The Alps; steep skiing

posted in: Trip reports | 1

For years now I have been dreaming of several lines in the Alps. I call it my bucketlist of skiruns. At some point in my life I want to have skied all of them. After traveling for a while now, I couldn’t think of a better way to finish my trip than to ski at least a couple of the runs on my list…Initially the lines of my dreams were all located in la Grave and Chamonix. However, when I talked to some people in Argentina, I had to add a couple of runs in the Dolomites too. And, as it turned out, I found the best run of the trip in the Ecrins (la Grave’s backyard). In terms of timing this would all work out perfect, on paper that is. The runs in the Dolomites and la Grave are usually in condition in the second half of March, followed by the runs in Chamonix in the month of April.

There is no absolute definition of steep skiing but anything with a gradient of at least 40° seems to be considered steep. Do not confuse steep with extreme, because that’s a different story. According to the Toponeige rating system, steep skiing corresponds to anything from 4.1 and higher. During these couple of weeks I have been looking to ski as many lines with a rating of at least 4 and preferably low 5’s. I would definitely consider any run with a rating 5.3 or up as extreme, unless conditions are perfect…

So far, I had skied quite a few runs in the 4-category, for example the Trifides in la Grave, Couloir Median and Couloir ouest de l’Adad in Morocco and the North face of Cotopaxi in Ecuador. The only descent I completed with a Toponeige rating of 5 is Couloir des Cosmiques in Chamonix. There are some other runs I have skied around the world (for example the East couloir on Volcan Lanin, a run called “Planchon Sur” around Refugio Frey and E-dream from Entre Rios in Las Leñas)  that might have been a 5 but don’t have a Toponeige rating as far as I know. So, I wanted to add a couple of 5’s to the résumé. Maybe highschool wasn’t useless after all…

After Iran I spent a couple of days in Istanbul trying to process everything I had experienced in the weeks before. March 17, I boarded a plane to Ljubljana since I wanted to get a taste of Slovenia and, more important, because of its proximity to the Dolomites. This little city in the West of the country, turned out to be a perfect place to relax and prepare for the skiing to come. Via Bled and Austria, I made my way to the town of la Villa Stern (Italy) in the middle of couloir paradise…

Lake Bled in Slovenia, very peaceful this time of year...
Lake Bled in Slovenia, very peaceful this time of year…

Initially the weather forecast wasn’t looking promising. Yes, there was an above average snowpack in the Dolomites but fresh snow had not fallen for a while, resulting in very hard conditions. But, suddenly there was new snow on the radar for the weekend of March 22 and 23, the days before I had planned to ski around Passo Pordoi and Cristallo.

The main objectives in this part of the Alps were Canale di Holzer and Canale Vallençant (canale being the Italian equivalent of couloir). Unfortunately the latter was a bit too complicated due to uncertain conditions, but the same area offers a slightly easier alternative, called Canale Staunies Nord.

The Holzer couloir (named after Heini Holzer who skied this line in 1972 for the first time), rated as 5.1 with an exposure of E2, is arguably the ultimate classic steep skiing run in the Dolomites. It has a vertical of a stunning 1100 meters and it’s only a couple of meters wide with massive walls on both sides. Sections of 50 degrees and a significant stretch of 45 degrees make this run a good challenge but doable in good conditions. The couloir is located in Passo Pordoi and provides usually some good snow because of its North facing aspect.

Because of the good snowbase this season in the Dolomites, the rappel halfway the couloir was not necessary making the run a lot less complicated. After the snowfall, I let the snowpack settle down for a day. Followed by a cold clear night, conditions were expected to be more than ok. In the morning of Tuesday March 25, after having skied a warm up run in Canale Joel (also a beautiful couloir with a 40° gradient for several hundred meters), I met Armin and Manuel, two Italian freeriders, at the bottom of the Pordoi cable car. We decided to ski the Holzer couloir together. The snow was soft and grippy. At the top there is a narrow section that required a bit more attention. Because of previous traffic the snow was quite hard. Once we had passed this section, the fun really started. A seemingly endless run surrounded by impressive rock walls awaited us. Even though the weather wasn’t great, visibility was good thanks to the contrast provided by the rocks. It’s an understatement to say we enjoyed every bit of it. After exiting the couloir a long open valley had to be skied all the way to the road from where a path led us back to the resort (you can read more about my adventure in Canale Holzer by clicking here). The first 5 of the trip was a fact!

