CR #517 (2016/2017)


A few worthy storms over a week ago gave us a good top up of snow, but strong winds from almost every direction followed by a spike in temperatures have left the snowpack difficult to read, and large patches of sun crust, wind slab, and general unpleasantness everywhere. However, there has been a lot of good skiing to be found on higher north-facing aspects, and early-spring skiing on south-facing aspects. Furthermore, many people consider the current conditions simply not worth bothering with, so the mountains aren't especially crowded at the moment, despite it being the busy period of the school holidays. This means that you can still find good snow a fairly long time after snowfall on what are traditionally very busy routes.

Schneelage

Despite an alarmingly-slow start to the season, conditions have picked up considerably, and snow coverage is really not that bad. People are now skiing the Vallee Blanche and surrounding routes on a regular basis, even guided groups of relative beginners thanks to the Midi arete finally being equipped with rope and walkway. The exit couloirs for the Pas de Chevre are as healthy as can be expected, and can be passed with relatively-little damage to your bases and edges.

The exit to the Le Tour Glacier is completely skiable, as is the forest trail of the Berard Valley for any ski tours in the Aiguilles Rouges, likewise the cat track descending from the Chalets de Loriaz. There is some great skiing to be found in the Vallon de Tre Les Eaux for some sunny early-afternoon spring snow, but the river gorge still isn't sufficiently filled to allow an easy exit, meaning a 50m bootpack up to the summer walking trail, and an easy-but-exposed descent on some Via Ferrata pegs and chains.

The home runs at Brevent and Flegere remain closed, not surprisingly, but the home runs at Le Tour and the Grands Montets are open and well-covered, even if horribly icy in places.

All in all, you can ski down to the valley at the moment almost wherever you are, but with temperatures still rising and no new snow on the horizon, this is bound to change.

Schneequalität

There is some good snow still to be found, with decent spring snow on the south faces and some pockets of fresh powder on the higher north faces, but the mixed bag of weather over the last few weeks has left them hidden among patches of crust and slab.

There is a general feeling that this year is something of a washout, and many people are just giving it a miss, holding on for steep season, or maybe even just waiting until next year. But given the conditions we had earlier in the year, things feel pretty good by comparison right now, and if you lower your standards just a little bit, you can have some absolutely incredible days out.

Lawinensituation

For the last week now, the avalanche risk has been set as 3/5, but tomorrow, because of slightly-cooler temperatures under a blanket of sparse cloud, this will drop to 2/5.
As the zero degree isotherme creeps towards 3000m early next week, however, things will inevitably start to get a little more interesting.

Many of the areas in the Chamonix valley are still suffering from a persistent weak layer of buried sugar snow, primarily around 2300-3000m, on some north, north-east, and north-west faces, and even on the more sun-sheltered east and west faces, too, but south facing slopes have generally calmed down a lot by now.

The significant slab buildup at high altitudes on north and northeast faces following the foehn wind storms of last week have, for the most part, been stabilised, but obviously caution should still be exercised.

Gesamteindruck

Despite the tricky-to-read conditions and the general attitude across the valley of this season being a bit of a right-off, I've had some great days. I've generally been trying to escape any hidden weak layers by skiing things too steep to grow them, focusing on unreasonably steep-and-narrow couloirs, or big sunny couloirs that have gelled together well.

So as well as a quick trip to the Pointe d'Areu west couloir and the Y Couloir on the Aiguille d'Argentiere, this week also saw me and a couple of trusted friends making a raid into seldom-skied territory on the stark and austere north-west face of Mont Buet, a wild and unforgiving place that relatively few people ever visit. We found rocks, ice, dry skiing, one quick rappel, and one hell of an adventure far from the madding crowd.

In a year where conditions are considered less-than-great, you just need to redefine your expectations of what constitutes "fun". But alas, despite the fun and games I've managed to claw out of this last batch of snow, after a week away from work, I'm now heading back to the grindstone. Here's hoping for some more weather in the meantime.

(a quick plug: to see regular pictures and short films of conditions from in and around Chamonix, feel free to check out my "instagram" )

 

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