Eat-Ski-Sleep-Repeat: The Story of our Lives in Chamonix Mont-Blanc

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.

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The Haute Route Traverse – From Chamonix to Zermatt on Skis

Day 1: Argentière to Cabane de Trient

April 1, 2017 – 8:00AM

We’re on the bus from Chamonix to Argentière, which is a few kilometres up the valley from our apartment and the starting point of the Haute Route Traverse.  As we sit on the bus, still half asleep, I reflect on the six days ahead and how far Matt and I have come as backcountry skiers.  To anyone familiar with ski touring, the Haute Route Traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt is one of those iconic routes that every skier dreams of ticking off.  Big terrain, incredible views, scary crevasses, and ski lines as far as the eye can see.  Not to mention comfortable “huts” all along the route to make the whole thing just a little more enjoyable. When we arrived in Chamonix at the beginning of March the traverse was something we definitely wanted to do, but we weren’t really sure if we’d be able to pull it off, due to route finding, complexity of the terrain, etc.  A few years ago, the thought of completing the traverse independently seemed like a bit of a pipe dream.  The cost to do it as part of a guided group was a little prohibitive to our traveller’s budget, so from the get go it was either do it on our own (which seemed like a big undertaking) or don’t do it at all.  I picked up a guide book the day we got here and we started studying it. And then we picked up the maps we needed and started studying those.  And then we made reservations at each of the huts.  And now here we are sitting on the bus about to set off on the longest ski traverse either of us have ever done – no turning back.  Well, I guess we could turn back whenever we want, but that would be kind of lame.

When the bus drops us off at Grands Montets parking lot, we are right on time to catch the first tram up to the top  (the first segment of the traverse uses the Grands Montets lifts to save about 1500 m of climbing to start the day).  We’re both a little nervous I think, so an early start today is key – even with the lifts, it will still be over 1000 m of climbing and a long day to get to Cabane de Trient, across the border in Switzerland.  Plus the forecast is calling for clouds to roll in this afternoon, and navigating across glaciers in a whiteout is not something either of us want to do on Day 1. Or any of the days for that matter.

As we approach the boarding area for the tram, we are kindly notified by the lady at the gate that there are high winds (presumably blowing in all the clouds) at the top, and all the lifts are currently closed.  More information at 10AM.  A great start to the day.

For the next hour and a half, I stare impatiently back and forth at the information board and the skyline to monitor the cloud situation.  From what we can see, the winds are definitely strong.  We are able to ride the tram to the halfway point, but it isn’t until shortly after 10 that they finally open the tram to the top.  Because we were early, we’re able to get on the first tram up.  From the top of Grands Montets, at about 3200 m, we ski down to the Glacier d’Argentière and put our skins on for the first climb of the day.  The winds on the glacier are howling, but fortunately the sun is still shining.

After a couple hours of skinning we’ve climbed over 800 m to the Col du Chardonnet, which also happens to be the border between France and Switzerland (basically all of the traverse is actually done in Switzerland).  At the col, there is a fixed rope dropping into a steep couloir that we use to rappel into Switzerland then side-step out onto the Glacier de Saleina.  From the glacier, it’s another couple hours of touring to get to Cabane de Trient.  By the time we are safely inside the hut, the clouds have rolled in and we have difficulty seeing the other side of the glacier that we just toured across.

The definition of “hut” (or cabane as they are called in Swizterland) is somewhat different than what we have grown accustomed to at home in BC.  In BC, the huts require you to pack everything you could possibly need – sleeping bag, mattress, cooking gear, food, etc.  Most huts may have a wood stove to keep the dampness away, and a loft for everyone to pile onto and sleep wherever there is a spare corner. It can be crowded, smelly, and sleepless.  Sometimes people accidentally try to set the place on fire with errant camp stoves.

The Cabane de Trient (and presumably the other huts along the route) is a little different.  When we walk in the front door, there is shelf full of hut slippers (should have left mine at home) for everyone to change into.  There are wicker baskets to place your wet items in and put on a shelf to dry overnight.  The dormitory-style bedrooms have comfortable mattresses with “nordic-duvets” (only a sleeping bag liner is needed). There is of course the cold-beer and wine menu that is kindly pointed out when we check in (at 8 euros for a tall can of beer the costs can add up fast!) And finally there is the whole half-board deal, where dinner and breakfast are provided and prepared for you.  Tonight’s menu features carrot soup, followed by green salad to start.  Beef stroganoff with mashed potatoes for the main course.  And an apple custard for desert.  Not bad – the bar has been set for the rest of the week.

Day 2: Cabane de Trient to Cabane du Mont Fort

Today’s route doesn’t actually require a lot of skiing.  Just down the glacier du Trient, a short boot pack up to a nearby col, and then a long ski down to the village of Champex – simple.  From there we will transfer to the Verbier ski resort via bus and train.  The Cabane de Mont Fort, where we are staying tonight, is actually within the Verbier ski area boundary.

As we enjoy our hot breakfast and start to get our things organized for the day ahead, daylight starts to pour through the windows.  There is no sign of the sun though.  Apparently the clouds that rolled in yesterday decided to stick around and upon further inspection out the windows, we realize that it is a complete whiteout. Perfect.

