Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Traverse of Europes biggets Ice cap. La Vanoise.

The challenge of having skied and climbed with the  same people consistently for over twenty years is that we are constantly having to search out new areas.  Yet this is a good problem to have.

Chris Dovell [fortunately] had never visited the Vanoise a vast wilderness in the French alps, where, for the most part, mobile phone reception does not reliably exist.*

We left Chamonix, with a less than good weather forecast.  Therefore we choose the most sure option of getting to our first refuge which was to be the Roc de la Peche.  After dumping the car in Pralognan-la- Vanoise we "geared up" and carried our skis for only about a kilometer before sticking them on our boots and skinning up the long road to the refuge.  We had clearly made the right choice in terms of approach because it started to rain.  Yet we arrived at the refuge after about two and a half hours.  I say refuge but its more like a hotel .  En suite bathrooms, and a hair dryer...

The next day the weather was superb.  We left the refuge at about 7.00am and made our way further up the main valley before taking a left turn and heading up a steep icy slope [ which was the first of many.]  At the top of the slope the route opened up into a stunning valley which we followed further until making a turn to the right to climb up the long slope to the summit of the col d' Aussois 2916m.
Chris arriving at col d'Aussois.
We then skied down some reasonable spring snow before making a final climb to the  Refuge de la  Dent Parrachee.  This refuge over looks the ski resort of Aussois.  It was very comfortable [ for a refuge] and even had hot showers.  The food, beer and wine was also excellent.

Our third day also started beautifully .

Rufuge Dent Parachee.

We left the hut again around 7.00 am and skinned up to the Col de Labby.  All was perfectly fine until we looked over the col and just saw thick , thick cloud smothering our descent.  This was going to be challenging navigation.  Thrown into the mix was a glacier topped with heinous breakable crust. It is at times like this that 20 years of skiing together means you know the person you are with will be well up for the challenge and will not be phased.

We left the beautiful sunshine and descended into the fog.  We stopped reguarly to check our position against the altimeter the GPS and the map.  The snow was so bad that turning in it was next to impossible so we descended by making long diagonal descents punctuated with kick turns.

After about an hour of this [ 5 minutes in good visibility?] We emerged out of the fog to see another party heading, I didn't know where.
Glacier de la Mahure

 Yet although the weather was far from good , we could at least see.  Another , skin followed by a traverse followed by some pretty shit skiing saw us arrive at the Refuge de L'Alpont.  Our reward was to see a majestic eagle glide within meters of us as it circled the refuge.  I had never been so close to an eagle.    We later worked out that it was after the refuges pet bunny rabbit whose days were seemingly numbered.

On our 4th and  final morning we awoke to poor weather and no visibility.  This was particularly unwelcome because of all the days on our tour this is the day you  need to be able to see because our route took us over the Vanoise Ice Cap - The biggest in Europe.

We left the refuge at again around 7.00am , psyched for a big challenging day.
Pretty much straight out of the refuge we were faced with an intimidating icy slope which had to be ascended.  This was quite daunting and the fact that it was so foggy was for a time a good thing because you could not see the consequnces of where you might end up if you missed a kick-turn.

At the top of the slope conditions were unrelenting. There was another party attempting to do what we were doing yet they were finding it as difficult as us  The ground was featureless and made up of troughs and bumps and lakes. [ According to the map.]  It was maddeningly difficult to find and stick to the correct bearing and we were contiiously having to readjust our course.

Eventually as we got higher we started to climb out of the mist.  the scene became hauntingly atmosperic.
Chris breaking out of the fog.
It was still by no means easy, yet it was now great to be in such  a wonderful mountain setting.  We headed up toward the col du Pelve 3100m , our penultimate col, now in clear weather.  The earlier tribulations of the day seeming worth it , to experience what we were now experiencing .
Col de Pelve
Finally we were on the top of the Vanoise Ice Cap.  We started to come  across other parties who had climbed up from the Col de la Vanoise Refuge, which they appeared to have done in the polar opposite weather to Chris and I.

We skied down the glacier and then elected not to ski down by the standard route but instead took a steep alternative route which although challanging brought us into the town of Pralognan and a short walk back to the car.
Chris skiing off the Vanoise Ice cap.

 * For piece of mind It is important that your party is equipped with an emergency radio which opens the repeaters of    "Grand Reaseau des Alps."

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Glacier d'Armancette

April, at some point. always brings unstable weather with the change of the equinox - "April Showers."

Last week was no different.  Charles Sherwood joined me for six days. On  our first day together it was snowing, making it less than ideal for ski touring.  Nevertheless we still managed to drop off the back of Rochbrune at the back of Megeve and climb over the border ridge between the Haute Savoie and the Savoie and ski all the way down into Hauteleuce.  From there we picked up the Les Contamines lift system and continued our circular tour back to Megeve. This was quite a feat because two weeks previously I had had a 20 minute walk down muddy fields .
Bit agricultural
Strange as it might seem but we skied these slopes with no problems.

