In early April, after a brief and unfruitful visit to snow-starved Colorado, I made my way back to Chamonix for one more go-around in the Alps before the lifts closed for the season. Europe had had an epic winter, and I was lucky enough to have sampled the goods there on three occasions already. This time however, I was without my good friend and Euro riding partner Patrick, who had returned to the States in March to start a new job, zipping up his snowboard bag for the last time this year. I arrived on the morning of April 9th, just as a powerful storm blew in 6-8 inches of fresh up high and blanketed the valley with snowflakes the size of silver dollars. Despite poor visibility and slabby conditions, I was able to capitalize on my timing for a full week after the storm. I stayed in-bounds on day one and managed to score some untracked lines off the Grand Montets, just as the viz improved, and before the spring-skiing crowds converged behind me. Day two brought a few more traces of snow, and even with the late-season hordes, I found some stashes of powder hidden in the trees and along piste markers.
I had hoped to get some backcountry tours in when the skies cleared, as it was prime touring season, but conditions deteriorated rapidly as a considerable warming trend followed on the heels of the storm. In the first 48 hours, slabs released naturally on nearly all aspects, including one which obliterated a large section of a popular backcountry route below the Grand Montets summit known as the Pas du Chevre. This development put all of my off-piste itineraries on hold, at least for the next few days. But the instability persisted. On day four, while my friends and I were navigating an adjacent valley, a massive slab avalanche swept down the face of the Taconnaz glacier, very nearly taking out the highway below it. Amazingly, thanks to extensive engineering project that had been completed only a few years prior, the road (and the vehicles driving it) remained intact. Not everyone was as fortunate though, as several fatalities were reported in the Savoie region during this period. Our group pressed ahead, despite the risk. We hit some huge lines up high in cold, dry powder, operating within a small window of stability between morning and afternoon, and using elevation, terrain, and cloud cover to mitigate the risk of avalanche. Then, at the end of the week when things had settled further, I rode spring corn-like snow under bluebird skies while touring solo down the third largest glacier in Europe, wearing only my base layer for warmth. Mindful of my friend Patrick, who was toiling away at his cubicle somewhere on the other side of the world, unable to share in the spoils, I documented my adventures with regular emails just to keep him in the loop. Here is one which sort of sums up the trip:
Myself, halfway down the Cosmiques Couloir (photorapher: Jeff Witt)
From: David Hewett <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Patrick Grady <email@example.com>
Sent: Sunday, April 14th, 2013 8:16 AM
Subject: Chamonix Update
The guide I had been in contact with for the last few days (Keith Garvey) had apparently made other plans with another group of paying clients, as he did not make an effort to call me until last night. Of course I had not given him a deposit for his services, and no concrete plans had yet been made, since the weather has been iffy here, and I was unwilling to commit unless there was something rad to ski. Coincidently, I ran into his partner Eric here at the gite, which was a little awkward since I think he knew Garvey was stalling a bit on our arrangements. But, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Just two days ago, I met up with a friend of mine from Wyoming/California, who happens to be an Exum climbing guide. His name is Jeff Witt, a guy I shared bunks with at my guide training in Utah, the same guy who summited Everest a couple of years ago. We met at Elevation for beers and talked about skiing together and some possible objectives. Since he is relatively unfamiliar with the terrain here, we agreed to team up for some descents, with no fee involved. I was to provide local beta, and he was to handle technical duties. We discussed a plan for dropping into the Passerelle (off the Midi) from the bridge, using two 60m ropes, and three, possibly four rappels, but were concerned about accessibility and icy snow surfaces on very steep terrain.
Jeff asked if he could bring two friends along from Jackson, since they were keen and had an extra rope (which we could use to build another rappel station while the party descended on the first rap). They were obviously eager to get after it, but they too lacked knowledge of the area, as they hadn't been here since 2000, and hadn't skied anything worthwhile on that trip anyway. Ironically, I was the only one in the group who could provide first hand knowledge of potential descents off the Midi.
We met at the tram station first thing in the morning. Luckily, Jeff arranged for reservations on the second or third box prior to our arrival. The two guys who joined in turned out to be excellent skiers and skilled mountaineers. Brian I recognized as one of the city bus drivers from Jackson who has shuttled me between my house in Wilson and JHMR for years, always with NPR playing on the radio (I always thought that was cool). Turns out he was a frequent partner of Steve Romeo (from TetonAT) and Chris Onufer before their accident. Perhaps more interesting is that the other guy, Brandon Spackman, is the younger brother of Jarad Spackman, who died last month in the Apocalypse couloir. He is a great guy; soft spoken and cerebral, a fantastic skier, likes to surf, likes to drink a little (who could blame him), and is an outstanding outdoorsman! You guys would get along great. Understandably, I did not press him on details about his brother.
When we arrived at the top station, we discovered that the south side of the bridge (and thus the rappel point) was under construction and blocked by fencing. It was windy and cold, and we were unsure of whether or not we would get into trouble for rapping off the bridge from the opposite side. Plus, we would have to build new anchors/belay stations from scratch, which would be a little nerve-wracking, and also costly, since we would have to leave behind a good deal of our gear on the rock as we descended.
We bailed and agreed to try the Rond first, as a warm-up, saving the Cosmiques for the finale. After hiking the ridge, we skied down behind the Arete, dodging crevasses along the way, and booted up to the entrance of the Cosmiques. We stashed the extra rope behind some rocks and proceeded to the traverse. Having been there before, and remembering how challenging it was, I decided to use my boot crampons and hike it, with my snowboard on my back. At first, I felt sure-footed and confident, but soon became nervous as I was off-belay the whole time, partly because I was leading the group to the access point and felt a little rushed to get there. Let me tell you man, that traverse is still one of the scariest things I have ever done. My fear was tempered only by knowing I had crossed it successfully once before. Next time I will definitely make use of a belay! I made it, obviously, and we rode out the Rond and the lower Cunningham in fantastic conditions, looking up at the Passerelle on the way down. After a long hike out (which I will never do again without a split!), we rode up again to the summit from the midstation, worked our way behind the arete, returned to the stashed gear, and dropped the Cosmiques, but from a different approach than the one I had used previously.
