Last week Brendan O’Sullivan and I once again headed up to the Plan Glacier hut to ski a route we had seen from the Domes de Miage. The route can roughly be split into two half’s, the first up NW facing slopes to join a hanging glacier and the second up the S face of the Tricot. We could find no information on it from any of our guide books but have since found a report from a first descent in 2012 which could well be the same route we took- http://www.lafuma.com/en/a-spectacular-skiing-first-by-patrick-gabarrou/
On our first attempt to reach the hut Brendan had an equipment failure, his skins not having any glue left on them refused to stick to his snowboard, not deterred we stashed some of our gear and descended to return the next day. This time everything went smoothly and we made quick progress to the hut with lighter bags for most of the journey. Getting there early and with plenty of energy we had some fun skiing about near the hut.
The next day was pretty hard going boot packing through a thick wind crust and pockets of deep powder on the lower part of the route but we kept our motivation and topped out about mid day. The descent was fun with just about every type of snow you can imagine on slopes never steeper than 45 degrees. Once down to the glacier by the hut we were rewarded with some perfect boot top powder down the easy angled ground all the way to the chalets de Miage and even managed to ski most of the way down to the village. Thanks to Brendan for another great day in the mountains.
Driving back up from Sallanches to Chamonix a few times recently I had noticed that the Dome de Miage North face was looking pretty white so I managed to persuade Brendan O’Sullivan and Tom Grant to join me for an early season ski mission. The plan was to ski the North face direct, but although it looked white from a distance strong North winds had stripped any skiable snow. The couloirs and slopes on the sides of the Mettrier ridge were a little more protected so we instead set our sights on this, however once joining the top of the spur we found only neve and rocks above us so were forced to start skiing still quite some way from the summit.
Although we didn’t succeed on our objective it was great to get on such a big line this early in the season and we had some great skiing from where we turned around, it was also great to spend some time in a beautiful basin we hadn’t visited before.
After skiing the Sentinel Rouge couloir back at the start of July I knew it would be my last ski of the season, I was ready for a mental break after a big winter and I didn’t feel like writing about it just then. Now with the winter fast approaching, my mind has turned to skiing once more and we made our first powder turns of the season on Friday.
The Story starts when myself and Luca Pandolfi drove through to Italy to check out the Peuterey Arete. We got there only to find out our passes were no longer valid in the summer on the Helbronner lift, however we could see from the town with binoculars that the Arete was definatley out. It was also pretty clear that there was still a lot of snow on the Brenva face of Mont Blanc so we drove back through the tunnel and went up the Aiguille du midi to have a look. From our vantage point we could only see the top half of the Sentinel rouge couloir but it looked great, better then I had ever seen in many years of watching it. Although its exposed to serac fall its an extremely beautiful an tempting ski line.
So a plan was hatched, on the 4th of July me and Tom Grant went and looked at the line from the top of the Tour Ronde, everything looked perfect so would we phoned Luca to meet us and stay the night to ski early the next day. The route is far to exposed to serac fall to climb up and even skiing there poses a considerable risk, the only way would be to ski it onsight after climbing the 3 Monts route.
We set of from the lift station at 1am and due to good conditions decided to climb unroped allowing us to get into our own rhythms and also move as quickly as possible in the areas threatened by seracs which have been a real danger in recent years. We had allowed plenty of time for the ascent, none of us being well acclimatized but I soon found my self on the summit just after 5am waiting for one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen. Tom joined me not too long after and we relaxed eating drinking and waiting for Luca. After a while we were getting cold so at 6.30 we set off to find the start of the line and wait for him there. The snow was icy hard and Luca joined us as we were waiting for the top to soften enough to hold an edge.
The face is Huge and faces east getting the sun early, although the snow was still hard at the top, we had waited untill 8.30 and soon it would be dangerous at the bottom, so I decided it was time to go. I tentatively edged my way across the steep exposed traverse, my aluminum axe would not break the surface of the snow so I held my technical axe ready to strike if I were to slip. I made it to the edge of the spur where I could finally see the top of the couloir and the giant serac that rests above it. I was committed by this point and not wanting to hang around in danger I shouted back across to the others that the snow in the couloir looked good and I was dropping.
From that point I was alone, unable to see if the others had followed me across the traverse and not willing to wait and see. Jump turning down the top narrow part of the couloir the snow was still hard and the concentration took my mind away from the serac, I started to enjoy it. After passing a narrow section with a little water ice the couloir widens and I found some lovely spring snow and made quick progress to the point where we joined the spur.
I took a little breather, in a place where nothing falling from above could hit me, to decide on the best route down. We had originally planned to traverse back to the Col Moore after skiing down the spur a little past the rock from which the sentinel rouge takes its name. However there would have been some climbing up to get over ridges that we had not anticipated from our earlier recognizance missions. The traverse is exposed to serac fall and not wanting to spend a long time climbing up I carried on down the spur and crossed a gully taking my skis off for about 10m to rejoin the bottom of the couloir and cross the burgshrund.
Tom had set off not long after me, he spotted me and shouted down, I waited a few minutes at the bottom of the climb up the the Col Moore for him. We climbed up and reached the col at 9.30 and for the first time all day could relax knowing we were safe from objective dangers. I asked Tom about Luca, he said he had gone back up and thought I was descending the 3 Monts. Looking back at the couloir we suddenly spotted Luca at the top, I knew it was dangerously late and was pretty concerned at this point. We watched him descend making big turns in the wide section until he disappeared behind the spur in the lower part. Time was getting on and Tom had a flight to catch that evening so I told him if he wanted to get going I would wait for Luca here, expecting him to emerge from the bottom of the couloir in 15 mins or so.
After Tom left every minute that went by I felt tenser, and when he didn’t show up after 30 min I knew something was wrong. There was no response from his phone and just as I decided it was time to phone for some help, I heard him shouting back to my screams to see if he was OK. Then he came into vision, he had had to climb back up the ridge, the snow has been stripped by wet avalanches were me and Tom had skied a few hours earlier.
After conversing it became clear that Luca wanted to finish the descent and didn’t want a helicopter. It was a hard choice to make but I respected his wishes and after a dangerous traverse back, climbing up and boarding down several time he made it back to me. We embraced in a hug both knowing luck had been on our side that day. I still wonder how I would feel if he hadn’t made it back to me, should I have phoned for help anyway?
The climb back up to the Fourche was one last obstacle for us, with the snow rotten and unprotectable I chose a line up through the rocks, which I think Luca didn’t appreciate at the time! He was exhausted so we decided to spend the night there and return to Chamonix in the morning. It was a true adventure into the wild has taught us all some lessons. Was it worth it? Was the risk acceptable ? Everyone has to make their own judgements on the risks they’re willing to accept and the experience has definatley made me think about mine.
As we all skied alone there isn’t loads of great pictures this time, but there are some below and we will try to put together a small video with some head cam footage soon.