Friday, May 03, 2024

The last ski trip of the season.

 It was six years since Michael and Ian had triumphed on the Haute Route.  Thirty years since Michael and I first climbed Mt Blanc together.  This time they were back with a new friend Paul who in his 70th year was persuaded to have a go at ski touring.

The plan was to head up to the Gd St Bernard Monastery for two nights, then head over to the Bernese Oberland.  Yet not for the first time the weather didn't seem to know the plan and was uncooperative from the start.

Yet one of the many great things about going to the Monastery, is that not only is it a great trip to introduce people to ski touring, but because the terrain is non glaciated it can be done in [almost] any weather.  This was just as well because we left the parking area in sleet which was falling at  right angles to the vertical.

Yet as we ascended the sleet changed to snow and the wind was behind us.  It was quite hard work and we made use of the emergency shelters to get out of the bad weather where we could eat our sandwiches.  

Unsurprisingly we saw no one on our climb.  Once we arrived at the Monastery we had to dig the door out.  Stepping into the warmth and calm of the monastery was wonderful.  We went down into the ski room and peeled all our snow plastered gear. In fact there were quite a few other pairs of skis there too, it transpired that their owners had not bothered to venture outside, but instead wait out the bad weather.

The next day the weather was considerably less windy and while the visibility was far from perfect it was good enough for us to set off.  There was a lot of new snow.  We let another group go first and forge the track.  They were a group of 10 with 2 Guides.  They were meant to be on the Haute Route but had been forced to change their itinerary several times.

Our plan was to attempt Mt Fourchon the classic ski tour of the area.  We skied around the lake into Italy where the border post house  was completely buried, passed through the snowed in avalanche gallery and then stopped to put our skins on before starting the climb.  This is also what the other big group intended to do.  Meanwhile I noticed a loan skier attempting to cross above us in order to save himself about 30 meters of extra climbing.  I suggested to Michael, Paul and Ian that his route might not be the best choice in the conditions... Then right on cue the whole slope avalanched over a 100 meter wide crown wall.  Fortunately the victim stayed on the surface and was able to pick himself up and dust himself down, before scuttling off back the way he came, accompanied by jeers from the watching audience.  Jeering a man who had almost buried himself might seem a bit harsh, but he wasn't far off burying everyone else...

Not the clearest photo but you can glean the idea.

Anyway we continued sharing the trail breaking with the other big group.  The challange was as we climbed higher we found our selves in thick mist.  So thick that it was impossible to discern what was up and down. The only way to see, was keep throwing the ski pole out in front of me in order to gain some orientation.

In the end it was decided to stop because it was impossible to choose a safe line that wasn't avalanche prone.  The consolation prize was some good snow on the descent and when we popped out below the clouds the skiing was excellent. 

We headed back to the Monastery for a second night but not before stopping to marvel at the huge amounts of snow that had fallen through out the winter.

This is a 4 storey hotel.

The next day the forecast wasn't much better.  The dreaded foehn wind was reaking havoc across the region.  What's more it was bringing the gift of more Sahara sand and dumping it everywhere.

Sand is not good to ski on.

We did however manage to battle our way to the east col of the Barrasson where we were able to see all the way down the valley to the viaduct which is the opening shot of the Italain Job with the iconic Lamborghini Miura.
2 shots of the bridge featured in the  Italian Job  

An S on one side an I on the other.

By the time we skied back to the car the conditions were a bit grim.

Our original plan had been to travel to Grindlewald and then make a ski traverse of the Bernese Oberland.

Yet you didn't need to be the worlds greatest meteorologist to you know that this was not going to be possible.  So we returned to Chamonix to regroup.

The next day we headed to the Glacier 3000 ski area above Les Diablerets.  [Everything in Chamonix was shut because of the foehn wind].  We arrived to find that  this ski area was shut too.  Well for skiing anyway.  I managed to persuade the powers at be to let us up anyway because our plan was not to use the ski slifts but to ski tour up the peak of Les Diablerets the highest peak in the Canton of Vaud.

