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.
France has had one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe behind Italy and Spain so after 8 weeks of not seeing a soul it was great to return to Aiguille du Midi with friends and make that big turn left down the North Face.
Max Ritter of Teton Gravity Research writes:
This weekend marked the re-opening of perhaps the most iconic ski lift in the world: the Aiguille du Midi’s Telepherique in Chamonix, France. Home to unquestionably the gnarliest lift-access terrain in the world, the Midi was closed for most of its prime spring season, leaving local skiers and riders frothing to get back up into the icy heights of the Mont Blanc Massif as soon as possible. Their prayers were answered this past weekend.
None other than steep skiing mastermind Tof Henry and a group of friends made it up there early and skied some classic lines that look like they’re actually still in really good shape for the end of May. Check out what Tof and local IFMGA guide Ross Hewitt got into on their first day back on skis after the COVID-19 lockdown.
For me the last few years have been completely dedicated to skiing, following the snow around the globe in the eternal hunt for powder as the seasons change and clocking up close to 200 days a year. This search has taken me to Patagonia, Chile, Japan, Norway, New Zealand and included 2 major exploratory expeditions to Baffin Island. This has been a phenomenal experience, meeting and making many close friends who share the same obsession and also clocking up 36 first descents in the process. Glen Plake said ‘skiings a life sentence’ and those smooth weightless turns as you float down a mountain amongst a sea of slough is something most of us can’t get enough of. Its always been interesting to see how the rest of the World rank the Brits pretty far down the skiing ratings and since we aren’t an alpine nation its not surprising. Without a heritage of producing big mountain skiers it means that opportunities for funding ski trips are few and far between in comparison say with alpine climbing. Hopefully that will change with time and I live to see some Brits skiing AK in TGR or MSP films. To emphasise that point, I write as I find myself without a clothing sponsor for the first time in five years!
A big thanks goes to my current sponsors for helping me realise many of my dreams and going out their way to help and support me; Black Crows Skis, Scarpa, PLUM fixation, Julbo Eyewear, Birdwhere, Lyon Equipment, Petzl, Lenz Products, Exped, Hydrapak and Davide at Concept Pro Shop Chamonix. Another big thanks goes to Berghaus, Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, Arctic Club and Craig Stenhouse who helped fund the trips.
After so much time feeding the rat its now time for a change in emphasis as I continue with the guides training with a view to being able to share some of these fantastic experiences in the future with clients.
So here is a collection of photographs which reflect the incredible days shared with friends that have a particularly special place in my heart.
Jim Lee slaying Grand Envers in a metre of fresh. Aiguille du Midi
Adam Fabrikant a few turns in to the sunny east face of Mt Darwin, New Zealand. Tom Grant and myself hooked up the amiable Americans Noah Howell, Beau Fredlund Adam Fabrikant and Billy Whass to share a few turns and a lot of laughs while down under.
Michelle Blaydon under biblical skies in Lofoten
Polar Star Couloir looking majestic on the Beluga Spire, right after we skied it. Dubbed ‘The Best Couloir in the World’ by McLean and Barlage, its certainly and icon of lust
Don’t be fooled by the warm evening light, brass monkeys at camped on the sea ice under Beluga Spire. With Michelle Blaydon and Marcus Waring
Morgan Salen skiing to Minna Rihiimaki on the shoulder of Aiguille du Tacul. The snow was so good we skinned up the 45 degree approach couloir.
Bird speed flying over the Frendo serac the same day we skied it
The incredible 1500 m high north facing wall of the 70 km long Gibbs Fiord in Baffin
Marcus Waring with a 1000 m to go, Gibbs Fiord, Baffin
Oli Willet, Tournier Spur entry to Col du Plan
Mika Merikanto, Ross Hewitt and Stephane Dan, Mallory, North Face Aiguille du Midi
Michelle Blaydon in a very deep Bonatti Couloir
Powder Panda getting over caffeinated for Palud lowers
Roger Knox, Arete Plate, Aiguille Rouge
Minna Rihiimaki, in the starting gate, Aiguille du Midi. It has been know for her to pose naked here!
