CR #227 (2016/2017)

I've been trying to put a brave face on it, and I've been doing my best to make the most out of the poor conditions we've been given. But I can't distort the reality a moment longer: Chamonix is really, really bad right now.


Six weeks without a single snowflake, without even a drop of rain. Most people in the valley would kill for just half an hour of drizzle, if only to soak the dust from their car windscreens. Everyone has a dry cough. We are thirsty.

There is no snow below 2000m of altitude. On the Aiguilles Rouges side of the valley and up at Le Tour, the snow between 2000m and 2900m is yellow or grey, studded with chunks of gneiss and dead butterflies. On the Chamonix messageboards, people ask whether or not they can ski down to the valley on their family ski holiday next week. The derision they receive in reply is unmasked, scathing, cruel.

On the north-facing side of the valley, the snow lingers, but it is a sorry beast. We almost wish for a freak heatwave to come and melt it all, to put it out of it's misery. The Grands Montets home run, the Pierre a Ric, has scant artificial snowcover on 60% of it's surface. It has never been pisted yet, this season.


We have two types of snow at the moment: crust and sastrugi. Some days the sun is strong enough to soften the crust and make it skiable, others not. The sastrugi, carved by a few days of unpleasantly-strong wind last week, vary in height between ankle-breaking and knee-breaking.
Any slopes both south facing and under significant cliffs or rock bands are streaked with gravel and rocks, skiing on them is like skiing over sandpaper.
Most of the higher north facing slopes are now windscoured completely clean, laying bare the grey glacial ice beneath. There are still the occasional forays to the big classics like the Col des Cristeaux and the North East Face of the Courtes, but they are purely for training, for exercise.

The snow quality is, almost uniformly across the board, terrible.


The official avalanche forecase in Chamonix is 1/5 below 2800m, and 2/5 above. Little has changed in the last week, and although the slopes are still cold, stable, and relatively safe, almost all of the ski descents to be found in the Chamonix valley are unpleasant at best, downright dangerous at worst, or, most likely, non-existent.


But for all the doom-and-gloom, there are still a few intrepid souls setting out to ski what they can find. Yesterday, January 2nd, was a busy day on the Argentiere Glacier... two of the valley's best-known steep skiers, Mikko Heimonen and Jesper Petersson, wandered off up the Amethysts Glacier to ski some forgotten, sinuous couloir on the shoulders of the Aiguille d'Argentiere. They did a lot of rappeling.
Two friends of mine, Tim and Gareth, were the first party this year to try and climb on the fat-looking icefalls on the far side of the Argentiere Glacier snout another. They managed it, with a long walk and wet ropes.
I myself went looking for something to ski at the far end, near the border with Italy. Five people. On the whole of the glacier.

I wanted to look at some tiny, dark, insignificant couloir nestled deep between a cluster of golden granite spires, but as I stood beneath it looking up at what would be the exit rappels, it became clear I didn't bring enough rope or balls. I'll have to come back another day.

But I didn't want to have dragged this sixty metres of rope all the way up the glacier for nothing, so I set the controls for something else, a line I've wanted to ski for years, and a couple of hours later I was near the top of the south west face of Pointe Kurz. But thickening clouds, the first we've seen since November, encourage me to turn around just a few metres shy of the line's natural conclusion; I don't want to be skiing refrozen crust on this relatively-steep slope. The snow was as good as could be expected nearly six weeks after the last snowfall, heavily-textured and swimming with sharks, but soft and accommodating in the fading sunlight. A few hundred metres of decent skiing led me to a short rappel through the narrow, rocky bottleneck, then a few hundred more down to the glacier, and the battle with knee-high sastrugi in flat light under a blanket of grey cloud to get home.

I think it's safe to say that I've put the effort in during this unbelievably-dry December, and I've tried to make the most out of the conditions we've been given. But the route along the left bank of the glacier back to the pistes of the Grands Montets, even for someone with standards as low as mine, simply isn't worth it anymore. Blue ice, gravel, granite slabs, mandatory air, crumbling bridges over increasingly-visible crevasses... I don't think I'll be going back to the Argentiere Glacier until we've had a lot more snow, and I can't recommend that anyone else bother with it either.



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