Courmayeur, Italy, January 5-6, 2006
Our first two days of skiing at the famed Chamonix, France, actually took place in Italy.
Kam and I were running on fumes after skiing a full day on the lifts at Chamrousse near Michael's boyhood home of Grenoble, then driving north at night into Chamonix. I was barely conscious when I turned over the wheel of the SEAT to him on some dark and winding canyon road, and somehow he managed to stay awake long enough to get us to the Cauchy home in Les Houches.
Michael's guide brother Christian, who spends the winter in Chamonix and climbs in the Himalayas much of the rest of the year, showed up promptly at 8:15 the next morning, and took us to rent some skis. It seems the preferred gear setup for the big lines at Cham is full-on alpine boots and wide skis, so Michael and Corinne rented some, while Kam checked out some Rossignol B3's with tele bindings.
Christian had researched the weather, and concluded that our chances of seeing some sun were much better on the Italian side of the mountains, so we loaded up the cars and drove the 20 minutes through the Mont Blanc tunnel to the picturesque town of Courmayeur. After greeting several people he knew, including the liftie and some fellow guides, we boarded the tram and headed up.
The tram system to the top is actually three trams, and you can stop at or ski from any of them. We went to the top of the second, where we had just missed the departure of the top tram, and decided to "take a coffee" in the 15 minute interval - any time you miss the tram here, it's an excuse to have a cappucino or sandwich, it seems.
Getting to the top in a fully caffeinated state, we headed out the long walkway past the automated ARVA beacon check, which emits a loud beep as each person with a transceiver walks past. Pretty cool idea. At the end of the walkway, we climbed through the substantial metal safety gate meant to prevent tourists from falling to their deaths, and put our skis on while standing on a thin patch of windblown snow.
This, the easy way down from the top tram at Courmayeur, involved sitting on your butt on a rock ledge and dropping onto an icy, bumpy landing, skiing over a fairly long traverse with some side stepping, then downclimbing a long metal stairway (see top photo). At the bottom of the stairway, you hang from a fixed rope to find a foothold on the icy slope below and put your skis on with some help from your guide. Your typical resort skier from the States would have gone into cardiac arrest at the butt-drop.
We got our skis on with Christian's help, and re-grouped. Realizing that he was evaluating our comfort level on the steep as well as our skiing ability and ability to follow directions, we strove to stay in his tracks as we descended the first windblown section to the glacier proper. Once on the glacier, Christian would remind us periodically to stay "exactly" in his tracks, and it was obvious why these instructions were critical as we skied past numerous crevasses. We opened it up a couple of times on safer slopes and enjoyed powder over crust until we reached the mid-station.
The best skiing was actually from mid-station through several open, non-glaciated bowls. The snow was slightly heavier, but untracked and deeper. As we reached the bottom section, the ski turned to survival bushwhacking over ice crust and avy debris - as you may have gathered, there is no grooming or route management anywhere on the big mountains (ski areas with multiple high-speed quads like Brévent and Grand Montets are different, of course). Christian mentioned that some of his friends have talked about coming out in the pre-season with chain saws and loppers to "enhance" a few of the main routes, but so far it hasn't happened. As it is, it's much like backcountry skiing here, only bigger and without the skinning.
After a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches (and of course cappucino) during the tram "break" (Italian tram operators take an hour break for lunch between 1:00 and 2:00 PM, so you need to plan your rides accordingly), we headed back to the top. Christian's plan was for us to ski the 8,000 vertical feet back to Chamonix, leave us at a café in town, then hitch a ride back to Italy to pick up the cars.
We climbed through the safety fence again and headed north this time, descending the scenic glacier route called the Vallée Noir, which though not as famous as its sister route the Vallée Blanche, is just as scenic and shares the exit out through the Mer de Glace. The skiing is not especially challenging, but the views are spectacular. The route through the glacier is quite complex; this is terrain that we would skirt or avoid completely in the Northwest, but the Euros delight in skiing right through it. As with the morning descent, it was imperative to stay in Christian's tracks in many spots, but a bit of enjoyable low-angle powder skiing was permitted.
