Chamonix 2018 went down as one of those all time seasons. Sometimes when you in the midst of it all skiing routes and planning the next one, there is so little time to see just how good it was. But putting these clips toegther made me realise how lucky we were. Even more so because in the preseason and about to depart for New Zealand’s Caroline Face, I got injured with a sequestrated L5-S1. Hobbling around Cham in mortal agony with a paralysed sciatic nerve that caused my glutes and calf muscles to wither and die, a successful ski season with around 15 North Face runs seemed a very unrealistic goal. Thanks to all those obsessive ski bums who I shared those turns with, those that sacrifice it all, coming from round the World, to ski down Chamonix’s big mountains.
Its been a while since I posted a blog and thats mainly because after a few dry years it started snowing in Europe early December and kept snowing until the end of May. That meant it was a pretty full on 6 months with very little time to put ‘pen to paper’ so to speak.
I started the winter with a herniated L5-S1 disc which caused muscle wastage, power and recruitment speed in my leg. For example if I tried to stand on my tip toes my left leg would sink until my heal was on the floor. Thanks to the Osteo/Pro-runner Carlton Rowlands I mannaged a fast comeback. The recovery went from the lows of skiing down the Midi arete in December and taking my skis off midway, unable to handle the vibration without nerve pinching and having uncontrolled leg movement, to basically doing my stuff and not holding back.
Mid winter also included 2 months of ski guiding and the IFMGA ski guides test which I am happy to report went smoothly for me. 3 exams down and all thats left is the final alpine test this August which I’m now fully focused on.
With a lot of my ski partners injured or retired, I did a lot of solo missions and decided to leave my camera at home and take the gopro out for a change to capture a few of my powder turns. I’m a very impatient person so taking time to make good edits while getting ready to go out the following day is not my strong point but it gives a flavour of how good the skiing in Europe was this year. These are all edits from the high mountain and arguable the most fun skiing was in the trees early December with an incredible base over the spines and ridges before the Christmas and January rain.
Here’s a few of the memorable days:
Col de la Verte with Drew Tabke
Mallory with Tof Henry, Arthur Ghilini, Nate Wallace and Chris
Mallory with Tof Henry, Jacob Wester and Babs Charlet
Pain de Sucre with Dave Searle and Guillaume Mars
Midi North Face – Col du Plan with Jacob Wester, Bird Early and Andre Dalkarl
Midi North Face – Col du Plan with Miilet de Papy
West Couloir, Aiguille du Midi with Miilet de Papy
Oreilles de Lapin with Michelle Blaydon
Cosmiques Couloir with Jesper Petersson
Rocco with Tof Henry, Benjamin Carvallo, Raimundo de Andraca, Galo Viguera
Rond with Tof Henry, Benjamin Carvallo, Raimundo de Andraca, Galo Viguera
Para Face with Cedric Bernardini, Luca Martini, Jamie
Cosmiques Couloir with Jacob Wester, Andre Dalkarl and Michelle Blaydon
Droites SW Face, solo from first lift on Aiguille du Midi, -30C morning!
Cosmiques Couloir with Michelle Blaydon
Oreilles de Lapin with Erik Wallner
Aiguille de Mesure NE Face, Aiguilles Rouges, solo
Solo skiing from the bend of Couturier in flat light as the cloud rolled in, then an afternoon sun run on Z de Papy the same day
Early February powder run on Col de la Verte from where it got rocky mid height
Solo run finding the complex line on Z de Papy
Skyway, Rond and Para Face with Jesper Petersson and Guillaume Mars
Solo training on the an icy Rond early season with a loaded arete
South Face of Tour Ronde into Brenva Glacier before Christmas with Michelle Blaydon and Morgan Sahlen
Col des Courtes with Tof Henry and Andre Darlkarl
Shoulder of Aiguille du Tacul with Michelle Blaydon, probably the best top to bottom snow quality I’ve ever come across
Pre-Christmas Couloir Cache into the Brenva Glacier with Tom Coney
A solo mission hitching through to Skyway, under the cables, Marbree and then back to Chamonix via the Valley Blanche. Marbree was so sick until I hit a rock and broke my 2 day old ski under the foot. It happened to be my left leg that took the shock which was recovering from the disc herniation onto the sciatic nerve route for that leg. After more than a little worry I’d suffer a setback, I woke up fine the next day. Lucky, very lucky.
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.
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
This is the first in a series of five weekly articles which discuss my 5 favourite places to ski in the world.
