Sunday, 23 October 2011

Skiing Mont Blanc

Summer has really flown by in the Alps this year and Chamonix has been a great place to have some skiing and climbing adventures. The skiing highlight was a descent (and ascent) of the highest peak in Western Europe back at the start of August. The highest peak in all of Europe, by the way, is Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus near to the Georgian border.

As happens often with the best adventures I was invited on the trip at the last minute - the day before we set off - to make up a 3 man team with Benoit and Denis. My French is still not great, although it is improving, and Denis's English is at about the same level so Benoit had to act as translator a lot of the time.

Day one was the easy day - we caught the last lift of the day up the Aiguille du Midi at 6pm, then had a pleasant ski down to our campsite at the Col du Midi. There were ten or fifteen tents there already as this is a popular spot in high season. Weaving through tents on skis was a new experience for me. Then tent up, cooking and sleeping. Denis had opted to spend the night in the more expensive luxury of the Cosmiques Refuge, so we had a quick discussion of our starting time before he departed to warmth and a waiting cooked meal. We decided on a relatively late 4am start to allow the snow time to soften before our descent.

Camping below the Midi
Day two was the hard day we had to climb from 3500m to 4800m. I hadn't been that high before so I wasn't one hundred percent sure how my body was going to cope with the altitude. We started with a skate across the flat to the foot of Mont Blanc du Tacul where we put our skins on and began to climb. Just before the first bergschrund we switched to crampons and strapped the skis to our sacks. It started getting light near the top of the face of the Tacul, so we had a fantastic vantage point for the sunrise. At the shoulder Mt Blanc du Tacul we put skis on and enjoyed our first few turns of the day across Col Maudit and down to below Col du Mt Maudit. From here is the steepest climb of the ascent up to the col, and something of a bottleneck with the parties ahead of us following a line of fixed ropes. Avoiding the fixed ropes to the right we made faster progress and from the col is an easy contour across to the Col de la Brenva.

Col de la Brenva
Looking up to the summit - 500m vertical to go
From here is the long last slog up the summit slopes. The end is in sight but it feels like it lasts forever. There is nothing technically difficult but it is a test of fitness and acclimatisation. The summit itself is disappointingly flat - there is a rounded ridgeline and it is difficult to be sure where the highest point actually is. We went along the ridge in both directions a little way just to make sure we had covered the true summit. Suddenly, after seeing other parties ahead of and behind us all the way up there was nobody around to take a photograph of the three of us, so we had to make do with separate pictures.

Benoit on the summit
Denis and myself on the summit
After taking in the view we set off skiing down the North Face, a little to the (skier's) left of the ascent route so we had the slope to ourselves. The snow was surprisingly good - light and powdery despite it being windy enough that our tracks were soon filled in behind us. After a few hundred meters we had to traverse right to rejoin the track unless we wanted an extra ascent. From Col de la Brenva we decided to climb Mont Maudit as it was still early enough in the day. This gave us a second 4000m summit as a bonus tick, and also gave us the most challenging skiing of the day.

Benoit dropping in on Mt. Maudit
The North Face of Mont Maudit had not softened at all, and its upper section was the steepest of the day, so a few very cautious turns were called for on hard packed snow. The lower section was more powdery and we could have a bit more fun, being careful of the crevasses. Next was around half an hour of skinning back to the Shoulder of Mt. Blanc du Tacul and the final ski of the day. This was the part where we could leave tracks visible from the lift station, and although the snow was a little heavier with the afternoon sun and the altitude dropping below 4000m it was still good skiing.

All that remained was to pack up the campsite and make the final climb up to the cable car station where we had the chance to look back up at our tracks whilst waiting for the lift. Not a bad day's skiing for the start of August.