Monday 28 March 2011

Trappier & Cosmiques Couloirs

With my friend Ian over from Switzerland the pressure was on to get 2 big days out in the mountains despite the shaky forecast. Matt and Tristan were keen too, so it was yet another sociable weekend in the mountains, which is always good.

The first day we decided to go for the Trappier Couloir above Les Houches. Despite it's relatively low altitude the route is pretty serious due to a long, complicated and potentially dangerous approach and also the fact that it is a known avalanche blackspot. In fact, Mr and Mrs Trappier were both killed in the couloir that they had made the first descent of many years before when they got avalanched in 2008. Despite all this we were very confident that it would be good, and so were a few people I know who had done it before.

The approach begins with the Bellevue cable car and then a shuffle over to the Tramway due Mont Blanc railway line, where you put skins on. From there you head up to the Col de Mont Lachat, which you can't really miss as it is right next to a huge old lift station and furthermore there is a signpost telling you where you are. It isn't immensely obvious from there but basically you need to cross the big bowl above and exit onto the left ridge by whichever route looks safest and easiest. I've put a photo below which hopefully makes it a bit clearer.

Our route across the big bowl, taken from the Col de Mont Lachat

Skinning up the Tramway du Mont Blanc

Mid way across the bowl

From the far side of the bowl you take skis off and walk up the shoulder for 100 metres or so and then put ski and skins back on and cross the next bowl. At this stage you change into crampons, climb the couloir and then have a final skin to the entrance to Trappier. Quite an approach. The problem for us was that the weather was turning (Forecast - 80% sunshine, reality - snow and black cloud, thanks Meteo France!) and the snow in the couloir that we were trying to bootpack was bottomless, insecure powder. None of us were very happy about the situation by this stage so we headed down. On the way we still managed to ski some good powder, and also de toured to go over the top of Mont Lachat which looks like it would have some amazing ski lines off the summit and down to Les Houches if snow cover was better.

Matt and Tristan just before we turned back

Ian and Tristan on top of Mont Lachat

Despite not making it to the couloir we had a superb day and I am really keen to go back. I think the Trappier would be in really good condition and everyone who has done it raves about it. This bad weather might mean it gets left until next year but I'll be back at some stage.

On sunday Ian and I went up to the Midi to do the classic Cosmiques couloir. For a variety of reasons I was feeling pretty rubbish, and this coupled with the fact that the route is fairly icy right now meant there was a bit of side slipping at the top (not by Ian I might add) but further down it was a bit better. Overall though, I wouldn't recommend it right now as there is quite a bit of ice about. Furthermore the glacier is a nightmare, and required 2 abseils (including one where I had no choice but to leave a screw behind as I had no V thredder - beer for anyone who returns it) and a terrifying crevasse leap that we belayed.

Once back under the Midi north face we decided to ski down to the Mont Blanc tunnel and were rewarded with some nice powder followed by some horrific bush whacking and combat skiing! So overall, a bit more of a beasting than we anticipated but good to be out with Ian and a good laugh overall despite the poor conditions. No photos I'm afraid - forgot the camera.

One last thing - a video of Tom explaining why we failed on thursday's Aiguille Croulante mission, plus a short clip of him skiing the NE face of the col des Cristaux after we'd decided to bail. Pure comedy!

Friday 25 March 2011

Glacier Mort & Aiguille Croulante

In the search for a good ski objective, Tom came across a description of the South Couloir of the Aiguille Croulante. With plenty of sun forecast we decided to take the Grand Montets up, skin up to the end of the Argentiere basin, climb the NE face of the Col des Cristaux, traverse a ridge onto the summit of the Croulante and then ski the line into the Talefre basin. Phew!

Tom heading up the Argentiere Glacier

It had only first been descended in 2000, by Pierre Tardivel, so it is a pretty obscure line but we were confident it would be good as we started skinning. It was boiling hot though and keeping up a good pace meant we were pretty sweaty by the time we reached the foot of the Cristaux. We quickly changed into crampons and began heading up and it just got hotter and hotter.

Climbing towards the Col de Cristaux

It was at this point that we decided that skiing a south facing line, in the afternoon and with the temperature somewhere around 20 celsius (literally) wasn't a great idea. We stuck the skis back on and skied the lower section of the Cristaux, which provided a nice little pitch of about 45 degrees, and then shot out back to Grand Montets. After much debate about to salvage the day we ended going rock climbing at the Le Joux monolith -never a bad option.