The start of the day at the hut is a bit of a zoo as groups seem to jockey for position and get out the front door before each other, and it’s difficult to avoid feeling like we should also be in a rush.  When we finally do get out the front door there are about 15 people lining up to get going ahead of us.

It’s a pretty short ski down the glacier (about 400 m) and despite the whiteout we can hug the rocks on the skier’s right side and make our way easily to the bottom of the bootpack up to Col des Écandies.  We manage to get going up the bootpack before most of the groups in front of us and when we get to the col we can’t tell up from down.  From the col down Champex, our elevation drops about 1300 m, which we manage to navigate with the topo map and GPS.  Although there are no glaciers on the descent there are some cliff bands and other terrain traps so some route finding is required, and with no visibility there are a few signs of ski vertigo.  An hour or so later we emerge unscathed in the Champex ski area and wait for our bus transfer over to Verbier.

The transfer from Champex to Verbier is a bit of a novelty.  Here we are, emerging from a high mountain environment, only to be whisked off by bus and trains (that run precisely on time of course) to another one of the most famous ski resorts in Europe. Only in the Alps.

By the time we get to Verbier it’s only just after lunch time so we pick up a half day lift ticket and meet our friend Guillaume who shows us around the resort for the afternoon.  Even though we still can’t see anything we enjoy ripping up the groomers and get a feel for the scale of the resort.  Especially when we pile onto the “Jumbo” lift – a tram that packs in 150 people and swoops them up to the top of the mountain!  At the end of the afternoon we cruise down one last groomer and retire to the Cabane de Mont Fort for the evening.  The hut doesn’t see as much traffic as others on the Haute Route, and so there are only a dozen or so people spending the night.  To top it all off, the clouds have gone away, setting up for a great weather day tomorrow.

Day 3: Cabane du Mont Fort to Cabane des Dix

Day 3 is our biggest day of the traverse – nearly 1500 m of climbing overall – as we pass over three cols (Col de la Chaux, Col de la Rionde, and Col de Severeu) before eventually climbing to up over 2900 m to Cabane des Dix.

Whatever clouds were lingering at the end of the day yesterday have vanished and the weather is perfect to start the day.  We can clearly see the Mont Blanc massif, with the morning sun hitting the peaks, and can trace our routes from Days 1 and 2.

Shortly after 8:00am we step in to our skis and start our climb up the freshly groomed pistes of Verbier.  I joke to Matt that we should carve bigger switchbacks than usual, just to mess up the fresh groomers for anyone skiing down.  Today also happens to be the last stop of the Freeride World Tour, which is taking place on the big and intimidating face of Bec des Rosses, which we are skinning right below.  As we approach the first col of the day, the competition starts and we get to watch a couple of the first competitors throw themselves down some crazy lines.  Helicopters buzz around capturing it all on video and camera – maybe we’ll be on TV?!

As we move farther and farther east from the resort the noise starts to dissipate and soon we are on our own.  The route we are taking to Cabane des Dix is a little off the main highway, so for a time we are breaking trail.  The weather continues to be perfect and when  we arrive at Col de Severeu we get our first glimpse of the famous Matterhorn – it still looks like a long way away!

From the col we descend several hundred metres on one of the longest runs of the week to Lac des Dix, and then traverse south along the lake before starting one last climb up to the cabane.

After about 8 hours on the trail, and feeling tired and a little dehydrated from the hot sun, we come around the corner to Cabane des Dix.  The sight is unbelievable:  a multi-storey stone structure (built in 1908), sitting on top of a little rock bluff, in the middle of nowhere.  Inside the hut there are pictures of mules hauling materials in during construction!  The cabane has a nice patio which faces west, so we celebrate the mid-way point of the trip outside with a two-eight-euro beer day, and enjoy a stellar sunset.

Day 4: Cabane des Dix to Cabane des Vignettes

We’re back on the main track today, so the morning starts a little busier than yesterday.  The route to Cabane des Vignettes marks the high point of the traverse (3790 m at the summit of Pigne d’Arolla) and also includes one of the more touchy sections on the trip – crossing over “la passage de la serpentine“, a steep glacier with big exposure of cliffs on the far climber’s left side.

The day starts a little more slowly than others, given the many groups on the skin track in front of us.  Being on our own, we’d sort of been expecting to get called out by a guide at some point, for something, and today ends up being the day.  On the way up glacier de la Tséna Refien a guide dragging his three roped up clients up the glacier wonders aloud if we have rope with us or not.  Matt politely points out the obvious blue coil of rope that is readily available on my pack and that we’re comfortable in the current conditions without it.  Not appreciating his next comment of “we’re on a glacier, you know?“, I sarcastically respond that we had no idea it was a glacier.  The guide’s tone seems to change when we tell him we live on the west coast of Canada and have been skiing on this type of stuff for several years.  We carry on our merry way, not too concerned with the little encounter.

When we get to la passage de la serpentine, the snow pack is so thin that crampons and bootpacking are needed to get up the slope.  At certain points there are only a few inches of snow on top of blue glacier ice, so we are kicking hard to get our toe picks nicely into the ice.  Fortunately the slope ends up being less intimidating than it looked in the pictures and soon we are on top of a plateau on the way to Pigne d’Arolla.

