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.
Boy have we been lucky with snow conditions. After a 3 day storm I went to Skyway with the dream team of Dave Searle and Tom Grant to see what had happened. 1-2 m accumulations were expected and were found, but after a couple of ski cuts nothing avalanched and we got on with hoovering as much powder as possible with each of our ten 1200 m runs. Here’s the goods:
After I got back from Lofoten my main aim was to reacclimatise and have some training days for the big mountains and the Baffin Island ski expedition that I have been working on for month’s now – more of that below. 2014 Baffin photo essay
Dave Searle wangled a day off work so we decided to go the east couloir on the Tre la Tete as a training day since its a long approach to the end of the Miage Glacier. I have always wanted to camp up the glacier for this line and ski it in the early morning sun but we had to forgoe that to do this line in a day. In the end we got unlucky and fog enveloped us 700 m up the line and as its more of a ramp than a couloir, without rock walls to handrail, we decided to ski down from there. Still, good exercise being on the go all day.
Looking up towards Pointe Baretti from the Miage Glacier
Dave Searle dropping out of the fog on the East Couloir of Tre la Tete
The Mont Blanc Glacier dropping down in the background towards the Miage
Sunsets on the Mothership
High pressure was still dominating so the next day I went up the Chardonnet for a solo of ski the classic South Couloir. This line is one of my favourites with a good combination of steepness, exposure, spurs, and couloirs all with fantastic views of the Verte, Droites, Courtes and Argentiere. My acclimatisation was coming back and I was back down for lunch – on the same trip before Christmas in tough conditions it had taken Jesper and myself 5 hours just to get to the bottom of the couloir!
Z or the Washburn variant on the Verte the day after Capozzi, Pica, Rolli did it.
The North Face of the Droites
The North Wall of the Argentiere Basin
Skiing on the Aiguille du Chardonnet
The North Face of the Argentiere stripped back to glacial ice
Sun’s out, whats not to like with this view
Smooth snow on the Chardonnet – its at a premium right now after the wind
One of my favourite views from the exit couloir of the Chardonnet
I then had my niece Tash and her friend Toby to stay for a few days and had a great laugh showing them some of my favourite spots up the Helbronner and Midi as well as blasting a few pistes laps, watching the guys wingsuit from the Brevent and going on the luge.
My niece Tash and her friend Toby
Wingsuiter just jumped
Brevent telepherique and the Midi
South face Dent de Geant in Red and South Couloir Aiguille de Rochefort in Black
There was one sunny day left before the high pressure moved away, and although the cold north wind was still blowing, I decided to take a gamble and go try Remi Lecluse’s line on South Couloir of the Aiguille de Rochefort. With reasonable acclimatisation I was pretty confident I could move fast from the first cable car and get to the top around noon when the snow would be soft enough to ski. As I arrived in the car park the north wind was still blowing snow off the ridges and I didn’t have much hope for success, which relied on the sun to make the snow skiable. However, there are loads of options in that zone with the Dent de Geant, Petit Dent de Geant and Marbree as fall back plans so I decided to continue and go take a look.
The wind was still blowing at the Helbronner but as I skinned across to the Col de Rochefort area it seemed to be dropping. The traverse across the south face is long, a crab crawl on axes and crampons that seems to go on for ever. I now know how Tom Patey felt on his traverse of Creag Megaidh! The face was sheltered from the wind and the temperature was rising, and with that my hopes that things would soften and become skiable and I made good progress on the climb.
This face is vast, much wider than it is tall and being out there on your own makes you feel pretty insignificant in comparison to the scale of the mountains.