We ended up skiing through people's backyards in the town of Chamonix to a café, where Kam and I ordered a succession of Cokes, coffees, apple tartes and crêpes until the proprietress basically hinted that it was time to close. Christian and Michael hitched a ride with an Italian guide friend who had come down the same route but had parked a car in France, and came back soon with the cars.
Discovering a fast WIFI connection at our lodgings, l'Ecole de Taconnaz, Kam decided to take a break on day 2 and do some work. After checking the weather, Christian, Michael and I headed back to Courmayeur looking for more fun and some sun.
We went straight to the top again, stopping only for cappucino when we narrowly missed the top tram. This time we headed to the east rather than to the long stairs. After a 10 minute boot up a wide bowl, we dropped into the classic les Marbrées route by traversing through an improbably dense field of rocks. Christian kept checking on my mental state by asking "are you comfortable here?" and then adding "Don't fall."
The route opened up, and though the snow coverage was a little sparse, we enjoyed controlled turns through the maze of rocks. Looking back up, it was apparent that with more snow, three variations would be possible on the top section, which Christian confirmed. Further down, we again found good powder conditions in the middle, with the same sort of high-intensity bush whacking at the bottom. One problem with skiing here is the huge vertical - you are usually freezing on top, work hard enough in the middle to sweat, soak your hat and gloves, and start fogging up your goggles at the bottom. It helps to have several sets of hat/gloves in different weights, and change them when they get wet.
Checking the time and realizing that the Italian tram "lunch break" was impending, we took a short ride up to mid-station and found the best powder of the day just under the lift. A scenic gully we had seen on the way up yielded about a foot-and-a-half (that would be half a meter) of untracked (middle photo, top row) within sight of the tourists.
Christian called for a "real Italian lunch" on the ride up, and I soon realized the serious nature of this endeavor. Bread, breadsticks, wine, mineral water, duck breast, lamb shank, raspberry tart and cappucino followed. We declined the offer of complimentary schnapps from the owner, who was a friend of Christian, and staggered out with heavy legs.
Apparently satisfied with his assessment of my composure on the steeps, Christian said he would show us "a little couloir." After climbing over the high safety railing at the top (photo at right in top row) and gingerly putting on our skis, I realized this was the very cool line under the tram we had been remarking on the day before, the Cesso Couloir (apparently called the Couloir Chaussin by the French). There had been two tracks in the couloir, and Christian had talked to one of the responsible skiers, an Italian guide he knew, about the conditions. I can only surmise that the report was positive.
Rather than descend the ridge and traverse into the run from the closed summer refugio as the other skiers had, we headed for the rocky face directly under the tram. One of the unique things about this area is that you ski these wild, hairball runs only meters away from the envious eyes of tourists, which may or may not be a good thing. Though this approach again looked improbable, Christian led us through the rocks with some careful falling leaf side slipping and some jump turns, ending up in the couloir proper.
Where a steep couloir in the Cascades might run for 800 or 1,000 vertical feet, the Cesso is probably twice that long, with a sustained pitch, in Christian's words, of "forty-something." In Christian's world, "forty-something" seems to be a catchall adjective for describing steepish slopes between about 42 and 52 degrees. Watch out if he admits that something is actually over 50 degrees.
We made careful turns in windpack and crust down to where the couloir narrowed, where Christian asked if I was "comfortable" - there is a cable about 2/3 of the way down in the very narrow section that guides use to belay gripped clients if necessary. When I replied that I "thought so," he said "Not think so, are you 200% sure?"
At any rate, we continued down, slowing to a crawl at the narrowest point which was about 190 centimeters wide (I was on 184 Atomics). After that, it opened up and the snow got a bit better, so we made bigger but still careful turns down to the glacier. We continued on through a section of pretty impressive seracs (bottom row, right) with mellow powder, and took yet another route out at the bottom.
We negotiated the icy, steep walkways down into Courmayeur (perhaps the most dangerous descent of the day in ski boots) and headed back through the tunnel to get ready for another high-calorie Savoyard meal of cheese, ham, and potatoes . . .