Conditions in the Argentiere basin are pretty all the over place right now but the basic theme seems to be skiing bad, climbing good. The Ginat, Swiss Route on the Courtes and the Couturier all looked excellent and had teams on them, but the ski descents like the NE face of the Courtes looked awful.

North face of les Courtes

NE face of the same mountain

Today I went out with John on a powder hunt in the Aiguilles Rouges and opted for the Glacier Mort. I'd done it a few weeks ago with Jack and knew it held good snow even a long time after snowfall, and was sure it would be good. We also teamed up with Matt, Andy and Tristan, so it was a very sociable day. The approach was, unsurprisingly, boiling but with plenty of banter and awesome views it wasn't too much of a chore. From the top of where most people drop in we decided on a whim to carry on for 20 minutes to a higher peak and were rewarded with an awesome little steep pitch.

Andy, John, Matt and Tristan about to drop in

This is taken from where most people start the descent but we carried on to this peak and skied down the tracked gully straight from the summit - well worth the extra effort.

View from the drop in

Andy joining the normal descent

After that it just got better and better. I thought the top would be good but assumed the snow would get heavy lower down, but we had perfect powder from the top almost to the bottom of the valley. There were quite a few tracks but you didn't need to look to hard to find fresh ones. We also found some really nice little gullies and drop offs, so pretty superb all round.

Matt and Tristan mid way down

The ski down through the trees to Le Buet was, frankly, desperate but it is nearly April so you can't expect much. As per usual we were greeted by the welcome sight of the Hotel du Buet so several beers were consumed, and then when we finally made it back to Flegere to collect the car we couldn't exactly walk past the Hotel Rhodedendrons without having a few more, so it was a wobbly bunch who finally made it back to town!

 (At this point I should add that we hitched to avoid driving!)

John shredding

Awesome day and still plenty of good snow in the Rouges for those willing to earn it.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Bits and Bobs

After last week's adventures I was keen for a slightly more relaxed weekend, and the weather played ball by not being great. Friday was a fairly miserable day and saw no more action than furniture shopping in Geneva and a quick dry tooling session at Le Fayet with Helen.

Saturday was still pretty murky but Vicks and I went up to Le Tour and she did her first ski tour followed by her first couloir - a fine effort. We just skinned up to the Refuge at the Col de Blame then hung a right and followed the ridge for half an hour or so until we found a nice looking, steepish descent. The snow wasn't great but nice to be out and great views when it cleared.

Vicks on her first ski tour - she's a natural!!

Refuge de Balme

Today was nothing short of immense. Emma and I had heard conflicting reports on Courmayeur so we went to check it out but took the cragging gear in case it wasn't looking good. As it turned out we skied perfect powder down steep couloirs straight off the top lift. We started out with the one straight under the cables and it was so good we did it twice. Then we tried one a bit further along the ridge and again it was so good that it required 2 visits. Below both there was absolutely perfect and untracked powder, so there were plenty of grins all round. One little tip, the queue to get on the Youla lift is pretty long, but the queue for the Arp (the very top lift) is non existent, so having skied our lines we just walked back up 50 metres of piste to the Arp rather than descending all the way to the Youla. We reckon this saved over half an hour per run, so worth doing.

Emma in action

Say no more

To finish off a great day we popped over to Gaillands for a couple of quick sport climbs and then retired for bacon butties and tea - what a tough life it is.

First rock climb of the year, hope there's plenty more.

There has apparently been high winds above 3000 metres but after today I'm sure there will be good snow for those willing to look for it.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Richard Cranium Memorial, Les Droites

Who can resist a route with a name that good?!? Certainly not Tom and I, so we took the last bin up the Grand Montets on Thursday evening hoping to make the likely first British ascent of this route on the North West face of Les Droites. Mark Twight and Barry Blanchard did the first ascent in 1991, grading it IV, 5, 5c, ED. 800m, and Twight famously quipped, “We called it the Richard Cranium Memorial because we hoped we’d outgrown him.” There’s something about knowing the history of a route that makes it far more appealing than it should be!

Les Droites, Richard Cranium Memorial marked.
 Due to some idiots leaving a mess in recent months climbers are no longer allowed to sleep in the nice warm toilets at the cable car station and we had to make do with the corridor, but such is life. There is a good system at GM, whereby if you bivi at the station and leave your kit there they will take it down on the lift for you, so bearing this mind we had perhaps the most luxurious mountain bivi ever, featuring 90mm sleeping mats, pillows and beer. Its a hard life.

