All the skiing downhills of the Aiguilles Rouges and Mont Blanc mountains are gathered in this unique book, written by one of the most talented skiers of his generation.Located at the very heart of the highest mountains of Europe, the majestic Mont Blanc massif stands as a reference among the most sacred skiing places in the world. When winter comes, this snow-addict heaven offers a unique range of dream slopes, from the easiest to the most breathtakingly high ones.Anselme Baud is an extreme skiing leading head and one of the best experts of this mountain. He gives us here the first comprehensive rundown of the Mont Blanc and Aiguilles Rouges skiing downhills. From classic skiing hikes to mountaineering competitions, this guide book presents a precise description of all the biggest slopes this mythic area could offer.Thanks to his charming accounts and instructive advice, Anselme Baud shares with us his precious and wide experience as a high mountain guide and an exceptional skier.PRESS REVIEW- « In its own genre, this is a bible » - Alpinisme & Randonnée- « More than a rundown guide, the latest Anselme Baud’s work is a real nice book, easy-reading, full of information and suggestions » - Vertical- « Did Anselme Baud just write the skiing Bible of the Mont Blanc and Aiguilles Rouges mountains ? » - Montagnes Magazine- « This is the skiing rundown that missed on our bookshelves » - Bulletin des guides- « A gold nugget. A complete and documented how-to-book. Don’t leave it away : this is a friend advice » - Ski FrançaisABOUT THE AUTHOR Born in Morzine in 1948, Anselme Baud left his mark on the Alps skiing steep slopes history. As a high mountain guide in 1973, he was one the first to ski on extreme downhills in the Alps, the Andes, in Antarctica or in the Himalayas. As an ENSA professor, he supervised during several years the mountain guides trainings in Bolivia and Nepal.From the amateur looking for the most beautiful powder snow to the mountaineer who is keen on extreme skiing, ski fans will find in this book all the useful information to fulfill their dreams of perfect lines and immaculate marks!EXCERPT INTRODUCTION MONT BLANCUnique 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...
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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.
The wind from the north-east is the cause of certain unusual windslab formations that create a big avalanche risk on south-west and north-west faces, and these slabs sit on a layer of transformed snow (eg on the Pas de Chèvre, Rond Glacier etc…). Having said that, depending on the base layer it is the east faces that usually remain unstable after a big fall of snow. This was evidenced by the two huge slab avalanches that were set off on the Point de Vue pistes by the pisteurs/ski patrol at the Grands Montets in 2002. In short, it all depends on the wind and the frequent fluctuations in temperature as these create the ‘mille feuilles’ effect, the build-up of layer upon layer of hard and soft snow.
If you want to ski couloirs, then the Massif’s east and south faces are in condition relatively early (March). The other faces, notably the north faces, are icy and rarely in condition before around mid-May, and the best time to ski them is between then and mid-June. During the coldest part of winter the snow cannot bind to the ice. When the spring comes, however, the warmer conditions mean the wetter snow can stick to the ice. This is why the north faces along the Argentière Glacier are often in condition only after the Grands Montets lifts have closed ! In fact, some of the best and most difficult descents (such as the Bionnassay, Miage etc) can be done in the first snows of autumn. If it wasn’t for the difficult approaches and lengthy walks out, this would be an almost ideal option because the new snow adheres very well to the soft ice.
Quite apart from these bewildering meteorological considerations, you can’t beat experience, or intuition. An experienced skier’s ‘sixth sense’ will help him to detect the subtle variations in the quality of snow simply by examining its texture and colour. By picking out tiny contours in the snow the skier can find his way down an otherwise unpromising and possibly dangerous slope. Although the point of skiing off-piste and ski-touring is get away from it all and discover untracked slopes, there are also times when it is prudent to follow tracks left by guides or more experienced skiers. Copying the right choice can be useful and a good learning experience. Even though the guide may feel he is being followed by too many people, he is from time to time pleased to have helped or even protected his little band of followers. Do remember, however, to keep your distance and try not to set off an avalanche above the people you are supposed to be following.
50° on hard snow!
The development of wider carving skis caused a revolution in terms of technique. They can be used in any kind of snow, they are faster, the initiation of turns is much quicker, they carve really well, perform well in competition and in freeride conditions, and are great for linked turns. However, when it comes to serious off-piste skiing these great advances have a flip side. For instance, the faster you ski on a glacier the faster the crevasses appear and the more alert you have to be. It is difficult to control side-slipping on hard snow on a steep slope with skis with a large side cut. Moreover, in the 70s and 80s relatively hard and narrow slalom skis were best for skiing steeps. This is no longer the case and the current designs are too short and provide less control over your balance length-ways and hardly side-slip at all. One of the main criteria for ski-tourers and freeriders when choosing from the less parabolic skis remains the weight. Most of the new carving skis are heavier than their predecessors which can be a real inconvenience if you have to carry them for long periods.
