I am starting to get worried. Where is everyone? Today is the first blue-sky powder day for almost a month, and the whole town seems empty – the buses and lift lines, anyway. Do they know something we don’t?
I meet a hungover Nick, desperately sucking coffee from his travel cup, on the alarmingly-empty early bus from Chamonix to the Grands Montets. In between mouthfuls of my salt and brown sugar porridge, spooned from a takeaway tub, we discuss our options – there’s a couple of big things we’d like to have a look at, but the forecast suggests that the afternoon will get cloudy quickly. Perhaps influenced by our storms-and-sunset escape from the Triangle du Tacul back in January, neither of us relish the thought of being on alien terrain in exciting weather, so we decide on a quick trip straight up the north face of the Petite Verte and down the Chevalier Couloir, maybe followed by a little something on the other side of the Argentiere Glacier if the skies still look friendly.
We arrive at the lift and wait for Dave Chapman, today’s third member of the party, still amazed at how quiet it is – the holiday crowds have finally gone, and the few people here are the familiar faces you see in all the best lift lines on the best days. Looking around as we wait, I notice Aurelien Ducroz getting ready with a few other guys, all bristling with cameras but carrying no touring gear: skis with alpine bindings, no splitboards or snowshoes. Considering the conditions and the relatively easy access, I suspect that they are headed for the same thing as us and are, quite kindly, going to put the track in.
Sure enough, as we get off the lift and walk down the stairs leading to the Col des Grands Montets, our eyes fall on the Petite Verte towering over us, and the team of three trudging thigh-deep through the fresh snow. We don’t envy them, and we quickly decide to skin up as far as possible before joining them in the bootpack. Nick leads the way until his hangover gets the better of him, then my porridge oats and I take the lead, putting the track in until it gets too steep for skins. We rope up, and Dave and I put our crampons on. Nick, packing whilst drunk, forgot his, so we send him up over the bergschrund first by way of punishment.
We arrive at the angled col at the top of the Chevalier Couloir, draped loosely over the north-east shoulder of the Petite Verte, and after thanking them for the wonderful footpath, we watch the three guys in front of us setting up. Douds Charlet has climbed up the extra ten metres to the anchor and set up a single 50m rope, rappelled down, and is now perched on a rock below us. “Maybe duck a bit,” Aurelien calls down as he traverses to the rappel ropes, well out of reach across the 60° slope hanging over the couloir’s entrance, “Or you might get a ski in the face…”
We all know that there’s going to be a lot of sluff, and we assure the other three that we’ll give them a good bit of time to get down the couloir before we drop in – little do they know that with our expert rope skills and deft, nimble skiing, they’ll probably have a good few hours before they have to worry about us dropping in on top of them. With a bit of excited whooping, they each slide down the rope by hand, hop the rocks scattered across the top of the couloir, and in a just a few minutes they are slashing wide turns on the steep sides lower down in the couloir. I, for one, am pleased that they got here before us, and I’m very much looking forward to the video. It’s just a shame, though, that the camera crew lurking at the bottom didn’t hang around for our descent as well. They could have made a much, much longer film.
But that’s enough gawping at the professionals for one day, it’s time to turn our thoughts to our own, frankly, amateurish endeavours, and concentrate on getting into this couloir in a safe and efficient way. I climb up the extra few metres to the anchor, set two of our 30m ropes up for rappel, then pull up about ten metres of slack before tying the end of our third 30m, running along behind me, onto a bight in the rappel ropes, before letting them all fall again. By pulling on the the third rope, the guys can reach the rappel lines without traversing across the couloir to grab them. Dave, by his own admission more of a mountaineer than a skier, heads down first with his skis on his back and starts down-climbing to a level where he is happy to clip into his skis. Nick, packing whilst drunk, forgot his belay device. But, humming a merry little tune to himself, he sets off down on an Italian hitch, taking the third rope with him as he goes, which he uses to set up another rappel of 15m on a solid spike of rock. I slide my way down through the rocks to join them, and soon we are all in our dancing shoes and ready to begin.
