Bathed in the milky glow of dawn, the forest around me is silent except for the rhythmic clatter-and-crunch of the built-in spikes under my running shoes as they scrape their way over rock and gravel. An annoying soundtrack this early in the morning, but I’ll be grateful for them later on, when I reach the crux of today’s route. The last time I was here, on the path from Les Nants up to the Flegere midstation and beyond, I was in the middle of a sweating, wheezing crowd of over six hundred on the TAR 2014, but today, with the winter season finished and the lifts closed for the spring, the Aiguilles Rouges are completely deserted. I am all alone.
Fueled by a pint of strong coffee and a crust of dry bread dripping with honey, the path climbing up to the treeline is finished with quickly, and as I take my first step onto the grey, gritty snow of a closed ski run, I’m relieved to find it firm and well-frozen, supporting my weight easily – just a few days previous in a different part of the valley, I had been sinking up to my nipples in wet, sugary snow after venturing too-far from the established trails – and I am delivered to the top of the Floria ski lift by easy plodding over consolidated pistes. This is only possible by leaving Chamonix, more than 1400m below you, under the glare of a head torch, and moving quickly before the rising sun has had a chance to soften the snow underfoot.
It’s at this point that the exciting part of the day begins: from the top of the Floria lift, the route heads up towards the Col des Crochues, and the path underfoot gets significantly steeper. A well-trodden bootpack provides easy, bucket-sized foot placements, but with the lifts closed and the absence of hundreds of passing feet on this popular and busy ski tour, the track is being ironed-out day-upon-day by a violently-powerful sun, and soon enough you’ll need some slightly beefier technology than running shoes to make it up to the col safely. Today, the nine carbide spikes on each of my feet and the ridiculously-light aluminium axe in my hand make short work of the climb, which gets to around 40 degrees in its steepest parts, and two hours after leaving Chamonix, I am at today’s high point of 2700m.
What follows is an almost unbelievably-pretty descending traverse across the Combe de la Balme, under the shadow of the unassumingly-mighty north faces of the Aiguilles Rouges. Their (admittedly) vastly more imposing and terrifying sisters to the south tend to hog all the glory, those lofty granite peaks in the Mont Blanc massif, but if they were to stand alone in a range of their own, these humble gneiss hills would undoubtedly see a lot more traffic. Anyway, despite enjoying a somewhat more mellow reputation than their neighbour, this is still quite a serious place to spend some time, and the path we are on is about to cross one of the most popular places to peg it in the Aiguilles Rouges – people can, and often do, slide to their death here. As the traverse reaches the slopes under the south couloir of the Pointe Alphonse Favre, the ground underfoot gets noticeably steeper and tumbles away beneath you to a cluster of rocky couloirs, winding their way down to huge grey piles of avalanche debris at the bottom of the combe. A poorly-placed foot here would spell certain injury and possibly worse, so I am reduced to kicking steps in my soft shoes and stabbing the stubby pick of my ice axe into the receptive névé, plugging my fingers and toes into the occasional pocket formed by rocks and pebbles soaking up the sun’s warmth and burrowing down into the snow. Progress is slow and requires a degree of concentration, but the experience is refreshingly invigorating.
By and by, the terrain gets a little less terrifying, and after another short climb we reach the second col of the day at 2460m, the Col de Berard. After taking just a few minutes to cram a cheese sandwich down my throat and with a few tentative steps to gauge the texture of the snow underfoot, there follows a good few hundred metres of decent running on grippy chalk before the inevitable happens: the heat of a day already in its ninth hour has started to melt the surface of the snow, and the descent turns into an erratic stop-start of sneaking, arms-outstretched, across a fragile shell that barely supports your weight, with sudden and frequent plunges through to the granular sugar below, shins scraping painfully on the edge of the crust through my thin and worn running tights.
Eventually, and with great relief, the unpredictable and infuriating snow gives way to a thin layer of slush, then to a rocky path through a tangle of tree roots strewn with a thick, soft carpet of pine needles, and before long the familiar trail down the Vallon de Berard has spat me out onto the road up to the Col des Montets, the track to Argentiere, and a lift home to a breakfast of white pudding and scrambled eggs.
