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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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.

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!

 

Aiguille D’Arpette, Champex-Lac

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

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

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.

Y Couloir, Aiguille d’Argentiere

This winter has made us look away from the norm. With the unstable snowpack and fresh snow falling on an irregular basis we have to consider alternatives. We went to have a look at the Y couloir on the Aiguille d’Argentiere which normally is a spring steep but we found it in condition mid February.

It was a scorching day and with the sun on your back things warm up very quickly. Plodding our way up the 500m+ reasonably narrow couloir we stopped when things started to get very loose and soft. Just after the split on the lookers right branch.

 

The snow was perfect spring corn on a firm base, and allowed for comfortable fast paced turns all the way down to the choke, which plays in your head the whole descent. Its a 20/30m ice and rock band that was definitely worth bringing two axes for on the way up.

A great ski and a classic line. Just need to go back and ski it from the top…

Early season steeps. Tour Ronde playground

Winter 2014 has not seen a great start. Chamonix saw some snow in early November but we are still waiting for a top up. With the recent foehn winds and relatively high temperatures the snow line has been going up rather than down. That being said there is good skiing to be had. With the Aiguille du Midi set to remain closed until the 20th of December it requires a short trip through the tunnel to La Palud to ski off the Italian side of the Vallee Blanche.

Last Wednesday Jon Luckhurst and I hiked up and skied down the East face of the Tour Ronde. It was in excellent condition and only required a small down climb half way down the face to avoid some big rocks. We were treated to cold blower powder but it was a trade off with high winds and truly Baltic temperatures!

Knowing that the Gervasutti on the Tour Ronde was skied that day by the likes of Briggs, Grant and Kilian (who reportedly lapped it 3 times!) I was keen to go back and ski this classic steep in good condition, direct from the col and better than I skied it in the spring.

 

The Gervasutti Couloir

The Gervasutti Couloir

Tim Oliver and Sleigh were psyched to get ‘radical’ even if it meant braving more arctic temps and an early season 350m bootpack at 3500m.

 

Setting off from the Torino refuge we knew it was going to be busy. Seeing crowds of people heading towards the Tour Ronde and Cirque Maudit we were a little apprehensive of what we would find. Upon arriving at the bottom of the couloir we saw 7 people booting up it. After digging deep and catching up with them only 4 were going back down, the others either skiing the North Face, which was in excellent condition or traversing to the east face via the summit. After a short wait for Sleigh we started off. Two skiers had gone down quick and steady on what looked like good chalky snow. The other two side slipped all 350m of the couloir and were a constant annoyance with the never-ending lumpy sluff. After some fast combat skiing I managed to get ahead of these two and exit the couloir as fast as I could. Fighting hot aches in the shade I awaited the other two before we headed back to the Torino for a sandwich in the sun.

 

Overall the conditions are good up high. Not sure how tracked out the east face was but people were up, skiing and climbing everywhere. It looked more like a spring day off the midi rather than the start of December! The Vallee Blanche is in desperate need of some snow before the midi opens to avoid a long and nervous walk out.

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!

Kyrgyzstan Expedition 2014

When I was invited on the Navlikin Expedition I first asked myself, “Where the hell is Kyrgyzstan?”, I had heard of Kazakstan, so assumed it was near there; Somewhere past the middle east near China. After a quick Google I found out I was not far wrong. Even though I read about Emilys trip there last year it never occurred to me to look where it was.  I started wondering if I was ready to go half way around the world just to climb. It seemed a bit much. I love climbing but the furthest I normally go is a ten minute walk to the Aiguille du Midi or on occasion a short drive up the valley to Le Tour. More questions popped into my head. Am I willing to risk the possibility of great suffering for the reward of climbing? Not having been involved in any true ‘epics’ in the massif the last two summers (not counting one short heli ride!) I have not had my ‘suffering in a bivi tent in a blizzard at 4000m’ experience. There is also no safety net; I would have to climb well within my ability so that I could ensure my safe return. This was fine by me; I just had to look what was possible before leaving. With lots of pictures available and Google earth this is not that hard to do. Scoping out possible summits and routes before we departed seemed like the best way to maximize our climbing time out there, without having to do lots of reccies.

We had intended to ‘col hop’ when we got to the glacier. Our intended glacier looked too crevassed and open to efficiently get near our planned peak. The adjacent Kotur Glacier was the exact opposite. Flat and gentle with only a few visible crevasses. We would base at its foot, and slowly make our way up 10km of scree and ice and pop over to the top of the Navlikin. Well, that was the plan. When we initially got dropped off we could not believe how close we were to the glacier. The ‘tank’ had done its job and our driver Sergey was regarded as a legend.

We had suspected that we would have a couple of days load carrying all of our gear and supplies (for the 20 day stay) across 10 to 20km of uneven ground before we reached camp 1. Having completely taken this out of the equation we were all in high spirits. Knowing that we were not doing this we stayed at this camp (4100m, est) so that we could acclimatise. These few days also consisted of carrying loads up to camp 2, Roughly 4280m on a small moraine strip on the west bank of the Kotur Glacier. During this time several team members, myself included, battled with a serious case of ‘the shits’. Not the best thing to have at nearly 4000m with no toilet for a couple hundred miles.

