April 16, 2017 – 11:00AM
We didn’t ski today. I know this is a ski trip, and the title of this entry suggests otherwise, but…it’s gotten to that time of the ski season where if it’s not sunny out, and if there isn’t a big dump of fresh snow, then it isn’t really worth getting out there. It’s full on spring time in the valley here and you can more or less go outside, stare up at the mountains, and literally watch the snowline recede. Today is cloudy everywhere, and it may? be snowing up high, so instead I find myself brainstorming my first blog entry for the Cham segment of the trip.
There have been few/no blog updates from Chamonix because the reality is our six weeks here (five if you consider we were away for a week skiing the Haute Route Traverse) have gone pretty much like this: eat-ski-après-eat-sleep-repeat. Beyond that there are just some minor day to day differences and so no sense in putting anyone to sleep. Some days we eat before après. Some days instead of eating we just have an extra helping of après. And some days we don’t ski – usually following that extra helping of après, or the above mentioned lousy weather. Most days we throw in a shower just to keep our tiny one bedroom apartment hospitable.
This whole little routine got started back at the beginning of March, the 4th to be exact, when we arrived in Chamonix fresh off an exhausting and taxing trip to Morocco and settled in to our little one bedroom apartment (there is a pull out in the living room that Matt has been sleeping on). We’ve lucked out in our little spot. From the couch (i.e. Matt’s bed) you can look out the window and stare in awe at Aiguille du Midi, le glacier des bossons, and the mighty Mont-Blanc (the highest point in Western Europe). It’s a 4 minute walk (three if you run – we’ve tried) to the bus stop to the hills, and less than a 10 minute walk to the famous Aiguille du Midi tram. We take turns walking to the bakery in the morning to pick up a fresh baguette for lunch and fresh pain au chocolat for breakfast. C’est la vie…
March 5th – the day after we got here – just happened to be the start of the biggest snowstorm of the winter. Matt and I have a bit of knack for timing these things (read: 2 m snowfall two days after we arrived in Gulmarg a few years ago, a massive dump three days into a Japan trip in 2013). Knock on wood it continues. Anyway, by March 7th almost 2 metres of fresh snow had fallen on the ground, including almost a foot right in town. People were going crazy. Kim’s sister Pam, conveniently located a short flight away in Amsterdam and who had been monitoring the snow forecast like a hawk, joined us for four days of skiing in amazing powder conditions and by far the best powder turns of the trip. Face-shot styles. I’m sure glad I dragged my fat skis all the way to Europe for that specific storm, because I haven’t used them since. In fact I sent them home with my buddy Trev a couple weeks ago and haven’t missed them a bit.
Speaking of Trev (as in Wallace, our good friend from Tadoussac), he joined us for a week in mid/late March in what we will call “average” ski conditions. When he asked me for a gear list, and I responded with ice ax and crampons on the list, I think he was a little nervous. When we got whited-out on the glacier d’Argentière and Matt pulled out the rope to tie each other to each other, and I pulled out the compass to navigate us back to the crevasse-free side of the glacier, I know he was out of his comfort zone. But we got back to safety and Trev is better for it now. We also had some non-whiteout days of skiing while Trev was here, including a descent down the legendary Mer de Glace, with a tour over to Italy for coffee, of course. It was a great week and cozy but manageable in our little pad.
If three was cozy but manageable, four would definitely be over capacity, but that’s exactly what happened when Matt’s buddy Ben showed up mid-way through the week with Trev, virtually un-announced. Fortunately Ben had the kindness of heart to sleep on the floor one night to give Trev a little extra breathing room before his long flight home. With our crew size now doubled to four we certainly kicked up the après factor and familiarized ourselves with what exactly “No Limits” means at the infamous Chambre Neuf hotspot. Once Trev left, Ben also helped kick up the extreme factor on the slopes: we skied the Couloir des Cosmiques – which required a 30 m rappel before buckling into skis on the side of a 45-50 degree slope, and followed it up the next day with a sh*t-your-pants kind of run down the Couloir Nord/Nord-est of Les Courtes (which averages a cool 48 degree slope over several hundred metres down to the Argentière glacier).
And there have been other friends of friends who have all joined up with us for days of skiing here and there: Martin, a Czech guy who’s been living here for a few years and works up on the Aiguille du Midi; Ben’s buddy Guillaume, who came over from Verbier for a few days (and showed us around there on our Haute Route trip); Laurent, a hard core skier and Quebecer who recognized our MEC ski bag and introduced himself on the bus one day; and Steve, a British guy who has lived in Cham for years and knows the area like the back of his hand – and still rocks the straight, skinny skis! They’ve all contributed to the trip in different ways and made it such a memorable success so far.
Despite the fact that everyone here has told us at least twice that this has been one of the worst winters in recent (and distant) memory, we’ll still get close to 40 days of skiing in, out of the 49 days we’ll have spent in the Alps. Imagine what would have happened if this was one of the best winters in recent and distant memory. We’ve skied some of the classic Chamonix lines, some in good conditions, some in variable conditions, and some in “don’t-even-think-about-making-a-mistake” conditions: Couloir des Cosmiques and Couloir nord/nord-est des Courtes as mentioned; but also Couloir en Y off the Aiguille d’Argentière, Couloir nord du Capucin, Col des Cristaux, and others. I feel like we have seen a ton of terrain so far, but in reality we are only scratching the surface. The terrain is endless over here, with different lines opening up to the eye depending on how much snow has fallen on the ground.
Although we have greatly developed our steep skiing and ski mountaineering skills this winter, Chamonix remains a very humbling place. It is easy to stay on the pistes and within the boundaries of the ski areas, but once you get out and start exploring the backcountry, you realize how intimidating some of the terrain is. Steep, STEEP, chutes and couloirs, narrow ridge lines, transport truck-sized crevasses: plenty of places where things can easily go wrong. And there are many, many, phenomenal skiers in this valley, some blowing by us on the skin track, skiing lines that most would consider impossible.
With a little over a week left in Chamonix, we are starting to feel physically drained, but seemingly keep getting out there day after day. When we did our trans-North America ski trip back in 2008, I think we were somewhere around 55 days of skiing. But that was riding lifts the whole time, whereas here we are touring all over the place (though lift assisted) and then often climbing several hundred or even 1000 m to get to the top of some of these runs. So it’s a totally different ball game. In addition to being physically tired, it’s been interesting observing a mental fatigue starting to set in. You really have to stay focused on some of these runs because there really isn’t room for error anywhere. I think subconsciously we are starting to dial it back a little bit, as neither of us wants anything to go wrong these last few days.
After today’s little hiccup of cloudy weather, it’s looking like blue skies again for the rest of the week, so we’ll be right back out there at it again. “Maybe” there will be some fresh snow, but neither of us are holding our breath. No reason to stop us from creating a few more great memories before we pack it in and wind up the winter in this amazing place.