Left in spring 2014, Damien, Thibaut, Remì and Francois in the dizzying colours od Baffin Island. A special sort of trip, ski, discover beyond the 70° parallel. This is another way to live the adventure.
In a busy guiding season it can be difficult to get out and tour for yourself. A lucky day appeared in the diary when fellow Dynastar Ambassador and Avalanche Geek Mike Austin and I were both free with a blue bird forecast. We decided on the Breche Puiseux and were on the first cable car to the Aiguille du Midi. The ski down the first part of the Vallee Blanche could best be described as terrible with hideous refrozen snow until we could get the right aspect and altitude to find some sun softened corn and enjoy a few turns. Skins on at the base of the Périades glacier gave a couple of hours skinning then skis on the back for the 450m climb to the Breche. The early start was worth it with the climb being completed before the sun got to hot.
The Breche is a low point on the section of ridge known as the Périades, this spectacular group of granite spires is home to the tiny Périades bivouac hut one of the most characterful and spectacularly positioned over night shelter in the range. We scrambled along to the hut before making 2 abseils onto the upper Mont Mallet glacier.
The position here is amazing right under the North Face to the Grand Jorasses this has to be one of the most spectacular backdrops to any ski descent in the Alps. The descent winds its way through huge crevasses with amazing views all round before joining the Leschaux glacier where perfect spring snow and less crevasses allowed us to let the Cham’s run making big sweeping turns all the way to the train at Montenvers. A beer sitting on the terrace was the perfect place to reflect and a fantastic journey through the heart of the Mont Blanc Massif.
Hut to hut ski touring
With the last snowfall in the Alps over a week ago, and a high pressure that was seemingly not shifting, there was not much choice but to use the Easter holidays as the perfect excuse to go up into the mountains and do some hut to hut ski touring.
April is the perfect time to do this, with longer days making early starts bearable, and the sunny weather meaning that if you hit the descents at the right time, you can experience some great spring snow.
So with sun forecast for much of last week, I decided to head up to the Gran Paradiso area in Italy with three other friends to do a multi day traverse over three of the four valleys, starting in Pont in the Valsavarenche valley (normally the starting point for people to climb Gran Paradiso), and ending in the tiny hamlet of Bonne, in the Valgrisenche valley.
With the sun shining, we begun with a trek, skis on our back, along the high dirt road from Pont searching out the snow line so we could put our skis on. In what turned out to be our biggest day of the three-day tour, we had to start early due to the sun warming the snow at a fast pace. And although the walk slowed things down a little, once we had our skins on, we started moving more quickly and getting closer to our first col, which required just over 1200m of climbing.
After not doing much skiing at high altitude this season, it took a while to get used to skinning close to 3000m, but I found that if I paced myself well, I could quite easily keep on plodding for hours. So once we hit the col, we enjoyed a great mix of powder and spring snow as we descended down into the Val di Rhemes valley. Not sure exactly where we might pop out, we tried to stay as far up the valley as we could, knowing we still had quite a long way to go to get to the Benevolo refuge, our overnight destination.
After having to walk again along the valley, once we put our skis and skins back on, the sun was starting to dip behind the mountains, and we knew that we had to keep moving if we were to get to the refuge in time for hut dinner (normally at 7pm). Indeed, what we thought would take around 1.5 hours, took us close to 3.5 hours, and we were greeted by the guardian as we wearily arrived at the refuge with minutes to spare, as he grinned asking ‘soup or risotto’. After the long day and 2200m of climbing, it had to be risotto.
After such a big day and a great Italian dinner, it was hard not to have a good nights sleep, so the 6am start the next day was tolerable after being tucked up in bed close to 9.30pm. We were greeted by another clear sky day, and although it started off freezing, we very quickly warmed up as the sun rose up over the beautiful mountains. Our second day was not as epic in length as day one, although our first climb was steep and at times it felt like you were in an oven as the sun beat down on us as we went up and over Col Bassac Derre, in search of the Mario Bezzi hut. After the hot climb, we decided that to search out the best spring snow, we would climb up a little higher towards the Becca Traverse, and we were duly rewarded. We seemed to time our descent perfectly and enjoyed excellent spring snow as we quickly descended the glacier towards the refuge, arriving at a civilised 3pm in time to enjoy a celebratory beer in the sun – the way spring touring should be!
After another great Italian meal (the Mario Bezzi is quite hotel-like on the comfort scale of mountain huts), we were set up for the final day of our tour. To get back to Bonne we decided to skin straight up from the hut to the Col de Giasson on the recommendation of the helpful hut guardian, which gave us a fantastic descent, but unfortunately brought us out on the wrong side of the lake, which meant a skin/walk up the road back to the car. We didn’t mind though because we had found more great snow on our descent, which was over 1000m and had a fun bushwhack in the trees as well!
