Skiing The Matterhorn

THE MATTERHORN EAST FACE (OSTWAND)

598A1152Matterhorn East FaceMatterhorn East Face

598A0822               By early June, most of the skiers have swapped to mountain biking or climbing. Mikko is still psyched and we headed in to ski the Matterhorn the hard way. Because the refuge was closed due to renovations, we were carrying a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and a gallon of water each on top of the usual stuff. It was difficult to known what to expect on the face, as so few people had actually skied it. A local guide had told us it wasn’t very steep but looking straight at the face from our campsite a few hundred metres away still made the nerves jingle.

598A0882SAM_0676            I went to bed early setting the alarm for 2am. Sleeping intermittently I kept thinking that streetlamp was really bright. When I finally poked my head out the tent, there was the Matterhorn, lit up like a stadium under the full moon. Inspired, the whole day was filled with sights of amazing natural beauty.598A0889

Mikko’s headtorch as he sets off to the stunning Matterhorn floodlight by a full moon.598A0914            The tip of the Matterhorn was the first thing to be hit by the rising sun and it resembled a blade with blood red streaks on it. This brief morning Alpenglow was soon replaced by a golden light.

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We continued climbing up the face using ice axes and crampons in a slow methodical rhythm aiming for the central couloir that ended at the rocky headwall. I was conscious that the temperature was rising fast which would eventually make the face an unsafe place, speed would be our friend.

598A0947 598A0958 598A0987 598A0989            From the top of the skiable terrain the first turn would be on sustained, unforgiving 55º spring snow. Simply standing stationary and holding and edge had every fibre in the body working overtime. I was still clipped to my ice axe for added security while I adjusted my camera settings. Mikko left the sanctuary of his ledge and with axe and pole in one hand committed without hesitation into a series of beautifully-linked chop turns that you’d have been proud of on a lift accessed Midi North Face run with fresh legs.

598A1002598A1005598A1010            My turn. I was excited but nervous. The face was really exposed looking down uniform rock slab covered in some snow for 1000m. I had been focused on locking my body into a stable platform to shoot from and now I needed to loosen my muscles and refocus on skiing. I was also turning to my weaker side. Skiing second, I had to avoid where Mikko had skimmed the softening snow and find my own edgable spots.

SAM_0683 SAM_0684            After side slipping a few metres to get the feel of my skis underfoot and edge grip I felt ready for that all-important first turn. Time to commit… no problem, this is going to be fine. As we dropped height and the angle eased to the 50º range the snow softened further and the turns became softer and more rounded. Once we entered the central snowfield the angle was around 45º and we had a lot of fun skiing fluidly and playing with the sluff down to the lower rocks.

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The angle increased here once again and it took some time to find our bootpack to lead us through the lower slabs.SAM_0699

Below the lower crux traverse led through a peppered icy zone to take us to the shrund. All too soon it was over and all that remained was to get well clear of the face which would soon starting shedding thousands of tonnes of snow in the summer heat. We made one short rappel through the lower rock band and then skied back to our camp that we had left 10 hours before.

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Somehow we had pulled of the Alpine Trilogy Project in just 10 days, skiing the Triple Crown of alpine steep skiing routes without a heli or external assistance. It hadn’t really sunk in yet, but I had an enormous sense of satisfaction and happiness from the skiing, the wild situations and the performance we had put in. As we packed up our tent, the searing summer temps started to strip the rock slabs of their snow and I knew they would be my last turns of the season and some of the best of my life.598A1146

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The Brenva Spur

Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti

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.

Brenva Spur Tom Grant Ross Hewitt

Brenva Spur Tom Grant Ross Hewitt

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.

Brenva Spur Ross Hewitt

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. 
Brenva Spur Ross Hewitt Tom Grant Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt

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.Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 1Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 2

Brenva Spur Sidetracked lores-10Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt Tom Grant

Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 3After 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. Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 4

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 11.21.54Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt 5

Brenva Spur Enrico Karletto Mosetti Ross Hewitt Tom Grant 2

 

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.

The Alpine Trilogy Project – Skiing’s Triple Crown

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.

Sunset Midi Chamonix Cosmiques Ross Hewitt-1

Sundown from the  Cosmiques Refuge, en route to the West Face with lots of trail breaking to do over Tacul and Maudit.Matterhorn Moon Light Ross Hewitt-1

The Matterhorn East Face under full moon as Mikko Heimonen sets off from camp.Matterhorn Cervin East Face Ski Topo Routes Ross Hewitt-1

The East Face plastered the day we skied it.Mont Blanc West Face Ross Hewitt topo

The West Face of Mont Blanc with our lineBrenva Spur Topo Ross Hewitt-1

The Brenva SpurMatterhorn Cervin East Face Ski  Ross Hewitt-1Heading in the Matterhorn, with low cloud we couldn’t see the line in the upper couloirsSunrise Aiguille du Midi Chamonix France Ross Hewitt-1

The Midi or Mothership at Dawn, the best ski lift in the WorldScreen Shot 2015-05-25 at 11.21.54

POV Shot from the Brenva Spur, Italy under a sea of cloudsMatterhorn Cervin East Face Ski  Ross Hewitt-1-2

55º uppers on the Matterhorn above and below

 

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Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 16.48.00Some POV on the Matterhorn in a steep section looking towards Zermatt.Matterhorn Cervin East Face Ski  Ross Hewitt-1-3 In the upper central couloir of the Matterhorn
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Me on the Saudan’s West Face line – photo Guilhem Martin Saint Leonbrenva

 

Enrico Karletto Mosetti and Tom Grant on a lush morning on the Brenva Spur