The left edge of the triangle on Mont Blanc du Tacul offers a very aesthetic snow and mixed climb with spectacular views across to the mighty Dent de Geant. The route is objectively safe, avoiding the seracs on the void normal and offers and more interesting and exciting way of getting to the summit. It’s also a good ski line in May and June. This time I was out climbing with my good friend Minna and acclimatising for the summer guiding season.
This was my first visit to the fabled Calanques of Marseilles. The Calanques are the fiord region next to Marseille and host to a plethora of marvelous rockclimbs on walls of impeccable white limestone up to 300 m high. On this trip we had the luxury of a boat and could sail round and chose what took our fancy! I will definitely be back.
After I got back from Lofoten my main aim was to reacclimatise and have some training days for the big mountains and the Baffin Island ski expedition that I have been working on for month’s now – more of that below. 2014 Baffin photo essay
Dave Searle wangled a day off work so we decided to go the east couloir on the Tre la Tete as a training day since its a long approach to the end of the Miage Glacier. I have always wanted to camp up the glacier for this line and ski it in the early morning sun but we had to forgoe that to do this line in a day. In the end we got unlucky and fog enveloped us 700 m up the line and as its more of a ramp than a couloir, without rock walls to handrail, we decided to ski down from there. Still, good exercise being on the go all day.
Looking up towards Pointe Baretti from the Miage Glacier
Dave Searle dropping out of the fog on the East Couloir of Tre la Tete
The Mont Blanc Glacier dropping down in the background towards the Miage
Sunsets on the Mothership
High pressure was still dominating so the next day I went up the Chardonnet for a solo of ski the classic South Couloir. This line is one of my favourites with a good combination of steepness, exposure, spurs, and couloirs all with fantastic views of the Verte, Droites, Courtes and Argentiere. My acclimatisation was coming back and I was back down for lunch – on the same trip before Christmas in tough conditions it had taken Jesper and myself 5 hours just to get to the bottom of the couloir!
Z or the Washburn variant on the Verte the day after Capozzi, Pica, Rolli did it.
The North Face of the Droites
The North Wall of the Argentiere Basin
Skiing on the Aiguille du Chardonnet
The North Face of the Argentiere stripped back to glacial ice
Sun’s out, whats not to like with this view
Smooth snow on the Chardonnet – its at a premium right now after the wind
One of my favourite views from the exit couloir of the Chardonnet
I then had my niece Tash and her friend Toby to stay for a few days and had a great laugh showing them some of my favourite spots up the Helbronner and Midi as well as blasting a few pistes laps, watching the guys wingsuit from the Brevent and going on the luge.
My niece Tash and her friend Toby
Wingsuiter just jumped
Brevent telepherique and the Midi
South face Dent de Geant in Red and South Couloir Aiguille de Rochefort in Black
There was one sunny day left before the high pressure moved away, and although the cold north wind was still blowing, I decided to take a gamble and go try Remi Lecluse’s line on South Couloir of the Aiguille de Rochefort. With reasonable acclimatisation I was pretty confident I could move fast from the first cable car and get to the top around noon when the snow would be soft enough to ski. As I arrived in the car park the north wind was still blowing snow off the ridges and I didn’t have much hope for success, which relied on the sun to make the snow skiable. However, there are loads of options in that zone with the Dent de Geant, Petit Dent de Geant and Marbree as fall back plans so I decided to continue and go take a look.
The wind was still blowing at the Helbronner but as I skinned across to the Col de Rochefort area it seemed to be dropping. The traverse across the south face is long, a crab crawl on axes and crampons that seems to go on for ever. I now know how Tom Patey felt on his traverse of Creag Megaidh! The face was sheltered from the wind and the temperature was rising, and with that my hopes that things would soften and become skiable and I made good progress on the climb.
This face is vast, much wider than it is tall and being out there on your own makes you feel pretty insignificant in comparison to the scale of the mountains.
Selfie high on the Rochefort
Things were looking good but as I put my skis on, the breeze came back. At nearly 4000 m the air was still cold and the snow that had been softening nicely started to refreeze. I guessed the breeze would dissipate once I descended away from the Rochefort Arete but I was also worried that the breeze might pick up refreezing the whole line. I started down as quickly as possible which wasn’t fast at all on very variable poor snow. This part of the line is in the 50 degree range so there is a fair amount of gravity pulling at you. Each turn required maximum concentration, each time the skis landed they reacted differently. Sometimes they skidded on the icy surface, sometimes the snow sheared out from the downhill ski, all the time causing me to react quickly and make the necessary adjustments. Sometimes sections of hard glazed snow and rock forced me to sidestep. Tense times on skis.
