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 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.
Additional photos from Ben and Luca.