‘2000m of steep skiing on a continuous face?’ I pondered the possibilities for a moment. It was 2013 and my long term mountain partner and good buddy Ben Briggs had just excitedly described the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Mt. Cook to me. Late steep skiing legend Andreas Fransson had just asked Ben if he wanted to join him on a trip to New Zealand that autumn. Ben declined the invitation, but we were left with little doubt as to what Andreas’s intentions were. A 2010 ESPN article by ski journalist Devon O’Neil listed the face as one of the world’s top 10 biggest unskied lines. The calibre of the challenge was clearly laid out. Attempts had been made by some of the world’s leading ski mountaineers and a Red Bull team had allegedly spent one million euros on an aborted ski descent of the face. That autumn of 2013 Andreas ended up going with another Chamonix friend of ours, Magnus Kastengren. Tragically, Magnus fell to his death while skiing towards the Caroline Face from the summit, the exact cause of his fall remains unknown. I have no doubt they would have succeeded had Magnus not fallen.
Highly visible from the road into Cook Village, the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Cook is of national significance to Kiwis even featuring on their five dollar bill. On first inspection the Caroline Face appears to be an unlikely looking mess of steep broken glaciers and formidable ice cliffs. An internet search reveals the rapidly changing nature of the face; the seracs can alter dramatically on an almost annual basis. The Caroline Face had not even been climbed until 1970 when it was ascended by Kiwis Peter Gough and John Glasgow over two days. These two renegade long haired hippies called their line the ‘Clit Route’, one can only assume this was due to its vague resemblance to female genitalia. The first ascent was major news and it had been rumoured Walter Bonatti had had his eye on the face.
When Ross Hewitt and I first went to New Zealand in 2015, it was with little expectation to attempt the face even though we told ourselves we would do so if it didn’t look to be a suicidal prospect. Our trip in 2015 was a success. We skied some adventurous new lines on prominent peaks and amassed many vertical meters of good skiing. After studying photos we took of the Caroline Face we envisioned a potential line that avoided much of the objective hazard on the face but we never got the weather window to launch an attempt. We knew we would return.
During our summer of 2017 New Zealand had a really fat winter. Our man on the ground in Cook Village and local ski mountaineer Cam Mulvey reckoned it was as good a time as any to come for steep skiing. Very unfortunately, Ross sustained a bad back injury and ruled himself out of the trip. Without hesitation I recruited Ben and Italian maestro and self-styled punk skier from the Julian Alps, Enrico Mossetti. Enrico and Ben had never met, however I had total confidence in the team from the start. The three of us booked our flights and three weeks later we were off.
Upon arrival in NZ we were treated to a week of rain and there was plenty of time to ruminate over just how dangerous a proposition the Caroline Face is. I went over the familiar pattern of searching my inner motivation and think about my young son. I think of Andreas and Magnus and my dozen other fallen friends in the mountains. My approach to risk has become wearier, my own mortality felt more acutely with experience and tragedy. Yet I want to act decisively when the time is right and the pull of extreme adventure remains strong. I had total confidence in my ability and that of the team but what scared me is that which I can’t control, namely avalanches and serac fall.
We finally got our window. On the approach heli flight into the hut we flew as close to the Caroline Face as possible. The face was white and we spotted a crucial weakness in the gigantic middle serac band. Two scouting trips to the bottom of the face later and we were brimming with anticipation, knowing that we could navigate the serac band without exposing ourselves to unjustifiable danger.
The alarm went off at midnight. Predictably, we didn’t get much sleep. Leaving the warm safety of the hut just after 1am, we headed to the bottom of the East Ridge, our chosen line of ascent. The rumble of serac fall just behind us gave the cold night air some menace. The first 300m of climbing was on 50 degree breakable chest deep snow which slowed our ascent to crawling pace. Wordlessly we toiled on, each of us wondering at the time whether turning back was the better option. Finally we were off the crust face and onto a delicate knife edge snow arête with huge drops either side. The exposure and cold weighed on us and it was with relief that at 9am we topped out the ridge and descended towards our line. After rappelling over the 100m vertical ice cliffs guarding the face, we knew we were totally committed. As fortune would have it, we had judged the conditions to perfection and coming off the rope we landed in stable boot deep powder.
