Col De l’Aiguille Verte, (5.4, 700m)

(Col De l’Aiguille Verte Trip Report From Sunday 10th April 2016)

It’s fairly evident to those who live here that the mountains are getting busier and busier as time goes by.  The Argentiere Glacier has been, and always will be one of the stomping grounds for Extreme Skiers out looking for the perfect day on the steep north faces.  I wouldn’t really class myself as an Extreme Skier. Strapping it on for a 5.4 (Technical Ski Grade) is about the limit of what I would ever feel comfortable skiing and only once every blue moon at that.  I like the feeling of skiing steep powder for sure but the worry and stress associated with putting yourself in that situation is draining to say the least.

I digress. Oh yeah busy….. busy busy busy. Jostle, hustle push and shove. “got to get the first bin!” got to get there before its too late.  Exiting the first bin on a busy day such as yesterday (Sunday) and polling off into the basin, it’s hard to not feel smug.  We have the pick of all the amazing routes in their shinning spring condition.  But what if someone follows us?! I don’t want to race. I want to clip into my skis fresh without stress.  I don’t want anyone above me or below me.  I want this day to be ours.

When I spoke to Joel about skiing the Col De l’Aiguille Verte I could tell he was nervous.  He’s not been skiing that long (even less than my 7 seasons!) but he’s proved himself on a few bigger faces and is super keen.  I knew he’d be happy to bail at the first sniff of trouble which is an admirable quality some lack.

When we reached the bottom of the slope that heads up to the Col De l’Aiguille Verte things looked good and we quickly changed over and started up the short skin to the bottom of the face.  Over the bergshrund we ditched the rope, shovels and probes. We wouldn’t be needing the weight and reasoned an avalanche on a 53 degree slope would be unlikely or catastrophic.

On the climb up we passed a ski that was sticking out of the slope. We’d found a hat at the bottom too and scratched our heads as to what had happened and what to do.  We carried on and found an ice axe about 400m up too.  It later transpired someone had fallen (I still don’t know the circumstances) and had managed to “get away with a broken leg”. Lucky guy.

We kept a steady pace and about 2/3 of the way up were caught up by a friendly Frenchman, Boris Dufour who was on the 4th cable car.  He’d set a good pace to catch us and remained close for the rest of the climb to the Col and during the descent knowing that the danger would be sluff management (by sluff I mean loose snow which grows and gains power the further it goes). After taking some photo’s from the top we slowly and hesitantly started skiing. The first turns were tough with the deep crusty snow but soon things got better and we were able to make some more relaxed, but much steeper and more intimidating turns in the guts of the face.

We pitched it carefully staying out of harms way by tucking under rocks and sticking to spurs as others skied.  The snow was pouring down the face as you skied funneling into massive sluff trains that went all the way to the glacier, cascading off rocks on the way.

Hopping the shrund and heading back to the ski area it all sunk in and a feeling of accomplishment mixed with joy washed over us. A line I’ve always dreamed of with fantastic snow and excellent weather means it will be a day etched into my memory forever.  I’m glad to have shared it with Joel and Boris…… and only them.

 

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Mont Dolent Traverse

I’ve wanted to climb Mont Dolent for many years. Although not a massive peak compared with other alpine giants, Mont Dolent is quite unique.  Its the point where three of the great alpine countries meet, France to the NW, Switzerland to the East and Italy to the south. With the classic Ice Goulotte of the Charlet-Couturier route on the Argentiere basin face and moderate ski terrain to the south it is an unsung gem of ski mountaineering and offers a near perfect day out if you can just get the timing right….

When Colin Haley asked me if I wanted to do it with him at the weekend I was pretty damn stoked and honored that he wanted to bring a Brit punter like me along.  Of course I said yes and we made the necessary preparations in terms of equipment and logistics.  I packed a tunnel pass and mentally prepared myself to have to pay a friend to pick us up from Courmayeur at the end of the day (We choose this descent rather than down to La Fouly because we figured it would be cheaper, even though it was longer).  When Colin broke the news to me that he’d be taking his Skimo Racing skis I felt slightly despaired. My thinnest, lightest skis are 95mm under the foot and weight almost twice as much, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

In the morning we jostled our way onto the first bin pushing and shoving the others around us in the usual hectic Chamonix style.  We clipped in and set off across the “high traverse” under the north faces.  Much to my bemusement Colin set a fierce pace on his tiny skis… somewhere along the line I forgot he was a pretty handy skier aswell as being a top level alpinist.

