Cosmiques Couloir, 18/04/16
Swirling clouds with the occasional tiny patch of blue. A light on-off drizzle in town. There are six skiers in the nearly-empty first bin at the Midi, along with a few teams of climbers armed with either approach skis or snowshoes. Under a bright blue sky, Dan and I are the first to clip in to our skis on the ridge, perched high above the clouds down in the valley. We each have a go at knocking sluff down the south face before the traverse to the west, where the four of us take it in turns take it in turns to stamp down the new snow on our way up to the col.
We have a quick look at the Rond, but the entrance is dry and wind-scoured, a tangled mess of the old cable car wires and grey ice. The top of the glacier looks bare, and the exit couloir is hidden by a thick bank of sluggish cloud, so we turn around and sidestep back to one of the many rappel stations littering the top of the Cosmiques couloir, which looks sheltered, cloudless (for now), and beautiful. Gareth makes the first rap, and then juggling our two pairs of thirty metre ropes, the four of us quickly make the three rappels down and out of the wind, and into a good 50cm of fresh snow. The skiing, though quite dramatically sluffy at times, is spectacular.
The forecast has promised some “fleeting sunny spells towards the middle of the day”, but two thirds of the way down the Cosmiques couloir, that seems to be optimistic at best. Visibility drifts somewhere between ten and a hundred metres, and we have to ski relatively close together on our way across the edge of the Bossons glacier and back to the traverse. The wind picks up, the snow falls heavier and heavier, and the weather gets a fair bit worse than any of us had expected according to whatever meteo we chose to believe. Moving carefully through the impenetrable fog and taking the appropriate steps for risk management, we make it to the top of the Para face and the old lift station, where we are joined by four others; a pair who rapped into the Cosmiques just behind us and a couple of French guys from the Rond. Given the worsening weather, we all decide that we are done with traversing, so we ski the Para face down to treeline, then walk back down to town.
This is very short and preposterously-clichéd video that, though quite pointless, captures the atmosphere of the day remarkably well.
Glacier Ronde, Passerelle Couloir, West Couloir, 19/04/16
It’s no surprise: given the vast amounts of new snow and a horizon-spanning blue sky, the queue for the Midi is just as expected, out the door, and there is a scrum at the ticket window for the plastic tokens that secure your place on the lift. The announcement crackles over the tannoy: deneigement et des problemes techniques, informations a dix heures. A theatrical groan rises from the congregation.
People drift across to the boulangerie to while away the morning with a croissant and another cup of coffee, but as zero hour approaches, the familiar faces from all of the best ski porn videos take their places near the front of the line, and overheard snippets of conversation between people packed shoulder-to-shoulder make reference to Cosmiques, Rond, Passerelle. It’s going to be a busy day on the west face of the Aiguille du Midi. The tannoy pops back into life: “Mesdames et Messieurs, l’ouverture de l’Aiguille du Midi est à dix heures.” Cheers, applause, the excited shuffling of four hundred ski boots.
I manage to squeeze my way on to the third bin, leaving Grant and Charlie in the queue for bin four, but I’m more than happy to wait on the bridge between the two summits of the Midi and watch the show for a few minutes. A team of three, obviously from the first bin, are halfway through their first rappel down into the Passerelle Couloir, and as I scan the rocks below us looking for the next few anchors, two skiers with perfect form slash a couple of high-speed turns across the Rond and into the exit couloir. I can’t help but mutter a plea for the lift to hurry up, for my friends to arrive. They do, and as we pass the Passerelle hopefuls, I beg them to leave some snow for us. “We’ll be back for lap two!”
Out of the tunnel and down the ridge, a few metres of skiing, the long traverse under the orange rock of the south face of the Midi. A dozen people are already queueing for the rappel into the Cosmiques, another handful are hot on their heels, and yet more people are plodding up the hill behind us, towards the Rond. We pick our way down over the entrance ridge, the rocks and wires mostly buried now by new snow – the wind must have eased off relatively early yesterday. By now five or six people have torn down in front of us already, and the higher, steeper part of the face has sluffed off most of it’s fresh powder, leaving firm-but-grippy snow underneath, but the shallow gulley to the right of the glacier has held it, and skis damn well, as does the exit couloir, and the magnificent people from the first bin have already put in the traverse and bootpack back to the midstation. At this point, Charlie leaves us for an admin afternoon, but Grant and I are soon soaring once more to the top for another go.