Once we had made it back to the car, rather sweaty and pretty tired, our next mission was to find somewhere for a well-deserved drink. We didn’t think the sleepy village of Bonne would be the place to find a cold beer, but we were wrong! As we were packing up our car we were befriended by a local of the Valgrisenche valley, Aldofo, who invited us onto his terrace in the sun. He then proceeded to offer us a beer and give us the history of the valley, which included a good nosy through his photo album, which spanned back to the 1930s.
After a good hour or so we excused ourselves as there was one thing left to do to round off our fantastic trip… so we jumped in our car, a little bit smelly, and headed off to find a real Italian pizza before heading back to France. A perfect way to end a great hut-to-hut ski touring adventure.
Legendary Aurélien Ducroz (FRA) and rookie Hazel Birnbaum (USA) won the 20 edition of the Verbier Xtreme. Reine Barkered (SWE) took second place and finished third at Overall Freeride World Tour. Congratulations!!
On Saturday, the battle for the Freeride World Tour titles took place on the mythical Bec des Rosses (3222m), all while celebrating 20 years of Verbier Xtreme. The much respected north face showed a new challenging side, being dressed in a lighter snow cover this year. But Aurélien Ducroz (FRA) and Reine Barkered (SWE) managed it pretty well and used all their experience to put down an impressive run and claim victory and 2nd place on ski category.
Aurelien Ducroz (FRA) who has already won three times on this face and who was competing on an honorary wildcard did not let his fans down. He opened the men's skiing with a spectacular line below the highest start that set the expectations of both the judges and the crowd as to the awesomeness needed for a podium. He has now set his print in the history books as the only skier to have won the Xtreme Verbier 4 times with a score of 88.50. “I'm just really pleased - a 4th victory for the 20th anniversary of the Xtreme! I have so much love for this face. I really feel good here,” Aurelien said emotionally. “I almost changed my line last minute and then with Reine we motivated each other and I went ahead with it. I'm so happy I don't know what to say...”
Just behind Aurelien with a score of 88.12 was another skier who has experience written all over him. Reine Barkered (SWE) went a little slower into the same line as Aurelien but quickly picked up the pace in this line leading to an enormous cliff that he landed perfectly in the exposed area, making it possible for him to take immediate control of the acceleration despite the very steep part of the face. Another A-run from the stomp master that he ended shooting down over the apron at the bottom.
On the women ski category, the young Hazel Birnbaum (USA), rookie on the Freeride World Tour, surprised everyone by winning Verbier Xtreme 2015. She spotted the winning line, and the way she rode it got the crowds screaming in excitement twice! First when she stomped an exposed double up top and second after another big double on the bottom. She scored 88.00 standing out as the only woman scoring in the 80es. “As my rookie year I feel like I learned a lot and I got to be inspired by a lot of incredible women that I've looked up to for so many years, so it's an incredible privilege and an honor to even be part of this event. I'm beyond ecstatic!” Hazel expressed after realizing her outstanding performance.http://www.zapiks.fr/hazel-birnbaum-winner-of-ver.html
When you think of Lapland you probably don’t think of skiing, certainly not free skiing or ski touring. I made a recent visit to Riksgransen a small ski hill in the far north of Sweden close to the Norwegian border to check out the terrain do some ski touring. Armed with my trusty Cham 97HM’s I boarded the flight to Kiruna and headed north.
The Swedish mountains are old mountains very similar in age to the NW highlands of Scotland, the peaks are spaced so there is a far greater feeling of space than you would find in the Alps. We arrived late and night and drove for a couple of hours ice covered roads in studded tires to our hotel. We woke to fresh snow but lots of wind, a short walk to the ski lift and we were soon enjoying our first turns on arctic snow. The ski area of Riksgransen is small but perfectly formed for such a small area I has great terrain, cruisy pistes on one aspect and steep interesting terrain on the other. A short hike to Nordalsfjell gives access to the face used for a regular free ride competition.
The weather improved for the next 3 days allowing us to get the skins on we skied Vassitjakka a fantastic peak with great views all the way to the sea at Narvik. We had a short day on Bjornfjellet then a stunning final day with no wind and the most perfect blue ski skiing Laktatjakka from Kopparasens.
While the mountains in Lapland may not be big by alpine standard they offer some great skiing and with the Fjord mountans round Narvik being less than an hour away this a ski destination worth another visit.
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