The basic principle behind steep skiing technique is keeping your speed down. The risk of falling is much greater on steep slopes, so it is extremely important to keep your speed to an absolute minimum when initiating a turn. This lack of speed (speed usually helps to make the turn) should be replaced with a more-controlled unweighting of your skis. I have been teaching my clients and aspirant guides at the École Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme a technique that remains well suited to steep skiing (solid, easy to initiate and simple turns) : a turn from standing (the ‘frappé-tiré’ turn).
Start a side-slipping position : bend your body (with your chest facing downhill), have your weight on your downhill ski, and your uphill ski well forward. Stop any side-slip by flexing the lower knee inwards (uphill) ie. increase edging.
Plant the poles (upper pole near the ski tips, lower one towards the middle of the ski).
Weight both poles.
Lift then stamp down your uphill ski, which can be in a slight stem to help initiate the turn.
The resulting unweighting of the lower will automatically rotate it in the direction of the turn.
Bring the skis together by quickly flexing your knees : ‘pull’ up your knees as the tails of the skis cross the slope (push down on both poles while unweighting the upper ski).
You will find that you will be sitting back-slightly for a short time at this point, but your skis will not be touching the snow.
Land softly, increasing the pressure on the skis progressively.
Control your side-slipping, keep your speed down, putting your weight over your downhill ski and flexing your knees.
Note : In this turn it is essential that you lean on both your poles. The uphill pole will not get in the way of the skis as they rotate. Push the grip of your downhill pole down the fall-line as you finish the turn.
When the slope is less steep or the conditions are better you can try turning while moving at a moderate speed. Start with smooth side-slipping :
– be in a flexed position with your weight on your downhill ski ;
– place your uphill ski quite far in front of you and diverging from the lower one (the tip angled slightly uphill ; the opposite of a stem-christie).
– your speed, even though moderate, will help you initiate the turn.
Initiate the turn with a stamp of the uphill ski, which will cause the lower ski to unweight. Now flex your knees by bringing your knees up.
Note : The stamping movement is not designed to transfer your weight to the uphill ski, rather it is a brief motion that quickly unweights your downhill ski so it can rotate downhill.
From a standstill, firmly plant your poles and weight your downhill ski.
Lift your uphill ski and give a hard stamp that will unweight the lower ski. It is then easier to unweight this ski and bend your knees to make the turn.
It is the downhill ski that drives the turn.
Another, I think less elegant, technique uses the rapid pivoting movement of the initial unweighting of the downhill ski as the motor for the turn. This ‘pédalé-sauté’ or standard 2-footed hop turn (pioneered by Patrick Vallençant in the 70s) is more physically demanding. You only plant one pole, the downhill one, and the bigger jump required could make the landing less easy to control.
In the past few years there has been a huge increase in the numbers of people skiing and boarding the Massif’s steepest and most exposed slopes. As soon as there is enough snow on the steep faces and couloirs, the more audacious skiers and boarders set about descending them. The rapid evolution of snowboarding in the past few years has opened up routes that had previously been considered unthinkable. The enthusiasm and determination of the top boarders, such as Gouvy, Siffredi, Rhem, Ruby etc, has demonstrated that many of these descents can be attempted earlier and earlier in the season. More often than not they are skied and boarded in soft snow where we wouldn’t have dared to set foot a few years ago for fear of setting off snow slides.
After carefully studying the descent, and armed with a lot of experience and even more bare-faced cheek, the new experts seem to hesitate less and less and there are, in fact, fewer accidents than before.
Nowadays it is not unusual to see several people on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi in May, and in the afternoon ! Speed seems to have become the order of the day. Set off a few snow slips at the top, move out of the way if they come past you, but otherwise ski the slope as quickly as possible. You not only need good technique and agility, but you also need to be level-headed and cool under pressure for some of the most serious descents. It is true that several descents of the Rond Glacier and the Mallory will give you a certain amount of experience. It is, however, also true that Marco Siffredi and the Slovenian Karnicar’s descents of Everest on snowboard and skis makes the Aiguille du Midi’s 1000 metres or so seem a little small… but even so, it’s still quite a ski ! Let us not forget the laws of balance…
At the start of each of the main routes you will find a practical information section. These tables give a brief resumé of the essential information for the route, and include information on access, starting points and technical data about the descents themselves. Most of the route descriptions also include more precise advice and tips, and provide the reader with a detailed introduction to the route in question. The descents described in this book are generally the most popular or the most practical route for a particular slope, and those that I have skied and have enjoyed.
