Ski touring is simply one of the most pleasurable ways of journeying through the mountains. Multiple day tours exponentially increase the depth of the experience, especially if using winter rooms or unguarded refuges. One of the most interesting aspects of my work is designing itineraries based around clients’ ambitions, abilities and of course where I want to go next. I’ve long wanted to complete the circle or circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif with the Kutarski ski group (we have previously skied from Argentiere into La Fouly in the Swiss val Ferret) and we hadn’t skied in the west end of the massif at all. The following tour we have decided to call the Tour des Glaciers.
I’ve skied in the Tre la Tete basin many times and it comes into its own as a ski touring destination. Access is always a little difficult (via the mauvais pas normally) and it is worth allowing at least a couple of days in there. We kicked off our eight day extravaganza with a tour from les Contamines. We ran into a colleague here who raised his eyebrows at the size of our rucksacks (we were carrying two days’ worth of bivouac food, gaz and stoves plus snacks for an army). It is a great feeling heading out stripped of all the normal accoutrements of modern life however, if not a little heavy to begin with.
We climbed the col de la Fenetre to access some great spring snow before descending to la Barme, la Rollaz and then finally crossing the pont de Nant Borrant to gain the forested hillside of the Tete Noire. I’ve climbed this before (it is the Tour de Mont Blanc in summer) and had warned the group it was to be a warm and sweaty affair (and it was). It wasn’t too bad though and we made the refuge Tre la Tete in good time.
The next day we started early as I wanted to be across the ‘mauvais pas’ before the sun hit the slopes above. We put on crampons and carried skis on our backs (this was to be a common occurrence over the following week) and set forth slowly but steadily. I thought it was in great condition and we easily walked across, trying to ignore the drop into the canyon below. We carried on skinning into the Tre la Tete glacier where we spied the north faces of the Aiguille des Glaciers and Mont Tondu. I thought the snow looked wind affected and hard (we discovered how affected and hard later in the trip) so immediately turned our attention to the south facing Aiguille de la Berangere (3425m) above the Conscrits hut. This meant we could depot kit and continue upwards with lighter sacs. It turned out to be a good day with over 1500 metres of ascent and some good skiing (not perfect at these altitudes) and a nice summit.
The Conscrits hut is a superb base from which to ski and climb the surrounding peaks and cols and there really is something for everyone. Probably the most popular (and rightly so) trip is the traverse of the Domes de Miage. Dave (BMG Aspirant Guide) led this day and we set of into the cold dawn on skins and couteaux and steadily climbed the 700 or so metres to the col Infranchissable. The views from here to the southern and western faces of Mont Blanc are incredible and we spent a little time here soaking it all up. We then backtracked a little to the Col des Domes (3564m) and put our skis on our backs for the traverse of peak 3633m. We deposited our skis at the next col and mountaineered along the classic snow arête climbing the two final tops (3666m and 3670m). The descent back to the hut was on heavy springs – quite difficult to ski but enjoyable under the blue skies and sunshine which were prevalent.
Day four (our half way point) was a planned crossing of the watershed into the vallee des glaciers. This valley separates the Mont Blanc massif and Miravidi range (Italy) as well as the Beaufortain (France) and again is followed on the summer walking trail of the tour de Mont Blanc. We planned to climb the Pain de Sucre de Mont Tondu and then make the crossing via the col du Mont Tondu. We made the peak (3169m) after a serious ascent (we roped and booted much of it as the snow had hardened and the glacier crosses many cliff bands). I skied this last season on powder and hunted out the steeper lines and couloirs, this season could not be more different. On arriving at the col however I was pretty dismayed to see vertical, 100m cliffs barring the way. I had researched this route and multiple sources had confirmed a ‘short but steep’ passage protected by a wire cable. Dave and I ran up and down the col peering over looming cornices and spotting bolts from existing rock climbs but nothing that remotely resembled an easy scramble down. A quick phone call back to the Conscrits had us booked in and we made another quite serious ski back down the glacier with our metaphorical tails between our skis. I was a bit despondent that night and was fairly resigned to having to retreat back via the Tre la Tete if the Col des Glaciers was similarly unpassable.
The next day dawned clear again; we were experiencing great, stable conditions with only wind up high causing problems. We made the familiar, icy descent to the glacial floor then poled across to the start of the ascent towards the col des Glaciers. Normally this is one of the most reliable slopes in the range for powder but today it was hard packed, squeaky wind scoured snow. We skinned with couteaux seeking out every little change in angle to keep us in purchase but eventually resigned ourselves to mountaineer up to it, donning the familiar boot crampons and carrying skis. We made steady progress like this until I crested the col and immediately my spirits soared. Whilst it was not straightforward I knew we could manage it and the tour was back on.
