Alpine Biking

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.

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Directissima, Trident du Tacul

Sustained crack climbing after the easy intro pitch was the order of the day. A beautiful burly route on fantastic granite.

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Me on the 6b warm up pitch.

IMG_2087Gareth seconding the 6b warm up pitch

IMG_2091Gareth engaging the 6C P2

IMG_2100Burly laybacking approaching the belay

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IMG_2102 2My view as I weigh up the physical layback and foot smears that lie ahead

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And the view down from the belay

IMG_2103Gareth arriving at the belay after the crux 7A pitch

IMG_2119A German team behind starting off on the crux

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Pulling hard on finger locks here.

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Wooden wedges on the final traverse pitch

Indurain, Trident du Tacul

Indurain for me is the best of the Trident route with varied climbing on splitter, flakes, laybacks and grooves. So good!

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The Trident

0c390458-e87b-456d-b50b-230ae4cf96f1Me on the initial warm up 6b pitch with required a forceful approach with a toasted body from a hard days cragging the previous day.

IMG_2234Gareth on the diagonal crack

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Grovelling around in the offwidthIMG_2236Spanning out to the layback flake

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IMG_2254Gareth departing on what I though was one of the finest crack pitches in the massif. A fine 6C hand crack heading up right.

IMG_2265Gareth fully engaged in the hand crack

IMG_2271Nearly there, on the steeper bulge at the top

669aff0e-1f42-44f9-924b-2c0db1d71130Me on the groove 3rd pitch

fb7f4317-8167-41f4-83c7-923067e4e0c0Me on the crux 4th layback pitch

IMG_2272Looking down the layback pitch, Gareth’s white helmet just visible

bd1deff5-3380-4a20-b482-dc82b4de6c7fThe top 5+ pitch, a bit gravelly but the final 6th pitch is worth doing and takes you above Bonne Ethique’s ab line.

Julbo Chamonix Sunglasses Review

Last month I received a pair of Julbo Chamonix glasses through the post to review.

Julbo was created by Jules Baud in 1888 and founded in the Jura Alps just North of Geneva in a response to requests by the Chamonix crystal hunters need for optical protection from the harsh radiation at altitude.

To this day Julbo has continued to design wicked sunglasses to protect mountain users while branching out into other sports such as sailing and mountain biking which have their own unique demands for protecting your priceless eyesight.

In the 1950s Julbo produced the Vermont glacier glasses and the design went on to become a classic adopted by rockstars and climbers, and a collectors item.

1970s heralded the dawn of professional mountaineers and by that I mean athletes doing routes rather than mountain guides. Yannick Seigneur was an engineer and a product of the grand ecoles. His parents disapproved of mountaineering and it wasnt until his mid 30s that he went full time into mountaineering with an incredible resume of 8000 m peaks in the Himalaya as well as a legacy of new routes around Chamonix.

To this day Julbo continues to be a small family run business with a big heart and passion for what they do. On any given day I might end up rubbing shoulders, ski a line or working with many of the Chamonix stars that are supported by this brand. Vivian Bruchez, Sam Favret, Valentine Favre, Glen Plake to name but a few. World Champions to powder whores like myself.

So when I opened the package I wasn’t surprised to find a timeless classic design glacier glass that has evolved from the original Vermont 1950 edition. Construction quality is to Julbo’s highest standards with metal frames and category 4 glass mirrored lenses to combat radiation up high. White leather baffles stop anything getting around the side.  Rubber nose pads and temple tip/earpieces so these babies will never slide down sweaty noses when you look down and spot your feet.

I took mine guiding to the roof of Europe, Mont Blanc. These sunnies are light despite the glass and I had no issues with soreness on the arch of the nose and after a long day on the mountain my eyes were free from the ache of overexposure to the sun. They are robust too, a wildly gesticulating Italian guide knocked mine for six straight off my head in the refuge – no problem!

So they do what they are supposed to but the thing I like the most is strip off the leather baffles and you basically have, dare I say it, a Ray Ban Aviator for looking cool round town or driving your car. I’ve fallen in love with these in a world where plastic frames and glasses have dominated for so long.

Traversing the Peigne, Pelerins, Deux Angles, Plan, to the Midi

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This was a marvellous adventure we did earlier this summer in search of all forms of terrain from splitter cracks, jenga stacks to north face snow and ice as we prepared for our guides test. Akin to the traverse of the Aiguilles, it avoided the dangers of a dry Nantillions Glacier and a descent that would take its toll on our legs invoking a rest day. My partners in crime were fellow aspirant James Clapham and Chamonix regular Andrew Wexler who was over from Canada to work the summer season.

