally for the company!

Argentiere Glacier Ski Tour, Conditions and La Sportiva Spectre

We have had no new snow here in Chamonix for over two weeks so Looking for something good to ski is out of the question. Alex was keen to get out and do something and suggested Petit Viking at the top end of the Argentiere glacier. Reading up on the climb it appears that the bergschrund is near impossible to cross so we looked at other possible routes up that way. The Charlet route on Mont Dolent looked like something that would be possible for me with my level of climbing and It also is on a mountain that has been on my list for a while now. Mont Dolent shares its summit with France, Italy and Switzerland.

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Leaving Grand Montets Lognon station just before noon we headed up towards the bottom of the glacier and found a well run in track that would lead us up the right bank of the glacier towards the Argentiere refuge.

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Negotiating some parts of the moraine with skis was tricky and we had our skis off a couple of times, as it was too icy.

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Looking up the Glacier with the refuge behind the first moraine bank on the left and Mont Dolent at the back centre of the photo

Reaching the refuge about 3pm we had made good time and had enough time to go and play on some ice with our new boots.

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Alex has new Dynafit TLT6 and I have La Sportiva Spectres. We were both looking for a boot that was lighter than our current tech boots and something that we could use to climb with also.

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I had bought my boots the day before from FootWorks and was keen to get a good test out of them. Overall skinned about 10km, climbed a small free pitch of mellow ice and skied over 10km back to town on a windblown glacier and 700m of pistes. The boots were great overall. The had a bit of work done to them when I had them fitted to improve the fit on the last as they pinched, something which has been mentioned in other reviews. They felt good climbing in walk mode with the top two buckles open and the power strap still tight. I found that the power strap could stay on the whole time you are skinning too. I went to Grand montets yesterday and skied over 7000m of vertical on nice firm pistes, they performed better than my old Dynafit Zzeros.

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After another sleepless night in a refuge we set off just before 5 to go and climb the route. Both very tired but heading up the glacier steadily we reached the route just after 7. Skinning up there in the dark was amazing, It was very clear and still and the snow being firm made the going easy.

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The route runs up the gully that tops out to the right of the summit.

At the bottom of the route we could see that it was not in good condition. The right hand gully was very dry and what was there didn’t look good. The left hand gully was a grade harder and looked slightly better, although what we could see looked ok but we were not sure of what was above it and we were uncertain if it was possible to rappel the route which was a big concern for us from the beginning.

After all this effort we decided to go home! We were umming and arring for a good half hour in the shade and getting very cold and loosing psyche quickly, add to that I noticed my crampon was broken! Now all we had to do was ski the 8/10km back down this relatively flat windblown crusty glacier. This was not fun.

I managed to snap a couple of photos of the Droits and Courtes to show current conditions for those who want to climb them.

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After failing up the Le Tour glacier a few weeks ago I see these outings as training sessions and at least this time I got a good testing out of my new boots. With this good weather set to continue here in Chamonix I should hopefully get out and do something over the weekend and climb a route for a change.

Le Tour Glacier-Ski Tour

After seeing that I had a good days skiing in Verbier on Saturday, Alex was keen to get on his skis for the first time this winter. I haven’t really stopped since changing to skiing in January and he knew I would be keen for anything. He suggested going up the le Tour Glacier, This would be a good bet as there had been a fair amount of fresh snow over the weekend here in Chamonix.

He didn’t have anything in mind that he wanted to ski/climb so I suggested the Table Couloir, a 45/50’ 200m line from near the summit of Aiguille du Tour. Not knowing how it would look we decided to go and have a look on the Monday and decide what we would do on the Tuesday, with the normal route on Aig. du Tour being another option that we would be prepared for.

Meeting up early on Monday we geared up and headed to the Le Tour car park and we were on our way just after 11am. There are two ways to get to the Albert Premier refuge in the summer but with a lot of snow the high route is very exposed and with the high winds on Sunday there would be a high avalanche risk so we decided to take the more direct route but we knew this would be hard with no tracks and lots of snow.

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The route to the refuge.

Neither Alex nor me had put a real skin track in before so it was nice to decide where we would go and pick the line up, Mellow was the key word for all of our skin tracks and I had to remind Alex to keep it easy as I have been burned out on steep tracks in the past.

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Heading across the Vormaine slopes to the start of the climb.

After 45 minutes of skinning we had our skis on our back and were heading up the steep couloir looking for the path, we knew it would be hard to find but after a lot of scrambling around in deep snow and climbing up bushes and in between trees we found it and were heading towards the glacier and looking forward to getting our skis back on and skinning up the left bank of the moraines.

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Getting out of the trees and finding the path.

It took us 3 hours to get to the start of the moraines, this is roughly the time it takes you to get to the refuge in summer, and we were only half way!

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Skinning up the moraines we were going through some really nice powder that hadn’t been affected by the wind. We finally had the refuge in our sights and we were running out of sunlight, luckily we had the moon to guide us. We made it to the refuge at 5:30pm, 6 hours after setting off and skinning the last 300m with the sun setting behind us.

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Upon arrival to the winter room at the Albert Premier we realised we had the whole place to ourselves and the builders who had previously occupied it had gone away for the bank holiday weekend. We quickly found some pallets and smashed them up and had the fire going and some snow melting. There was a working gas cooker and electricity there. The radio was playing and we found some wine, it was cold and old though so it didn’t go down very well! When I found some oven chips in the freezer we turned on the electric oven and tripped the whole building! That was the end of that! Head torches were on now and we started on dinner. Pasta starter then some Chilli and mash potatoes that we borrowed from the builders’ fridge!

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Drying our snow soaked gear by the roaring fire.

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Chilli and Mash for supper, A fox wanted to come in and join us away from the howling winds outside.

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We woke at a very un-alpine time of 6:45am and after some coffee, beans and sausages we had our skis back on our feet and were heading up the Le Tour glacier heading for the table couloir. As we saw it we realised that it was un-ski able unless you had a rap or can jump 30feet on steep slopes.

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The refuge, Mont Buet and the Aiguille Rouge in the morning light.

Here you can see the Table Couloir and the rocks in the middle of the line.

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We then changed to our back up plan to climb the regular route on Aig. du Tour. Heading up the col I started to feel pretty bad, I had developed a bad cough and I was coughing up some nasty stuff, so we decided that it was not worth me suffering.

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Roughly the route we took until we turned around.

Turning around without really accomplishing anything was a bit annoying but it is the start of winter and it was still good to get over 2000m of climbing in the legs before winter.

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Alex making some of his first winter turns on some hard pack.

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Alex again in some nice snow.

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Just after descending the crusty snow, some of the hardest I have skied.

We descended across the lower slopes of the Chardonnet and then met up with the normal route on Col du Passon and followed it back to Le Tour. The snow was varied from hard wind blown snow, bullet hard ice, horrible crusty snow and the occasional bit of powder. It took us a while to find our way and then just when we thought we were home we lost sight of the path and headed into the trees looking for it. We spent just over an hour down climbing the dense trees and sliding about on snowy grass slopes until we finally found the path. Looking back up from the car park we could see where we went wrong and were gutted that we didn’t find it and save ourselves the mission.

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On the whole we had a fun couple of days of hard climbing and mixed skiing, a great start to the winter and good training.

Roughly our route for the two days.

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Thanks to Alex for putting up with me again in the mountains!