We actually lowered off the crest as whilst the slope was simple it was above a steep gulley and already the afternoon sun was heating the spring snow. Another small ski and we put a further ski belay in to get past a final rock band and finally we had the val des Glaciers to ourselves. The ski down to the southern tip of the Pointe des lanchettes was sublime, following a shallow half pipe on beautiful velvet spring snow. Finally we turned the corner into the combe Noire and started the final 200 metre skin to the wild and isolated Robert Blanc refuge, a hare still in winter garb greeting us by sprinting uphill as we disturbed his resting place.
Using winter rooms ski touring adds a dimension not found in guarded huts. We had carried our food and stoves here and soon settled in to the familiar rhythm of melting snow, chopping firewood and getting the sleeping arrangements ready. In reality you really get in sync with the natural pattern of nature and when it gets dark you get to bed pretty quickly! I like to think it was a contented group that went to sleep that night, bellies full of an extraordinary amount of chorizo and tortellini.
We knew the weather was set to deteriorate so got up at 6am and set about getting ready quickly. After tidying the refuge (carrying all our rubbish down) we set out again to ascend the Glacier des Glaciers towards the col above les Cabottes. Whilst the Italian border was further on this was an important watershed for me as I knew that as a heliskier you can descend all the way to Courmayeur (with a bit of shuffling) from here. In fact we picked up heli tracks at the Montagne des Glaciers and continued our downwards traverse into a biting wind with snow flurries threatening. Near the Pyramides des Calcaires I sensed a mutiny in the troops as I insisted we ascend a further col (col des Pyramides Calcaires) but it was worth the effort and we got to ski cold blown snow all the way to the Elisabetta Soldini refuge and then spring snow down the final pole/skin to the fleshpots of first Courmayeur resort then La Palud, skiing all the way to the auto route on a tongue of snow.
After a well-earned shower (this was day 6!) we all went for pizza and were easily the first to go to bed that night! Children and toddlers eating with their parents put us to shame as we yawned our way through dessert and coffee. The hotel owner gave us a lift to the new ‘skyway Monte Bianco’ lift the next morning where it seemed ridiculously easy to simply buy a ticket and get on (the aiguille du Midi suffered terrible queuing that day). I had originally planned on a further tour but the snow was begging to be skied so we slid our way around to the col de Toule and skied the glacier. We cramponed down the exposed entrance/windlip and it was pretty unpleasant seeing some clients in other groups sideslipping after their guides (shouting voila, voila) above a terminal void. In fact the new lift has attracted a few of the resort skiers now and I witnessed a few seemingly lost individuals in alpine kit and nothing else set forth following tracks. We skied the Toula on good, then variable snow all the way to the Pavillion (half way station). Here the past seven days seemed to catch up on us and I was met with dark looks as I mentioned skinning again. Ice creams were bought and it was a contented group that lazed for a happy hour in the Italian sun along with the jet set of Milan. Finally we rode the lift again and we skied the Combe Vierge (Vallee Blanche) on at first winded snow but then progressively excellent powder, finding untracked snow all the way to the junction with the classic route above the Geant icefall. Here we took a left traverse to the Requin hut which was to be our final hut of the tour.
After another hut meal (always starting with green soup and tomme cheese) and a long night’s sleep (the clocks went forward) we awoke to clearish skies but with fohn in the air, clouds scudding across the border ridge above. We set off up the glacier des Periades which surprised me by being so much more open than when I was last on it (a matter of weeks)and in fact we popped the rope on to cross a few sinister looking bridges. We finally accessed a flat section where the tracks split for the col de Tacul and the Breche de Puiseaux. Here we decided to try and ski off before the weather caught us and I set off skiing downwards and leftwards towards the exit couloirs. It was not to be however. We found poor, icy snow in the couloirs and after sideslipping on what fresh there was, discretion over valour won and the rope again came out. Then crampons. It became a slow process of down climbing protected by the rope. Once on the flat we became completely enveloped by cloud and it was a slow, eerie descent all the way to the ladders of the Montenvers railway station where our odyssey ended.
Many thanks to Paul, Nick, Pete, Rob, Emily and Alice (the Kutarski ski group!) as well as Dave Gladwin.