The summit of Pigne d’Arolla most closely resembles what we’d expected on the traverse:  lots of people packed onto the summit, some coming, some going, a highway of sorts up to the top.  Despite the crowds, and the clouds that are starting to move in, the views are awesome and the Matterhorn is finally starting to look like a nearby mountain.

From the top it’s a nice long run down towards the cabane, though some deviations are needed to avoid the transport truck-sized crevasses.  We were both pretty impressed with Cabane des Dix yesterday, but the first view of Cabane des Vignettes blows Dix out of the water.

The cabane is literally built on the side of a cliff, and is approached via a very narrow ridgeline – how do people come up with these ideas?!  Despite the difficult access there were no shortcuts taken inside – a full lunch menu, beer and wine, and great dining area.  No running water though – we are really slumming it now!

Day 5: Cabane des Vignettes to Cabane de Bertol

Many people complete the route from Cabane des Vignettes all the way to Zermatt in a day, and for this reason breakfast at Vignettes is served from the freakishly early hours of 5:30 to 6:00.  When we get downstairs there is a fair amount of buzz going on, and there is talk that the morning is shaping up to be another total whiteout, although the afternoon forecast says “clearing up”.  There is an “escape route” that goes immediately down to the valley below and then back up to get to Cabane de Bertol, and avoids the majority of the serious glacier travel, but it’s also a less scenic route.  It seems like many of the guided groups will be heading that way given the uncertainty in the weather.  Not feeling rushed, and hoping for the forecast to live up to expectation, we finish our breakfast and go back to bed.  Even if we don’t leave Vignettes until noon, we should still be able to get to Bertol in good time for dinner.

Shortly before 8 the hut staff poke their head into the room to let us know we have 10 minutes to get our things cleared out of the room so they can start cleaning in advance of the next round of skiers passing through tonight.  By now at least it’s daylight and the whiteout has been confirmed.  The number of people left in the hut starts to dwindle as many parties have decided to head down to the valley.  By 10:00 or so there are 10 of us left, on a day that started with close to 100 people staying in the hut.  There are three German teams, a French pair, and us.  Although we are all talking in different languages, the consensus is the same:  we still can’t see the rock bluff 50 feet outside the front door of the hut.

At this point Matt and I start playing head games with each other to agree on a time at which we will leave, regardless of what the weather does: at 10:45 we’ll have a snack; at 11:00 we’ll put our ski boots on, and by 11:30 we’ll walk out the door – if we still can’t see we’ll go down to the valley.  Shortly after 11 we start getting a little impatient with the weather, but suddenly the first major parting of the clouds appears.  We’re still not convinced that it’s enough to send us up the high route, but the other teams also seem excited and we all start getting our gear on.

Just before 11:30 we step outside and are ready to go.  The clouds have opened up enough that we are comfortable taking the high route across glacier du Mont Collon to Col de l’Evèque.  We decide to rope up together for the glacier crossing as there are quite a few exposed crevasses, some of which could house a school bus or two, and the visibility still isn’t awesome.

From Col de l’Evèque, it’s a long 800 m run down the haut glacier d’Arolla, before an equally long and tiring climb up to Cabane de Bertol. When we get to the col almost all the clouds have dissipated and we’re confident that it will be a bluebird afternoon. Three turn into the run Matt hears and feels a pop in one of his skis and he yells at me to hold up to take a look.  It’s not great:  the heel piece of one of his bindings has blown off his ski and disappeared into the fresh snow we had just started skiing. We spend a few minutes looking for it, but it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack and we have no luck.  Fortunately we have a couple ski straps in the bag, and can use the longer one to strap Matt’s boot in place.  It’s nowhere near as strong as a binding, but as long as he’s not launching off any big cliffs, he should be just fine.  Fortunately it’s the second last day of the traverse, and not the other way around.

The rest of the day to Bertol goes smoothly and we are happy about our decision to wait out the weather and enjoy the great views along the way.  When we get to Col de Bertol the Matterhorn appears to be a stone’s throw away and we can start to feel the finish line.  Although we’ve already climbed 1100 m today, the Swiss decided it would be a good idea to build the hut above the col, and so the last 30 m of the day are spent climbing straight up steel ladders that have been bolted to the rock face.  The beer inside tastes colder and more refreshing than usual and we enjoy an amazing sunset for the last night on the trip.

Day 6: Cabane de Bertol to Zermatt

 We’re up early this morning, excited for our long descent in to Zermatt.  Shortly after 7:00 we are out the door and down-climbing the crazy ladders from yesterday.  The sun is just coming up over the ridge and there are a few light clouds blowing off the top of the Matterhorn, making it look just like a chimney.  The visibility is perfect, and it should be a great finish to the trip.

The day starts with a couple hours of skinning up to the top of Tête Blanche (3710 m), a rounded peak just to the west of the Matterhorn and also the border of Switzerland and Italy.  It is windy and cold at the top, but it feels like we can reach out and touch the Matterhorn.  The view is incredible.

