#vterinthealps part 3 (adventures in the haute montagne)

A ski/ride TR being posted in the middle of summer?   Yep!

It’s taken me almost 4 months to finally finish composing this.  But, as we round the bend of summer and the Earth starts tilting in a more winterly direction thoughts begin to return to snow, so here goes.

If you didn’t see the first two parts, you can check them out here:

Part 1

Part 2

Or the tl;dr summary:  Waud, Chung, and Kappe came over from Vermont at the start of April.  We took in some culture, we shredded some pow, and we ate some really good food.  Then it was time to head up into the high alpine for some more technical adventures.

In writing the bulk of this instalment several months after it happened, I am grateful that our guide Arnaud wrote up his own TR right away.  You can read that here: http://arnaud-bayol.over-blog.com/2015/04/raid-en-ski-autour-de-chamonix.html  It’s in French, but you can get a passable (if at times hilarious) translation from Google: here.

Tuesday, April 7

I, for one, crashed super early Monday and woke up Tuesday morning still needing to finish some preparations for the next few days.   We would be staying in alpine huts the next two nights and so had to take a pack for 3 days in the haute montagne and load the rest of our stuff into the car.  We got it all loaded, and we made it to the Grand Montets lot just early enough to meet Arnaud and catch the first box up1.

However, the tram to the top was not running due to high winds so we took the Herse chairlift followed by a brain chattering ride down some icy moguls, while cutting hard skiers right, before finally putting skins on the planks and roping up to cross the Glacier d’Argentière.

Crossing the glacier (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

After making our way across the glacier we were able to de-rope and make our way up the couloir to the Col du Passon.

Heading up (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Successful ascent (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

We eventually made it up, transitioned, descended a bit and then made a long side hilling traverse around.  We were all feeling fatigued, but somehow dug deep in our energy tanks to make another small climb to catch a bit more turns from the Col Supérieur du Tour before finishing with a long traversing descent down to the Refuge d’Albert 1er.


A little more "enjoyable suffering" for Roger (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Up top the Col Supérieur du Tour (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Finally getting some turns (rider: R. Kappe; photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Made it to the hut (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

The hut was rather quiet, with just two other groups there, and we were able to have a peaceful evening, catch a breathtaking sunset over the Aiguiles Rouges and enjoy some delicious stew and couscous before calling it a night.

Chilling (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Refuge Albert 1er (photo credit: R. Kappe)

The sun setting behind the Aiguilles Rouges (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

It was a hard day of touring and the ride conditions were not great, but it was a beautiful day and we were all glad to be living life up high in the mountains.

Wednesday, April 8

Up again in the morning at a fairly reasonable time2, ate some breakfast got ready for the day and then stepped outside to put on the skins and begin our day’s adventure: les 3 Cols.

Arnaud set a slow but steady pace and we made good time up le glacier du Tour and finally up to the col.  The final part was a bit steep, but we managed ok and the snow stayed in place.

Back on the skin track (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Waud tops out (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Not a bad backdrop for a tour, just watch out for the old avy debris.  (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

We then made our way around to la fenêtre de Saleinaz where a short but steep and fun slope awaited us on the other side.  It wasn’t really necessary, but Arnaud had us practice a bit of ski rappel here in case we’d need it in the days to come.  We each descended a bit with the rope before letting it go and making some turns on the firm but edgeable surface.

Chung sets up for the ski rappel (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Next up we put the skins back on and went around to the base of the couloir heading up to the Col du Chardonnet.  Here we had to wait a bit for some other parties, but then Araud was able to climb up using the fixed line before dropping us a belay and we proceeded to climb with the boards on our backs.  When we finally got to the top we saw a gnarly pencil thin couloir across the way with 2 skiers descending.

Heading to the Col du Chardonnet (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Pencil Coolie (Photo Credit: J. Chung)

By that point it was getting into the afternoon and we were starting to get some decent spring snow.  We had a pretty fun, if tricky, decent 3 before getting down to the Glacier d’Argentière, putting skins on once more and making our way to the Refuge d’Argentière where we’d be spending the night.

Steve is stoked again... shortly before losing his phone. (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Making our way down from the Col du Chardonnet (photo credit: A. Bayol)

Finishing the tour.  Damn it is beautiful up there.  (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

On the final approach to the hut, walking across the moraine,  Roger and I were lagging behind a bit and had a little too close for comfort interaction with a late day wet-slide coming down from above.  Fortunately we heard the “attention!” call from some folks at the hut in time to stay in a safe location as it slid by, but it was a good reminder to always be on your game in these big mountains.

After resting on the deck , drying out our gear and rehydrating with some beers we went inside for another tasty dinner4. Hanging about inside were a huge contingent of mountain rescue folks preparing for a night time training exercise.    Hard to believe that these guys were going back out into the gnarly terrain surrounding the hut after the snow had refrozen, but these guys were the real deal.

