Lovely ski yesterday skiing above Chamonix’s Aiguille du Midi on Mont Blanc du Tacul. 600 m of lush cold blower powder down to Col Simond. And its September. What a gift from the Gods! With the warm sunshine, clear autumn air, and quiet mountains, its just pure pleasure being out there. Today I had the pleasure of skiing with young passionate skier Chamoniarde Nico Borgeot who I met skiing the Mallory (under the cables of Aiguille du Midi) in May.
Kicking off the 21/22 ski season at Chamonix’s 3842 m Aiguille du Midi. Lift opening times have been announced – all systems are go after a busy summer guiding, winter should be flat out.
I have to admit that as we approached the ski season I was more than a little demotivated. The last two seasons have been dusters and we were enjoying the most incredible Indian Summer, starring a possible 3rd winter duster in the face. The biking and cragging were incredible and my only motivation to ski was for an October ski trip to pick off the Caroline Face of Mount Aoraki/Cook in NZ.
Then in mid September a chunk separated off my L5-S1 lumbar disc and logged itself against my sciatic nerve. This caused high frequency electrical pulses down the leg, loss of muscle control and rapid loss of muscle mass. For the first of weeks I was unable to sleep or sit down. I’d walk around the house in the middle of the night until the next cocktail of pain killers kicked in allowing me to grab a couple of hours rest. I’d then lie still on my back with anxiety gnawing at the thought of the pain returning. As soon as I turned onto my side or front the electricity would start and my hip felt it would dislocate from the muscle contractions. My butt ached from lying on it all the time. It didnt take long for me to run out of pain killers. Walking to the pub for some liquid pain relief would have me willing my bad leg to move as quickly as the other, but it was like dragging it through treacle. That was the Uma Thurman moment from Kill Bill where she tries to wiggle her big toe. Sitting in the car was impossible. Eventually the need for food drove me to trying to ride to the supermarket. I discovered cycling provided some relief and got the nerve moving through the muscles and tissues. I immersed myself into two months of rehab on the bike desperate to get my calf and glute working and thinking that getting blood flow, nutrients and movement into the muscle would counter the wastage in the areas affected by sciatic paralysis.
After a few weeks my calf started working, the feeling returned in my foot and I could stand on my tip toes which gave me hope about climbing again. But my glute just withered away and sitting became very uncomfortable with no muscular padding for the nerves. I was sure that I’d be able to sorta ski like that but without the glute stabilising the pelvis there would just be more damaging load going into my lumbar spine. Weeks of exercises followed under the supervision of resident Osteo Carlton Rowlands to isolate the glute and get the neurology to fire. Initially I just couldn’t do the simplest leg lifting movements no matter how hard I tried or willed the glute to work. I kept positive but was realistic that the ski season could end up being more about guiding and very little personally skiing unless I could back to a level of fitness to support the loads free skiing exerts on the body.
The injury was a big wake up call for me in many ways. Over the summer guiding I hadn’t eaten well with nights in the refuges and often had too little sleep over the week. These things are fine for the odd week or two but if the basis of your daily life reduces to this then soon cracks will appear somewhere. However fundamentally there was a weakness through my lower back that had severely limited the way I skied over the last decade. I sensed it and new something was weak there. When I say weak I mean weak relative to my stronger legs which had put me on the podium in the Scottish Junior MTB Series. But I didn’t know how to strengthen it. Like most of you focused on ab/oblique exercises and the usual gym routines which gave a strong exterior but neglected the core.
The biking through October and November was incredible with dry warm conditions in Aosta allowing rides over 3400 m cols in a t-shirt. For days with 2500 to 3000 m of climbing I’d go alone or hook up with Davide Capozzi and then ride with my Chamonix friends on my rest days. The larger rides showed the difference in strength in my legs as the muscles were taken to fatigue, but with no ill effects or set backs, my confidence started to grow. Meanwhile I continued to work on rehab exercises and start the slow process to rebuild the muscle, all to aware the ski season was approaching fast and a compensating body would cause a lot of problems.
