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TR: 2014 Femma Familiar

 Poster: A snowHead
Poster: A snowHead
Sorry, this has turned into a mammoth report - best fetch a cup of tea.

TR: 2014 Femma Familiar

As usual, the skiing wing of our mountaineering club wanted another self-guided tour to fit in the Easter break. Circumstances allowed our number to increase to seven - including some newbies. In fact, there were several more who wanted to join us but that would have become too unwieldy. Seven's still rather many, but at least we all know each other well and can operate together as a robust team.

Warnings from davidof and others of 'the most dangerous avalanche conditions for a decade', the large group size and the limited experience of some were all worrying.

We needed some easy skiing with lots of bail-out options, preferably on familiar ground. So I proposed a route in the Vanoise National Park starting in Termignon and going via the Refuges Plan du Lac (unmanned), La Femma and La Leisse with two day-trips out from La Femma.


Click any image to enlarge

Many of us had already been in 2013, 2011 and 2009 so knew the area well. I checked the route against SkiTrack.fr to make sure we were staying away from slopes above 30° where avalanches are more likely. I printed out maps on Toughprint paper at 1:20K so they are easier to read. These had all the waypoints marked and I downloaded the route to Baby Garmin too. I even prepared fly-thru videos so we could get a better feel of what to expect:
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Then in the fortnight before we left I kept checking the SnowForecast for Val Cenis and the avalanche bulletin from Meteo France. For most of that time the freezing level was hovering around 3000m (day and night!) and Meteo France reported that the snow was well bonded but 'disappearing before our eyes'. The avy risk was down to one - its lowest level. We might have to avoid the grass but at least we should be safe!

We planned to drive in two cars with John, Mrs A and I travelling two days early so we could introduce John to some more delights of the Maurienne.

It's handy to have an apartment in case the weather craps out so we contacted Nathalie again. This time we were in the 8-berth Myosotis.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014
Mrs A and I were up early and drove to John's in Lincoln. No problems except for Mrs A getting restless as Mama Garmin directed us through Barnsley to avoid traffic jams near Sheffield somewhere. Transferred our gear to John's Octavia Estate and set off for the tunnel and our 17:20 booking. Little traffic meant we drove straight on to an earlier train. Meal at the rebuilt Aire d'Urvillers near St Quentin and then on to the F1 at Reims, Tinqueux.

Thursday, 10 April 2014
Continued on at a leisurely pace, swapping driver every two hours, until we arrived once more at the Hotel Bernard in St Jean de Maurienne by mid-afternoon. Good meal again at Le Montanna.

Friday, 11 April 2014
The snow had been melting fast so we had to be picky about choosing a resort. The proprietor (I still don't know his name) suggested Orelle but we'd not come here to ski the Three Valleys again. Apparently, Les Karellis was open and I knew there were some shady bowls there so off we went.

One lap of the sunny, southern bowl and then we set off down the itineraire to Albanne before it got too soft. Route finding proved a little troublesome...



..but we made it down with just a little carrying. Our favourite bar in Albanne was shut but we found our way to the Auberge Narcisse for a drink instead. Then back to Les Karellis for lunch and up into the northern bowl for a few laps then into the steep and shady middle bowl where we found some half-decent snow. Without all the powder of last time, Mrs A started getting adventurous - and was skiing noticeably better too.



From the top we could see over the edge down onto Albiez-Montrond. There was snow on the pistes but clearly the place had shut down. Good job we hadn't gone there then! We didn't persist to the bitter end but we still had a good crack at much of what Les Karellis has to offer.



Excellent meal in l'Evidence again.

Saturday, 12 April 2014
I had certain reservations about Les Sybelles, given the conditions, but there didn't seem a better option. We drove to Le Corbier where things were a little bare. However, the slopes above St Sorlin were holding up well. Outside the drinks-stop at Les Chalets de la Balme we found a group of telemarkers dressed up as superheros. One at a time they headed off across the piste and then backwards, underneath that Ralentir sign!



We made it through the flatlands to La Toussuire but there was no chance of skiing the direct route back down the south-facing slope so we had to loop round on the high ground until we dropped back to finish early in the slush of Le Corbier.