The forecast for the next couple of days was going to be our chance to do something significant.  We identified the traverese of the Domes de Miage and the descent of the Armancette glacier as our goal.
After pre-dumping a car at the car park which we hoped to arrive back at, if the plan worked. We parked our second car at in Les Contamines, shouldered our packs and walked past the sign post which told us the Conscrits hut was  6 hours away.  We plodded with our skis on our rucksacks through forests for about 2 hours before we were able to find enough consistent snow to start skinning.  There was a lot of fresh snow .  Luckily for us someone was ahead of us and it is they who broke trail.  We did our best not to catch them up, but inevitably the we did because they just got too tired.
The long hot climb to the Conscrit Refuge
Conscrits Refuge

We arrived at the hut tired and hot.  There were only seven of us in total.  The next morning we were on our skis just before 7.00hrs.  Conditions were perfect and we made good progress up to the col before putting crampons on for the final ascent of the majestic  ridge which is one of the reasons the Miage is well known.
Domes de Miage

At the summit we caught up with a party of three German skiers who had set off slightly earlier than us. We all got ready to ski from the summit.  There were a few tracks in the snow which looked good.  It was therefore a bit of a shock to discover that the snow pack was very thin and merely covered boiler plate hard ice.  Luckily this was negotiated fairly quickly.  Mind you the snow was still not great with some challenging breakable crust.  Yet after a few hundred meters we did eventually hit perfect snow and enjoyed some first rate skiing.
The ski descent of the Armancette glacier is one of the most sought after

The descent was 2400meters .  We arrived back at our pre dumped car and were able to help our German friends by giving them a lift back to their car , which probably saved them a good two hours of grief.

The next day Charles and I attempted to traverse the ridge of Mt Joly which separates Megeve /St Gervais from Les Contamines.  The weather was non co operative because we got stuck in thick cloud.  We had little alternative  but to turn around because I thought there was a good possibility of falling of the ridge.

The next day the forecast was for it to be cold and windy.  It was cold and windy but we decided to see if we could ski tour over the Col de Crochue.  We headed up the Flegere lift and at the top of the Index lift we poked through the cloud and we were able to continue.  Alone.  This is a fairly unusual thing to do on this particular ski tour, as it is with little doubt the most popular ski tour in the world.

Approachong col du Crochue with the Aiguille Verte as the backdrop.
At the top of the col we skied down in very good snow.  We elected to skin up to the Breche du Berard. Yet  the mist rolled in and we were forced to climb the whole ridge in a white out.

Jour Blanc

 Mind you we enjoyed good snow in the Berard valley on the other side and were able to ski all the way to the Hotel Du Buet, where we discovered the train had been cancelled.  Fortunately we were able to persuade my daughter Florence to come and collect us.
Its not over until its over .

On our final day we decided to attempt the traverse of Mt Joly again.  I a woke to thick mist.  It did not look promising.  Yet we still decided to go and have a look, because the forecast was for it to clear . After some waiting around drinking coffee , some blue holes appeared in the sky.  We arrived on the ridge to a world class scene .  We were treated to a view of the entire descent of the Armancette glacier , plus the whole of the Mt Blanc massif which was seemingly sitting on a bed of cloud.

We made our way along the ridge, but not before the cloud rolled in again making navigation very difficult.  We sat down for a bite to eat and a drink hoping that the mist would clear enough.  I also manged to drop my phone in the snow.  It slid out of reach.  It stopped .  Then just as I thought I could grab it , the phone started to slide again.  It went faster and faster and then disappeared like a hockey puck out of sight.  I skied off after it thinking it was a very expensive mistake. There was no sign of it.  Then about 100 meters further below I saw a black speck in the snow. I found my phone.  Whats more my descent had taken us below the cloud and we could now see enough to continue safely.  I called to Charles who was incredulous that I had found the phone.  We hit some very good spring snow and enjoyed a fabulous run back into Les Contamines ski resort.

Mt Blanc Massif seen from the ridge of Mt Joly

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Winter Returns Big Time

50cm of snow fell in one night.  This was the view outside the kitchen window.  The day before had been okay ski -wise but there was little doubt the end of the resort skiing was not far off. 

It had sort of threatened to snow over night but everyone was surprised by how much...  Not surprisingly everywhere was closed because of the avalanche risk.  Yet the muddy fields of Les Houches had been transformed into pillows of powder snow.

On our final day together the sun came out and we skied off piste with wonderful conditions.

Grands Montets on a powder morning

Saturday, April 06, 2019

If there is better spring snow skiing than this - then show me what it looks like.

Approaching the might North Face of the Doites
This was a week of skiing that started well with good conditions and then it just got better and better.

John Young joined me for six days of skiing.  There was no real plan other than to go where the snow and conditions were best.