Arcing out big turns we skied till our legs burned and then realised we had descended but a small fraction of the upper face. A route finding error would have proved disastrous, but we had done our homework and drawing on the sum of our experience we navigated a way down as fast as possible. The skiing was a pleasure and stress dissipated from my body with each smooth turn knowing that we were going to succeed. Halfway down the face we skied into a couloir dissecting the colossal middle serac band, making one last 40m rappel. Pausing to gaze up at the overhanging serac wall above me, we then charged through spring snow, losing hundreds of vertical metres in a matter of moments. Each blind roll gave us pause for thought, but Ben skilfully located the right exit line. An hour and a half after putting skis on our feet, we were safely off the face. Relief swept over me and also the immense satisfaction of knowing that we had skied the face in the best style possible and with what felt like a healthy margin of safety. To go in the first place was a gamble, but we had faith in our instincts and we were well rewarded.
Making a quick turnaround, two days later we flew back into the mountains knowing we had to grab the remainder of what was a stellar weather window. Ben, Enrico and I turned our sights to Malte Brun, a very steep and unskied peak known for its climbing routes and with an entire sub-range named after it. Our line followed a 600m long grade 4 climbing route, but had no idea what a Kiwi grade 4 route entailed. We found climbing the line almost a relaxing experience after Aoraki/Cook, with one short pitch of ice climbing. Intricately weaving through rocks, it was highly exposed and made for an elegant and interesting ski descent. We found ourselves making tight turns above cliffs and manoeuvring our skis over dry rock and agreed that the skiing was more technical than on the Caroline Face. The three of us thoroughly enjoyed it.
Everything was going almost too well. Skiing and hiking our way back to civilisation, the sting in the tail came in the form of having to down climb a towering steep moraine wall full of teetering loose car size blocks and compact, steep dirt we could barely stand on. Over the last few years global warming has wreaked havoc on the Southern Alps causing what were once trivial access trails to become very serious undertakings as the moraines have gotten far steeper and bigger. It was probably the most dangerous thing we had done all trip.
Skiing the Caroline Face was the biggest descent the three of us have ever made, and not the sort of line I want to try and ski every year. However, I’ve found that probing the limits of my own psychology and propensity to risk taking has its rewards. To leave our mark on a small piece of New Zealand history was a special thing and we were amazed at the warm reception we got from enthused locals who are very proud of their mountain. We did what I initially considered too risky back in 2013 after first looking over pictures of the face. The challenge and the scale of the mountain daunted us, yet we were able to find a way to succeed which didn’t amount to playing Russian roulette.
The trip ended with Enrico, Ben and I preforming Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the Cook Village local karaoke night. Singing is not our speciality and the audience was too drunk to listen to us. But we didn’t care in the slightest.
Baffin is really a place that defies all the normal conventions of where alpine skiing should take place. It’s essentially an arctic desert with quite meager precipitation. The world’s 5th largest island. The world’s biggest sea cliffs. Some say the world’s best couloir skiing. Certainly a place of superlatives. Baffin is 2.5 times the size of the UK with a population of 15,000. It has remarkably stable weather and stable snow. The snow is an intriguing combination of super stable and deep snow in the couloirs and a horrible shallow and faceted snowpack on the open slopes. In the 16 days I was out on the ice I skied 14 days and had one day of bad weather. We averaged 1000m vertical skied per day and I skied 14 different lines. We carried guns for safety, not avy gear. The quality of the skiing is very high, very consistent and far safer than in the Alps.
When my ski partner and good friend Ross Hewitt invited me on the trip and confirmed that Berghaus were going to be paying for it I couldn’t believe the good fortune. I will forever be grateful to him. Ross and Michelle Blaydon are Berghaus athletes and extremely fit and experienced ski mountaineers. Marcus Waring had been to Baffin previously, owns lots of guns and is an under the radar ski mountaineering beast. Baffin will never become a popular destination due to the enormous expense and logistical difficulty of getting there. With the arctic warming more rapidly than temperate latitudes, who knows how much longer it will be possible to ski there.
My three team mates went out ahead of me. First Ross and Marcus who worked round the clock to organize our supplies and food. Michelle then followed them shortly afterwards and the three of them traveled out onto the frozen fiordlands, an 8 hour skidoo ride from the nearest town of 500 Inuits, which was a 4 hour flight from Baffin’s capital in the south. I had a guide training course to attend which I could not miss. The plan was for me to travel out independently and meet them on the ice. My trip did not start according to plan. After a sleepless night packing I took a nap in a nice quiet corner of Philadelphia airport, alarm set for 45 minutes before my flight was due to depart. Only I was in the wrong terminal and the airport was far bigger than I had realized. I made it to the gate just as they were sealing the door and even though passengers were still taking their seats they would not let me on. My flight from Ottawa to Baffin was non-refundable and would have cost 1,800 Canadian to buy another ticket. I had to travel the 500 miles from Philly to Ottawa in 6 hours, so the only solution was to caffeinate myself to the max, rent a car and drive through the night.
