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.

A Day Of Two Halves

Luke, Ginge: Bumpy but softer lower down

Location: Aiguille du Midi/Brevent/Flegere
Snow: Refrozen ruts then spring moguls (Midi), spring snow/slush (Brevent/Flegere)
Weather: Hazy cloud, hot

Ginge is back in town this week but only free for one day’s skiing today (his first and only of the winter) after spending a few days and nights up the mountain on a climbing mission, and without touring gear, so we mixed things up today with a quick Midi lap then an afternoon on Brevent/Flegere.

Midi queues were low at 10am, mostly consisting of non-skiers again, so it was another pretty relaxed ski on the Gros Rognon.  Unfortunately our timing was way off as it seems that everything on that aspect all the way up to about 3200m had melted and refrozen overnight but not had time to soften this morning.  So it was a pretty nasty descent to start with through refrozen ruts, softening to easy moguls once we joined the Classic route which was pretty fun.  Another stripped-down Mer de Glace exit got us to Montenvers for a 12 noon train without many others heading down.

A lunchtime descent of the same route would have given the snow time to soften but we wanted to get a full day in and not much easy-access off piste will be skiing well in the morning anyway.

Ginge, Luke: T-shirt Mer De Glace exit

On to Brevent, Top Bin and Cornu had both closed, presumably due to high avalanche risk on the hottest day of the winter so far, so we headed straight across to Flegere for laps of Floria and Index.  Mostly deep spring snow off piste with plenty lips to find, getting very heavy and slushy lower down and the pistes skiing very well.

Ginge: Wee air on Flegere

See you next winter Ginge!

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