Couloir E de Brèche Cordier, les Ecrins, France

In December 2012 I started a one year trip that eventually turned into a 17 month trip. After completing my initial goal to ski all seven continents, I made some new goals. Skiing on high altitude was also accomplished, for the moment at least, when descending from the summit of Cotopaxi (5897 m). The only goal left, was to complete a serious steep skiing descent. In Chamonix conditions were not on my side. The Ecrins however, finally delivered. Skiing Couloir E de Brèche Cordier was the ultimate way to finish my trip!

After weeks of coping with several tough conditions in and around Chamonix, skiing some steep lines became harder and harder. I enjoyed a very nice ski mountaineering adventure in Val d’Arpette, skiing the NE couloir of Pointe d’Orny and skied probably the most exciting lift-accessed run in the world, the Glacier Rond. Both very good runs but not enough to satisfy my hunger in a month. Besides, I was actually looking for an even steeper descent. In order to ski such a descent as safely as possible, good conditions and a good trustworthy partner were required. This was not very likely to happen in the Chamonix valley, so I decided to start looking around for other options. It was the end of April, so I was also running out of time…

Last year I skied with a guide named Jonathan Joly in la Grave and we had a great time. I decided to contact him since his playground is a little bit South of Chamonix, the Ecrins, home to some steep lines but less known than the ones in the Mont Blanc region. He soon came up with some nice suggestions and I decided to have a go. May 3, 2014 I went to l’Argentière-la-Bessée, next to Briançon, in order to start a three day ski trip the next day. The plan was the following:

  • May 4: skin to refuge des Ecrins
  • May 5: ascend to Col de Roche Faurio and ski down the couloir on the other side (rated 5.2) and spend the night at refuge Villar d’Arène
  • May 6: climb and ski couloir Piaget (5.2) and ski down to le Casset where a car would be waiting

So, Sunday May 4 we started the trip by skinning to refuge des Ecrins. After four hours we arrived in quite a spectacular setting…

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)

After about four good portions of Couscous at the hut, we discussed plans for the next day. Based on recent reports, the top of Roche Faurio was very icy. A 60 meter rappel would be required to cover the icy section before the skiing could start. Jonathan suggested an alternative; a short climb to Brèche Cordier would give access to a steep couloir on the other side. The big question: what would the conditions be like? No one had skied the couloir recently and since we wouldn’t climb the couloir itself, we would only know once we dropped in… It still sounded good to me and Jonathan looked excited as well to check out this route.

The next morning we started with breakfast at 7 am. After a terrible night of hardly any sleep (at least that’s how I felt…) I needed some food and sugar to get going. The cold air outside helped waking me up too. After a short skin from the hut, we transitioned into a bootpack on crampons since the snow was very hard. We only had to cover 400 meters of vertical this morning, so the col was approaching pretty quickly. Jonathan arrived at the col without any signs of physical strain. I arrived a bit later and needed some time to recover. When looking into the couloir however, nerves and fatigue were soon replaced by excitement. Adrenaline is the name of the game…

getting ready for the rappel...exciting! (photo credits: Jonathan Joly)

getting ready for the rappel…exciting! (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!

The first 10 to 15 meters were very narrow and we decided to rappel this section before stepping into our skis. Having rappeled several times by now, I was only excited to drop in. Going first meant I had to create a platform to safely transition into ski mode. I was still on the rope, so the worst thing that could happen was to drop my gear. This would actually have been a serious problem, but not as bad as falling down myself…

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)

Soon I was ready to make some turns and unroped. 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)

Helped by great conditions, I made one turn at the time in the upper section. After 50 meters or so, the couloir opened up a little bit resulting in more space to play with. The snow was fantastic (on May 5, yes!) and we made some very nice turns. Once we arrived at the bottom section, the snow started to become a little bit affected. It was still very enjoyable though and only several minutes later, high fives were the result of completing a simply sensational descent!

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 options 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!

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