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. 

grand-gervasutti

gervasutti-23-2

gervasutti-couloir-ross hewitt

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.

mont-mallet-west-face-topo-1

22136901_758433944358535_5907316724986001978_o

mont malletmont mallet diagonal

598A0026

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.

col-des-courtes-ski-descent-topo-ross-hewittross hewitt col des courtes

P1020196

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.

frenndo ross hewitt bird

Frendo spur ski route

Ross-3

Frendo spur ski descent-147Frendo spur ski descent-91Frendo spur ski descent-90

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.

mont-blanc-west-face-ross-hewitt-topo

dsc05466-2

dsc05539-2

dsc05561-2

 

The Grand Gervasutti Couloir

Tom Grant and myself had a look at the Diable Couloir this morning on the East Face of Tacul. It wasn’t happening so we skinned back up Mont Blanc du Tacul and skied the Grand Gervasutti – its an awesome plan B to have and we are lucky in Chamonix. I got a bit of a shock when I dropped in – there were some people climbing it about 700 m below, fortunately they were out of our sluff line – I’ve not heard of people doing that for 20 years!

Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-2Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-3Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-4 Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-7Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-6Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-8Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-9The Grand Gervasutti is the 800 m line centre right.Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-10Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-11Gervasutti Diable Hewitt Grant-12

Mont Mallet – West Face

The West Face of Mont Mallet is a line that stares you right in the face as you exit the tunnel from the Mothership and its been teasing me for years. In the old days it used to be a large curtain of snow draped down the mountain (pan de rideau) but climate change has thinned it out to couloir in the upper half. In all my time in Chamonix I’ve only heard of a few descents, Andreas, Francois-Regis, T-crew, Minogue…some approaching by the Rochefort Arete and some by the Breche Puiseux – either way being reasonable long, like 2 normal ski tours put together combined with lots of doubts about the condition of the snow, crevasses, rimayes encountered along the way.

I needed someone fit to go and when I asked Tom Grant if he was up for an adventure over there his usual psyche shone through with a  ‘mmmh, yeeeaaahhh, sick!’ On our first attempt it had snowed 15 cm the afternoon before and as we ran down the Midi arete we were surprised when instead of sticky steep skiing snow, cold wind affected snow cracked and ran off the old layer. That day plan B came into play and we went to the sunny east facing Breche Tacul.

Second time out I knew the snow was prefect after skiing the Rond in a few big turns the day before and we were joined by Andy Houseman who was training for his expedition with Jon Griffiths to Link Sar in Pakistan this summer.  I have not shot that much this winter but with conditions looking perfect I took my SLR.

After going over the Puiseux we were all feeling the altitude breaking trail in sticky pow up the Mont Mallet Glacier as the sun bore down and got reflected at us from all angles in the crucible. Getting on the ridge looked improbable with a 60 degree ice face with large rimayes and in the end we got lucky found a line snaking through mixed ground. We all had doubts right up until the last moment when we arrived on the shoulder and looked down to find the curtain of pow was draped down our slope. Rock n roll! Mont Mallet West Face Topo-1Mt Mallet West FaceAndy Houseman climbing to Breche Puiseux above. Myself and Tom pulling the ropes after the Breche below.Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-1-2Mt Mallet GalcierTom having a ‘mmmh, yeeaahh, sick’ moment to himself above. Andy and Tom breaking trail with the Jorasses and CalotteThe CalotteMont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-4Tom and Andy on the Mont Mallet Glacier above and trying to find a climbable line up the face on the right below.Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-5Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-6-2Myself and Tom 50 m above the rimaye and me traversing the 50/55 degree face after threading some rocks. Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-10-2Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-6The final slopes to the top above and arriving on the shoulder below just in time as the sun came on.Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-8Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-9Prefect flat cold snow above and first turn below. Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-10Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-11Above, Andy getting started as Tom surveys the line. Below Tom slashing out some turns.Mt Mallet West FaceMt Mallet West FaceAndy skiing above and myself skiing with the SLR on my hip below. Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-21-2Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-16The couloir is quite long and the snow still great at mid height. We had the excitement of riding on a big face with sluff running hard and building into a major avalanche below. Mt Mallet West FaceMont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-19Mt Mallet West FaceMont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-21The central pan de rideau was sent in 5 turns. Mt Mallet West FaceMont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-24

The line from below, the central section went in about 5 turns.Mont Mallet West Face Hewitt Grant Houseman-27Myself having a quick look over the shoulder at the face with the protection of a mega crevasse. The quality of snow was definitely up there in my top 10 and comparable to when we rode the Frendo in 2013.