These days Alpine summers are somewhat different to what they used to be. I grew up reading about climbing on the big North Faces and summers so rainy and snowy that impatience got the better of many and they packed up and went home in disgust. Now its all about just how hot its going to be and how long the drought will last. Temps soar into the high 30s during the day with the sun so strong that shelter is required. At night the temperature barely drops and I find myself unable to sleep before midnight with the thick granite walls of our 200 year old house radiating heat. The idea of actually pedalling a bike uphill is my idea of a heat stroke inducing sweaty hell and its restricts me to lift assisted enduro through July and August. Then in September the temperatures drop below 30C and the magical world of Middle Earth opens its doors to riders willing to explore where the winding singletracks will lead. Valais, Savoie and Aosta all hold and incredible network of trails that linked one region to another switchbacking up and over Alpine cols for mile after mile. I spent so much of my life dedicated to racing bikes and the restrictive nature that entails of training hard, resting more than riding, not drinking…alpine biking offers a world of fun where I could probably avoid riding the same trail twice in this lifetime even though I’m riding almost every day. So as this season draws to a close with the first large snowfalls due at the weekend, here’s some of the good moments from another absolutely brilliant alpine biking season.
A big thanks to Oli Herren, Tim Nickles, Tim Longstaff, Graham Pinkerton, Minna Rihiimaki, Rosanna Hughes, Davide Capozzi and the donkeys for all the good times.
Fall in the Alps. The summer inferno has past giving way to more pleasant temps for bike riding. T shirts at 3300m. Everywhere you look there is a blaze of orange and red as the larches and grasses go off.
I should be in New Zealand skiing new lines but my L5 disc herniated onto the root of the sciatic nerve the day after I finished guiding this summer. No I wasn’t out shredding but simply walking on a forest trail. Biking is a major feature of my rehab as I try to overcome the partial muscle paralysis of my calf and glute – its kept me sane and frustrations at bay. It turns out the Aosta Valley holds some of the best trails Ive ridden in 25 years and my Bronson is now riding sweet with saint brakes – many of these descents are in the 1600 m category so things get very hot!
My unhappy spine!
The week started with a full throttle powder day with Mikko, Jesper and Nikolina at Pavillion. After 8 laps there we moved across the road to Val Veni and did a few laps of the cable face. It was riding pretty sweet and I was psyched to get to ride this face again this season. For once the Scandos wanted to stop before it got dark and go eat pizza which was good too. From the comfort of my sofa that night with throbbing legs I felt pretty sorry for Nikolina who was working until 2 am!
The next day was sunny and a chance to get high. I hit Helbronner with Mikko and Jesper and we found the most amazing stable powder on the mountain. By lunch we had skied the classic cables line, Tassoti, straight line 3 times and Chesso twice, in total 7 x 1000m laps. Although it was still cool we decided to go back to darker Cham side and have a run on the Rond but once we got through the tunnel the light was flat and we called it at that not wanting to spoil what had been the best cables day for me for a few years. These days were fast, furious, and focused on skiing so no photos! The only downside was hitting a rock at full speed on the Toula glacier that had me tomahawking to a standstill. It felt like my knee would explode as the tail bit on each rotation but I luckily got away with only strained medial ligament. I did exactly the same thing before going to Baffin so knew I could manage it.
After resting my knee all the next morning I got the code red from De Masi that it was apocalyptic in Italy. We arrived over there to find it snowing at 20 cm an hour with 50 cm of fresh on the ground. With 115 underfoot it was still chest deep. There was a ridiculous amount of snow coming out of the sky and continuous face shots of cold champagne powder. Well, we skied until the liftie asked if we had homes to go to! I haven’t seen it snow that intensity since ’99 when we got a few metres in 3 days and the avalanches were blasting through the towns in the Alps, something no one wants to see a repeat of. Only a half day but 5 laps in the bag.
Pavillion freeride was the order of the day for Saturday and Michelle met up with her friend Ian from UEFA who was psyched for sport with the Cham lifts shut with the Foehn storm. During the morning it continued to snow and cover the tracks then the sun made an appearance giving us the visibility to jump on the spines and have a laugh. The main problem was avoiding white rooming yourself while launching over the pillows and fish mouths on the aprons. It was supposed to be an active rest day but in the end 7 laps dont really qualify as active rest! By now the Border control cops at the Mont Blanc tunnel were only stopping the car to ask where the good skiing was.
Eat, sleep, repeat. Too good to stop. U guessed it we were at Pavillion on Sunday, joined by Black Crows team mate Minna. We had fun there there until the sun came out at which point we decided to put some distance between ourselves and those big faces above that were loaded with powder after days of storm. Switching to Val Veni, the trees were still providing awesome skiing, so much so that we had to have one last run and went to the Church spine face. The approach through the trees was incredible with 3 deep foot sluff runnels between the spines in the steep terrain of the forest – WTF? Then we popped out on the spine face and wait a minute, whats this heavy wet mank? Not cool. I’m guessing there was enough reflected infra red radiation off the Helbronner side onto our north facing slope to warm the snow. Time to go home. 6 laps.