It rained through the night so we elected to take an early bin to give the Carmichael cracks time to dry, leaving Plan de l’Aiguille at 0720 and arrived at the Aiguille du Plan at 2000 hrs after doing the route in guide mode with short roping etc and carrying bivi kit.

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The route highlighted above.

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Carmichael Route on the Pelerins

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Wexler on the Carmichael

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Myself and James at the junction with the Gruter Ridge on the Pelerins

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James on the penultimate pitch of the Gruter Ridge

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Myself and James on the summit of the Pelerins

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Traversing to Col des Pelerins

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Looking back to the Pelerins

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Me climbing up good rock after Col des Pelerins

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Unstable choss in the amphitheatre

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Wexler

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Lush granite on the Deux Angles

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Wex on the 5C pitches up the Deux Angle SW Spur

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James and myself seconding on one rope

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Happy days, on the North Face of the Plan

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Wex and James on the North Face with the Deux Angle behind

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8 pm, time to bivi to avoid the puddles on Midi Plan

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Time to get up and sort our shit on in the morning

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Enjoying the sunrise

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Midi-Plan, Mont Blanc and its outliers

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Mini pano of Dent de Geant to Cham Valley

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Absorbing some warmth from the sun

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Another pano with Grand Jo

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James climbing up the rognan

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A pano but Wex move so ended up with a tiny body

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Whats left of Grand Envers top pitch

DecemberPow

I have to admit that as we approached the ski season I was more than a little demotivated. The last two seasons have been dusters and we were enjoying the most incredible Indian Summer,  starring a possible 3rd winter duster in the face. The biking and cragging were incredible and my only motivation to ski was for an October ski trip to pick off the Caroline Face of Mount Aoraki/Cook in NZ.

Then in mid September a chunk separated off my L5-S1 lumbar disc and logged itself against my sciatic nerve. This caused high frequency electrical pulses down the leg, loss of muscle control and rapid loss of muscle mass. For the first of weeks I was unable to sleep or sit down. I’d walk around the house in the middle of the night until the next cocktail of pain killers kicked in allowing me to grab a couple of hours rest. I’d then lie still on my back with anxiety gnawing at the thought of the pain returning. As soon as I turned onto my side or front the electricity would start and my hip felt it would dislocate from the muscle contractions. My butt ached from lying on it all the time. It didnt take long for me to run out of pain killers. Walking to the pub for some liquid pain relief would have me willing my bad leg to move as quickly as the other, but it was like dragging it through treacle. That was the Uma Thurman moment from Kill Bill where she tries to wiggle her big toe. Sitting in the car was impossible. Eventually the need for food drove me to trying to ride to the supermarket. I discovered cycling provided some relief and got the nerve moving through the muscles and tissues. I immersed myself into two months of rehab on the bike desperate to get my calf and glute working and thinking that getting blood flow, nutrients and movement into the muscle would counter the wastage in the areas affected by sciatic paralysis.

After a few weeks my calf started working, the feeling returned in my foot and I could stand on my tip toes which gave me hope about climbing again. But my glute just withered away and sitting became very uncomfortable with no muscular padding for the nerves. I was sure that I’d be able to sorta ski like that but without the glute stabilising the pelvis there would just be more damaging load going into my lumbar spine. Weeks of exercises followed under the supervision of resident Osteo Carlton Rowlands to isolate the glute and get the neurology to fire. Initially I just couldn’t do the simplest leg lifting movements no matter how hard I tried or willed the glute to work. I kept positive but was realistic that the ski season could end up being more about guiding and very little personally skiing unless I could back to a level of fitness to support the loads free skiing exerts on the body.

The injury was a big wake up call for me in many ways. Over the summer guiding I hadn’t eaten well with nights in the refuges and often had too little sleep over the week. These things are fine for the odd week or two but if the basis of your daily life reduces to this then soon cracks will appear somewhere. However fundamentally there was a weakness through my lower back that had severely limited the way I skied over the last decade. I sensed it and new something was weak there. When I say weak I mean weak relative to my stronger legs which had put me on the podium in the Scottish Junior MTB Series.  But I didn’t know how to strengthen it. Like most of you focused on ab/oblique exercises and the usual gym routines which gave a strong exterior but neglected the core.