10 days in Finale brought an abrupt end to the biking season at the start of December and I returned to a frigid cold and austere Chamonix wondering what I’d do next. The phone rang and it was Tom asking if I wanted to go to Bel Oiseux touring. To be honest I hadn’t even thought about skiing but when I considered it I thought I didn’t have any excuses not to give it a go. As we set off on our very late start we met a bunch of the Cham crew who had already done a lap and the smiles gave away the good the conditions. Tom, Johanna and myself talked the whole way up the hill, taking in the scenery and enjoying being back in the mountains.
I took them to the top of a line I knew that was a bit hidden from the others. Once I confirmed we were in the right place the other two jumped in before me. Tom was straight back from skiing the Caroline and no doubt they were thinking the old man was going to ski like a grandpa. I was certainly thinking that. The gnawing fear of a set back and a return to that hateful nerve electrocution torture was holding me back. The thought of hitting a rock on my bad leg and the shock blowing more of the disc contents against the nerve root weighed heavily on my mind. I made two hop turns like an octogenarian, getting the feedback for how well my leg would cope with the shock, and then decided to point the skis downhill and ski the way I wanted. The line was filled with smooth consistent powder which skied beautifully and was gentle on my body. I didn’t stop where the others had held up and continued down to the terminal cliff. What an amazing feeling, hope crept through my mind that I could get back into skiing.
A week later and it was opening day at Grands Montets. A bunch of us Crows had partied hard the night before and I woke up with the feeling that my head was in a vice. Hungover, stiff, dehydrated and with a battered central nervous system I joined the crew at GM and went for a run on the piste in the flat light. It was awful, every unseen bump pinching the sciatic nerve and causing my hamstring to fire and stiffen further affecting my ability to flow over the terrain. I was also struggling to control my direction going through the bumps and initially thought this was a proprioreception problem but in the end worked out that the flexibility in my left leg increased as it flexed up and outwards, rather than straight up. Through the bumps my ski would always track left, just when you wanted to turn right. It all felt a bit pointless and I went home despondent thinking that those days of skiing 15-20 k vertical metres off the lifts were behind me and future skiing might be limited to untracked touring lines. The Mountain Boot and Scarpa crew were in town for 2 days and keen for a second day on GM but I knew I couldn’t handle that and guilty bailed on them.
The next day Bruno, Layla, Simone, Enrico, Bea and myself headed up a dry looking Skyway for a look around. Below 2100 m was dust after a five month drought and above just had one 30 cm layer. The north wind was howling but as we exited the lift station Bruno announced he thought it wasn’t that cold. As the bitter wind froze my face off I was thinking to myself that I had gone soft hanging out in Finale. Later it emerged Bruno had run back to his van for extra clothes and was still cooling down.
Very quickly skins were falling off and we only made Col d’Entreves using a combination of ski straps and duct tape on the skins. Bruno was keen to go up the ridge and as I set off no one else left the sanctuary of the windscoop at the base. Somewhere on the ridge my hat got sucked off my head but before retreating I spied a lot of snow on Col d’Entreves. For sure it would be rocky getting in but after that it looked sweet. Time to propose a different plan that would get us out of the wind quickly. After passing through the rocks it was time to ski light and cautiously with tips up…these were still shark infested waters with a big cliff below. The headwall was sweet with cold slough and my body held together despite a couple of large rock strikes to my bad leg. Below lay a couple of kilometres of untracked rolling terrain which is a pleasure to ski at full throttle. Full of joy we head back to the bar for a celebratory beer.
That was the turning point for me where I started to believe my body could recover enough to ski the things I wanted, in the way I wanted and as much as I wanted. Sure I still had loads of rehab to go but I could also see the opportunity to to correct a problem that I’d coped with for some time and build a stronger core to match the strong external muscles which could support the loading I’d throw at it.
The timing was near perfect. As the storm cycle moved in it became clear we were in for some pretty special low level conditions to the valley floor. I skied some pretty special days during this period, all different and memorable for different things. 13 laps on Val Veni with Tom, touring the Signal with Michelle and Cedric in the afternoon, plan laps galore with anyone willing to ski with me. One more after a big run of days I was crammed up against Sam Favret in the Midi bin. I asked how he was and he admitted to be tired. We all got pretty tired that week, it was one of the best in my 20 years in Chamonix. For sure we could have taken some amazing photos and film. But I just wanted to ski.