But two interesting things happened at the midstation. First, since I had taken at least 20 to 30 minutes longer than the other guys (who were on skis), they stopped for beers and a smoke on the patio of this fantastically situated snack bar, and waited for me. There, they/we watched as two guys descended one of the gnarliest ski lines known to man, called the Mallory Route, off the direct north face of the Aiguille du Midi. Super steep, super exposed, super committed, with a nasty, wind-crusted, hyper-exposed traverse on the entry! At one point, these guys sidestepped, off-belay, some 30 or 40 meters down one of the scariest and steepest curtain walls I have ever seen outside of Alaska! Of course, a large portion of the route consisted of rappelling and down-climbing, as many sections are simply unskiable. But to even have the balls to put skis on your feet on that face, with that degree of exposure, is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen! We could see their tracks all the way up from the tram ride, zig-zagging down through impossibly steep terrain (the Eugster was also skied that morning by a separate party; this is an equally gnarly line, right to the skier's left of the Mallory, but is more skiable, with only two raps, and a more obvious path and runout).
Also, just before boarding the tram, we ran into those guys from Jackson whom you rode with on your last day here, after I left town in February. Jeff, Brandon, Brian, and myself had a nice chat with them since we all shared a common history. We saw them again a little while later as they ended up following us into the Cosmiques soon after our meeting. The more talkative one (can't remember his name) is apparently an accomplished mountaineer, as he was leading his friends rather calmly through the rappels behind us. He would be a good guy to hook up with next year, if he is back here again. (There seems to be a lot of people here from Jackson, including the snowboarder pictured above, whom we met on-slope. I also talked with a girl named Holly, who you might remember from Osteria, and her friend on the bus the previous day; and the guys recognized and talked to two Jackson locals at the bar later that evening).
The Cosmiques was sick, as you can imagine! Great powder, and deep, untracked lines still left from the morning, as only a handful of skiers had been in there since the last snowfall (ski patrol had closed the Midi on Friday due to wind/avy danger). Jeff dropped us in on a hand line to the rappel point from a large rock horn as we downclimbed with crampons and skis/snowboards on our backs. Brandon descended first to set up the first rappel and a possible second, and to provide a belay from below (otherwise known as a fireman's belay). I went second, on rappel, but Jeff lowered me from the anchor with a second rope on his belay device at the same time to provide extra security (the ropes were actually tied together allowing enough length to make a single rappel, but he tied the second rope off somehow and pitched out the unused portion to belay me!) I needed neither a prusik, nor a fireman's belay, since Jeff had me the whole way down on the second line! It was a super clever way of providing security for those less inclined, or for anyone dropping in before him really, as he would have to use both strands to rappel down himself as the last man anyway. This is exactly the method I will employ when we descend the Cosmiques together next year, though I may add an extra element of security in the form of a prusik hitch, and then have you unclip from your belay device at the end of the rap, and either hang off the belay, or the prusik, or both, while you take off your pack/crampons, and put on your snowboard. What was great about this particular entry route is that with two ropes tied together, you need only one rap, versus the two or three required on the traditional approach. That not only saves a lot of time, but eases the transitions (stacking and coiling of ropes, clipping and unclipping, building new rappel stations, etc.), and makes things a lot safer should anything go wrong.
We skied some 8,000 vertical feet down to the tunnel, across a large section of the Bossons Glacier, below some crazy seracs, and on the beginning (or end) of the summer trail, on snow the whole way down! It was a magnificent run; you would have loved it! I was so lucky to have run into these guys, as it was safe and super fun, and I got good beta on the next descent, whenever that might be!
Incidentally, when I returned to the gite late last night, from apres at Elevation (where I met two friendly American girls!), and pizza at the Italian place (I got the Sicilia this time!), and a whiskey at one of those bars on the alley (where I ran into your friend Camille from our first visit), Garvey had left me a message asking if I wanted to ski the Cosmiques with him today for a reduced, half-day fee! I told him thanks anyway, but I just dropped it with my friends, for the price of a few beers! Those boys ended up saving me at least 350 bucks!
Great trip so far, with more to come as the guys are staying until Friday! Hope things are good for you there in Hawaii.
Rappel point, Poubelle Couloir
Poubelle Couloir (slab city!)
Same Couloir, different day
East Ridge, Aiguille du Midi, just below the summit, with the Aiguille Verte in the distance
Entry, Glacier Rond; very steep and this day, very slick!
Jeff, Brandon, Brian on the patio of the snack bar, midstation, Aiguille du Midi
Skier's tracks, Mallory Route, direct north face, Aiguille du Midi
Cosmiques, normal entry
Jeff, manning the belay
Unknown skier, contemplating the view
Jeff, on the downclimb
Jeff, Bossons Glacier, Aiguille du Midi in the background
East Ridge, Aiguille Rouges, Aiguille Verte, Grandes Jorasses
Looking down 9,000' to the valley
Cosmiques, from the old tram station, skier on the traverse; Glacier Rond on the right
Tour Ronde, Grand Capucin, Mt. Blanc du Tacul, Gervasutti/Jager Couloirs, left to right
Glacier melt, Mer du Glace
and in black and white
Inside the Mer du Glace