Winter (Spring?) in the Alps

posted in: Cycling, Skiing | 1

2017 was a bad season for snow in the Alps. However, it had some advantages. At the time of my trip in the last week of March, the fresh grass in the valleys was beautiful, there were fewer people than normal skiing and the snow was still good up high. Even better I managed to do some great bike rides too.

Skiing

I started my skiing with two days of lessons with Rachel Kerr. She was an excellent instructor although I haven’t forgiven her for making us do snow plough turns down a blue run. I was joined by Angus and Amy. Here, we’re having a snack at the top of the Grand Montets cable car (3,295m). Mont Blanc – which I skied up with Amy and Angus last year – is in the background. In fact it was the way I suffered on the ski down from Mont Blanc that convinced me I needed some coaching.

At the end of the week I met up with Angus and his water polo teammates (Pete, Martin and Steve) and we did some laps on the Grand Montets. There was hardly any queuing for the cable car to top – it can be up to an hour’s wait on a busy day. After our lunch stop we skied down towards the Argentière Glacier and got stuck trying to find a way down through the cliffs above the glacier.

Our way down got us to a point where the only way forward was to do a little jump over the rock band to the right. Angus boldly led the way. It took me a while until I committed to it; as is usually the case with these things it didn’t look like much at all from below. The other guys sensibly climbed down the gully to the left.

Our reward was some steep turns down to the glacier. Angus styling it up. All good training for the boys in preparation for our tour with Phil two days later (see below).

Cycling

I’d originally planned to ski with another friend Phil as he lives in Geneva. However, he suggested a ride with other Haute Route friends and team-mates, Andy and Daan, and his other cycling buddies. One of them, Ally, put together two fantastic routes that that we did on consecutive weekends which gave us a 360 degree tour of the hills around Geneva. This picture shows the River Rhône where is crosses through the Jura mountains to the west of Geneva (south of Collonges in the map below).

On the first weekend we did the southern loop.

There were some beautiful roads that I would never have found if left to my own devices.

Our final climb was up and over the Salève, which is mountain with the cable car going up it that one passes when driving around Geneva towards Chamonix. Some remnants of winter were present towards the top. Phil kindly lent me the bike which I kept for the week.

Phil, myself and Andy on the top of the Salève. The Aravis are in the background with Lake Annecy in the distance on the right.

The second Geneva ride took in the Jura mountains on the north side of Geneva. Beautiful quiet roads. On our 40 minute climb into the range we were not passed by even a single car! We finished on the Col de la Faucille which is a regular training climb for Geneva based riders. I didn’t attempt to keep up with Daan on the descent; he flew down at an average speed of over 60kph getting a Strava top 10 on the descent. 

After three days of skiing I thought I would give my skiing legs a rest and set off on a solo ride down the valley from St Gervais, where I was staying. The weather was balmy and spring-like.

I decided to ride to Flaine but the road lacked any signs saying exactly how far it was. Almost 1400m of ascent later I came to the Col de Pierre Carrée. Disappointingly Flaine was another few kilometers further in the bottom of a closed valley, so I turned around and stopped for lunch in one of the villages that I had passed through on the way up, Les Carroz. The warm weather must have really hurt the economies villages like this. There were shops renting skis when outside flowers were starting to bloom in the meadows.

Ski Touring

Angus and I did two tours. The first was the day after our lessons. We decided to ski across to the Italian side of the range, drink some coffee and then return to Chamonix down the Vallée Blanche. The cable car to the Aiguille du Midi was strangely quiet especially as it was a glorious day. Fortunately that meant there weren’t any people slowing up the descent of the snow ridge down from the cable car.

Our coffee stop was on the ridge below Angus’ hands. The steep profile of the mountain on the left is the top half of the Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, which I climb with a friend José about 20 years ago.

This shows a clearer view of our route up to our coffee stop (at top of a cable car up from the Italian side of Mont Blanc called Pointe Helbronner). As you can see the snow was a bit crusty here. We did find some nice snow later in the day.

Following the skinning trial through the glacier. The face behind is the North Face of the Tour Ronde which has some significance for me as it was my first Alpine north face which I did just after my 18th birthday… a long time ago.

After a lengthy coffee stop we descended the right side of the Vallée Blanche. The view about shows the regular VB descent as well as Mont Blanc, Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc du Tacul. We didn’t see anyone else until three guys appeared over a cliff on our right just before the glacier flattens out. Not sure where they came from but it looked gnarly.

Our final tour and my final day of the trip was a ski tour with climbing friend and now guide, Phil. Another skiing friend who I had not seen for few years, Rupert, was also there along with Angus and the water polo boys. We spent the day in the Aiguilles Rouges and did not see any other people!

The tour started with a short boot pack climb from the top of the Col Cornu chairlift in the Brevent ski area. Angus, Pete and Steve. We descended to the Lac Cornu and then did a longer (300m ascent) skinning climb to cross into the Combe de la Pouce.

A lack of snow cover on a high traverse forced us to descend into a steep couloir. After some tight turns we found ourselves on the wrong side of a snow cliff that was crumbling into the stream below.

Phil belayed/lowered us down on his emergency rope. It was somewhat uncomfortable with a waist belay but I can definitely say I was glad I didn’t have to do it unroped. We gave Phil a belay in case he fell into the river but he down-climbed it with style, especially as the rock was loose and he was ski boots.

The bottom section of the couloir had some fun skiing in dirty looking spring snow. After that it was time to put the skins back on and climb 800m up to the Col de Bérard.

It snowed a bit and the wind picked up so at times it was quite atmospheric. It was cool being out there. We had skinned up from around the corner of the valley behind Rupert.

Rupert talking in the atmosphere before a final half hour skin up to the Col de Bérard. Thereafter we skied down, first in the cloud, then with some good visibility on soft spring snow and then through heavy, wet sticky stuff until we reached Le Buet (we had the walk the final few hundred metres). A great day out.

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