Below is a description and explanation of the data given in the practical information sections, together with their symbols.
STARTING POINT : This indicates where you start the route proper on skis or snowboard. Access to these points is, in general, included in brackets after the altitude (ski lift, road etc). Where the descent finishes in a different place from the starting point, this is described later on.
HEIGHT GAIN AND LOSS : A single set of arrows shows the height gain and loss for a day tour and a double set indicates a two-day tour (D1, D2).
ORIENTATION : This corresponds to the overall orientation of the route or, for certain routes, the orientation of a key point in the descent (main couloir etc). However, depending on how far into the season it is and the temperature, this does not necessarily give a good indication of the quality of the snow. This is especially true of those slopes that are exposed to low-angle sunlight at the beginning of the winter and in May and June.
PERIOD : This indicates the optimal point in the season for a descent. Nevertheless, this period can change quite significantly from one year to the next and it is strongly recommended that you check the conditions with the ski patrol, local weather forecasts and snow report, guides bureaux etc…
TIME : The times given for the routes are based on a fit ski-mountaineer going at a steady pace. The timings given are from the Starting Point (see above) and include any climbing up and stops along the way as well as the descent itself. Obviously these times are going to be just a guide as the snow conditions, the level of fitness and size of rucksack of each group member will have a bearing on how long the route takes. Where necessary the timings are broken down per day and are based on a rate of ascent of 350 to 400 metres per hour.
PHOTO : This refers to the page containing a photograph of the numbered routes and/or any variants. These photos are merely a useful tool to help you identify the routes and are not intended to replace the relevant IGN map for the area.
Unbroken blue lines indicate the main route and any variants. Dotted blue lines represent the part of a route that is hidden in the photograph.
Broken blue lines show short descents that link two or more routes or slight variants that are very near the normal route.
Orange arrows show routes that have not been included in this book because they are too rarely in condition and are too hazardous for most of the time.
Green arrows show descents that are not included in this book because they are exceptionally difficult (ABO), and require helicopter lifts, and rappels etc.
TECHNICAL LEVEL : This grading system has a direct correlation with the skier and his or her technical ability. The grading system I use here is divided into four levels each of which have three sub-divisions. There is also a fifth level with an indefinite number of sub-divisions. This is only an indication of technical difficulty and is defined by the angle of the slope and the nature of the terrain. I have used the traditional mountaineering grading system for the overall feel of the route that takes into account the approach, the level of commitment, the time it takes and the route’s difficulty. In this system F means ‘facile’ or easy, PD is ‘peu difficile’ or not moderately difficult, AD is ‘assez difficile’ or quite difficult, D is ‘difficile’ or difficult, TD is ‘très difficile’ or very difficult, ED is ‘extrêmement difficile’ which is extremely difficult and ABO stands for ‘abominablement difficile’ and refers to a very, very difficult route that is also extremely hazardous.
The level of technical ability required for a descent corresponds to the control that the skier has over his or her skis on firm snow (hard snow or snow slightly softened by the sun, or snow that you cannot really get your edges into). Conversely, when the snow is very heavy or when there is lots of powder and where falls are much easier to stop, the technical rating is very different. If this is the case, why not just ski in soft snow conditions ? There are various factors to take into account when responding to this question :
– the top layer of snow must be stable enough to support a skier ;
– the objective dangers such as rock fall, cornice collapse, slides caused by melting snow and ice etc should be minimal or one should be able to monitor and check them ;
– on the way up to the start of the descent you should be able to get a good idea of the terrain and of the potential hazards (ice patches, rocks etc).
However, given the increasing numbers of extreme skiers and snowboarders attempting these kinds of slopes in soft snow, it would appear that these conditions are less rigorously adhered to than before… In any case, the technical grading can only be defined by using hard snow as the reference point.
: beginner off-piste skier or boarder who can ski/board up to 30° slopes, sparsely wooded areas, wide couloirs and combs of less than 800 metres descent with minimal risk of avalanche.
EG : Pré du Rocher (Plan de l’Aiguille), Arpille de la Ravoire, Bec-Rond à Bavon, Col des Dards, Lacs Jovet.
