The Skyway area with its 1500 m high faces stretching from Tour Ronde to the Grandes Jorasses is locally referred to as the Wild Side. Yesterday with strong wind it was living up to its reputation as we opened the Marbree Couloir and the shoulder of Aiguille d’Entreves.
Boy have we been lucky with snow conditions. After a 3 day storm I went to Skyway with the dream team of Dave Searle and Tom Grant to see what had happened. 1-2 m accumulations were expected and were found, but after a couple of ski cuts nothing avalanched and we got on with hoovering as much powder as possible with each of our ten 1200 m runs. Here’s the goods:
Fantastic day with Dave Searle, Griffin Post, Mikey Arnold, Thor Husted, Miles Smart, Gilles Sierro, and Hans Solmssen.
The Toula Glacier at Skyway is already super well filled in and I’m ready to guide clients there. The staircase has been extended this year all the way down to the glacier making access a dream. This is one of the all time classic off piste runs in the area where you can ski powder in the sun during the colder months of December, January and February. Combined with some laps of Youla or Arp at Courmayeur and fantastic Italian cuisine and you have the perfect day.
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.