The biking through October and November was incredible with dry warm conditions in Aosta allowing rides over 3400 m cols in a t-shirt. For days with 2500 to 3000 m of climbing I’d go alone or hook up with Davide Capozzi and then ride with my Chamonix friends on my rest days. The larger rides showed the difference in strength in my legs as the muscles were taken to fatigue, but with no ill effects or set backs, my confidence started to grow.  Meanwhile I continued to work on rehab exercises and start the slow process to rebuild the muscle, all to aware the ski season was approaching fast and a compensating body would cause a lot of problems.

10 days in Finale brought an abrupt end to the biking season at the start of December and I returned to a frigid cold and austere Chamonix wondering what I’d do next. The phone rang and it was Tom asking if I wanted to go to Bel Oiseux touring. To be honest I hadn’t even thought about skiing but when I considered it I thought I didn’t have any excuses not to give it a go.  As we set off on our very late start we met a bunch of the Cham crew who had already done a lap and the smiles gave away the good the conditions.  Tom, Johanna and myself talked the whole way up the hill, taking in the scenery and enjoying being back in the mountains.

I took them to the top of a line I knew that was a bit hidden from the others. Once I confirmed we were in the right place the other two jumped in before me. Tom was straight back from skiing the Caroline and no doubt they were thinking the old man was going to ski like a grandpa. I was certainly thinking that. The gnawing fear of a set back and a return to that hateful nerve electrocution torture was holding me back. The thought of hitting a rock on my bad leg and the shock blowing more of the disc contents against the nerve root weighed heavily on my mind. I made two hop turns like an octogenarian, getting the feedback for how well my leg would cope with the shock, and then decided to point the skis downhill and ski the way I wanted. The line was filled with smooth consistent powder which skied beautifully and was gentle on my body. I didn’t stop where the others had held up and continued down to the terminal cliff. What an amazing feeling, hope crept through my mind that I could get back into skiing.

A week later and it was opening day at Grands Montets. A bunch of us Crows had partied hard the night before and I woke up with the feeling that my head was in a vice. Hungover, stiff, dehydrated and with a battered central nervous system I joined the crew at GM and went for a run on the piste in the flat light. It was awful, every unseen bump pinching the sciatic nerve and causing my hamstring to fire and stiffen further affecting my ability to flow over the terrain. I was also struggling to control my direction going through the bumps and initially thought this was a proprioreception problem but in the end worked out that the flexibility in my left leg increased as it flexed up and outwards, rather than straight up. Through the bumps my ski would always track left, just when you wanted to turn right. It all felt a bit pointless and I went home despondent thinking that those days of skiing 15-20 k vertical metres off the lifts were behind me and future skiing might be limited to untracked touring lines. The Mountain Boot and Scarpa crew were in town for 2 days and keen for a second day on GM but I knew I couldn’t handle  that and guilty bailed on them.

The next day Bruno, Layla, Simone, Enrico, Bea and myself headed up a dry looking Skyway for a look around. Below 2100 m was dust after a five month drought and above just had one 30 cm layer. The north wind was howling but as we exited the lift station Bruno announced he thought it wasn’t that cold. As the bitter wind froze my face off I was thinking to myself that I had gone soft hanging out in Finale. Later it emerged Bruno had run back to his van for extra clothes and was still cooling down.

Very quickly skins were falling off and we only made Col d’Entreves using a combination of ski straps and duct tape on the skins. Bruno was keen to go up the ridge and as I set off no one else left the sanctuary of the windscoop at the base. Somewhere on the ridge my hat got sucked off my head but before retreating I spied a lot of snow on Col d’Entreves. For sure it would be rocky getting in but after that it looked sweet. Time to propose a different plan that would get us out of the wind quickly. After passing through the rocks it was time to ski light and cautiously with tips up…these were still shark infested waters with a big cliff below. The headwall was sweet with cold slough and my body held together despite a couple of large rock strikes to my bad leg. Below lay a couple of kilometres of untracked rolling terrain which is a pleasure to ski at full throttle. Full of joy we head back to the bar for a celebratory beer.

That was the turning point for me where I started to believe my body could recover enough to ski the things I wanted, in the way I wanted and as much as I wanted. Sure I still had loads of rehab to go but I could also see the opportunity to to correct a problem that I’d coped with for some time and build a stronger core to match the strong external muscles which could support the loading I’d throw at it.

The timing was near perfect. As the storm cycle moved in it became clear we were in for some pretty special low level conditions to the valley floor. I skied some pretty special days during this period, all different and memorable for different things. 13 laps on Val Veni with Tom, touring the Signal with Michelle and Cedric in the afternoon, plan laps galore with anyone willing to ski with me. One more after a big run of days I was crammed up against Sam Favret in the Midi bin. I asked how he was and he admitted to be tired. We all got pretty tired that week, it was one of the best in my 20 years in Chamonix.  For sure we could have taken some amazing photos and film. But I just wanted to ski.

