The West Face of Mont Blanc

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.

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West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 18When 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.West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 17West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 16On 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.DSC05428-2DSC05466-2

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.

West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 14West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 23After 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.

ross_hewitt@yahoo.co.uk                                +33 781 287 608 ,      Ross Hewitt                       39 Route des Bosson, Chamonix, 74400 France                         rider: Jesper Petterson

West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 12 West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 24 West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 8We 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.ross_hewitt@yahoo.co.uk                                +33 781 287 608 ,      Ross Hewitt                       39 Route des Bosson, Chamonix, 74400 France                     rider: Mikko Heimonenross_hewitt@yahoo.co.uk                                +33 781 287 608 ,      Ross Hewitt                       39 Route des Bosson, Chamonix, 74400 France                               rider: Mikko Heimonen
West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 6On 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.West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 5West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 21West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 3West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection 2During 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.West Face Mont Blanc  Ross Hewitt Collection

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Couturier-Whymper on La Verte

Dave Searle and myself have been wanting to do a traverse of the Verte for a couple of years now combining climbing Couturier and skiing Whymper onsight. After all the free-riding in January and February I was up for an alpine traverse trip like this which offers so much in the way of adventure, challenge, unknown, excitement and great training. The Aiguille Verte is an amazing mountain at 4122 m and all its routes are long and demanding. We were joined by Mikko Heimonen.
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Aiguille Verte on the far right with the 1000 m Couturier Couloir descending direct from the summit.Couturier Whymper La Verte-9

The sunny side of Aiguille Verte, Whymper Couloir descends right of the summit. 
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Nearing the top of the Couloir and the end of the neve with black ice and seracs looming.Ross Hewitt Verte Couturier Whymper-2Couturier Whymper La Verte Seale Heimonen-6

We threaded the seracs along a ramp in the sun above the rock.Ross Hewitt Verte Couturier Whymper-3Couturier Whymper La Verte Seale Heimonen-7Mikko on the Verte for the first time.Couturier Whymper La Verte Seale Heimonen-9

Almost feeling Himalayan due to the cold, with 40 kph wind we were glad to get off the austere north side and into the sun.Couturier Whymper La Verte Seale Heimonen-8

Summit of the Verte for me!
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Panorama Aiguille Leschaux to Mont BlancRoss Hewitt Verte Couturier Whymper-8Couturier Whymper La Verte Seale Heimonen-12Couturier Whymper La Verte Seale Heimonen-13

Mont Blanc and the Chamonix AiguillesCouturier Whymper La Verte Seale Heimonen-14The wind tugged at our skis along the exposed ridge.
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The snow stayed pretty frozen with the wind.Ross Hewitt Verte Couturier Whymper-7Couturier Whymper La Verte Seale Heimonen-16

Chute Central

the chuting galleryThis week I headed back to the Miage area to ski some more of those massive 1000 m couloir lines with Michelle Blaydon, Kirsti Lehtimaki and Mikko Heimonen who had just landed in Chamonix. The powder has all been blown away leaving hard edge-able wind buff which made the boot pack a joy. First up was the line lookers left of the Bonatti which is reminiscent of a Domilimiti line with huge walls souring high above our heads. This line is overlooked since it doesn’t top out on the ridge but with 850 m vertical of skiing I don’t care. Probably the best couloir I have skied in the Mont Blanc Massif with a few hundred metres of 50 degrees at the top and an exciting ramp above some mixed ground. Second up was the 1200 m Domenech Couloir on the Aiguille de l’Aigle which we onsighted from the top. We arrived back at Zerotta in the Courmayeur ski area early afternoon and enjoyed relaxing in the sun and eating pizza and having a beer!Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-2 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-3 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-4 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-5 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-6 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-7

Michelle skiing.Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-8 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-9 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-10 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-11 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-12 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-13 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-14 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-15 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-16 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-17 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-18 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-24 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-25Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-19 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-20

Kirsti on the changing lines pitch.Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-21 Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-22

Kirsti skiing the lower couloir.Petit Mont Blanc North East Face_-23

Time to relax!

Petit Mont Blanc – North East / Bonatti Couloir

Its was always going to be a long day, especially with the amount of bad weather we have had this winter that has prevented us getting tour fit. It was deep going in. Then it got deeper. By late afternoon as the couloir steepened up it got ridiculously deep where I expected it to get faster for booting. Even with snow plates I was waist deep and trenching, the others up to their chests in my trench. Our team of 5 were cooked. We called a stop about 150 m from the top and skied amazing pow in the glow of the evening light. Thanks to Michelle Blaydon, Kirsti Lehtimaki, Cedric Bernardini and Robes Parron for a stunning day. NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-2NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-3 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-4 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-5NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-6 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-7 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-8 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-9 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-10 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-11 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-12 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-13 NE Couloir Petit Mt Blanc-14