Once I arrived in Baffin we did not have a predetermined location to rendezvous and suddenly I wished we had made a clearer plan. I knew Ross, Michelle and Marcus had traveled a very considerable distance from where they were dropped off, but I did not know where they were going to be the day I was going to meet them. I did not know how quickly I’d be able to find a ride out and how I was going to meet my Inuit driver. My team was somewhere out there in the wild and I had to get to them. Good practice at becoming more comfortable with uncertainty. The evening before I was due to depart by skidoo with an Inuit hunter I received a text update from the team giving me their location.
Anyway, here are the lines we skied.
My first line, and the only one I skied with Michelle before she left. The three of them had had a brutal 2 weeks of travel and skiing in -30 degree and Michelle had lost half her body weight skiing like a demon and hauling a heavy pulk miles across moraines.
Only 500m vert; Baffin mini golf.
A 1500m south facing line! Nothing previously known about it. A French team snaked us. Would be the crown jewel classic line of most mountain ranges! 45-30 degrees of corn. Think 8 ENSAs stacked ontop of each other. So fast and rippable.
Beluga Spire and the uber classic Polar Star couloir. Baffin’s most celebrated line. Probably 5.2 on the toponeige scale, comparable to the NNE of Les Courtes. The only line where we encountered exposed glacial ice near the top. Marcus has now skied this line more than anyone else, 4 times I think. 40-50 degrees, 1,300m vert.
In the guts of a 1500m, probably unskied line. Marcus scouted this gem on his last trip. It leads to the summit of Walker Citadel, the only amenable way to the top of the world’s largest sea cliff. 30-45 degrees.
Ross in another classic on the Ford Wall.
Camp defense was not taken lightly. A bear perimeter fence with an airhorn was rigged up (Marcus’s ingenious design). I love polar bears as much as the next Greenpeace activist, but if they got too close, well we were ready with a .308 and pump action shotgun loaded with slugs.
Like the East Face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. Splitter couloirs among towering granite. No info on these lines, possible first descent of a steep 1000m southish facing line, the obvious one right of center.
Skinning back to camp one night. Easy to lose track of time in the perpetual light, at times we got into a routine of sleeping in, skiing a north facing line, getting back to camp late at night, then repeating the next day. At times we traveled up to 10km on the flat to reach objectives. It was faster to skate than skin, but expended far more energy.
Back in Last November in 2012, Ben Briggs and I went up to climb the Dru Couloir. Conditions were excellent, but we made a couple route finding errors in the dark and the rock pitches were quite time consuming.
This October I randomly bumped into Tasmanian beast Kim Ladiges in Macdonalds. The first and only other time we had climbed together was on the Peuterey Integrale back in 2010. Ben Tibbets joined us at the last minute to complete our trio.
Magnificent photos courtesy of Ben Tibbetts.
A light dusting of snow, thin mixed and black ice were the order of the day.
A BD Firstlight tent made the bivi more comfortable. The bivi at the bottom of the Dru is very well situated and seems to be a prime spot for epic sunsets.
The glacier was easy enough to negotiate, save for a ball tingling three foot gap jump over a monstrous crevasse. After the schrund there is 50m of 70 degree brittle ice, then a long stretch of 50-60 degree neve.Before the rock wall and nominee crack, there are 3 rope lengths of slightly steeper neve covering rotten rock. In 2012 conditions were much fatter and we easily ran up this section, confused by the mention of chossy grade 3 rock in the guide book. This time there was thin snow and neve on the slabs making it insecure and tedious with very spaced gear.
There are in situ anchors at all of the belays for the rock section, which is a useful reference point for the Nominee. It follows a very steep finger width pegged up crack. It can be climbed in one pitch with 60s. Last year Ben and I struggled up it using a combo of free and aid. It goes free at M7+ sport grade. I’m not a regular dry tooler so hard to say how this would compare to a M7+ at a dry tooling crag. IMO, unless you are a uber wad on your tools, there is no point trying to free it. It’s simply not a good pitch of free climbing. The placements are tenuous and there are pegs everywhere. Once you admit this to yourself, it makes sense to attack it with full aid tactics. Kim, fresh off his last Yosemite trip, pissed up it in minutes with etriers. We ascended the rope which was far quicker and easier than our approach last year. Alpine aiding on second sucks.