The skins come off the skis for the last time at the summit of Tête Blanche and all that is left to do is point the skis downhill for 1800 m into the ski resort village of Zermatt.  Oh, and navigate through the heavily-crevassed Stockji, Tiefmatten, and Zmutt glaciers.  Fortunately the weather is clear and we can see where to ski and where not to ski – not a place I would want to be stuck in zero visibility.  We waste little time under the giant seracs of the Stockji (there were a few recent falls), but do get to enjoy some fresh tracks in cold snow.  The ski out on the Zmutt glacier goes right under the Matterhorn – an amazing way to finish up.  Before long we are back inside the Zermatt ski area and enjoy a long run down the freshly groomed trails right into the town itself.

When we click the skis off for the last time, there is an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment.  After high fives and big hugs we look back up at the Matterhorn one more time and digest the last few days: over 5000 m of vertical, close to 65 km travelled on skis, between two of the most iconic ski mountaineering centres anywhere, on our own.  Definitely one for the books.

The End of the African Ski Odyssey

February 20, 2017 – 11:00 AM GMT

We’re getting all of our gear packed up at the Refuge du Toubkal and preparing for our ski and hike down to Imlil.  Today is the end of our ski adventure in Morocco, as we are heading out of the mountains and back to Marrakech.  We’ve arranged for a muleteer to meet us at snowline to help carry our gear back down to Imlil.

It’s been a fun few days out of the refuge here, and we’ve been fortunate to ski some really great lines, but the weather has deteriorated in the last couple days, so it’s time to pack it in – we’re cutting out one night earlier than we initially planned.  It’s probably for the best, we’re both pretty exhausted after 8 days in a row of skiing and climbing above 3000 m, sometimes above 4000m.

Three days ago we climbed Ras n’Ouanoukrim, one of the 4000 m peaks near the hut, and skied the northeast couloir.  A 900 m run all the way back down to the hut, which was really cool, and a few of the guides back at the refuge seemed pretty impressed that we skied it.  And then the day before yesterday we were able to climb Jbel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco, and in North Africa, at 4167m.  The weather wasn’t terrific, but we had the summit to ourselves and were able to ski right off the summit, all the way back down to the valley via the northwest face – about 1000 m of fun skiing back to the hut.

Jbel Toubkal is a very popular trekking peak, and there have been many guided groups coming through for a night or two to climb the peak, so the refuge here has been much busier than over at Refuge de Lépiney.  Hardly any others skiing though 🙂

Yesterday was supposed to be our last day of skiing in Morocco.  For the occasion we decided it would be fitting to ski down Brèche des Clochetons, a 700 m couloir just around the corner from the refuge that we had read about, and looked at in previous days.  It looked awesome.

We got a casual start to the morning, about 10:00 or so, and started the bootback up the couloir.  It was as we expected, and looked like a great run.  As we neared the top we started to notice some clouds rolling in, but nothing too concerning. Yet.  We hurried to ski the first 100 m or so of the couloir, but then the clouds completely socked us in.  A total whiteout and we couldn’t tell up from down. After standing on the side of the near 40 degree slope for almost an hour, waiting and hoping for the clouds to clear (they didn’t), we finally resolved to make our way down in the whiteout.  It wasn’t much fun.  Matt pulled out a short piece of rope and tied it to his ski pole to provide minimal depth perception down the slope, and we used some of the rock features to navigate our way down.  After another hour we were at the bottom and basically stumbled upon the hut, which was also socked in at that point.  It was kind of a bittersweet way to end the ski trip, but we could tell that the tank was empty and we were ready to head down.

For the rest of the day yesterday we offered up proposals and deals to each other on what it would take to ski another day in Morroco.  Yesterday was our 9th day of skiing, and I really wanted to get to 10, just to round it off nicely, despite the fact my legs were pretty much shot.  Just before bed Matt offered up the winning deal:  “if it’s bluebird in the morning, we’ll climb back up Brèche des Clochetons just like we did today, and ski it the way it’s supposed to be skied”.  I was sold.

So that’s what we did this morning.  I was wide awake before my alarm went off at 6:00, to see what the skies looked like.  They were clear.  At 8:00 we were out the door with skis on and starting back up the same couloir that gave us a beating yesterday.  The fatigue seemed to disappear as we started climbing with perfect weather and a few cm’s of fresh snow.  By 10:00 we were at the top and the skies were still holding nicely.  We wasted no time and quickly clicked in to the skis for our “very last” run in Morocco.  It was perfect – a little fresh snow to carve, beautiful views, and great turns all the way to the bottom.  Couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the skiing in Africa odyssey.  (Side note: a couple hours later, as we were leaving the refuge to ski down to the valley, the clouds started rolling in again.  When we looked back for our last views up to Toubkal and some of the other high peaks, we couldn’t see the top of the couloir we’d just skied.)

Refuge de Lépiney to Refuge du Toubkal: Towards the Highest Peak in North Africa

February 16, 2017 – 9:00 AM GMT

I’ve been a little worried about today since the beginning of the trip.  Today we are traversing from Refuge de Lépiney to Refuge du Toubkal, where we are planning to spend the next five nights.  Although the distance between the two huts is only a couple of kilometres (one main valley to the east), there is no easy way to get there.  Our guide-book describes three separate itineraries, none of which sound particularly appealing:

– the first route offers the easiest descent to the refuge, but to get there you first have to climb over two high altitude passes for a total of 1500m of vertical climbing, all above 3000 m.  Great.

