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To Danielle, who put up with all the absences that were necessary for the creation of this book, and to my beloved son Edouard, who left to join
Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles Rouges
Unique and majestic, basking in glorious light or vexed by troublesome storms, Mont Blanc is the king of Europe. It presides in stately fashion over its glaciers, deep valleys, and delicately crenellated granite ridges. Its summit has always been prized ; its deadly rages terrifying some and fascinating others.
The first to tread on its snowy dome were the Chamoniards Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat on 8th August 1786. Since that time the mountain has enjoyed no respite : first came the caravans of hopeful conquerors, then there were the intrepid unguided parties, those in eager pursuit of discovery, and adventurers of all kinds. Latterly, with the aid of advances in technology, we have witnessed, or indeed participated in, some more irreverent assaults on the mountain’s dignity : Jansen’s laboratory (financed by Eiffel), a banquet sponsored by a leading brand of champagne, a car on the summit that subsequently remained stranded in a snowdrift on the Petits Mulets Ridge (4690m) for several months, to name but a few…
Happily, however, man is not only motivated by fame or greed. He needs to climb Mont Blanc for himself - for his ego, to know his own limits. The desire to share enthusiasm for, and the pleasure in accomplishing the climbing of this mountain justifies the suffering and pain that such a venture involves. Back in the valley he is filled with a feeling of vitality and serenity, and memories that will last infinitely longer than his tracks, soon to be reclaimed by the drifting snow.
Mont Blanc is elusive : it is there to be admired, never dominated, never conquered. It will forever be the source of dreams and ambition, of peace and respect for nature. These are memories to be cherished, this is a mountain to preserve and protect against man’s mischievous and perverse power of destruction. We need to demonstrate our respect for Mont Blanc. It must be spared from man’s disgraceful abuse of his home ; the reopening of the Mont Blanc Tunnel to heavy lorries being a case in point.
Mont Blanc and the Vallée Blanche
The pure line of a telemark turn
In the Mont Blanc Massif the skier has a fantastic choice of descents and routes, ranging from great introductory tours to extreme descents requiring a high level of technical ability. The enormous geographical and technical diversity of routes, the equally diverse weather conditions, and the ease with which one can pass from one side of a mountain, or indeed a frontier, to another, have made for a very sophisticated system of ski tours in this area. Moreover, the numerous ski lifts, especially on the French side of the Massif, have made Chamonix a veritable “Mecca” for both mountaineers and skiers.
Geographically the Mont Blanc Massif is defined by the deep valleys that surround it. These are the Chamonix Valley, Val Montjoie, the Chapieux Valley, Italian Val Veni, Swiss Val Ferret and the Trient Valley. These valleys belong to France, Switzerland and Italy who share a language as well as a culture. (On the Italian side of the Massif, in the Valle d’Aoste, the inhabitants speak a dialect of French).
Geologically, however, this crystalline massif is much closer to its neighbour to the north, the Aiguilles Rouges. Owing to their proximity, and the ease of access to them from the Chamonix Valley, I have included the Aiguilles Rouges in this guide rather than grouping them with the surrounding Chablais area. I have also decided to include a selection of ‘belvedere’ routes in the neighbouring areas that offer stunning views of the Mont Blanc Massif. There is a spectacular view of the north face of the Massif, for instance, from the Aiguilles Rouges ; and the Miage area is clearly visible from Mont Joly, Col de la Fenêtre and Col de la Cicle (Les Contamines). The south face of Mont Blanc (Val Veni) can be seen from Col Chécrouit ; as can Val Ferret from Testa Bernard. From the Vichères-Bavon ski lift system at the Grand Saint Bernard, Switzerland, you can access the top of Val Ferret and the start of the descents into Switzerland from La Fouly to Martigny. Finally, the Arpille, the Bel Oiseau and Fontanabran (Finhaut) areas offer great views of the Trient side of the Mont Blanc Massif.
Some of the routes that appear in this book I have simply had to include, whereas others represent a personal preference. The rapid advances in skiing over the past few years have made it simply impossible to list every single new line, skied and boarded by countless dozens, that starts near the top of a ski lift. It is also a little difficult to give safety advice when the rules of the game seem to change so quickly. The advice to wait two days after a big fall of snow has become, or so it would seem, obsolete. Now, the day after a huge dump of snow, the more foolhardy will eagerly embark down extreme lines on the Rond Glacier, or the Mallory Couloir on the Aiguille du Midi… And I do have to question the wisdom of such a decision. Since 1995, the numbers of skiers and boarders attempting ever steeper slopes have increased markedly. Fortunately, the steeper sides of the Massif in Switzerland and Italy remain less well equipped and in some senses more wild. These are the slopes that offer extreme tests of willpower and technique, and which really stick in the memory…
On the north face of the Trident
This guide features 156 main routes and for most of them I have included several variants and secondary descents. All the principle routes have been selected because of their popularity and a need to inform the majority of their potential visitors. Other factors in my choice have included : the mountain, access conditions, historical importance, an anecdote begging to be told, and of course the aesthetic value of the route itself. The majority of them are described in detail.