So far so good, then just as the lift was about to depart they announced that the wind was increasing and there was a good chance that they would close the lift system entirely.  Having run out of options we decided to go up anyway and see what was what.  This is when the adventure became memorable. 

Indeed the wind at the top made the idea of ski touring a joke.  Nevertheless there is a way of skiing all the way back down to the car park via a new tunnel if the piste is open. [And the tunnel. ] However the piste closed several weeks ago and the markers had been taken away for the summer.  We could see that there was enough snow to ski, but whether the tunnel was open was another question.  I made enquires at the top with the Guide who heads the ski patrol and he gave us permission to use the tunnel, providing we closed the door firmly afterwards!

We left the top station and skied down the piste.  This was not easy as the wind blew us back up the hill despite all four of us  adopting a schuss position.  Then suddenly we were in the lee of the slope and it seemed like another world.  We continued down to Le Diablerets Hut to find the guardian packing up and closing for the season, yet she sold us 4 cups of coffee, plus reassurred us that the mission critical tunnel was easy to find and obvious...

Well it wasn't obvious to us and we went zooming past it.  If we hadn't stopped to watch some ibex and an eagle and then check the map I would have comitted us to a long climb back up the slope.  As it was it took us about 10 minutes to retrace our steps.

The Black Wall.

The door opened and we were in.

At the other end it was quite an exit:

We skied down the slope until the snow ran out

Then through the crocuses back to the car.

On our fifth and final day we awoke to rain, but no wind.  Les Grands Montets was open [although it seemed it was  for our sole usage.] However fortune favours the brave and we got out of the gondala to fresh snow and decent visibility.  We skied until our legs were shot and that was how we finished the day and the season plus a memorable week to finish on...

Monday, April 22, 2024

It's never as planned. A 35 degree temperature change overnight.

The mighy north face of Les Doites

David Brooksbank and I "re-teamed up."  The last time we had been together it was for an epic ascent of the Weisshorn.
This time we joined up it was to ski together.

We arrived  at Le Brevent lift station already to start with a ski tour in the Aiguille Rouge. David went to the ticket office to buy his lift ticket.  But the resort was closed...  Fundamentally they had decided that it was too hot.  Which meant there was a distinct possibility of  avalanche wet slides.  
So after a rethink we headed to Les Grands Montets.  From here climbed up over the col des Rachasses and then headed for the Seracs of Rognan glacier.  [Not the worst plan B.]
Col des Rachasses

We skied  across to  below the north face of the Doites and onto the Argentiere glacier and down it , eventually joining the lift system.  We even found some fresh tracks.

The next day, Sunday , we skied the Vallee Blanche.  As a result of it being so hot the previous day the snow had melted and then re frozen, making the first section an icy horrible rutted affair that had  little to do with anything resembling skiing.  Yet we survived and fortunately the snow improved.  We crossed below Mt Blanc du Tacul and put our skins on.  We then headed up to the Italain side of the Vallee Blanche. An area that where again the scenary never fails to dissapoint.

Dent du Géant

After a sandwich and a drink we skied down the Combe de la Vierge eventually crossing back into France and joing up with the normal descent route.

A crevasse ...

on the left north face of Tour Ronde on the right Mt Blanc.

David with the Geant Ice Fall.

We carried on down until the snow ran out- 

It had been blisteringly hot.  When we arrived in Chamonix it was 28 degrees C.  We walked into the awaiting bar for some rehydration therapy, somewhat fryed by the sun.

On the Tuesday the weather was no longer beautiful.  Plus there had been  no overnight freeze.                Le Brevent was partially open, so we used the lift system to gain some height before heading off up to the Col Cornu and into the Aguilles Rouge national park.  Yet it became apparent that the conditions were unfavourable to venture any further.  The consolation was a very good descent of the comb de Charlanon back into the lift system.  We then decamped to Les Grands Montets for the afternoon.

Wednesday.  Winter returned. The previous day it was nearly 30 degrees.  Then it dropped 35 degrees and snowed... 
We headed for the Grand St Bernard .

Inauspicious start.

David arriving at the hospice.