Since the run was so good, we decided to go for a second lap. We finished the day by skiing the Val Mezdi, another famous off-piste descent in the Dolomites, all the way back to Corvara from where Armin drove me back to my amazing guesthouse in la Villa (Garni Miriam)…

skiing the famous Canale Holzer in the Dolomites
skiing the famous Canale Holzer in the Dolomites

The next day I tried to visit the Cristallo area, but transportation was impossible. The bus company finished her service from March 23 and the people driving their expensive cars to Cortina d’Ampezzo were not willing to give me a ride. I decided to ski Passo Pordoi another day. Not a real punishment…

I started the day with another run in Canale Holzer before I met up with Tomáš, a Slovakian freerider living near Innsbruck nowadays. He came all the way to the Dolomites to ski Holzer, just like me. We enjoyed another lap in the famous couloir and started looking around for different options on our next lift up the Sass Pordoi. We chose to have a look in Sass da Forcia (4.3), another beautifully shaped couloir directly skiable from the plateau. A traverse and a 10-minute hike is all that’s needed to enter this 650 meter descent with a gradient of 45 degrees on the top mellowing down towards 40 degrees later on. The top skied very nicely but unfortunately we entered a skating rink in the middle. I was quite relieved to find better snow again in the bottom part of the couloir…

Tomáš showing some good style in Sass da Forcia
Tomáš showing some good style in Sass da Forcia

Skiing at Passo Pordoi was finished for now and I moved to Dobbiaco, a small town providing good access to Cortina d’Ampezzo and at much better rates than the fancy town itself. Armin, with whom I skied Holzer for the first time, wanted to join me and picked me up the next morning. When we finally arrived at the tiny resort of Cristallo, the plan was to ski Canale Staunies Nord. With a rating of 5.1, a vertical of 1500 meters, a North facing aspect normally providing good snow and direct access from the lift, this run is simply to good to be true…well, until we took a good look into the couloir that is!

Normally you can easily enter the couloir by either sneaking underneath the fence on the left side or going around the fence. This year, because of the huge amount of snow, that part of the fence was completely covered by snow and there was a big cornice on top of that. So, we had to enter from the other side. The entrance there was quite sketchy with hardpacked snow on a very steep pitch. It was only for a couple of meters but falling was not a great option here. After discussing what to do, we finally got help from the ski patrol. A rope attached to the fence gave us enough confidence to enter this fantastic run!

"Being in the ping pong ball", Oh, it's pretty steep and conditions are not optimal, but I really want to ski this line. What to do?
“Being in the ping pong ball”, Oh, it’s pretty steep and conditions are not optimal, but I really want to ski this line. What to do?

The snow was ok in the upper section of the couloir but soon we arrived at a narrow section, ‘the choke’, where many people had side slipped before us, resulting in tough conditions. This was quite scary to be honest and I took it really slow (and when I say slow, I mean slow!) here. Once we passed this section, there clearly was a big relief. The snow finally started to be really nice and with a slightly lower angle some better turns could be made again. From now on it was very enjoyable and the setting, just like everywhere in the Dolomites, was spectacular. At the bottom of the run we had to wait for about one hour for the bus to bring us back to Cortina d’Ampezzo. However, two other freeriders had a big van and guess what, they offered us a ride. We waited for a shocking 5 seconds. Funny how things work out sometimes…

You want to read more about Canale Staunies Nord? Click here.

Even though I had experienced some variable conditions in a few descents, I have to conclude that my visit to the Dolomites was a success. I skied canale Holzer four times and added another 5 by skiing Canale Staunies Nord. There are many, many more options in this area both for freeriding as well as for ski mountaineering but I was finished for now. Arrivederci Dolomiti!

Next, I visited Verona for a short stop. This wasn’t initially planned but some time ago a man named Patrizio Viviani contacted me through my website. He is an Italian steep skier and wanted to ski together. Unfortunately he had a big accident recently and his ski season was over. However, I still visited him and his family near Verona for a great dinner with some friends and a nice chat…

Piazza Erbe in Verona on a beautiful Spring day
Piazza Erbe in Verona on a beautiful Spring day

Another example of some fine hospitality. I had never met or even talked to Patrizio but the fact we both love skiing created a connection. We already have plans to ski at some exotic destinations in the near future!