: comfortable on more uneven terrain, in more densely wooded conditions, on firmer and more difficult snow, and on 35° slopes that are longer than 800 metres.
EG : Aiguillette des Houches, Col Infranchissable
: beginning to tour with good control over skis or board in couloirs, 40° and other longer and more committing slopes.
EG : Mont Blanc du Tacul, traverse of the Dômes de Miages, Armancette Glacier.
: can descend steep slopes with short sections reaching 50°, narrow couloirs and very difficult terrain including very uneven glacier areas.
EG : Rond Glacier, Milieu Glacier, Spencer Couloir, Grandes Jorasses.
: extreme skier or boarder who can descend long and sustained steep couloirs and slopes that are over 50°. The skier or boarder’s technical ability is very advanced as is his or her mental preparedness. This level is open-ended and includes slopes above 55° that are very rarely in condition and are even more rarely skied or boarded.
EG : Couturier Couloir, north/north-east face of the Courtes.
SLOPE : Gradients for the slopes have been calculated using the 1/25000 IGN maps for the relevant area and in certain cases from measurements taken on the slopes themselves. These figures are always open to adjustment. It goes without saying that the quality of the snow on the day will ultimately determine the difficulty of the descent. An icy 35° slope is clearly going to be more difficult to safely ski than a 45 or 50° slope of thick powder snow. The quality of the light (how much you can make out of the terrain and even the gradient of a slope) is an additional factor. North facing slopes, for example, become more difficult when they are in the shade.
Moreover, although the gradient of a slope is an essential piece of information you also have to take in account its length. For this reason I have tried to avoid putting average gradients and have instead noted the length of the steepest sections of the descent (eg. 45°/250m). The gradient of some short sections at the top of certain slopes (which can be icy or have lots of snow) can vary considerably from the average gradient of the slope as a whole. The average gradient, for example, in the middle of the Gervasutti Couloir on the Tour Ronde or the south couloir of the Col Armand Charlet is 45°, but the slopes to the side that you have to ski or board get as steep as 50°!
DANGERS : I use the term ‘dangers’ instead of ‘seriousness’ as I prefer to set out the objective dangers (avalanches, rock fall, serac fall, collapsing cornices, possible blows from a slip etc), rather than focusing on the subjective risks that the ski-mountaineer must overcome him or herself. The known and recorded dangers of hidden crevasses on a broken glacier, and rocks loosened by the fœhn or the sun, or of a slide that can start in a hidden corner of a face, for instance, must be included in any guide to the area. That is not to say that we encounter these obstacles on every trip into the mountains, but they form an integral part of the off-piste skier and boarder’s alpine adventures and they do perhaps bring their own special piquancy…
: small risk of sliding after a fall and few objective dangers. This is off-piste skiing not far from protected areas such as ski lifts, roads, villages etc.
: there is a risk of serious injury or worse from hitting a rock or tree while sliding after a fall. The objective dangers (rock and serac fall, cornice collapse, avalanche etc) are quite high especially in unfavourable weather conditions (wind, hot spell etc). The route is remote or technically committing.
: you simply cannot fall and only chance or luck will save you if you do. The remoteness and/or the technical difficulty of the route increase the risk. It is imperative that the skier or boarder attempting these routes is technically capable and experienced enough both mentally and physically to make the right decisions.
EQUIPMENT : The list below is by no means exhaustive. I do think, however, it is important to mention a few items now so that the gear list can be efficiently adapted and personalised by each skier and boarder. Some people find gear lists very useful while for others they are the start of great debate and argument. They are nevertheless necessary.
Off-piste day pack (DP)
: This should contain a shovel, probe, and ARVA (transceiver for locating people, and being located, after an avalanche). You should also carry a hat, spare pair of light gloves, sunglasses or goggles and a T-shirt in a small plastic bag. In a different colour plastic bag put a basic repair kit (spare ski pole basket, sturdy sticky tape), a piece of bicycle inner tube for securing skis to packs, spare batteries for ARVA, knife, matches or lighter, basic first aid kit, small head torch, skins (if necessary).
One to two-day ski-touring pack (SP)
: in addition to the above items you should carry a kit for repairing your bindings and ski boot buckles (wire, string, pliers, penknife/leatherman). Think about taking a change of clothes and maybe a good light duvet jacket… More often than not for these kinds routes you will need a harness, ice-axe, crampons and a rope (for use as a handrail or for rappelling past cornices)… Try to carry a few spare plastic bags as they can come in handy in all sorts of situations, and can even be used as snow anchors. It is also not a bad idea to carry a small stove in case of emergency. For glacier travel you will need the necessary safety equipment (ice screws, slings or Prussik loops, carabiners, crevasse rescue kit).