All time conditions on the Para Face. I miss those days.
A first descent on the complex South Face of Mt Darwin, NZ. We took the steep headwall to the spur with a jump through the rocks near the bottom. As usual Tom got over excited and nearly skied off the bottom cliff. Photo credit: Ryan Taylor
Just landed at Tasman hut and we sneaked a quick afternoon shot down the diagonal in the background. A nice wee leg loosener.
Oo-La-La, Bird out of his cage and mind. Frendo Spur, Chamonix.
Tom and myself started the day at Tasman hut about 20 km up glacier beyond the white ice in the background. This gruelling 9 hour torture session is not recommended except for the masochists out there. We didnt have a satphone to call a chopper to the hut and ended up doing this walk twice, being pretty dumb and not learning the mistake first time round.
Argh. Hours in the pain locker. Tasman morraines
Beau Fredlund harvesting perfect corn on Mt Hamilton, New Zealand
After skiing a first descent on Elie de Beaumont, we got stranded in the fog trying to get from a glacier bench to the Tasman. Finally a window appeared and we took this ‘Brenva’ Spur type feature home
Skiing a first descent on Elie de Beaumont’s West Face as cloud threatens from the West. We kept getting bumped off choppers so it was after noon when we got to Tasman hut forcing us to haul ass up Elie for 3 pm corn time. Tom Grant skiing on 45 degree slopes
Mount Cook’s stunning east face illuminated under full moon. This will be one of the modern ski classics of New Zealand
Dawn hits as we start the climb up the east face of Mt Cook
On the East Face of Cook with uniform compact powder. A modern classic in the making
Vivid, rugged and very beautiful – myself taking in the landscape above Mueller and Pukaki
For once the wind wasn’t howling and we were able to enjoy a morning coffee without everything blowing away. Tom and myself at Wyn Irwin Hut
Michelle Blaydon and Marcus Waring at base camp in Gibbs Fiord. This first trip to Baffin was rock n roll style as we travelled fast over hundreds on kilometers using kites, armed with rifles and pump action shot guns for bear protection, and skiing every line that took our fancy
Sheltering from a biting wind a cooking up some hot soup under the magical Great Sail Peak in Stewart Valley of Baffin Island. L-R Michelle Blaydon, Ross Hewitt and Marcus Waring
The hard part of Arctic travel – sled hauling. Luckily good tunes and magnificent scenery provide suitable mind distractions to the 120 kg load
North West Passage, a 1200 m. McLean – Barlage classic. Had to be done
After a massive 10 hour walk out down the Tasman moraines we woke up feeling it and went for extra everything on our cooked breakfasts, washed down by a litre of cappuccino
Michelle Blaydon smiling at the relative warm evening light on the plateau of Scott Island, Baffin. Descending into the fiords is like going into a chest freezer as the temp drops about 30 degrees
We were skiing some sketchy icy section on Tournier Spur when a wooshing noise spooked us. A moment later that speed flyer went through the middle of our group. Scary
Return to base camp after a day new routing on Scott Island. It always amazed me that the tent disappeared from view on flat sea ice once you were over a kilometer away
Exit couloir on the Mallory, Aiguille du Midi. All the stress has gone by this point and all that remains is an easy 50 degree shot to the bar
Marcus Waring in the 1100 m Polar Star Couloir, Baffin Island
The late, great Liz Daley on one of those relaxed Palud days where we gourged on coffee and powder in equal amounts. Always missed, never forgotten
Andy Houseman and Tom Grant on the Mont Mallet Glacier
Myself on another massive Baffin line. This one came in at a hefty 1450 m vertical, 5000 ft
May and a predawn start for the Diable Couloir with Tom Grant. We climbed the icefall, bailed due to the heat and then put plan B into action – skin to the top of Tacul and drop into the Grand Gerva – that saved the day
Tom and Marcus with the 1500 m East Face of Walker Citadel where Superunknown is situated. We were on our way back from Mugs Stump Spire and just chilling in the sun before hauling through the night to Ford Wall