These routes are divided into two types :
there are the ‘grand public’ type that are well known and well used and are, for the most part, easy to moderately difficult (Crochues – Bérard, Passon…).
then there are the ‘steeps’, the more or less well known couloirs that offer more difficult descents (Couloir de l’Éboulement, Rond Glacier, Milieu Glacier…).
Most of the main variants are described in detail. There are other routes, however, that I have not described in detail because they are of less interest, are exposed to more objective dangers or are rarely in condition (and require rappels etc) and consequentially I have only given them a technical grading. These include :
routes that can only be accessed by a (serious) climb or by helicopter and should only be attempted by the most experienced ski-mountaineers (The Shroud, north face of the Triolet, Pilier d’Angle, Innominata…) and it seems rather unnecessary to add that they are rarely descended.
and routes that I myself have not skied and cannot describe in sufficient detail (North face of Triolet).
Moreover, there are a few lesser known routes, similar to other descents, that I have chosen to keep back in reserve…
It is true that skiing as we now know it will continue to evolve, and who would have thought 20 years ago that all the descents in this book can now be done with just one board attached your feet ?
In the end, the choice of routes and tours in this book is very personal, and there is, therefore, always the possibility that one of these days someone will produce a guide with a completely different selection of routes.
This book could have been written at some stage or another by any one of a number of pioneers and extreme ski addicts. The list of sadly missed companions, however, is already too long and includes : the fiery Patrick Vallençant ; Heini Holzer, the purist ; the king of balance and opportunism, Jean-Marc Boivin ; not forgetting the superbly talented snowboarders such as the visionary Bruno Gouvy, Alain Moroni, killed on the north face of the Aiguille du Plan, Marco Siffredi who was lost on Everest in September 2002, and Dédé Rhem, killed under Helbronner in 2004.
Happily, many of the Massif’s extreme skiing and boarding pioneers survive : Yves Détry, Daniel Chauchefoin, Serge Cachat-Rosset, Jacky Bessat, Laurent Giacomini, Jean-Pierre Mansard, Dominique Pottard, Eric Bellin, Jérôme Ruby, Stéphane Dan, Véronique Périllat the monoskier, the guides Jean-Franck Charlet, Roland Cretton, Sam Beaugey, Rémy Lécluse, Francis Bibollet, the ever young Swiss veteran Sylvain Saudan, the Genevan Dominique Neuenschwander, the Italians Stefano de Benedetti and Toni Valeruz, and Pierre Tardivel who has devoted most of his life to extreme skiing. I should perhaps also mention here two of the younger extreme skiers, Emmanuel Ballot and Eric Monnier. These extreme skiers and boarders have plenty of tales of adventure, hair-raising descents and feats of self-composure and inner struggles to tell. Like skiers and mountaineers across the world they will dream from time to time of that unforgettable descent on that unforgettable day and the signature they carved into its snowy mantle.
For ski-mountaineers the Mont Blanc region, which gets a decent covering of snow virtually every year, offers a large range of routes. The three different approaches (from France, Switzerland and Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel) give access to three areas with distinctly different snow coverage and weather patterns. It is, therefore, rare to be stuck for something to do owing to poor conditions. The significant climate differences between the three countries is where the richness of this varied and yet relatively small Massif lies.
The western part of the Massif, around Les Contamines, gets snow early in the season. To the south, in Italy, the snow usually arrives later unless the foehn (a warm southerly wind) comes in. On the Swiss side, as in Italy, the climate is milder and at the beginning of the season there is often not enough snow. Moreover, in both Switzerland and Italy by the end of the season at middle and low altitudes the snow has already melted. However, the glaciated and rocky terrain of the Chamonix Valley needs a heavy covering of snow for there to be good ski conditions. While the northerly and westerly weather systems drift in and out of the valley, the snow stays and the skiing is good until quite late in the spring (May).
In terms of the quality of the snow, the weather conditions again dictate certain choices. In the Aiguilles Rouges, for example, the least effect of the foehn produces a noticeable difference in the quality of the snow from one side of the range to the other. Snow on the north side stays longer and is often better than the snow on the south side, and the snowfall is heavier from the west.