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.

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!

 

Grepon: Mer de Glace 850m D, 5c

It had been a while since I had climbed with Ally and he was keen for something big in this never ending heatwave we have been suffering in. Grepon: Mer de Glace seemed like an obvious choice. A long rock route and after climbing the Frendo a couple of weeks ago, I felt comfortable moving quickly on grade 4/5 rock.

It was our first time in the Envers hut and after a 2:45 hour approach we went to scope out the start of the route so we could be quick to start in the dark the following morning. It was very warm in the refuge, sleeping with the window open and no blanket. Leaving at 4am we walked in and after starting up the wrong route (there were lots of bolts, so we knew we had gone wrong) we quickly joined the proper route and were climbing in t-shirts by 5 am, at 2500m, very warm!

We were quick moving together on the grade 3/4 ground and made the abseil within a couple of hours. Starting up the main ridge line to the summit we overtook another pair of climbers who had a little trouble route finding. After all the warnings in guide books, it wasn’t that difficult to find our way. We started up the ridge on grade 4/5 rock and by now the heat of the sun was hitting us hard. We took 1 litre of water each and just before the summit our water ran out. Leaving our sacks at the breche we started the summit block. The famous Knubel crack, the worlds first 5c. It was hard, Ally struggling for an hour and eventually giving up so we could make it down. I am suffering with a bruised rib and with the painkillers wearing off I didn’t fancy a go. Feeling very annoyed we didn’t summit, 5 meters from the top, we headed down the west face via a series of abseils, wrong abseils, climbing back up then finally finding the actual descent route to the col. Reaching the col with a couple hours until last lift we tried to make a quick descent. The deep sugary snow slowed us down, coupled with multiple big holes we reached the foot of the glacier at 6pm. No chance of last lift.

Ally sprinted off to try and make Montenvers last train at 6:30pm but he had no chance. I slowly plodded my way to Montenvers then descended the train tracks to town arriving at the closest beer dispensary at 8:30pm. 16.5 hours after leaving the refuge.

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.

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 and GM ridge M4 climb.

With unfinished business on the Aiguille d’Argentiere I headed up the Milieu alone to onsight the Y. Perfect corn awaited me and I had a truly amazing solo descent.

 

With the sun going away on Sunday it was time to get back on the tools. Heading up to a M4 climb on the GM ridge North Face with Tim Oliver around midday on Sunday we started the very thin climb with two parties ahead. Catching up with the slower pair at the crux we had a small wait to regain strength which was desperately needed given the tricky moves in difficult thin conditions. An awesome day out and some superb climbing.