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.
Me on the approach by the Chalets du Truc. Its a little over an hours hike from the lower car park. With a burly 4×4 you can drive up to here.
The trippiest sunset I have ever seen. This isn’t photoshopped, the sunset lit up the clouds in the valley turning them into flames.
The Plan Glacier hut has a genuinely remote feel in autumn/winter, set at the back of a glacial cirque in a quiet part of the range. From the chalets it took us another 4-5 hours of trail breaking.
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.
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).
The south face of Mont Blanc is a 1500m high wall of granit, snow and some of the most monolithic and menacing seracs in the Alps. To the left of the classic Brenva Spur, most of the skiable lines had previously been descended but once. There was once a time when this wall received some attention from alpinists, the ‘Route Major’ being one of the classic tougher routes to the summit of Europe’s highest peak. However, fashions and perceptions change and climbers and skiers ceased to visit the heart of the Brenva wall.
Amid improbably towering ice cliffs and bands of rock, one distinct couloir splits the middle of the face, cutting a dramatic line down from just below the summit, right through its guts and down onto the Brenva Glacier. To the discerning ski mountaineer, the couloir appears to be something of an obvious ‘ski line’. Yet, after one descent by Toni Valeruz in 1978, and a year later being climbed by a Japanese team, no one else has ever even been there.
When ski conditions are good on the north face of Mont Blanc, which is often from late March through May, dozens of ski mountaineers may descend it each day down to the Bossons Glacier. Besides the north face, every other possible ski descent from this busy mountain rests firmly within the realms of what is considered ‘extreme skiing’, and very rarely does anyone ski one of the alternative routes.
Mont Blanc is by no means remote, and the mighty south face is in full view from the top lift station. Yet it retains a slightly mystical aura of being untouchable, and the access in or out is by no means straightforward by the standards of the European Alps. While I’m no stranger to skiing scary lines in the Alps, I have never skied anywhere else with a more wild or serious feel to it. Until the history and mystique of the wall seduced me into considering skiing it, I certainly found it difficult to visualize being in the heart of it.
2013 has so far been a truly exceptional year in terms of the quantity and quality of snow that fell on the Mont Blanc range. Epic conditions in late spring continued to provide a wealth of possible objectives in early summer. When the going is that good and motivation is high, it’s impossible not to plot and scheme about the next big objective. Wanting to ski something a bit out of the ordinary to finish off an extraordinary season, I was all ears when my partners Ben and Luca suggested taking a look at Sentinelle Rouge Couloir.
The parameters of what constitutes a justifiable risk are very personal, but to me, if the line could be skied quickly and ideally without any rapelling or down climbing, the time spent underneath the monstrous serac hanging above it would be brief. While climbing the route to check the conditions was simply out of the question, we wanted to be diligent. Our team made two separate excursions to check the snow cover on the line. While it looked very promising, there was no way to be sure. To ski it would require total commitment in getting to the bottom of the couloir and onto the Brenva Glacier.
After a night bivying at the top lift station, we set out at 1am for the summit of Mont Blanc. At 6am we skied off the summit and located the entrance to the couloir. The snow was rock hard so we sat and waited. At this point there was no commitment we could have easily turned back. Was the risk justifiable and would we be able to ski it quickly? There was really no way to tell until we slid into the heart of it.
Getting progressively colder while sitting on the edge of the wall, dropping in was starting to lose its already tenuous appeal. Bailing to the valley via the safety of the Trois Monts seemed like the wiser course. Ben got restless and clipped into his skis. A couple turns down and it was clear the snow was less than ideal. At the top the snow soft and grippy, but then quickly turned into icy neve. Ben slid out of view, but we could hear the audible scratching of his skis on a hard surface. I waited a bit longer, hoping that minute by minute the sun would soften the neve. After thirty minutes I realized I could wait no longer. The top slope is a different aspect from the couloir, and the snow lower down could be getting dangerously soft.
To traverse into the couloir, I crossed the neve, swinging the pick of my Nomic firmly into it and carefully stepping down and across. Fully accepting I was now going to ski down, my brain switched into survival mode. With hyper focus and adrenaline driven tunnel vision I entered a delicate crux between some rocks. Straight-lining a tight choke, I was into the couloir and directly below the towering serac. The snow was amenably soft. Time to go. Skiing as fast as I could, the stress and tension caused my legs to fatigue quicker than usual. Two cruxes in the upper section went past in a blur, edging over a 55 degree section of water ice with a thin smearing of snow. The line soon widened and the angle lessened to 45 degrees. I started to rapidly loose elevation with big turns on near perfect corn.
Leaving the couloir, I followed Ben’s tracks traversing out left onto more broken mixed ground. Catching Ben near the bottom, we quickly scooted up Col Moore. When I dropped in, I thought Luca had turned around, not wanting to contend with the uncertainty of the top icy traverse, all the more difficult and dangerous on a board. Now it appeared he was halfway down. The sun was intensifying and the Brenva face was coming alive. I had a flight to catch and couldn’t afford to wait. Ben stayed behind to guide Luca to the safety of the col. Dehydrated and sweltering in the July heat, the south facing Brenva basin was becoming an energy sapping furnace. I slogged back alone to the nearest lift, the Helbronner.
