Summer Continues

Best ride of the summer, 9-5.30pm for over 6000m vertical descent

Summer has been in full swing for the past eight weeks and has definitely been the hottest I’ve ever seen it so early in the year: 30-35 degrees every single day from the end of June onwards and not a drop of rain until quite recently.  Luckily the lifts have all been running and I’ve been getting some excellent days in all of my usual spots but I know what I like now and big singletrack descents off the back side of Le Tour have consistently put the biggest smile on my face even if conditions have been a little looser than ideal.

Maybe it’s my new bike, improved fitness or riding clipped-in all the time, but something has really clicked with my riding this summer and I’ve never felt so confident and fluid on the trails.  I have never focused on speed, more on riding smooth and clean, but I do find myself naturally riding faster recently and feeling the elusive “flow state” stronger than I think I ever have on skis, feeling intense concentration of what I’m doing but at the same time feeling effortlessly in control and performing at my best.

A special moment halfway through July was riding one of the most technical trails in the whole valley non-stop and completely clean, something I have been wanting to do for over two years.  I’m not a big one for focusing on a “sense of accomplishment” but managing this really felt amazing; I’m glad Simon was with me to share the moment and capture the photo at the bottom.

And maybe my best day biking of all time was just a few days later, taking five descent variations off the back of Le Tour and a long technical route home; easily over 6000m vertical descent with lots of uphills in between.  9-5.30pm door-to-door on just half a bag of Haribo and plenty of water.  I can understand how endurance athletes do it now; I was enjoying it all far too much to even notice any fatigue.  That said, I couldn’t quite walk properly the next day.

I’m so glad to have found mountain biking as my summer sport, and while skiing will always be my first love there is something special about biking too.  My old housemate Rob put it best last winter while we were trying to explain biking to another friend: nothing can beat the very best ski days but the average biking day is better than the average ski day.  There are maybe 5-10 “all time” ski days per winter but lots of “just OK” or not-so-good ones too, but almost all biking days are amazing fun and far less dependent upon the weather or trail conditions.

Wrist not broken, just sprained & bruised

Unfortunately I took a nasty fall a couple weeks ago and have done some damage to my wrist.  Even though I was feeling my most confident ever and hadn’t had any real falls all summer I was aware that I couldn’t get over-confident or push things too hard.  But at the end of a long day Sandy and I decided to take the most technical route home from above Lavancher, even though we were pretty tired, and my front wheel got stuck in a hole on a steep section of very chunky rocks.  I was more concerned about my head, neck and bike as I dusted myself off but as soon as I got back on the bike I was pretty sure that my wrist was broken.

A very relaxed doctor told me “Not broken, we don’t need to x-ray” that night which was a relief to hear but over the next week things got more painful, so a return visit for an x-ray was the sensible thing to do.  Thankfully nothing showed up, so just a bad sprain.  It’s two and a half weeks later now, very frustrating not to be riding but these things happen and I’m thankful that this is my most serious injury (summer of winter) since 2006 and even that was only a torn thumb ligament.

Hopefully another week’s rest will be enough to get my back on the bike, taking it easy and wearing my new semi-rigid splint, but I know that I need to be sensible and listen to my body.  In the meantime there has been plenty of transfer driving work for me, lining up a bit of web design work for the autumn, taking a few batch orders of beanies for Boax Clothing and of course giving my bike some care and attention to get it riding sweet for whenever I am ready.  Town is slowly getting busier now but as long as I am fit to ride in September when things die down I’ll be happy, maybe even in time to get some long-overdue return trips to my favourite spots in Italy.  Let’s wait and see.

Summer Begins

Lorne: High alpine singletrack, Mont Blanc Massif in the background

It’s six weeks since I last skied and winter seems a distant memory already as I’m fully into my summer routine and loving the early season as much as ever, especially with a new bike built up from a mix of old and new parts which I’m liking even more than I expected.

My ride for the summer

With no lifts open yet it’s all been foot and pedal power so far, mainly to access the areas we rarely ride once lifts are open and also to explore a few new ones which have given mixed results but as always that’s just the way things go.

Some lifts are opening this weekend in the Chamonix valley and further afield, and everything will be fully up and running by the end of the month.  The next few weeks are always some of my favourite of the whole year with everything set up for us, good weather and low tourist crowds so I’ll be making the most of them before things get a bit busier.

It’s All Over

Lorne: Finding a nice little line off a classic ski tour descent (Aiguilles Rouges, 12th February)

My winter is well and truly over now, after more biking than skiing in the final two weeks of lifts, and since returning from a quick trip to Glasgow with my new mountain bike last week I’ve been fully in summer mode.

Looking back on the winter it definitely couldn’t be called a “good” snow year; although I started earlier than ever before, things didn’t really get going properly until late-January.  I skied less this year than I have in a long time but the longer I live in the Chamonix valley the easier it is to make the most of whatever conditions are thrown at us so this winter still gave some of the most fun and memorable days on the mountain I’ve ever had.

A bit of a disjointed group of friends made forming groups a little tricky at times but it was really good to share some of the best days with Alex on a well-timed break from work, introduce Martin to Chamonix on his first full winter here and get some long-overdue days on the mountain with my old housemate Rob on his break from Whistler life.