Regular readers of this “web log” (both of you) will have no doubt noticed that I’ve been pretty quiet this winter. This is down to a number of factors; the inevitable primary cause being the broken shoulder back at Christmas and the ensuing weeks of convalescence in the UK, but the questionable conditions, verging on downright-terrifying, that lasted throughout January and February certainly didn’t encourage me to go outside much.
“Where are you taking your clients at the moment?” Elodie asked the guides propping up the bar at Le Stone as they sipped their thimbles of rosé and cloudy balloons of Ricard, fishing for tips on where to go for her day off.
“Nowhere!” came the spluttered reply. “It’s too dangerous at the moment!”
As a mediocre and slim-pickings season progressed, Chamonix was struck by heart-wrenching tragedy as two of the valley’s most respected ski mountaineers were killed on the same day. I barely knew either Brendan or Dave – in fact I’d only ever met Brendan O’Sullivan once, years ago in 2009, at the top of the Keyhole in the Aiguilles Rouges, on what was probably the third or fourth ski tour I’d ever been on. The final bootpack up to the breche had been scoured clean by overnight winds, and was unimaginably icy. As I was about to struggle up it in my heavy downhill boots without axe, crampons, or clue, Brendan slung the boulder at the top of the couloir and threw a handrail rope down, saving me energy and embarrassment. An insignificant story, my only contribution to the legacy of a man known and loved by many in Chamonix, but an episode that helped to shape the way I move in the mountains to this day.
Dave Rosenbarger was the last person who I spoke to before traveling to the UK in mid-January, just a few days before he died. I was taking my recycling to the Molok before going to the airport when Dave saw me leaving through the garden gate of my apartment, and he came over to say hello. We chatted about my broken shoulder and his recent trip to Canada, about how I was leaving Chamonix for a few weeks so I wouldn’t be tempted to go skiing before my bones had knitted back together, and what he was generally thinking about the mountains at that point.
We had shared the occasional lift line before, but I’d only met him properly about a month earlier, in Moo on Christmas Eve, and to be completely honest I couldn’t help but feel a little starstruck – which I am unashamed to admit – because I’d been jealously following his skiing exploits for years through the magic of social media. But even though we were surrounded by people who he already knew and liked, who almost certainly had fewer pointless little questions to bombard him with, he gave me so much of his time as we discussed our hopes and ambitions for the winter, sharing with me his advice from a wealth of hard-earned experience. He was a decent dude who just wanted to go skiing.
The absolutely horrifying news that echoed through the valley on January 23rd hit a lot of people hard, and it took a long time for many to return to the mountains. The collective enthusiasm in Chamonix waned considerably, and it quickly became apparent that this was a season for toning it down a touch, for dialing back the grand objectives, and just settling for what little was available. Mellow, easy-angled ski tours and sticking to the barely-covered trees were mostly the order of the day. Then as conditions improved throughout March and April, I found myself skint and healthy, so I started work on the opening of a new restaurant and my free time was reduced to a single day off a week, plus the occasional stolen morning. But at the very least, a heavy work schedule forces you to appreciate what little time you do get to spend outside so much more.
Aside from various dog-friendly powder tours, sunny skips through the Aiguilles Rouges, and sight-seeing tours across to Italy, I’ve had two trips to the Tour Ronde, once to the Little Gervasutti with Mikael Abrahamsson, where we found a pleasant climb followed by an icy-but-enjoyable ski; and once to climb the North Face with Daniel Fitzgerald in a truly British style, with a reassuringly-heavy rack of gear. We made good progress on the climb, but hordes of angry rope gnomes attacked us whilst rappelling the Gervasutti back to our skis, and as the minutes turned into hours we realised that we would miss the last bubble up to the Montenvers train, and we would be walking back down to Chamonix in our ski boots. It finished as a rather long but incredibly enjoyable day out.
