We do love a bit of Spring here in chamonix. Skiing, Biking and Climbing are all possible depending on what the weather dishes out. Ive done a bit of everything in the past week which is awesome. We’ve had a lot of snow this spring but it’s not necessarily been “useful” for skiing. The last storm brought a lot of precipitation and with it immediate warm temperatures and wind. I skied the Vallee Blanche at the begging of last week and felt that it was to dangerous to ski anything steeper for a few days after that.
After what seemed like a good amount of time for things to stablise, yesterday myself, Joel Evans and Guillaumo Mars headed up to ski the south face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. I had my reservations from the start as to how safe it would be to ski something south facing at this time of year, however a couple of friends had skied it the day before and reported good spring corn snow. This gave me a bit more confidence in it being a reasonable objective and I knew I could bail from the summit if things looked bad.
The North Face of Mont Blanc du Tacul is pretty evil this spring with big gnarly looking seracs above you for most of the time you are climbing up. Nearing the top I was glad to get off the face and onto the summit however I couldn’t shake a twisted feeling in my stomach. This is something that I get when I’m nervous about something, call it a gut feeling if you like, something I know a lot of people don’t get. Sitting on the summit and checking out the snow conditions that seemed very good I didn’t feel any better. Did I not trust myself to make good safe turns? Was it something else I was worried about?
I made a decision to turn back and leave Joel and Guillaume to ski the line without me and offered to take pictures of them dropping into the first section of the face. I made my way over to a perch which overlooked Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc and the initial slope of the descent. I managed to snap some nice shots of the boys dropping and watched them making their way down.
Then something very strange happened, something that I later admitted to the guys when we got down. A strange emotion washed over me. I had to go with them. At first I thought it was because it looked like fun skiing down the perfect corn but later when thinking about it after everything was done it seems like something in my brain told me to go with them perhaps to keep them safe. I shouted down to them that I would join them on the first abseil.
I returned to my skis and quickly joined them on the face feeling hesitant but fairly comfortable with the skiing. We made a short abseil through a choke and continued down through the crux section to the start of the long 45m abseil in the middle of the face. Here I took to coaching the guys on the short, loose climb to get to the anchor and rigged the ropes for the abseil.
Joel made a short video here.
At the bottom of this abseil things changed dramatically. The cloud that had been sat in the Brenva basin had spilled over the ridge and was moving up the slope towards us. This made it difficult to see and alongside the snow becoming deeper and heavier due to the warming it had had from the sun we decided to down climb the next section through a small Icey choke. After setting of on crampons down the slope I spotted an anchor that would get us down the steep section and decided it would be safer and easier to utilise it for an abseil anchor should anything come down from above. I clipped to it and backed it up with two Ice screws. Guillaume and Joel joined me and just as they had both clipped onto the belay next to me a rumbling noise made the pit of my stomach drop away. Is this it I thought? I was convinced it wasn’t but when the heavy wet snow pummeled down onto us bringing with it small rocks I think we all feared the worst. I took the brunt of it being closest to the gully line it was coming down and after what seemed like eternity it slowed down. Thankfully we were totally fine with nothing more than a neckfull of wet snow each.
Time to engage survival mode. We quickly rigged to ropes rappel and Joel started down. After he was 40m or so away another avalanche ripped over or heads. Lucky Joel was out the way of it by then and I had moved away from the firing line too. Guillaume followed him and I took the screws out of the belay and started down. By now the clouds were in around us and we were had no choice but to make our way down as quickly and safely as possible, calling for rescue was out of the question. I wanted to stay on the rope figuring that being attached to the mountain was a good idea given the previous situation. We made two more long abseils to within spitting distance of the bergschrund. Here we put our skis back on and made our way carefully over the ‘shrund and down onto the flat glacier and relative safety. Following down the Vallee Blanche and back to the train I felt emotionally drained and thankful things hadn’t gone any worse for us.
A strange day which goes to show how unpredictable the mountains can be. Also for me, how important it is for me to make good decisions based on my feelings and instincts. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone but if I hadn’t would things have panned out well for the other guys? Did I fall into a heuristic trap or was I justMont Blanc Du Tacul South Face worried about the other guys safety? Who knows, but all I know right now is I don’t need to go skiing again for a while…