High mountain and steep skiing pack (HP)
: as well as the day pack and ski-touring equipment, you should take the necessary ski-mountaineering equipment for your chosen route (snow stake, Abalakov kit, helmet etc).
I haven’t mentioned here the usual pieces of mountaineering equipment (map, compass, altimeter, mobile phone, GPS, sun cream, whistle, distress flares etc) that are no less indispensable.
You might think about adding aspirin, throat lozenges, cough sweets, something to soothe upset stomachs, plasters and antiseptic for cuts and burns, and arnica for bruises and cramps to your usual first aid kit and whatever else your doctor or chemist has suggested you carry.
Where you will be in very remote places you might consider taking a splint (inflatable devices and new light-weight materials that set to protect the injury now available). If there is a group of you, you might even think about taking a kit to convert skis and poles into a compact rescue sledge.
Equipment is constantly changing and evolving which in turn creates advances in technique, comfort and safety on the mountain. In short, thanks to the advances in equipment design, ski-mountaineers and boarders can now relatively quickly and easily reach a good level of competence. We are presented with a bewildering array of new products and innovations and it is sometimes difficult to make the distinction between what are essentially gadgets and what is actually useful. Moreover, the appropriate use of equipment comes from being well informed. These days it is not uncommon to see skiers and boarders at the top of the Aiguille du Midi, the start of the Vallée Blanche, with all sorts of slings and automatic blocking devices hanging from their harnesses. If they only had these things properly stowed there would be less risk of them catching their crampon points in them and sending themselves down the north face ! It is also not unusual to come across ski-tourers on a flat area or slightly inclined slope getting out their ski crampons (couteaux) and heel risers.
Danielle in the first snow on the Grands Montets
I sometimes suspect that this improper use of gear has little to do with actual need.
The most important considerations for ski-mountaineers and boarders are weight, efficiency and versatility.
CLOTHES : I recommend you take thin and light clothes such as thin jumpers (fleeces or other) and windstopper layers, but you should think about doubling them because they are not necessarily warm enough on their own. The same goes for trousers and gloves. The advantage of this is that you can take off or put on layers according to the time the route takes, its difficulty and the weather. It is equally important to be able change your damp base layers. Apart from the super fit among us who ‘never stop’ and even with the new breathable fabrics, it is still useful to be able to change out of wet clothes to avoid getting cold which can be a real handicap in the evening or the next day. With a wet base layer you will not be able to get warm again when you stop (and sometimes not even on the way down) even if you put more layers on over the top. For your head : you may not be warm or dry enough in a bandanna, and a hat (or warm cap) is always better.
On your legs : you will find that you can wear two layers of thin wool long johns or fleece trousers under a pair of light over-trousers. Otherwise, long johns and Gore-tex trousers are great and the elastic or zip systems at the bottom of the Gore-tex trousers means you don’t have to wear gaiters. One-piece suits are not practical or very well suited to winter off-piste skiing. Moreover, on steep slopes it is not a good idea to wear something that will let you slide too far in case of a fall.
BOOTS : There is a huge choice of ski boots on the market now and you are sure to find a boot that is comfortable and suits your style of skiing. Touring boots these days can be almost as stiff as downhill boots and they have soles with moulded grips. For a long time I used very light, rear-entry, downhill boots which had two buckles and a vibram sole. The advantages of these were that they were light, good for skiing technical slopes and comfortable (with very light customised Thermoflex inner boots). Having said that, it is better not to use very stiff, high cut and heavy boots for touring, especially on the descents. The lack of forward and back flexibility at the ankle can be a problem especially in wooded areas and narrow couloirs.
You can adapt your ski touring boots by replacing the laced inner boots with unlaced downhill inners which are more comfortable and technical. If you find that the front of your foot is loose in the boots, an in sole between the shell and the inner boot will lift your foot up and hold it better.
SKIS : The new wide carving skis are so good that it would be a shame to carry on skiing on the long and narrow old-fashioned variety. However, for touring you should avoid the really heavy, wide skis with big side cuts, which are great nevertheless for off-piste skiing and heli-skiing. The current touring skis are excellent in all snow conditions and will do the job in hard snow and couloirs. I think that the hole in the end of touring skis is essential. Do take good care of your skis and make sure they are regularly waxed and the edges are kept sharp. You will really notice the difference in ‘soapy’ fresh, wet snow.
