Col des Cristaux ascent

Location: Argentiere Basin
Snow: Mostly soft and deep
Weather: Bluebird

Very tired legs today; maybe stretching is a good idea after all.  Something in the Argentiere Basin was the plan and I was pretty sure I would bail but thought I’d go out for a bit of a skin anyway and maybe part way up a route.

Off early lifts we took a very high line down to the glacier to save a bit of height.  The Courtes NE, Qui Remue and other routes had a lot of traffic on them already but the Col des Courtes and Cristaux at the end of the basin had no-one yet.  Even on light gear I could tell I wouldn’t be able to ski strongly even if I did make it up something, so I hung out in the sun at the base of the Cristaux while Graham and Rich went up a bit.  They only made it a couple of hundred metres up until things turned a bit softer and steeper so came down making some OK turns in better snow than expected with some big sluffs coming down occasionally.

Home early via the resort pistes in nice spring snow.

Home on the Argentiere Glacier

Capucin Couloir

Longer turns in the second half of the couloir

Location: Aiguille du Midi
Snow: 30-40cm powder
Weather: Bluebird, cold

I only have a week of skiing left this winter as I’m going to Finale for a few days’ biking next Thursday before heading to Glasgow for a week.  So only a few good weather days left to get some good final descents in.  Today: Capucin Couloir on the NE side of Col du Tacul.

I had a look into the Capucin four years ago but skied from the Breche du Tacul instead due to poor snow cover, and bailed from another attempt a couple of weeks ago when the weather closed right in.  So a little redemption today, made all the sweeter by amazing snow conditions.

Graham: Accessing our route on the Italian side of the Vallee Blanche

From our 8.30am Midi first lift we were the only ones heading towards the Rognon/Classic Vallee Blanche route, finding decent boot-top powder across to the Italian side where we stayed high right to start skinning 800m up the Periades Glacier then left towards Col du Tacul.  We kept skins on for as long as we could before a bit of bootpacking when it got steep and a little firmer; just an axe for me today but crampons would have helped with slippage at times.

The entrance to the couloir on the other side of the col was pretty narrow with a few rocks showing and no doubt others lurking, and could have been skied very cautiously but it wouldn’t have been fun so we didn’t mind getting the ropes out for one 30m abseil.

Graham: Abseiling in

Rich dropped in first with a few cautious jumpturns to start things off in good, deep, untouched powder before settling into a rhythm at low speed.  About a third of the way down his sluff seemed to knock him off his feet and he went for a ride but was OK and got to a safe spot while Graham and I skied the couloir in short pitches.

The snow was great and we felt safe but we were producing a lot of heavy sluff which was tricky to deal with in a narrow space like this.  Once the couloir widened halfway down and the gradient mellowed a little we felt more comfortable making bigger turns so it was easier to stay ahead of our sluff and duck for cover when needed.

Rich: Ready to drop

Graham: Deep halfway down

All was going well until I hit a firm patch of snow under the surface, then my sluff started to catch my tails and I fought hard to stay on my feet, getting out of the way to the left but nailing a rock hard in the process.  It’s a nasty moment when you stop to take off a ski and inspect the damage but I knew that it was a write-off even before releasing my binding.  Damage report: 25cm edge ripped out and 15cm of sidewall missing; my trusty Wateas are toast but hopefully my mountain insurance has me covered at least partially.  Somehow I lost my axe and my ice screw holster on the descent too and Graham lost his axe.  No use crying over lost/broken gear though; still more good skiing to come.

Lower down, things mellowed out more on the Capucin Glacier and we let the skis run fast for some really nice long turns through some rolling features on some of the nicest snow I’ve skied all year, and a pretty straightforward route slightly skier’s-left got us out to join the Leschaux Glacier back towards Montenvers.

Long fast turns on the Capucin Glacier below the couloir

This might be my last big descent of the winter but hopefully not.  One to remember anyway, and yet another first-time line that I don’t really want to return to unless I know that conditions will be this good again!

