TR: Chamonix 2012 Days 6-7: Bivouac d’Envers des Dorées – The Missing TR

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Just discovered this on my laptop. I wrote it in anticipation of getting the photos from Jerome, which I never did. I have a few but he has the lion’s share. He lost the cable to his camera, I didn’t have the right card reader, and after I left we never got around to getting the pics on to my Dropbox. Oh well. I still want the pics so I’ll update this if I get the chance, but I figured I went to the trouble of writing it so I might as well post it:

TR: Chamonix 2012 Days 6-7: Bivouac d’Envers des Dorées – The Missing TR

After our epic descent of the Brenva it was time for a well earned day off, and even after that we didn’t feel like a huge day, so Jerome and I went to the backside Le Tour to hit a couloir called La Demi Lune which leads to Trient in Switzerland. But we mistook the aspect and the snow was firm windslab & crust in the couloir and the runout was refrozen avalanche debris. Combat skiing at it’s finest. To top it all off when I got back and looked up the line in the guide book it was only denoted by an orange arrow which means that it is “usually too hazardous or seldom has enough snow to ski”. But we made it down and agreed to never speak of it again.

The plan for our final two days was to head out on the overnight ski tour that we were planning earlier in the week before our plans changed and we attempted & failed to ski the Glacier Rond. The bivouac is located on the Saleina Glacier in Switzerland and is commonly accessed by scaling the Col du Chardonnet, which is also a popular climb as it is one of the variations of the Haute Route, the week long ski tour between Chamonix and Zermatt.

Anyone who has skied from the top of the Grands Montets in fine weather has looked across at the Aiguille du Chardonnet and Aiguille d’Argentiere, with the Col du Chardonnet at the head of the glacier that is flanked by these two impressive peaks.

The weather forecast was for warm and clear weather for the two days so we departed the Grands Montets early and made it to the top in good time. The irony wasn’t lost on me that the top of the Grands Montets was approximately the same altitude as the Col, so essentially all we would be doing is reclaiming the vertical lost on the ski down to the Argentiere Glacier. Incidentally the ski down was terrible, on appalling hard wind pack before we finally reached the Glacier and fitted our skins to head across and then back up.

I found the first part of the ascent quite difficult – once we traversed the glacier we had to take off our skis and boot up the moraine, and where we did this was also quite exposed to rock fall so we rushed which didn’t allow me the time to strip off some layers, fit crampons and grab the piolet. For a seasoned climber these items weren’t essential but I am far from a mountain goat and feel a lot better with the extra security these pieces of equipment provide. Also the backpack I was using had a pretty ordinary ski carrying system which angled the skis backwards which gave the precarious feeling of pulling you back off the mountain. Perhaps the crampons would have been superfluous but the security of a piolet would have been comforting.

I know this sounds like a massive whinge but I was attempting to make good time up this face while absolutely roasting & sweating with compromised balance & rocks whizzing by.

But the fun wasn’t over just yet, we got to the stage that we could put on our skis again and start skinning up the glacier. It’s not immediately apparent when you look across at the Glacier du Chardonnet but the lower reaches are quite steep and the pitch mellows at the top. The steeper parts had some pretty burly sections of windpack, some of the firmest snow I’ve encountered. We were trying to do this without fitting ski crampons as for each measure of security they provide they also add an element of drag to each stride. But resistance was futile and I was soon making my way up the switchbacks in a rather nervous and measured manner.

Due to my inexperience, all of these precarious situations waste precious physical and mental energy, and I was particularly grateful to ascend to the crest of the glacier where the snow softened and the pitch mellowed and the climb became a benign slog to the Col, with the altitude beginning to bare its teeth as you push through the 3000m mark. We topped out at the Col in reasonable time, the total vertical hiked was 900m to approx 3300m.

There was a group ahead of us descending the other side of the Col as part of the first day of their trek to Zermatt, so we grabbed a quick bite to eat & put on our crampons while they descended. Their guide was gracious enough to let me be belayed down on their rope which saved us a lot of time as it meant we did not need to set up our own, also it was much longer than the rope we were carrying which saved setting up another anchor.

