This year’s ski touring season has been a good one but not straightforward. A good example of this was my usual week with John (we’ve skied together since I qualified) which was a planned tour around the Zinal area (often called the Imperial Haute Route or Tour de Ciel depending upon where you start and end up). As I flew in from a week’s guiding in Norway I scanned the weather and avalanche conditions and it seemed pretty obvious to me that we weren’t even going to start that tour (rather than looking for ways to complete objectives I always try and look at problems fresh) so rang John, told him to take his skis back and get himself over to Chamonix where we were going to have a re think (John was in St Luc). The only place in the Alps where I could find good weather was the Queyras so that’s where we went.
Queyras Ski Tour
The Queyras is a national park in France and I hadn’t skied here since I was an Aspirant guide. The region borders Italy and is wild, unspoilt and is generally a little lower than the Alps further north. In terms of skiing it’s a non-glaciated area which means you can leave a bit of kit behind (though some cols still need a rope). It’s a good 5 hour drive from Chamonix however so our first day was simply just getting there.
We arrived at an incredibly rustic village called Saint Veran. At 2040m it is reputed to be the highest village in Europe and is a great place to base yourself for a few days touring (there is a lovely little ski resort here also). We stayed at an authentic gite called Gabelous where they made us feel at home and offered plenty of good advice on the ski touring options in the area (the Guardian also runs a taxi service if the bus service has stopped running).
We chose to climb first the Pic Cascalvier 2562m then followed a corniced and quite adventurous ridge to the Pointe des Marcelettes 2909m which we mountaineered over. This gave access to the north facing Vallon du Châtelard which was just about holding powder. Finally, we dropped through some cliff/ice bands and into a tight gully and forest slopes (you need stable snow in here).
After another communal feast (gites and huts can be a great social experience) we caught the small lift system up to the ridge leading towards the Pic de Château Renard 2989m. We followed this in and out of rocks before finally summiting. There are a lot of buildings hereabouts, including a bivouac shelter and an old observatory, which we skied past and then down on spring snow to near the col de Longet. From here we re-ascended to the Pic Traversier 2882m and again skied a nice line all the way to the Chappelle de Clausis. This put us on a ski de fond track which we followed easily to the Refuge de la Blanche.
The next day our objective was the Pointe des Sagnes Longues 3032m but in fact we pulled up slightly short of the summit in ever increasing winds (the rest of the Alps were getting hammered and even here we were not out of it). Sadly by now the powder had transformed but not enough for springs so we had a long, scenic but quite difficult ski all the way down the Vallon de Clausis. More than once on this trip I thought about coming back here a little earlier (February into March?) to get these north facing slopes. We then re-ascended the road (in summer you can drive over some of these cols) to the Refuge Agnel (2580m).
We had reserved two nights here as I wanted to ski the classic ‘Tour du Pain de Sucre’. This circumnavigates the tandem peaks of Pic Asti and Le Pain de Sucre via 4 cols crossing and re-crossing the Italian/Franco border (returning to the hut). This is a good day tour journeying through interesting terrain and ‘popping’ over steep little cols. We really enjoyed it but the wind was fierce and the snow again not transformed in the cool temperatures. The only down side to staying here was the theft from my ski pole of a little thermometer/inclinometer I keep taped to it; someone actually went to the trouble of removing it and taking it with them which is always disappointing at a hut (but is getting more common in my opinion).
We finished this tour the next day by crossing the Col de l’Eychassier then booting up and over an unnamed col near the col de Clot de Poulan 2827m. This gave us access to a wild and unskied valley which we followed all the way into the forests below and finally into the tiny hamlet of Ristolas. We sat in the sun here chatting to a local who informed us all the ancient buildings here were rebuilt after being razed by both the Germans and the Italians during WWII (and that was why they were ugly!).
Ski Mountaineering in the Mont Blanc Massif
After the Queyras came a bit of local work around the Mont Blanc Massif. The ski mountaineering here is always challenging and I don’t get to do it often enough (I’m often hut touring in other ranges). Given stable conditions however the skiing here is superb.
We (team Goode and an unidentified female Dan had attracted by a phone app) started in the ever reliable Argentiere basin. This is one of the best places for intermediate ski touring with a few cols to either go to or mountaineer over (you start the classic 3 cols from here). We chose the col d’Argentiere which rises to about 40 degrees at the top and travels through some impressive glacial terrain. Reliable as the Argentiere basin is it wasn’t to be this day and I and a few of my colleagues agreed that it was the worst snow of the season (so far!).
It was useful acclimatisation however and the next day we set forth from the Aiguille du Midi and skied the Vallee Blanche quickly to access the glacier des Periades. This glacier often holds superb powder long after the VB is skied out but we intended to ‘go over the top’ and descend by the Glacier du Mont Mallet (via the Breche Puiseaux). This is one of the Chamonix greats and is a good, long day out in superb surroundings. The initial pull up the Glacier des Periades is steep and next to some complicated crevassing (glacial recession is a problem here) but eases slightly before rearing again underneath the final couloir. Here you carry skis on your back and axe in hand, start the long and sweaty climb to the breche. There are a few options from the breche depending upon how busy it is and how much time you have. One idea is to pop along the ridge to the brilliantly situated bivouac des Periades (I can’t think why this is here) and rappel in from there. Once established on the Mont Mallet glacier you have a sublime ski on powdery springs underneath the imposing north face of the Grande Jorasses, then a steep coulouir and finally a run on the Leshaux glacier down to the junction with the Mer de Glace.
