The north face of the Tour Ronde is, for a lot of mountaineers, their first proper north face route. With around 350m of difficulties it isn’t very big, and the climbing, with just two pitches of grade 4 ice in the middle of a steep snow plod, isn’t very hard, which makes it perfect for getting a taste of things like exposure and hot aches and all the other exciting aspects of alpinism.
One of the most common thoughts flying through people’s minds, as they top out of the second ice pitch and gratefully clip in to the bomber bolted anchor at the bottom of the upper snowfield, and often loudly vocalised with a considerable quantity of swear words, is a wide-eyed disbelief that anyone would willingly try and ski down the same route that they are dragging themselves up.
As I took my turn to lead on the upper snowfield when Dan and I climbed the route in April 2015, I didn’t get that thought. We had waded through around a foot and a half of deep powder snow on the lower half of the face, found decent ice on the crux, and now had firm snow under a slight crust for the top half. The wide slope, hemmed in on both sides by towering orange granite, felt manageable, accommodating. With some better snow on the upper snowfield, I thought, I could ski this.
We topped out, got our ropes stuck on our way down the Gervasutti couloir, missed the last train from Montenvers and had to walk down to Chamonix in our ski boots. It was the perfect day out.
Fast forward one year. Repeated storms and relatively-warm temperatures have left the glacial ice on most of the steep faces across the Mont Blanc massif under a thick blanket of snow, and Chamonix is enjoying a period of conditions perfect for steep skiing. All of the grand classics like the Cosmiques and the Courtes North-East are left as mogul fields at the end of each day; many of the seldom-skied lines like the Nant Blanc on the Aiguille Verte, the Col de l’Aiguille Verte, the Pain de Sucre beneath the Aiguille du Plan, and the Voies Suisses and Autrichiens on Les Courtes are seeing repeated descents; and even some new lines and variations are being put up by the strange and terrifying creatures in the upper echelons of the skiing community, much to the envy and amazement of the rest of us. Bergschrunds are filled-in, rocks are buried, crevasses are covered. As long as you play by the rules and think about where you are going, a lot of things are, for the most part, safe and stable.
Riding a high from a run of good days the week before and feeling fit, capable, and strong, on April 28th Grant and I wandered up into the Combe Maudite looking for something steep following yet another top-up of fresh snow. The Accursed Combe, tucked away behind the Mont Blanc du Tacul and the Aiguilles du Diable, has a number of descents on various different aspects, which means that you can often find something good to ski whatever the weather has been doing, and as we make our way up from the Glacier du Geant we study the various cliffs and couloirs above our heads through my binoculars. A lot of things seem to be in good condition and we discuss the various options along the way, but we have our hearts set on the Tour Ronde.
Once we are past the often quite-exciting step over the gaping bergschrund at the foot of the Gervasutti couloir, we aren’t in the least bit surprised to find that the westerly winds of the previous night have scoured it dry, which, whilst providing us with quick and efficient climbing, would make for a physically-taxing, though still enjoyable, descent. But after we’ve reached the sloping col at the top of couloir, we are thrilled to find an even carpet of deep, soft snow clinging to the left bank of the north face. However, being of a cautious mindset and wanting to be sure of things, we decide to take the time to check out the top of the slope whilst fastened quite securely to the mountain. When in doubt, get your rope out. We stash our bags, then Grant digs a good bucket seat and throws the rope around a shoulder whilst I step out along the ridge, poking around with my axe.
“How is it?” he calls across to me.
“I don’t want to sway your opinion one way or the other, but I think it looks pretty damn good. I reckon we could ski this!” I reply.
“Not that I don’t trust your judgement, but do you mind if I take a look?”
I pick my way back to Grant and make myself comfortable in his seat whilst he takes his turn at smacking the mountain with his axe. The upper half of the descent has a certain kind of amphitheatre shape to it, and it’s easier to get a good look at the route from the furthest end of the ridge separating the Gervasutti couloir and the north face, above the left bank of the snowfield, and with each step he takes away from me as I pay out the rope across my shoulders, I can almost feel his enthusiasm for the day increasing. At the end of our thirty metres of rope, he agrees. “Shall we give it a go?” he cries.
But we aren’t finished playing with our bits of string yet. We simply aren’t as brave as some of the people who like to hang out in the Mont Blanc range, and we have no shame in doing things carefully, even if the pictures don’t look quite as cool on Instagram. Grant threads a sling through some rocks and anchors the rope to it before returning to me and the bags on a Petzl Micro Traxion. We clip in to our skis and get ready to go before I take a seat again, digging my tails into the snow beneath me and holding the rope whilst Grant traverses back to our rock anchor, from where he belays me across the ridge towards him, and then again as I make a few exploratory turns down the slope, making a final check for any sheets of black ice hidden just below the surface of the snow – but there’s nothing. We’ve got a foot of fresh powder on top of a chalky, grippy base. The sun is out, the sky is blue. Everything is perfect. Grant raps down to me, we pull and coil the rope, and then we go skiing.
Around 150m of skiing through perfect snow at 45 to 50 degrees brings us to just above the rocks and ice that separate the upper- and lower-halves of the face. We know that there is a bolted anchor hidden in the rocks somewhere beneath us, but we are wary of getting too close to the edge whilst looking for it, so we find a sturdy-looking rock and tie it up with some tat to make our first rappel, and then from the bolts we make another rap down to a faded-but-fat rope sling around a solid flake. Our third thirty metre rappel drops us just beneath the point in the 60 degree gulley where the grey ice turns back into deep, soft snow, which encourages us back onto our planks in spite of the angle of the slope. We manage a couple of tight turns in the narrow gulley before it opens out onto the lower snowfield, still gloriously-steep, but a wide expanse of untracked powder which empties out onto the easy-angled Glacier du Geant a few hundred metres below us, and after a quick hop over a barely-noticeable bergschrund followed by some mellow, sunny turns down a relatively-untracked Vallee Blanche, we are on our way to the train at Montenvers.
We make it up the stairs and onto the last train with just a few minutes to spare. We realise that we lost quite a bit of time, obviously, with our apparently-unnecessary rope faff up at the top of the line, and knowing the face a little better now we’d probably feel a lot more comfortable with dropping straight in, provided we were confident about the snow conditions. Similarly, now that we know the exact rock that the bolted anchor is on at the central crux, we could probably ski straight to it and dispense with the extra rappel we made. But peace of mind is a wonderful thing to have, especially if all it costs is a few minutes of ropework, and it helped us immensely on this terrifically-exciting day out.
It’s hard to believe that we managed to score our first descent of this incredible classic in such good conditions, and whilst I’d absolutely love to plan for a return trip in the future, I think it we’d have to be pretty lucky to have the place all to ourselves again with such good snow. But we can always hope.
Thanks Grant for another awesome day in the hills, and for pretty much all of the decent pictures scattered across the page. I did manage to get enough video footage to staple together a short documentary of the day though, set to a ridiculously-rocking cover by Blue Murder of the Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park. Enjoy.