Eagle Ski Club Yearbook Advanced Ski Mountaineering Course 2012 Report
The article below is the unedited version of a report on the Eagle Ski Club Advanced Ski Mountaineering Course I ran in 2012.
It is presented here for other Eagles thinking about whether this course might be appropriate to their needs.
Thanks to Paul O'Brien for putting it all together.
CHAMONIX : ADVANCED SKI MOUNTAINEERING
18 – 25 February
This course provided the rare and valuable opportunity of personal instruction in ski mountaineering in what is clearly an ideal setting. Regrettably the 6 available places were not all filled; one eagle not confirming his booking, and another breaking his leg on a “warm up day” before the course had started! The remaining four professed a variety of goals for the week against a background of varied abilities; Andy Perkins juggled the course content accordingly and catered for us all masterfully.
“Le Meteo” for the week was scrutinised on day 1 with Andy testing our french as well as understanding of the safety implications of predicted weather conditions. Significance of wind direction, temperatures, freezing levels, anticipated precipitation were all considered in planning activities for each day.
Route planning and the importance of being versatile in adapting to changing conditions was the focus of a tour on day 2 over the Col de Crochues (2704m) accessed via the Flegere lift system. An unexpected increase in the north easterly breeze prompted two changes of the planned route. After booting up the last 40m to the col, we traversed down to skiers’ right underneath the Pointe Alphonse Faure and then up to the Col de Berard (2407m). The north facing slope of the Vallon de Berard offered some great untracked pitches and the run out to Le Buet along the valley floor was beautiful.
The expected weak front forecast for Thursday duly arrived overnight, and the light was flat; time for navigation practice above Les Houches. Interpretation of features on the map and their observation on the ground, calibration of pacing whilst skinning up varying gradients, plotting and checking bearings, usefully exposed some potential pitfalls and inaccuracies including the compass bearings of some gps devices!
Travelling safely and efficiently through the mountains is probably the key objective of ski touring, and coping with difficult snow conditions is paramount. These lessons were amply demonstrated on skiing across the Glacier du Geant from the Aiguille du Midi (3842m) to the Col des Flambeaux (3407m) for the view down to Italy. The snow was severely wind affected giving a very challenging surface to ski with prominent sastrugi interspersed with thin breakable crust covering pockets of soft snow. We skinned up the glacier below le Petit Flambeau roped together as a team. Then, descending via La Vierge and les Seracs du Geant, opportunities to read the snow ahead were rewarded with some powder pitches as well as some more survival skiing through heavy porridge as the temperature climbed. Some very useful tips on skiing technique were gratefully received.
The ability to assess the stability of the snowpack is vital. This message was graphically illustrated by Andy in lecture format and amply reinforced in practice throughout the week. The factors affecting avalanche risk were repeatedly identified, and where appropriate quantified, as a continual process on each tour. Avalanche rescue techniques were studied and practised with the accent being on teamwork and communication.
Similarly, organisation of personnel and effort was the focus of crevasse rescue. On day 4 after surveying the pattern of crevasses in the Glacier de Rognons from the viewing platform on the Grands Montets, we skied carefully below the Aiguille Verte to join the Glacier d’Argentiere under a flawless blue sky. Ski belays – horizontal and vertical were tested in differing snow conditions, and pulley systems were set and reset so that Andy was “rescued” several times from a “crevasse”. Teamwork was challenging enough even in these ideal conditions; the importance of working together effectively being perhaps the most critical lesson of the day! The opportunity to test ice screws was provided by the icefall below the Pointe de Vue from where subsequent descent via the Refuge de Lognan (best sticky cake of the week) brought us to what was probably the most dangerous part of the mountain – the crowded piste of Pierre a Ric!
Earlier in the week, the tree lined pistes above Vallorcine had provided some relief from near white-out conditions; snow was plentiful but not so the visibility. Difficult conditions off the piste in the trees - tight spaces and steep terrain – a different test of skiing skills! During a brief improvement in the weather some video analysis of individuals’ skiing techniques proved very useful.
Another afternoon of poor weather was utilised for practising rope ascending. The venue - an overhanging crag in St Gervais, where we all had the chance to use prusiks and different camming devices on a suspended rope length of about 15m. Never a moment for training was wasted during the week, and so short roping technique was practised on a station platform (much to the amusement of other travellers) as we waited for the train home after one of our day tours. The versatility of the Chamonix valley with excellent transport links as well as access to magnificent, yet serenely quiet routes was apparent.
Our best weather of the week was on day 3; brilliant blue sky, still cool with hardly any wind; warmer weather to come. The group was split; two members being set some “homework” on skiing technique, whilst the other two were to take on the Col de Beugeant (2807m) to put our short roping skills into action. The skin up this south west facing slope becomes increasingly steep so that couteaux are helpful on the sun crusted surface. The last 100m has some exposed sections, for which crampons and rope were used, leading to a narrow ledge at the col. Taking skis off and safely fitting crampons to boots was an exercise in juggling on the 40 degree incline; a skill worthy of some practice! A rope assisted descent for the first 30m towards the Glacier de Beugeant brought us to the best snow of the week; one pitch after another of untracked powder and several “yeehah” moments! The group was reunited at Vallorcine for more ski technique work on the varied terrain accessible from the Tete de Balme.
Our accommodation was a comfortable gite “Tupilak” above Les Houches (1 km from the main road / railway station) facing south, with stunning views across the valley directly towards Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi; an excellent base for a superb week packed with “hands on” training. Highly recommended!