Having been snowboarding for 10 years, and becoming more and more interested in the back country side of the sport, I was instantly interested when I read about the "Mt Blanc Descent" week being run by Neil McNab of McNab Mountain Sports (www.mcnab.co.uk). This was a week of serious back country snowboarding around the Chamonix valley, culminating in climbing Mt Blanc and snowboarding down. I had to go...
It certainly wasn't cheap, and I knew I'd have to be pretty bloody fit, so I started training hard in January (the week was booked for mid-April). I also persuaded snowboarding mate Dave Roberts to come with me.
Dave and I flew out to Geneva on Friday 18th April. A couple of the other "Mt Blanc" crew arrived on Friday too - Alex and Neil, a couple of experienced climbers and snowboarders from Scotland. Alex had already been to the top of Mt Blanc 4 times, and took pleasure in informing us that he "felt like shite" on each occasion. Also present were Simon and Simon, a comedy duo of surf bums who had got into the TV business and were making a documentary about the week. Simon August was the one with the expensive broadcast quality camera (and, truth be told, seemed to know what he was doing - check out http://www.2xsfilms.com/), while the other Simon (referred to as "Donkey Simon" by our French guide) carried the tripod...
The McNab crew made us feel very welcome, in a chalet that was pretty much perfect. I'll take the opportunity to list them here, as their names will be referenced a lot in the story that follows:
Saturday 19th April was treated as a warm up day; the week proper didn't start until tomorrow, so we went up to Brevent and scared ourselves on the ice, and then played about on the slush as it quickly became very warm. It was very obvious that the season was almost over; in fact, Brevent was due to close in two days. Still, we remembered how to snowboard, which was probably worthwhile
In the evening the seventh member of our party, John, arrived, and two of our guides, Alex (French) and Jon Morgan (English) came over to meet us and talk about the week. (Dave, our third, English, guide, joins us the following morning). One of the most important pieces of information imparted was that the 'classic' route (from the Cosmique hut at 3600m, near the Aiguille de Midi) was 'out of condition'. In fact, a huge crack had opened up at the bergschrund (where the glacier pulls away from the mountain), requiring serious ice climbing skills to negotiate. With this route unavailable, we were left with a slog up from the Grands Mulets hut. At just over 3000m, this route would be much harder, and was much, much more dangerous as it entailed spending hours climbing up under the seracs of the glacier. These seracs can discharge lumps of ice the size of office blocks at any time. The longer you spend under them, the higher the risk of one falling on you... The other option offered was that of a helicopter drop on the Italian side, in the vicinity of the Aguille Grise. This immediately appealed to Alex (the scot), who happened to be the oldest member of the team.
On Monday morning the plan was to have been to climb Aiguille Rouge above the Index chair lift above Flegere. However, the morning started of windy, and most lifts in the valley were closed. Le Tour was open however, so a swift change of plan was organised: while the rest of us warmed up on the lift served runs at Le Tour, Neil McNab dropped the van on the Swiss side of the route and then met us at the cafe. We took the main 4 man Charamillion chair, and at the top donned crampons, stowed boards on our backpacks and started hiking up the ridge of Les Grandes Otanes. This was a moderately steep hike, but nothing too dramatic, and we all managed it in a little over an hour, using poles not ice axes. As we hiked the weather improved, and we were all soon warm enough to remove at least one layer.
At the top we were rewarded with a view of untracked snow into Switzerland, but the snows is deceptive; it has rained recently, and has a 'breakable crust'. This proves to be quite fun in a snowboard, but our skiing guides (Jon and Dave; Alex is on his snowboard) complain bitterly. Not for the first time in the week, the clients have to wait for the guides to negotiate the conditions...
We ride three large open pitches down, with the two Simon's getting their first footage of the trip. The route out ends in a steep narrow couloir which is negotiated by all doing jump turns - great fun. And then we have to take our boards off and walk out down a fairly muddy stream. But, a pretty good start to the week.
