Tuesday 28 February 2012

Aiguille d'Argentiere, Glacier Milleu.

Although there is no shortage of sunshine right now in Cham, there is a distinct shortage of fresh snow, and with temperatures rocketing (13 celsius in the Valley tomorrow), it is slightly tricky to come up with objectives. We had planned to go to La Grave today but plans changed last minute and we decided to stay here and see what we could find.

I was out with Matt and Tristan, so ice climbing or alpinism wasn't even discussed as an option, Matt being staunchly passionate in his hatred of anything requiring 2 axes. We eventually decided on the Aiguille d'Argentiere and were joined by John Vincent, a Cham "local" and general good egg.

Aiguilles Chardonnay and Argentiere from Grand Montets. Our line is marked in red.

Matt or Milf?

Having skied down from the Grand Montets we started the long skin up the Glacier Milleu, a notorious sun trap which can be an oven on warm days. Luckily it wasn't quite as warm as it can be, and we were up to the bergschrund in a couple of hours. One small bit of beta is that there are some really icy sections and ski crampons are vital if you want to avoid sections of walking and skidding around.

Once at the bergschrund we changed into crampons and got stuck into the bootpack, which takes in a 400 metre vertical height gain and is mostly about 40 degrees. In beating sun and at nearly 4000metres, it felt pretty tough but such is life.

Tristan and Matt earning their turns

After nearly 5 hours of uphill we eventually reached the summit and the views were just stunning. I'll let this little video do the talking -

Self Portrait on the summit

John down climbing back to the skis, which we left about 10 metres below the summit.

The ski down was excellent, mainly on really fun spring snow, and taking in some steep ish terrain near the summit as you ski down what you bootpacked up. Here's some spring skiing porn -

Me on the steep upper section

Me shredding it

Tristan doing much the same only faster and better

Matt next to some funky ice formations near the bottom of the Argentiere Glacier.

So, no sign of any powder but with some superb spring snow and corn to be had, us Chamonix skiers can't really grumble.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Fil a Plomb attempt

Having only got back to Cham late yesterday, I was uber keen to get cracking right away so Tom and I decided to have a go at the Fil a Plomb, starting from the Plan de L'Aiguille and (hopefully) catching the Midi down at the end of the day. 

Tom at the Plan de L'Aiguille looking up at the Midi N face. The route takes the mixed ground below the obvious col straight above Tom.

The walk in was fine as someone had put a track in, and we were both extremely relieved that we weren't the ones who had had to do it as the snow was pretty deep in places. Things were all going fine until a serac suddenly shed some excess ice to our right. We had intentionally avoided walking under the serac and so I quickly got my camera out to get some shots, but the falling ice hit more ice further down and next thing a small serac fall had become a MASSIVE one. Still thinking we were safe I snapped a couple more photos and then we realised that although none of the debris was going to hit us, the ensuing wave of airborne snow was headed straight for us. Just before it reached us I suddenly realised that I had no idea what to expect. Can you breathe?!?! Does it knock you over?!?! 

I'd never been hit with a wall of snow before, so it was almost a relief that it is actually no worse than going from blue sky to the worst blizzard of your life in a split second. Wearing only a base layer on my top half it was pretty chilly (it took us 15 minutes of almost jogging uphill in down jackets to warm up again afterwards) but not too bad. There had been a lone person walking behind us and once everything cleared I ran back looking for him. Luckily he was fine too, his description being "That was like dying, just without the final bit!"

Errrr....is that heading our way?!?!

Yep! Me feeling a lot happier/more relieved than I look after the snow storm. 

With pysche dented but not destroyed, we pushed on up towards the route and were soon soloing up towards the crux. We ended up roping up a pitch before the crux as there was a pretty tricky little mixed section to avoid some thin ice. 

Tom soloing on the lower section

And again, on a short mixed step shortly before the crux.

By this stage Tom was suffering pretty badly with a hamstring injury, and with him having to be in work at 2pm tomorrow (in Exeter!) we decided to bail rather than even take a slight risk of missing the last bin or having an epic with him having to do the top half of the route on one leg. There are in situ abs so it was pretty easy to get off, and although disappointing, I'm glad to be sitting in a warm house rather than dragging a one legged man along the Midi arete!

Although we bailed, the route is certainly climbable right now, albeit with some thin sections and quite a bit of deep snow in places. Still plenty of good weather coming up, so hopefully I'll be reporting a succesful ascent soon...

