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.
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.
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.
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.
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.