Mont Blanc Skiing with Martin (2018)

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Just a few days of skiing for me this year but as always they were memorable. A day of spring skiing followed by a white out and then Arctic temperatures. With Martin and for, a couple of days, Phil and Angus.

We had four and a half days of ski time. Martin and I spent the first afternoon skiing up through the Les Houches ski area (to the top of the Télécabine du Prarion). A good way to check that our gear all worked and enjoy a coffee at the half way point (pictured). Also strangely satisfying to ski down without having bought a lift pass.

The following day we set off with Phil (guiding) on a route from the top of the Les Contamines lift system to Mont Joly (above the St Gervais lift system).

Looking back towards the Les Contamines pistes where we started. After reaching Mont Joly we skied the side of the ridge in the shade in this picture.

Phil, Martin and me with the Aiguille de Bionnassay and the Dômes de Miage in the background.

The descent off the ridge towards Megève. Good snow but a bit crusty at times.

Angus on the descent. Summit of Mont Joly in the top left.

Phil and Angus with a good view of the line we skied (from the peak on the left and then down through the trees).

We finished the steep skiing by a herd of bison in their winter quarters. They seemed quite docile.

But perhaps they weren’t so safe after all! After this we descended to Megève and then skinned from the top of the lift system back over another pass. The pressure was on as we had to descend to another life (to get back into the Les Contamines lift system) before it shut for the day. Our planned leisurely lunch stop became 10 minutes for a Coca Cola and some blister prevention work on Martin’s feet.

By now it was late afternoon and the snow was softened by the sun but gave us nice ‘spring’ skiing; however, it became a bit thin towards the bottom! We made it to the lift with a few minutes to spare.

The forecast for our second day of skiing with Phil was for the cloud to rise so we set off into the Aiguilles Rouges with the aim of climbing Mont Buet. However, things did not look promising after we had climbed over the Cols des Aiguilles Crochues and traversed across icy slopes into the Bérard valley. We changed plan and decided to ski down the valley, briefly into the low cloud band and then back out of the cloud onto and over the snowy lump in the middle of this picture. 

Part one of the plan went well. We skied through the cloud, did some sketchy side slipping to descend and cross the steep banks of a frozen river and skinned up the other side until it became steep enough for us to need to boot-pack. The problem was we never climbed out of the cloud; the most we saw of the sun was a glowing orb about as bright as a full moon.

Part two wasn’t shaping up according to plan. Phil had to use the GPS to navigate us across the plateau to the descent down the other side… which we commenced in a complete white out.

The descent began with some slide-slipping down a 60 degree couloir. I don’t like steep side slipping at the best of times and I did not enjoy this one bit. I was also wondering why I had my helmet strapped to the back of my pack rather than on my head!

We made it down and after more freaky white out skiing reached the Refuge de Moëde Anterne where we met a party of Norwegians who had decided that it would be too dangerous to ski down and were trying to dig their way into the refuge. This was a challenge as it was buried in snow up to its second story. Phil led them and us down a gully back towards the road-head at Plaine Joux. The snow in the gully was frozen solid and not easy to ski when you couldn’t see what was coming.

At a cafe/restaurant on the way down. Martin, Angus, Phil and the Norwegians. One of these was in fact a British guy who was 71 years old. I hope I can ski this sort of terrain when I am his age.

The final instalment of the day was skiing down to a hamlet above Servoz. There were some thin sections that we had to jump, or as in the picture above, ‘ski’ down.

The forecast for the next two days was for clear weather but very cold temperatures. As it was just Martin and I we decided to go for a tour that Phil recommended to the Refugio Bonatti in the Val Ferret (on the Italian side of Mont Blanc). The first section involved skiing/walking up some cross country ski trails for several kilometres. Beautiful views but a drag with touring skis.

It took a few of them until it dawned on me that these posts where the tops of bus stop signs. The trail to the Refugio Bonatti went up in the valley in front of the sunlit snowy ridge on the right.

View of the Grandes Jorasses from inside the Refugio Bonatti where we stopped for lunch.

We continued up above the hut (into the Combe de Malatra) to a pass intriguingly called the Pas Entre Deux Sauts. A late start meant we were one of the last people up the valley so we had it almost to ourselves.

At the pass we contemplated skiing down the other side but as we did not know the terrain, the snow looked crusty and it was getting late we decided to retrace our steps. The skiing wasn’t great on the way down – sticky powder then frozen, chopped up snow through the forest – but it was a fun day out with great views of the main Mont Blanc range. Mont Blanc itself can be seen poking above the cloud in this photo.

On our final day we figured the only place we would find good snow would be high up – everything lower down was going to be icy – so we went as high as we could catching the cable car to the Aiguille de Midi at 3,842m! It was cold. -28 degrees Celsius.

Our plan was to ski and skin over to Pointe Helbronner, have a nice coffee (as it’s in Italy) and ski back down the Vallée Blanche. However as we approached our destination cloud started to well up out of Italy so we decided to skip the coffee. Our experience two days previously had made us much more aware of the perils of skiing through unknown terrain in a white out.

The cloud seemed to disappear as soon as we started skiing down! Martin with the North Face of the Tour Ronde – my first Alpine north face – in the near background. 

At the end of the skiing, which this year coincided with the end of the Mer de Glace. It’s incredible how much the glacier has shrunk since I first started to coming to the Alps. The point where Martin is standing would have been under 100 vertical metres of ice 25-30 years ago!

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