We’re recently back from a couple of weeks in France, what an amazing (and weird?) series of spring weather conditions we had though… More “Springtime France”
Domaine de Balme
To kick off the week we thought we’d take it easy and find our ski-legs at Le Tour, or more properly – Domaine de Balme. Of course with the mad-for-it speed machines Dave and Jon in the team “take it easy” didn’t really work out. It was a speed fest blasting all the pistes at hyper velocity. Then we headed off-piste in to the area I know as the “Scandi Trap”…
Day two say us at Les Houches, supposedly for another easy ski-leg finding day. Of course, predictably, that didn’t happen either. We blasted all the pistes at ultra speed, and managed to avoid crashing in to all the trees in the off-piste. 😉
Courmayeur was the venue for the next day. This involved taking a bus through the Mont Blanc tunnel. The ski area is covered by the same Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass, but the bus costs €15 each return. However, Dave and I – on my recommendation – only took our UK driving licenses as ID for the border crossing in to Italy. I’m fairly certain checks are a little more rigorous now-a-days due to the migrant and terrorist issues faced by France this year. A driving license is not sufficient, take your passport! Luckily the gendarmes, after a stern telling off and much finger wagging, let us go through the tunnel for an amazing day blasting the pistes at mega pace.
Before catching the bus back to Chamonix we enjoyed – possibly – the best hot chocolate in the world…
On the fourth day our legs were tired from all the frantic speed skiing. But still keen for a top adventure we opted for the Vallée Blanche. I’d heard that the hot summer had left massive crevasses on the route. As it turned out, except for the two surprising and slightly scary crevasses on the snow arête leading down from the Aiguille du Midi lift station, the route was in fine condition.
The Brévent/Flégère area was the next rapid travel test venue. Dave felt the burn earlier than Jon and I and headed back to base an hour or so earlier. Jon and I stayed on and at one point got silly! Having enjoyed a few jumps of the odd lump and bump I spied a larger bump, maybe 3 metres high. As I reached the top – at some speed – it was too late to take evasive action when I saw that the other side was a sheer drop! Thankfully the snow was deep and soft and no bones were broken. Even more thankfully, with Jon only a few metres off my tail, he avoided landing right on top of me!
Domaine de Balme
The final day of un-tethered swiftness was supposed to be at Megève – newly covered by the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass. The bus from Chamonix is free, but it needs to be booked before 4pm the previous day. This we failed to do. Therefore we simply got on the first regular ski bus that arrived. We ended up back at the Domain de Balme. The highlight of the visit was a tremendous and long off-piste descent from the top of the Aiguillette right down in to Vallorcine.
Monday was amazing as well. More wall to wall sunshine, so this time we did jump on the lift up to the Aiguille du Midi (not the first lift I hasten to add). More “Spring Snow – Vallee Blanche Again”
This morning it is snowing so hard it’s like the sky is falling in! Hard to believe that yesterday was clear and sunny. But it was. Perfect for a well timed Burfday descent of the Vallée Blanche… More “A Vallée Blanche Burfday Pressie”
Today there was no fresh snow, no clouds, no wind, and – can you believe it – blue skies! Having achieved little in the way of the ski touring we’d planned due to the weather, it was decided that a day in the Valleé Blanche would be fun – isn’t it always! More “Crevasse Rescue Practice”
After days and days of lots and lots of snow, with poor visibility and high winds keeping skiers on the lower slopes, at last the day came when we had sunshine and no wind. It had to be a day for the Vallée Blanche. More “Vallée Blanche Powder”
The temperatures in the weeks before we came out to France had been well below freezing, as low as -20°C, so the icefalls next to the snout of the Argentiere glacier were fat! Alas, the week we arrived temperatures rose considerably and as we approached the falls we could see they were wet, detached from the rock, and incomplete. A couple of large (car sized) chunks fell as we watched! 😮 Plus, as we skinned up the glacier, there were some massive full depth avalanches triggering by the high temperatures and subsequent melt water running beneath the snow pack. One particularly scary avalanche swept right across the glacier and up the opposite bank leaving a wall of debris some 6m high across the route back down. Luckily – and clearly ‘cos we are still alive – we were some way above this avalanche and merely got a grandstand view of the devastation! Although it did mean we had to climb some way up to get past the debris where we would have normally been able to ski straight through on the way home.
Les Grands Montets & Le Tour Skiing
In between attempts to reach melting icefalls we enjoyed several days skiing on the fun-side of the rope at Les Grands Montets and Le Tour. Both of these ski areas have massive off-piste potential, although with the warm weather we were cautious of conditions and avalanche… The best off-piste area at Le Tour is nicknamed the “Scandie Trap” as some time ago an avalanche buried and killed two Scandinavian skiers! 😯
The highlight of the week was when Dean & Dave overlapped their week’s skiing with the end of ours and we joined up for a weekend of fun that ended with a descent of the Vallée Blanche…
Dean was worried that he might not have found his ski legs and fitness in time for the descent on Sunday, but after a couple of runs at the Brevent area he thought it would be OK. We caught the lift to the Aiguille du Midi at 11AM, normally that’s plenty of time to get back to Chamonix, it gets dark at 5.30PM-ish. However, the avalanches around the valley had also claimed the Montenver railway! 100 train passengers got an unexpected helicopter flight the day before when 25 flights were arranged to rescue the passengers as the railway was swept by another massive release.
What this meant for us was that the normal end to the Vallée Blanche descent was extended with a ski from Montenver down to Chamonix. Normally this is a great bonus, but Dean’s legs were already well past their best when we reached the Geant Icefall, absolutely knackered at the normal end (Montenver), completely ruined by the time we had ascended to the buvette at the top of the Montenver track, barely walking (not skiing) as we approached the top of Les Planards ski area, and nearly passing out as we stumbled back in to Chamonix well after dark!
A great day out, with spectacular scenery, but it was a team effort to get down safely… Hopefully Dean enjoyed the day despite the over commitment! ❓ I know the next day was a forced day of rest! 😉
The forecast had been for snow, snow, and more snow, but what we got was sun, sun, and more sun, and the occasional early morning cloud.
We decided to put the alpine climbing back on the agenda…
Valleé Blanche & the Cosmiques
But winter alpine climbing is a serious adventure, so we thought we’d do a little acclimatisation in style. We took a trip up to the Aguille du Midi and spent a night in the Refuge des Cosmique. I love being up on the Col du Midi, especially when nearly everyone else descends down to the valley. It’s a very special place.
So, after that acclimatisation, we spent a day deciding what route we could do. We opted for Frendo-Ravanel on the Grand Montets ridge above the Argentier Glacier – easy access, fairly easy ski out (despite heavy bags), and an interesting route with a couple of good technical sections.
As we waited for the first lift up Pete recognised a guy he had met at last years International Meet – Krzysztof from Poland. Funnily enough, they were aiming for the same route. 😯
After crossing a bergschrund, and a couple of hundred metres of steep snow, the technical ice began. It’s all fairly easy at first, but it gets harder and harder with each pitch culminating in a very thin mixed rock and ice pitch as the crux had a distinct lack of ice – no photos of that pitch, I was concentrating too hard on the belaying. 😮