Monday dawned fine. Can’t stop, won’t stop. Oli Herren said ‘yeah skiing, its a lifelong addiction.’ I wanted more, and the more I got, the more I wanted. Helbronner uppers. Michelle, Minna and myself ride the bin with Capozzi, Rolli, Civra Dano,Wallace, Hachemi, Husted. The cable face looked loaded and wind effected so we started the day on the more sheltered lines. The lower approaches into Pavillion were skiing amazingly but my legs were tired. 4 laps and coffee. 40 laps over 6 days.
The weather for Tuesday was perfect…time to go touring use different leg muscles!
I took the last lift up that evening to the Aiguille du Midi in order to join the others at the Cosmiques refuge, my pack laden with five litres of water. The weather had not broken all day with heavy cloud coming and going, and I slid forward onto the arête only to be enveloped in thick fog. There was over 30cm of new snow on the arête, too much for our west face plan. It felt more like winter than spring. I stood patiently, waiting for it to clear, but soon grew cold and resigned myself to waking down the arête. Where it levelled I skied down the south face, hugging the buttress and using the Midi as a handrail. There was only 10cm of new snow here so, if the sky cleared as promised, we were back in the game! Like a sign to us, just before we retired to bed the cloud dropped and we were treated to a majestic sunset above the inversion. It also enabled us to check the Tacul for any large accumulations. We enjoyed its warm glow, then turned in early to get some sleep before what we knew would be a very long day.
When the alarm ripped me from my cosy sleep, I looked out of the window to see the stars glistening in the night sky and excitement grew inside me. We each went through our final preparations in silence, eating and drinking as much as possible before making our way out into the frozen, predawn air. For the next few hours we just needed to keep to time, eating and drinking on the move and avoiding unnecessary stops. As we skinned up Tacul the temperature continued to plummet and the frigid wind increased in strength. The whole place felt thoroughly hostile.On Col Maudit the wind was driving snow and we stopping to put all our clothes and suffered in silence trying to keep the extremities from freezing. The cold was in my core making me pee a lot and lose fluids, we were all cold and there was nothing to say or do keeping going. By now my skins were falling off regularly and we weren’t setting any records between stops to rewarm fingers and toes and to reseat skins. After climbing the Col du Mont Maudit in boot deep snow we kept walking as the wind had scoured the slopes slopes to Mont Blanc.
On the summit it was a relief to drop down the Italian side a few metres and get out of that north wind. Below us the west face fell out of sight in vast, featureless snow slopes. It would be easy to head off on the wrong line here and we knew there was only one skiable line in condition. Normally I’d strip off some layers to ski, but I was so cold now that I only swapped mitts for gloves – just to be able to handle my camera better.
I put in the first turn on the relatively flat upper slopes. As the skis punched through the light crust the edges started to bite and squirm. Beneath the crust, and above the glacial ice, was a thin layer of sugar that meant we were unable to read where the ice lay. It made for tense skiing. I watched as others tested the snow below them with their poles, traversing back and forth and finding a safe passage through this zone. These are ‘fall-you-die’ lines and there is no margin for error. The tension tightened in my chest and I forced myself to stay calm, breathed deeply, and made each turn count.
After 100m we were past the death ice section and onto good snow alongside a buttress. Below it we skied a long, enjoyable pitch on what must be the highest spine in Europe. We were all working hard – race-pace hard, where you smell the blood in your nose – trying to keep to time, knowing that was the only way to negotiate safe passage through the glaciers below. A short traverse took us into the south-facing Saudan line, a 50 degree couloir that fell away below us for over a thousand metres. Now the exposure had eased, we could relax a little. We enjoyed good, consistent snow all the way down to the lower apron.
We had by now recovered from the cold and took some time to strip off shells and down jackets in preparation for the coming descent. The hanging seracs left of the Benedetti line were very active and as our route through the lower the slabs was right beneath this shooting gallery, we picked up the pace to exit the face over the final bergschrund. I needed to ski swiftly to limit the exposure time, but serac debris slowed us all right down. This old game of Russian Roulette beneath seracs tightened the tension across my chest again. Finally we cleared the face and relaxed.
On paper the principal technical difficulties were over, but we still expected some combat in order to make it down to the Miage. Glacial recession has made it difficult to negotiate the Mont Blanc Glacier to the Miage Glacier so our chosen escape route was to skin to the shoulder above the Quintino Sella hut and then ski the west-facing couloir down to the Dome Glacier. Our timing was perfect and the couloir skied so well we covered the distance in scant minutes. The Dome Glacier had been a big question in our minds but after roping up it only took a few minutes to cross and the weight of uncertainty was lifted, a few hours of effort would get us to the road.During the final walk we were spread out, allowing us to reflect on the day and think about some of the moments we hadn’t had time to digest properly in the heat of the action. Without doubt, it had been one of the most intense days I’d spent in the mountains – incredible situations and high quality skiing. After being in the world of snow, ice and rock all day long, the lush green alpage near Chalet Miage appeared particularly vivid and beautiful.
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.