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.
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.
Ski Mountaineering for me is about finding great link ups involving climbing, and skiing and traversing peaks. Last Sunday, after a cruzy day exploring Les Contamines with Irene, me and Josh Fawcett headed out to make some SKIMO (ski Mountaineering) and scored a pretty good day almost by mistake. With a vague plan to hit the Traverse of the Noire and “possibly something else” and a even vaguer forecast suggesting some wind and precipitation at some point during the day we went into the day with an open mind.
We headed out from the Aiguille du Midi down the classic Vallee Blanche and over to the Italian side. Hiking up the glacier to the start of the climb through the cold gusty wind with flakes of snow whipping past our noses we were slightly hesitant and came close to turning back a few times.. The weather was clear on the french side and we hoped the small localised weather spilling over from Italy wouldn’t follow us into the Traverse of the Noire. Thankfully by the time we reached the boot pack leading up to Pointe Yeild things were dying down so we carried on over the ridge to the top of the face. I’d been here a few years ago with Tom, Ross and Michelle.. We got spooked out by wind slab and decided to head back. This time however there were about twenty tracks, ten going skiers left and ten going skiers right down the convex face. We opted for right hand option and skied down a little way to the steep choke which is normally pretty icey.
We side stepped down through this which was both tiring and intimidating due to the nature of the crumbling snow, but managed to score some pow turns on the lower face before busting hard skiers right through the glacier and over to the bottom of the Breche Puiseux. From here we decided we had enough time and psyche to go and ski the NW shoulder of them Aiguille Tacul aswell. The climb up the final gully was roasting hot but it was worth suffering the heat and softening snow as we found a few good turns on the way down this line. The best snow however was on the moraine bench hard skiers right going down to the Leschaux Glacier at the end.
A great little link up of about 1200m vertical ascent with some really good snow on the descents and with a variety of different terrain and views to keep us amused. All in all a good day out on the hill!
Click on the Pictures bellow to see them in gallery format.
Finally some stable weather and a route in the mountains! What a fun little route too. I can’t believe this little gem has evaded my sights before now. This inconspicuous gully on the north face of the Tour Ronde (but not the actually Tour Ronde North Face if you get me) is only properly visible from the approach to the Fourche hut and would normally be considered a winter/spring route. Being as this summer hasn’t been very summery up until now, there has been a lot of good ice forming on the north faces up high. Continue reading