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 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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Scottish Offpiste Skiing & Snowboarding Guides by Kenny Biggin

Scottish Ski Mountaineer Kenny Biggin released his guide to skiing and snowboarding for the Nevis Range and Ben Nevis last year and has just followed it up with the addition of the guide to Glencoe. For anyone looking for some inspiration or planning a trip to Scotland then grab a copy from your local bookstore or online at Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Scottish-Offpiste-Skiing-Snowboarding-Nevis/dp/0992606500.nevisglencoe