From Verona I boarded another train, this time to the border with France. From Oulx, a bus helped me crossing the border to the mythical ski town of la Grave. Just before the classic “Derby de la Meije” (who can race top to bottom on la Meije the fastest…) would begin, and thus the crowds would come, I wanted to reduce my bucketlist a little bit more. Unfortunately conditions didn’t allow me to ski Couloir la Voute d’Orcière and Couloir des Fréaux but I still had a great day in the mountains. I skied some couloirs in the upper section of the mountain, where the snow was good, and finishing the day with a Maredsous…well, there is not much that can beat that! However, to prevent myself from getting annoyed by all the hippies in town for the big race and associated parties, I took the train to the valley of Chamonix…

If you’re looking to ‘score’ 5’s, Chamonix is the place to be. The place is very intimidating and with many skiers pushing their limits, it’s important to know your own limits. Otherwise, you’ll end up on the cemetery, together with hundreds of other skiers and climbers…

On arrival in Chamonix there was a long dry spell in the forecast with the last significant amount of snow a few weeks before. In other words, the conditions for steep skiing were far from ideal. The waiting game for new snow had officially started. In the meantime I met Peter, a Dutchman who took three months off from work to ‘play’ in Chamonix. We decided to visit Switzerland for a nice ski mountaineering adventure in Val d’Arpette near the town of Champex. At the end of this valley a series of couloirs are lined up, beautiful. From the start of our ascent we looked straight towards the NE couloir of Pointe d’Orny, a banana shaped couloir with a rating of 4.2.

We started skinning at an altitude of 1550 m and had to cover just over a kilometer of vertical to the foot of the couloir. From there the gradient started to increase. The first 300 meters could be carefully skinned on the hard surface but after that we really had to start bootpacking with crampons. The gradient kept increasing, leaving us no choice but to use the ice axe as well to climb the last hundreds of meters. It was getting seriously steep (around 45 degrees) and once I reached the top of the couloir, I was completely exhausted. Peter is more of a climber than a skier and he hardly showed any signs of fatigue. He had also just completed a true version of the Haute Route, crossing from Zermatt to Chamonix on skis in eight days without the use of lifts or transfers, leaving him in good shape. However, to go back down he decided to take an easier descent around the back whereas I left myself no choice but to ski the couloir. After a significant break to recover from the ascent, Peter checked out the summit of Pointe d’Orny in the meantime, I was ready for another challenge. Peter set up a rappel to make life a bit easier, and more important, safer, because I had to step down about a meter or so to get into the upper section of the couloir which was a no fall zone because of the bulletproof conditions. Once I was off the leash, I linked some conservative turns before the couloir opened up. The danger might have been gone, the snow still felt like concrete. But, like I always say: I’d rather ski a great line in bad conditions than a bad line in great conditions. After I added another nice couloir to the bag of descents (you can read more about skiing this couloir here), Peter showed up from the other side. We skied some delicious corn to the bottom where a cold drink awaited us. A great day out in the mountains!

skiing the NE couloir of Pointe d'Orny
skiing the NE couloir of Pointe d’Orny

Back in Chamonix the waiting game for good conditions had started again. After several days a short weather window made me travel to the Argentière hut in order to ascend the Glacier du Milieu early the following morning. The plan was to have a look into the Barbey couloir, my dreamline. Together with three others I spent the night in the hut with some very weird managers. They were rude to guests and almost sent guests back down to Chamonix. They asked me several times to call them the next day to inform them about our return. When I did exactly that the next day, they started laughing. What a joke… Refuge d’Argentière: zéro points!

The next morning I was ready at 6 am as planned but, as always, I had to wait for the others. Close to 7 am we finally left the hut. In complete silence (due to a lack of other people, not because of a fight…) we slowly climbed the glacier and around 11 am we reached the summit of Aiguille d’Argentière. The view of all the surrounding peaks with their steep faces, was very impressive. I quickly had a look into the Barbey and it looked absolutely amazing. I couldn’t wait to ski it. To be sure the cornice was safe, we rappeled one guy into the couloir. The cornice appeared to be safe, the snowpack unfortunately didn’t. The top layer slid away and all that remained was ice. Not a nice surface considering the top section is very steep and exposed. Because of safety reasons we had to turn back and ski the glacier. Even though the descent down the Glacier du Milieu was very nice with sections up to 45 degrees, it was not what we had been aiming for… One day, I’ll ski the Barbey couloir, I simply have to!