Hoods up, bitter north wind, -25C. Enrico, Simone, Bea, Bruno
After a hot summer the glacier is very open and only covered with a veneer of snow
Enrico, Bruno and Layla
Bruno enjoying the drawn to the light after the dark oppressiveness of mid winter alpine valleys
Bruno, Layla, Enrico, Bea, Simone
Me opening Col d’Entreves well aware of the sharks hunting below the surface and the big cliff at the base
Bruno in his element
and playing with his slough
Enrico with his smooth style
Simone about to hit the afterburner. The whole valley skied beautifully.
Happy people after a sweet descent from Col d’Entreves that blew away the cobwebs from the previous days parties.
Flying solo on one of the favourite preseason tours
The start of December and already over a metre above 2000m but more importantly an absence of the huge ground level facet layers experienced in the last few seasons.
Always exciting to drop into a new line, especially when you havent been able to scope it from below. Without a rope I expected some dry skiing in the steep lower section. In the end I was able to ski through easily but I did have some snow plates in the pack in case I needed to wade back up to the ridge.
Another glory day early December
T-shirts on the up with Douds Charlet, Vivien Bruchez and Graham Pinkerton
Vivien and Graham. So nice to have someone else do the work. Vivien likes to use much lighter kit than me and is the only person I know that has a completely different style for skiing alpine kit to touring kit.
Me pysched about the prospect of perfect pow below.
It was my plan to come here so I get first tracks
Another gorgeous day, another solo mission to try something new. Excited about the prospect of dropping.
My line started top right of shot and came down the sunlight ramp. Never hard but always rolling over so the way was not evident. Amazing skiing down the apron where another tourer had skied the hidden couloir on the left. I was really pleased so have managed to explore this area before the high pressure moved off as it was about to get crazy in the valley.
Then we moved into a five day storm cycle. The 0 iso continued to bounce around which created a thick blanketing base over fallen trees and stumps and bringing all time tree skiing to the valley. Tom Grant may be small but these days were deep.
Tom blasting through the forest, chest deep on Noctas
Me having fun popping off tree stumps
Tom charging hard in the trees
This day it snowed about 1 metre while we were on the day. We all had 3 pairs of goggles and came back soaked to the skin to find the car park had been allowed to fill in during the day. My car was at the end of the line and being 4×4 I though it would be easy to get 5 ft onto the ploughed road. An hour of digging saw us clear.
Another hour to get 5 miles down valley to Bossons with the wet storm icing wipers and windshields as fast as you could clear them. On my street no where to park, 2 m snowbanks and a lot of digging.
Next day in Courmayeur. A car with 2 m of snow. The road from Entreves buried under avalanche, Courm closed. We head up Pavillion thinking we could ski some ridges safely but full depth propagation triggering convinced us to retreat.
Things settle in Courmayeur and Tom and myself head back for a fast lads day. The snow is all-time and I mean all time. We stop take one shot on the first run and never stop again. Pillows, stumps, spines, glades…13 laps on Val Veni.
On one of the spines skiers right of the Val Veni cables. About enter the white room
Michelle arrives, the weather improves and we hit Montenvers. I love it up there in the milky mid winter afternoon sun. The wind has been out but in the trees its primo.
Michelle enjoying the sun and views
Me enjoying a moment in the sun
Oh yeah, this is going to be sweet
Me kicking off
Dave Searle with his characteristic photo powerlide
Me a bit lower
The temps were rising and I wanted to get as much as possible before the snow went off. I managed to convince Michelle into another lap to the L’M but Cedric was wiser and went to Moo for a big lunch. After a hours skinning and teasing Michelle onwards with its just over the next morraine we were in a position and Michelle was very grumpy with me.
Changing weather as the sun goes down but a lush time to be up high
It was still quiet in the valley so we were able to move around. This day started on Brevent, moved to Grands Montets and ended on Montenvers. Michelle here in Chapeau
Me in Chapeau
Me scoping out some potential lines
Michelle at the Chapeau buvette, always after a cheeky beer 😉
Riding Montenvers and refueling
Me cruising in the settled blower
Changing venue, Tom Coney and myself have dawn run down Cosmiques
Warm milky light as Coney drops off the Midi arete
Amazing inversions over the Aravis. I have the lurgie and am soaked in sweat by the bottom.
