Harness check, rope check, glacier gear, check. Shovel, probe, transceiver, check. Skis, poles, helmet goggles check. Walking to the lift station in the crisp morning air, I run through the gear I need for todays ski tour. Double checking all the vital bits haven't been forgotten. My bag feels reassuringly heavy, but I wish I’d had time to pick up a treat from the bakery.
I’m back in Chamonix, my winter home. I look up into the mountains every so often, and remind myself of where I am, and what I’ve chosen to do with my life. Yesterday I was driving a bus, and today I’m about to skin up 1000m, rope up to make a tricky rock travers to a narrow col, before abseiling into a steep couloir in order to descend the glacier the other side. This is not and easy ski tour but it is certainly one of my favourites.
"YESTERDAY I WAS DRIVING A BUS, AND TODAY I’M ABOUT TO SKIN UP 1000M"
The sun was warm, and the snow reflected the intense bright rays even more. Inching up the mountain side, sliding our skis under our feet. Skins stuck to the base of my skis, doing a great job at gripping the now slushy mid morning snow. The steep slope can’t be climbed directly, but instead negotiated with dozens of zig zags. On each corner you stamp your skis into the snow, ensuring you’ve created a stable platform for the up and coming kick turn. Spread your poles wide for balance, pull your first leg back, flick your ski, rotate it 180 degrees, and stamp it again for a firm footing, and repeat with the following leg. A good skier can make this look elegant, simple even. It’s not! A little slip mid kick or catch a tip, and you’ll be sliding in a tangle of skis and poles, strait back down to the base of the climb where you started.
Evidence of heavy spring avalanches surrounded us in the bowl. Sliding across several patches of debris, is a stiff reminder of the dangers in winter. The cliffs are black and intimidating, it’s been quite a warm snowless winter so far.
This is a south facing slope. We’re hoping the steep north face will have held on to a little snow. It seems ages since our last dump!
At last after a few hours of sweating we stop to peel the skins off the base of our skis, strap them onto our rucksacks, and don our harnesses and crampons. You can’t help but feel a little off balance with the weight now strapped to your packs.
The narrow rocky traverse cuts directly across a crag. You'd never guess it was a passage until your level, looking directly at it. It stretches right across the crag to a small snowy col. Awkward in places, mainly due to the cumbersome load on our backs. There is plenty of snow to dig our axe into, and even a few rocky hand holds. I’m glad the rope is there protecting me from the potential of a very long fall.
Those who have rock climbed will know the strange feeling of space directly bellow your feet. At 2800m that sensation is airy, steep mountainous terrain drops away, leaving you feeling miles up in the sky. It takes all my focus to keep a cool head. Exposure is one element that can all to quickly toss away confidence and rational thought, to replace it with body freezing fear.
The col is just big enough for our team of three to gather and peer down into the steep couloir. We’re clipped onto a clump of tat, and flake out the rope in preparation for our abseil. The view from hear is breath taking. I can look directly across to Mont Blanc, and take in the full panoramic of the Mont Blanc Massiff. Crisp white peaks jut into the sky as far as the eye can see.
We toss the end of the rope into the couloir. It tumbles down to it’s full length. Not quite as far as I had hoped, but it should be skiable by the time we reach the knot at the end.
From here I dig a small platform, attach my skis and unclip from the rope. I take my last look at the golden sunshine and drop into the cold shadowy gully of the north face.
The snow feels good. Chalky and grippy. It's steep. Super steep! I know I’ve got this, but I cant help but remind myself not to mess up my turns. I jump turn my way down the narrow snow band until it breaks out of the couloir and onto a snow slope. Still steep but from hear I can enjoy carving through the powder with less consequence. I wait for the others to follow in my tracks. When they arrive, their faces beam with the shear adventure of it all.
"A CAPE DONING, BADDIE FIGHTING, SUPER HERO"
Mountaineering is challenging. You get a great sense of satisfaction at the summit, but what lies ahead of us now is pure joy. 2500m of beautiful untouched backcountry skiing. The steep slopes slopes open out, route choice is endless. I point the tips of my skis down and I'm off. The weightless-ness. The smooth sensation of gliding. The sound of speed as it whistles past my ears. It's hard to describe how exquisite powder skiing in fresh snow feels. It’s a rush that courses through your veins, A natural high which plasters a ridiculous grin on your face for the world to see. Involuntary whoops of exhilaration are unleashed as you carve effortlessly from one turn to another. You feel like a hero, a cape donning, baddie fighting super hero!
In what feels like seconds you've descended thousands of metre. Careful to pick our way through the steep maze of crags on the lower slopes we drop into the woods. From hear we follow a crazy single track trail, with snow burms, stream crossings and switch backs that pick a route through the thick trees. Getting spat out at the very bottom of the valley. I bend down to unclip my skis, and gasp with release as I liberate my feet from the tight hold of my boots. I glance across at my friends ski before standing back up. A bold statement is tattooed on to the tip of his ski.
Heros Ski These!