I poke around with a pole, making one last check for the sharks I know to be swimming all around us. I kick the fallen snow off of each ski, but they are covered again instantly by the readily-sluffing layer of foot-deep fresh. I throw in my first hop turn and my skis slice through the thick, soft snow, but the wide shovels at the ends of each ski are being weighted and pushed unpredictably by the rapidly-growing sluff following me down, and my edges bounce a little on the bulletproof underneath before finally biting. The question instantly springs to the front of my mind – which descent am I going to prefer, the last time I was here twelve days ago when it was predictably icy all the way down, or being pushed around on top of the same ice by my own bodyweight in sluff?
I ski down past where Nick and Dave have finished getting dressed, snuffling around once again for where the snow seems to be the friendliest. My juddering edges soon tell me exactly what I had assumed – the left side of the couloir, after three weeks of early-morning sunbathing before this latest covering of snow, is impossibly icy, and a few terrifying turns send freight-trains of tumbling sluff careening down the length of the couloir. The right bank, away from the funneled-river running down the centre, provides the most reliable grip, but still with each turn I am shoved and jostled by the weight of the churning snow as it settles around me. The imposing jagged sides of the couloir grow over me as I methodically work my way down, before venturing once again to the left bank and under a protective cluster of rocks, where I wait for the other guys to ski down. Nick, obviously having the same battles with the seething snow as me but grinning from ear to ear all the same, passes by me and carries on down to the lower slopes, where the softer base is holding the snow a bit better and we can ski a little less conservatively.
We regroup loosely once the steep walls have given way to the wide slopes below the couloir, and we spend a few seconds waving our ski poles in the general direction of the shallowest depressions in a pock-mark horizontal line below us, marking the most-promising paths over the bergschrund. I silently volunteer and point my skis at what looks like the safest bet, thinking light thoughts and yelping ever so slightly as a colour chart of blue hues, from powder blue at my toes to midnight blue far beneath me, appears under my airborne feet. From below, I wave my poles around some more, and the others join me once again, safely over the bergschrund. We all agree – that was an interesting descent. Perhaps not exactly what we were hoping for, but it certainly got us thinking.
There are wisps of cloud clinging to a handful of the peaks around us in every direction, but the sky above us is nothing but a blanket of thin, grey-blue haze. The morning forecast’s promise of 30% sunshine seems mercifully pessimistic, and despite our aching legs we are keen for some more skiing. We look across the valley to the established skin track leading to the Col du Passon, several teams still dotted along its length, making their way up to the Glacier du Tour. It feels as though the thin mist in the skies above us is keeping the heat of the sun at bay, and the air feels reassuringly cold. We speed down the Glacier des Rognons with renewed vigour, a new sense of purpose. After refueling and drinking deeply from our bottles, we set off for another 650 metres of ascent.
As we crest the last rise before the upwards traverse to the final bootpack couloir, the tell-tale sound of tinkling ice echoes down from the west-facing cliffs of the Aiguille du Passon; a sound like fine crystal wine glasses tumbling down a stone flight of stairs. Occasional coughs of snow cascade down the chutes and gullies above us, released by the weak afternoon sun. We’re still safely in good time, but we are glad to be leaving the sunnier side of the hill, and once we are on the shady slopes of the Glacier du Tour, our spirits lift at the sight of 1500 metres of descent in cold, barely-tracked snow.
A thousand thanks to both Nick and Dave for having the same idea as to what constitutes a great day out – given the conditions, we think today was a bold objective, but comfortably and safely within our limits. A formula to repeat.
Below is the link to the Cham Lines video of the Chevalier Couloir. If you look closely from around 2:30, you can see us climbing up from below, and again all lined up at the top of the couloir watching the guys drop in. Or, you could ignore us and focus on the incredible skiing.