– the second starts off the same as the first but skips the second pass and instead heads straight to a 45 degree, 600 m long couloir.  The couloir itself sounds like fun, but not while wearing a 50+ pound pack, at the end of a long day of skinning and climbing.

– the third traverse requires the least amount of vertical (a casual 800 m of vertical climbing, above 3000 m), but the descent requires “a good sense of direction and solid route-finding skills”.  Whatever that means.

We pulled out the map over dinner last night and asked Brahim for his thoughts, given that he knows these mountains a lot better than we do.  When we mention we’re thinking of Option 1 – via Tizi Melloul – he seems unimpressed.  “Tizi Melloul very difficult” he says.  After more conversation he convinces us that Option three – via Tizi n’Tadat – is the best way to go: maybe 5-6 hours to get to Refuge Toubkal.  Having seen the initial stages of the Tizi Melloul route in days before, we’re happy to take Brahim’s advice and take the Tizi ‘n Tadat route.

The first part of the traverse actually requires us to go down in elevation a couple hundred metres to get around a long ridge and in to a secondary valley.  Given the snowpack below the hut, or lack thereof, it’s hiking boots on to start with skis, boots, and the rest of our gear all on our backs.  Not exactly the makings of an easy walk in the park.

After a couple of hours we’ve gone down far enough, and back up to the elevation we started at, so we can finally put the skis on and start skinning up the 800 m we have left to get the pass.  We can see the pass in the distance; although it looks far, it looks like we’ll be able to skin the whole way.  The skinning is a slog and tedious, but the views are amazing and the sun is warm.  When we stop for lunch we realize that we couldn’t see the actual pass from the start – it was hidden around the corner from where we put our skis on. The “real” pass, which is marked by a large, distinct rock formation that Brahim referred to as a thumb, looks a little farther and a little steeper, but still manageable.  At this point I pull out the GPS to track our elevation and monitor how much farther we have left to climb.

The last couple hundred metres are a real pain, as I am putting in a fresh skin track with steep switchbacks, and our heavy packs are starting to wear us down.  Finally we arrive at the pass: it’s shortly after three o’clock (already six hours in to the day – shouldn’t we be there by now?).  Although I am relieved that the climbing part of the day is over, and there is only the run down to the valley that is left, I immediately panic when I look at what the “descent” actually looks like.

At first glance, there is no obvious way down.  As I stare down into the valley below, I am however relieved to see that the majority of the snow on the face/couloir we have to get down slid in an avalanche after the storm a couple of days ago.  At least we don’t have to worry about any avalanches today, since the whole slope has already gone. Matt and I walk up the ridge a little way and debate perhaps traversing on skis across a bit of a rock field and in to the main part of the couloir, but that looks pretty sketchy, and any sort of slip or fall would not end well.  Next we walk down the ridge but from the rock thumb we can’t see what’s below.  We think the route might be on the south side of the thumb, so we pull out the rope and I belay Matt around the east corner to see what’s there.  The rope isn’t long enough and Matt still can’t see a clear route down.  By now it’s starting to push four o’clock and we still don’t know how to get down, and all sorts of thoughts are beginning to creep in to my head – maybe we’re  just going to have to turn around and go back the way we came, sleep in a snow bank somewhere, and try again tomorrow?

We walk back to our packs for a cup of tea and pull out the supposed guide-book.  After a thorough read of the description we realize the route down is in fact on the south side of the rock thumb.  So we crawl around the opposite side that I belayed Matt on, and we finally get a good look at the way down.  It looks totally unpleasant, but manageable.  My  spirits begin to lift, knowing that we’ll be able to get down.  We crawl back up to our packs one more time, re-load, and then creep back around the west side of the rock thumb and step in to our skis. (Side note: a few days later a couple Spanish guys we met climbed up the same route we skied.  They said they saw all of our boot tracks at the pass and had no idea what we were trying to do at the time. Makes sense.)

About forty-five minutes later we emerge at the bottom of the 600 m or so couloir that we managed to navigate (refer to the red line on the photo above).  The skiing is a combination of side-slipping down 40 degrees slopes of hard packed snow, and short jump turns on concrete-like avalanche debris; one of the most miserable ski runs I’ve had in recent memory.  As I jump into one last turn before popping out of the couloir, my left ski ejects and I stand there and watch it shoot off down the slope a couple hundred feet further than I planned to ski.  I’m too tired to even care.  At this point we are down safely; I walk down the hill to grab my ski and re-join Matt who is waiting just below the hut.  We have just completed one of our hardest days out in the mountains. Ever.

Imlil to Refuge de Lépiney: Our First Taste of Moroccan Snowstorms

February 12, 2017 – 3:00 PM GMT

It’s been a quiet day so far today at the Refuge de Lépiney.  Not quiet in the sense that there isn’t a lot of noise, but quiet in the sense that we haven’t done much.  It’s actually really noisy – the winds outside the hut are gusting up to ~80km/h (according to the forecast we read yesterday), and every time a gust kicks up it kind of feels like a freight train is going by.  I think it’s starting to give me a headache.