Home on the Leschaux Glacier

Late April Powder

Plenty of untouched snow on the glacier

Location: Grands Montets
Snow: 20cm powder
Weather: Sun & cloud

My motivation for skiing hasn’t been too high for the last week.  We’ve had some new snow but also mixed weather and really I’ve had plenty of “just OK” powder days this winter, so I just want some sunny weather for a few final tours and steeps to finish off the winter and am already thinking about the long summer of biking ahead.  I almost wasn’t going to ski again today but am glad I did in the end even just for three big laps.  It’s more than “just OK” up there anyway.

A couple of laps of Lavancher Bowl got us some decent lightly-tracked boot-top powder with some untouched snow easily found, before a long but worthwhile wait for the top bin once it opened at noon.  We were on the fourth or fifth lift of the day but I’m not sure where most of the traffic had gone because after a traverse of about 100m onto the glacier there wasn’t a track in sight.  To exit, a little variation I hadn’t skied before, then home past the Logan Refuge where things were a little heavier but still totally skiable.

Graham: Cheeky wee crevasse gap

Quick Envers

The best snow of the day on this bank

Location: Aiguille du Midi
Snow: Mixed
Weather: Bluebird, warming up fast

Graham and I headed up the Midi early this morning to have a look at some north facing lines, fully equipped but with doubt already in our heads, but we thought we should at least take a look.  I’m not desperate to repeat the Col du Plan descent after skiing it in near-perfect condition last April, nor move on to anything more serious unless conditions are good and I’m feeling strong, but Graham missed out on the Col du Plan and is keen to get something done on the Midi north face when conditions allow so I’d like to help him out.

Looking at the Mallory from the lift ride up the snow was pretty wind-stripped and rockier than I’ve seen it in the middle so that was a no-go although I did manage to picture the route properly for the first time after actually looking for it the whole way up.  Over towards the Tournier Spur entrance to Col du Plan the snow seemed firm at best, icy or windloaded at worst, so we bagged a quick Grand Envers run instead, probably only my second or third time on it in the last three years but a route I skied a lot in my first couple of winters out here.

Graham: Classic shot on the way to Grand Envers

“Variable” would be the best word to describe the snow.  Firm snow, nasty breakable crust, refrozen chop, soft chop, deep soft snow and smooth spring snow; we had it all but did an OK job of finding the better stuff.  After leaving the Midi Arete we didn’t see anyone else at all on the way down so it was a nice relaxed day even if the snow could have been better.

Graham: Choppy but soft further right on the second pitch

A very fast, icy Mer de Glace track and a bit of a walk got us to the steps and gondola just after 10am before it even opened and we made it onto the first train back to town about 10 seconds before it left the station.  Probably the first time we’ve ever had an entire train to ourselves too!

Graham: A bit of walking required now before the steps

More snow should be coming over the next week then let’s see how conditions finish up; maybe steep season will return but I’ll take whatever we get.  I’m fixing up my bike today seeing as I got home early, so if the skiing isn’t great I’ll get pedalling.

Glacier de Bron

Graham: Best snow of the day in the middle of the descent

Location: Le Tour to Trient
Snow: Smooth & soft but a bit grabby
Weather: Bluebird, windy

Snow falling for two days and blue skies forecast; conditions were going to be good today but crowd avoidance was our main goal.  So we dingied any plans of skiing Grands Montets or the Midi and instead came up with a pretty mellow touring option on a new route to all of us: Glacier de Bron from Le Tour to Trient.

I headed up Le Tour lifts at 9am with Graham and Claire, meeting Colin “I don’t need no stinking lift pass” Thornton at the top chairlift after his 8am ascent from the car park, and Josh & Tom caught up quickly near Lac de Charmillon where we put skins on and got on with the main uphill of the day.  Taking a pretty direct line towards Col des Autannes we had to bootpack a short steep section in the middle then again just before the col but were up in decent time.  A strong easterly wind was blowing for most of the ascent but thankfully died down a bit by the time we were up but I still kept my softshell, gloves and beanie on the whole way up.

Windy on the Autannes ridge first thing

From the col we could have descended straight down but fancied a route a little skier’s-right so figured that we might as well skin around and up to the col between Pointe de Bron and Pointes des Grands (not named on the map, but likely Col de Bron) then trend right on the descent.  During a tricky skins-on downhill traverse we triggered a shallow slab 30m wide below us (N facing at about 2700m) and were on our guard after that but the snow seemed OK on fairly mellow angles as we moved on, with smooth snow faces below.