After the aiding, there is a long tricky M6 pitch. First a short steep step, then veer right to a pegged corner. After 20m of sustained climbing, keep heading right over slabs. It is easy to make the mistake of continuing straight up. I led this section in a full 60m pitch to the start of the crux offwidth.
Last year I climbed half of the pitch before bailing and protected the start with a stubby screw. This year there was a little ice in the back of the wide crack, but not enough to be much use. The crux is a full 60m of sustained hard mixed. Starts off M6/M6+, with the crux wide flake M7. Scottish 8 free. I’d recommend taking camlots 3 and 4. Great effort by Kim. Easier with lots of ice or no ice (in winter 2011 it was dry, and talked to one French guide who took his crampons off for it and jammed it with thin gloves).
We were hoping to move together up it but it was mostly heinous black ice, so we pitched it. Usually the S bend (crux of the upper couloir) is pretty mellow mixed or just ice. We find a tricky overhanging snow plugged that was quick time consuming. Good lead by Ben, then onto the last 4 pitches of black ice.
From the Breche, its 800m of rapping back down. Best to head straight down the overhanging chimneys of the direct. All anchors are in place but on the lower neve they may be hard to find and of questionable integrity. We arrived back late at our bivi and crashed there for the remainder of the night. Great to finally complete this mega classic on a truly iconic mountain.
My season in Cham finished earlier than usual this year. Towards the end of April I went up to the Lake District to attend a BMG training course there. We worked on guiding multipitch rock climbing and short roping with Adrian Nelhams and Stu McAleese. The course was superbly run and I learned a lot in a condensed four days. Write up from Paul Swail.
I’m now back from a ski expedition to Baffin Island, and reports from that will be coming soon. I had really productive March and April in Cham skiing some great lines with new and old friends. More will come, but here is the highlight of my shortened Cham spring, featuring Ben Briggs and Brendon O’Sullivan.
Mont Blanc du Tacul is one of the Alp’s most popular and accessible 4000ers. Which is one of the reasons dropping into the south face is so cool. Going in an instant from the familiar and pedestrian normal route, to the wild savagery of Mont Blanc’s steep south side. Just like the Sentinel Rouge and the Col de la Brenva, the ambiance is electrifying. All senses are instantly engaged. The sunny aspect belies the very serious and committing nature of these descents. Skiing it onsight is simpler and reduces the exposure on the south slopes, but it adds to the adventure and commitment.
This was without doubt one of the most technical and sustained descents I’ve ever done, and a fantastic adventure. It has been skied just a handful of times and I very much doubt it will ever become a classic. However, a French crew skied it more recently and made a nice edit for Epic TV. It looks like they benefited from much more snow build up on the line and managed ok with one rap. We skied it during a very dry and warm spell.
At the top.
Chillin. I managed to almost doze off here. We waited for it to soften. Sorry for the blatant way Ben is advertising White Dot here.
‘What’s down there?’
Nice top slope. Steep but clean and open.
Techy slopes keeps the concentration up.
Good turns on good snow
Damn my shit looks good, thanks sponsors for giving me the best gear.
Sloppy palming of the slope. Steep all the way.
Questing to get to the anchor for the mandatory 40m rap. Ben’s mixed skiing is often an asset to the team.
After the rap, we ended up in the skiing some 50-55 degree refrozen crust. Perfectly edgeable though. Then came what looked like steps of water ice. Ben skied first and edged through and jumped the last step. Damn. Well, I didn’t like the look of it. Brendan wasn’t sure either. We transitioned to crampons and got both tools out. However, instead of water ice it was grey mush. As I kicked in, running water welled up around my boots. My frontpoints had no purchase on the rock slab underneath. We made a 5m rap.
Back in the sun and some good turns here.
The line weaves intricately through the rocks.
Throughout late January and early February, southerly storm cycles continued to pummel the Italian side of the massif with copius amounts of snow. While a strong foehn wind wrecked havoc on the Chmonix snowpack, the lure of good coffee and endless deep untouched terrain had us going through the tunnel on an almost daily basis.
Photos courtesy of Jason Thompson Photography
Cable Face. My favourite go to line.
Last week, Luca, Minna, Kirsti and I went over to explore one of the beautiful freeride descents emptying into the Brenva Basin. One of the charming features of the ‘Couloir Cache’ is that it is a half hour skin from the lift. Cache of course means hidden, and it is indeed well hidden. To access the entrance, 2 diagonal raps are needed to get over 2 other couloir systems. No doubt this line was spotted by an alpinist on the Brenva Glacier, or perhaps somewhere high on the Peuterey Arete.