Back in the valley more precipitation followed and visiting ski shops was the order of the day. In one of the shops a salesman informed me about conditions of the Glacier Rond, a classic descent in Chamonix. When more people confirmed the status of the glacier and sunny weather was in the forecast, I decided to have a look at the entrance of this run… and of course ski it!

skiing the Glacier Rond with Chamonix in the distance
skiing the Glacier Rond with Chamonix in the distance

Two years ago I skied the Couloir des Cosmiques, another true classic in Chamonix. Being steep and more or less lift-accessed, these two runs are the most popular serious descents around. The Glacier Rond is a hanging glacier on the Aiguille du Midi. This Northwest facing glacier starts at an elevation of 3593 m and descends about 700 meters from there. The first 200 meters are between 45 and 50 degrees with the remainder being roughly 40 degrees steep. It is rated as 5.1 with an exposure of E3. The exposure is what makes this run extra special because one fall in hard conditions most likely means the end of your life since you’ll fall off the glacier into the valley below…

Together with a guy I had met in the Gite, I boarded the Aiguille du Midi. We walked down the arrête before stepping into our bindings. Shortly after, we arrived at the Cosmiques hut where a traverse to the left takes you to the entrance of the corresponding couloir and an exposed traverse to the right takes you to the entrance of the glacier. I had seen footage about skiing the Glacier Rond but nothing compares to actually standing there yourself knowing you’re about to drop in. It was serious business with some very conservative turns and side slipping on the ridge to go skier’s left. Because of previous traffic the snow wasn’t great here. Next, we followed the fall line, about 50 degrees, until we reached a big rock. I guess it’s needless to say I didn’t break any speed limits here…

To avoid skiing on ice we had to traverse skier’s right. The angle slightly decreased and a dozen more turns in decent snow took us to the exit couloir. A sketchy entrance led us to some very nice skiing until we had to traverse back to the mid station of the Aiguille du Midi. A cold coke seemed the only way to celebrate our run (more info regarding my adventure on the Glacier Rond can be found here)!

With more bad weather ahead of me and Grands Montets closing soon, making skiing in the Argentière basin very complicated, I started looking around for other options to finish my trip in style. Last year I skied with a guide named Jonathan Joly in la Grave, which I really enjoyed. He opted to ski two serious couloirs in the Ecrins. Even though I had some big lines around Chamonix in my mind, finishing with two couloirs rated as 5.2 seemed great to me!

From Argentière (near Chamonix) to Argentière (near Briançon) might be under 150 km in a direct line, it took me the whole day to get there by public transportation. From Argentière to Chamonix by bus, from Chamonix to Saint Gervais, from Saint Gervais to Annecy and from Annecy to Grenoble by train, from Grenoble to Briançon by bus and finally a short trainride took me to L’Argentière-la-Bessée. The next day Jonathan would take me to the Ecrins hut. A short ascent the next morning would bring us to Col de la Roche Faurio where we would ski down a steep couloir to refuge Villar d’Arène. The last day Couloir Piaget, a true classic of the Ecrins, was on the agenda. Having spent quite some time in Chamonix I have learnt at least one thing and that is flexibility is key. Conditions change all the time and conditions are very, very, very important on very steep runs!

the view from the col wasn't too bad this morning... (photo credits: Jonathan Joly)
the view from the col wasn’t too bad this morning… (photo credits: Jonathan Joly)

A gentle but long ascent took us from Spring to Winter in about four hours. After parking the car, we skinned for about one hour before we had to walk for a while. Next, we transitioned back into skinning mode and crossed a steeper section between big seracs. Finally, we crossed a big glacier before reaching the hut on the opposite side. It wasn’t too much of an ascent, I guess around 1300 meters vertical, but for some reason I was completely exhausted. It must have been the fact I didn’t have a proper lunch…

In the hut it was good to meet the manager, a very nice guy, contrary to the manager of the hut in Chamonix. The Ecrins doesn’t have the fame of Chamonix with all the corresponding consequences but certainly offers some great terrain. Let Chamonix have all the fame… Refuge des Ecrins: douze points!

After several portions of Couscous, Jonathan offered two options for the following day. The couloir from Col de la Roche Faurio, the initial plan, was supposedly icy on the top resulting in a long rappel before stepping into our bindings. It also wasn’t sure whether conditions in the remainder of the couloir would be great. An alternative option would be to climb to Brèche Cordier and ski down a very steep couloir (5.3!) on the other side. According to Jonathan not many people ski this couloir, so untracked soft snow was expected. A short climb, followed by a steep couloir in soft untracked snow? Don’t say that twice, the decision had been made!

