Tuesday 31 December 2013

Col du Bonhomme

Having just got back from Christmas in the UK, I was half expecting my house to have been avalanched, such were the dire warnings on the internet of how unstable the snowpack is. Luckily it was still standing but it's clear that things are pretty dodgy right now, with fresh snow having landed on a pretty weak layer. With this in mind I wanted to ease into it and go touring somewhere relatively safe which would allow me to have a look around and start trying to figure out what's going on right now.

Les Contamines fit the bill, in particular the ever enjoyable Col du Bonhomme. The tour is about as mellow as it gets and save for the final section up to the Col, the terrain is low angled enough to be fairly safe. Best of all, the views are great the tour takes you past some bigger terrain without ever putting you in too much danger. 

It's always a bit longer than you think from the end of the road up to the Balme refuge but from there the scenery is amazing and you get to have a good look around at various slope aspects and altitudes.  Generally things look pretty sketchy and there was evidence of numerous spontaneously released avalanches in places you wouldn't normally think of as dodgy. It also said a lot that the Col des Chassuers, a tour so popular that it can become a mogul field, was completely untouched. Ditto several other nice looking slopes on Mont Jovets and the surrounding area. 

Heading up Lacs du Jovet.

Beautiful snowy views.

Trying to work it out.

The final skin up to the Col is about the only bit that I thought might cause us problems but it felt stable and had had plenty of traffic so we shot up and were soon soaking up the sun and views. 

Final section to the top

After a leisurely lunch at the Col we headed down and got some superb powder, the odd bit of crust and then the final icy run down to the car. All in all, an excellent day.

Phil likes.

Despite the numerous people who'd gone before and the avalanche danger, we managed to find a short little untracked couloir which felt nice and solid - always a good thing. 


Sharon just below Lacs du Jovet.

Looking up towards the Tete des Fours.

One final look up the Valley before the icy path begins...!

Overall things feel scary right now in the Alps. I certainly don't feel like pushing the boat out and I'm sticking to low angled terrain for the foreseeable future. The weather forecast is calling for some very unsettled weather over the next few days so things are about to change again. My advice is - if in doubt, go for the mellow option and stay safe - there's plenty of good skiing to be had without doing anything too "out there."

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Snow on the way, but be careful...

After an incredibly dry month in the Alps it seems that winter may well be on the way back, albeit temporarily. The snow is due to start tomorrow and last into Friday but it will then be followed by mild temperatures and unpredictable weather. All in all, the great start to winter has stalled somewhat and even when the snow does come back things will be pretty sketchy out there after this recent weather has created a very weak layer in the snowpack. It was a bad year for avalanches last year and this year looks like it might be no different so stay safe out there and keep a close eye on the avalanche bulletins.


Monday 9 December 2013

Mont Lachat

The sun just keeps on shining here in Cham so although there's been no snow for a while, I've kept myself skiing and training in preparation for the next storm. I skinned up to the top of Les Houches on Friday and Saturday but that wears thin pretty quickly so on Sunday Sharon and I nipped up Mont Lachat, above Bellevue. 

With the Prarion being the only lift open at Les Houches, we took that up, skied down to Col de Voza and then skinned 500m vertical up to the summit. There wasn't much snow about but the views were superb and the ski down the Tramway du Mont Blanc track was entertaining, to say the least.

Me lining up that first turn from the summit.

Nice but thin powder once back into Les Houches ski area.

Basically the story here in France is that we need some snow pretty urgently. However, there is none forecast for the foreseeable future and the sun is apparently going to keep coming so we may have to wait a while. Things are definitely at the stage where I think resorts will be struggling to open on time, so winter seems to be on hold for now. Best thing for it now is to do some skinning and get some fitness in preparation for the snow which will inevitably arrive before too long.

Despite the pessimistic outlook, I do have a few touring ideas up my sleeve for the next week...

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Tete Pelouse, La Clusaz

After a productive work day yesterday I was keen for more of the same again but after an hour in front of the laptop with occasional glimpses out of the window, I knew the game was up and so caved in and went for a tour. What willpower!

