After six months of skipping around with nothing heavier than a windproof and a few energy gels in my backpack, I was keen to consolidate whatever gains my summer of trail running has given me by hauling some proper weight up something. So it was with distressingly-heavy bags that Dan and I met at the bottom of the Grands Montets early one morning, with the intention of climbing the Chevalier Couloir in an unnecessarily-British style: two axes, a few bits of gear and far-too-much rope. Having climbed this last year with just the one axe in much icier conditions, we knew this was overkill, but it never hurts to get a good bit of exercise.
In the lift up, however, we started to get second thoughts – I had seen several teams in it just the day before, and from the look of some people in the queue there were more headed that way today. Given the current snow conditions (none down below, but more than enough up top), I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see people heading up the Petite Verte and dropping in from above to ski it, either. I’m not a fan of crowds at the best of times, so we decided instead on Plan B: an easy-access couloir behind the Argentiere Refuge, clearly visible with binoculars from the Col des Grands Montets, and almost overflowing with clean, cold, shaded snow.
A crusty stumble between gaping crevasse fields on the alarmingly-bare Glacier des Rognons drops us at the start of a short skin up the Glacier d’Argentiere, where poor snow cover and more holes currently demand that you head straight up the middle of the glacier, before crossing over to the Aiguille d’Argentiere side and towards the moraines at the foot of the Milieu Glacier. Carry on up to around 2900m, hop over the moraine, and then continue up the cone below the couloir, either skinning or bootpacking as you see fit.
The going is slow as we crawl uphill through deep snow. When we can, we escape to the mixed ground on either side of the couloir, clawing our way upwards with axe and glove as the wondrously soft snow collapses under our feet. Just fifty metres shy of the top, our brazen resistance to summit fever kicks in, and we decide to stop and enjoy what we’ve earned. This couloir gives approximately 250m of 40º skiing, with just a couple of steeper sections in some of the narrower bits.
A timely but welcome reminder of just how heavy a rucksack in winter can be, with a most enjoyable reward at the other end of it. Thanks Dan, for agreeing to Plan B.