Traverse of the Chamonix Aiguilles on skis

Posted: June 10, 2014 in Ski
Tags: , , , , , , ,
The North face of the Aiguille du Plan and Contamine couloir. © Brendan O'Sullivan

The North face of the Aiguille du Plan and Contamine couloir. © Brendan O’Sullivan

At the start of June, just before the current heat wave Brendan O’Sullivan, Mikko Heimonen and I managed to sneak one last powder snow descent. The Aiguille du Plan’s north face is impressive and I always thought it would be a cool place to ski but was put off by the large amounts of rappelling for relatively little skiing.

Things changed when in the spring of 2011 Vivian Bruchez and Jonathan Charlet made the first link up this route with the Contamine Couloir. They skied the North face until the point where the skiing finishes and  you would normally make several long rappels. From there they climbed up the West couloir of the Aiguille du Blaitière to reach the top of the Contamine couloir. A descent of this and then the Nantillons glacier takes you all the way back to the Lift. The Idea was ingenious, take two great descents and link them together to eliminate most of the rappels. 

Our plan was to make the first repetition of this route and so after catching the first lift in the morning we set of on the classic alpine route, the Midi Plan traverse. This all went smoothly until near the final summit ridge where I found myself sinking hip deep trying to make the boot-pack and filled both my boots with snow. A few expletives and threats of going home later this section was passed and we were back on track and at the summit soon after. The sun and already turned the snow  wet on the South side and we were worried it was too hot, but over on the shaded side cold powder snow was waiting for us.

Brendan set off making a few cautions turns at the top where there was hard snow not far below the surface. The top slopes are not too steep and as soon as the snow was deeper he opened it up. Mikko and I followed suit enjoying the powder and we quickly arrived at the first rappel. A little while was taken for me and Brendan to hack away to find some good ice for the V thread but not yet under the seracs there was not stress and we were all enjoying the ambiance.

From the bottom of the first rappel I skied down  in perfect boot top powder and quickly found a spot with exposed ice to make the second rappel and had the V thread in before the others arrived. This was our last rappel of the day and at the bottom I set off across the traverse at speed expecting soft snow as on the upper face. However the sun from the previous afternoon had formed an icy crust which had not yet softened. As soon as I hit the hard snow my edges struggled for grip but I managed to maintain the traverse. Still at speed I instinctively swapped both poles into my downhill hand and removed my axe from the shoulder strap of my bag whilst staying in balance. With the back up of the axe I then gradually slowed myself, I had to tread a careful line between slowing down quickly and applying too much edge angle which would have caused my skis to wash out beneath me.

After coming to a stop I carefully picked my way over to the hidden couloir making a few turns where I could. Brendan and Mikko started across a short while after once the sun had hit the face and softened it for a few minutes. Luckily the snow in the hidden couloir had stayed cold and a few more turns in good snow followed by a small jump at the bottom brought us to the plateau on top of the hanging serac.

Here we changed once more to crampons and set of up the West couloir of the Aiguille du Blaitière. Near the top the couloir splits and a leftward rising ramp line followed by a traverse takes you to the top of the Contamine couloir. Continuing straight up would take you to the top of the spencer couloir. However the climbing would be much more difficult and time consuming this way, with some vertical or over hanging ice and mixed pitches. 

I had skied the Contamine couloir previously so knew we had reached the right place. The snow was becoming heavy so we set off as quickly as possible and made our way down to the glacier below with out the need for a rappel. The snow down the glacier and back to the Midi lift was wet but actually enjoyable skiing and we made it back for the lift in time for some afternoon beers in the sun.

With such high current temperatures this could well have been our last big line for the season. If it was then a great day to end on! The memory card for my camera broke so unfortunately all of my photos are from my phone, luckily Mikko’s are much better quality.

Mikko on the Midi Plan traverse © Ben Briggs

Mikko on the Midi Plan traverse © Ben Briggs

Brendan on the Midi Plan traverse. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben on the Midi Plan traverse. © Mikko Heimonen

Brendan on the Midi Plan traverse. © Mikko Heimonen

Brendan on the Midi Plan traverse. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben at the top, hard snow near the surface for the first few turns. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben at the top, hard snow near the surface for the first few turns. © Mikko Heimonen

Mikko skiing the upper face, great snow here. © Ben Briggs

Mikko skiing the upper face, great snow here. © Ben Briggs

Mikko. © Ben Briggs

Mikko. © Ben Briggs

Brendan approaching the first rappel. © Ben Briggs

Brendan approaching the first rappel. © Ben Briggs

Ben at the first rappel anchor. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben at the first rappel anchor. © Mikko Heimonen

At the second rappel anchor. © Mikko Heimonen

At the second rappel anchor. © Mikko Heimonen

Brendan rappelling the serac. © Ben Briggs

Brendan rappelling the serac. © Ben Briggs

Looking back across the hard snow traverse. © Ben Briggs

Looking back across the hard snow traverse. © Ben Briggs

Looking down the hidden couloir, good snow again. © Ben Briggs

Looking down the hidden couloir, good snow again. © Ben Briggs

Brendan exiting the hidden couloir. © Ben Briggs

Brendan exiting the hidden couloir. © Ben Briggs

The access couloir to the Contamine. © Ben Briggs

The access couloir to the Contamine. © Ben Briggs

Brendan climbing the couloir. © Mikko Heimonen

Brendan climbing the couloir. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben on the final traverse to the Contamine couloir. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben and Brendan on the final traverse to the Contamine couloir. © Mikko Heimonen

Looking back at the Aiguille du Plan from the top. © Mikko Heimonen

Looking back at the Aiguille du Plan from the top. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben skiing at the top of the Contamine before the crux choke. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben skiing at the top of the Contamine before the crux choke. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben passing the narrow section. © Mikko Heimonen

Ben passing the narrow section. © Mikko Heimonen

Brendan at the bottom of the Contamine couloir. © Mikko Heimonen

Brendan at the bottom of the Contamine couloir. © Mikko Heimonen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments
  1. Leon says:

    Bravo again, really top of the game!

  2. David says:

    ” As soon as I hit the hard snow my edges struggled for grip but I managed to maintain the traverse. Still at speed I instinctively swapped both poles into my downhill hand and removed my axe from the shoulder strap of my bag whilst staying in balance. With the back up of the axe I then gradually slowed myself, I had to tread a careful line between slowing down quickly and applying too much edge angle which would have caused my skis to wash out beneath me.”

    Wow. A calm low key description of what must have been a pretty terrifying experience!

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