BINDINGS : From the simple, ultra-light performance bindings to the heavier and more practical touring bindings, the choice is enormous. There are also plates that you can add to alpine bindings to convert them into touring bindings when you need them. There are two models available at the moment, the original and difficult to adjust ‘Sécurafix’ and the more practical ‘Alpine-Trekker’. These devices allow you the benefits of your downhill boots and skis in a touring situation. They are, however, best kept for short tours or for accessing a serious couloir.
SKINS : With the light, carving skis you don’t have to cover the whole ski with the skin. If you are using narrow skins on wide skis the trick is to zig-zag the skin across the ski in an S-shape.
The hook system on some skins is very convenient and also serves as a backup in case the glue fails. The hook is attached to a piece of rubber and a metal loop for adjusting the length of the skin. This makes it easier to change the length of the skin or to remove the skins without taking off your skis. When folding the skins take care not to stick the tail end directly onto the middle of the skin as this will be difficult to unstick later. To avoid this problem, keep a bit of plastic handy to cover the tail. Alternatively, fold the end with the hook down first, then fold the tail end down on top of the hook. Waxing your skis will also help and will extend the lifetime of the skins.
My father Jacques Baud (2nd on the left) with friends in Morzine around 1930
Find out about the amount and quality of the snow from the local weather reports, the guides bureaux, ski schools and ski patrols etc.
Watch out for the southerly and south-westerly winds that can have a huge effect on the conditions in the Massif. Even the local weather centre, despite its best efforts and extremely high standards, has difficulty now and then with the huge variations in conditions from one valley to the next that the fœhn brings. The group leader should prepare the map of the route and have the altitudes, directions (orientation), distances, landmarks, estimated times and any necessary GPS readings noted down. Plan an alternative route or trip if the weather changes, there is a delay at the lift station or there are too many people on the mountain that day. A great morning’s outing can in fact finish very late and in horrendous snow conditions and at the limits of good sense and caution. You should know when is the right time to attempt a descent and watch and listen to the mountain. Use all the available information (contacts on the ground, books, topos etc), but also be prepared to do save it for another day or do something else. Always check your equipment.
Once you have arrived find out if the wind direction has changed since the last fall of snow. Has the isotherm changed, or is there more sun on a particular face and is the wind stronger than normal ?
Check if the ski lifts, trains and buses (if necessary) are running.
If you start the tour by skinning up a slope, try to avoid sweating too heavily by taking off layers sooner rather than later. Think about where you stop and make sure you are not in the line of a snow slide, in the wind or in the blazing sun. Try not to stop in the middle of a slope and look for a slightly less steep area where you can set off again more easily.
It is important to keep your distance from the skier in front of you. This will keep you out of each other’s way, make for a more pleasant skiing experience, and reduce the risk of overloading the slope. If the slope does go, there is a smaller risk of all of you being caught in an avalanche if you are spread out. It is also easier to turn around or to make a detour at your own pace when you are not bunched together.
When climbing a slope using skins you should set off at a slow and steady pace using long strides and trying not to use heel risers ! Keep your feet quite far apart and try to take a route that will avoid the use of kick turns. Try to maintain a pace with a steady height gain and, where it is safe to do so, use the whole width of the slope. Unless you are looking to set a record, avoid steep climbs. Generally, a regular pace without stops will be as quick as a steep climb using heel risers during which you have to keep stopping for breath.
If there are more than two of you on a glacier, I would recommend that you rope up using a ‘téléphérique’ system (see below) and one or two prussik loops or shunts.
Where large amounts of snow have built up, carry out soundings to ascertain the depth of the snow (anything from a simple sounding with your pole to digging a snow pit).
Where the snow is hard, have a look at the slope and the terrain. Check for any cracks or breaks in the snow, and rocks that you should be aware of in the event of a fall or a slide.
When you are skiing through a powder field keep your distance from other skiers and get in the habit of skiing ‘en traces de peigne’ (as if the slope was being combed). There are many advantages to this technique : it uses a minimum of the slope, you can descend one by one while watching each other, it does not overload the slope and you follow (to one side) the tracks of the person in front of you while leaving room for skiers coming after you. If you stick more or less together there is less likelihood of the fragile top layer of snow being cut and destabilised elsewhere and you will leave the slope as more than just a bowl of spaghetti.