Up to the col at 2900m, time for a wee break then the skis were on.

Colin was out to play today and naturally so was his selfie stick

The terrain on the descent wasn’t anything to get too excited about but nice and wide on safe angles.  The snow was smooth and untouched but a little slow and grabby even at the top so getting a bit of speed up before making big turns worked pretty well, then some slightly steeper sections in the second half gave the best turns of the day.

Graham: Starting the descent

Last section of the descent

Near the exit we were through to the refrozen rotten snow or old avi debris underneath the new light snow but made it down fine then out the valley towards Trient with very sticky snow in t-shirts and sunglasses.  Our hitchhiking performance from Trient wasn’t great last month so we had stashed my car at the end of the ski-out last night.  Back to Le Tour quickly for beers, and pretty cool to spot our bootpack from the morning so clearly from the Le Tour road.

Colin & Graham: Run/skate on the 4x4 track back to the car

Welcome Back Winter

Josh: Not much to see on the front side of the mountain, but nice snow

Location: Grands Montets
Snow: 20cm powder up high
Weather: Steady snowfall, poor visibility

At this time of year my motivation for skiing is slipping a little bit and I normally say that I want either a proper snowfall or just two weeks of full sun to finish off the winter.  Today we had the proper snowfall.

Josh and I got to GM car park for 9am, with the cablecar not turning yet and the gondola just starting up.  So down to midstation from the gondola to check out the top bin queue; only about 50 people ahead of us.  I can’t really be bothered with the queue these days but seeing as I hadn’t had a proper powder run off the top all winter I thought “why not” and joined the line while Josh got some revervation tickets for a second lap at noon.  After about an hour’s wait we were up on the second bin.

For some reason only two skiers had gone down the front face from the first bin.  Visibility wasn’t good but we knew the snow would be smooth so made some big fast turns down it before cutting hard right to join Rachasses.  No one had been down there yet at all; a bit bizarre, but we weren’t complaining as we got more good turns with better contrast beside the rocks then out straight down from the Herse piste in good tracked powder.

A couple of Lavancher laps before our reservation got us some more good turns; things were tracked enough to be able to read the terrain well but still very easy to find untouched snow for every turn.

One more off the top finished off the day; off the back and around to Rachasses on the front side where it was now tracked but not tracked-out so still plenty of fresh turns to be had.  Italian Bowl was a bit more tracked and bumpy but not too bad, and a slushy Pierre a Ric got us back to the carpark where the snow was still falling.

Josh: Good snow on the far side of Italian Bowl

Winter’s not over yet!  I’ll take some sun to finish it off though please.

Fresh Snow, Tired Legs

A bit heavier lower on the mountain but still good

Location: Grands Montets
Snow: 20cm tracked powder, heavier lower
Weather: Bluebird, warm

My legs are still pretty gubbed from Tuesday’s big day but with a bit of fresh snow overnight and the last sunny day for a while I wanted to get up for a bit today.  Just three laps on lunch in the end through Canadian & Lavancher bowls then one straight down from the Herse.  Tracked snow everywhere but not too tracked and soft enough to cut through without much effort; good fun but a little too much work at times being back on my heavy skis.

Wee air, poor form; I'm blaming my legs

More snow should be coming up high over the next few days but it’s that time of year where I’d happily take a few weeks of sun for some final spring touring and steep days before my bike comes out.  Let’s see what we get.

Mont Buet NE Face

First turns on Mont Buet's NE face; incredible

Location: Aiguilles Rouges
Snow: Soft & smooth on N aspects, variable elsewhere, heavy lower down
Weather: Very light cloud

Conditions have been prime this week for high altitude steep skiing on north faces so all of Chamonix’s trophy lines have seen a lot of action but I had only one thing on my mind: a descent of Mont Buet’s NE face.

This face is where Dave Tapsfield was killed a little over two years ago due to a cornice collapsing while we were navigating to a drop-in point.  I feel I’m now ready to talk openly about the whole episode.  Only two of my close friends in Chamonix and my parents know much of what I’m about to write but I hope in writing this I can help anyone going through anything similar.  Skip to where the photos below start if you just want to read about today’s skiing!

