An early season trip to the gorgeous old Couvercle Refuge coinciding with the full moon and my birthday – as if you need an excuse to go there!
Chamonix guided climbing and skiing IFMGA
Its been a while since I posted on my blog because I’ve been really lucky and had a run of routes in the mountains and not much time at home. Michelle had 10 days off work and timed it perfectly with the arrival of 80 cm of powder. Enrico Mosetti was also visiting from the Julian Alps and I had the pleasure of showing him around the mountains for the week. We had a day on the Midi skiing a Rond and Cosmique with Minna Riihimaki and Dave Searle which got the juices flowing. Usually I ski around 200 runs off the Midi a year but this was only my 6th day on The Mothership – its definitely been a unique season. The next day we could have easily kept hoovering lift access powder off the Midi but I just want to ski in the mountains by this stage of the season so we decided to get some solitude and tour 800 m up to the Col du Capucin. I’d not been there since 2011 and no one had been there this season. At the col I was pretty sure the abseil anchor was on the left and we set about digging down to find it. With no traffic this year the 50 degree couloir had filled in to an extent that I’ve never seen. As I rapped in and sunk up to my chest I regretted not rapping with skis on. The rest was beautiful deep sluffy cold pow and the only issue was avoiding your sluff, certainly my best powder run of the season. Over a beer Elevation in the hot afternoon sun we decided to go East facing the next day – I had a little project that I’d meant to do for a few years that would test our endurance to the max. The plan was to skin up 1200 m to Col Tour Noir Superior at 3690m, ski the 5.2 50/45 degree East Couloir, then skin 700 m up the scorchio South facing slopes to Col du Saleina at 3419m, finishing with the grind up the Saleina Glacier and over Col du Chardonnet at 3223m. The route weighs in at circa 2500m of up, 4000 m of down, a lot of time in the dry air above 3000 m and getting microwaved from the inside out on South facing glaciers in the super hot sun. Enrico didn’t know better and was up for adventure and Michelle didn’t bother checking it out or listening to the numbers so came expecting it to be easy – I was surprised she thought I did easy things! Usually I carry 0.5 litres and decided 2 litres might just be enough. In the end 2.5 would have been ideal but 2 worked. The first climb gets the sun early and I’ve been cooked on this climb before. Fortunately a chilly wind kept us cool and we arrived at the col having not sweated much fluid. Looking down the sunnyside we were pleased to see the couloir was full of snow. We were skiing on sight without any knowledge of conditions over there. After some steep sugar turns, things mellowed out to 45 degrees and we rode the couloir in 2 or 3 pitches on a combination of creamy spring snow and chalky powder. The next skin lived up to all expectations of being hotter than hell and we stripped down to white base layers and just got on with it loosing fluids and salts at a stupid rate. Just before the col Saleina I had to get my swollen feet out my boots as the crushing bone pain was becoming pretty bad. Enrico and myself ran out of water about here. Unfortunately for Michelle, she thought it was a ski down to Cham from here and didn’t take the news too well that we had 2 hours to the next col. I’m sure she is going to heavily scrutinise any of my future plans in minute detail! After force feeding her and with no technicalities left it was pretty easy for an ex-ironman triathlete to rally and get up to Col du Chardonnet. There we were rewarded with golden glow of the late evening sun and soft spring snow down to Lognan where we stepped of our skis after 11 hours. As the spring skiing in the A Neuve Basin had been so good, I decided to do another route there, this time just with Enrico. I’d never skied Passage D’Argentiere so that was the obvious choice with only 1000 m of skinning and the main difficulty being negotiating the large cliff at the base on sight. A quick rap off the col with skis on and we were away skiing soft spring snow in big turns and having a lot of fun. Then Enrico hit a trigger point and a metre deep wet slab ripped out – he did so well to point it out and ride clear – we were still above a large cliff at this point. With our nerves jangling I took a look at a picture of the face to find our exit and we mange to link some ramps out right and get off the face without taking our skis off. The snow turned to shit lower down the mellow glacier, having not frozen the night before It was collapsing under the tails of our skis or sucking at them at different rates. I stopped half way down and turned expecting Enrico to be there, but no sign. After waiting 5 minutes he appeared with blood pissing down his face. In the gloop he had tomhawked and taken the tip of a ski through his mouth – oW! OOOOOOWWWWWW!!!! He just stood there spitting out blood as it filled up in his mouth and shrugged it off with ‘is it beer time?’ Sure is, its past noon now! Somehow Enrico was allowed onto La Fouly’s Terrace bar despite looking like he had killed a wild boar by biting through its Aorta! I could see small upset children running to arms of their parents who had concerned looked. Backwoods Switzerland is pretty conservative and a bearded bloodstained man yielding an ice axe would be treated with caution in most places perhaps with the exception of Fort William. Enrico got cleaned up and amazingly we got served. After a pint (or 2) Michelle came and picked us up and took us home – what a star! For Enrico’s last day I had a long day in mind – a North-South traverse of Les Courtes. Up Cristeaux, along the ridge and down Croullante Couloir. After a 1000 m climb we hit the ridge and a beautiful traverse took us towards the Aiguille Croullante. 1997 was the last time I did this ridge and it was a real pleasure to do it again surrounded my magnificent scenery in all directions. We rapped onto the North Side to traverse below this pinnacle and found some horror show 55 degree sugar ontop of a mixture of black ice and weetabix rock. I couldnt get a pick placement and just teetered on my feet while I pulled the ropes. Getting my backpack (with skis) off and balancing it on my thighs to secure the ropes was probably the hardest manoeuvre I’ve been faced with in the hills. I quickly joined Enrico at the col and we put our skis on the super exposed knife edge separating the Croullante Couloir and the 800 m North Face of Qui Remue. A lassoed spike let us rap over a boulder and after packing the ropes we discussed if we should try make Montenvers in 35 mins or suffer the ball-baggery of walking to Cham. I elected to go for it and 8 mins later we were below the shrund after sending the line on perfect velvet corn. That definitely ranked in my top 5 big mountain ski descents for snow quality. We schussed down the Talefre glacier passing Pierre a Beranger. Slowing only for a rock slide and some slabs (sorry skis) we arrived below Montenevers just in time for the ‘last lift in 5 minutes’ announcement. A sprint up the stairs ensured we got the training effect that we may have missed earlier in the day! What a great day and a perfect finish to a week skiing with Enrico. I’m looking forward to going and visiting him in the Julian Alps next season. The last run that I’ll post here was with Luca Pandolfi and Tom Grant. The plan was to do the South Face of the Dent de Geant, which although I have skied before in pow, would be fun on the corn. Leaving the Helbronner we were met my a bitingly cold North East wind and on the way over we decided things were unlikely to soften at 4000 m. Instead we headed for the ‘Petit’ variation that sneaks onto the face 200 m or so lower. On the ridge the wind continued to howl and we hid behind the rocks, relaxing and laughing while waiting for the snow to soften up. I took my Atris for this freeride face and had a lot of fun arcing out the turns on the creamy corn. Down at the alpages we swapped ski boots for flip flops and strolled down through some of Italy’s prime real estate to Lou’s cafe and tunnel pizza. There was one more hit before the run came to an end, over Mont Dolent. With Andy Nelson we climbed the Charlet and descended the Gallet ridge – I’ll post that next! Heading to the Col CapucinOne rap in, Michelle skiing Me trying to avoid getting sluffed with the sluff train down over the shrundEnrico charging Michelle enjoying the powder under the Capucin The reward for the best pow run of the season Enrico and Myself of Col Tour Noir Superior Enrico blasting down the East Couloir Michelle skiing Me getting my shot in Enrico big mountain wave riding Michelle Enrico about half way downMichelle exiting the couloir Michelle underneath the Gallet Ridge of Dolent (left) which we skied later in the week and the stunningly beautiful North East Face of the Amone on the right which I skied with my good buddy Dave Searle one sick weekend in 2011. Did I mention it was hotter than hell skinning up this South Facing glacier?Final treadmill session was eased by the milky late afternoon light and cooler temperatures. The final wee bootback on Col du Chardonnet, fixed rope handrail Savouring the moment, nearly 8 pm. Ripper corn on the West facing slopes Passage d’Argentiere – Enrico blasting offFreeride down to the big cliff Enrico spitting blood after tomahawking in rotten slop and getting a ski tip in the mouth on flat glacier In the zone!Traverse of the