For the final 3 days it was just James and I and we headed down the valley a little to the resort of Les Contamines. From here we skied the col de Fenetre and then went for a very long walk to access the Tre la Tete hut. We were the only people staying here and I can’t recommend it enough in the ski season (I believe it’s pretty busy in summer). It’s worth staying here to pass through the ‘mauvais pas’ early the next morning. This is a traverse above a gorge with chains here and there. I’ve done it a couple of different ways and this time simply walked/skied up the frozen gorge on old avalanche debris. It would be a terrible place to be under warm conditions (there were old chamois corpses which had been avalanched into the gorge amongst other debris!). Soon enough we accessed the glacier de Tre la Tete and skinned up in the warming morning before turning right to climb the glacier de Mont Tondu and summit on the Pain de Sucre de Mont Tondu 3169m. We had eyed up some unskied lines on the way up and skied directly off the summit at around 40 degrees before fall line skiing through cliff bands to the glacier below on dusty powder. I think this was the ski of the week and even the searing re-ascent to the Conscrits hut didn’t put me off.
The next day we (and everybody else) left at about 6am for the ultra classic Domes de Miage. This is a well-known mountaineering objective at PD grade but is extra enjoyable on skis. We accessed the ridge after a few hours of skinning and carried our skis over the ever thinning arête all the way to the final Dome at 3670m. Here we put our skis on for the famous Glacier d’Armencette (well seen from the valley floor and auto route as you approach Chamonix). I’ve done this before and have to say I’ve never had it in great condition (though at least it’s always been safe). It goes through some steep and sustained ground (and a few ‘tight’ sections) and the routefinding is absorbing. Finally you reach the lac d’Armancette where Spring is in full flow and you may get a few more turns in the trees before the winding, forested descent (we left the car at Les Contamines).
My next tour was the classic Gran Paradiso Haute Routethough I’ve written about that itinerary before extensively (it’s a favourite of mine). Suffice to say the rifugios, wildlife, snow and finally summit lived up to our expectations. I’ve never skied into the val di Cogne however so if anybody wants to explore that variation do get in touch!
Bernese Oberland Ski Tour
Almost made for ski touring the Bernese Oberland are high. This region often has bad weather though and it’s a tricky place to navigate in poor conditions. Returning for their 7th (?) year the Kutarski ski group (say that quickly) wanted a rematch here as they had been spat out a few years previously (and we were warming up for a Mont Blanc attempt). It felt like déjà vu however as left the Jungraujoch and within minutes I was roped to Dave (an Aspirant joining us), compass in hand and heart in mouth tentatively skiing downwards towards the Konkordia hut. Thankfully things did clear and we skied out of the mist for an easy, cruisy run to the dreaded ladders (there has been huge glacial recession here).
The next day we roped up again in inclement weather for the pull up to the Grunhornlucke. This we skied over but dropped into slightly better weather so skinned up towards the Wysnollen for 300 metres or so simply to get a few more turns in. We then skied across the Fiescherfirn towards what is probably one of the more remote huts in the Alps – the Finsteraarhorn hut. From here there are many options for day tours and you could almost spend a week here but we chose to ski the ‘best ski peak in the Oberland’ (according to the guardian) the Gross Wannenhorn. It’s hard to define what makes a good ski peak but the angle of ascent is quick but not too steep and the descent almost all fall line skiing on powder at a great angle – it was probably the best day of the week and enjoyed by all.
The next day we headed back up the Wyssnollen and summited early to gain a great view back over the Konkordiaplatze and Aletschorn. Because we were heading over to the Oberaarjoch this day we took a different line of descent than normal and it was great to weave our way through virgin crevasse fields on great snow. We put skins on and turned the corner at the Galmigletscher (this was an area I’d not ventured into before) and ultimately the Obeaarjoch hut. This hut is perched on a cliff above the col which it shares its name and you need to climb ladders and chains to get to it. We knew the hut would be unmanned and I had ‘done a deal’ with the guardian who left us a full meal for us (she had flown out that morning as the weather was set to turn). This turned out to be a great night, all the men failing to light the fire and Alice coming to the rescue as per normal. We had the place to ourselves and got a sense of what the mountains might have been like fifty years ago?
The next morning we left the col (after abseiling from the hut!) and headed up towards the Vorderes Gamihorn. A crevasses skin up led to the summit and then a ski following the ridge back down towards the Bachilicke. I dramatically lost a ski here (there was ice in the toe piece of my binding which I had failed to clear) which disappeared down towards the way we had came (the brake was totally ineffective in the powder) and for the second time this season I found my self skiing on one leg with urgency (the other was when a client skied into me and cut me badly). Dave and the guys sat in the sun for 20 minutes however as I sweated and swore my way back up in no time and we got back on with our last descent. This turned out to be fantastic. A local guide had pointed out the best line on the Backigletcsher and we all whooped it up. Finally of course the snow gave way to mush, mud and grass and we all sat on a river bank attaching skis for the pleasant forest walk back to Reckingen (where we caught the train).