Our first climb was Obzhorny 5156m. This peak had been climbed numerous times but the aim of our climb was to acclimatise. We chose a simple route up a 40’ snow slope and along a 2 KM ridge to the summit, crossing over another peak about 4800m. Going along with Sam, James and Dave we took just over 7 hours, and despite high winds on the approach to the summit, we had perfect weather.

For me my trip was successful after this mornings climbing. I wanted to climb a peak over 5000m and return unscathed, these were my objectives. We had a mix of weather over the next few days; it would snow a foot with high winds and then be bluebird for a couple of days . With most of the approaches being up 40’ snow slopes the combination of new snow and wind meant that there could be a high avalanche risk, we would normally wait a day or two for the mountains to shed and snow stabilise. But after waiting it would normally snow again. Receiving weather updates via sat phone we had a rough idea what was going to happen but it didn’t always match up. Our second outing came after a week or so at camp 2. Me, Dave, Sam and James headed up to the glacier to ‘Dead bird Col’ (named shortly after finding a sparrow sized bird frozen with its wings extended, I guess it got too cold mid flight).

Dave and Sam had their eyes on a mixed route on the north face of Letevit, and James and I were going to climb Pik Pyramida on the Kyrgy/China border. At just over 5100m it would be our second over 5000m and a great addition to our climbing list. After a 6 hour slog up the glacier in sometimes knee deep powder, we reached the Col, exhausted, we set up camp on the Navlikin side and we were getting closer to our planned objective of Pik 5611. After a stormy night and a couple of hours sleep we woke to clouds and snow. James and I only brought one nights worth of food as we planned to return to base the following day. Dave and Sam were getting settled for a few days to attempt the buttress in good weather. With no clearing on the horizon James and I headed back to base about 10am, another 4 hours of trail breaking down the glacier in a whiteout. Finding many big crevasses on the way and becoming very tired. An unsuccessful outing involving a lot of suffering. Dave and Sam returned the next day, also exhausted. We saw them after we returned from an attempt on what we aptly named Pik Tonic, named due to its locality to Pik Jjin. We didn’t make the summit of the possibly unclimbed peak but we did climb a subsidiary peak on its approach, which we named Pik Lemon, it stands roughly about 4957m. This would be our last time with crampons on.

 

I have learnt many lessons from this trip and have had the chance to experience a new style of climbing in a distant country. I cannot thank Emily enough for organising  this expedition and all other team member for making it an unforgettable experience. Cora, Dave Searle, Emma, James, Libby, Sam and Simon. Many thanks also go out to Latitude60s for the excellent Merino gear they provided me with and also to Rab and Mountain Hardwear for the tents they provided us for the expedition, allowing us to get a good nights sleep away from the elements and sub-zero temperatures.

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Kuffner Arête, Mont Maudit 4465m

Kuffner Arête. (700m D, 4465m)

The Kuffner is a true classic of the Mont Blanc range and has been in my sights for a while now. This time it looked like everything was falling in to place and we would have some clear days in this wet alpine summer.

 

I have climbed with Nick and Tim before but they had never met. After introductions at the midi we all headed across the Panoramic towards Italy to start the 2 hour approach to the Fourche bivi. The location of the bivi has to be one of the best in the range. Perched high on a ridge overlooking the enormous south face of Mont Blanc and the Brenva glacier. We arrived at the bivi just after midday and settled in with card games and three middle aged Germans who were there for the Brenva Spur. Looking like we were going to have the hut to ourselves we got comfortable. Before long more and more people started arriving and by 7/8pm there was 16 people in this 12 person bivi. There was bodies and gear everywhere with people on the bench and table. I had a terrible night’s sleep only managing a couple of hours. The first people started to get up about 2am and then you could not escape the sound of crampons clinking and quiet chatting for the next two hours before we got out of our blankets and were heading out ourselves.

The Kuffner follows the obvious ridge up towards Mont Maudit and is generally a 50/60 degree snow slope with a few mixed and rock moves thrown in for good measure. Starting in the dark it was easy to route find as there was a good track and a dozen head torches ahead of us. It`s always a shock to the system when you wake up and straight away you are on an exposed ridge, it takes some time to rub the sleep out of my eyes.

We were making good progress, reaching the Pointe Androsasse around sunrise. It was at this point that I started to feel unwell. I haven`t really suffered with altitude before but this time it wasn`t going down well. I didn`t feel confident in my abilities and felt sick despite eating and drinking regularly. I didn`t want to slow the group down so with regular short breaks for more food and water we moved together until we reached the top of the ridge after 5 hours of climbing. As the morning unfolded at no point did I feel like my condition was improving. Not wanting to be a burden on the guys I pushed for the summit of Maudit hoping that I might feel better with a long rest and more food. This did not happen. Tim and Nick had not been up Mont Blanc before and they didn`t feel half as bad as me so they were keen to summit. About 50m below the summit of Maudit I threw in the towel, I was beat. I offered to descent on my own. I unclipped from the rope and started the 150m down climb down the north face of Maudit heading towards the Col where I roped up and descended with the Brenva guys from the Fourche, who took good care of me with tea and chocolate. I still felt bad the whole way down reaching the midi just before 2pm after topping out of the Kuffner 5 hours earlier. It was very hot, I had no water and I was tired. What a day. Hearing from Tim after I had gotten down, they had managed to reach the summit within a few hours of leaving me, and despite a cloudy summit shot they were heading back down via the three monts route. They were also tired but were happy that they had both finally made it up to the roof of Europe.