After a terrible night sleep (a combination of weird noises produced by my roommates and nerves for the next day), we quickly started climbing in the cold morning weather. A good way to wake up. Right from the start from the hut I could see the col. It wasn’t too far away and I was very curious to see what was waiting for us on the other side. I skinned halfway up using my ski crampons, it was only 400 meters vertical in total, before things became to complicated. The last part had to be done walking, also with crampons of course since the snow was very hard early in the morning. Jonathan was already waiting for me at the col and the expression on his face implied some good news. A big smile told me the conditions were good. When I finally looked over the edge, and into the couloir, my nerves were immediately replaced by excitement!

after a short rappel, it's time to step into the skis for 500 meters of steep pleasure! (photo credits: Jonathan Joly)
after a short rappel, it’s time to step into the skis for 500 meters of steep pleasure! (photo credits: Jonathan Joly)

Couloir E de Brèche Cordier starts at an altitude of 3463 m and has 500 meters of vertical. The first 100 meters are 50 degrees steep whereas the remaining 400 meters have a gradient of 45 degrees. According to Camp to camp this descent is rated as 5.3 with an exposure of E2. The East facing aspect means you’ll have to be there early before the sun ruins the snow. Our timing was perfect; at 9 am I was about to ski the steepest line of my life!

After a short rappel, to cross a narrow section of about 10 to 15 meters, I was ready to make some turns. Jonathan came down and clicked into his skis as well and time had come to make the best turns of my life. At least, that was the plan. It was seriously steep at the top and I realised strong focus was needed. As many steep skiers have said in the past:

“When skiing very steep terrain you can not think of the consequences. You only think about the next turn. Otherwise you won’t go. This way you really live in the moment, a very special experience. Life suddenly is very simple, you have to do one thing and you have to do it right!”

This was exactly my experience. Sure, if you fall at the top, the consequence will not be very nice. You can’t afford to think about that because you’ll probably ski in a very tense way and you won’t enjoy it. So, I gathered all the experience I had and turned it into confidence. Sure, I can ski 50 degrees terrain so let’s do this!

"living in the moment..." (photo credits: Jonathan Joly)
“living in the moment…” (photo credits: Jonathan Joly)

It turned out to be a great run in fantastic conditions, 500 meters of vertical skiing pleasure. Only at the very bottom the snow was a little bit affected but that could not spoil the experience. At the bottom of the run, high fives were the result of an epic adventure (click here to read more about skiing Couloir E de Brèche Cordier). After our celebration we were treated by some delicious corn to ski down to refuge Villar d’Arène. Spaghetti and a cold coke seemed quite appropriate to us at that point. After our adventure, we were suddenly in our t-shirts chilling in the sun in 20 degrees. Skiing in May, not a bad option when things work out…

While relaxing outside the hut, reviews arrived about Piaget. Apparently the snow was really affected and people had chosen to descend on the other side, a more mellow descent. Not knowing the ability and preference of those people, we still waited for the next morning to make our own decision. Overnight a strong wind had affected the snowpack even more and when clouds arrived, preventing the frozen snow from warming up by the sun, we had to conclude that Couloir Piaget, the classic steep skiing run of the Ecrins, was not in condition this day. We decided to call it a day and finish the trip with great memories of Couloir E de Brèche Cordier!

Time to wrap things up. Skiing the Alps this time of year, looking for steep lines, has been both an amazing as well as very complicated experience. Not having a strong ski partner makes things very difficult. Solo adventures are great but with these kind of adventures I prefer to have a partner. Avalanche danger is not very common on lines steeper than 45 degrees, so that’s not the main issue. Having someone to discuss conditions and options with, that is important to me. Most people skiing steep lines already have their own little group they’re comfortable with, making it not easy to meet the right people. Most guides are not willing to take someone on very steep and exposed slopes unless they know them very well and have skied with them before. And even then, they are not very willing to go because they put themselves in danger too. And then, there are the conditions you have to cope with. The weather and the snow conditions can be very frustrating at times. But, in the end I managed to ski several lines from my bucketlist, including four with a 5-rating. I skied with some great people and saw parts of the Alps I hadn’t seen before. However, the bucketlist only got bigger and bigger with more runs in both the Mont Blanc region and the Ecrins. I guess skiing all the lines from the bucketlist is almost impossible considering the fact conditions have to be right for every single run and, probably more important, the list will only get bigger and bigger…

Click here to see more pictures about my trip to the Alps!

  1. Mark

    Fantastisch om te lezen, mooi man
    Als je weer eens in Nederland terugkomt drink ik graag een bakje met je om eens bij te kletsen! We hebben ondertussen verschillende dingen beleefd, des te leuker
    Adiejoos! Mark

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