Matt and I have dared to venture outside only a couple of times to see what it’s all about, mainly to go to the bathroom and shovel out the snow that is drifting up against the front door so that we can get out tomorrow.  At points the wind has been so strong that we have half-joked about using a rope to belay each other out the front door out of fear of getting blown off the tiny ridge the hut is built on, at 3000 m above sea level. Brahim – the hut caretaker – has had a slightly more productive day, as he has graciously prepared our breakfast and lunch, set up the running water to inside the hut, and repaired a window that smashed earlier this morning, thanks to the howling wind.  Apparently this is all supposed to blow through overnight and the sun should be out tomorrow, so the skiing part of this segment shouldn’t be far off.  Until then it’s the waiting game.

We left Imlil yesterday morning and we had checked the forecast before leaving so knew what we were in for, but decided to go on anyway.  The morning yesterday started out quite nicely.  Our host at the gite, Jamel, organized a muleteer for us who arrived at 8:30 or so and we set off from there.  The route to refuge here climbs 700 m up out of the village of Imlil, to Tizi n’Mzik at almost 2500 m elevation, then drops 300 m to Azib Tamsoult (azib is the Berber word to denote a nomadic village. Typically they are only inhabited by shepherds during the summer months).  From Azib Tamsoult the trail again climbs 800 m through a narrow canyon/gorge and up, out, into the head of the Azzaden Valley, beneath the imposing cliffs of the Tazarhart Plateau. As with our trek to Tachedirrt (and Imlil thereafter), there wasn’t enough snow to put skins on at any point, so we walked the whole way.

The sun was out to start the day and half way up to Tizi n’Mzik a shepherd joined the muleteer and us for the walk.  He spoke a bit of French and so we chatted along the way.  It seemed a little odd to me that the shepherd was not concerned about leaving his flock of sheep and goats lower down in the valley, but it all made sense when we arrived at the pass.  Shortly before we got to the pass the shepherd ran ahead and when we came to the crest he was preparing glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice in the little mudstone hut that he obviously uses.  How nice of him.  Of course it came at a price and the smallest bill we had to pay for the two glasses of juice was a 5 pound British note that I randomly had with me.  Pricey orange juice at almost 2500 m above sea level.

From the pass we could see the trail down to Azib Tamsoult and it looked to be snow covered a few hundred metres from where we were standing.  Typically the mules can only go as far as the snow line, so it was looking like we may have to carry the full weight of our gear for the first time of the trip.  Between the shepherd, who spoke some French, and the muleteer, who spoke no French, we agreed to go as far as the mule could take the gear and we would part ways then.  The only other option was to go down to the village of Tizi Oussem and up the valley from there, but that would likely add 3 three hours, and a few hundred more metres of vertical to the day. No thanks.

We started heading down from the pass and after about 15 minutes the muleteer had seen enough and indicated he was going no further.  A short days work for the muleteer, as he would be back in Imlil before lunch time.  We unloaded all of the gear and then re-organized it all to fit on our own packs.  As I hauled my pack onto my shoulders I once again felt a little sorry for the mule: with skis, boots, and everything else I was carrying,  my pack had to weigh at least 50 pounds.  And Matt’s was no lighter.  Our pace was about to reduce quite a bit, and we still had 800 m to climb!

About half an hour or so after leaving the muleteer we came around a corner and bumped into a Berber man who was smoking a cigarette while sitting on some rocks next to the trail.  We started chatting and soon discovered that he was Brahim, the caretaker at the hut we are now staying in.  As part of our booking at the hut – which is managed through the French Alpine Club – we requested full board.  Brahim would be staying with us for the five nights to look after things and prepare meals for us. (Packing our own meals for five days probably would have been impossible considering all the gear we already had).  Brahim had been in touch with the fellow at the club who I’d made the reservation with and was waiting to trek the rest of the way up to the hut with us.  A couple hours later I couldn’t have been more happy that he had decided to wait for us.

After a short lunch at Azib Tamsoult we started heading up into the canyon and then eventually up into the valley.  The clouds had started pouring in and then it started snowing.  Brahim was leading the way up and as the weather deteriorated it wasn’t long before the visibility was so bad that we were literally following his footsteps in the fresh snow (Brahim had gone ahead, presumably to get the hut opened up).  As we came out of the canyon it was obvious that we had been sheltered from the wind until then and once out into the valley we got to “enjoy” the full force of it.  The last couple hundred metres up to the hut were painfully slow thanks to the high winds and our growing fatigue.  It got to the point that we would stop to brace ourselves against the gusts, then walk as many steps as we could until the next gust kicked up or until we ran out of breath.  We even had to pull out our ice axes for some added stability while crossing a couple snow fields leading up to the hut.  It wasn’t exactly pleasant. Finally I looked up into the wind/whiteout and could see the hut!  By the time we stumbled in the front door and dumped our packs, Brahim had already prepared a hot pot of mint tea and he quickly shoved a glass into each of our hands.