Plan ahead where you are going to stop and try to find a sheltered spot (a ridge, bowl, rocks or a tree) even if this means more than just traversing off the slope. If you have to traverse a slope that is steeper than 30° and you are not sure how stable the snow is, check for other safer routes across. Before starting across it imagine you are alone, without an ARVA and there are no available rescue services as this may help to avoid taking unnecessary risks ! Wrap up warm at this point (scarf, face mask, balaclava, goggles…), make sure your rucksack is good and tight (unless it is too heavy and it is likely to impede any sudden movements) and take your hands out of the ski poles straps.
If a slab does break away push hard with your poles towards a stable surface. In certain circumstances you can use sliding blocks to extricate yourself from and get uphill of a snow slide. This specialised technique demands a great deal of agility and very highly developed reactions !
In the vast majority of cases it is inadvisable to head straight down the slope as avalanches accelerate very rapidly and a powder snow avalanche can reach up to 300 kph !
If you are likely to be buried the only advice is to try to stay on top of the avalanche, without swallowing too much snow, and try to keep an air cavity in front of your mouth and nose. This, of course, is all totally hypothetical but is worth bearing in mind as it might speed up your reactions should you find yourself in such a situation. It is useful to note here that the Avalung and ABS systems have already proved, in some cases, to be effective.
In soft snow or in a couloir always keep out of the line of the skier uphill of you in case they set of a slide or fall.
Think about tightening your bindings.
I could write more here about safety do and don’ts, but most accidents are caused by simple and basic mistakes or happen as a result of a combination of several minor errors…
It is not always easy to ski on a glacier while roped up, and I recommend the following methods.
For two people :
Tie, or attach with a locking carabiner, one end of the rope to your harness.
Pass the rope two or three times over your shoulder and around your chest (on top of your rucksack straps), or, if the rope is long enough, each skier ties on roughly three metres from the end of the rope and carries the spare rope in their rucksack.
Now tie a clove hitch or a figure of eight and attach the rope to your harness using one (or two) locking carabiners.
Attach an automatic locking system (Klemheist, prussik loop or Petzl ‘shunt’) to the rope and to the tie-in loop of your harness.
The advantages for this system, where the skiers are roughly 15 to 25 metres from each other, are :
– If your partner falls in a crevasse you can hold his or her fall immediately and can set up a crevasse rescue system using the extra rope in your bag.
– If you fall into a crevasse you can set up another automatic locking system (alpine clutch etc for your foot) so that you can release the knot on the carabiner on your harness as you already have one automatic locking system already attached to the rope. You can then start prussiking out of the crevasse yourself.
For three or more people :
The first and last skiers rope up as above. The remaining members of the group are attached to the rope with a long cow’s tail (maximum length 30 cm). This is for glaciers with relatively few crevasses and obstacles.
When travelling over more heavily crevassed and difficult glaciers I recommend using the ‘téléphérique’ system for roping up those not at the front or the back of the group :
Pass the rope through a locking carabiner that is securely attached to your harness.
Set up two automatic blocking devices on the rope (one either side of the locking carabiner). These can be attached to the harness’s tie-in loop using or a short sling and a locking carabiner. This is a much more versatile system to use when crossing heavily crevassed terrain requiring lots of turning, crossing cracks in the slope and snow bridges. The other members of the group can belay the skier at the front who uses the extra rope lengths to cross an obstacle. All the other skiers have to do is release the automatic blocking device at the front (the one behind will release automatically as it is stopped by the carabiner that has therope running through it) to pay out extra rope to the first skier. The skiers behind the belayer merely have to move towards the belayer to give him or her more rope.
This technique helps to avoid frustrating and dangerous situations caused by the rope lengths between skiers not being appropriate for the distances between the hazardous areas.
This also allows you to adjust your pace of ascent or descent, and more importantly allows proper belaying.
On very rare occasions it is possible for two people to rope up this way using knots in the middle of the rope to help check someone’s fall if they go into a crevasse. However, in this situation it is imperative that each skier has enough rope to rescue their partner from a crevasse. The knots in the main rope bite into the lip of the crevasse checking the skier’s fall. As the knots have checked the fall they are also going to prevent the belayer pulling the first skier out, or the trapped skier from prussiking up the main rope. Therefore, extra rope is required to set up a crevasse rescue pulley system. Other group members, if substituted for the knots, would make very useful and live snow anchors. The equipment manufacturers, such as Petzl, provide detailed and helpful drawings to explain how their gear works.