Still, we managed to cover quite a bit of Les Sybelles despite the poor snow cover.



Back to St Jean to pick up loads of shopping for everybody then up the road to Termignon where we arrived about an hour ahead of the others. We took the opportunity to see how far we could drive up the road towards the Femma. There was absolutely no sign of snow where we had started the previous year. The road seemed to go for ages until we met the Route Barrée sign at Le Suffet (1891m). Andy and Alison had prepared a meal at home and brought it along in a cool box.

Sunday, 13 April 2014
Previously, we had used the lift directly out of Termignon to start our warm-up day. But, given the poor snow, we guessed it would be better to drive to Lanslevillard instead. We discovered later that the Termignon end of the resort had already shut - phew!

Let's say that, to begin with, we were thankful that Val Cenis offers many tree-lined runs. Ian clips in the leashes on his tele gear.



But the weather soon cleared up and, although the Mont Cenis drag didn't offer it's usual delights...



...we did have a good time around the shady bits under the slow Met chair. Sadly, Baby Garmin had started to play up. Its internal clock seems to have gone haywire. Only in the afternoon, after I'd told it we'd moved hundreds of miles, did it start picking up a signal.



Mrs A organised ratatouille for everyone and got more than a little stressed trying to find €300 in cash that she'd withdrawn in St Jean. Fortunately, it turned up eventually. As we were packing for the tour I discovered I'd lost the handle to my shovel - possibly in Les Karellis. Fortunately, John had a spare in the car boot.

Monday, 14 April 2014
Still tired and with no great distance to cover we had a late-ish start. We drove in two cars up to Le Suffet and parked by some others at the side of the road. Still, we were moving before 7:45.



But before long the snow had run out again and we had to walk. It must cost an enormous amount to clear up this road each year.



At one point we saw two chamois and were surprised when they started to run towards us. Actually, they were heading back into the forest by crossing the road ahead of us.



With no pressure of time the journey wasn't at all unpleasant. We picked up the snow where we could and the odd short cut that was on offer.



After less than an hour we arrived at the Chapelle Ste-Marguerite (2215m) where we had a sit in the sun and a bite to eat. It was continuous snow (and good weather) from there on.



We arrived at the Refuge du Plan du Lac (2364m) in plenty of time to spread everything to dry. In previous years the snow had been level with the lintel over the door and we had to dig our way in.



There didn't seem to be anyone else arriving so we spread ourselves over three dormitories. Then, just before 6pm, an outdoorsy looking couple turned up. Initially, I took them to be a guide and his moll but he proceeded to spend an hour getting nothing better than a yellow flame out of his petrol stove and thoroughly blackening a saucepan - so I'm not so sure. Eventually, they gave up and borrowed one of our gas stoves. He said they were going to the Grand Roc Noir. On the map this looks fearsomely steep.

Mrs A was in a bad way and retired to bed without any food only to get up in the night to be sick. Not the best place to be coping with this.

Baby Garmin was playing up again.



Tuesday, 15 April 2014
We packed our rubbish, unused food and gas canisters in a labelled bag to collect on the way out and were off by seven - first stop Pointe de Lanserlia (2903m). Lower down we still had to pick our way around the grass but the line was fairly obvious. The top proved a little awkward where hard, uneven snow and a few rocks required some precision kick turns. But we all made it safely to the summit. We waved at guide and moll as they crossed the ridge lower down.



The descent was almost perfect with big easy pitches and snow that was just softening.



Another bite to eat and then it was onward and upward. The rib that I'd planned to take was looking steep and bare so we straight-lined the adjacent riverbed instead.



We continued left to Le Turc (2797m) which we decided was just a bit too windy for lunch. Simon's name always seems to come up on such occasions! So first we dropped down onto the Plateau du Turc (2684m) where we also had a good view of the route planned for Friday. It is south-facing and was now very bare - particularly up around the steep traverse below Roc Blanc. We decided there and then that it wasn't a good idea and we'd just have to spend another day at La Femma.

