Lost in Translation – Big lines in the Chamonix valley

Have you ever seen the movie Lost in Translation? It’s a film about disconnection and a longing for something you can never have. In it Bill Murray says to Scarlet Johansson. “It gets easier as you get older, and you know who you are and where you want to be. The pain doesn’t affect you as much”.

I bring it up, as this was a bit how I was feeling as April slipped away. The feeling of disconnect is a common malaise felt by those who spend the winter skiing when summer approaches. The Avalanche Geeks season had reached its conclusion and coupled with a decision not to ski in America this year, I was feeling a loss of focus and discontent with the world. Had I achieved enough of my skiing goals for the year? There had certainly been highlights…but probably not.

It was against this background that I flew back into Chamonix with a clear agenda of spending a week skiing big lines and ticking off long held objectives. Now it’s not uncommon for baggy panted, fat ski hipsters to hit a destination like Chamonix with a tick list in tow, and at AG we try and instill a sense of caution about such things, promoting instead a Zen like open agenda so as to avoid the heuristic trap of commitment: “let the conditions choose the route for you young Padawan”. But as luck would have it conditions for high mountain, big line skiing couldn’t have been better. A consolidated snowpack with daily bluebird weather gave us an open agenda. The only concern was the mid afternoon temperature spikes releasing the occasional wet slab monster.

I’d teamed up with the very strong team of Di Gilbert and Catrin Thomas – two girls who certainly can and whose combined big mountain climbing resume shames many Chamonix ‘big deals’. With the right conditions and the right group of people, all factors were pointing towards taking a look at some big routes.

The Domes de Miage, followed by a descent of the Armancette Glacier was high up on both Di’s and my own tick lists. As you drive towards the Chamonix valley from Geneva this huge fall line stands out begging to be skied. From a distance of twenty miles away driving along the ‘Route Blanche’ motorway you can trace your descent line from summit to valley. Never particularly steep, the descent offers 2,700 meters of continuous big mountain glaciated skiing from the 3,700m peak. It had been a route of desire and longing for several years for me so after a couple of solid days acclimatising around the Aiguille Rouges and the back bowls of Les Contamines, the three of us set off towards the Conscrits Hut which would be our jumping off point for the summit of the Domes the next day.

As luck would have it, the only bad weather of the week shrouded the col beneath the summit of the Domes de Miage the next morning. After three days skiing together I’d become accustomed to Di and Catrin’s impressive non-verbal communication skills. They’d clearly spent months together in the mountains and each knew each other’s pace and mindset. Actually, it was a bit unnerving…it was a bit like skiing with Trappist nuns! As veterans of the Patrouilles des Glaciers SkiMo race they went hours without a word and if they could help it, without stopping, methodically eating up the miles and vertical ascent. Silently they now transitioned from ski to crampons and axe and we each soloed past the various groups of continental types waiting hopefully for a break in the murk to afford progress. Half an hour later we passed the last group ahead of us on the route – a small group of French freeriders perched on the final summit, and we continued our descent in a complete whiteout on a GPS heading.

To add insult to injury we were now post holing through a nice 2cm breakable sun crust formed by the previous days bright sunshine as we approached the faint depressions and shadows of covered crevasses barely evident in the milky whiteness. We transitioned back to skis.

The only words I’d had from the chatter sisters since our descent began was a casual shake of the head to my offer of roping up for the traverse and a muttered change of direction for me to cut left to avoid a crevasse as I broke trail out front. As I jump turned my skis on the 40 degree breakable crust, I reassured myself: “It gets easier as you get older, and you know who you are and where you want to be. The fear doesn’t affect you as much”.

Catrin eventually broke her vow of silence by muttering: “come on sun, anytime now will be fine with us”. Right on cue, just as we contemplated pulling out the rope for the third time in 10 minutes, out indeed broke the sun and revealed 2,500 meters of untracked snow beneath us. Game on.

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The author with the nuns & the line of desire….

After a rest day in the valley I teamed up with Avalanche Geeks co-owner Bruce Goodlad and the two of us set out to ski and climb the classic Brèche Puiseux off the Périades Glacier. Another bluebird day ensured that we charged down the Vallée Blanche in double fast time and after a couple of quick transitions, firstly to skins and then to boot crampons, we were at the ramshackle Périades bivouac perched alarmingly across the knife edge ridge, and rappelling off its anchor wires, our crampon points scraping off the golden granite. Big glacier skiing underneath the brooding north face of the Grandes Jorasses eventually gave way to large arcing GS turns in smooth spring mashed potato snow and led us back to the familiarity of the lower section of the Mer de Glace having completed a short, sharp bi-section of the heart of the Mont Blanc massif by ski. The route’s classic status is clearly deserved and highly recommended.

A great week. One of the best. For a while at least the rat had been fed and the clouds of disconnection and longing blown away.

 

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Bruce Goodlad at the Brèche Puiseux packing the Cham 97HM – our pinner go to ski this season.