Selfie high on the Rochefort
Things were looking good but as I put my skis on, the breeze came back. At nearly 4000 m the air was still cold and the snow that had been softening nicely started to refreeze. I guessed the breeze would dissipate once I descended away from the Rochefort Arete but I was also worried that the breeze might pick up refreezing the whole line. I started down as quickly as possible which wasn’t fast at all on very variable poor snow. This part of the line is in the 50 degree range so there is a fair amount of gravity pulling at you. Each turn required maximum concentration, each time the skis landed they reacted differently. Sometimes they skidded on the icy surface, sometimes the snow sheared out from the downhill ski, all the time causing me to react quickly and make the necessary adjustments. Sometimes sections of hard glazed snow and rock forced me to sidestep. Tense times on skis.
When skiing becomes this slow and technical it often loses all of the aspects that draw me to the sport; rounded turns, quality of the snow, the sensation of virgin snow under your feet, your mind entering flow state.
The rap off a no. 7 rock through the upper choke
However, I still felt positive that the breeze would drop and the snow would be soft below the first choke where the couloir opens out onto the face. A rap through the choke thankfully took me onto soft snow allowing me to relax as fun skiing returned. This section starts of steep but quickly moderates to a similar angle to the neighbouring Dent de Geant run though it has more features scattered with bluffs and spurs to play on.
Soft snow now – yeehaa!
After hours of being alone a human voice pulled me out of my introverted mental state. I stopped skiing and scanned the mountain for its origin. 2 skiers were exiting the classic Dent de Geant run 500 m below me and whooping for joy. It was reassuring to see fellow skiers but they soon gone and I still had some technical difficulties ahead to exit the face through the rock bands.
The median slopes on the face open right out providing good skiing
In the lower section the couloir becomes well defined again as it cuts through the cliffs and the banks provided good corn skiing. Just before reaching the lower choke you can break out left onto the face and here I found a rock anchor Tom and Johanna had used on their descent. A small 5 m rap over a rockstep takes you onto the lower slopes and a straight-line over a rockslab spits you out above the bergshrund. This was a final challenge, as over the course of the fine weather, the shrund had opened up and there was now a gaping 6 m drop from the upper lip to a flat landing. Jumping it was the only option in the isothermal snow so I took off my transceiver and backpack, tied the rope to them and threw the rope down to retrieve them from below. The landing was going to be a big enough impact that I didn’t want the added weight of my pack on my back or the chance or breaking a rib with my transceiver. Lets just say its been a while my body has taken that kind of impact!
Whilst the skiing wasn’t memorable, the mental experience was – it felt like a trip to find myself, shut out all the clutter of everyday life and really be lost in the moment. In the end I found what I was looking for and liked what I found, so it was a worthy trip.
My next outing was to the Perche Couloir on the Griaz. My body hadnt recovered fully from the Rochefort so it was a case of treating it as a recovery day, going easy and allowing the toxins to slowly flush out of the system. Searler joined me once again and we had a leisurely day stopping for a sandwich on the plateau.
Hard snow made it easier to bootpack
A short bootpack connects the two snowfields
On the traverse to the Griaz – best with ski crampons
Descending the ridge to the Perche
Searler scoping out the steps in the ridge
Searler following down the moderate ridge
Some steep downclimbing, looked worse than it was
Nice red rock
Slightly exposed and loose here!
Skis on, one rock to sep over then time to ski
Good snow on the line
Another little choke
Uninterrupted skiing to the valley floor 6000 ft below
Surprisingly good snow considering all the wind and temperature spikes
For the last 6 months I have been organising a second expedition to Baffin Island’s mythical fiords. These fiords are huge, typically 30-70 km long and snake through the granite big walls that the Island is famed for. Couloirs between 600 – 1400 m high split these walls and there’s enough for a lifetime’s worth of exploration. Unusually, this time round we are 3 Scots and a token Englishman! The team consists of fellow Scots Evan Cameron from Christchurch, Si Christie from Courcheval and Anglese Chipie Windross from Tignes.