Despite the large snowfalls this season, up high there have been strong winds that have scoured the upper faces, and just as with our belay into the Col du Belvedere the length of rope needed was far greater than usual. Even when we reached the end of the rope it was still unsuitable for skiing so I downclimbed to a safe spot to put on my skis. Just then I was reminded just how far I have to go, I was tentatively downclimbing with crampons & ice axe when I looked up to see Jerome basically running down the face, while on the phone. What made things worse was the phone call was to let him know that his guiding trip to Heliski in Kamchatka had fallen through due to his passport being rejected by the Russian Embassy as it was too beaten up and in poor condition for them to issue a visa.

So with a bit of dejection in the air we traversed across the Saleina Glacier and then put our skins on for a quick 20 minute climb up to the Bivouac. The sunset over the Saleina Glacier to the Grand Lui and down the valley to the Grand Combin was sensational and I was surprised by the sophistication of this small refuge. Jerome had managed to obtain the key to the ‘Summer’ part of the refuge which meant that we would have access to solar powered lighting and also a proper gas kitchen stove, which was a godsend as it made melting snow for drinking water and also cooking a breeze. We had a soup and pasta dinner while plotting how quickly we could get a new passport issued and re-apply for the visa but it became apparent that time was up and the trip was in the can.

The dinner table had a map of the area inlaid and we studied it intently to plan our second day. We had a couple of options for the next day, one was to rise early and ascend to the Col de la Neuve and descend to La Fouly which is a town in a remote Swiss valley. However getting back to Chamonix would be a 3 hour affair with buses and trains so I opted for a simpler option where we would cross over to the Tour Glacier via a Couloir called the ‘Pissoir’ that we were hoping would be soft spring snow.

The temperature inside the Bivouac after we had melted snow and cooked our dinner was a balmy 14 degrees, which dropped to 12 by the morning – four blankets was necessary to get some sleep. We woke to a lovely sunrise, had breakfast and some tea and Jerome sent me on my way while he closed up the building and caught me in no time as I ascended the Glacier des Plines to a Col to cross on to the Glacier du Trient. It was a relatively simple skin, even though the first pitch was quite steep the snow was incredibly grippy so I marched up in no time. As often happens the final slope up the col was a steep bootpack and after learning my lesson the day before I swapped my poles for my piolet and the third point of contact in the snow gave me the confidence to go for it.

While heliskiing is illegal in France it is permitted in Switzerland and Italy and the col where we crossed over was a popular drop-off point so while we were definitely in the wilderness the solitude wasn’t brilliant. At this point we traversed under the Couloir Copt which was made famous by Xavier De La Rue in his movie timeline. I cannot believe he rode it, if you call straightlining black glacier ice riding. Nuts.

After the boot up to the col I wasn’t feeling too flash so we had the easier option of crossing via the Col Superiere du Tour, near which I could decide whether I wanted to climb further to the Pissoir, fortunately by the time that decision needed to be made I was feeling much better so we pushed through to the Pissoir. We had a great lunch with an amazing view directly across to Verbier and beyond, with the main Swiss peaks dominating the landscape.

The couloir that we planned to descend was still firm so we traversed around to the next col, and after a small downclimb we reached the head of the Glacier du Tour and our descent all the way to Le Tour. Again a new glacier/zone that I hadn’t experienced and it was fantastic fun in the spring snow. Not all slopes were springlike so we had to work the correct aspects to make sure we were skiing on the best snow, at some stages this involved hugging right next to the enormous seracs within a few feet which was great fun – milking the corn snow in a very dramatic landscape. Before long we descended below the glacier and skied a lovely steep face which led us to the beginner area of Le Tour and a well deserved drink.

This was my last day in Chamonix for 2012. Each year I return I discover more terrain, and more about myself. Learning new skills is amazing, and a dramatic increase in my fitness was a godsend and the key to the progression I was able to make. I joked with Jerome on the day we climbed the Aiguille d’Entreves, askin him if when we first skied together he expected we would be ski touring and ski mountaineering 2 years later – he laughed and said no way! T

he most gratifying part of having skied in the area for approx 6 weeks in the last 3 winters is that we still haven’t scratched the surface – there are even bog-standard classics like Pas de Chevre that I am still yet to ski. It was an interesting contrast this year having been fortunate to ski both the epic powder of Japan and return to the mountains of the Alps. At the moment it is the latter where my heart lies and I just cannot wait to get back.