I’m still processing this day in my mind. And to be honest it is going to take a while.
After a fantastic day at Courmayeur yesterday Jerome announced that it was time to take on the big daddy – the Aiguille du Midi. We were to do the Grand Envers du Plan variation – the Vallee Blanche is for tourists he explained – the Grand Envers is where the real skiers go.
So this news made for a good night’s sleep. Not! Since I was a teenager I had dreamed of skiing off the Aiguille that I had seen in so many movies such as the Blizzard of Aaahhs, but the main obstacle in my mind was the infamous Arete – the 200m knife edge of snow that you need to negotiate to find safe ground to put your skis on. On the left hand side, it is a sheer 2800m drop to the valley below. Less of a drop to the right but the likelihood to be swallowed by a crevasse.
As it is early season the Arete was likely to be unprepared, later in the season they fix handrails and it is a doddle that is traversed by a few thousand skiers daily, but at this stage probably less than 100 skiers had descended it this winter, all with full mountaineering equipment.
So my fitful sleep was filled with visions of crampons, harnesses, crevasses, seracs, sheer walls but the objective of powder snow didn’t even enter my mind as I was preoccupied by the myriad of ways you could die out there.
So the morning finally came, we slammed down a hot coffee and croissant, met up with Jerome and drove to the Aiguille du Midi bottom station. In the carpark he pulled out a all the gear we would need and loaded up our backpacks:
I met up with TGR’s ‘jumpturn’ on the tram and he was kind enough to take a few photos for us.
Into the tunnel:
jumpturn in the Ice Tunnel (very Blizzard of Aahhs shot this):
So we emerge from the tunnel and the weather is foul. Enveloped in cloud, wind and blowing snow, -25c, roped together we began to slowly descend the Arete – the workers were out fixing the rope thankfully and we had that for half the descent. Strict instructions from Jerome on how to walk with crampons – it is very easy to snag your pant leg (we both did) and trip – and him on the other side of the ridge, ice axe in hand, ready to counterbalance any fall.
Just for reference, this is what the Arete looks like from town – a 2.8km sheer drop down to Chamonix:
Descending the Arete (photo credit: jumpturn)
Finally we reach safe ground so it was crampons off and skis on:
Down the ridge toward the Col du Plan:
Looking back at the Aiguille through the weather – a slide to the RHS of this pic would be lethal:
We then reached the first face of our route. I was shitting myself. 45 degrees pitch, exposed glacial ice, wind drifts of snow to negotiate, all the while staring at the bergshrund (crevasse at the top of the glacier) that was ready to eat me following any mistake. All this plus achy legs from the epic days prior and fogged goggles that had iced up inside.
Fortunately 19 seasons worth of instructing took care of the technique side, and a lifetime skiing in Australia helped me with the lack of vision so a few jump turns and a mandatory air over the bergschrund and I was by Jerome’s side.
No pics of this bit, as you can imagine it was pretty full on. In fact my SLR was in my backpack the whole day but pulling it out was the least of my worries. Good ol’ Point & Shoot was the way to go today.
So after the heart rate returned to normal we negotiated through the crevasse field to the second pitch. Vision was better and confidence a little higher, but still skiing with immense caution. I’ve read that your skiing goes down a few notches when on a high alpine glacier – believe it.
By the second section I was almost enjoying myself:
Jerome pointing out the Dent du Geant:
CarveGirl and I looking like Scott of the Antartctic, with the massive seracs behind:
It was by this stage that I actually realised that the snow was deep and soft, and even untracked in sections. Bloody steep too:
Jerome and I above the Seracs du Geant:
After the third main pitch of the route:
And into the final couloir below the Refuge Requin, which led to the Mer de Glace:
We stopped on the Glacier for some Chocolate, Nuts and Tea, and it was around then that some of the emotions of the day so far caught up with me. I’d been fighting a combination of fear, nausea, dehydration, altitude and it was extremely relieving to be out of the main dangerous part of the route, this was countered by the elation of what I had achieved, and just how lucky I am that I can do all this with my wife.
So we then skied along the flat of the Mer de Glace for a few kilometers just in quiet reflection of our achievements and the surroundings:
L’Aiguille Verte and Les Drus:
Amazing photo with the sun trying to break through next to the Dent du Geant, with the Seracs du Geant behind:
Some people practising Ice Climbing on the glacier:
Couloir Rectiligne which leads to the Pas de Chevre:
Couloir Poubelle off Les Grands Montets (of Blizzard of Aaahhs fame):
We descended into the Moraine which led to some pretty ‘sporty’ skiing required:
From the Moraine you can walk up to the lift which then takes you up to the Montenvers railway. We decided to ski down to the Valley floor however. It’s a bit sobering that 100 years ago when the railway was build, the glacier was just below the station:
More moraine skiing below the Montenvers:
We then hiked up the Moraine wall to the trail that would lead us back to Chamonix:
And skied through the forest which included mandatory air over the tracks for the Montenvers train:
From whence we came:
We popped out of the forest into Les Planards area which is the beginner area, which included lots of joking around including Ski School type snowplough turns, while wearing harnesses with ice screws hanging off them:
Skis off – we made it!
So that was the end of an epic day. The poor weather at the top definitely added an element of danger to the first third of the trip, I would really like to do it again in good weather, but I think the memories of descending the Arete in a blizzard, and skiing the first steep face really made what is often a challenging but not death defying route much more special in our minds.