Sunshine and shade as Minna makes those special turns on the North Face of Aiguille di Midi
A first descent on Mugs Stump Spire. We also skied the background left hand line which was 1500 m to the top of Walker Citadel
Cedric Bernardini, Bird, Brett Lotz and myself as the Foehn threatens on Eugster. Cedric’s eyes give away the seriousness of the situation while the visiting Brett is oblivious to the shit storm thats about to happen
Caught in a Foehn storm on Eugster, Aiguilled du Midi. Bernardini and Lotz on the wrong side of the slough trains. One of those days you hopefully regroup at the bar
Polar travelling for free (low calorie expenditure) using kites in Baffin
After a 2 am start from a low camp, Im getting ready for my first turn down the East Face of the Matterhorn at 7 am
Fresh water ice on the isolated Stewart Lake, Stewart Valley, Baffin
Me on good corn on the East Face of the Matterhorn and carrying my SLR camera
Me traversing the Aiguille Verte. We climbed Couturier and descended Whymper. What you cant see is the strong gusty wind that was trying to pluck us off the ridge. At the col we met Nate Wallace and Seth Morrison who had come up Whymper in downhill kit. With the snow staying frozen all they had to say was ‘you are going to struggle in touring kit’
After a month on the ice we arrive cold and damp at Ellington Fiord hut after 10 hours on a komatik sled with 3 hours to go to get back to Clyde River. 2 of our friends are stuck in the fiords after 1 skidoo broke down and the responsibility for their safety as expedition leader weighs heavily on my mind. I’m completed beat after pushing my physical limits beyond the max trying to ski everything and mentally wanting to unwind. Deep in the Arctic rescue options are limited to skidoos
Skiing in grand locations
Ski kiting to the lines was run and saved loads of precious calories. The ramp next to the wing was my favourite line we skied. Big wide open exposed slopes led into a twisting couloir exit
Showing Chipie how to load our 1942 303 enfield in case we get attacked by a bear. A nice light reliable weapon, perfect for skiing
Enrico Mossetti with the slabs of the Droites in the background
After a couple days waiting on weather we get dropped at the Tasman hut for our final hit of the trip, aiming to ski a first descent on the South Face of Mount Darwin. Tom trying to pull me down to his level!
Another monster line in Gibbs Fiord on Baffin. in 2016 we were blessed with regular snow falls providing primo ski conditions. Wading up the lines was hard work!
Playing mini golf above Plateau hut in NZ
Approach to the East Ridge of Cook with her East Face and Tasman’s Syme Ridge behind
Gazing up the Hooker Valley with my ‘rig’. Adventure skiing in NZ is not a light affair once bivi kit and stoves are added to the pack
Late afternoon golden rays on the Mothership in my backyard
The beautiful fan at the start of the Gervasutti. Tom Grant negotiating the cornice
October, preparing for NZ
A late night session to savour the evening light in Crosshairs Couloir in Steward Valley. We had spent the day triple carrying across faceted moraine and finally decided it was time to go skiing to boost moral
The East Face of the Matterhorn after we skied it
Stormy weather in Couloir de la Dent Jaune, Dents du Midi, Switzerland
Michelle Blaydon at the cute Dents du Midi refuge
Nate Wallace in the steep entry to the Grand Gervasutti
Tof Henry in the Col du Plan exit couloir, North Face of Aiguille du Midi
Enrico Mosetti making steep turns on Col de la Verte with the North Face of Les Droites behind
Extreme coffee drinking while sheltering out the wind at the extrance to the 1200 m Mel Gibbs couloir, Gibbs Fiord, Baffin Island
Steep and techy as Enrico Mossetti negotiates the lower ramp off Col de la Verte
Michelle in the approach couloir to Aiguille du Tacul
1100 m of May spring snow in Gibbs Fiord, Baffin. Another first descent.
Summit of Mont Blanc on a frigid day late May as we head off down the Bosses Ridge and prepare to make the big turn left down the 2000 m West Face. Exciting times.
