The autumn and pre Christmas period was a busy one for me with our trip to New Zealand, high pressure in the Alps and perfect stable snow conditions for exploring. That meant I only had a couple of rest days per month and by the end of the year I touched 180 ski days – hence the reason why my blog was somewhat neglected due to the ease of posting to instagram and facebook!
The day after the PLUM party Vivian Bruchez, Giulia Monego and Dave Searler headed to Pointe d”Orny to ski one of the couloirs. After climbing the couloir we sat and ate lunch in while soaking up the sun on the plateau and taking in the views of the Chardonnet and surrounding peaks. Once again we found a mixture of good cold snow varying from powder to chalk.
The Brenva Spur
We arrived at the Cosmiques hut with the plan to climb Tacul and Maudit and ski the Brenva Spur on-sight, but news there had been 40cm of snow dampen our enthusiasm. Tour Ronde and the Brenva Face had been in the rain shadow, while the Chamonix side had received a pristine bounty. As the afternoon cloud lifted we studied the voie normale and considered our options. There was good chance of being forced back in the dark by avalanche risk if we opted for Tacul and Maudit, so we went the long way round, over Col de la Fourche.
We woke just after three in the morning, forced down as much food and water as possible, and headed out into the night to ski the Vallée Blanche. The night was black as ink and the usual summit reference points were cloaked in darkness. Even my powerful head-torch’s beam seemed to be absorbed by the night. Navigation became difficult. Suddenly, something unfamiliar began to form in the darkness – a strange shadow against what little light there was. We broke left to ski parallel to a chaos of huge ice blocks as much as four metres high. The seracs under Col du Diable had fallen. We continued to ski down the Vallée Blanche, beside the avalanche, all the while adding yet more distance to our day. Eventually, after a considerable detour, we were able to ski round the toe of the debris and start back towards Cirque Maudit. Our friends had passed this way the previous afternoon while traversing from Torino to Cosmiques, so we knew this biblical serac fall must have happened in the last few hours. It was an ominous portent for the Trilogy.
At Col de la Fourche we met with dawn as the sun peered over the eastern skyline. That moment of first light is a revelation for the mountaineer whose senses have been deprived in the dark. Fear, anxiety and doubt evaporate as all becomes clear, calm is restored and the low point in the soul disappears. In front of us the Brenva face revealed its magical hidden secrets.
Crossing Col Moore at just before seven that morning, we stashed excess kit in the snow to reduce pack weight before starting up the route. We left behind our skins, ski crampons, ropes, shovels, probes, and extra food and water for the return leg. We would travel through survivable avalanche territory on the way back, but on the route itself only a transceiver was needed for body retrieval by the rescue services. Having estimated the snow would be soft enough to ski by half-past-eight, that gave us a leisurely hour-and-a-half to bootpack 700m.
The air was still and a blanket of cloud was drawn over the landscape below keeping Italy snug. Most people would still be curled up in bed enjoying a lazy Sunday morning. Snow and ice crystals glimmered, and the temperature was pleasant enough to climb the iconic curling arête of the Brenva Spur in thin mid-layers. We quickly covered the final few hundred metres to the pyramid rock tower, gatekeeper to the serac exit onto Col de Brenva.
After stamping ledges in the snow, we swapped crampons for skis and took in the magnificent surroundings. The endless east face of Mont Blanc lay to our right, a crazy mix of couloirs, buttresses and tumbling seracs that held historic alpine climbs such as Route Major. Sun-warmed powder waited for us on the upper section but, as I gazed on it, I wondered how it would ski.
We skied some cautious turns initially, allowing our sluff to run in front until we had passed a section of shallow snow over the ice. Then the angle eased, allowing us to open it up more and a dozen turns of almost sensual skiing took us to the narrow arête. We dropped onto wide open slopes holding perfect spring snow sucking in a couple of hundred metres in five or six swooping turns. Smiles all round.
Now, however, we had to cross back over the Brenva glacier and Col de La Fourche before the final 600m skin back up the Vallée Blanche to the Midi. We were all hit by a sudden slump in energy as we skinned back towards the Fourche, the adrenaline of the descent fading, replaced now by heavy fatigue. The fun was over and it was time to push hard for the last three hours and escape the searing alpine sun.
Its been a busy few weeks here which kicked off after a heavy dump of snow plastered all the faces. A project had been forming in my mind over the last year which involved skiing and shooting 3 of the biggest, baddest and hardest lines in the Alps. The Matterhorn is perhaps the most well known and iconic mountain in the World. Any time you ask a child to sketch a mountain they draw you the outline of the Matterhorn. Its East Face is an incredible slab of rock, steep enough to defy logic that snow will stick, and its rarely in condition. The West Face of Mont Blanc was a must, Himalayan in scale, the upper pitch alone is 1200 m of 50º starting at 4810 m, combined with another 1000 m of 45º couloir skiing below. This one had been alluding me since 2009 and in years when you have already been skiing for 7 or 8 months, its tough to hold out through June for it. The obvious choice for final route would have been the Eiger West Face but I’d already done it in 2011 and my interest lies in exploring new places. Having not skied in the Brenva Cirque, the Brenva Spur was the obvious choice. A route steeped in history and coveted by Alpinists in a remote and wild setting. After a mild season with low valley snowfall levels, we would be entering and leaving the Brenva by Col de la Fourche and the Aiguille du Midi rather than being able to ski out to the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
All that remained was getting the right partners with the head, experience, strength and fitness to take on these big days. When we embarked on the project I guessed there was 50% chance of completing it in 5 years. The Brenva fell to us first in a 12 hour day and a few days after we nailed the West Face in a 14 hour day – the last 3 hours without water. Reassessing our chances I now put them at 60% chance of completing the project this season but the long term forecast was showing that temperatures would rocket. A couple of days later we were off to Zermatt for what would be our only shot at it. And we did it!
Skiing the Trilogy or Triple Crown in a period of ten days days was a full on experience, mentally and physically. The shortest day was the last one at 10 hours, all 3 days were at 4000 m or more, and all were a race against the clock before conditions became dangerous in the heat of the day. A bit like doing 3 iron man races in 10 days? Maybe, but who cares, this was a personal quest to ski and shoot in wild places with my friends.
Finding skiers who have enough energy left for some big pushes at this time of the year can be tough but a big thanks to the ever psyched and super strong guys who joined me at various stages along the way to make this project a massive success: Mikko Heimonen, Jesper Petterson, Tom Grant, Enrico Kareletto Mosetti, Guilhem Martin Saint Leon.Below are a few shots from the trips with the good stuff and full blog post still to come.
55º uppers on the Matterhorn above and below
Enrico Karletto Mosetti and Tom Grant on a lush morning on the Brenva Spur