Sunday 28 April 2013

Swiss Route, Les Courtes N Face

After talk of a good weather window arriving in the Alps it finally came on Tuesday, and was forecast to last about 3 days. As ever this season it was also bringing increasingly high temperatures with it, so if anything big was to get done, it seemed best to do it ASAP.

With that in mind I teamed up with Andy Houseman for a hit on the N face of Les Courtes off the first bin at Grand Montets. Figuring that Andy (sponsored alpinist and Piolet d'Or nominee) might be slightly quicker than me (ski bum and lover of good living), I borrowed a pair of 130cm approach skis from Ross Hewitt in an attempt to keep up, and inevitably had to put up with much ridiculing from everyone in the cable car!

My skis and Andy's skis. Mine were great anytime they were on my back, less so whenever they were on my feet.

Having just about survived the ski down to the Argentiere Glacier, we were soon skinning up to the Courtes in baking heat and with the route looking in great condition.

Looking up at Les Courtes N face.

And again, from just below the bergschrund.

Racking up. Andy skinned faster than me, but faffed hard at the bottom of the route, giving me time to take a breather before the slog up the lower snow slopes.

The bergschrund initially looked a bit spicy but actually was pretty straightforward where we crossed it (about 50 metres left of the bottom of the route). From there we did some pretty tough trail breaking through deep snow for the first 100 metres and then began simul-soloing up perfect, squeaky neve towards the steeper crux section. Like myself, Andy places a great deal of importance on the quality of chat/trash talking  during a route, so it was quite surreal to be soloing up ice whilst cracking jokes and telling tall tales! Climbing is supposed to be fun after all. 

A rare shot of me breaking trail for the Houseman greyhound! Photo Andy Houseman

Me on perfect neve on the way to the crux. Photo Andy Houseman

Once at the crux we roped up and moved together from there on. The crux is actually pretty fun climbing, with sections of ice up to about 80 degrees, and a couple of more technical moves where the ice has thinned out a bit near the end of the steep section.

Andy on the crux

Once above the crux there is one more short technical-ish section and then it is a long slog to the top up steep snow. I don't know exactly what time we started, but I think the route took us somewhere between 4.5 and 5 hours. No record breaker, but not disastrous considering we had skis and neither of us had done much climbing recently.

Looking across to the Aiguille du Chardonnay from the upper slopes

The contrast from cold, austere north face to baking sun was quite a shock when we finally topped out, and the views were just amazing, with seemingly every peak in the Massif visible. A quick bit of downclimbing soon led us to where we could put skis on, and from there it was a case of picking our way down a pretty dodgy feeling descent to the Talefre Glacier. 

Me on the summit ridge. Photo Andy Houseman.

Downclimbing to where we put skis on

Although Tuesday was forecast to be the coolest of the sunny days, the heat when we were skiing was unbelievable - it felt like one of those baking August days up the Midi where no amount of clothing or suncream seems to keep you protected - and it made it all feel pretty scary. With all the fresh snow coupled with the warmth, we had to really take our time on the descent, and we were both pretty relieved to reach the relative safety of the Talefre basin. 

Skiing from the Col des Droites with the Grand Jorasses on the left, and Mont Blanc on the right.

Unfortunately I had a pretty tough time skiing the 130cm skis through knee deep slush, so we pretty comfortably missed the last train down from Montenvers, but we managed to ski about half of the James Bond track, and got Andy into town only slightly late for his dinner at Munchies.

So, a pretty cool day all round - a big N face, an "exciting" ski descent, and plenty of banter. It was pretty impressive and inspiring watching Andy do his thing on a big route, and definitely made me realise just how big the step up is from competent alpinists like me and most of my climbing partners to people climbing massive routes in the Greater ranges. Thanks Andy for the lesson in how to climb fast, and for not complaining about waiting for me on the ski down (supposedly my strong point!) - I promise I'll take some bigger skis next time!!! 

Finally, a picture of what was waiting for me at home - thanks Sharon!

The foehn wind has now blown into Cham, and with people slowly starting to leave town it feels as if winter might just be over. That said, there is a lot of precipitation falling and I suspect the steep skiers will be getting pretty excited, but for now I am full.

The "Chamonix Winter 2013" screensaver on my laptop keeps flashing up amazing photos of memories which will last a lifetime, but my body aches and it feels like time to get a change of scene for a while. Cham is an amazing playground but it's sometimes hard to be here and not feel pressure to be doing something in the mountains, so I'm going to have a weekend of watching sport, eating, drinking and relaxing before heading back to UK for a week or so. 

Fear not though, the psyche is never away for long, and I'll be back here, revved up for summer (and with some very exciting news regarding next winter....) in no time.