I was recently asked what my 5 favourite ski lines were. Thats a toughie. What makes a line great? The difficulty, the aesthetics of the line, the quality of the snow, skiability, or the overall experience you had on it? Some of the lines we skied in Alaska sure were fast, furious and a heap of fun but then I didn’t always earn those turns benefiting from the aid of a heli. Does that make a difference? Not really, its the same as any lift but for this article I have excluded Alaska as my experiences there in the Chugach, Heneys and Alaska range are a decade out of date. Why havent’t I been back to the velvet snow there??
The line has to be aesthetic, that goes without saying, and off the big mountain. It also has to have high skiability. What I mean by that is low reliance on abseils and maximum focus on skiing. Skiing is all about the sensation of turning, the control of the acceleration as gravity assists your descent and the flow state your mind can enter. Skiability generally is inversely proportional to difficulty. For example, a popular Chamonix test piece like the Mallory under the Midi cables is psychologically and technically challenging, but its also rocky and I’ve seen teams do as many as 9 abseils in poor conditions breaking the fluidity of a ski descent. I avoid getting caught up in that climbers game of chasing grades and go ski where the good snow is. Good snow can make a hard route ski well and easy, while poor conditions may mean you have the most harrowing marginal experience of your life leaving you burning a lot of hard earned cash at the bar afterwards to recover from the mental trauma. Aside from the snow, the overall experience I have on a route is heavily influenced by the people I share the experience with. So the ultimate line for me is the aesthetic one off that huge peak, which no reliance on abseils, great snow and a bunch of good friends to share the ride with.
Choosing 5 of the best lines has been so difficult so I finally settled upon selecting 5 of the must ski mountaineering areas of the World. There are all different, unique, and utterly brilliant in their own ways, varying from adventure skiing in the coldest, remotest area of the world where bringing an Everest down suit and a high tolerance for suffering is mandatory, to the more relaxed and accessible ski touring opportunities and fine dining that Lofoten Ski Lodge offers with everything else there is in between. The skiing isn’t restricted to the northern hemisphere either, every skier needs something to do when summer round and the quest for powder may take you to the other side of the planet. There is something for everyone here and hopefully a few things that might inspire of create ideas for future trips. I grew up reading book’s like Paul Pritchard’s ‘Deep Play’ or Chris Bonnington’s ‘Quest for Adventure’. I never imagined in my wildest dreams of ever going to Baffin, let alone to ski first descents there, or end up having Chris Bonnington as a Berghaus team mate!
So this is the first in a series of five weekly articles which discuss my 5 favourite places to ski in the world.
No. 1 .The Northern Hemisphere – Lofoten Islands, Artic Norway.
The magical archipelago of the Lofoten islands is located at 68° north on the western seaboard of Norway. Despite being in the Arctic Circle, the presence of the Gulf Stream keeps the Arctic weather at bay and instead one should expect temperatures more akin to those found in Scotland and since its west coast means there is a lot of preceip or snow. We headed up there in mid March to benefit from colder snow and dark nights in which to view the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. There are many options for accommodation and we elected to stay at the beautiful Lofoten Ski Lodge that is run by the charming couple of Maren Eek Bistrup and IFMGA guide Seth Hobby. They provide a fantastic homely relaxed atmosphere that allows you to completely unwind and adjust to the natural rhythm of the days in the far north. Starting the day with a full breakfast, Seth then gives you the beta on the best places to ski or sorts you out with a guide, go skiing in some marvellous places, before coming back to the lodge for afternoon tea and waffles and then relaxing in the sauna with occasional paddle in the fiord to cool down. Then its time for a beer, an excellent diner, and finally marvelling at the northern lights to end the evening. Despite being in the Arctic Circle Lofoten is well served by good net work of roads and served by several airports at Bodo, Evenes, Svolvaer , or Leknes. Just pick up a car and go ski where you want!
Every clear night we were treated to a light show outside Lofoten Ski Lodge
Michelle eyeing up potential ski lines and just taking in the beauty of it all
Geitgalien’s classic south west couloir. We skied the snaking line to the right
A small ice bulge blocks my way to a 500 m first descent
Minna Riihimaki and Michelle Blaydon in gorgeous afternoon light
Minna, Cedric and Michelle high on Geitgalien’s normal route
Checking out the stunning view from Breitinden
Ross Hewitt opening a new line on Nilsvikteinden
Michelle Blaydon slaying the pow on Geitgalien under a moody sky
Cod fishing is the main industry in Lofoten. Once the heads are dried they are ground into fish stock
Even the lampshades are made from cod!
The idyllic setting for the Lofoten Ski Lodge
Emerald waters and white sandy beaches with a backdrop of snowy mountains
Michelle trying to slime me with some giant seaweed
Surfers enjoying the swell at Unstad beach on a cold, dark day