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!
With the South Faces loaded up well this winter, the South Face of the Aiguille du Moine came into once in ten year conditions and saw its third descent by the Italian team (http://www.planetmountain.com/english/News/shownews1.lasso?l=2&keyid=39218#). Made legendary by Jean Marc Boivin’s first descent in 1987 during his heli ski enchainment of the Moine, Petit Dru, Whymper, NNE Les Courtes and South side of the Grandes Jorasses (video from 5.56), this face had previously only been repeated by Jerome Ruby and Dede Rhem.
In the original film the slabby face was seen well covered by snow, while this year many rocks were showing although with a skiable line until 30 m from the base. With April temperatures due, Wednesday could be the last day the route held together before the thermo-nuclear sun caused the snow to slip off the slabs.
I arranged to meet Luca at the midi to go up and missed the lift when my car got stuck in icy ruts in the carpark. Half an hour of chopping with an ice axe and a push from 4 people got the car into a parking space and I joined Luca in the VB. Arriving at the hut I toured over under the face and could see a skiable line still there albeit a tight steep crux section threading rocks into the link couloir and what looked a slight upward traverse to reach the lower face. Here I discovered I had left my SD card in my computer so any photos would be on my phone. Ben Briggs came up to join us and after a meal we were early to bed for a pre-dawn start.
I woke up suddenly at 1 am with my lower back in spasm and spent the next few hours unable to get comfortable. Probably a result of skiing through hard moguls in the Geant ice fall with a heavy rucksac and getting jarred. During this period I realised that if my back hadnt released by the summit,I wouldn’t be in a position to ski, and the snow would be unsafe to downclimb and I’d be stuck there. As it was this type of route required everything to go well for me it, didnt feel right to go. I ate breakfast with the guys and ten minutes after they left almost went to catch them up. Serious fomo but alot of nerves too. I’m not that keen on rocky routes preferring steep snow that enables smoooth flowy linked turns. I’ve also realised that getting old I’ve done so much off this that it doesnt make that much difference whether I go or not but I do want to ski good snow to get those sweet sensations. As a younger man I’d ski just for the sake of doing it. The sense of achievement from doing it is momentary these days before I start thinking of the next hit. After another hour’s sleep I got up and went to see how the boys were getting on. Seeing them only half way up the face again spured the thought of catching them up and guessed progress had been slow due to underlying facets.
The descent went smoothly and quickly for the boys with Ben leading and getting down to the step at the bottom quickly. The flake the Italians had abseiled off a few days before had melted out and Ben placed two pegs I had brought to rap onto the exit ramp.
The boys joined me at the hut and chilled in the sun after a nervy descent. Luca was keen to stay up another day while I had had enough sitting round and being restless was thinking of a day hit the next day. Persuaded to stay up for the Croullant we passed the afternoon at the hut talking, eating and drinking and avoiding the fierce alpine sun. You could have fried an egg on the aluminium flashing on the hut.
An early night and up at 2 am. A short way from the hut Luca realised he couldn’t make it on foot due to the breakable crust. I didnt want to go into a couloir on my own with day temps so high so decided to go back to Col des Dourtes and ski it on spring snow. Dumping all my kit on the morraine I was alot quicker than expected on the 1100 m ascent and arrived at the col at 7 am where the wind was blowing lightly. The sun had just risen above mountains at the head of the Argentiere basin and sitting on the ridge the dawn rays stopped my nose freezing. It was going to be a long wait for the snow to soften and I had to dodge around the col to avoid the shadow from the Tour des Courtes as the sun moved around. As it got warmed I was able to curl up on a rocky ledge and cat nap, occasionally studying the mountains as the play of dawn light revealed certain features that had previously gone unnoticed.
At 1015 the snow looked good and I started down, unlike the scratchy ice a week before, the snow was now smooth velvet enabling fast drift turns and within 10 minutes I was back at my gear dump on the morraine and an hour later in Chamonix.
Luca and Ben chilling out after their descent of the Moine.
Col des Droites and Les Courtes
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.