I ended up driving to La Clusaz and then on again to the tiny settlement of Les Confins, from where a huge number of good looking tours are accessed. However, in my hurry to get going I'd forgotten both the guidebook and the information I'd printed off from the internet so I was armed only with a French map - a "chocolate teapot" item if ever there was one. 

In the end I kept it simple and decided to head up the Combe du Grand Cret with an open mind, but hoping that I'd be able to find a way over a peak called the Tete Pelouse and  into the Combe de Bella Cha, which looked to have better snow cover low down.

Looking up from my start point. The Combe du Grand Cret Valley is on the left, the Combe de Bella Cha on the right. 

The skin up the Combe was great - a decent track and a perfect temperature for skinning without sweating too much. 

Enjoying the skin.

Once near the top of the Grand Cret there seemed to be all sorts of options but I had no idea if any of them led into the other Valley, so I just drifted rightwards towards the ridge line below -

I was hoping to get to the right-hand col on this photo but ended up too high and instead went to the middle one.

All on my lonesome.

As I got higher and began breaking my own trail I ended up taking my headphones out and just enjoying the solitude. The sun was out (albeit not shining on me), the views amazing and the snow seemed to be getting better and better as I got higher so life was pretty good. 

I eventually ended up re-joining an old skin track just before the col and I was glad of it because I'd done over 1000m of ascent without a break and was feeling pretty tired. Reaching the Col was great though - immense views and best of all a clear route into the Valley I was aiming for.

A flask of juice, leftovers from dinner and some fruitcake - what a lunch. Not a bad spot to eat it either.

So, what to go for?

The cold, north facing snow which was powdery but a bit changeable....

...or the sunny spring snow?

The spring snow! In fact it turned out to be powder, which put a smile on my face.

The descent down the Bella Cha was brilliant - 90% powder, a tiny bit of a crust and just the odd rock for most of the way down. Unfortunately the last few hundred metres was 90% rocks and 10% crust but you can't have everything :)

Looking back at my tracks. The slightly erratic course was due to me trying to stay away from any old tracks - there's no point putting in the effort if you then ski where someone else did.

So, another great early season day. The amount of terrain above Les Confins is mind blowing and some of it looks pretty adventurous to say the least. To quote the former Governor of California, "I'll be back".

Monday 2 December 2013

Courmayeur & Verbier

After a heavier than expected snowfall on Friday, we were confident that we'd be able to find good snow over the weekend without needing to do any touring. First up was Courmayeur, which started badly when we got through the tunnel only to find no fresh snow on the ground. Luckily enough, things looked white up high and we ended up getting some great fresh tracks despite there not being a huge amount of lifts open. It never ceases to amaze me how different conditions can be in Courmayeur and Chamonix and today was no exception - we went from shovelling the car to a dry Italian Valley (which is 300m higher than Cham) in one trip through the Mont Blanc Tunnel. I guess having Europe's highest mountain between the 2 towns probably has a lot to do with it but it still feels weird to me. Anyway, an excellent day despite first appearances.

Sharon deep in it.

Tristan with the Grandes Jorasses behind. The views from Courmayeur really are incredible.

When I was skiing down on the last run, I was blown away by the pink evening light but then I realised that I had my pink tint goggles on. Such is the brain power of your typical ski bum. Anyway, I made the most of my stupidity and took this shot through my lens. I quite like it.

On Sunday we made a last minute decision to head to Verbier and we ended up finding some great snow. The snow cover is getting better but is still very thin lower down, so Matt and I had 2 great runs off the top of Mont Fort but made the mistake of carrying on down to Tortin on the first one, resulting in numerous rock encounters. Still, a brilliant day and yet another reminder that I need to go to Verbier more.

Matt on Mont Fort.

Matt on one of the better covered sections above Tortin.

We ran into my mate Ian on the way up to Mont Fort and he had collected a rock pretty heavily on the run just before we saw him. Ouch!

The weather is now set to be sunny and very warm (freezing level above 3000m) all week so it's tough to know what good options there are. One good thing is that a freeze/thaw cycle might turn this powder snow into a decent base lower down so let's see what unfolds. Whatever happens, winter is off to a great start.