And not much has changed since then.  We’ve drank a lot of mint tea, read some books, and played Uno with Brahim. Not to mention enjoy Brahim’s cooking.  Last night he whipped together a delicious chicken tagine, basically on a Coleman-type stove.  So we are doing OK today.  Assuming this storm blows through by tomorrow, as forecast, we’ll have three full days of skiing before continuing to Refuge du Toubkal in the next valley to the east.  After pouring through the guide book we have, it looks like there are about 10 great days of skiing to be had out of this hut, mostly in long narrow couloirs that come off the Tazarhart Plateau.  Fingers crossed for good conditions.

Oukaïmeden to Tachedirrt: Into the High Atlas Mountains

 

February 7, 2017 – 10:30 GMT

This morning we’re making our first traverse of the two-week trip, from Oukaïmeden, south over the Tizi n’Eddi and then south and east into the village of Tacheddirt.  (“Tizi” is the Berber word for pass).  There isn’t enough snow to ski and tour over, so we’ll have to trek.  The plan is to spend two nights in Tacheddirt as there are a couple of skiable peaks just outside the village.

I’m feeling a little under the weather today, so instead of loading up and carrying each of our packs with skis, we decide to hire a muleteer (and his mule) to carry our gear and lead the way across the pass.  One of the cooks in the refuge “knows a guy” and has arranged the whole deal for us. It works out to be about 15 bucks, and we’ll pick up the muleteer’s lunch as well.  When we head outside, the mule is tied up to a pole, solemnly waiting for the days chores.

I’m not exactly sure why I’m not feeling well, but there are likely a couple contributing factors that came up yesterday.

It started with our first lift ride up the chair in the morning.  We hopped on the lift (with far less of a calamity than the day before) and a couple hundred feet up the hill the lift stopped.  No big deal, chairlifts stop all the time, and besides it’s a beautiful sunny day and we can just watch people come and go.  Two hours later, however, we haven’t moved an inch and we’ve done a play-by-play of every self-extraction scenario we can reasonably think of.  It’s midday day at this point, and the hot sun is beating down on us.  As we sit there a couple hikers crawl up the hill to about where we are and we yell down to them to see what’s going on.

– “The power has gone out”, the man says in French.

– “Does a single person down there know how to fix it and how long it’s going to take?” I ask.

– “Nope, sorry”, the man replies and then goes slip sliding down the hill.

Thankfully the fiasco ends soon after and the lift starts crawling to the top.  It stops a couple more times but seems to have enough power to get everyone off (both up and down the mountain).  By the time we ski back down to the bottom the lift has been closed for the day, and we decide to go for a little tour up to a small peak southeast of Oukaïmeden.

The second run is a bit better – we even make fresh tracks all the way down – but at the top of the skin track I’m feeling exhausted.

Fast forward back to this morning and maybe a little over-exertion, combined with a little dehydration while sitting in the sun on the chairlift and a sub-par sleep last night, have resulted in me now feeling not at full strength.  In any case, the mule is packed, we’ve agreed on the route and fare for the muleteer and we starting making our way out of town.  Fortunately no one hassles us to rent a mule this time, because we already have one, and soon we are past the crowds and chairlift heading towards Tizi n’Eddi at 2960 m.

 Shortly after descending from the tizi, we get to a fairly steep and slippery section – there is some hard packed snow and a bit of ice.  The muleteer steps behind the mule and grabs it by the tail (apparently a common practice to “encourage” the mule along).  He mutters what I presume are kind words of encouragement to the mule, and I stand behind and watch.  As the mule starts moving through the section of the trail, I cringe.  First, for the mule, who can’t possibly be enjoying itself.  A close second for all of our gear, which in my opinion seems precariously balanced on the mule’s back, and with one wrong step on it’s part the gear could easily go bouncing off rocks to the valley floor a few hundred metres below. Fortunately our muleteer appears to be a pro, and everyone gets across the slippery section with no damage.  We all high five at the far side.

From there it’s smooth sailing down into Tachedirrt.  As we start to head more to the east some of the high peaks across the valley come into view: potential ski destinations for tomorrow.  The views are spectacular.

Walking in to the village of Tachedirrt is yet another sight to behold, yet in a very different way than when we walked into Ouka.  The village itself is a traditional Berber village, with very little infrastructure geared towards tourists (aside from a couple gites – one of which we are staying in).  At the edge of the village we cross a stream where a few women are washing their clothes and drying them out on the rocks.  As the muleteer leads us up the path along mudstone huts, I jump out of the way to let a flock of sheep and a cow go by, as a local villager is herding them down to one of the pastures for the afternoon.  When the muleteer knocks on the door of the gite, a man in long robes answers and welcomes us.  We are in a totally different world.

The gite we are staying in is beautiful. There is a huge patio that faces southwest, so we get settled in and enjoy the afternoon sun.  Watching the villagers come and go does not get tiring.  Men and women herd their flocks of sheep up and down the main path; others work in the terraced pastures where vegetables grow in the summer months, and kids kick soccer balls around in the grass.  All under the constant presence of the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains, that we are intending to ski off of.  The contrasts continue to amaze.