When skiing becomes this slow and technical it often loses all of the aspects that draw me to the sport; rounded turns, quality of the snow, the sensation of virgin snow under your feet, your mind entering flow state.
The rap off a no. 7 rock through the upper choke
However, I still felt positive that the breeze would drop and the snow would be soft below the first choke where the couloir opens out onto the face. A rap through the choke thankfully took me onto soft snow allowing me to relax as fun skiing returned. This section starts of steep but quickly moderates to a similar angle to the neighbouring Dent de Geant run though it has more features scattered with bluffs and spurs to play on.
Soft snow now – yeehaa!
After hours of being alone a human voice pulled me out of my introverted mental state. I stopped skiing and scanned the mountain for its origin. 2 skiers were exiting the classic Dent de Geant run 500 m below me and whooping for joy. It was reassuring to see fellow skiers but they soon gone and I still had some technical difficulties ahead to exit the face through the rock bands.
The median slopes on the face open right out providing good skiing
In the lower section the couloir becomes well defined again as it cuts through the cliffs and the banks provided good corn skiing. Just before reaching the lower choke you can break out left onto the face and here I found a rock anchor Tom and Johanna had used on their descent. A small 5 m rap over a rockstep takes you onto the lower slopes and a straight-line over a rockslab spits you out above the bergshrund. This was a final challenge, as over the course of the fine weather, the shrund had opened up and there was now a gaping 6 m drop from the upper lip to a flat landing. Jumping it was the only option in the isothermal snow so I took off my transceiver and backpack, tied the rope to them and threw the rope down to retrieve them from below. The landing was going to be a big enough impact that I didn’t want the added weight of my pack on my back or the chance or breaking a rib with my transceiver. Lets just say its been a while my body has taken that kind of impact!
Whilst the skiing wasn’t memorable, the mental experience was – it felt like a trip to find myself, shut out all the clutter of everyday life and really be lost in the moment. In the end I found what I was looking for and liked what I found, so it was a worthy trip.
My next outing was to the Perche Couloir on the Griaz. My body hadnt recovered fully from the Rochefort so it was a case of treating it as a recovery day, going easy and allowing the toxins to slowly flush out of the system. Searler joined me once again and we had a leisurely day stopping for a sandwich on the plateau.
Hard snow made it easier to bootpack
A short bootpack connects the two snowfields
On the traverse to the Griaz – best with ski crampons
Descending the ridge to the Perche
Searler scoping out the steps in the ridge
Searler following down the moderate ridge
Some steep downclimbing, looked worse than it was
Nice red rock
Slightly exposed and loose here!
Skis on, one rock to sep over then time to ski
Good snow on the line
Another little choke
Uninterrupted skiing to the valley floor 6000 ft below
Surprisingly good snow considering all the wind and temperature spikes
For the last 6 months I have been organising a second expedition to Baffin Island’s mythical fiords. These fiords are huge, typically 30-70 km long and snake through the granite big walls that the Island is famed for. Couloirs between 600 – 1400 m high split these walls and there’s enough for a lifetime’s worth of exploration. Unusually, this time round we are 3 Scots and a token Englishman! The team consists of fellow Scots Evan Cameron from Christchurch, Si Christie from Courcheval and Anglese Chipie Windross from Tignes.
The trip is sandwiched between the mountain guides summer training 1 and 2 courses in the UK so if its anything like the last trip I will come back emaciated and weak – not ideal for rock climbing but you have to take these opportunities. As usual there has been a lot of work gone into this between researching objectives, grant applications, booking flights, finding a iridium sat phone, planning and ordering food, kit lists, kit modifications, ordering kit, team discussions. This all takes up time from planning and skiing routes day to day in Chamonix but right now conditions are far from optimal with all the Foehn wind and I am really craving going somewhere remote and exciting. Its a bit of a juggling act managing the trip, training for the rock part of the guides scheme and training for Baffin which includes eating a lot (that takes time too!). Time will tell how well I manage this juggling act while I try to boulder as much as possible to get some finger strength back and do some bike rides to keep my leg strength!
Baffin preparation – drilling holes so I can tow my skis rather than carry them
Adding a stirrup to my neoprene Kosy Boot should stop it riding up off my toes
Baffin preparation – eating as much as possible to put on weight
On Saturday we went to ski the north face of the Pouce.