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Hoods up, bitter north wind, -25C. Enrico, Simone, Bea, Bruno

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After a hot summer the glacier is very open and only covered with a veneer of snow

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Enrico, Bruno and Layla

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Bruno enjoying the drawn to the light after the dark oppressiveness of mid winter alpine valleysDSC00322

Bruno, Layla, Enrico, Bea, Simone

24474876_1884517945199119_1259260048_o (1)Me opening Col d’Entreves well aware of the sharks hunting below the surface and the big cliff at the base

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Bruno in his element

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and playing with his slough

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Layla

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Bea

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Enrico with his smooth style

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Simone about to hit the afterburner. The whole valley skied beautifully.

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Happy people after a sweet descent from Col d’Entreves that blew away the cobwebs from the previous days parties.

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Flying solo on one of the favourite preseason tours

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The start of December and already over a metre above 2000m but more importantly an absence of the huge ground level facet layers experienced in the last few seasons.

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Always exciting to drop into a new line, especially when you havent been able to scope it from below. Without a rope I expected some dry skiing in the steep lower section. In the end I was able to ski through easily but I did have some snow plates in the pack in case I needed to wade back up to the ridge.

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Another glory day early December

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T-shirts on the up with Douds Charlet, Vivien Bruchez and Graham Pinkerton

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Vivien and Graham. So nice to have someone else do the work. Vivien likes to use much lighter kit than me and is the only person I know that has a completely different style for skiing alpine kit to touring kit.

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Me pysched about the prospect of perfect pow below.

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It was my plan to come here so I get first tracks

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Another gorgeous day, another solo mission to try something new. Excited about the prospect of dropping.

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My line started top right of shot and came down the sunlight ramp. Never hard but always rolling over so the way was not evident. Amazing skiing down the apron where another tourer had skied the hidden couloir on the left. I was really pleased so have managed to explore this area before the high pressure moved off as it was about to get crazy in the valley.

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Then we moved into a five day storm cycle. The 0 iso continued to bounce around which created a thick blanketing base over fallen trees and stumps and bringing all time tree skiing to the valley.  Tom Grant may be small but these days were deep.

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Tom blasting through the forest, chest deep on Noctas

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Me having fun popping off tree stumps

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Tom charging hard in the trees

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This day it snowed about 1 metre while we were on the day. We all had 3 pairs of goggles and came back soaked to the skin to find the car park had been allowed to fill in during the day. My car was at the end of the line and being 4×4 I though it would be easy to get 5 ft onto the ploughed road. An hour of digging saw us clear.

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Another hour to get 5 miles down valley to Bossons with the wet storm icing wipers and windshields as fast as you could clear them. On my street no where to park, 2 m snowbanks and a lot of digging.

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Next day in Courmayeur. A car with 2 m of snow. The road from Entreves buried under avalanche, Courm closed. We head up Pavillion thinking we could ski some ridges safely but full depth propagation triggering convinced us to retreat.

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Things settle in Courmayeur and Tom and myself head back for a fast lads day. The snow is all-time and I mean all time. We stop take one shot on the first run and never stop again. Pillows, stumps, spines, glades…13 laps on Val Veni.

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On one of the spines skiers right of the Val Veni cables. About enter the white room

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Michelle arrives, the weather improves and we hit Montenvers. I love it up there in the milky mid winter afternoon sun. The wind has been out but in the trees its primo.

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Michelle enjoying the sun and views

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Me enjoying a moment in the sun

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Oh yeah, this is going to be sweet

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Me kicking off

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Dave Searle with his characteristic photo powerlide

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Me a bit lower

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Michelle

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Michelle

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Michelle

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The temps were rising and I wanted to get as much as possible before the snow went off. I managed to convince Michelle into another lap to the L’M but Cedric was wiser and went to Moo for a big lunch. After a hours skinning and teasing Michelle onwards with its just over the next morraine we were in a position and Michelle was very grumpy with me.

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Changing weather as the sun goes down but a lush time to be up high

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It was still quiet in the valley so we were able to move around. This day started on Brevent, moved to Grands Montets and ended on Montenvers. Michelle here in Chapeau

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Me in Chapeau

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Me scoping out some potential lines

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Michelle at the Chapeau buvette, always after a cheeky beer 😉

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Riding Montenvers and refueling

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Michelle

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Changing venue, Tom Coney and myself have dawn run down Cosmiques

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Warm milky light as Coney drops off the Midi arete

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Amazing inversions over the Aravis. I have the lurgie and am soaked in sweat by the bottom.