The trip is sandwiched between the mountain guides summer training 1 and 2 courses in the UK so if its anything like the last trip I will come back emaciated and weak – not ideal for rock climbing but you have to take these opportunities. As usual there has been a lot of work gone into this between researching objectives, grant applications, booking flights, finding a iridium sat phone, planning and ordering food, kit lists, kit modifications, ordering kit, team discussions. This all takes up time from planning and skiing routes day to day in Chamonix but right now conditions are far from optimal with all the Foehn wind and I am really craving going somewhere remote and exciting. Its a bit of a juggling act managing the trip, training for the rock part of the guides scheme and training for Baffin which includes eating a lot (that takes time too!). Time will tell how well I manage this juggling act while I try to boulder as much as possible to get some finger strength back and do some bike rides to keep my leg strength!
Baffin preparation – drilling holes so I can tow my skis rather than carry them
Adding a stirrup to my neoprene Kosy Boot should stop it riding up off my toes
Baffin preparation – eating as much as possible to put on weight
Fantastic conditions continued in Cham and for day 7 on the trot we swapped freeride kit for touring skis and headed up to the Tacul to ski the shoulder. On the Midi, Minna and myself bumped into Morgan Salen and Isaac DVT and we teamed up to share the trail breaking and enjoy a ski run together for the first time. The snow was perfect both on the ascent and descent – we were able to ski all the way up the 40 degree entry couloir and it was a good short day to rest the legs from all the freeride. Thanks for the photos Morgan!
Skinning in the entry couloir
Sunshine and shadow
Isaac and Minna with Pt Yield in the background
Morgan at the top of the shoulder
Me psyched to ski some cold, sloughy, powder.
Me heading off down the ridge.
Morgan Salen on the first shot
Isaac enjoying the powder
Morgan finding the snow acceptable and to his liking
Minna heading into the 3rd shot
Morgan railing a turn in the sun with Minna below
Happy days, Morgan with Minna abseiling
Minna on the abseil
Me and the Corvus Freebird
Minna on the lowers
Morgan starting off down the lowers
Me enjoying the exceptional snow
This lower section provides some very fast skiing
The Corvus Freebird showing its pedigree at speed
Been skiing more than 10 seconds now!
After the active rest day I managed to talk Mikko and Jesper into coming for a long day to the Breche Nonne Eveque in the Charpoura basin. You can’t beat skiing below all the spires next to the Dru and its one of my favourite spots. I was last there in 2013 with Michelle behind Rosenberger and Minogue when it was super easy to get through the morraine. Times have changed, the Mer de Glace has dropped in height and the morraine become looser, steeper and more dangerous but with all the new snow I spied a route on skier left that would go with one rap over a step and one jump.
Mikko and Jesper trenching to the breche while I shelter on a ledge below.
Mikko starting off
Jesper in the powder
Deep powder in the line
Me catching up after shooting down the line
Mikko getting his skis on after abseiling the lower cascade. I downclimbed this for speed.
Mikko under the Dru
Now in the Charpoura basin
Les Drus, Sans Non and Y couloir
The Nonne Eveque is the central couloir, we skied through the slabs on looker’s right
I used my long Petzl Laser Speed Light ice screw to make a double Abalakov anchor for the rap through the slabs and backed it up with the screw while Jesper abseiled.
This was a long day with lots of tiring trail breaking and with a deteriorating forecast for the next afternoon, we decided on a quick lap of Breche Tacul for day 9 on the go. On the Midi we were surprised for find 6 inches of new snow overnight which despite making for an enjoyable few turns down the Gros Rognan, meant we (or it turned out to be Jesper) had to break trail to the bergshrund. It took me longer than usual to settle into a rhythm, clear my legs out, and get going, plus it was bitterly cold in shade and my hands, feet and nose were suffering. After the shrund we swapped leads trail breaking on the climb up to the breche before savouring a 30 second view of the Jorasses and skiing down.
On the bootpack.
The Grandes Jorasses looking somewhat dry
Jesper dropping into the pow.
And finding the line well filled in.