Day 1 : We decided to kick off with  a visit to Les Grandes Montets and " take advantage"  of  the fact that most of the lifts are broken. The benefit is that the whole area has returned to a true skiers paradise. We skinned up to the Col du Rachasse in about an hour and were then able to ski under the north face of the Doites and despite it not having snowed for over a week we found plenty of cold fresh snow.
Day 2: Weirdly the temperature dropped and the wind was due to blow from the north.  All the lifts were closed in Chamonix.  We simply changed venue and headed for Combloux from where we climbed the Croisse Baulet.  Mind you it was super cold and we wore every stitch of clothing while steaming at full speed up hill in an attempt to stay warm.

Climbing up to summit of Croise Baulet with Mt Blanc in the background
The descent started rather badly because it was so cold that the snow had not softened up.  We were thrown around on our skis. Yet about a 100 meters lower down it all changed.
We found spring snow and enjoyed a sublime descent all the way to Geittaz.  In fact from that moment on [although we did not yet know it] every single turn of the entire week was going to be  perfect.  As John said  "Ridiculously perfect."

Day 3  The wind was still blowing hard high up so we decided to head to Megeve with the creative idea of skiing off the back of Rochbrune, before skining up to the ridge line which is the border between the Haute Savoie and the Savoie departments. From there we skied down into Hautleuce.  Here again we found perfect spring snow.   There was one small snag .  We ran out of snow and had to walk down through fields of mud and cow shit, [but mainly cow shit.]  Still it was a small price to pay.  We walked down to the lift which took us back into Les Contamines lift system [ Not before we stopped for some rehydration thereapy].  We finished by skiing into the village and then taking the shuttle bus back to St Gervais where we had left the car.

Day 4.  While we had been skiing through Les Contamines we had sussed out the general conditions and had been able to see that the snow cover was exceptional.  There were boundless possibilities which in other years are just not an option.  We came up with a rather ingenious plan  to traverse the ridge of Mt Joly and drop into the lift system of Les Contamines.  We set off from St Gervais and rode the lifts before sticking our skins on and climbing to the summit of Mt Joly.  This is not for the faint hearted and a good head for heights helps. [We had taken Ice axe and crampons in case of need] Mind you it is a world class setting .  John remarked that he had never been in such an area with skies on his feet.
It took a hour or so to negotiate the ridge , before we could safely leave it and ski down to Les Contamines, but once we found the best slot the skiing was perfect and we arrived for a late lunch and beer.

Day 5.  Conditions were so good in Les Contamines that it was a no brainer but to return the next day and just ski off piste using the lifts.

Day 6.  Back in Chamonix for the traverse of the Breche du Berard.  Again clear blue skies, yet being a Saturday there were many many people all heading up in our general direction.
Approaching the col du Crochue

Fortunately we had chosen not to do the classic Crochue /Berard traverse but rather the Brche Berard.  This tour climbs up a stunning ridge with the whole of the Megeve ski area in the background.
The route then continues to the Breche.
It is then skies off again for the short scramble through the Breche.
This capped off a sublime week of spring snow skiing.  The week is a good example of being able  adapt our schedule to the weather and conditions and using local knowledge to find the optimum snow.

Monday, April 01, 2019

A Mountain Hut with a difference.

Peter Whelan and I skied at Le Tour for our opening day.  The north facing slopes continued to hold very good snow and good skiing.
The following day we were joined by Peter's friend Glen and we headed to Gressoney for a three day two night expedition to the Orestes Hutte.  The plan was to use it as a base from which to explore the area both by skiing off piste and doing some ski tours.
The first thing to say is that the Orestes Hut is not actually a Hutte ,Refugio, Cabanne, Abri,Refuge but rather a "Retreat."  Firstly it has private rooms with en-suite bathrooms. [Although there is dormitory accommodation]
It is equipped with a Yoga Room , complete with Yoga paraphernalia .  Yet arguably its most unique feature is it only serves Vegetarian /Vegan food.  This rather radical in the Alps where the traditional diet of dried meat still dominates.  Still the food was delicious , beautifully prepared and presented.
Whats more is that the Orestes Hutte had been built next to a spring so there was plenty of fresh water to drink.  This had eliminated the need to sell  plastic bottles full of water. The view from the dinning room at sunset was impressive.
After our first night and a good breakfast it was a traverse back into the ski resort, where we picked up the lift which took us to the start of the days ski tour the Col du Zube.
On our final day  in Italy we used the lift system to access a long off piste descent into the  Alagna Valley before finishing up at a mountain restaurant which we all agreed served the best pizza any of us had ever eaten.

After which we rode the lifts back into the Gressoney valley , before skiing down to the car and driving back to Chamonix.

On our final day it was just Peter and I.  We choose to climb up to  Lac Blanc from La Flegere before catching some good spring skiing back into the resort.