A tough bivi

Up and away just before 5am we walked over to the Droites pretty easily, except for a short section of tough trail breaking at the very end. Having stayed in the tracks leading to the north face for as long as possible we ended up at the left side of the bergschrund and had a fairly brutal time getting across it. This then led to some loose snow over rock and all in all it was a bit grim, but we eventually found ourselves at the foot of the long slope leading up towards the Col de L’Aiguille Verte. By this stage we were well behind our estimated timings and considered turning back but decided to plough on. The snow slope was fairly brutal and the loose sugary snow made for scary and slow progress.
Eventually we found ourselves on good, firm neve and with the crux pitches not too far away. Putting the rope on we began moving together and made good time up to where the real climbing starts. By this time we were miles off our predicted timings, but with plenty of daylight left and not wanting to try and retreat down the crappy snow below, we started up the crux section.  We moved together through the first half and it felt fairly comfortable until we made a stupid route finding error and ended up having to ab back down a pitch to rejoin the route. By this stage we were really racing darkness and unfortunately we lost the race about 150 metres from the summit. At this stage Tom was heroic in continuing to lead while I just about managed to second with a headtorch providing about 6 feet of vision. Needless to say progress was pretty slow (try route finding through mixed terrain at night) but after a lot of front pointing up, across and down hard ice in the search for a feasible way to the summit ridge, we eventually made it.

Tom on the lower ice section

Sometimes a bad photo can still convey an experience accurately.

Both desperately thirsty we got the stove out and brewed up and then, being pretty done in we both fell asleep for an hour. After a brief discussion about what to do we had another hours kip, and then decided that with less than half the night left we might as well sit it out. The summit of a 4000er in winter with no bivi kit is pretty grim place to be but we were just about ok and both managed to doze enough to pass the night quite quickly.
We decided to set off at 7am or when the sun hit us, whichever came first. As it turned out the barometer on my watch showed that the pressure was plummeting so we got off at first light. We had discussed traversing to the South Breche to ab but it looked  pretty tricky so we decided just to drop down the couloirs next to where we’d spent the night as there was some ab tat at the top and it looked like there were spikes all the way down to provide anchors. Luckily for us it was clearly a common descent route and there were in situ anchors all the way so we were quickly on the glacier and walking out to Montenvers.

Heading home down the south face

So quite an adventure! The route was not as technically hard as the grade suggests but we should have gone up the day before to check out the bergschrund -  I think there is an easy way across it further to the right and it cost us ages crossing it where we did. Also, we should have turned back when we encountered poor snow on the lower slopes and got behind time. However, despite these failures on our part and our poor route finding, it was a great experience....with hindsight! I  took my headcam so there’ll be a video when I get round to it.
Over in Grindelwald Jack and Rob got up the Eiger and reported reasonable conditions. They climbed from the first train to Death Bivi the first day and then to the summit the second day, descending the West Rib in just 2 hours on day 3. Jack reckoned October would be the way to go when it would be warm enough to climb some sections bare handed, but it seems like it is certainly ok right now.
Here in Cham the dreaded Foehn wind has blown in so we can expect warm, unsettled weather and rubbish skiing (although Italy is apparently ok). I think a nice warm weekend in Provence beckons....

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Aiguille de L'Encrennaz, NE Couloir

On Saturday I went up with Damien and Emma to ski the NE couloir of the Aiguille de l'Encrennaz in the Aiguilles Rouges. We'd heard really good reports about conditions and were pretty sure it would be immense. To get to the route you skin to Lac Blanc from the top of the Index chair and then continue rightwards until beneath 3 obvious wide couloirs, and climb the central one.

Skinning towards Lac Blanc

Climbing the couloir

From the top of the couloir you are on a small col and there is a single peg to ab off to get you started. We abbed in and found that some people had basically side slipped the whole of the top 60 metres of the run, creating a deep trench of hard snow. We could maybe have side stepped it but with a cliff underneath we decided to ab, which took forever with skis on. For the final ab we had to take skis off and it was all generally a bit of a faff. If I had my time again I'd take 60 metres ropes, and keep crampons on. Had we done this we would have been ready to ski within 2 abs but as it was there was a lot of messing around.

 Damien realising that he's going to have to take his skis off midway through an abseil!

