Chamonix 2018 went down as one of those all time seasons. Sometimes when you in the midst of it all skiing routes and planning the next one, there is so little time to see just how good it was. But putting these clips toegther made me realise how lucky we were. Even more so because in the preseason and about to depart for New Zealand’s Caroline Face, I got injured with a sequestrated L5-S1. Hobbling around Cham in mortal agony with a paralysed sciatic nerve that caused my glutes and calf muscles to wither and die, a successful ski season with around 15 North Face runs seemed a very unrealistic goal. Thanks to all those obsessive ski bums who I shared those turns with, those that sacrifice it all, coming from round the World, to ski down Chamonix’s big mountains.
Choosing my 5 best steep ski lines in Chamonix is a tough call. They aren’t the steepest, most exposed or gnarliest but are a combination of being very aesthetic in one way or another while offering some great skiing. The variety of terrain comes into play with the combination of faces, spines, aretes and the odd couloir greatly adding to the pleasure, interest and overall experience for a skier in the modern idiom where hop turns are reserved solely for ultra serious situations. Skiing is all about the velvet smooth sensations transmitted from the ski and snow quality is the most vital ingredient to deliver this. Going out and scratching down these runs like an alpinist may satisfy those dominated by goal driven tendencies but being patient for the right conditions will yield a much richer experience.
1. The Grand Gervasutti Couloir.
An all time classic and the great big funnel on Mont Blanc du Tacul that draws your eye every time you ski in the Valley Blanche. It’s just so aesthetic, with 800 metres of vert, and a pretty steep entry before it eases to about 50° until the bergschrund. No rocks, abseils, its all about the skiing. Overhung by seracs whose threatening nature varies year on year, you will feel their presence as soon as you get in this line and ski it out as fast as possible.
2. Mont Mallet Diagonal
While this line in itself is not the most aesthetic, the surroundings about it and the long approach via the Breche Puiseux make it a special journey through the mountains. The situations in the line are incredible looking across to the Dent de Geant with all the hanging seracs under the Rochefort Arete and the full panorama from Tacul to the Chamonix Aiguilles. The skiing is very good with the couloir soon widening into a face offering the opportunity to open it up. Don’t be surprised if you are tight to catch the last train down from Montenevers, we made it by half an hour but certainly felt it in the legs and needed a couple of pints at MBC afterwards.
3. Col des Courtes
This fine route is steep enough to get the best of us tweaking but its often in condition when the rest of the Argentiere Basin is looking dry and the face can vary enormously from billboard flat to spine central. At 600 m in height its not too much of a slog up though the approach is about as long as it gets in the basin.
4. The Frendo Spur.
If you hang around Chamonix for long enough your curiosity will draw you onto the test pieces on the North Face of Aiguille du Midi. While the Frendo is rarely in condition, the skiing it offers on big open snow fields with no rocks is where its at, pure free ride skiing without the worries of hitting a shark or being confined to small turns due to the terrain. Col du Plan offers a taste of this in its upper part but the old school skiing in the exit couloirs is often disappointing and slough hardened from the afternoon slides off the West Face of the Aiguille du Plan. After the abseils on the Frendo there is a big 500-600 m pitch of steep open skiing to the shrund which is a lot of fun.
5. The West Face of Mont Blanc
The ‘rarely glimpsed Himalayan’ face of Mont Blanc comes gives 2000 m of vert to the glacier. Unless you have access to a heli, you will gauge conditions from afar and that makes dropping in onsight pretty committing. After all you have climbed Mont Blanc that morning and climbing out and back to the summit won’t be very appealing to the legs! Again these routes can go without abseil so there is no mountaineering faff once you start skiing. The first 1200 mis fairly sustained at around 50 degrees so no push over.
At the end of last season my ski partner Dave Searle and myself got lucky and found these two lines in perfect conditions with a foot of cold untracked powder. The Col des Courtes was a line that I had attempted on numerous occasions (9!) and had once made a swift ski retreat from the mid height rocks when Foehn storm rolled in. This was going to be the last time I trekked up the Argentiere glacier to see if it would go. We were joined by Rob Stokes and this was the first time I had skied with him which was fun. Stokes and Searler’s constant banter kept me continuously entertained throughout the day. Thanks guys. The slope is definitely one of the steepest things I have been on and I was glad of the powder, without that it would have been a very different game.
The next day Dave and myself returned to the Argentiere basin en route to the Amone. With the hot May days we had to go at race pace up the glacier and climb the SE couloir to before things started to fall to pieces. We were at the Col at Midi, able to relax and have some food. Dave has a similar metabolism to myself which means repeated days on the go eats into our muscle mass and we simply just cant eat enough food. A nice scramble over the arrete brought us onto the face. Thanks to Cedric Bernadini and Luca Pandolfi to recommend this route as it enables the route to be done in a day as long as you are fast. The upper 45 degree slopes didnt feel that exposed after the previous day on Col des Courtes 55 degree slopes but I am sure they would if you havent got accustomed to this type of skiing, especially with the 400 m cliff at the base. Looking back up the face from below it reminds me of something Shane McConkey would have loved for a ‘ski to base jump’ hit with the 400 m cliff. This is probably the most esthetic ski line I have ever done with unbroken skiing from the summit, only Couturier rates higher in my book. Possibly the best two days skiing I have ever done, thanks guys.
Getting back from La Foully was easy due to the efficiency of the Swiss, initially on post bus then train to Martigny. Once we entered France chaos ensued with the train driver stopping at Vallorcine, switching off the lights and announcing the timetabled connection wouldnt run and pointing us in the direction of the local hotel for the night. At 9 pm food and watering was long over due and I wasnt that impresssed to say the least. We hid all the kit in a bush and Dave started to thumb a lift in order to pick up the van from Argentiere and come back for me. The road was like a tumbleweed Wild West outpost and eventually Dave got picked up while I sat and shivered. Dave appeared with the van alot sooner than expected, turned out that the Russian that picked him up thought he was a formula one driver and was testing his wallowing quashquai to the max, taking the blind apex atr Col des Montets at 80 kph and verring onto the wrong side of the road for 50 m. Dave got out at the earliest opportunity and walked the rest contemplating how hitching had turned out to be the most dangerous part of the day.