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After a coffee and a change in clothes, Michelle and myself do a few GM laps. The wind had buffed the snow but it was consistent and grippy providing good piste like skiing

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Christmas Eve. Warm temps, find fucked offpiste but great piste skiing.

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Christmas Day. Time to tour

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Scoping alternatives

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Michelle skiing into Belvedere

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The dry summer has revealed a step on the Belvedere. It was a bit of a pig to dry ski through.

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Michelle swooping down the Berard valley

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Happy times waiting for the little train at le Buet

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27th. My birthday. Its been warm but the snow is coming. We wait until 2 pm and hit the Midi. Its real good and just the 2 of us there

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Me again

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Another reset overnight and on the 28th its open by 1030. Easily best day of the season. 9 laps of the plan with various people joining me during the day; Michelle, Tom Coney, James Sleigh and Ian Wilson-Young. No time for photos until we were cruising down the Pre de Rocher track into town  as the sun went down. This made me a happy man as the Plan is a real tester for your body with loads of shock and impact. Having a long day there is a good test to see where you are at and if the body will cope with the mega days in the big mountains.

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My Top 5 Steep Ski Lines in Chamonix

Choosing my 5 best steep ski lines in Chamonix is a tough call. They aren’t the steepest, most exposed or gnarliest but are a combination of being very aesthetic in one way or another while offering some great skiing. The variety of terrain comes into play with the combination of faces, spines, aretes and the odd couloir greatly adding to the pleasure, interest and overall experience for a skier in the modern idiom where hop turns are reserved solely for ultra serious situations. Skiing is all about the velvet smooth sensations transmitted from the ski and snow quality is the most vital ingredient to deliver this. Going out and scratching down these runs like an alpinist may satisfy those dominated by goal driven tendencies but being patient for the right conditions will yield a much richer experience.

 

1. The Grand Gervasutti Couloir.

An all time classic and the great big funnel on Mont Blanc du Tacul that draws your eye every time you ski in the Valley Blanche. It’s just so aesthetic, with 800 metres of vert, and a pretty steep entry before it eases to about 50° until the bergschrund. No rocks, abseils, its all about the skiing. Overhung by seracs whose threatening nature varies year on year, you will feel their presence as soon as you get in this line and ski it out as fast as possible. 

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2. Mont Mallet Diagonal

While this line in itself is not the most aesthetic, the surroundings about it and the long approach via the Breche Puiseux make it a special journey through the mountains. The situations in the line are incredible looking across to the Dent de Geant with all the hanging seracs under the Rochefort Arete and the full panorama from Tacul to the Chamonix Aiguilles. The skiing is very good with the couloir soon widening into a face offering the opportunity to open it up. Don’t be surprised if you are tight to catch the last train down from Montenevers, we made it by half an hour but certainly felt it in the legs and needed a couple of pints at MBC afterwards.

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3. Col des Courtes

This fine route is steep enough to get the best of us tweaking but its often in condition when the rest of the Argentiere Basin is looking dry and the face can vary enormously from billboard flat to spine central. At 600 m in height its not too much of a slog up though the approach is about as long as it gets in the basin.

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4. The Frendo Spur.

If you hang around Chamonix for long enough your curiosity will draw you onto the test pieces on the North Face of Aiguille du Midi. While the Frendo is rarely in condition, the skiing it offers on big open snow fields with no rocks is where its at, pure free ride skiing without the worries of hitting a shark or being confined to small turns due to the terrain. Col du Plan offers a taste of this in its upper part but the old school skiing in the exit couloirs is often disappointing and slough hardened from the afternoon slides off the West Face of the Aiguille du Plan. After the abseils on the Frendo there is a big 500-600 m pitch of steep open skiing to the shrund which is a lot of fun.

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Frendo spur ski route

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5.  The West Face of Mont Blanc

The ‘rarely glimpsed Himalayan’ face of Mont Blanc comes gives 2000 m of vert to the glacier. Unless you have access to a heli, you will gauge conditions from afar and that makes dropping in onsight pretty committing. After all you have climbed Mont Blanc that morning and climbing out and back to the summit won’t be very appealing to the legs! Again these routes can go without abseil so there is no mountaineering faff once you start skiing. The first 1200 mis fairly sustained at around 50 degrees so no push over.

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