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. 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!