French Alps; croissants and couloirs

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Skiing for a long time and exploring your limits means you will eventually create a so-called bucketlist of skiruns. Lines you have spotted on previous trips, couloirs others tell you about or pictures on the internet can add just another run to the list. Most of the runs on my list are located in the French Alps so when I have some time left, I’d better go and try to shorten my list…

Early March I booked my flight to South America on April 29 knowing I would arrive in Madrid two weeks earlier. This meant I would have a window to play with and do a little European side trip. After some considerations I decided to book a return trip to Geneva and see what lines I could score in both Chamonix and la Grave.

Flying into Geneva meant Chamonix was a logical first stop. It’s located only one hour by car from the airport. A couple of years ago I stayed at the Gite le Belvedere which was then owned by a Dutchman. When I arrived this time I got a warm welcome by Ben Williams, a guy I had met years ago in Chile. Apparently he was running the guesthouse now. The world can be a small place!

in springtime the Aiguille du Midi looks beautiful from les Houches…

Chamonix is often called the mountaineering capital of the world. In winter skiing is the main activity and in spring skiing meets mountaineering; ski mountaineering. In order to ski a run or line one has to use a combination of lifts, skitouring and mountaineering skills like climbing or rappelling. When it’s 20 degrees Celcius you can therefore not be surprised to see a middle-aged lady with a chihuahua and skiers equipped with harness, ropes and iceaxe walking around in the same street. Add some Japanese tourists taking pictures et voilà; Chamonix.

In the end of April spring has arrived which means the temperatures are high and conditions are variable. Therefore you’ll have to be flexible in terms of lines to ski. You never know which line is ‘in condition’ because of the different aspects, weather conditions and the snowpack. Last year I skied Couloir des Cosmiques, one of the all-time classics of Chamonix. A couloir is a narrow gully with a steep gradiënt. Often couloirs are surrounded on both sides by sheer cliff walls, but they may also be less well-defined. Steep runs are most of the time a couloir simply because of the structure of a mountain.

Just around the corner of the couloir des Cosmiques is the Glacier Rond, a steep hanging glacier where one does not want to fall because of the big drop at the end. In the picture above you can see both lines. On the right side from the peak at more or less the same starting point you can see the couloir to the right and the glacier to the left. I wanted to ski the glacier. Unfortunately the conditions were not right according to my guide and then it becomes a really scary descent. We decided to have a look at the Passerelle couloir from the top of Aiguille du Midi. To enter the couloir you have to rappel 60 meters from a bridge. When Johann (the guide) told me he didn’t like the conditions and wanted to cancel this one too, I was quite relieved to be honest!

After a classic Vallee Blanche descent we talked about all the couloirs in the region and decided to give it another try the following week when conditions might have improved. I had a nice afternoon on Grands Montets where I skied some offpiste in sunny weather. It was really nice to ski the popular resort at this time of year when there was no one around. The front face under the gondola was still very good and top to bottom I saw two other skiers. When I skied my last run of the day, a typical descent ‘off the backside’ where you have a beautiful view of the Argentière basin, I was all alone!

breakfast routine in Chamonix; un pain au chocolat et une croix de Savoie

Besides the great skiing Chamonix has to offer, the town isn’t too bad either. Beautiful architecture, a good vibe and many restaurants make it a pleasure to walk around. I started every day in Chamonix with the same routine. A visit to the local supermarket got me some drinks for the day. Afterwards I went to the bakery or ‘boulangerie’ to buy some local delicacies. I have always been a fan of chocolat croissants but the real local delicacy for me has to be the so-called ‘croix de Savoie’, a delicious brioche-like pastry filled with vanilla custard and sugar on top. Now that is what I call a good start of the day!

The total Mont Blanc ski area consist of several towns: Les Houches, Chamonix, Les Praz and Argentière being the main ones. In between these towns there are some very nice walking trails, some of them are accessible in spring. One day I enjoyed the trail starting at the Grand Montets parking area going all the way to les Houches, about a three to four hour walk. In sunny weather and temperatures reaching 20 degrees Celcius it was a pleasure to absorb the spectacular Mont Blanc scenery. This time of year the contrast in colours is very striking too; bright green fields with steep rocky faces and white glaciers on top. Not too bad…

After another typical breakfast, I left Chamonix and went to la Grave. I was looking forward to taking the train in the Alps but guess what, the railroad was under construction. In pouring rain multiple buses took me to this small mythical ski town.

a little impression of the mythical little ski town of la Grave

In some ways la Grave can be described as Chamonix’s little brother (or sister as you like). Where Chamonix offers skiing for all abilities and has a town serving international cuisines, la Grave is more catered to advanced and expert skiers and the town is just about one small street (la Grave has a shocking 500 inhabitants…) with only a handful of restaurants. Both places are renowned though for great backcountry skiing. In Chamonix there is a huge amount of powder stress (there are a lot of backcountry skiers chasing the good stuff) whereas la Grave is relatively empty. There was some snowfall predicted for Friday and Saturday so I was aiming to ski some nice lines on Sunday and Monday. It was finally starting to look promising…

A friend of mine pointed out to me a couple of Dutch guys arranged a guide for two days in la Grave and they were looking for people to join them. A couple of text messages later I met Bart and Marius who were on a long weekend ski trip as a break from work. It seemed we were on the same page so we met our guide Jonathan the next morning at nine o’clock at the old lift, Téléphériques de la Meije. There are two lifts in la Grave, a very very very slow gondola that takes you from the valley to 3200 meters in about 30 minutes and a draglift on the glacier. In the lift we had time discuss our plans for the day. Jonathan seemed to be a very relaxed guy and started to talk about couloirs immediately, that’s the spirit!