Chilling on the deck at the  Refuge d'Argentière (photo credit: J. Chung)

Hut life (photo credit: J. Chung)


Mmm... soup (photo credit: J. Chung)

Thursday, April 9

Shortly after we arrived at the hut the previous day we were joined by Antoine, another guide de haute montagne who Arnaud had recruited to accompany us the next two days for the real steep stuff.  So on Thursday morning the 6 of us: 2 guides and 4 clients began what was to be our most ambitious day of the trip: a climb and descent of the Aiguille d’Argentière by way of the Glacier de Milieu.

The snow was quite firm and we had to traverse several old avy debris piles which made for some interesting and challenging skinning.  Still we were making good time and even got a bit ahead of schedule at one point.  Finally we skinned as high as we could go and switched over to crampons.

Skinning up to the base of the headwall (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Moving in two rope teams of 3 we climbed the steep top section slowly but with purpose.  This was tiring stuff, especially after all we’d already done that week.

J Chung climbing (photo credit: A. Bayol)Antoine leads the splitters (photo credit: A. Bayol)Chung and Waud coming up behind  (photo credit: A. Bayol)

Finally after only a few moments of doubt, and with Antoine and Arnaud’s encouragement, we made it to the top of the skiable section, ditched our board and made a final push to the summit.  What a site to behold after one of the bigger climbs of our lives… simply breathtaking.

Summit! (photo credit: R. Kappe)Woot!  (photo credit: A. Bayol)We carefully made our way back to where our gear was, took our time changing over and fueling up before beginning what was to be a 2700m descent all the way down to the base of Grand Montets.

Preparing for the descent (photo credit: A. Bayol)

The top was steep and hairy with the snow still slightly firm.  We carefully made our way down keeping in control as a fall up there could have some bad consequences.

Josh at the top of the headwall (photo credit: A. Bayol)So happy to be there (rider: J. Auerbach; photo credit: A. Bayol)Epic! (rider: J. Auerbach; photo credit: A. Bayol)

As we got a little lower we entered the money zone of perfect corn harvest on a steep high alpine glacier.   The guides really knew what they were doing, timing things perfectly for us to maximize the good conditions.  Wow was that awesome, we could begin to open things up and really take the fun up 11.  Still we had to be at full attention as this was some technical terrain with many hazards around5.

W making turns (photo credit: A. Bayol)

Roger gets some (rider: R. Kappe; photo credit: A. Bayol)

Chung too! (rider: J. Chung; photo credit A. Bayol)

What an amazing climb and descent.... everyone is stoked.  (photo credit: R. Kappe)

Things were definitely getting mushy as we got lower, but we were having a blast on this epically long descent.  Eventually we were back on the Glacier d’Argentière and making our way along the normal route back to the ski area.  As we returned to the piste it was a full on spring bump fest going on and our tired legs managed to keep us our feet all the way back to the car at the valley’s floor.

After three days in the high alpine we were all quite spent, but still some celebratory beverages were in order.  A short drive down the road to a spot that Arnaud recommended and we all toasted to an amazing day before retiring back to a gite for the night and grabbing some local cuisine on what would be our final night in the Cham Valley.

Some extremely well deserved reebs (photo credit: R. Kappe)

That’s it for now.  Maybe I’ll come back sometime with the final instalment of the trip, including one more high/steep couloir the next day + a descent down the vallée noire, before crossing over to Italy for a bit of rest, and then a final couple days in the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard.   We’ll see… maybe I’ll get around to it in October when I am really itching to be on snow 🙂

TR: #vterinthealps, part 2 (culture, pow, and one seriously decadent meal)

If you missed part 1 of the story, click here

words by J. Auerbach

Saturday April 4

We had been planning on riding Saturday and taking Sunday as a rest day so that we’d be fresh when we met up with Arnaud on Monday.  But, the weather on Saturday looked pretty shitty with nair up fairly high, and thick clouds above that.  It really did not seem to be the day to be up in the mountains.

After hemming and hawing about what to do, we decided to turn it into a “cultural day”.  We got ourselves some coffee and breakfast, moved rooms1, and then hit the road.

First we took a trip to the picturesque village of Gruyères and paid a visit to the H.R. Giger museum where we saw some, ah-hem, interesting pieces of art2.

Next, we continued past Bern and down around to Thun.  Why go to Thun?  To see some professional soccer3, of course….it happened to be the site of the closest match we could find: FC Thun playing host to FC St Gallen in the Swiss Super League, and les supporters de football among us really wanted to see some live football4 while in Europe, so why not?

We consumed some delicious sausages and beverages outside the stadium, and then headed in to our seats.  The stands were pretty empty, but at least they were covered5 and the match was an entertaining win for the home team6.

The day is summed up nicely by this photo montage from Mr. Stephen Waud

Culture! (photo credit: S. Waud; https://instagram.com/p/1EQs_0ut-N/ )

and this photo from Mr. Jason Chung

SW, JA, and RK (photo credit J. Chung)

After the game, we made the long drive back to Martigny7.  When we got back to the hotel, I took a look at the weather and it seemed that there would be a decent amount of snow coming fairly low that night.  Some of the crew really wanted to make sure not to tire themselves out before the intense week that we had ahead of us, but with the prospect of fresh snow and clearing skies we finally came to a compromise to go hit Les Marecottes in the morning for some pow laps before driving across the border to Chamonix later that day.

