Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ski traverse of the iconic col de la Grand Casse and unforgettable smell of ‘Eau de Drying Room pour Homme’

Charles Sherwood , Charles son Tim and Charles brother Simon arrived in Chamonix to be greeted by perfect weather. Charles has ski toured all over the Alps with me over the last 25 years. Simon and Tim had not. They were both good skiers but ski touring was new to them. The challenge was to find somewhere Charles had never been plus somewhere that was suitable for an introduction to the sport. We started with a familiarization day at Le Tour. Apparently according to Charles this was the first place Tim had ever skied, Tim reasonably couldn't remember. Either way it seemed like a suitable place to start his ski touring career. We skied off-piste so we could get use to the new skis and boots and then got to grips with the skins by making an ascent of the Tete de Balme, modest but ideal training. The tomb stone on the summit has an S on one side and a F on the other, hence the passport. The next day we drove around to the Vanoise, to the town of Pralognan. The plan was to take the two chair lifts out of the village and then follow the valley up to the Col de la Vanoise Refuge. Regular readers of the Blog will probably have an inkling "the plan' was about to go awry: The lifts had closed due to lack of the essential ingredient. The lift company had not thought it necessary to update their website with this somewhat critical information. No one skis [or for that matter does anything] in France to enjoy its customer care. There was still a cable car going up another hill but it wasn't in the direction we wanted, but it would at least gain us some height. We took it. At the top there was some snow . It gave us approximately 15 seconds skiing Before we were walking again: Not the start I would have wanted as the aim was to get the newbies enthusiastic about ski touring. They were however un phased and thought it was a beautiful walk [which I suppose it was.] Eventually after about 40 minutes we arrived at the snow line and could put our skis on our feet and skin up the beautiful wild remote valley.
After about two and a half hours we arrived at the Refuge;
The weather was turning. The next morning we awoke to crap weather. I decided that we should try and go out and do something although what exactly, I wasn't very sure. I looked out at a group who were already heading out. I was hardly rushing to follow them.
After breakfast we decided that we better go out and see if we could at least get some exercise. As we were putting our boots on the earlier group returned looking like something from Napolean's retreat from Moscow. Our plan was to go and see if we could climb the Pointe de la Réchasse. We headed out and as we dropped down from the col the weather did clear a little so we carried on.
With rather more use of the map and compass than I would have wanted I think we eventually arrived on the summit. A very respectable 3212 meters.
Then something very good happened. As we skied down we moved below the cloud base and we could see. What is more we found some very good fresh snow and some exceptional pitches of skiing all the way back to the Refuge.
Easter Monday 17th April dawned clear. However we set off before dawn because it was important to get away while everything was still frozen in place. So it was skiing with head torches.
We also got to see our summit of yesterday looking quite different:
Today was to be the traverse of the col de la Grande Casse, one of the alps best ski touring days. We skinned up the long glacier where eventually it becomes to steep to continue on skis and it is necessary to climb with the skis strapped to the rucksack. Eventually we arrived on the col where the views over to Tignes were breathtaking.
From this point it is skiing all the way until the snow runs out. The route takes a high traverse which it at its end becomes why a high traverse is so critical.
Turn left too soon and you will end up bouncing over and down some fairly hefty seracs. Possibly a mistake you might only ever make once. What followed was a good 1000 meters of vertical descent on perfect spring snow. Eventually the snow ran out and we had to walk for about an hour, but that was a small price to pay.
A few days later Simon sent an email which summed up what he thought of his introduction to ski touring here it is: Charles and Mark I am back home and have settled down after a couple of rushed business meetings. Now is the time to think and thank. What a special trip and experience. It is hard to find a way to express my gratitude without it just ending up as a list of superlatives. Yet again my big bro’ has introduced me to a new world, something completely different. And yet again, I have loved it. I was quite worried before the trip as to whether my tired ageing overweight body would be up to Charles’ idea of a break - i.e. extreme physical punishment. Of course, there were moments of hard work, but there were many more moments of quiet bliss. It seems surreal looking back. Particularly memorable moments: Day 1: We go under a piste rope and “Welcome to France”. Dinner with the delightful Seaton family with the energiser bunny that is Sophie beside me to laugh with (have I convinced her to help the cows by eating them?). Day 2: The chair lift does not work so we do that amazing walk across the slopes with skis on our backs, all with glorious views and sunshine. Night one amidst the unforgettable smell of ‘Eau de Drying Room pour Homme’, and endless alarms. Day 3: One of my favourites as we venture out in to what I call a storm, but to Mark is slightly overcast. I thought the white out was wonderful. There is a special beauty and comfort in being wrapped in that white blanket. And the hypnotic slush-slush motion of the skis. Day 4: Heading out of the refuge with torches on! My first time night skiing. That beautiful climb up to the col with the moon at our backs and the sun icing the top of the mountain range behind. Then arriving at the top in the expectation of a howling gale but finding only beautiful views. And let me not forget that I was the only one who did NOT FALL!! (although I made up for it the day earlier). I have never had such an enjoyable experience in one pair of underwear. Unforgettable, unforgettable. Thank you so much - both of you - for allowing me to have a glimpse of your world. Simon Simon M C Sherwood

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