Once on skis the couloir is superb - a steep (45 - 50 degree) slope narrows to a short little sideslip, and then some more couloir and a final narrow section leads to easy ground. The snow is pretty good right now - nice and grippy and very stable.

Emma dropping in at the top of the couloir

Once on the easy ground we were expecting some good powder but unfortunately there had been a bit too much sun on it and we ended up with a mixed bag, but mainly crust. Still, it was great fun heading down through all sorts of terrain to the col des Montets, and the views were incredible.

Damien + View

 The route from below, with the skiable section marked in red.

The weather is currently pretty good and there were big plans for this weekend of heading to the Eiger in a 4 consisting of Me, Jack, Tom and Rob, but Tom and I can't get out of work. The other 2 have gone on their own today as the weather window looks like it might be a bit shorter than first thought.

Don't worry though, Tom and I have got a pretty good consolation prize lined up.....

Friday 4 March 2011

Capucin Couloir & Glacier de Mort

I've just come down from the second of 2 amazing, but very different ski touring days. Yesterday, Tom, Chippy and I headed up the Midi to do the Capucin Couloir near the Aiguille du Tacul. Being sheltered and north facing we were all pretty confident that it would be in good condition.

Getting across the Italian side of the Vallee Blanche was fine but once there it was extremely open, making things pretty nerve wracking and making us pretty relieved when we finally got to where you put skins on, opposite the Requin hut.

A very open Vallee Noire.

The skin up is about 800 metres, followed by 100 metres of easy boot packing.

Earning the turns

Chili con carne for lunch - life doesn't get much better!

Once at the Col du Tacul there is an in situ ab anchor, and then plenty more on the way down. Tom side slipped after one ab but Chippy and I did 4 short, awkward abs. I think with 60 metre ropes you could do one big ab, because the location of the anchors meant we ended up doing a couple that were only 15 metres.

Once we had skis on there is a short side slip and then a leftward traverse which leads to the couloir. The ski itself is fairly steep, with some sections getting to nearly 50 degrees, and very aesthetic as it is a perfect, uniform couloir. The snow is pretty average right now and quite wind affected, so we certainly didn't set any records for the speed of our descent, but it was fun all the same. Once off the steep section the snow was still pretty cruddy, so we were pretty miffed at having skinned up for hours only to be rewarded with such tough skiing but there we go. Once on the Laschaux glacier we were able to ski pretty fast and just about made the last train. All in all a great day but the skiing unfortunately isn't great right now.

Skiing the Capucin

Today Jack and I went up the Flegere to go and ski the Glacier Mort. Those in the know (clearly not me!) have been skiing the Aiguilles Rouges a lot recently and I'd heard plenty of good reports.

From the top of the Index chairlift you take the small Poma lift and then there is a short climb up the the Col Aiguilles Crochues. From there you traverse as if going to the Col de Berard but cut off right up an obvious couloir. We walked up it but you could skin a bit of it if you wanted.

Jack heading to the Col Crochues

Col Crochues

We ran into some friends of Jack's on the lift so it was all pretty sociable, and with the sun beating down it was nice and warm too. Some people ahead of us suddenly had a complete panic at having to walk up some 30 degree snow so whilst they sorted themselves out we had a nice lunch looking at a pretty amazing view of Mont Blanc.

From the top of the couloir we turned right and climbed about 10 minutes to the summit of a nice little peak and got the skis strapped on.

Matt and Andy on the final ridge to the summit

The ski itself is really nice, with a couple of short steepish (30 degree) sections which Jack did pretty heroically on seeing as it was only his second ever ski tour!

Once off the intial steep section the run is perfect snow and a perfect angle for really ripping it. The powder was incredible, and although tracked on the obvious lines, there was still plenty of easily accessible fresh bits so a very enjoyable time was had.

How good is skiing?!?

Once on the track to Le Buet the combat skiing really started, the highlight being when I suddenly shot off a blind drop of about 4 feet. With no warning at all it was all I could do to fall safely, let alone stay on my feet. Jack failed to understand why I was waving at him and so carried on at Mach 10 and shot off the same drop, the result also being a pretty heavy fall.

There is plenty of snow cover though so we were down pretty quickly and soon on the train home to Cham.

The Rouges really seems like the place to be right now so guess where I'm off to tomorrow!

Snow cover isn't that good!

Finally, I made a little video of our ski of the Capucin. Most videos (especially mine!) take themselves pretty seriously so hopefully this is a bit more light hearted.

Untitled from Charlie Boscoe on Vimeo.