It’s been a funny old start to this season. We had some sudden, short-lived snow in early October, but summer carried on until the very end of November, then autumn lasted two days, and in the space of 48 hours we went from cragging in T-shirts at 2000m to a 150cm snowpocalypse, but then, oddly enough, summer came back, and for weeks on end the Alps sweltered under an enduring high-pressure system.
What little snow we had been gifted gradually receded, and anything worth skiing became harder and harder to find. Keen to stretch my legs in an effort to get fit for ski tours later in the winter, however, I found myself leaving the house in the early-morning dark time and time again, resigned to the necessity of carrying my skis on a backpack until at or well-beyond the treeline. This is a small collection of the photos, videos, and sentences I found scattered among the rocks and tree roots of this dry early-season.
Mont Buet, 04/12/15
The dog and I had decided to stick our noses up the Berard Valley, with no goal other than to get to the refuge and see what things looked like. We managed to follow a skin track on the summer walking trail through the woods for a couple of kilometres, made by three or four people the day before until just a few hundred metres before the refuge, where it peeled off to the left towards the Col du Berard.
Once we’d crossed the river in an almost-dignified manner and found the route ahead surprisingly well-covered, I decided to press on until things started to feel a bit more dangerous than I’d like, but a thin veneer of high cloud kept temperatures down and the snow, happily enough, felt reassuringly stable in the few holes I poked here and there, which encouraged an attempt on the summit.
So after breaking trail for 1300 of a 1700m climb, the dog and I had the pleasure of declaring Mont Buet open for the winter season. Sadly, the clouds thickened a short while before we reached the top, and though the snow was decent enough, flat light made for a scattered, confused descent. A mixed success, but good exercise all the same.
Whilst wandering around this autumn doing a bit of topographical research and filming some time-lapses of clouds and things, I accidentally dropped my terrible little off-brand video camera into a slightly-raging glacial torrent. I managed to fish it out, but the chill had already gotten into its bones, and it video’d no more. So I picked up a second-hand GoPro3, and I’ve been trying to get to grips with some fancier technology. This, for all its faults, is the first result.
Col du Belvedere, 08/12/15
With just a few days left until the Flegere lifts opened, I wanted to go and enjoy an empty Aiguilles Rouges before the crowds arrived. A 6am start was followed by 1550m of ascent, 1000m of which on foot until Lac Blanc, and the rest with skins up to the col. One could have quite reasonably started skinning a while before that, as the snow was actually pretty good from the Chalet des Cheserys all the way up to Lac Blanc, with only a couple of clickety-clackety bits. But as I wasn’t really sure what the conditions on the ascent were like and I had resolved to turn around and walk down again at the first significant sign of wind slab anyway, I decided to stay bootpacking until I could see a clear line up to the col. A stream was still flowing with running water above the cliffs and, downing half a litre of brain-freezing crystal-clear water, I was glad I had only brought the weight of a pint of tea in my battered and dented thermos.
With a thousand metres of bootpack finished, a considerable amount more snow than the last time I was here, and the lake finally, thankfully, well-frozen, its time to switch to skins for the final five hundred metres up to the col.
Now, I wasn’t breaking trail for the whole way up today… luckily enough, some kind soul had been out the day before and had put a bootpack in all the way to the lake. She was out again today, and just before switching from skis to shoes on my way down, I bumped into her and stopped for a chat, so I could thank this sprightly septuagenarian for putting in the track. We both agreed – the Aiguilles Rouges are wonderful when the Flegere lifts are closed.
Aiguilles Crochues, Sommet Nord, 10/12/15
The day after my trip to the Col du Belvedere was dull and grey, and the valley was flecked with drizzle: the perfect opportunity for a lie in. That afternoon through swirling cloud and a pair of binoculars, fresh snow could be seen high above the treeline… a mere dusting, but still more than there had been for weeks. The skis were strapped once again to a backpack and an early alarm set.
A 6am start, another 1600m of ascent, and an incredible sunrise across the glowing red gneiss of the Aiguilles Rouges followed by a brilliant blue sky. Once again, the whole place is deserted, and there is no-one around with whom to share the completely-unexpected carpet of almost 10cm of fresh powder snow. Selfishly, I find myself wishing once more that the Flegere lifts stay closed – I like having this place to myself.