After about two hours of steady ascending we arrived at the Hospice.  There was an impressive amount of snow.  It came up to the covered-bridge that spans the two buildings.  [In summer huge tourist coaches can easily pass under it]

We continued on past the Hospice and continued to and on into Italy. [Our third country that morning]
4 m of snow?

Walking back to the magnificent hospice

Hotel Italia 

For comparison: Summer.

We climbed up to the Fenetre de Ferret, where we peeled off our skins and skied back the way we came on good soft snow.
Looking back to the Col du Gd St Bernard.

David making sweeping turns with our high point in the background.

We then headed back to the Hospice but not before encountering a bit of wind.

There is always something extra special arriving at Hospice in bad weather.  The feeling of sanctauary is complete when you open the big oak door and step in side to be greated by warmth and silence  - a feeling of complete safety.
The door of the Hospice.

After a good dinner and a good sleep, we awoke to see our bedroom window had been plastered with snow.  The temperature outside was -11c.  
After breakfast we ventured outside and set off to see if there was anything we could climb in these tricky conditions.

Although there apparently been over 30cm of snow overnight, it appeared to all have been blown away, clearly creating big wind slab avalanches somewhere.  Nevertheless I reasoned if we choose our route carefully and stayed of steep slopes we could achieve something.  This is what we did:  Firstly we skied down the Comb des Morts in fresh snow before stopping at its end and climbing up to the East col of the Barason valley.  The weather was in and out yet we still got to see something.

In addition we enjoyed good skiing all the way back to the car park and finishing an action packed week on staggeringly different fluctuations in temperature and conditions.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Mont Gelé

Bill Mills reads his book outside the Refugio Crete Seche

After 12 years of ski touring together [not including the hiatus of Covid] It becomes increasingly difficult to find truely unique and interesting places to ski tour with Bill Mills and Greg Knott.  Yet still a good problem to have...

 After some thought, I phoned the guardian of the Refugio Crete Seche to discover if the place was open.  It was one of those good news bad news stories.  Firstly the bad news: It wasn't open - then the good news-They would open it early just  for us.  So we could continue with our plan to climb Mt Gele a very remote and beautiful mountain on the Swiss/Italain border.

Yet on our first day together the weather was unstable - so we contented ourselves by staying in the Chamonix area and by climbing the Aiguille Charlanon.

Perfect snow

welcome to Aguille Rouges

This proved to be a good choice because the snow was wonderful and despite having climbed this peak many times, this was the best skiing I had ever had on the peak.

The next day we headed of to Italy through the Mt Blanc tunnel. We drove down to Aosta afterwhich we headed up the very long and remote Valpeline valley to the village of Bionaz.  Here we took the road which eventually becomes a dirt track. [Mountain Guides using the refugio get dispensation to drive up the track.]. This was all very well but at one of the steep corners we ran into un navigable snow.

Er What Now?

Not wishing to be defeated, nor wanting to walk up the road carrying skis.  I attached Trac Grabber™to all four wheels engauged low-ratio locked the differential and then proceeded to go absolutely nowhere.  

The Trac Grabbers were completly fucking useless. So we dumped the car and walked.  As we should have done in the first place.

a long hot walk.


Fortunately it wasnt actually that long before we did hit continuious snow,  which meant that if we had negociated the bend in the road  we would still have had to abandon the car.  Plus we could put the skins on the skis and progress like ski tourers.  

It was hard work getting to the Refugio because it was hot.  We were relieved to arrive.  We were met by the quietly impressive Sophie who is the guardian of the Refugio.  She provided us with beer.  In the end there were only seven of us staying the night.

The next morning we had breakfast at 5.30hrs.  We were a way by 6.15hrs.  There had been a good overnight freeze and conditions were optimum.  

Bill with an amazing back drop.

Picnic below the summit.

It took just under 5 hours to arrive on the summit.  The majority of the ascent is quite straight forward until your about a 100 meters below the top. From where its nescesarry to complete the climb on foot.

The summit has a great big wooden cross fixed to it.  It made a useful thing to grab onto and avoid falling a long way into Switzerland.