The week following the Dave’s death was pretty horrendous for me but the support of friends of mine and Dave’s helped get me through even if it was just hanging out around Chamonix town to take my mind off things or getting some easy days’ skiing.  The funeral seemed to mark and end to things at the time but looking back on things now I simply told myself to move on and to accept everything as a tragic accident, getting out skiing and trying to enjoy the mountains.  In reality, I was just trying to forget.

Making my descent to locate Dave, digging him out and performing CPR is the worst ordeal I ever hope to go through but in some way that was the easy part because from my ski and first aid training I knew exactly what to do and didn’t give myself any choices, and I could take solace in the fact that I did everything I could.  Dealing with things afterwards was much more difficult.  Just thinking about Dave, his friends and family would sometimes be pretty upsetting and what I thought to be feelings of guilt did creep into my head sometimes.  Slowly I realised that I simply hadn’t thought through everything properly and that I was just scared of doing so in case I did come to some conclusions that I was somewhat responsible.  And so on Bastille Day last summer, almost 18 months after Dave’s death and largely thanks to the best summer of mountain biking I’ve ever had, I took a trip up Les Houches to watch the sun set over the Aravis range and think things through.  I rationalised everything and rode my bike back down to town in time to watch the fireworks feeling complete clarity and with my mind at peace.  I think I just had to give myself enough time to be ready to deal with it properly, maybe it’s a shame that it took me so long but I’m glad I got there in the end.

Of course I’m still very sad that Dave isn’t with us any more.  Also sad that I couldn’t do anything to prevent his death, instead of previously feeling sad that I didn’t do anything to prevent it.  I’ll admit that I did cry from time to time if thinking about him, but if another friend who I know as well or better than Dave was to die I don’t think I would cry much at all, likewise the deaths of certain professional skiers in recent years who were influential to me didn’t upset me much per se.  I just happened to be there when Dave died and am happy that I managed to stay safe myself and do everything I could to try to help.

Since Dave’s death I talk about risk often with my main ski partners.  Everything on the mountain is a case of risk vs reward; I know what gives me the rewards I am looking for and can weigh up the risks involved.  The late freeski pioneer CR Johnson famously said “The joy I get from skiing… that’s worth dying for”.  Sorry but I really don’t agree.  The joy I get from skiing is worth taking risks for, but by staying smart and knowing our limits we can minimise the risks and hopefully continue reaping the rewards for decades to come.  The clichéd “He died doing what he loved” is little consolation for a life cut short; I want to live doing what I love for a long long time and die once I’m old and burned-out, not mid-flow.

So, enough of that.  How was today’s skiing, eh?  Amazing.

On Sunday Graham and I decided that Tuesday would be the day to go for it.  I was a little apprehensive throughout Monday about how I would feel on the mountain but knew that as my most trusted ski partner Graham would get me through if anything wasn’t going well.  I was really keen to ski the same route which I followed Dave down when he fell, but a little worried that we wouldn’t find it in condition and have to bail.  There was only one way to know.

A little over halfway up (Mont Blanc in the background)

From a 7am start at Le Buet village we were up to the summit in 3.5 hours flat; pretty good going considering how little touring I’ve done this winter.  Passing a few landmarks on the way up I remembered a few moments with Dave on our ascent but kept focused and looking forward to the ski down.

Summit. It's not often I take a selfie but I'll make an exception today

On Sunday I had taken a photo of the face from Le Tour and zooming right in it looked like there were some fairly large cornices but an OK point to drop in to looker’s-right of where Dave fell (where I entered on that day), or 50m further along the north ridge.  From the summit we descended the ridge, stopping briefly at the point where Dave fell where I explained in more detail to Graham what had happened on the day, well away from the cornice edge of course.  Skirting around the rock to where I had planned to drop in we couldn’t tell if it was corniced or not, and even though we had equipment to rope-in or to cut a cornice we thought the further point was a definite safe option.  Graham headed over there first but then could see that my drop-in was safe, so it was on.

I was feeling strong but took a little moment just to ready myself, my mind going blank and knowing I could trust myself.  Dropping into the slope the snow was a little firm and grabby but the bank to skier’s-right looked perfect.  I traversed over and it was smooth and creamy so even with its steep gradient I felt comfortable enough to make fluid turns down it.  One of the most enjoyable pitches I’ve ever skied.