|On day two we do the route originally planned for day one: an early start, getting on of the first lifts at Flegere, and ascending straight to the top of L'Index chair lift. Here we again fix crampons and poles, put snowboards and snowshoes on packs and start hiking straight up the Col de la Floria, ascending nearly 400m in a little over an hour.|
On the other side we are greeted with a 50° couloir, with a couple of gaps in the bergschrund at the bottom; all negotiated it safely, although with varying degrees of style. A rather poor photo of the couloir is here
Having made our way down this slope, after a short break to eat and drink, we fitted snow shoes and started the slog up to the Col de Berard. It was very warm by now, and everyone had stripped down to their base layer t-shirts, with fleeces and jackets stuffed into bulging packs. On this climb I suffered; I'd had the inclining of a start of a cold yesterday (sore throat and slightly blocked nose), and the heat, effort and altitude caused it to make itself very apparent - I trailed in last, chaperoned by Dave the guide, and felt pretty sorry for myself. The ride out on the other side of the col was good fun, tho on the lower slopes the snow quickly became very sticky due to the heat. The run out towards Buet (which I'd previously done 3 years before on a McNab backcountry week) was quite a struggle with slow sticky snow and numerous gaps in the cover. But eventually we made it to the bar in Buet, where we drank more than a couple of beers while Neil got the train back to Argentiere and came and picked us up in the van.
This had felt like a proper backcountry day. In the evening, however, I had the ominous signs of a runny nose and lack of appetite - I really didn't need a cold now.
We had a slightly later start today, after being reinforced by Mel's porridge at breakfast. We arrived at the Aiguille de Midi station at about 9:30am, which was very quiet compared to the usual crowds in high season. We did a little short-rope crampon practise on the arrete at the top, negotiating it without using the guide rail, and then headed off away from the normal VB route, down the Vraie Vallée and the L'Envers du Plan. Some of these slopes are 45°, but the snow is good and we all enjoy it. More so than the skier we see falling over 100m, and crashing over the bergschrund...
At Montenvers we all squeeze onto a very crowded train and arrive back in Chamonix in time for a late lunch. By this time I feel terrible; my throat is so dry I can barely swallow, and my nose is blocked. While the others order food, I head for a chemist and get a supply of Strepsils and the French equivalent of Suda-Fed (containing the banned performance enhancing drug pseudo-ephedrine). After taking these I feel much better...
We get the last lift up to the top of the Aiguille de Midi at around 5pm; it's pretty spooky up there at this time of day, without the crowds. Quickly negotiating the arrete, we board as far as we can along the flatish section to the Cosmiques hut, then complete the last few hundred metres in crampons.
I've never been in a mountain refuge, and it's quite an experience. The Cosmiques is renowned as one of the best, and is warm, spacious and even serves cold beer (of which I limit myself to one). The point of spending the night here is acclimatisation - at over 3600m, it will help our bodies adept to the demands imposed by a climb to the top of 'the Blanc'. We have an excellent meal, and sit around chatting and telling tale tales, and then head for our bunks quite early - tomorrow will be an early start. The altitude is obvious to me in everything I do - even trying to sleep, it takes me a couple of hours for my body to figure out how to breathe gently and still get enough oxygen. Sleep is not helped by being in a room with a dozen other snoring bodies. I've had worse nights, but not many...
|We get up at 5am, have an excellent breakfast (how do they manage at such a remote site?), and leave the refuge at 6am. The original plan was for the Simons to head off early and set up the video equipment such that they would catch first light and us boarding towards them. But, we misjudge the dawn, and end up doing the initial shots in shadow caused by the mountains. When the sun eventually scales the peaks and illuminates the glacier, it is incredible; perhaps one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. The slanting rays cause the upper surface of the snow to sparkle, and the faces of the mountains glow orange in the morning light.|
We hike in snow shoes for a little under two hours until we almost get to the Helbronner lift station on the Italian side. The snow is quite firm, and the hiking not too demanding (I'm full of Suda-Fed, anyway). Here we re-stow our kit and ride down the Combe de la Vierge - the snow is fantastic and this is probably the best slope of the whole week. At the bottom we are all whooping - all except Simon and Simon, who have sacrificed this run in order to set up a shot of us having fun. Such is the price of great art.
The snow through the main part of the Vallee Blanche glacier is terrible, and we are all reduced to looking like beginner snowboarders. The run out to Montenvers is flat and dull, and we miss the train by 5 minutes, meaning we have to sit in the sun drinking for nearly an hour. What a shame.
We finish early today, arriving back at the chalet around lunchtime. Good thing too - tomorrow is the Big Day!