Jean Coudray, a guide and teacher at ENSA, has been taking his students, future guides and clients across the Alps and to the world’s highest mountains, from K2 to Kangchenjunga, for over 30 years. An old climbing partner of mine, Jean suggested a series of important points and basic rules to bear in mind before and during any outing on skis. Thorough and methodical preparation before a trip together with careful observation on the day, will help prevent numerous errors of judgement. The continuing work of the Swiss guide Werner Münter, author of the method of ‘reduction’ (a great checklist for reducing avalanche risk), should also be mentioned here. The following is a list of fundamental rules that should be adhered to before and during any trip to ski in the mountains.
It is essential to gather data (local avalanche forecasts etc) about a particular route or face, but this in itself is not enough as these are only probabilities. You must nevertheless therefore assess this information and make your own evaluation of the risks you are taking. In order to do this you should take the following three factors into consideration :
the snow conditions and weather forecast
the topography of the terrain (gradient of the slope, its orientation, profile and avalanche gullies)
the other members of your group and other skiers on the mountain (the all-important human factor)
Be aware of, and look out for, the possible negative signs associated with each of these factors. Beware !
after big falls of snow the risk of avalanches being set off by other skiers and other factors arises much earlier than the risk of spontaneous avalanches
fresh snow accompanied by wind is the main cause of avalanches
the first good weather day after a snowfalls is undoubtedly the most dangerous. This, though the danger can also persist for several days, even weeks.
Consider the three main factors at the three main stages of your trip :
during (at the beginning of each observable section of the route, to be done partly on ground)
during (at every stage that you anticipate will be difficult or delicate).
Procedure to follow for each of these factors :
identify the dangers (negative signs, alarms signals)
analyse the danger (faint slight doubts, doubts, strong doubts, very serious doubts) and make your decision (yes or no)
If you decide to continue try to minimise these dangers.
Procedure to follow to minimise the probable dangers :
appropriate distances between each member of the group
choice of precise route (with respect to the terrain)
speed and mode of progression adapted according to the conditions
stay where you can see and hear each other
take care when choosing places to meet up/regroup
avoid critical zones and tricky areas (convex slopes with fresh or deep snow)
never start down a steeper steepening slope without first having stopped to check the terrain downhill
be properly equipped (ARVA, shovel, probe…)
never ski uphill or downhill directly above or bellow another skier
follow the single track when necessary
Humility (towards the natural environment which we cannot control)
Modesty (towards others)
Curiosity (learn about the snow)
Prudence (don’t forget to think !)
Saying no is not a form of cowardice ! It sometimes takes more courage and intelligence to turn back. To feel the danger or fear the worst is not the same thing as being afraid. On the contrary, listen to what your instinct and your gut feelings are telling you.
One more thing : remember, the avalanche does not know you’re an expert.
Anselme Baud was born in Morzine, Haute-Savoie, in 1948 and has been a major force in the development of extreme skiing in the Alps for many years. He became a mountain guide in 1973 and has an impressive number of extreme first descents to his name including the north face of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, the Peuterey Ridge, and the Col Armand Charlet among others in the Alps. His first descents in the Andes include Vintinani and Huayna Potosi ; and in Antarctica they include the north-west couloir of Vinson ; and Dhaulagiri and Yalung Kang in the Himalayas. Anselme Baud teaches at ENSA (the French National Ski and Mountaineering school based in Chamonix), and has taken his students on expeditions to Bolivia and Nepal. In addition to his work at ENSA, Anselme also regularly runs ski and mountaineering expeditions across the globe and has successfully climbed the ‘Seven Summits’ (highest summit of each continent) with clients.
France : IGN 3531 ET Saint-Gervais-les-Bains (Top 25)
IGN 3530 OT Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (Top 25)
Switzerland : 1345 Orsières (1 :25000)
1344 Col de Balme (1 :25000)
1324 Barberine (1 :25000)
1325 Sembrancher (1 :25000)
1365 Grand Saint Bernard (1 :25000)
282 Martigny (1 :50000)
292 Courmayeur (1 :50000)
km : kilometre(s)
m : metre(s)
hr(s) : hour(s)
min(s) : minute(s)
ref. : mountain hut (refuge)
bel. : ‘belvedere’ route with stunning views of the Mont Blanc Massif
OP : off-piste route
ST : ski-tour
HM : high-mountain route
CAF : Club Alpin Français
CAI : Club Alpino Italiano
CAS : Club Alpin Suisse
Almost all the photographs in this book are from the author’s collection with the exception of some that were taken by the following people: Emmanuel Moy, René Robert, Jean-Pierre Mansard and Toru Nakano.
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