Once in the couloir we were pleased to find 30cm of cold, stable powder snow. Although the couloir is only 400m long, it’s a really pleasing consistent pitch. We were the first team in there this season.
Out onto the Brenva glacier the snow was perfect and rippable. With how much the glacier has receded, more of the skiing is on rocks to the skiers left side which provides a perfect playground of small natural booters. At the moment, there is no ideal way off the Brenva, and we had to contend with a hideous gully exposed to the crumbling mass of the disintegrating glacier above.
Minna at the first anchor.
Boys at work.
As part of the British Mountain Guide Scheme, this January I have spent a couple weeks doing a ski technique training course, a week long avalanche course and a one day assessment of our personal ski level. The BMG seem quite keen to raise the standard of skiing for British guides, and it seems the level has improved in recent years.
The ski technique course was run in Leysin, Switzerland and our tranier was Alex Languetin, a Swiss instructor of the very highest calibre. Leysin is a tiny resort with a limited area, but it was fun blasting around the pistes. The one thing I struggled with was imitating Alex’s ‘flying stem turn’. Anselme Baud was one of the opriginal advocates of this technique whereby the skier initiates his turn on steep slopes by first pushing off the downhill ski. I have long since drilled it into my brain to initiate off the uphill ski on steeps (Vallencant technique), which is favoured my most steep skiers these days.
The avalanche course in La Grave was an interesting opportunity to examine this year’s unusually unstable snowpack. The early snowfall in November followed by a month of cold and dry weather led to faceting, which formed a persistent weak layer in the snow pack, especially on north facing slopes.
Here is a facet. They are identified by how angular they are, which means they don’t bond. Each sqaure is 2mm.
Digging and analysing a snowpit.
Touring up on the south side. The snow pack was quite different, and there were far less facets due to less of a temperature gradient.
For the assessment we skied the classic Trifide and Bannane couloirs and found good powder in the trees.
The mighty Meije. Dreaming of the mythical steep lines high on its imposing north face. I’ll be back.
The Cafe in La Pauld. For me and many other local riders, this is a really special place to ski (and socialise), something we all hope won’t be irrevocably altered by the development of the new monstrous lift. The current lift is a relic from a bygone era, where the arcane infrastructure and epic untouched terrain gives an instant feel of adventure.
The skiing has been pretty ok.
The autumn can be a good time to get into the high mountains, not just for mixed and ice climbing, but also for skiing. With the right weather systems and conditions, steep faces can get plastered in sticky snow. However, the lifts close and the long approaches often deter speculative excursions. Getting a big line in good conditions is possible, but usually a long shot, and a willingness to suffer a little is often a pre-requisite. After some decent snowfalls at the beginning of Nov, Ben Briggs, Brendon O’Sullivan and I were keen to hike for some turns. The north face of the Domes de Miage looked white from afar, so that’s where we went. The north face is one of the most aesthetic and cleanly skiable 1000m north faces in the Alps.
Photos from Ben Briggs
The trippiest sunset I have ever seen. This isn’t photoshopped, the sunset lit up the clouds in the valley turning them into flames.
Approaching the face. It soon became apparent that the north face was not going to be skiable. We instead decided to boot up the Mettrier. After 600m, the wind had stripped too much snow off the ridge and we turned around with another 400m to go to the summit. However, we were treated to some great exposed skiing on variable but generally pretty good snow.
Skiing high on the arete.
In the autumn when the Midi opens late and closes early, the options for day routes are quite limited. The Tacul Triangle offers some of the most reliable mixed climbing in the Massif and provides a perfect training ground for bigger objectives. Besides the overcrowded and easy Chere gully, there are several very good quality 2-4 pitch mixed routes. It is easy to seek out some spicy climbing, and it is equally easy to avoid it or bail from almost anywhere. The quick approach means that you can get stuck into the climbing without stressing about missing the last bin down.
2nd pitch of the Perroux gully after a Sept storm
Dave and Liz seconding the 2nd pitch.
In mid October I headed over with Carsten for some more mixed cragging. We climbed a superb 2 pitch route to the left of Temp est la Assassin. 1st pitch was Scottish IV/V 2nd pitch takes a steep direct line up the mini headwall and was quite meaty, Scottish VI/VII.
Me climbing the excellent corner pitch of Temps est la Assassin. We rapped into this after climbing the above pitch. It is pitch 2 of Temps. Similar difficulty to the above pitch, Scottish VI/VII. 2 bolts ease the mind and if the crack is not too iced, a no. 3 protects the crux at the top (bold if iced).