Another 5am start. We leave the chalet before 6am and head through the Mt Blanc tunnel to Courmayer. We have been joined by an eighth client, Alan (a scottish mate of Neil and Alex), and another guide, the large than life Ralf Tenbrink. We have time for a quick cappuccino, then head to the heliport, where a tiny helicopter takes four lifts to take 14 of us to the drop point by the Aiguille Grises.
|This is meant to be at around 3800m, but in fact is closer to 4000m. No one is complaining. I've done heli-boarding before, and as always it is a magical experience - the view as you ascend through the mountains, the noise and drama of the drop itself, and then sudden silence as the heli drops out of earshot.We quickly rig boards on packs, strap on crampons, rope up (two clients per guide), and, using my (newly purchased) ice axe for the first time, we head towards the Dome de Gouter and Mt Blanc.|
|A little over an hours hiking sees us round the Dome, and we deposit boards and poles, and anything not essential to actually hiking at the Col du Dome at 4260m, at around 9:30. The weather is absolutely perfect - clear skies in every direction, and very little wind. I dropped two suda-feds before getting in the heli, and am feeling ok. We pause here for something to eat and drink, and then it's onwards and upwards.|
|From the Col du Dome we head up towards the Vallot hut at a bit over 4300m, and then ascend the ridge towards Mt Blanc. My guide is Jon Morgan, and I am teamed with Alan, who has joined us just for the day. Alan is a very experienced climber and skier, and Jon is a fantastically encouraging guide, so on the rope between the two of them, I feel very little fear, despite the precipitous drops either side of the ridge which we hike.|
|Progress is slow but steady; I'm amazed at how hard my body is working, taking a deep breath of air for every footstep. Ironically, for such a visually incredible environment, you spend an amazing amount of time looking at your feet, as every footstep has to be carefully placed. I glance up every 10 minutes or so, though, and the summit is getting closer, slowly but surely. And eventually.... we're there! On the summit of the tallest mountain in (western) Europe, at 4810m.|
|My team of three summit at just after midday, having taken four hours from the heli drop; most of the rest of the McNab crew are already there, with Alex and Neil and the two Simons arriving shortly after us.. I'm immediately overwhelmed with elation and euphoria, and keep my goggles on so that no one sees the couple of tears that escape as the sensations wash over me. The view is, as one would expect, incredible. We all shake hands, takes some photographs, have a quick drink, and many pause to send a couple of text messages. Neil gets a big laugh by producing an oxygen bottle, which he's hauled all the way to the top for Alex's benefit. Time at the top is limited though - it is -15° after all, and it's a long way down. The view over Chamonix is incredible.|
It takes us 90 minutes to hike back down to the Col du Dome. While physically easier, it's technically more difficult, and one is looking straight down the long drops either side of the ridge. We're pretty slow down here, and by the time we get back to the boards most of the others have headed off down the glacier. Alex, as predicted, is suffering from altitude sickness and has paused to throw up. By now I have a ringing headache and am very tired. I stow my crampons and ice axe, and strap into my board. About here I realise - I'm far to exhausted to snowboard! However, there's no lift down, so needs must.
|The descent is very varied. Discretion is the order of the day, as it is all glacier terrain, and hidden crevasses lurk everywhere. We find some good snow in a few places, but mostly we stick to the skied track for safety. Twice we have to rope up and carry our boards across serious ice bridges in the glacier, with huge drops into ice slots either side. Scary stuff, but I'm really too tired to be scared.|
As we descend, the temperature rises, and layers are removed. Finally we ski off the glacier, but have to walk a length traverse to get us above the old lift station. At this point I am all but done in, and Jon our guide carries my board for me (the traverse is a little easier for him on skis) while I trudge along the boottrack with the two Simons, often disappearing up to our thighs in the ever softening snow.
The final run out above the old lift station is quite fun. By now the snow is like piles of sugar on the hot afternoon sun, and while the boards are working ok, the skiers are really suffering. They laugh along with us though, as we all know it's the last leg. At the old loft station we reach a foot path; boards and skis are carried down the path for another 40 minutes until we finally arrive in the car park just by the Mt Blanc tunnel. It's just after 6pm, some 10 hours after the heli drop.
That evening the guides Alex, John, Dave and Ralf join us for dinner, and we all celebrate with champagne. Truly the most physically demanding thing I have ever done, and the most amazing week of snowboarding.
The following day we went up the Grand Montets, rode the lifts, did a few jumps and generally behaved like regular snowboarders. it was difficult to believe that the previous day we'd been as high as you can get in the Alps. The next day, after yet another early start, Dave and I flew back to Luton, and thence home to real life...