Back in Chamonix I checked that Luca had made it off the face, and then rushed to the airport. Contemplating what we had done, I found immense satisfaction in taking in the aesthetics of our achievement. A huge and beautiful line skied in the purest style possible. The skiing itself was too stressful to be very enjoyable, and it wasn’t one of my best experiences in the mountains. But it was an interesting psychological exercise and a trip through the most wild and deadly scenery imaginable.
At the start of Arpil 2012, Ben Briggs and I climbed Late to Say I’m Sorry which is a stunning line on the north face of the Grand Rocheuse, one of the slightly less famous 4000ers. Jon and Will’s ascent in the winter of 2010 seems to have plucked this Jasper route from obscurity, and begun the route’s transformation into a popular modern classic (testpiece). The route deserves attention and offers the most immaculate granit goulotte climbing I have ever come across.
It is just over 700m to the top of the technical climbing, then another 300 of moderate mixed to the summit of the Grand Rocheuse. This is a great winter route as it can be done in a day off first bin if you rap from the top of the steep pitches. There are good in-situ anchors on rock, then the Coutrier can be v-threaded. If you summit the Grand Rocheuse I think it would be logical (and easiest) to then descend the Whymper or traverse the Verte and descend the Coutrier. This then makes the outing a lot longer and more committing. We skied in off 1st bin and then skied down in the dark.
It was the 2nd time in 2 weeks I had attempted the route, first time Charlie Boscoe and I bailed after television sized blocks came hurtling down the Coutrier, released from the mixed ground to climber’s right on the triangle. When Ben and I began up the Coutrier it wasn’t cold but it was certainly below freezing, and again a couple huge blocks came close to us. However, we decided it was just as quick to continue up out of the danger zone which seemed to be the 60 degree choke near the bottom.
Once up the initial slopes of the Coutrier, you head slightly right into steeper mixed ground.
Start of the crux pitch, M6 roof. After you pass this, you can continue up into a steep corner (M6 usually). There was very little ice in the corner when we were there, so Ben veered right into a steep crack system (M7 or A1). Good effort to Ben for freeing the roof.
On the way down, we noticed it would have been possible to miss this pitch out entirely and instead climb 70-80 placage to the left which connected to the next belay. However, we stuck to the route, and anyway its hard to tell if it goes from the belay below the roof.
After some A1 moves there is a really awkward long step (or jump if you’re short like me) to the left.
Me starting up the brilliant 2nd pitch.
After this mixed pitch (M6ish) there are 2-3 pitches of immaculate ice, mostly sustained at 80 degrees maybe vertical in places. There is enough gear in the rock to make it fairly safe, but we were also able to place screws.
Ben Briggs and I climbed this route at the end of October 2011. All superlatives apply to the Matterhorn, it is a truly incredible mountain. Climbing and skiing above Zermatt is inconvenient and expensive, as you have to park in Tasch and then get stung for parking, the train and then a lift ticket. We opted to approach the Hornli by taking a trail up to climber’s right of the ski area. This was a bit of a slog, and we wished we had paid for the lift halfway which eliminates much of the vertical gain of the hike up.
When viewed from Zermatt, the 1100m north face of the Matterhorn is incredibly impressive. The quality of the climbing is not that impressive, but this is not a route you do for high quality climbing. The crumbly, layered limestone is certainly not Chamonix granit and sometimes offers little in the way of protection. Which isn’t too bad, since the climbing is never that hard.
While the climbing is not too hard and its best to move together over most of the face, its mostly not super easy either. The cruxes consist of thin traverses on snappy, slabby rock between the ice gullies. The conditions we found the face in were certainly acceptable, but I don’t think you would want to go up there if it was much drier, considering the quality of the rock.
While we were approaching the Hornli, a roped team of 3 Italians fell off the lower easy ground, roped toegther. We saw the heli come in the pick up their bodies. A grim reminder of how badly it can go wrong when on easy ground, and it certainly wasn’t great for the pysche.
To get up to the start of the face you have to haul on an old rope up a short steep rock wall. This isn’t too bad, and seems preferable to trying to climb what was steep and thin ice to the right. The first 400m of the route is steady 50-60 degree ground but with limited gear. Shortly after there is some M4 and then the crux M5 gully (Scottish V, limited protection). The line then follows a series of gullies (mainly Scot IV) but the dry traverses require a steady head. The last 300-400m (Scot III-IV) isn’t that steep but seems to go on forever. Overall for the route, small gear seemed to be more useful than big gear, and we even smashed a couple pegs in.
There really aren’t any bivi spots, and most teams climb the face in a day. It took us 10 hours from schrund to summit. The descent down the Hornli is pretty straightforward but requires some attention. We got to the Salvay just as it was getting dark and crashed there for the night.
Typical of the goulotte climbing on the face.
Ben on one of the cruxes (the M5 gully). Not that hard but not much gear.
Below; traversing on loose rock (this was an easy section though).
Obligatory summit shots.
Down the fixed lines on the Hornli, onto the Salvay hut.