Me & Bill clinging to the summit cross.

I'd like to report that the ski back to the refugio was magnificent.  But it was not.  The first portion of skiing was in breakable crust.  The skiing did then get better the lower we got, but we never did find sublime spring snow.  Mind you 5 hours up and 1 hour down still means its always  better than walking.

Approaching the snowy Refugio from above.

We arrived back - to find a full blown party kicking off.  There must have been a hundred people sitting out side the building in various states of undress, drinking copious amounts of Processcco/beer or what ever. I had enough sun.   I went inside and went to sleep.
It had always been our plan to spend a second night.  Yet it was a contrast to the previous night - The refugio was packed with Italians all determined to have a good time - It seemed like chaos to us.

The next morning - Sunday -  the majority of people left early at around 5.00hrs in an attempt to climb what we had climbed the previous day - Mt Gele.  However it had been cloudy overnight and there was seemingly no freeze, which was going to make the conditions unsafe.
Our intention had been to climb another peak and then ski back to the car.  Yet it became quickly apparent that with out a hard freeze we were in danger of being caught it a big wet avalanche.  So we retreated back to the car- then back to Chamonix.

On our final day we went to Grands Montets and climbed up over the col de Rachasse before heading of in a huge circular descent of the Argentire glacier taking in the spectacular seracs of the Rognan glacier.
Argentiere Glacier

Col du Chardonnet

Skiing underneath the huge North Face of Les Doites

Seracs of Rognan glacier

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Crazy amounts of Snow.

 The plan was to go ski touring in and above Gressoney.  The first time Catherine & I   tried this we arrived in Gressoney - There was no snow.  Tottaly weird experience.  Plus there was an insane amount of wind too. Getting to the "Refugio" was impossible.

Next time we were scuppered by Covid. At the time no one actually knew what Covid was - but it was kicking off in Italy.  Italy was seen as the epicentre of the outbreak. Hindsight is a great thing...

Anyway this time we had the complete opposite problem :  Too much snow.  This creates another headache because any chance of ski touring was impossible- plus the avalanche forecast was 4 on a scale of 5.
This time around Kate joined us too -We arrived in Gressoney at about 5 in the evening after having had a marvellous day skiing powder in a almost deserted Courmayeur.  Aparently it snowed a meter in the morning at Gressoney.  Our hotel didn't serve dinner so getting to the restaurant was a mission.
note the lawn mover that had been apparently used the day before.

The next morning we awoke to heavy snow.  This was not a sob story - it just meant we had to ski the trees in Champoluc.

On our final day together we still couldnt see very much, so again we returned to Champoluc.  The snow wasn't as good as the previous day, but there was still plenty of it.  Plus it is such an extrordinary area there is so much to explore.
The incredible Auberge RTA

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Father & Daughter working together


Ultimate ski instructor transport: Defender


Florence,my daughter, has been working flat out for the Ecole Ski Francais [ ESF Chamonix] all season but I was able to use her services for 3 days.  

We had a group of ten skiers who had come all the way from Vail Colorado.  Florenece was the youngest by at least 35 years! Yet we were both blown away by how good this group of skiers were.

This was their first time skiing in Europe and it was our job to show case the area.  
This group live for skiing

Not for the first time this season we did not have perfect conditions.  The weather had been un seasonably warm [again]. Yet as Florence and I left our Hello meeting, the evening before - It started to snow.
The next morning it had't stopped, meaning we needed to find somewhere to ski with trees because the visibility was poor.
So we headed for Les Grands Montets.  The skiing was good , the view was not.

The next day we headed for Le Tour. Here not only was the skiing was good but so to was the view.

Jim skiing of the back of Le Tour.

We were still finding un tracked snow at 4.00pm 

Stunning conditions in Les Jeurs

On our third day together, it was very windy which reduced our options, so I decided our best bet was to return to Les Grands Montets.  This proved to be a good descision because not only was the snow good and seemed sheltered from the wind, but this time they could see.
Florence standing by the avalnche warning and transciever checker Les Grands Montets.