The West Face of Mont Blanc
Tom Grant dropping into the Mont Mallet Diagonal
Happy days. This was my final day in Cham in 2016 before I headed to Baffin Island and I wanted a big day on the Midi but things hung in the balance as the opening time continually got pushed back as they dealt with the overnight snow. When it finally opened mid morning we managed to ski Col du Plan, West Couloir and Salopar.
My team mate and good buddy Enrico Mosetti on the lower ramp of Col de la Verte
Me skiing into the top of Breche Tacul with the North Face of Grandes Jorasses providing the backdrop
Col du Plan in all time conditions
Enrico Mosetti in the Brenva cirque with Col Moore behind while Italy sleeps under a blanket on cloud
The Plan de l’Aiguille at its best. Michelle Blaydon in perfect pow
Skiing on the Saudan route on the West Face of Mont Blanc. The seracs threaten the routes to the right and also the exit of our route focusing the mind on putting some distance between you and the face.
Good snow on the Mallory as Tom drops into the steep couloir off the tower
Stunning days on Lofoten as I get a look down into the line we want to ski
I did a traverse of Les Courtes solo on day from the NE into the South Face. The ridge along the top of the North Face was slabby on one side and corniced on the other so slow going. Plus it was -30C but the skiing was good!
Minna and Bird in the wee Gerva of Tour Ronde on the way to ski the North Face top down
My turns on the Cordier Gabarrou of Les Courtes
Playtime off Plan de l’Aiguille back in the days when it snowed
Johnny Collinson spine riding in Gressoney
Happy days. Mikko Heimonen on the walk out from Mont Blanc’s west face late May
De Masi spine riding Palud lowers
Oli Willet exiting Col du Plan. The shrund was like a catchers mitt
Palud. Deep. Jeremy Bogen
Bird. Midi North Face
Me contemplating the steep rocky, icy section from Tournier Spur into Col du Plan and working out the acceleration on 50 plus degrees before committing to straighlining through the gap
Flat light storm days in Lofoten confined us to couloirs but I wasn’t complaining
On the Mallory with Tom below
Tom Grant on the Mont Mallet glacier
Maybe a thing of the past. Deep days on the Plan with no one
Late at night. Michelle Blaydon in Crosshairs Couloir, Stewart Valley, Baffin
Michelle taking it all in, Lofoten
Minna Riihimaki checking out conditions before we commit to skiing the North Face
Michelle on the volcano Llaima
Dave Searle learning the steep game and making tentative turns on Col des Courtes in his first skimo season back in 2011
Bird slaying it on the North Face of the Midi
Me high on the West Face of Mont Blanc
The Frey Hut and its superb backyard, Bariloche, Argentina
Sunset from the Cosmiques hut as we prepare to go to the Brenva Spur
Minna, Michelle and Cedric in Lofoten
The road to Lanin, Argentina
More than a lifetime of exploration back there in New Zealand
Me amongst the granite spires of the Frey area, Bariloche
Andy Houseman on the Mallet Diagonal
Final rays at sundown on the Midi
Searching out the entrance of Couloir de la Perche with the Griaz Glacier behind
Tomasso Cardelli in the Vallencent
Si Christy chest deep in what was dubbed Clit Route due to the topography. Photo Chipie Windross. Probably the shot of the trip for me
On the easy ground of the Miage after crossing the chaotic glacier behind on our way down from skiing Mont Blanc’s West Face
On stove duty at 5 am in Gibbs Fiord. I needed an early start to catch the sun on the 1300 m Canton Couloir before it refroze.
The perfect backdrop as Searle drops in off Tour Ronde
On the Brenva Spur with a snow lynx track on the crest. I hope it enjoyed it as much as us
Perfect snow in this Baffin masterpiece allowing me to ski in front of the slough
Bouldering at Castle Hill after 3 weeks in the Cook Range skiing
Griffin Post riding pillows in Gressoney
Going for a flyby of the Caroline Face to check conditions
Gotta have a Midi North Face bin shot somewhere in your collection. Bird waiting for his hangover to clear.
