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 RĂ©chasse. 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

Monday, April 10, 2017

Father & Sons High Level Route.

Arguably there can be no better way to spend quality time with your children than on a multi day ski tour. Especially when it all comes together with perfect weather and conditions on what is undoubtedly one of Switzerlands great ski tours. Clearly it requires a lot of planning to get everyone together even more so when there are two fathers and their adult children. Thursday 6th April Simon Allen and his two boys Christian and Alexander were joined by Mark Dravers and his son Chris. We met in Argentiere where everyone was kitted out with ski mountaineering boots , skis and all the other ski touring paraphernalia. We then "crowbarred" it all in the car and headed around to the col de Pillon. Our plan was to use the ascent of the mountain , Les Diableret as our warm up , training peak. The plan for the day almost got torpedoed before we started because as we ventured out of the lift system at the top the wind was blowing at over 100kph. Hardly the best introduction. Yet as we skied down and got into position the wind dropped and that was the last indifferent weather we were going to see for the next four days. After we climbed to the summit we then skied down to Les Diablert Hut in excellent snow. It is a fantastic Hut , good food, beer, showers and wifi. We were the only guests. Friday 7th April We took the first lift up with the workers to the summit of Glacier 3000 ski system and the had a magnificent ski down to the col de Sanetsch.
From the Col it is necessary to skin up the arete de L'Arpille. In places there was no snow so we had to strap the skis on the back of our rucksacks and walk up. This is a big day and it is important to keep moving quickly because a lot of the route traverses avalanche prone south facing slopes , some of which had already slipped. After the avalanche debris there is a long climb up to the col Pucel. From here , providing you get the line right, [which we did] you can ski all the way down to the Cabanne Audannes and a very welcome beer. Saturday 8th April We left the Audannes at about 7.00am and were treated to a beautiful sunrise as we looked back toward the cabanne.
The task for the day was to arrive at the Wildstrubel Hut. [The second time in a week for me!] The main challenge was dealing with the heat especially because the last two hours is a grueling climb which only gets more the difficult the hotter it gets. We arrived at the Wildstrubel Hut about 1.00am. There was no wind and it was extremely pleasant sitting on the terrace drinking beer watching the other parties who had set off later than us struggle up the final slopes. In the evening we joined in what seems to be a ritual of watching the sun set. Sunday 9th April We left the Wildstrubel Hut at about 7.00am. The goal was to traverse the Wildtrubel mountain and the ski out to the Gemmi Pass. We enjoyed solitude all the way to the summit. We then had world class spring skiing all the way to the lift station. "All" that was then left was the small matter of getting back to the car at Col de Pillons which was some considerable distance away.
It was hard to imagine how the trip could not have gone better.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Following the sun.

The request was an interesting ski tour which is challenging , but not too challenging with an overnight in a "nice" Mountain Hut. It is a "no brainer" at present. It is a very easy choice: the perfect over night ski tour is a night in the Wildstrubel Hut with a traverse of the Wildstrubel the following day. This is exactly what Catherine Lewis and her very good friend Henrietta Salvo did with me. We took the Funicular from Sierre to Crans Montana. We then rode the lift system to the summit of the Plans des Mortes Glacier and then skied off into thick impenetrable mist and high winds. This was not part of the plan but it is what it is- We battled our way to the Hut , where ,unsurprisingly we were the only guests. Yet our luck was to change . All along, the weather had been due to improve and improve it did. Early evening and late afternoon produced some stunning views from the balcony.
The following morning was perfect. Cold and clear with no wind and no one about. We left the hut at about 7.00am and were in position for more spectacular sunrises, before heading across the Plaine des Mortes glacier and up to the top of the Wildstrubel. We then skied down exceptional spring snow to the Gemi pass. We descended by cable car to Leukerbad and then to Leuk , caught the train back to Sierre and picked up the car. If there is a better on night two day ski tour show me it!

Saturday, April 01, 2017

6 days of exceptionally good ski touring.

The weather forecast was perfect. Clear skies meant we would get a strong overnight freeze. Bright sunny days would produce the optimum spring snow skiing conditions. Monday 27th March. John Young and I headed off up La Flegere. We skinned up the Col du Crochue. It was a bit weired because despite the weather being wonderful there was no one around. It is the sort of place that if you are on your own you have to ask the question what does everyone know that I don't? The answer soon became apparent - everyone was behind us; Next we skied down to the foot of the big gulley which leads up to the Glacier du Morte. We strapped our crampons on , stuck the skis on our ruck sacks and climbed up the couloir , which gets pretty steep at the top. The ski down was very good. Although the track through the forest back to Le Buet was "faster" [read icy] than we wanted. Tuesday 28th March. We got dropped at Le Tour by my new driving daughter Andrea. We headed up the lift and then skinned up and over the col just to the right of the Grandes Otanes. We couldnt believe the sight of the exceptional skiing which awaited us.
Again there was no one around - It was truely magnificent. Mind you there was a price to pay. Lower down there was the remains of some massive avalanche devastation the like s of which I had never seen before.It was tedious clambering through the hundreds of meters of smashed up trees.
. Eventually we did fight our way out and down to Trient village, where after getting lost several times, Andrea turned up to pick us up and drive us back to Chamonix in what she claims is now her Land Rover Defender. Wednesday 29th March. We drove around to Les Contamines , we used the lift system to catapult us on our way into the Beaufortain region where we skied around to above the lac de la Girotte. On the Thursday we decided to go on an overnight ski tour. We drove through to Sierre. We parked the car and took the Funcicular to Crans Montana. We then worked the lift system up to the Plaine des Mortes glacier from where we climbed the spectacular Rohrbachsteim 2950m After which we skied down to the Wildstrubel Hut- which at present I would have to rate as the best hut in the Alps that I have visited in terms of its welcome, food and general ambience. Friday morning we were a way by 7.00am just in time to arrive on the summit of the Wisshore 2948m to enjoy the sunrise over the Plaine Morte Glacier. From there we traversed the glacier before climbing up and on to the summit of the Wildstrubel 3244m. The ski down got better and better and the spring snow was very good all the way to the Gemmipass cable car. From here we descended by cable car to Leukerbad. After some lunch we took the bus to Leuk, then a train to Sierre where we picked up the car and drove back to Chamonix. Saturday was to be our final day. The weather was threatening to change. We headed to the summit of the Brevent and skied off behind the ridge making our way around to the Col du Brevent. The weather was cold and windy and the snow was not softening up. It wasbone shattering skiing and and had zero to recommend it. We decided to head back to La Flegere. This proved to be a good call. The wind dropped and the sun came out. We traversed around to Lac Blanc and the made our way over to the deep gorge which leads up to Col L'Encrenaz. Instead of climbing up the col we skied towards Col du Montets again enjoying good spring snow. Inevitably by the time we hit the road it was decidedly soggy and there was rather a lot of vegetation sticking up through the snow. All in all it was another excellent day. Andrea was there to pick us up in her Land Rover and rive us home.