CR #194 (2016/2017)

Chamonix was blessed by, frankly, a ridiculous amount of snow back in early November followed by a couple of top-up storms, and then, for the last month, absolutely nothing. The smog hangs heavy in the air under an obstinate blanket of high pressure, and the snowline, which started with nearly 120cm of snow down in the valley at 1000m of altitude, has been pushed higher and higher by endless days of blue sky and weak December sun. There is no snow below 2000m of altitude on south-facing slopes, and nothing below 1700m north-facing. The moraines and access paths on the Glacier du Tour, the lower end of the Argentiere Glacier, and the Montenvers end of the Mer du Glace, are dry and crumbling.

With this in mind, if you want to ski any good snow in Chamonix at the moment, you need to aim high, look for sheltered spots, and if at all possible, go to Italy instead.


With snow conditions the way they are at the moment, most people have switched back to mountain biking or rock climbing. The Grands Montets ski area is open, as are a number of lifts at both Brevent and Flegere, but none of the pistes leading back to the valley are open, and as such the queues at the cable cars to descend at the end of the day are long. Le Tour is completely closed, and Les Houches might as well be. The Aiguille du Midi is open, but the descent of the Vallee Blanche is currently not advised. People have been skiing it, but the glaciers are pretty open lower down, and you get to enjoy a hell of a long walk to get to Montenvers. Instead, people are currently skinning back to the Midi lift at the end of the day.
The only snow worth skiing at the moment is up high, ideally above 2500m. All of the big classics in the Argentiere basin such as the Col d'Argentiere and the Col du Tour Noire are currently being skied daily, and the wind is shifting the loose snow around enough to leave pockets of "recycled powder" if you look hard enough for them. The ski touring in the Aiguilles Rouges is a little bony in places, but the south side of the Col du Belvedere and the Col des Dards, on the slightly warmer days, provide some decent spring-style snow. The north faces of the Aiguilles Rouges are surprisingly well-filled and holding their snow well, given the length of time since the last storm, but the snowline at 2000m means you have over 4km of summer walking trail to stroll along to get to the village of Buet.


Quite excitingly, Chamonix had its first powder day in over a month today: many slopes above 2500m that had been even slightly sheltered from the wind found themselves with a dusting of well over a centimetre. Other than that, most south-facing slopes are currently nothing but sun crust or gravel, most north-faces are grey ice or boilerplate, and the glacier flats are an endless sea of sastrugi and blue ice. In some well-sheltered couloirs you might find some pockets of soft, sluffy facets, but these are often bordered by bulletproof.
In short: the snow is not great here in Chamonix at the moment. Most people are just hopping through the tunnel to Italy, where the foehn wind has been kind and delivered considerable quantities of fresh snow, especially further south. But the French side of the Mont Blanc Massif hasn't totally missed out, and the closer you get to the border, the more fresh snow you are likely to find: some of the steeper slopes at the south end of the Argentiere basin will be skiing very well over the next few days, and anyone willing to put the leg work in might get some good snow over in the Combe Maudite, or near the the Noire.


Our astonishingly-huge first dump of snow was cememented into place by a brief spell of fairly-warm weather followed by a return to the seasonal average temperatures. For the most part, our snowpack is just one big, thick, predictable layer, and at the moment the avalanche forecast stands at 1/5 below 3000m, 2/5 above. As long as you think a little bit about where you are going, things are, on the whole, safe and stable. Because of this, even with general conditions being as dry as they are, people are skiing some relatively big things for so early in the year, such as the Aiguille d'Argentiere's Y Couloir and the Col des Cristeaux, and there are even a few new lines being put up in the Argentiere basin by some of the big names in the Chamonix steep skiing community.


So despite a fairly slow start to the season, there are some hidden gems lurking up in the mountains, and if you don't mind walking for them, you can still ski some good snow. Today, a friend and I made an attempt on the Aiguille d'Argentiere via the Whymper Route and the X-Couloir, but armed only with one good axe and one toy aluminium axe each, we had to turn around at the grey ice on the north face just below the summit. No matter, however: for the first few hundred metres of the descent we mangaged to ski, in places, over 30cm of pof on a pretty-sharky base, followed by 5cm of soft on an old base for another few hundred, and then finally crust, crud, and barely-covered rock slabs and crumbling moraine, back down to the glacier. We put in over 1300m of ascent in return for about 700m of good snow, and it was as good a day as we could have possibly hoped for without driving down to Pila, or Isola 2000. Or Finale.
The weather doesn't really show any signs of changing, and this is going to be our lot in life for at least another week. You have to work harder and walk further to get relatively-little good snow in return, but hey, at least it scares away most of the crowds.



  • 6 Bewertungen:
Nice hat!!
@lea_pg, tis the season to be jolly and wear silly hats.
Good read Pete, anyway, next time try to use fewer words icon_biggrin.gif icon_biggrin.gif this ain't high literature
Adrian, I find that prose makes a worthy substitute for snow in times of dry weather...
tremendously icon_wink.gif
I am all for lofty prose if we can't have snow.
On the off-chance that anyone would like to see some sort of videographic record of the current snow conditions in Chamonix, please refer to position 2:25 until 2:52 in this short documentary. Music by Mike Oldfield, In Dolce Jubilo.
Thanks, chaps!


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