In the last few years I have had some memorable days ski mountaineering in and around the Mont Blanc massif with a university friend and climbing partner, Phil, who is now a mountain guide based in Chamonix. However, I was aware that I was, naturally enough, following rather than taking responsibility for my own safety. For example, I would rarely read the avalanche report or the weather forecast in detail. So, in order to develop more as a ski mountaineer, I decided it would be good to do some touring without a guide and convinced Martin to come and ski with me over Easter.
The most difficult thing to manage without a lot of Alpine winter experience is avalanche risk; luckily the avalanche rating was relatively low (risk rating 2) with the main danger being wet snow slides in the afternoons. We also decided to stick to relatively straightforward tours and to avoid large glaciers; hopefully later in the season I will be able to do some more committing and higher altitude tours with Phil (see Skiing Adventures with Phil).
After a warm up skiing around Verbier we had a day with Phil to do some off-piste descents that we probably wouldn’t head down on our own and to get some ideas on what tours we could do. The weather was very cloudy and we spent most of the day skiing in a white out. However, we did drop into two interesting couloirs through the trees below the Grands Montets mid-station. The picture below shows Phil, Martin and Eric (a 15 year old American lad) entering the Couloir Philippe. We also skied the Couloir Jeureumaz which was also about 40 degrees.
Pointe de la Terrasse
The following day Martin and I set off to ski up to the Pointe de la Terrasse (2,734m). We started at about 8.30am from c.1,350m in the village of le Courteray which is just over the Col des Montets to the north of Chamonix. It was a beautiful morning and we enjoyed the superb views of the Mont Blanc range as we climbed to the Chalet de Loriaz (2,020m).
It took us two and a half hours to get to chalet where we had a drink of water and scoped out the route ahead.
Our objective was the Col de la Terrasse, after which we planned to follow the ridge to the Pointe itself. It was a hot slog up south facing slopes that had already been softened by the sun. There was several people on the route though we seemed to behind most of them, aside from a couple of guys who were slowly catching us, one of whom is in the picture below.
As we neared the col we saw a party descending it and it did not look like they were enjoying themselves; they were not linking turns and were often falling over. We therefore decided to climb up the north-east couloir of the Pointe de la Terrasse, which is a steeper way up and down, as the snow looked much better.
Although we had crampons and ice-axes and could have climbed up the final section of the couloir (which was about 40 to 45 degrees) at about 2,600m we decided to call it a day. The main reason was it was past 1pm and getting very warm; the steep slopes we had to traverse across to return to the chalet were already very soft and melted so we were worried about them sliding. With hindsight we should have started the tour earlier. The photo below shows our high point with the Col de la Terrasse in the background.
After taking the climbing skins off our skis we set off down the couloir which was about 35 degrees steep at this point.
The snow in the couloir was deep and reasonably light but my first couple of turns were horrible. I had been looking forward to the ski down but my heavy rucksac (weighed down by a 60m rope amongst other things) meant I was only able to ‘survival ski’ the couloir. However, the easier angled spring snow on the rest of the descent to the Chalet de Loriaz was much more enjoyable. At the chalet we were surprised by the number of other skiers and snow-shoers.
We had a starter of soup, cheese, bread and Coca Cola sitting in the sun at the chalet.
This was followed by a main course of the bread we had brought up from the valley, eaten whilst perched on the roof of one of the other buildings in the hamlet.
We still had to descend a narrow track through the forest to the valley floor which I mainly did with my skis in a snowplough position as that was the way of getting down with the least effort. By the time I got to the bottom I felt that I had forgotten how to ski properly!
Excluding our lunch stop in the chalet, we took about 6 hours to do the tour, which was moving a little more slowly than the guidebook suggested. We climbed nearly 1,300m.
Chalet de Loriaz (Again!)
The weather took a turn for the worse the following day, but we hoped we could get back up to the chalet and ski in the bowl above before the cloud came down. However, even before we were half way up it started to snow and we reached the chalet in a white-out.
On the positive side however, we had the opportunity to see the inside of the chalet and to sample some more of the menu. I had a croziflette which is a tasty local speciality made of small squares of pasta called crozets.
After lunch we gingerly skied down through the cloud to the forest and then back down the ‘snowplough’ descent track.
Crochues – Bérard Traverse
The weather remained less than perfect for our final tour. This time we chose to do something in the Aiguilles Rouges and started the day with a ride up La Flégère cable car followed by two more lifts taking us to the top of the Floria draglift (2,490m).
We put our skins on by the side of the piste and commenced the climb to the Col des Crochues (2,704m), which is directly above the distant group of people you can see in the picture below.
There was about 5-10cm of fresh snow but underneath it was icy and we soon stopped to put on our ski crampons. We had a lot of difficulty fitting Martin’s on his Marker Baron bindings. The design just seems bad; fitting them in one’s living room seems easy enough but with gloves on it is different story. In comparison, my Dynafit crampons took about 5 seconds each to slot in place.
There were several parties on the climb to the col; however, we were not held up and it did not feel crowded.
The slope steepened so we put on the boot crampons, strapped the skis to our rucksacs and kicked steps up the last section to the col. As we crested the ridge we were hit by the full force of a strong SW wind. It was grim.
It was cold getting our kit sorted for the next stage of the tour which was a traverse below the cliffs around the head of the valley in the picture below.
We continued (out of sight in the picture above) until we could begin another skinning ascent of around 150m to the Col de Bérard (2,469m). We had more fun and games trying to fit on Martin’s ski crampons again and by the time we reached the col the cloud had come down and we were in a near white-out. The snow on the north facing descent was good and not that steep (probably about 30 degrees at most) but we had to ski quite cautiously given the conditions. It was a long descent (1,400m of vertical in total) taking us out of the cloud and into the bottom of the dramatic Vallon de Bérard.
The gradient of the rest of the descent was not steep but some bits were a twisting luge run through rocks and trees which was quite challenging. Following the river was beautiful even on a cloudy day.
When we reached the end of the tour at le Buet, the owner of the restaurant by the road (l’Hôtel du Buet) said they were too busy and he could only offer us a meal of bread and saucisson. We gladly accepted and were even given a little guillotine with which to cut the sausage. It was cool and at only €8 for both of us set the record for the best value meal I have ever had on a ski trip!
The traverse of the two cols from the Téléski de la Floria to le Buet took us 3 hours 50 minutes in total. It was not particularly strenuous with only about 400m of ascent.
That was our last day of touring but we both learnt a lot planning the trips and making the decisions during the course of the tours. Most importantly we had a good time and managed to avoid any mishaps.