I was originally aiming for either the Col des Dards or as far as possible up the Glacier des Dards towards the Aiguille du Belvedere (pictured above), but with a few small patches of windslab on some of the more south-facing slopes and anything leaning south-east already soaking up the suns rays and turning a bit soupy, it looked as though the north-east-facing slopes leading up to the north summit of the Aiguilles Crochues would be a much safer bet. I managed to get to just about twenty metres below the summit when a few rock bands blocked my way, and since I was traveling light without axe or crampons, I didn’t really see the need to carry on to a summit I’ve enjoyed many times before. So after a quick slurp of tea and a few brief moments of watching the choughs dance on the breeze, I turned around and went home, scoring around 800m of untracked, ankle-deep powder. Not much compared to some years, but quite a prize for this low-snow start to the season.
Mont Buet: Les Tours and the Glacier de Tre Les Eaux, 13/12/15
This beautiful descent that tears its way down the sunny south face of Mont Buet to a notch on the Arete des Cristaux formed by a schism between two distinct geological layers (the gneiss of the Aiguilles Rouges to the south and the limestone of the Haut Giffre to the north), before turning to the north down a long, narrow finger of glacier, and then finally winding its way down the beautiful Val de Tre les Eaux, had been at the centre of my thoughts for months, and I spent most of the autumn running, hiking and cragging around Mont Buet and Mont Oreb with almost the sole purpose of trying to get a good look at it from every angle. I made regular trips to see how the very first snows that had fallen back at the start of October were holding up on the Glacier de Tre Les Eaux, sheltered under the imposing north-east face of Mont Buet and hidden from the sun behind a funny lump of rock called Le Gros Nol.
Now, with over 1700m of ascent, skiing Mont Buet is always a long slog regardless of which route up or down you take, but escaping the Val de Tre Les Eaux this early in the season, before the river canyon at the bottom of the valley has been filled with enough snow for a clean ski descent, makes for a particularly long day out, as the alternative involves a little bit of hiking, climbing, and via ferrata over the summer walking trail at the foot of the south face of the Aiguille de Loriaz
I got an early start, wanting to be away from the huge south face of Mont Buet before it had spent much time in the sun. I preferred the idea of being too early in the day and chattering down bullet-proof refrozen snow on reasonably-sharp edges to the alternative, of being too late and having the entire south face empty on top of me in the rapidly-warming, spring-like conditions. So I started running up the Berard Valley just before 4am, switching to skis a few hundred metres from the refuge once most of the bare rocks lay hidden beneath the thin snow cover, and, trying fruitlessly to ignore the ridiculously pretty sunrise over my right shoulder, I was at the summit by half-nine.
The ski down the south face was as much of a bone-shaker as I’d imagined, but after another quick skin up to Les Tours and a traverse towards the Gros Nol, there followed a good few hundred metres of cold, pristine, north-facing snow down to the Tre Les Eaux glacier, and some skiing decent enough to make up for the, frankly, hilarious struggle on the way back to the village of Le Buet. All things considered, I might wait until the snow cover is a little more predictable lower down before repeating this route, but spending hour upon sweaty hour hopping through streams and down rock slabs and picking pine needles from your hair certainly adds a bit of value to the day.
This is a short music video about this unbelievably-enjoyable day out.
Mont Buet, 15/12/15
Today was the last chance I had to go skiing before going on holiday to Ireland for Christmas and New Year, so I teamed up with Georgie Fitzgerald for one last trip up one of my favourite mountains. More of the same: an early start, another 1700m of top-quality uphill exercise, some less-than-brilliant snow on the descent, and a little full-on combat skiing and exhausted trudging at the bottom of the Berard Valley to get home again.
I’ve noticed that whilst Baldric moves around more than enough to keep warm on both the uphill and downhill sections of a day, the time that we spend faffing around with skins or drinking tea leave him shivering. So I decided to invest in a nice new belay jacket for him to lounge around in when we reach the summit. Only thirty five euros from Technique Extreme – bargain.
Well, that’s it, my rather dry early season, rock-and-root filled as it was. As I write these words beside a roaring log fire on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, during a relatively-peaceful lull between two tropical storms in a seemingly never-ending string of them, after perhaps the worst start to a winter in living memory, the French Alps are finally starting to get the snowfall they deserve and so-desperately need. With any luck, by the time I make it home to Chamonix next week, a lot of the scarier holes in the glaciers will be filled-in, there’ll not be quite so many sharks lurking in the seas of the Grands Montets, and we won’t have to spend quite so much time walking to get to and from the good bits of skiing.
Merry Christmas and all the best for 2016, everyone!