Heading home.

Friday 10 February 2012

Cascade de Bellevue

With it getting tough to find good and safe skiing, we decided today to cave in and see what this ice climbing lark is all about. The original plan was the Col des Montets but when we arrived there wasn’t any ice so after some deliberation we decided to head down to Les Houches and do the Cascade de Bellevue. I’d done the route years ago but with it already being early afternoon (you can’t rush breakfast when going ice climbing) we were short of alternatives and so headed off.

Although “only” WI3, the route rarely forms, and can be quite sporting unless it is really well frozen. As it turned out the first pitch was pretty solid, and the second pitch looked to be similar but turned out to be hollow, insecure and a good reminder of why winter is for skiing. Still, the route is in a stunning, peaceful little gorge (“Une ambiance tranquile” as the guidebook puts it) and in good nick is a really fun climb, but I think it’s probably best left until next winter given current conditions.

I’m back in Marrakech now and will be here for 2 weeks, so no blogging for me a fortnight or so. Spring is always my favourite time of year in Cham though so when I get back this blog will hopefully be full of tales of epic spring skiing, the odd alpine route, early season BBQs, and maybe even some rock climbing. Bring it on.

Looking up at the 2nd pitch.

With water running just under the surface of the ice on the direct finish I scurried out right. Nez is seen here carrying on straight up and maybe living to regret it (?)

Thursday 9 February 2012

Les Contamines

Although we've had a huge amount of snow this year, there have also been almost constant high winds, meaning that the good snow is not always that simple to find. In the last week it's got even tougher as the winds have begun to move around, and I've heard reports of bad snow where I was really expecting good stuff. This meant that our criteria for skiing yesterday was - low down (less wind), not tracked out (it hasn't snowed for a week or so), not too much uphill (obviously), no terrain traps, and interesting skiing. 

We decided to go for Les Contamines and ended up having a great day, albeit with only a bit of powder but plenty of fun. We were intending to do a tour from the top of the lifts, but with the pistes deserted we took the unusual step of skiing the corduroy for a few runs, and we all agreed that skiing the pistes at high speed is truly terrifying if you really go for it. I think steep skiing is pretty tame compared to the thought of catching an edge doing 50 mph on a piste!

We then skinned up off a lift for an hour or so in search of a good couloir but were rewarded with some terrible crust so we retired back to the pistes to reconsider. Our original idea for a tour was facing the same aspect as the little couloir we skied (North East), and the approach looked a bit avalanche prone, so we opted to just drop into the trees below the resort and find a way out. Expecting a bit of adventure we actually ended up with some of the best tree skiing I've done all winter and some superb powder, making us all wish that we'd just skied the trees all day! You live and learn.

Conditions seem very strange right now, and there was a huge amount of avalanche activity in Contamines, primarily on SE facing slopes, but the avalanche forecast is saying that all aspects are of equal risk right now. The winds have also returned with a vengeance up high, so after ruling out various ski options, as well as an alpine route (I tend to leave climbing in high winds and minus 30 to other, tougher people), we're actually going ice climbing. I was hoping to make it through a whole winter without doing a water ice route, so I'm slightly ashamed, but there are 5 of us going so there should be plenty of banter. Wish me luck!

Matt earning his crust turns, with the Domes des Miages behind.

Me at the top of Les Contamines lift system. "This is miles better than ice climbing!!"

Me in the trees low down. Photo Matt "Oil and Gas, Baby!" Livingstone

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Plan de L'Aiguille

Over the last 10 days I've been to Morocco, caught man flu and had my car die on me, all of which has added up to me not skiing for almost 2 weeks - an unacceptable state of affairs by any measure. I finally managed to get out today and did 3 laps off the Plan de L'Aiguille, finding some fantastic snow in places and some pretty full on bushwhacking/tree skiing. 

We skinned up to the top of the ridge which comes down from the Blaitiere for our first lap, but after that we just skied the lift as my man flu began to tell, and there was plenty of good snow to be had without skinning anyway.

Having caught the last Midi bin up we finished the day by skiing the final tree run to a well earned beer, with the orange glow of the sunset covering the Valley. It's good to be back.

Looking over to Le Tour and Switzerland

Tristan below the Blaitiere

Cham baby!

Matt owning it.

Plan de L'Aiguille at 4pm, amazing sunset about to begin.