Graham dropped in from the left next, finding firmer snow in the middle of the couloir so from then on we stuck to the right bank (more N facing than NE) to find the best snow for the length of the 600m couloir and avoid the the middle which went from firm to corn to rotten.  I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Graham: Steep hop turn in soft snow

Planning the next section of the descent

Once the couloir opened up and the gradient mellowed I took a few minutes to stop at roughly the spot where I dug Dave out and tried to revive him.  This was something that I just wanted to do, but it was playing on my mind for some of the ascent, really not knowing how it would make me feel.  I was fine and it really confirmed to me everything that I had come to think about the incident.  I listened to a certain track on my iPod that I had listened to at sunset in Les Houches last summer which really spoke to me at the time, then just listened to the pure silence of the mountain atmosphere for a few minutes, completely at peace and happy with life.

Descending the mellow runout on smooth spring snow with a tear in my eye but a smile on my face it was long turns all the way as fast as I could, forgetting that I was on my lightest touring skis but I held on OK!

To exit we took the Tres les Eaux valley all the way out to Le Buet.  All the way out.  Looking at the map now we should have found the summer trail to the left towards Le Couteray but we followed a few ski tracks beside the river which ended up involving a bit of climbing around rocks plus my least favourite thing to do on the mountain: downclimbing.  A skis-off jump to snow got me down the biggest drop OK instead!

Following this section we seemed to lose the ski tracks, sticking straight downhill for some proper bushwhacking to end at the Cascade de Berard buvette.  Not a route I would want to repeat but we made it, with a final walk/ski out to Le Buet for celebratory panachés, of course.

Cruising out through the Tres les Eaux valley

So there it is.  I’m really glad that I made the decision to ski this route again; I’d maybe be still wondering about it if I hadn’t and the time was right for me.  A perfect end to this whole episode.

Big thanks to Graham for today, Angus for being open to talk things through last summer and everyone else who has helped me.

Firm in the Park

Kickers all to myself early in the morning

Location: Le Tour
Snow: Very firm pistes, suddenly softening around noon
Weather: Bluebird, colder

I had high hopes of a really good day in Le Tour park today but sadly the snow and shaping disappointed me a little, although it was really nice to have the main line literally to myself until 10.30am.

With cold temperatures last night I knew that the snow would be nice and firm for good speed but when it’s this firm the shaping and grooming really has to be spot-on.  I really appreciate the work from the park crew to get such a good setup up and running for its first winter but there were quite a lot of refrozen ruts in the in-runs, kickers and the big rail landings, the kickers weren’t shaped as nicely as they were a few weeks ago and the nice new landings have gotten not so steep in the process of recent grooming.  There was plenty of speed for the second big kicker but about a metre has been chopped off the lip (probably to help make the distance when things were running slower) so there’s no pop at all now and the lip comes earlier than it looks.  I’d love it if it was reshaped with a good kick even if that means that it could only be hit safely for a few hours in the morning.

At 11.30am Martin and Kathryn made it up and we had a cruise around the Tete de Balme.  With a few centimetres of new snow off piste it was skiing OK where the old firm base was smooth but we’d occasionally hit some chunky stuff underneath without warning.  Pistes that had seen the sun all morning were softening up nicely but shaded slopes were sheet ice; not ideal on jib skis with blunted edges!

I swung through the park again at 12.30pm and in the space of an hour it had gone from “a bit too firm” to “a bit too soft”.  Typical spring conditions with a small window of perfection so time it right and enjoy the park while it lasts.

Right Skis

2012/2013 Katana: they don't make 'em like this any more!

Location: Grands Montets
Snow: Firm pistes above midstation, soft below
Weather: Clear above 2100m, in clouds below

No one to play with today, so I just got a few fast piste laps on the Grands Montets in the morning before a bit of work.  Half of the skiers on the mountain seemed to be queuing for the top bin leaving the rest of the mountain not too busy, and being back on my big Katanas for the first time in a while I could let them run as fast as I liked.  After buying my Devastators this winter I was wondering if I should sell these but today confirmed that I definitely shouldn’t – nothing I’ve ever skied compares to the stability these things offer.  Short people: you don’t know how lucky you are to be able to buy skis over head-height so easily!

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