Grant and I making our way to the Rond, thanks to Adrian Earlyup for the picture
Nicely warmed up by the Rond and eager for more, we stick our necks over the parapet of the passerelle, and are shocked to see that the team of three from our first walk across the bridge are still on their way down. They are past the second anchor but they are taking a pretty long time, and we dither for a few minutes as to what we should do. Would dropping a pair of ropes on them make life too difficult or dangerous, would we make things better or worse for them? But one of the group is hiking back up to their last anchor, and we realise that their rope is stuck. That decides it: Grant takes the lead on each rappel, and when he reaches their ropes, he unties their tangle and saves the day. He should probably get a medal.
We are nearing the end of our third rappel when the shouts of commotion ring down the steep walls of the couloir. Another team of four have started to abseil in after us, and as the another member of the team starts the vertical, free-hanging section of the rappel, the extra weight of the skis on his rucksack pulls him over backwards, and once inverted, he can’t right himself. “No, no!” one of his friends at the anchor below him cries as he unclips his bag, which takes the quickest route that it can down the couloir. There is a loud crash and a continuing clatter as the bag impacts again and again on the steep rock walls, one ski pops off, followed by the other, and they add their own high-pitched cracks to the din as they flutter-bounce down the couloir towards us. “Attention!” I scream down to Grant and the guys below us, unnecessarily in French, but they must have heard the racket already, and at any rate the bag slides to a halt about twenty metres above me.
Justifiably worried that someone else might use me for target practice, I quickly finish my rappel, and once we’ve stashed the ropes, put our skis back on the feet where they belong, and waited for the team in front of us to skip across the Rond to the exit couloir and out of the way of any sluff we might dislodge, we get to enjoy the goods.
A free pair of Black Crows skis above us, thanks to Adrian Earlyup for the picture
Somewhere close to 50cm of fresh powder sees all the way down to the Rond, where we ignore the regular exit on the opposite side of the glacier, and instead peel off right towards the terrifying drop of the hanging seracs, but a short climb on the right bank of the glacier brings us to the col at the entrance of the West Couloir. At the steep, narrow col, we find a ridiculously-friendly French dude waiting for his two friends to catch up. He already has his alarmingly-skinny rope out to make a single diagonal ten metre rappel over some mixed ground to the skiable slopes, which he offers to us to use. This is a huge gamble on his part, he doesn’t know us, and he has no idea whether or not we are total idiots. I know people who have had whole days out ruined by some numpty stranger hanging on the end of their rope for hours on end, but we obviously look trustworthy enough for him to lend us his line for a few minutes, which is quite reassuring.
“Merci mec! C’est super sympa, il y a une pichet pour vous à Elevation!” we call up to him, clipping in to our skis once again, and receiving a grin and two thumbs up in reply. But just as we are getting ready to go, an insistent hissing noise seethes down one of the gulleys opposite us, feeding directly into the couloir. As the day wears on and the sun carves its way across the sky, several west-facing hanging snowfields above us are being exposed to direct sunlight, and shedding their fragile load. Now more than ever, we agree, we need to follow proper procedure and ski the following pitches one at a time, find somewhere clever to tuck in and watch for the other, and shout like hell if we see anything following us down. The occasional sun sluffs aren’t distressingly huge, but they’d certainly knock you off your feet and take you for a ride, so we decide to pay attention to what we are doing for a few minutes. But our biggest concern for the day, an ice runnel in a narrow constriction during the lower half of the descent, where we were worried we might have to spend an inordinate length of time getting the rope out again for another rappel, is under a few feet of new snow, and we can ski straight over it. Soon enough, too soon, we are out of the couloir and under the fearsome hanging seracs at the end of the Rond, where the angle eases and we can let rip with huge, high-speed turns, before joining the traverse back to civilisation once again.
But once we join the small crowd at the old lift station and share some chatter with our three friends from the depths of the Passerelle Couloir, we decide that although it’s a little late in the day to be up on the west face under a blistering sun for lap three, we haven’t finished skiing. So after a quick cup of tea we point our skis downhill once again for some final fast turns on some Para face powder, until the snow turns to slush and then to thigh-screaming soup, and, finally, pine needle and puddle. We walk down through the steaming forest as the last of yesterday’s snow melts from the trees above us, grateful for the refreshing shower on our sweaty faces as Chamonix draws closer and closer, and with it, the promise of chips and beer on the sunny-drenched terrace at the Monkey.
(Thanks to everyone for the skiing: Dan Pobega, Gareth Hughes, Charlie Edwards and Grant Fulton, and to Adrian Earlyup who we shared the Rond exit couloir with; thanks to Dan, Grant, and Adrian for the photos that aren’t mine; and sorry to the French guy at the top of the West couloir, who we lied to, because there isn’t a pichet of beer waiting for you at Elevation, yet. Sorry.)