Chamonix and its valley is probably the most visited area for skiing and ski mountaineering. For good reason that is because the terrain is endless and offers a challenge for all abilities. However, a drawback of the popularity are the crowds. A great alternative is offered just around the corner in Switzerland. Behind the ski resort of Champex the Val d’Arpette has plenty of great couloirs to keep you busy for days without having to fight for space.
In Spring 2014 I visited Chamonix for a couple of weeks and I met fellow countryman Peter. We decided to visit Switzerland for a nice ski mountaineering adventure in Val d’Arpette near the town of Champex. Just before 6.30 am we left Argentière and headed towards Champex. In just over an hour we arrived at a quiet parking lot at the base of the chairlift of Champex ski resort. First things first, so we had a drink in a nearby cafe. Around 8 am we were good to go and started skinning from the base of the ski resort at 1550 m towards the Val d’Arpette. At the end of this valley a series of couloirs are lined up, beautiful. The picture below shows some of the options for ski mountaineering in Val d’Arpette:
As you can see in the picture, some nice couloirs are on offer in this area. And more to the left (not visible in the picture) there is another face with multiple couloirs. All couloirs have a similar difficulty. They range from 4.1 to 4.3 with similar exposure. Some have a narrower entrance than others and some are a bit longer but in general there are no huge differences. And, as an alternative to steep skiing, you can cross the Col des Escandies to ski on the other side with a lot of mellow terrain to chose from.
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. It was simply to beautiful to ignore and we decided to have a go at it. The upper section is about 45 degrees with some exposure before it turns skier’s left, opens up a bit and mellows down. First however, we had to get there of course. As mentioned earlier, 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. Once I added another nice couloir to the bag of descents, 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!
Late in the afternoon we were back at the car and drove back to France. The scenery along the way was very nice. Around 6.30 pm, twelve hours after leaving Argentière, we returned to the famous French valley of Chamonix. I was exhausted but satisfied.
So, if you’re in Chamonix for a while and you’re looking for a change of scenery or for a remote and therefore quiet area, I can recommend Val d’Arpette. Well, if you’re looking for a great ski mountaineering adventure in general, it’s a great valley to explore. Enough reasons to drive to Switzerland and ski some couloirs!