With skins on I set my pace close to my lactate threshold pushing hard but not getting overly tired.  Colin would catch up and take some photos whilst I carried on and the catch up again soon after. We passed a couple waking from a night in a tent and up ahead at the end of the glacier we saw another pair near the bergshrund of our route.  We were soon there and strapping our skis onto our packs about an hour and twenty minutes after leaving the lift.  The other team had just got over onto the bergshrund  when we set off and we simul-soloed past them on the first pitch being careful and delicate not to knock ice down on them. However with the near perfect Névé this wasn’t much of an issue.  After the first few bulges I noticed it got a little thinner and blacker and also a couple of small stones were coming off from above. We decided (or rather I asked) to put the rope on, at least for a bit. After about 90m and with the difficulties done we put it away and carried on up and out left along a snowy ramp to the ridge. Up the ridge a little way and out left across a large snow bay (in Switzerland) we crossed another bergshrund onto the upper slopes. I was feeling the burn quite a bit on the last few hundred meters primarily because I hadn’t managed my hydration and food that well until now (learning by mistakes is good). We topped out a little after 1.50 and began our descent down into Italy finding some good and bad snow that lead us all the way down to the Val Ferret.  What ensued was my least favorite and what Colin later told me was his favourte part of the day… About 12km of polling and skating down the valley on forest trails and cross country tracks. I was suffering hard on my “heavy” skis trying to keep up with Colin who looked like he was out for a quick sunday Ski du Fond after lunch.

Rather perfectly we arrived the end of the snow at exactly the same time a bus did. We jumped on it and pondered if the Helbronner lift would be open so we could save the cost of going through the tunnel by skiing back to Chamonix down the Vallee Noire… With jelly legs we quick marched through the streets of Entreves to the lift which was still running at 3.40.  I was feeling pretty thirsty by this point and was looking forward to a bottle of coke or something at the top station before the long ski back to Cham.. I joked with Colin that we could theoretically make the last train if we rallied.

“We should totally try….Come on man lets do it!”

“Errrrggghh… Ok”  I agreed. Without a moment to spare we rattled off down through the flat light skiing, without stopping, from the Helbronner to the bottom of the stairs at Montenvers.  The loud speaker informed us we had five minutes to march up the 300 or so stairs to make the last lift up to the train station… Pushing deeply into oxygen deficit I lolloped my way up the stairs gasping for breaths some way behind Colin. I nearly collapsed in the bubble but was thankful to have the train to take me back to town. We agreed it was one of the best days of this winter for both of us, apart from some scramble he did with some guy called Alex down in a place where its really windy all the time. All that was left was for me to rescue my car from Argentiere but luckily as soon as I put my thumb out and the first car stopped for me…..perfection.

 

Autumn Conditions in Chamonix/Mont Blanc Massif

I’d like to give my take on this mixed seasons conditions for those of you interested.

Some of it is speculation, some of it experience and some just from talking to others and seeing others reports of routes. I’d welcome comments bellow if you have any input or want me to further shake the magic 8 ball.

Despite the hot and dry summer the mountains have recovered somewhat and there seems to be, in the right places, some good ice about.  Here is a brief run through of popular areas to give you some insight.

Tacul Triangle

Seemingly good conditions on most routes, lots of fun snow ice on the German gully, Profit Perroux, Chere and other mixed lines.  A good choice for a day hit to get some fun climbing in.

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Shot 9th October, German Gully Tacul Triangle

Passerelle Couloir/ off the Midi Bridge

Theres been a few teams going of the bridge each day.  Reportedly Vent du Dragon is good but the Pérroux-Profit Gully is lean and in a bad way.  Other routes might be good but I’ve not heard.

Midi North Face

The Chere Couloir is a Plastic neve Romp as ever and the top seracs are fairly begnin looking, however the serac next to the Frendo spur is very threatening right now. The Mallory would be climbable but needs more cover to make it enjoyable.  I climbed the Eugster Diagonal (see previous post) yesterday and it was fine.  I started 150m to the right in the next gully system and traversed hard left after 60m. This avoided the thin and spindrifty start. The Direct looks a bit thin but should be passable.  I did hear of a team climbing it but that’s just hear say.  Charli Chasagne looks ok aswell.

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Shot 11th October, Midi North face

Pellerin North Face

Not heard of any teams on this but the Carrington/Rouse would probably be pretty good.  Beyond is starting to form also.. Are you keen?

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Shot 5th of october

Grandes Jorasses

Looks quite snowy from this photo but I bet some of the routes are climbable.  Not heard of any ascents but it will be quieter up there than last year for sure!! Any news? Send me some photo’s and I’ll post them here!

Argy Bassin

I’ve heard of some teams climbing the Droites, ColtonBrooks Etc. Probably most classic routes, Ginat etc are good if your keen for the romp up there. Trip report of the DEBRUYNE-MANU/GABBAROU 79 here showing some pictures of the basin. However my friend Pete told me that the Chardonnet descent definitely requires a sense of humour! I’m sure this is true for the Droites too!

