Sentienel Rouge- Mont Blanc

Posted: September 16, 2013 in extreme, Ski
Tags: , , ,

After skiing the Sentinel Rouge couloir back at the start of July I knew it would be my last ski of the season, I was ready for a mental break after a big winter and I didn’t feel like writing about it just then. Now with the winter fast approaching, my mind has turned to skiing once more and we made our first powder turns of the season on Friday.

P1040865

© Ben Briggs

The Story starts when myself and Luca Pandolfi drove through to Italy to check out the Peuterey Arete. We got there only to find out our passes were no longer valid in the summer on the Helbronner lift, however we could see from the town with binoculars that the Arete was definatley out. It was also pretty clear that there was still a lot of snow on the Brenva face of Mont Blanc so we drove back through the tunnel and went up the Aiguille du midi to have a look. From our vantage point we could only see the top half of the Sentinel rouge couloir but it looked great, better then I had ever seen in many years of watching it. Although its exposed to serac fall its an extremely beautiful an tempting ski line.

So a plan was hatched, on the 4th of July me and Tom Grant went and looked at the line from the top of the Tour Ronde, everything looked perfect so would we phoned Luca to meet us and stay the night to ski early the next day. The route is far to exposed to serac fall to climb up and even skiing there poses a considerable risk, the only way would be to ski it onsight after climbing the 3 Monts route.

We set of from the lift station at 1am and due to good conditions decided to climb unroped allowing us to get into our own rhythms and also move as quickly as possible in the areas threatened by seracs which have been a real danger in recent years. We had allowed plenty of time for the ascent, none of us being well acclimatized but I soon found my self on the summit just after 5am waiting for one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen. Tom joined me not too long after and we relaxed eating drinking and waiting for Luca. After a while we were getting cold so at 6.30 we set off to find the start of the line and wait for him there. The snow was icy hard and Luca joined us as we were waiting for the top to soften enough to hold an edge.

The face is Huge and faces east getting the sun early, although the snow was still hard at the top, we had waited untill 8.30 and soon it would be dangerous at the bottom, so I decided it was time to go. I tentatively edged my way across the steep exposed traverse, my aluminum axe would not break the surface of the snow so I held my technical axe ready to strike if I were to slip. I made it to the edge of the spur where I could finally see the top of the couloir and the giant serac that rests above it. I was committed by this point and not wanting to hang around in danger I shouted back across to the others that the snow in the couloir looked good and I was dropping.

From that point I was alone, unable to see if the others had followed me across the traverse and not willing to wait and see. Jump turning down the top narrow part of the couloir the snow was still hard and the concentration took my mind away from the serac, I started to enjoy it. After passing a narrow section with a little water ice the couloir widens and I found some lovely spring snow and made quick progress to the point where we joined the spur.

I took a little breather, in a place where nothing falling from above could hit me, to decide on the best route down. We had originally planned to traverse back to the Col Moore after skiing down the spur a little past the rock from which the sentinel rouge takes its name. However there would have been some climbing up to get over ridges that we had not anticipated from our earlier recognizance missions. The traverse is exposed to serac fall and not wanting to spend a long time climbing up I carried on down the spur and crossed a gully taking my skis off for about 10m to rejoin the bottom of the couloir and cross the burgshrund.

Tom had set off not long after me, he spotted me and shouted down, I waited a few minutes at the bottom of the climb up the the Col Moore for him. We climbed up and reached the col at 9.30 and for the first time all day could relax knowing we were safe from objective dangers. I asked Tom about Luca, he said he had gone back up and thought I was descending the 3 Monts. Looking back at the couloir we suddenly spotted Luca at the top, I knew it was dangerously late and was pretty concerned at this point. We watched him descend making big turns in the wide section until he disappeared behind the spur in the lower part. Time was getting on and Tom had a flight to catch that evening so I told him if he wanted to get going I would wait for Luca here, expecting him to emerge from the bottom of the couloir in 15 mins or so.

After Tom left every minute that went by I felt tenser, and when he didn’t show up after 30 min I knew something was wrong. There was no response from his phone and just as I decided it was time to phone for some help, I heard him shouting back to my screams to see if he was OK. Then he came into vision, he had had to climb back up the ridge, the snow has been stripped by wet avalanches were me and Tom had skied a few hours earlier.

After conversing it became clear that Luca wanted to finish the descent and didn’t want a helicopter. It was a hard choice to make but I respected his wishes and after a dangerous traverse back, climbing up and boarding down several time he made it back to me. We embraced in a hug both knowing luck had been on our side that day. I still wonder how I would feel if he hadn’t made it back to me, should I have phoned for help anyway?

The climb back up to the Fourche was one last obstacle for us, with the snow rotten and unprotectable I chose a line up through the rocks, which I think Luca didn’t appreciate at the time! He was exhausted so we decided to spend the night there and return to Chamonix in the morning. It was a true adventure into the wild has taught us all some lessons. Was it worth it? Was the risk acceptable ? Everyone has to make their own judgements on the risks they’re willing to accept and the experience has definatley made me think about mine.

As we all skied alone there isn’t loads of great pictures this time, but there are some below and we will try to put together a small video with some head cam footage soon.

Me cooking some dinner the evening before.

Me cooking some dinner the evening before. © Luca Pandolfi

Alone at the top of Mont Blanc.

Alone at the top of Mont Blanc. © Ben Briggs

Sunrise

Sunrise. © Ben Briggs

Me on the summit.

Me on the summit. © Tom Grant

Me and Tom on the summit.

Me and Tom on the summit.

GDPA from the top.

GDPA from the top. © Ben Briggs

Me and Tom waiting at the top.

Me and Tom waiting at the top. © Luca Pandolfi

The serac.

The serac. © Ben Briggs

Entering the couloir.

Entering the couloir. © Ben Briggs

Skiing the couloir.

Skiing the couloir. © Ben Briggs

Tom entering the traverse to join the couloir.

Tom entering the traverse to join the couloir. © Luca Pandolfi

Luca on the traverse back to the col Moore.

Luca on the traverse back to the col Moore. © Ben Briggs

The east faces of Mont Blanc and Mont Maudit.

The east faces of Mont Blanc and Mont Maudit. © Ben Briggs

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