words by J. Auerbach
Since I moved to Europe two summers ago, I’ve been trying to get some Vermont folks to come over to ski and ride in the Alps. I never had any success with it last winter, but this fall it seemed like I had finally gotten Roger, Steve, and Jason to commit to making the trip. Due to other responsibilities, and them not wanting to miss midwinter back in VT1, we planned the trip for the beginning of April… perfect time to do some big mountain touring. The fact that my students would be on spring break at the same time made it work out pretty well for me as well.
We weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to do except some vague notions of going hut to hut and doing some “real ski-mountaineering”, and so I, as the “local”, was put in charge of figuring it out. Many different ideas of places to go were bandied about, but in the end we decided the best was to stay as flexible as possible to whims of weather and snow. Still, we decided it would probably be good to get a guide for some bigger objectives. While all strong skiers/riders, we admittedly could still learn a lot about mountaineering and high alpine terrain management. So, I got in touch with Arnaud, a guide de haute montagne in Chamonix who I had been out with last season. We got some dates booked with him and eventually (after a couple months of discussing different ideas) settled on 5 days around Chamonix with a couple nights up in huts, and a few objectives that would be pushing our limits a bit.
But, before we get to that part of the trip, we need to go to the beginning… Those guys planned to arrive Wed, April 1 and we had no concrete plans from then until Sunday the 5th. A few days before they arrived the weather models started calling for significant snow that week.
But, as often seems to be the issue in the Alps2, it was uncertain how low the snow line would drop. When they arrived on the 1st, things were gloomy looking in town and it seemed like the snow had stayed solidly above 2000m. That meant no trees3, and a critical avalanche situation in many upper elevation locales.
What to do? What to do?
Wednesday, April 1
When they arrived, everything was still up in the air. After putzing around town a bit, eating lunch, looking at maps and forecasts
and cramming all our gear into the “minivan” that we rented
we decide to head into the Valais, and post up in Martigny for a couple nights, figuring that we’d at least be in striking distance of several areas where we’d be able to ride fresh snow.
Along the way, I suggested we use the afternoon for these guys to see a little Swiss history, and so we stopped at the Chateau de Chillon.
I’d say everyone was impressed4.
We got to Martigny, settled into our hotels and figured out where to have an early dinner before the three jetlagged amigos passed out. Why not go for the full Swiss experience on the first day?5
After dinner, we retired back to our quadruple-singled bed hotel room6, still unsure of where to ride the next day. Those guys, having spent the previous night on a plane, were out pretty quick. I still had some work that I hadn’t finished up before I left for vacation, and so went down to the lobby for a while before getting to be at a more typical hour.
The next morning, I tried to get as much conditions beta as I could7. It didn’t look like the snow had come that low, so I decided we should go to Verbier/4 vallées, where we might not be able to see very well8, but at least we’d have some options to be on fresh snow and not rain crust or glop. Plus, it’s the resort that I’ve had the most total days at around here, so I at least have a decent familiarity navigating the place.
Thursday, April 2
We drove up to Le Chable, parked the car and started making our way up the lift system. The tram to Mont Gelé was not running, and the first run down to La Chaux was not too promising–questionable visibility and a hard snow surface. We took the jumbo up to Col des Gentianes hoping to go to Mont Fort, but it looked completely socked in. So far, not having much luck.
We decided to head down to Tortin where the visibility looked decent, and I know a few spots that tend to hold snow. After a lot of traversing we found some nice snow in that bowl, and started to enjoy ourselves.
Next run we took the gondola up and traversed out into the Col des Mouches. Here we found some nice fresh lines that we could open up on a bit and have some fun.
Back up at the top of Col des Gentianes, Mont Fort was still socked in and the visibility was getting worse lower down as we took a big traverse. We decided to use a break in the clouds to get a short stretch of fresh turns before catching the surface lift back up and trying to make our way down the other side in what had become near 0 visibility. Following the dayglo piste markers9, we got low enough that we started to be able to see again. One more lift ride up and then we rode all the way down to Verbier where there was some pretty sloppy snow towards the bottom. We headed over to the Pub Mont Fort just before happy hour and settled in for some food and drinks.
All in all, not the best day ever, but it definitely didn’t suck.
Friday April 3
Friday was looking like more questionable weather, possibly with periods of sunshine and a bit of snow overnight. Steve and Jason having come with only their touring skis were really keen on doing some skinning rather than banging out laps all day. I came up with the suggestion of going to Champex where we could ride some north facing trees if the snow had come that low and/or go for a tour up the Val d’Arpette. We bought a single ride up, which seemed like a good idea from the base and was confirmed when the piste-accessed terrain10 seemed to be dust on crust.
Ride the piste deep into the valley. Skins on
and here we go.
So up the Val d’Arpette we went sticking to a very mellow line that would be safe in most conditions. Turns out we got some sunshine as we were skinning and boy was it getting warm.
Saw another party heading up one of the Couloirs looker’s left, but that seemed like maybe not the best idea on that day.
I was going a bit too fast for those low landers 😉
but we eventually made it to the Col des Écandies, being careful and spreading out on the few steeper pitches towards the top. Rest up a bit, have something to eat and drink, snap some photos
and then time to go.
Boy was the snow nice up high. We got to make some really big, fun turns as we slowly worked our way skiers right and down the valley enjoying the nice coat of fresh snow. Lower down things got a bit stickier and challenging, but we made it all the way deep into the valley and with a bit of skating eventually rejoined the piste and descended back to the car. All in all a successful day that exceeded expectations. Some of us may have gotten a bit much sun, but everyone had fun.
stay tuned for part 2….
- A very wise decision in retrospect.
- Except for a month or two mid winter.
- There were still some north facing trees with good coverage around at that time if the snow had come a bit lower.
- N.B. That last photo is a creative commons stock photo, since we didn’t manage to get any exterior photos… and it’s awesome.
- Well, maybe because you want to block up your digestive system ;-)
- Yes, apparently such a thing does exist.
- Which here is looking at webcams and weather stations…. the resorts are much less reliable with posting snowreports compared to the US
- also frequently an issue in the Alps
- and me letting the other guys go in front :-)
- Don’t want to say “in bounds” because the “in bounds”/”out of bounds” distinctions isn’t nearly as clear around here as it is in N. America