Let’s hope next winter provides us with more snow and safer conditions, but for now I have some sunny alpine singletrack to enjoy on the bike!

Alex: Accessing the goods (Brevent, 28th January)

Lorne: One of my most memorable descents of the winter (Col d’Argentiere, 18th February)

Graham: Lunchtime powder laps (Plan de l’Aiguille, 25th February)

Col du Plan

Lorne: Tight & steep but feeling good in the couloir (photo: Ben Tibbetts)

Location: Aiguille du Midi
Snow: Mostly 20-25cm powder, some thinner scratchy sections
Weather: Hazy cloud

I’ve been fairly vocal of my lack of interest in skiing any of the trophy lines on the high-consequence terrain of the Aiguille du Midi’s north face since finding my feet in Chamonix (see this Camptocamp climbing guide for an idea) …but also known to sometimes say one thing and do another.  So when Rob suggested skiing the “tamest” route of the Col du Plan last night, combined with very good conditions reports from the west face yesterday, he was surprised to hear that I was keen but happy that I would be along for the ride, in the end joined by locals Tom Grant and Ben Tibbetts.

From a 9am delayed first bin we dropped into the north face off the arete (my first time) for a couple of boot-top powder turns before skipping across the ropes to follow the arete on the south side.  We had planned to ski the Tournier Spur entrance (the first straight section of the blue line in the guide above, then cutting across to join the green line) so headed round to the beginning of the first pitch of Grand Envers to look into the north face and find yesterday’s tracks fully covered in new snow.  Dropping in earlier may have given a better first descent but we got in cautiously for a couple of turns on scratchy snow then good powder trending skier’s-right, with Tom leading the way as the only one of us to have skied the route before or anything on the north face for that matter.

The next pitch had a very steep entrance on firm neve & ice so Ben set up a quick tails-in anchor for Tom to check things out on the rope.  Not too bad for the rest of us to sidestep down, axes out, especially for me at the back with some slight steps forming.  Below, a steep & wide face for us to link some good long turns down; excellent stuff.

A narrow couloir must be taken to exit the route (where the green lines rejoin on the guide above), with a short fixed rope currently in place to lead down to the first anchor which I just hand-held while sideslipping.  We had brought two 60m ropes but a local who caught up behind us advised to take two separate 30m abseils as long ropes could jam easily while pulling them out.  It was now that I realised that I hadn’t brought my belay device, so time to try an Italian hitch for real for the first time.  Not the best place to learn but there was a lot more friction than I’d imagined so it wasn’t a big deal, although I’ll still pack my belay device in the future when I know there will definitely be some ropework on the cards.

In the couloir things were tight and steep but with very nice, soft, grippy snow to link jump turns down most of the way with a bit of sideslipping required when things got tight around a nasty firm runnel of snow.  The 7m rock & ice drop at the end could surely be skied in good conditions, but up here why risk it?  We spotted one anchor on the right wall a while before the drop but couldn’t find the closer one (quickly uncovered by the guy behind us just higher than where I started looking) so 60m ropes from the higher one got us down fine.

Below, the best skiing of the day on mellower slopes (still a good 45 degrees) with smooth boot-top powder and the exposure of the terrain above gone.  Back at midstation for about 12.30pm for a well-deserved beer.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little apprehensive heading into today but I’m very happy that I felt comfortable all the way down and didn’t let the exposure of the terrain get to me.  Does this mean I’ll be eyeing up the Mallory route sometime?  Almost certainly not, but never say never.  Maybe it’s the fact that I was skiing with fresh legs today rather than after a 4-5 hour ski tour, and certainly due to the excellent snow conditions, but today was a really fun day that I would absolutely repeat.  As fun as a 40cm bluebird powder day tree skiing at a small Swiss resort?  No way, but today has broadened my taste a little for what I’m looking to ski.  Definitely a day to remember; big thanks to Rob, Tom and Ben.

Check out Ben’s account of the day with more great photos in his own blog post.

Sadly I seem to have left my ice axe, signed by Glen Plake, somewhere in the couloir entrance (marked “LORNE, THINK SNOW”).  Probably at the second anchor but possibly at the bottom.  Chamonix community: I’m hoping you can help reunite us!

This will probably be my last ski day of the winter, with poor weather rolling back in tomorrow, a week in Glasgow on Monday, and a new bike to ride when I get back.  Maybe the perfect day to end on though!

Not Too Good

Rob: Battling with the snow off the back side of Grands Montets

Location: Grands Montets
Snow: Variable
Weather: Sun & cloud

I wasn’t going to ski today, but things were brighter than expected this morning so why not?

Just one big lap off the top of Grands Montets in the end as the snow was generally pretty poor; just 5-10cm of new snow wasn’t enough to freshen up the refrozen bumps.  A bit lower things were skiing a bit nicer where it was smoother, but still a bit grabby and hard work on the windpacked snow.  So home on Pierre à Ric; now “closed” so not pisted but it was the best skiing of the day through slushy bumps and just a bit of walking required.

