Grands Montets, FRA to Val d'Arpette, SUI, April 4, 2008
Our plan to ski the Haute Route came to an abrupt halt when our weather consultant, UIAGM guide Christian Trommsdorff, repeatedly saw snow and high winds on our planned days three and four of the tour. After thinking long and hard about alternatives, he came up with a plan to do a two day loop into Switzerland the first two days, then re-assess and perhaps go south into Italy depending upon the weather.
We started our trip by driving to Argentiere and taking the tram up Grands Montets, the largest of the ski areas in the Chamonix valley. Since the top lift was closed due to high winds, we got off at the second station and started skinning up a cat track to access the Glacier Argentiere - as soon as we rounded the corner, we were rewarded with a blast of wind and a spectacular view of the glacier, as well as the surrounding peaks. l'Aiguille Verte, Grand Rocheuse, Les Droites, and Les Courtes - all famous climbing objectives in their own right, flank the glacier to the south, with the Col du Chardonnay to the east/northeast.
Michael broke trail across the glacier, and we headed up toward the Chardonnay in brilliant sun, shedding layers as we climbed. We stopped for lunch just before the top of the col and met a couple of skiers from Crystal Mountain, Washington, who were in Europe for a month. Then we crested the climb and took a look at the descent.
We'd heard stories about the "traffic jams" that occur at the Col du Chardonnay as competing guided groups converge on the small piece of real estate before dropping into the descent, which approaches 55 to 60 degrees, depending on where you go. Lowell and I looked at it, and quickly deciding that it looked quite skiable, dropped in. Unfortunately, as the hill rolled over and got steeper, the slightly crusty week-old powder turned to heavily frozen boot tracks from people ascending the slope, and the need to not fall became apparent. Lowell managed to plant his skis to hold his pack, and got his crampons and axe out in order to walk down, while I, stuck in the uneven boot track zone, didn't feel confident in stopping and continued side-stepping down until Christian threw down a rope and I was able to rappel the last few feet to the moat. There, the snow became deep sugar and the angle lessened so we were able to ski the remaining few meters.
It took some time to belay the remaining party members down, and it served as a good lesson. It's not just you out on these popular routes in the Alps, and you have to be conscious of time and "flow" constraints at critical junctions like the Col du Chardonnay - though I would have eventually gotten down the thing, it would have been better and ultimately faster to simply wait until Christian had the rope in place, then rappel down the whole thing in the smooth area that most parties obviously used for that purpose. Many of the guides appeared to prefer to belay their clients down backward in kind of a reverse snowplow, which seemed to work well for most people.
After regrouping at the bottom of the col, we skied the mellow upper part of the Glacier Saleina, wandering back and forth a bit looking for the best line down. There were a bunch of tracks on the northern, skier's left part of the glacier, but Christian led us to the narrower part to skier's right, where we found great powder alongside a beautiful, heavily serac-filled part of the glacier. We skied out the bottom through boulders and along streams to a small village called Le Revers, where we drank the obligatory panaché (beer mixed with "lemonade" - actually some version of 7Up) and waited for the "cab" to show up.
The cab, actually a mini-bus seating around 12 people, appeared sooner than we had expected, but the driver was relaxed and told us to enjoy our drinks while he loaded the skis and packs into the back. A fairly circuitous drive over VERY winding roads (I'm prone to car-sickness, but I was so tired it didn't kick in) led to a closed ski area between the towns of Champex and Champex d' en Haut, where we got out and two people on snowmobile offered (for a price) to take Elena, who was beat, and Bruno, whose back was killing him, up to the Relais d'Arpette.
The hut looked like it was closed for the season as we approached, but within a few minutes the hutkeeper appeared, showed us the HOT SHOWERS!!! and self-sanitizing toilets (you know you are in Switzerland) and bid us make ourselves at home. There's nothing like a shower and beer to make a ski tourist feel alive again after a long day, and a great dinner followed. The bunk house as Relais d'Arpette was a beauty, with separate rooms and a heated bathroom of its own, and as we were the only guests, we had the run of the place. When I asked Christian if he had been there before, he said no, but he plans to come back!