Link to full video here: https://vimeo.com/295226976
‘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.
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.
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).
Great write up from Davide de Masi capturing what lift served autumn skiing is all about in the Massif.