Saturday 15 January 2011

NE face of Les Courtes and more Courmayeur

In the search for good snow, Owen and I headed to Courmayeur on thursday expecting the usual epic condtions. Several problems arose however. Firstly, both of us had a extremely enjoyable and sociable evening on wednesday night, meaning that it was almost 2pm before we actually clicked into the skis. Secondly, conditions weren't great. Hard to believe in Courmayeur but I'm afraid it was true, and the snow was pretty heavy even off the Arp. Still, we had a couple of fun runs off the Arp and Youla, and finished the day drinking a beer and looking at Mont Blanc so a good day despite the average snow.


Today (saturday) Tom and I decided to go up Grand Montets and ski something steep. The north facing slopes are usually skied in March and April, but with a lack of snow and unseasonably warm temperatures we figured that there was a reasonable chance they would be good. 

The first good news we got was that high traverse was in, so we skied downhill until right under the north face of the Droites, saving ages compared to skinning up. The next bit of good news was that plenty looks in really good condition. Everything on the north face of the Grand Rocheuse and the Aiguille Verte look amazingly fat, including the Couturier, Bettembourg, Vivegel, Late to Say I'm Sorry etc. The routes on the Grand Montets ridge also look good, and there was an amazing amount of people climbing them. Finally, the headwall on the Droites looks good but the icefield looks a bit black so best to leave it a bit longer. The Lagarde Direct looks good though, and the Swiss Route on the Courtes looks like it is getting there, so it could be an amazing winter!

A busy day on the Grand Montets ridge.

We soon found ourselves under the immense NE face of Les Courtes and with a group of 5 people ahead of us to put the track in, that was decision made, so we began the slog up to the Bergschrund.

Tom approaching the NE face. The ski descent basically goes straight down the middle of the wide gully splitting the face.

The boot pack was ok, but given that I haven't been above 3000 metres since November, it provided a fair bit of suffering! It is also quite exposed but essentially impossible to protect, so anyone looking to ski the face would need to be very comfortable soloing Scottish 2 for 700m. It's not exactly a ski resort up there!

As it turned out the group ahead of us was comprised of the superstars of Chamonix skiing, so whilst we were climbing up they skied past us and showed us how it should be done. I have to admit that it was frankly humbling to see the speed and control shown by them, but also pretty inspiring.

This is how it should be done.

Having eventually reached the col that marks the top of the face, we were rewarded with awesome views across the Vallee Blanche and to Mont Blanc. However, the fact that we were about to drop into what is described in the ski guidebook as "true extreme skiing", and hadn't skied anything remotely steep since April, meant that the view got somewhat ignored in favour of getting psyched up!
 Tom dropping in. The face is pretty exposed, and from the second you drop in until the end, you can see all the way down to the glacier.

One of those "put up or shut up" moments.

The drop in is currently quite icy so we were pretty cautious over the first 50 metres and did a bit of side slipping where necessary. After that the snow is pretty good - firm in places and soft in others but grippy throughout, which is exactly what we were after. Once we'd skied the first couple of pitches we really began to enjoy ourselves and confidence and smiles grew as we made our way down to the glacier below. By the end, we were giving it plenty of american style "whoops" as we had the face to ourselves in good conditions - an awesome experience.

 At the foot of the face and heading for a beer.

Homeward bound.