Marrakech to Oukaïmeden: First Ski Turns in Africa

February 5, 2017 – 9:30 AM GMT

As we go through our final gear checks, Hamid pokes his head in to our room to let us know that our driver has arrived.  Yesterday we arranged a shuttle with Hamid to take us out to Oukaïmeden (pronounced Oo-came-den), the site of North Africa’s highest chairlift and one of two official “ski resorts” in Morocco. Oukaïmeden is about a two hour drive south of Marrakech.

Once outside the riad with packs and skis, the driver jokingly asks in French if we’re planning to start skinning from right outside the front door.  We all laugh and then walk a few minutes to get to the van. As we head south out of the city, the contrasts relative to our pending ski adventure are endless: we drive along palm-tree lined boulevards, pass  kids playing soccer on dirt fields, and listen to, presumably, the local Arabic pop hits on the radio, mixed in with some bad Taylor Swift covers.  When we get to the Ourika Valley, traffic slows, the road tilts upwards and gets a little bumpier, and we start to catch our first up-close glimpses of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains.  Our excitement level rises with the elevation and the hairpin turns in the road.

By the time we get to the village of Oukaïmeden, we are sitting at a little over 2600 m above sea level – about 300 m higher than the top of Whistler.  Our driver drops us at the Refuge du Club Alpin Français, and we head inside to check in.  We are psyched to get our first turns in Africa, but our room isn’t ready yet, and we don’t really want to unpack and get changed in the lobby, so we decide to wander over to the base of the mountain to check out the scene.  Although we’re out of the city, the constant hassle of people trying to sell us something hasn’t gone away.  Before long one of the locals approaches to see if we need any rental ski equipment.

“I have parabolic skis”, he says.  Wow!  We politely decline, however, explaining in a mix of French and English that we brought our own gear.  “Will you leave your skis here when you are done?” the fellow asks. (Apparently most of their rental gear gets donated).  Again, we politely explain that, no, we won’t be leaving our gear here.  We kind of need it for a little while. Plus it’s expensive to replace.

The crowds at the bottom of the mountain are a sight to behold.  For many Moroccans, the concept of snow is a total novelty, and so children and grown-ups alike amuse themselves on sleds fashioned out of old skis, and many locals, some dressed in jeans and leather jackets, try their luck on a pair of rental skis from the top of one of the T-bars.  Everyone seems to be having a great time, while we’re doing our best to not get hit by people rocketing down the hill.

We have a quick lunch and then head back to the refuge to get changed into our ski gear.  The strange looks continue as we head towards the télésiège, decked from head to toe in flashy Gore-Tex and tinted goggles.  We definitely look out of place.  Because it’s after 1 PM we’re able to buy an afternoon lift ticket – for about 8 bucks each CDN.  The télésiège is at the far side of the mountain and so we walk over, declining several offers of mule rides along the way, and come around the corner to yet another sight to behold.  There is a massive line of people waiting to go up the lift, but the vast majority are simply going up to admire the views and then come straight back down.  We are relieved to see a shorter line to the side reserved for skiers, and quickly get in line.  The skiers in front of us, all locals, have their skis on despite the fact there is absolutely no snow at the chair lift loading point: the ski run ends about 10 feet away and most people seem to run out across the gravel track and then just side step into the lift line.  Evidently, the concept of core shots is a foreign one in Morocco.

We watch the skiers in front of us successfully load onto the chair with skis on, but we both refuse to do so, fearing even the slightest scratch to our skis. Before long it’s our turn to load and suddenly I am feeling very self-conscious.  I have skis and poles in one hand, a backpack in the other (as does Matt – plus he is fiddling with his camera) and we are about to get hit in the behind by one of those old-school double chairlifts that doesn’t slow down. In front of a crowd of 100 Moroccans.  What would the outcome be if the two hotshot skiers from Canada caused the lift to stop because they couldn’t get on properly?

Fortunately, no one will ever know the answer because we get on just like the regulars.  Ten minutes later the lift dumps us off at a little over 3200 m, and we have to run out of the way to avoid getting hit by the chair as it makes its way around and back down the mountain.  When the dust settles we look around and soak in the amazing views in all directions: north and west towards Marrakech and the plains leading to the Atlantic Ocean; south and east to the towering peaks of the High Atlas, including some that we hope to ski off of in the days ahead.

But unlike many others at the top of the hill, we didn’t ride the lift to admire the views. It’s finally time to ski in Africa.  There is actually enough snow at the top to put our skis on, so we clip in and traverse over to the top of the bowl that leads back down to the lift.  The feeling dropping in to the bowl is surreal, despite the fact I’m trying to hold an edge on the hard windblown slab at the top.  As we descend the snow quality improves:  it is firm (but no worse than say, Tremblant) and we can carve acceptable turns while avoiding the many rocks. The GoPros are on and we’re taking turns taking action photos and trying to capture every moment of this first run.  When we get to the bottom we are so excited that it could have been our first ski run ever. After a big high five I check my watch and we realize there is still time for one more lift ride up.  We ski back down to the lift, being careful to stop well before the gravel path, pop the skis off, and head back up the mountain to do it all over again.