And so begins a new chapter of our aussieskier journey.
It has been apparent to us for a number of years that there would be an appetite for Australians to visit the Alps and experience the amazing off-piste skiing and ski touring that is on offer. Regular aussieskier readers will have observed our own personal journeys beginning in 2010, the year we first started making these sorts of trips. Richard had previously skied in Europe, but never to this extent.
We quickly realised that there were a few key elements to a successful adventure in the alps. First and foremost is guiding – the mountains here are wild and unforgiving. Incredible lifts whisk you to improbable locations within minutes, but with this incredible facility comes an element of danger – primarily avalanches and crevasses, but also local knowledge of snowpack, wind, aspects etc are required to safely navigate these areas. Especially for Australians who have grown up skiing locally, and typically visited resorts in North America and Japan, many of these concepts and skills are rather foreign, and most of us are extremely underequipped to safely ski off-piste in Europe.
Fortunately there are a legion of mountain guides available to safely shepherd you through these dangers and show you an amazing time in the alps. The IFMGA/UIAGM qualification is extremely comprehensive and difficult to obtain and our experiences with these guides has always been extremely positive. We have skied with Jérôme Para since 2010 and he has taken us all over the Chamonix & Aosta Valleys, plus on the Haute Route from Verbier to Zermatt, and also into the Ecrins and Queyras mountain ranges – keeping us safe and showing us a great time.
The second most important element of a successful adventure is transport. We are incredibly indebted to Jérôme and his willingness to travel, we have done thousands of kilometres over the years in his van chasing the snow. The mountains here are huge, and they funnel, magnify and block storms, so being able to drive to where the snow and good weather presents itself is absolutely vital – this might mean crossing through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy or over into Switzerland.
Also even within the Chamonix valley, the various resorts are spread out, so while there is a good bus system in town there’s nothing like being dropped off at the door. Without the ability to travel your Chamonix experience will be severely limited and compromised.
Finally there is the need for accommodation. In what is probably a foreign concept to Australian skiers, dotted through the Alps are fully catered chalets. A number of staff are on hand to provide hearty breakfasts and amazing dinners, with daily room service as well. Off-piste skiing and ski touring is an energetic affair and being able to return to a Chalet and relax by the fire or with a beer in the hot tub is just superb, knowing that a delicious dinner is being prepared.
Our first year of hosting tours in the Alps is upon us – due to work pressures we launched our venture a little too late in the year which meant that a lot of interested people were already committed to an overseas holiday but we are amazingly grateful to the small group of skiers who jumped on the opportunity to come along and experience a week of skiing like no other.
Day 0 – Col d’Argentiere
As Nicole and I were warming up in Chamonix and organising the tour, one of our guests Simon let us know that he would need to leave early for work reasons, but he was going to be in town the day before the tour started so I decided to book a guide and take him for a day out. Neither Jérôme or Fanny were available so they suggested their friend Julien and he was a fantastic choice. The weather was fine after a few cm of snow 2 days earlier, so after some decision making the night before Simon indicated that he would like to go touring so we chose a trip up the Glacier du Tour Noir towards the Col d’Argentiere. This is a particularly pretty ski tour that I have done a couple of times before, it’s great as a shakedown day as you can turn around whenever you like and head back down, and the scenery is off the charts. For both Simon and myself this was our first day touring so we were likely to feel the altitude.
We met early at Grands Montets and got the first tram to the top which is always special, we then headed down the Glacier des Rognons towards the Glacier d’Argentiere – this is always a great part of a ski tour from Grands Montets as you have a near 1000m descent often in great snow to warm up before you get going.
We skinned up once we had descended onto the Glacier and began our trip up the Bassin d’Argentiere – it is a pretty mellow skin with spectacular scenery as you are dwarfed by the enormous peaks that surround you on three sides.
You eventually head up to the left side of the glacier and then the pitch increases as you go on the Glacier du Tour Noir. It was a relatively popular tour that day with a number of parties out all enjoying the sunshine and fresh snow.
We climbed until we reached approx 600m of altitude gain, at which point there was a nice plateau to enjoy some lunch and the spectacular view, we were still a couple of hundred metres shy of the col, but based on our energy levels and how our legs felt we decided that was plenty for our first day of touring so we transitioned to ski mode and made our descent. We found some lovely fresh snow on the skiers left of the glacier and enjoyed the untracked all the way down to the flat.
I really enjoy the ski back from this area as you get a good powder descent, then a schuss along the flat glacier marvelling at the scenery, you then pick your way down alongside a couple of icefalls before you reach the piste at Grands Montets, and then you find yourself on the home trail with snow quality turning to slush at the base – depending on how high you have skinned this run will have descended approximately 2000m vertical and I really like the changing of the scenery and outlook as it progresses, not to mention the extra oxygen filling your lungs and powering your legs.
A well earned beer was had at the base, then we said our goodbyes to Julien and we headed back to the Chalet, during the day Nicole had been to Geneva and picked up our van and we grabbed the crew to move in to the chalet in anticipation of a wonderful week ahead.