Graham: OK snow where it was a bit smoother

Things are definitely winding down for my winter and I’m more excited about building my new bike for the summer ahead than anything else at the moment, but still nice to get out for a quick ski like this today.

Graham: Slushy/bumpy/rocky on the home run

Spring Laps

Spencer: Slash

Location: Grands Montets
Snow: Soft/slushy
Weather: Bluebird, hot

More hot & sunny weather has settled over the valley this week, and although I’ve been more motivated to get out on my bike than to go touring lately I couldn’t say no to some springtime laps on Grands Montets this lunchtime.

Crowds are still low thanks to the later-than-usual French holidays and generally low snow year, so plenty space up there today and no queues for any lifts.  Off piste was skiing OK in good spring snow but mostly quite bumpy, but the pistes were in prime condition with a lot of lips forming at the sides for some fun little airs and gaps.

More storms are due to arrive on Friday-Monday and Wednesday-Friday (currently) so we’ll get a decent top-up of snow up high but I really hope we get some good weather too to finish the winter off nicely.

Nice One

Andy, Graham, Sandy, Rob: OK snow far skier's-left off the back of Grands Montets

Location: Grands Montets
Snow: Mostly crunchy bumps off piste, mostly soft/slushy on piste
Weather: Sun & cloud

Not much skiing for a few days while dreich weather invaded the valley over the weekend.  Back to classic spring conditions today for some easy Grands Montets laps from 12-2.30pm.

Pistes off Bochard were skiing really nicely; soft with lots of lips to find at the sides, and good smooth spring snow off piste in the smoother sections.  Off the top, much crunchier and bumpier; too much work for me today so I stuck to more Bochard pistes, then a very fun & slushy Pierre à Ric run home.  Not too busy anywhere on the mountain today either; more of this for the next two weeks please!

Couple Of Laps

Lorne: Picking through rocks off Floria (no camera today, phone pic will have to do)

Location: Flegere
Snow: Heavy spring snow
Weather: Overcast then snowing

Just a quick lunchtime ski around Flegere today before the weather really comes in over the weekend, and just a couple of big laps off Floria as it turned out.  Off piste snow was pretty heavy but spotting the smoother sections was the way to go again for some nice turns, and some fun little lines weaving between rocks.

By 1pm the sleet/snow had started pretty heavily and most lifts were due to close at 1pm so two runs was enough.  Probably my last ski on Flegere this winter ahead of full closure on Sunday.

Springtime On The Midi

Rob, Bouch: Heading towards Grand Envers from the Midi Arete

Location: Aiguille du Midi
Snow: Mostly soft, deep spring snow; heavy low down
Weather: Hazy cloud

A nice lazy start today for a 1pm Midi lap, heading down the Grand Envers for my first time in two years.

Most of the lift traffic was sightseers so we only saw two other skiers on our main descent, nice and relaxed.  The snow started off as decent chalky snow for the first pitch, softening to nice spring snow in the middle and getting pretty heavy low down, but finding the smoother sections let us get some good speed up for nice long turns.

Another t-shirt Mer de Glace exit got us home via Montenvers, then beers at La Terrasse to make the most of the late-afternoon sun.  I love springtime.

Rob, Bouch: Mer de Glace exit beside the glacial stream

Hot Tour

Rob: Taking in the views towards the Mont Blanc Massif from Col de Beaugeant

Location: Aiguilles Rouges
Snow: Firm & choppy in the shade, spring snow in the sun, very heavy low down
Weather: Bluebird, very hot

A change of plans midway through today’s tour but we still ended up with a really fun descent in good spring snow and hot temperatures.

We had planned to ski a new route to us, the NE Couloir of the Aiguille de l’Encrenaz, so headed up Flegere from the first bin and around to Lac Blanc …where Rob remembered he had forgotten to pack his rope (2x30m ropes required for the abseil midway down the couloir).  Not a disaster though (besides me carrying my rope for no reason) as we headed to Col de Beaugeant instead and would make a decision there for either the normal descent to the Berard Valley or Col de l’Encrenaz to Le Buet or Col des Montets.

A pretty easy but very warm 1h30 skin got us to the final climb which was the driest I’ve ever seen it; no crampons or axes required.  The ski entrance was holding nice soft snow but putting skis on would be tricky so we took the 10-15m fixed rope abseil.  The bottom of the rope is buried making the rope quite tight so I just downclimbed while holding the rope and Rob and Kev abseiled properly.

Off the back the snow was pretty nasty, tracked, firm and choppy so we decided to head to Col de l’Encrenaz to find the same spring snow as our ascent route.  Not too tracked at all on the descent, starting with firm spring snow, getting perfect in the middle with lots of space for big turns, then very heavy at the bottom.  Sticking left of the main gully was the right decision, as the snow at the bottom was deep, heavy and unstable from what feels like the warmest day for the year so far.  I left my gloves, goggles beanie off for the whole descent and probably could have done without my jacket too!

A quick walk to Col des Montets then an easy hitch-hike back to town finished things off nicely.

This is the second time I’ve skied this route, and also the second time in spring snow, but I’ll definitely be returning for a mid-winter descent sometime; it’s a fun one.

  • Lorne Cameron: Chamonix Ski Blog

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