No warm-up runs but straight to the Trifide section, that was his plan. I liked the plan. When you’re talking about classic runs in la Grave, you’re talking about the Trifides. A traverse and a couple of turns from P3 (the lift station at 3200 meters) will take you to the entrance of four very nice couloirs. Trifide 1 is the widest and easiest one and therefore gets skied the most. Because la Grave is linked to Les Deux Alpes the story goes many skiers from Les Deux Alpes head over to la Grave for a little ski. La Grave however is uncontrolled for avalanches and offers no prepared slopes. Less proficient skiers end up in the easy accessible couloirs like Trifides and accidents happen.

that’s me in the middle of Trifide 2

We first skied Trifide 1 in fresh untracked snow, it was only skied a couple times that morning. This was a great start of the day. We skied back to P1 (the midstation at 1800 meters) to go up for a second lap. This time Banana couloir was our objective. As the name suggests a curly couloir leads you to a frozen lake from where you ski back to the lift. Skier’s left there is a huge rock face which makes this descent extra special. Once you have passed the lake some treeskiing has to be done to get back to P1. The snow was quite affected there which made it not the most pleasant skiing. In order to ski some nice lines you have to pay a price…

After a well deserved lunch at the top we decided to ski Trifide 0 and Trifide 2 in the afternoon. The lift on the glacier was closed and the runs to the valley were impossible this time of year so options were a bit limited. Nothing to complain about though because the Trifides are amazing. We started the afternoon with Trifide 2. Around the same area where you enter Trifide 1 you have to traverse a little bit to the right through some rocks. After a couple of minutes you’ll arrive at the top of the couloir which is a bit exposed, there is a cliff below you…

A couple of careful turns has to be made before you ski to the left where you can choose between two narrow chutes. Marius stayed on top to take some pictures (thanks Marius) while Bart and myself enjoyed the left chute. Marius followed later by boarding down the right chute and we joined at the bottom of the couloir before skiing the Vallon de la Meije back to P1.

The last run of the day was Trifide 0 which is located skier’s left of Trifide 1. Whereas Trifide 1, 2 and 3 can be seen from the lift, Trifide 0 is a bit more hidden and therefore doesn’t get skied much. In the end of the day there were only one or two tracks in the couloir when we arrived. The snow was still very good despite the high temperatures. Trifide 0 is probably the steepest (40 degrees consistently) and is fairly straight with a little turn to the right at the bottom. We all agreed this was our favourite Trifide!

Trifide 0 was my favourite of the Trifide-family

The next day the weather didn’t look very good in the valley but once in the gondola we found out it cleared up in the alpine. There was hardly any wind which meant the draglift on the glacier might be open. Anxiously we left P3 to see whether the lift was open or not. Soon Jonathan confirmed the lift was about to open. Fresh tracks again in the end of April, who could have thought that?

We skied some nice powder next to the draglift. We had to share the white gold with only a handful of other adventurers. Back at the top we went the other direction onto the Girose glacier, a huge untouched playground. We were dealing with a glacier so we had to stay close to the guide but still the immense setting made some impact. We skied down the left side of P3 and traversed all the way back to the other side, the Vallon de la Meije. Once we reached the other side though, we stayed high and traversed underneath the lift, sometimes with interesting exposure. Marius was a snowboarder and therefore had a hard time on the traverse at times but he gave it his best. We finally made it to our final goal of the morning, couloir Cote Fine. The couloir is not steep but very aesthatic with a big rock face on either side. The snow was really hard but it was still an enjoyable run. It was the last one for Bart and Marius. They had to drive home to Alkmaar the same day…

After lunch I skied the Trifide 0 and Patou, which is the other well-known couloir (together with the Banana couloir) ending at the lake. The skiing was over but the day wasn’t. During lunch I noticed the Belgian beers at the restaurant at P3. I simply had to go up to enjoy a delicacy like that on the terrace overlooking some spectacular scenery. A Maredsous Blonde was the logical choice…

Tuesday I went back to Chamonix together with Jonathan, the skiguide. The weather was looking promising for the next two days and a big line in Chamonix would have been the perfect ending to this trip. When we arrived and Jonathan had spoken to a couple of colleagues we found out that the conditions were not ideal to say the least. The Glacier Rond was still too icy and the Barbey couloir was hardpacked too, making it dangerous. Some other lines were still possible but were not on my bucketlist. Given the height of the guiding fee, I only wanted to ski runs that were on my bucketlist…

I ended up hanging around and taking things easy for a couple of days. I skied Grands Montets one more day where I enjoyed some offpiste again. The last days were used to get my skis ready for the second part of my trip, South America. After skiing quite a bit the last couple of months they could use some wax and sharpening. Let’s see what the Andes has to offer between July and November. Until then I’ll study some Spanish in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, visit Brazil and Bolivia before making my way south from Peru towards Portillo, most likely the first stop of the South American ski season. I might add a little side trip to Colombia, it’s supposed to be pretty nice over there…

In the end la Grave was great but Chamonix was disappointing. The terrain in la Grave is so easily accessible and the number of couloirs on offer is big enough to keep you busy for at least a week. Where in the world can you ski that type of terrain and finish the day with a Maredsous? I will simply have to go back!

Chamonix is a difficult story for me. In order to improve my skiing and reach the next level, I feel it’s the place to be. The runs however require more than just skiing skills. Whereas the runs in la Grave are accessible by lifts, in Chamonix they have to be climbed. I’ll have to develop my mountaineering skills. Furthermore you also have to deal with the weather and wait for specific runs to be ‘in condition’. It’s a waiting game and this time I lost. I will be back one day to win though!

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to the French Alps!

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