Sunday April 5

We packed the car and drove up to Les Marecottes for what would be our second and last real lift served day of the trip.  As we arrived at the base of the télécabine8, things were looking pretty socked in. But we were there, so we bought the ticket, took the ride, so to speak, and we headed up.  Just as we approached the top of the télécabine9 the skies above us were looking surprisingly clear.  As we got to the top of the télésiège10, it was looking really nice, and we were getting stoked.

Jason and Roger are stoked (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

The place was absolutely empty and we were able to get some fluffy first tracks.  Some small slides that we were able to release right under the lift reminded us to proceed with caution, but we were still able to get in


S Waud goes deep right under the lift (photo credit: J. Chung)


Josh likes easy-access, no competition pow (photo credit: J. Chung)


Roger's turn (photo credit: J. Chung)


Sending it (photo credit: J. Chung)


Sending it off a small rock (rider: J. Auerbach; photo credit: J. Chung)


shreddin' it (rider: J. Auerbach; photo credit: S. Waud)

Then with the snow starting to get warm,  visibility sporadic, and us wanting to save our legs for the next 5 days, we decided to call it quits.

We took the télécabine back down, got in the car and headed for France.

When we got to Chamonix we were able to check into our hotel early and then go into town to do a bit of laundry, eat some food11, and get some skis waxed.  Then it was back to the hotel to prepare for the next day, rest up, and get ready for dinner.

Besides our days with Arnaud, the only other thing that we had planned well in advance  was one seriously heady meal.  Jason had made reservations at the 2-Michelin Star Albert 1er12 for that evening.

(photo credit: R. Kappe)

We ate some amazing food, drank some amazing wine13,  and really enjoyed the gluttony of the thing.

le menu (photo credit: J. Chung)

(photo credit: J. Chung)(photo credit: J. Chung)

(photo credit: J. Chung) les fromages (photo credit: J. Chung)

(photo credit: J. Chung) (photo credit: J. Chung)

smiley faces (photo credit: our waiter)

I probably won’t have a meal like this again for quite some time, but it was a damn enjoyable experience, and a great way to prepare for the next 5 days of intense physical activity in the high mountains!

Monday April 6

Feeling a bit groggy from all the wining and dining, we still managed to get in the car, make a quick stop for espressos and croissants, and be in the Flégère lot in time to meet Arnaud before the first tram14.

SW in the lot (photo credit: J. Chung)

While the weather was calling for clear skies, there was a North wind shutting down many of the other lifts in the area.  This caused Flégère to be quite a busy spot that morning.

Arnaud evaluated our original plan of Le Col de la Floria as too risky given the fresh snow,  and so we, as well as many other people, climbed up to Le Col des Crochues

Heading up to Le Col des Crochues (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

AJ was pretty stoked to get to the top.

SW and RK top out (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

From there we descended a bit,  traversed over, and put skins back on for a climb up the couloir to La  Pointe Alphonse Favre.

Descent du Col des Crochues (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

The couloir was definitely getting some sun and we witnessed one good release come past us as we were putting our skis on our backs.  We did not linger long and quickly climbed up and out of the colouir,

J. Chung boots up the top of the couloir (photo credit: S. Waud)

and then made our way up the ridge.

Stephen is having fun (photo credit: A. Bayol)

We got to the top, climbed down a bit, and found a good, safe spot to change over and have some snacks.  I think everyone was pretty happy to be there.

SW, RK, and JC enjoying being up high in the Aiguilles Rouges (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

When we are all set, Arnaud headed off across the slope to lead the way down the Glacier du Mort.

Arnaud leading the way on the Glacier du Mort (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

He brought us to a small drop15

sending it "gracefully" (rider: J. Auerbach; photo credit: A. Bayol)

after which we were really able to open it up through the cold, dry powder.

cold smoke (rider J. Auerbach; photo credit: S. Waud)

coming out the flats (skier: S. Waud; photo credit: J. Auerbach)

Yep, that was fun.  Just look at the smiles on these guys Chung and AJ are happy to be here (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

From there we got some more nice turns, but the snow was starting to turn.  Eventually we got below tree line where it was getting quite hot.

take off them layers (photo credit: J. Auerbach)

We then had to maneuver and shimmy our way through a bob-sled track with questionable coverage, many stream crossings, and several hesitant skiers.  Quite the adventure16, but after a total descent of about 1500m17, we at last made it to Le Buet.  Too bad there was no train back to Chamonix for two more hours.  Guess we’ll just have to hang out and have beers in the sun18.

Eventually we packed 5 people into a tiny automobile and managed to get back to Chamonix.  No big dinner plans that night, just some pub food at the MBC19 and early to bed, because the next day we’d be heading up into la haute montagne for several days and nights of adventure….


to be continued.