Nant Blanc and Dru Couloir

Nant Blanc is looking OK but I’m sure the glacier is horrendous to get to the base of it. not sure about the Dru Couloir area but It is probably ok.

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Shot 5th of October

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Cascade EMHM.

Yesterday me and Emily had planned on climbing the Claire Chazal on the Grands Montets ridge but we both decided we weren’t in the right mood for an alpine route on a north face in the blistering cold when we got to the bottom.  We skied some nice, tracked powder down to the glacier and bobbed down past the tops of the nearside icefalls.  Looking at the entry points of all the routes most had piles of ski’s and boot already so we carried on down. We made it to the top of the Cascade EMHM and dropped in for a look. It was super fat but pretty “dinner-platey”.  We also only had 5 screws (story of my ice climbing career!) so it was a good test of mental strength at a few points. All in all a lovely day out with one of my most favorite people… 🙂

More info and TOPO here.

Courtes North East Slope and more…

This last few weeks has been crazy. So many good ski days with good friends in cool places. This week I managed to get a cheeky lap of the Bec de Rosses NF in Verbier. It is an iconic face due to its looming presence over the Verbier Ski resort and its fame from the Freeride World Tour finals.  I was surprised how unsuitable it is for skiing with weaving no-fall couloirs, hidden sharks (rocks under the snow) and massive exposure at the top, yet they still hold one of the most prestigious freeride events there and everyone goes oh so fast.  Scary.

Today, however was something else. It feels like a while since I have had a big day out (except for my last big day off the midi).  I’d seen some photo’s of the NE slope of the Courtes looking in primo conditions and knew that it could be my first real chance to ski it in good snow.  I had a feeling that it was going to be busy and I had mentally prepared myself for a race…. With the growing popularity of skiing steep lines in Cham the key is speed from the word go, unless you want to be behind someone on a snowy face where you could easily get knocked of by a sluff from above.  I knew this and in my mind I was ready to go as fast as I could to get to the top first.  I set out with Davide de Masi, Liz Daley, Drew Tabke and Tom Grant but, for a number of reasons I ended up being the only one to ski that line. I was pretty lit for it and only the sight of two guys halfway up the face who had started from the hut (cheaters) gave me the slightest doubt as to whether it was the wrong thing to do.  I charged up their boot pack and arrived at the col 10 mins after they had started skiing.  They sent a sizable sluff of the face which nearly took out a couple of my friends who were starting up the bottom third. When they passed me I warned them, as politely as I could, that they should exercise caution as there were people below who they could hit with there sluff. They exploded at me and a minor argument fired up which I thought was pretty peculiar given the situation. I think they were just jacked up on skiing a big line like this in good snow and had little to no respect for others because of it. I got to the top and waited for the next guy behind me, Niki, to get to the col. I had been monitoring the other teams on the face and decided it was a good time to ski. Everyone below was in safe spots and I could weave a line around them and not drown them in my sluff. The snow was incredible and the line lived up to my expectations and more. Perfect skiing angle and face. Truly a skiers dream and something I have wanted to ski for a long time. 15 minutes (at 12.20) later I arrived at the flat glacier at the bottom to find Tom, Liz and Dave soaking up some rays.

I was keen for some more so we quickly decided to go up for a look at the Col Des Cristaux. We started up with caution knowing that there were 6 people above us who could drop in and sluff us.  I had to break a different track up the first third  to stay out of the way of the teams above, which was a tough few hundred meters of deep faceted snow. On the way up we watched some of the people dropping into the already crusty snow at the top and quickly made the decision to turn around when it stopped being good. We stopped a few hundred meters short of the col.  The snow was once again incredible and we all arrived at the bottom within a few minutes of each other. Skiing back to the car my legs were about ready to give up on me.

Such a fun, long day which really challenged my fitness and provided 1500m of awesome skiing in what still is one of the best skiing areas of the world. Thanks all who were involved (except the rude, arrogant guys on the courtes, you nearly ruined my day).

The Northeast Slope of the Courtes

The North East Slope of the Courtes

Looking down from the col  waiting for Niki to top out.

Looking down from the col waiting for Niki to top out.

Happy times back at the bottom, Still psyched on my La Sportiva Lo5's.

Happy times back at the bottom, Still psyched on my La Sportiva Lo5’s.

Colton-Brooks, Les Droites.

Les Droites with Colton-Brooks marked.

With such a strong high pressure sat over the Alps at the moment it would be rude not to make the most of it. Especially as my driving work has all but stopped. We decided to head up to the Argentiere basin to check it out. We had our sights set on the Colton-Brooks on the north face Of the Droites. We had no idea what the conditions were like on the bottom half of the face as its impossible to see from the valley but we decided it was worth a punt!!

Here’s how it went…..

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