Courtes – up Cristeaux, along the ridge and down Croullante. The 2 Norwegians followed along on our heals the whole way but seemed reluctant to do any work instead letting an old man like me put the booter in. If I was 20 again there’d be no way I’d wait for some old codger. On the Ridge I had not been here since 1997 Enrico contemplating the traverse around the CroullanteOne of the most precarious spots to step onto skis on a knife edge ridge with 800 m Qui Remue behind and 600 m Croullante Couloir below Excited about the perfect conditions on velvetEnrico on the 10 m rapTime to rip – 4 pm and Montenvers last gondola at 435 pm, about 6000 feet and 7 miles to cover.The couloir rode smooth and fast – 8 mins including camera stops! In Elevation by 5 with a hell of a thirst.Next! Sheltering out the wind and waiting for the snow to soften on the South Face of Dent de Geant Beautiful setting. While Waiting for Luca and Tom I skinned over to the top of the Marbree seen behind to pay my respects to Dave Rosenbarger who died in an avalanche there earlier this year. It was the first time I went there this year and an emotional moment to be there on the col. Me enjoying the creamy spring snow with Marbree behind.
Like Mad Dogs and Englishmen we went up to the Couvercle on a still day in the midday sun. Hotter that the Sahara, the relentless sun beat down and we baked and sweated our way up to the hut. We’d been speaking about this trip for a year, and Michelle and myself were joined by close friend Philip Ebert. We hung out ontop of the granite slab that protects the refuge for the rest of the evening soaking up the magnificent scenery in the Talefre basin and contemplating the awesome spring snow descent that was on the menu for the next day.
After a good meal Philip produced a hip flask of Laphroaig (Islay single malt whisky) which was exquisite and topped of a great evening with friends. Early to bed, I was restless and around midnight watched a team of climbers scrabbling round the bergshrund of the Jorasses, probably hampered by lack of a freeze in the mild weather.
At 430 am it was still very mild outside but we headed off in the dark, hoping the snow would be fully frozen up higher on the steep slopes where it mattered. As the sky lightened, Mont Blanc looked like a blood stained blade thrust into heavens and the worry was getting to the col before the sun softened the snow to deep wall paper paste. As we climbed there were areas of sluff polished runnels that provided speedy upward progress, intermixed with breakable crust requiring ten times the effort. Arriving at the col in the mist we all needed a wee moment to chill out and have some food and wait for the sun to come out and transform the icy crust into velvet free ride corn ready for harvesting. As we waited the cloud crept in and thickened until visibility dropped to about 15 feet. Occasionally the cloud lifted sufficiently to peer into the Argentiere basin where cloud at all levels convinced us that it wasnt going to burn off. After an hour and half of waiting and running on the spot to keep warm, there was a glimmer of hope with some brightness over Tour Noir. Michelle then noted some play in her bindings and on inspection she had forgotten to crank the dins up. We only had a screw driver that fitted the sideways release so I was still very worried that the ski could release in the forwards direction. Time to go, hoping a window would come our way and provide some visibility. Starting down it was still misty and I couldn’t determine what the snow was doing for the next turn. I soon encountered very hard snow and used my axe to step back to the col and edge-able snow. Without sun, the snow would stay hard at this altitude and instead of great skiing it was just a case of getting down safely. This time I started down using our boot pack as the visual relief and sidestepped down to the wind lip under the rock below the col. This flat area enabled us to stand and relax the muscles which had been getting pumped stupid holding an edge on the frozen snow. From here the angle was easier and that upbringing on sheet ice at Glenshee proved useful and I made a couple of turns, searching out the roughest snow where edges would hold and the traversed out rightwards into main couloir. Still in the cloud we descended about 500 m in the monochrome white room, eventually popping out into the world of views and colours. Finally below the freezing level we enjoyed creamy snow turns down to the gear stash where we brewed up some coffee and soup before the ski down to town. Back at Elevation we squeezed onto a table with an old lady occupied nursing a glass of wine. Philip and myself gulped down our grand panaches, remembering just in time we were back in civilisation before letting out a massive burp.