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.
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?
As the autumnal days shorten and the shadows grow across the valley, I realise how important it is for me to visit these high sun-drenched places. Its had been over 2 months since I visited the Midi and on return its beauty stunned me. Couple that with the fun of sliding downhill on a pair of skis and its obvious why its he best ski lift in the world aka ‘The Mothership’. Our first turns of the 15/16 season as Tom Grant and myself get training and acclimatising for our New Zealand ski trip next week.
I took the last lift up that evening to the Aiguille du Midi in order to join the others at the Cosmiques refuge, my pack laden with five litres of water. The weather had not broken all day with heavy cloud coming and going, and I slid forward onto the arête only to be enveloped in thick fog. There was over 30cm of new snow on the arête, too much for our west face plan. It felt more like winter than spring. I stood patiently, waiting for it to clear, but soon grew cold and resigned myself to waking down the arête. Where it levelled I skied down the south face, hugging the buttress and using the Midi as a handrail. There was only 10cm of new snow here so, if the sky cleared as promised, we were back in the game! Like a sign to us, just before we retired to bed the cloud dropped and we were treated to a majestic sunset above the inversion. It also enabled us to check the Tacul for any large accumulations. We enjoyed its warm glow, then turned in early to get some sleep before what we knew would be a very long day.
When the alarm ripped me from my cosy sleep, I looked out of the window to see the stars glistening in the night sky and excitement grew inside me. We each went through our final preparations in silence, eating and drinking as much as possible before making our way out into the frozen, predawn air. For the next few hours we just needed to keep to time, eating and drinking on the move and avoiding unnecessary stops. As we skinned up Tacul the temperature continued to plummet and the frigid wind increased in strength. The whole place felt thoroughly hostile.On Col Maudit the wind was driving snow and we stopping to put all our clothes and suffered in silence trying to keep the extremities from freezing. The cold was in my core making me pee a lot and lose fluids, we were all cold and there was nothing to say or do keeping going. By now my skins were falling off regularly and we weren’t setting any records between stops to rewarm fingers and toes and to reseat skins. After climbing the Col du Mont Maudit in boot deep snow we kept walking as the wind had scoured the slopes slopes to Mont Blanc.
On the summit it was a relief to drop down the Italian side a few metres and get out of that north wind. Below us the west face fell out of sight in vast, featureless snow slopes. It would be easy to head off on the wrong line here and we knew there was only one skiable line in condition. Normally I’d strip off some layers to ski, but I was so cold now that I only swapped mitts for gloves – just to be able to handle my camera better.
I put in the first turn on the relatively flat upper slopes. As the skis punched through the light crust the edges started to bite and squirm. Beneath the crust, and above the glacial ice, was a thin layer of sugar that meant we were unable to read where the ice lay. It made for tense skiing. I watched as others tested the snow below them with their poles, traversing back and forth and finding a safe passage through this zone. These are ‘fall-you-die’ lines and there is no margin for error. The tension tightened in my chest and I forced myself to stay calm, breathed deeply, and made each turn count.
After 100m we were past the death ice section and onto good snow alongside a buttress. Below it we skied a long, enjoyable pitch on what must be the highest spine in Europe. We were all working hard – race-pace hard, where you smell the blood in your nose – trying to keep to time, knowing that was the only way to negotiate safe passage through the glaciers below. A short traverse took us into the south-facing Saudan line, a 50 degree couloir that fell away below us for over a thousand metres. Now the exposure had eased, we could relax a little. We enjoyed good, consistent snow all the way down to the lower apron.
We had by now recovered from the cold and took some time to strip off shells and down jackets in preparation for the coming descent. The hanging seracs left of the Benedetti line were very active and as our route through the lower the slabs was right beneath this shooting gallery, we picked up the pace to exit the face over the final bergschrund. I needed to ski swiftly to limit the exposure time, but serac debris slowed us all right down. This old game of Russian Roulette beneath seracs tightened the tension across my chest again. Finally we cleared the face and relaxed.
On paper the principal technical difficulties were over, but we still expected some combat in order to make it down to the Miage. Glacial recession has made it difficult to negotiate the Mont Blanc Glacier to the Miage Glacier so our chosen escape route was to skin to the shoulder above the Quintino Sella hut and then ski the west-facing couloir down to the Dome Glacier. Our timing was perfect and the couloir skied so well we covered the distance in scant minutes. The Dome Glacier had been a big question in our minds but after roping up it only took a few minutes to cross and the weight of uncertainty was lifted, a few hours of effort would get us to the road.During the final walk we were spread out, allowing us to reflect on the day and think about some of the moments we hadn’t had time to digest properly in the heat of the action. Without doubt, it had been one of the most intense days I’d spent in the mountains – incredible situations and high quality skiing. After being in the world of snow, ice and rock all day long, the lush green alpage near Chalet Miage appeared particularly vivid and beautiful.