Having farmed much of the pow in the Chamonix area, word came through that the south, and also the areas near the border of Italy had had further snowfalls. Fortunately Jerome hails from the South of France, and that area of the Alps is very familiar to him, so he put together a great road trip plan.
With fresh legs from a day off, we jumped in his van and headed towards the Ecrins, a mountain range in the South Alps that Jerome was very familiar with, which contains the famed areas of La Grave, L’Alpe d’Huez & Les Deux Alpes, and also many smaller places with excellent skiing that are largely unheard of to foreigners.
But we weren’t heading there. We did stop in La Grave to pick up some ski crampons which we had forgotten to get in Chamonix, but continued south to a small town called Fressinieres, and headed into the hills. Our destination was Dormillouse, a tiny hamlet with no road access and a small gîte that would be our home for the next 2 nights. So we drove as far as we could, packed our bags, fitted skins to our skis and hiked up for 90 minutes until we reached the gîte.
Unlike many high mountain refuges, this gîte was a little better equipped in that it had hot showers, running water, working toilets etc, but still dormitory style rooms and a communal dinner table. So we found our beds and settled in for the night. Le Gîte de l’Ecole has a maximum capacity of 14 people plus Serge the guardian.
The next day dawned clear so we began our ascent into the mountains. As this has not been a stellar year for snow the lower elevations and sunnier aspects were relatively bare, but we knew if we headed high we would be rewarded.
After 1000m of ascent which took a little over 4 hours, we reached a col on the shoulder of the Grand Pinier and decided that would be enough. The snow on the Grand Pinier looked pretty windblown and it would be a big effort for not much reward, so we settled on our location, had a great lunch and surveyed the bowl that we would be skiing.
Whilst it may sound a little over the top to hike for 4 hours for what would essentially be one run, do bear in mind that we were looking at an area the size of a substantial western US ski resort without one solitary single track.
The first bowl was nice powder, then it rolled over into some pretty decent pitch, which was also a little windblown. It was good steeper skiing but the wind crust made things interesting on wobbly legs that had just done their biggest hike on skis ever, but when we got down a little lower the snow became absolutely superb.
The camera lens was nowhere near wide enough to take in what we had at our disposal:
Jerome dropping in:
This is why you hike all morning:
We had gotten a little excited on the last pitch, and were cliffed out so we needed to do a little sidestep upwards and across, which also gave us a great view of our tracks:
Perfect powder again on a lower pitch:
I have footage of this as well, but the poor little netbook I am travelling with is not coping well with HD video editing, so I am keeping the videos to a minimum, and may edit them all together into something more substantial when I get back to Oz.
We finally reached the bottom of the valley and followed the stream down, with a couple of entertaining crossings:
Lower down the valley is popular with ice climbers:
Exhausted and content we reached the gîte and settled in for the usual apres ski banter about everyone’s day.
As it was by far our largest ever ascent on skis, I would by lying if I said it did not take its toll, so we settled on a slightly less strenuous itinerary for the second day, about 700m of ascent. We were in an area that had been skied by the other groups and therefore lightly tracked, but still plenty of powder was to be had.
It was finally time to head down to the car, but instead of snowploughing down the access road, Jerome had spied a couloir that looked interesting.
It resembled the very best of Buller-style combat skiing, and we loved it – about 40 degrees in pitch, powder at the top, sloughed down to bare ice in the middle, slush below, trees, roots, thorn bushes – it had it all. For the Buller skiers, just think Hangman’s Drop in a low snow year, but twice as long with avvie debris in the middle.
After the assault of the couloir, we gently made our way down to the car, repacked and caught up with a friend of Jerome’s for coffee and to discuss our next move. One of his friends had recently been down to the Queyras mountain range and reported excellent skiing – they had received a metre of snow 5 days earlier. The Italian side of the range had received more, but the weather was still cloudy, and the avalanche danger higher, so we jumped in the car and headed another hour southeast towards the town of Abries.
We had loved every minute of our experience at Dormillouse, and it was our first true backcountry adventure. We had dipped our toes into the world of touring but these were our first days where we had earned every single turn, and we were most proud.