The next week, after a day and a half of tepid drizzle in the valley with the promise of some quite good snow up high, Nick Draper, Mike, and I went for a bit of a burrow up towards the Col des Nantillons, with our greedy eyes set on the Spencer Couloir. I had been wandering around the Signal Forbes and the Fretes des Charmoz the day before with my dog, some snowshoes, and a pair of binoculars, and it looked as though the bergschrund was covered and the couloir well-filled. But our light-ish bags and keen enthusiasm were no match for either the Compagnie du Mont Blanc, who decided to leave a growing crowd hanging around for about forty minutes before opening the lift, nor for the sheer immensity of the 800m bootpack, so in rising temperatures and (mostly) perfect snow that wouldn’t stay that way for long, we turned around to enjoy what little we had earned.
On top of the occasional outbreak of skiing, I’ve tried to keep up with my least-favourite sport throughout the winter, and have managed to go on a few runs every now and then. Because even with less-than-fond memories of the week spent hobbling around on rigid hips and creaking knees after my last race, the CTS Dorset Ultra 72km, I am now looking forward to an even more beastly challenge, that of the Mont-Blanc 80km, which, as the occasional newsletters I receive take delight in sneering at me, is now even more “wild and technical”, with a course designed to “avoid towns and favour secluded trails.” What a treat!
The weekend of the Marathon du Mont Blanc, at the end of June, is the first significant date in the remarkably-busy racing calender here in Chamonix, and plays host to a number of races, among them the classic marathon, the 80km, and the famous Vertical Kilometre, a thousand metres of quite-stiff ascent squeezed into just under 4km of distance – the perfect place to train for a hellishly-long day of running uphill on some unbelievably technical trails. However, the Vertical KM as most people do it is just shy of a full thousand metres, as to get the whole lot, you need to start from the town centre at 1040m of altitude and carry on to about two hundred metres distance past the upper lift station. But if you run it lift-to-lift, as most people do, it works out at about 2.5km with 900m of up, so running laps of it and taking the lift back down is a wonderful way of clocking up some serious vertical in a short space of time, and wheezing and gasping up it four times finishes as an unpleasantly-steep 10km with 3600m of up. You do get a most-welcome few minutes to sit down in between each lap on the descent, but it honestly felt as though each break got shorter and shorter… I suspect the lifties cranked it up a notch when they twigged what I was doing.
Reassuringly, at the end of the fourth lap, I actually felt as though I could carry on for quite a while longer if it weren’t for the crushing boredom of repeating the same course again and again and again. So whilst the prospect of 6000m of ascent over an 82km course is still an absolutely terrifying thing to have lurking in my thoughts, I am quietly optimistic that I’ll finish the race, at least.
All-in-all, I had some pretty bold goals for this winter: after a summer of trail running and finishing not-too-badly in a couple of races, I was feeling fit and ready to take on some big days in the mountains. I had planned a few high-level traverses and had a wishlist of couloirs and cols as long as my ski pole. But the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, for promis’d joy.
So, the best-laid scheme of getting fit enough for some hardcore ski alpinism ganged quite aft agley, as the promis’d joy of lots of steep couloirs led to grief an’ pain, and given my current work schedule, winter is now all but over for me. But one mustn’t dwell: you have to glean whatever lesson you can from the ongoing life experience, and through some admittedly shaky joined-up reasoning, I’ve decided that if my masochistic endeavours into trail running aren’t guaranteed to benefit my own narcissistic wishes to go skiing, they might as well benefit someone else. So I’m going to stick with the running, for now, and I’ve decided that the next race I run will be in aid of the North West Hospice in Sligo, Ireland, where people close to me have, unfortunately, had to spend a lot of time recently. I’d be absolutely thrilled if you could donate absolutely anything, no matter how small, on the fundraising page I’ve created on mycharity.ie.
Well, that’s the end of that story. Sorry it isn’t a very good one, more a cluster of episodes to reflect upon and look forward to. Hopefully there will be some more exciting adventures worth writing about in the future.