Summit of Lanin with Michelle in volcano country of South America
Seth Morrison opening Col d’Entreves
Tom Grant in the Fransson line, Footstool. We used this to stretch our legs after several days travelling and get a feel for the snowpack. What you cant see is the severe gale force winds that are a big feature of NZ skiing.
Michelle Blaydon lining up to pass through the choke on this first descent in Lofoten
Dawn on the Midi
On a fly past the South Face of Darwin. This was the closest look we got of it before deciding it was a goer.
A cheaky ice bulge guarded the entrance to this 500 m virgin couloir in Lofoten. Well worth taking a second tool for making it all to easy.
Aperol spritzers at one of my favourite bars in the world, Riva del Garda, Lake Garda Italy.
Sylvain Renaud in Couloir Cache leading into the Brenva Cirque
Luca Pandolfi, Col d’Entreves
Me on the aesthetic Tacul shoulder
Si Christy heading off on a 1200m shot to the fiord in Baffin
Michelle Blaydon en route to Marbree one blustery day
De Masi looking for something to make the Toula more interesting
A psyched team of Evan Cameron, Chipie Windross and Si Christy doing a final repack of food into week bags before heading into the Baffin Fiords. Somehow Evan persuaded Chipie to swap out the normal sausage for ‘damn hot’ sausages which our guts weren’t that enamoured with and often had us sprinting across the fiord to drop our trousers
Me enjoying perfect conditions on the Tacul shoulder
Sunshine powder days on the Toula with Davide de Masi
My best buddy from school days, Paul van Lamsveerde, on a late afternoon down Cosmiques and spooky avi conditions on the Para face. Paul passed away in a crevasse fall on Grands Montets in 2013
Full moon silhouette of the Chamonix Aiguilles
The Merlet trail with its stunning backdrop
The Brits getting stuck into Digital Crack
When Brevent is good, its simply the best. Michelle Blaydon about to drop
Camp 2 in Gibbs Fiord. The couloir centre picture ran 1000 m to a col behind the tower
The rock spires and couloirs of Gibbs Fiord, Baffin
The Frendo Spur right after we skied it by the Hausseman Boulevard variation
A very happy team of Pandolfi, Briggs, Rihiimaki, Bird, Hewitt after skiing the Frendo in AK snow conditions
Skiing miles of white ice on the Tasman to avoid carrying any more weight on my back
Sundown behind the prelimary points on the Dent de Requin after a dawn to dusk day
Jim Lee, Roger Knox and Yann Rousset wading to Grands Envers on a rare day the Kuros found deep
Jackpot. 1200 m of boot deep powder on day 1 in Baffin. Si Christy skiing with Chipie above
Emerald waters in the Arctic waters of Lofoten
Deep. Jim Lee with overhead blower skiing towards Roger Knox on Grands Envers.
We got lucky with clear skies on several nights to watch the Lofoten light show
Another one from Mont Mallet
Norway and the beautiful bay that surrounds the Lofoten Ski Lodge
A tired and happy crew after a 15 hour day skiing the West Face of Mont Blanc. L-R Ross Hewitt, Mikko Heimonen and Jesper Petersson
A rare opportunity to sit outside Wyn Irwin hut on windless morning. Sefton and Footstool behind.
Big Country under the Dent de Geant seracs after skiing Mallet diagonal
Sunrise hits Aiguille du Midi while we climb Mont Blanc for the West Face
Tom Grant harvesting corn on the Brenva Spur lowers with Col Moore behind.
5 am start in Gibbs Fiord to go corn skiing in a sunny line
Our camper van in NZ packed to the brim with those amazing green Navis skis under the bed. Luckily Tom is pocket sized which left plenty of space for me to stretch out.
Enrico Mosetti above the arete on the Brenva Spur
Dolomite days with Minna Riihimaki and Christian Dallapozza on the Cristallo as we decided to head to the Vallencent Couloir
Dawn catches us on Col de la Fourche en route to ski the Brenva Spur
Quite possibly my all time favourite run as a ski mountaineer on the West Face of Mont Blanc
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?