Me dropping onto the spine.
And popping back off it!
These last two are of Jesper.
With the weather breaking it was time for a well earned rest day and a beer or two before ending the week with a fun powder day on Plan de l’Aiguille where I met Espen Fadnes and his mate Tom, and an early morning run down the Marbree just before it got scorchio!
The week started with a full throttle powder day with Mikko, Jesper and Nikolina at Pavillion. After 8 laps there we moved across the road to Val Veni and did a few laps of the cable face. It was riding pretty sweet and I was psyched to get to ride this face again this season. For once the Scandos wanted to stop before it got dark and go eat pizza which was good too. From the comfort of my sofa that night with throbbing legs I felt pretty sorry for Nikolina who was working until 2 am!
The next day was sunny and a chance to get high. I hit Helbronner with Mikko and Jesper and we found the most amazing stable powder on the mountain. By lunch we had skied the classic cables line, Tassoti, straight line 3 times and Chesso twice, in total 7 x 1000m laps. Although it was still cool we decided to go back to darker Cham side and have a run on the Rond but once we got through the tunnel the light was flat and we called it at that not wanting to spoil what had been the best cables day for me for a few years. These days were fast, furious, and focused on skiing so no photos! The only downside was hitting a rock at full speed on the Toula glacier that had me tomahawking to a standstill. It felt like my knee would explode as the tail bit on each rotation but I luckily got away with only strained medial ligament. I did exactly the same thing before going to Baffin so knew I could manage it.
After resting my knee all the next morning I got the code red from De Masi that it was apocalyptic in Italy. We arrived over there to find it snowing at 20 cm an hour with 50 cm of fresh on the ground. With 115 underfoot it was still chest deep. There was a ridiculous amount of snow coming out of the sky and continuous face shots of cold champagne powder. Well, we skied until the liftie asked if we had homes to go to! I haven’t seen it snow that intensity since ’99 when we got a few metres in 3 days and the avalanches were blasting through the towns in the Alps, something no one wants to see a repeat of. Only a half day but 5 laps in the bag.
Pavillion freeride was the order of the day for Saturday and Michelle met up with her friend Ian from UEFA who was psyched for sport with the Cham lifts shut with the Foehn storm. During the morning it continued to snow and cover the tracks then the sun made an appearance giving us the visibility to jump on the spines and have a laugh. The main problem was avoiding white rooming yourself while launching over the pillows and fish mouths on the aprons. It was supposed to be an active rest day but in the end 7 laps dont really qualify as active rest! By now the Border control cops at the Mont Blanc tunnel were only stopping the car to ask where the good skiing was.
Eat, sleep, repeat. Too good to stop. U guessed it we were at Pavillion on Sunday, joined by Black Crows team mate Minna. We had fun there there until the sun came out at which point we decided to put some distance between ourselves and those big faces above that were loaded with powder after days of storm. Switching to Val Veni, the trees were still providing awesome skiing, so much so that we had to have one last run and went to the Church spine face. The approach through the trees was incredible with 3 deep foot sluff runnels between the spines in the steep terrain of the forest – WTF? Then we popped out on the spine face and wait a minute, whats this heavy wet mank? Not cool. I’m guessing there was enough reflected infra red radiation off the Helbronner side onto our north facing slope to warm the snow. Time to go home. 6 laps.
Monday dawned fine. Can’t stop, won’t stop. Oli Herren said ‘yeah skiing, its a lifelong addiction.’ I wanted more, and the more I got, the more I wanted. Helbronner uppers. Michelle, Minna and myself ride the bin with Capozzi, Rolli, Civra Dano,Wallace, Hachemi, Husted. The cable face looked loaded and wind effected so we started the day on the more sheltered lines. The lower approaches into Pavillion were skiing amazingly but my legs were tired. 4 laps and coffee. 40 laps over 6 days.
The weather for Tuesday was perfect…time to go touring use different leg muscles!