Minna, Dave and Cedric on the bootpack from Index in the searing heat.
Chamonix was in the ming and there was low cloud on the back of the Aiguille Rouge so we hung out on the ridge to see if it would lift. It did but by then team psych was pretty low. I went up about half way with Chamonix guide and friend Nicolas Annereau who was with another friend but in the hanging bowl the snow got thin and we skied down. Its a cool face and super exposed from the minute you traverse onto it about the cliffs so don’t be sandbagged by the Aiguille Rouge grades and go mentally prepared for a big line!
On Sunday Michelle and myself traversed Arete Plate and skied the north couloir. It was really pleasant hiking up the sunny side but on the ridge the wind was howling and we skied down the north couloir on nice chalky powder but didn’t stop to take any photos!
Next up was a trip to the classic north east slope of Les Courtes with Mikko H and Jesper.
Entering the crystal maze. First time through the high traverse for a couple of years.
The wind was still howling and it was baltic touring up the Argentiere in goggles and all my clothes.
We climbed pretty quick despite 40- 50 cm of dense powder. As we got higher to quality of the powder got better with less slough hardening but suddenly we came to an area with the new snow sitting on a thick melt freeze or rain crust that supported crampons with facets underneath. I did a few shovel shears in different places which failed at almost zero load, something I’ve not seen in 20 years of this type of skiing. It definitely felt like this was quite a large hot spot for the slope and with 40-50 cm of high density powder it could produce enough energy to start something big. The decision to go down was obvious for me – its a line I’ve skied 9 times and even if I hadn’t, the decision would have still been the same. I just need to down climb to the snow that was well bonded before putting a lot of load into the snow stomping into my PLUM guide heal at DIN12. The ski down was ok but difficult to stay in front of the slough. The bottom steepens significantly this year after the hot summer and glacier drop so the bergshrund may end up being interesting!
Michelle and myself went to ski the shoulder on the Aiguille du Tacul. We took the Gros Rognan and found some beautiful creamy snow and then traversed to the Vallee Noire for colder powder.
Traversing to the Valle Noire.
Michelle on the Italian side of the Vallee Blanche.
The Foehn started raging before committing to the final boot pack to the shoulder and with loads of down draughting and cross loading we did a u turn and headed to the lower couloirs.
The Foehn blasting at altitude.
Michelle touring to the lowers.
Me launching into the lowers.
At the buvette enjoying the warm sunshine out of the wind.
Then it was back to Hebronner with Mikko and Lauri. It had been windy again so we opted out of the ‘Chinese Downhil’ start.
Marco ski cutting Chesso traverse entrance to the cable face. The soft slab detached most of the way to the old stage 2 lift station.
Mikko finding the goods.
Lauri is in there!
Italian Morris dancers in the lift, whatever next?
While I was whiling away the time this autumn from the discomfort of long hours behind a desk, something amazing was happening out there in the real world. Social media alerted me to incredible mixed climbing conditions the Alps as icy tentacles started to drooling down the faces providing relatively easy passage for all the mixed masters. Fomo was kicking in pretty badly and I managed to engineer my way out of work for a week in September and another in October. Success on the Michto-Polish route on the Jorasses in September brought confidence in off the couch fitness and ability to use a pair of tools after a year or two off. It allowed the mind to explode with all the possibilities and adventures out there given the right partner, enough time and the weather. I eagerly looked forward to the October holiday knowing one big route would calm the mind from the boredom of work during the run into the ski season. Conditions just seemed to get better and the weather was looking great. The week before heading out there was a minor blip with some days off training due to a cold. Arriving in Chamonix I took advantage of the Brevent being open to get some lift assisted mountain biking i.e. downhill. But then I started to feel tired, like wtf, am I imagining this? I thought it was probably psychosomatic but not completely willing to try my theory out on a big face, we decided to go for a quick hit on Chere Couloir. A friend had recently solo’d it and reckoned the serac was not threatening. And so Sandy and myself started romping up the neve plastered line and I was feeling ok, not great but ok. Then boom, out of nowhere my body went cold and into shutdown mode like I had flu. I put on ever stitch of clothing from my bag and continued to climb in it all the way to the top. Just as well we weren’t on the Grand Pillier D’Angle! I Guess it pays to listen to your body no matter how much you want to do something. 6 weeks later and I think I have finally got rid of what was bugging me, just in time for the snow to arrive. And the serac is mildly threatening, enough to make us feel relieved once we had past it!