After a coffee and a change in clothes, Michelle and myself do a few GM laps. The wind had buffed the snow but it was consistent and grippy providing good piste like skiing
Christmas Eve. Warm temps, find fucked offpiste but great piste skiing.
Christmas Day. Time to tour
Michelle skiing into Belvedere
The dry summer has revealed a step on the Belvedere. It was a bit of a pig to dry ski through.
Michelle swooping down the Berard valley
Happy times waiting for the little train at le Buet
27th. My birthday. Its been warm but the snow is coming. We wait until 2 pm and hit the Midi. Its real good and just the 2 of us there
Another reset overnight and on the 28th its open by 1030. Easily best day of the season. 9 laps of the plan with various people joining me during the day; Michelle, Tom Coney, James Sleigh and Ian Wilson-Young. No time for photos until we were cruising down the Pre de Rocher track into town as the sun went down. This made me a happy man as the Plan is a real tester for your body with loads of shock and impact. Having a long day there is a good test to see where you are at and if the body will cope with the mega days in the big mountains.
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
Fantastic conditions continued in Cham and for day 7 on the trot we swapped freeride kit for touring skis and headed up to the Tacul to ski the shoulder. On the Midi, Minna and myself bumped into Morgan Salen and Isaac DVT and we teamed up to share the trail breaking and enjoy a ski run together for the first time. The snow was perfect both on the ascent and descent – we were able to ski all the way up the 40 degree entry couloir and it was a good short day to rest the legs from all the freeride. Thanks for the photos Morgan!
Skinning in the entry couloir
Sunshine and shadow
Isaac and Minna with Pt Yield in the background
Morgan at the top of the shoulder
Me psyched to ski some cold, sloughy, powder.
Me heading off down the ridge.
Morgan Salen on the first shot
Isaac enjoying the powder
Morgan finding the snow acceptable and to his liking
Minna heading into the 3rd shot
Morgan railing a turn in the sun with Minna below
Happy days, Morgan with Minna abseiling
Minna on the abseil
Me and the Corvus Freebird
Minna on the lowers
Morgan starting off down the lowers
Me enjoying the exceptional snow
This lower section provides some very fast skiing
The Corvus Freebird showing its pedigree at speed
Been skiing more than 10 seconds now!
After the active rest day I managed to talk Mikko and Jesper into coming for a long day to the Breche Nonne Eveque in the Charpoura basin. You can’t beat skiing below all the spires next to the Dru and its one of my favourite spots. I was last there in 2013 with Michelle behind Rosenberger and Minogue when it was super easy to get through the morraine. Times have changed, the Mer de Glace has dropped in height and the morraine become looser, steeper and more dangerous but with all the new snow I spied a route on skier left that would go with one rap over a step and one jump.
Mikko and Jesper trenching to the breche while I shelter on a ledge below.
Mikko starting off
Jesper in the powder
Deep powder in the line
Me catching up after shooting down the line
Mikko getting his skis on after abseiling the lower cascade. I downclimbed this for speed.
Mikko under the Dru
Now in the Charpoura basin
Les Drus, Sans Non and Y couloir
The Nonne Eveque is the central couloir, we skied through the slabs on looker’s right
I used my long Petzl Laser Speed Light ice screw to make a double Abalakov anchor for the rap through the slabs and backed it up with the screw while Jesper abseiled.
This was a long day with lots of tiring trail breaking and with a deteriorating forecast for the next afternoon, we decided on a quick lap of Breche Tacul for day 9 on the go. On the Midi we were surprised for find 6 inches of new snow overnight which despite making for an enjoyable few turns down the Gros Rognan, meant we (or it turned out to be Jesper) had to break trail to the bergshrund. It took me longer than usual to settle into a rhythm, clear my legs out, and get going, plus it was bitterly cold in shade and my hands, feet and nose were suffering. After the shrund we swapped leads trail breaking on the climb up to the breche before savouring a 30 second view of the Jorasses and skiing down.
On the bootpack.
The Grandes Jorasses looking somewhat dry
Jesper dropping into the pow.
And finding the line well filled in.
Me dropping onto the spine.
And popping back off it!
These last two are of Jesper.
With the weather breaking it was time for a well earned rest day and a beer or two before ending the week with a fun powder day on Plan de l’Aiguille where I met Espen Fadnes and his mate Tom, and an early morning run down the Marbree just before it got scorchio!