We also had a good view of the Glacier du Vallonnet. Just as we were packing up I spotted two skiers descending. Guide and moll must have 'threaded the needle' on Grand Roc Noir and were now heading back. From our distance their route looked almost vertical but they were definitely skiing rather than side-slipping. Every so often they would stop for a while - presumably while they read a guide book. Look at the larger image and you can just see two dots at top left of the main ramp below the glacier.



Descending the Plateau du Turc our problem was finding a continuous line steep enough to keep us moving. At one point we realised we were heading for a frozen lake so, wary of the warm conditions, made a slight detour.

Originally, we thought we'd stay on the south side of the Torrent de la Rocheure but, although we'd been to La Femma several times, we weren't sure how to cross the river. There certainly didn't look to be any snow bridges. So we opted to play safe and descend to the large concrete bridge near the Chalet de la Rocheure. By now the snow was perfect and, although the ground was steep, we managed to pick a line through the rocks and avalanche debris.



The trek up the valley does seem to go on for ever. We managed the majority on skis but still had to walk for some long sections. In the background the south side looks skiable but there are many similar obstacles to negotiate as we would find out later.



We arrived at La Femma at about 3:30. Any notions of tiredness soon evaporated on seeing the guardian, Claire, again. She's been here for many (27?) years now and always makes everybody very welcome. We were given the best rooms in the house - either side of the chimney from the stove! This time she was assisted by Veronique. Good job too as it was busier than we'd ever seen before and it was fully booked on Easter Saturday. Dinner involved duck I think.

Baby Garmin was really struggling.



Wednesday, 16 April 2014
We had passed the Pointe de Méan Martin (3330m) several times, usually with the summit as an option, but we'd never actually been there so it was high on the 'to do' list.

While we were having breakfast we spotted the full moon setting over the Plateau du Turc.



Recognised touring routes are marked on IGN25K maps with dashed blue lines. Experience has shown that these are not always the best option. In particular, the route up the Ruisseau des Roches Blanches is tight and steep. Instead most of us managed to straight-line the riverbed in the next valley south. Only Gilly with her short flip-up harscheisen had to pitch it. Then we avoided the drumlins by keeping to the right up the glacier. It proved to be a good line with a steady gradient all the way.

In the background, to the right, is the Pointe de la Sana whilst, almost directly over Mrs A's head, is the sunlight slope next to the Col de Pierre Blanche - our abandoned route for Friday. La Femma is just below the rocky crag at the far left and hidden by the near horizon.



Our route led us neatly to the col at 3171m. I thought that there might be a way to squeak across on the other side but, sadly, that was not to be. So we dumped the skis and carried on with crampons and axes.

Five others from La Femma, including a guide and his two clients, chose to follow the dashed blue lines. They had quite a sustained boot pack to get off the glacier a little way down the slope behind us. I think we had the easier option.

Here we are having lunch by the col looking down onto the lifts of Bonneval sur Arc near the head of the Maurienne Valley. The snowy peak on the right is Le Signal Méan Martin (3315m) and the Pointe is just showing behind the ridge on the left.



It was a short but nervy hop and a skip over loose rocks until we made the snow on the ridge. We could have carried the skis over the rocks and used them later but it would have been quite 'airy'. In the end, it didn't take long to walk to the summit.

In the lead is a British couple we'd met in La Femma the night before. They were having a night out from Val d'Isere and were going to ski back down the Glacier des Fours. Hope they didn't find any holes!



The summit was quite busy with seating at a premium! However, there was a wonderful panorama. We could easily see Mont Blanc and even, by fortuitous arrangement of gaps, the Matterhorn.



Then we skipped back the way we had come until we reached the rocky col - which we took very carefully. If it had been somewhere familiar in Wales we wouldn't have given it a second thought but here, a long way from anywhere and while wearing crampons, it proved a little unnerving.



Back on skis we retraced our route on the way up. To begin with the snow wasn't as good as expected and many fell over on the soft breakable crust. At least the gradient was gentle so it was nothing worse than amusing. Later we found some shallow gullies to ski where all the turns on the left side were crusty and the right were slushy.

Lower down, near where we'd skinned up the riverbed we skied down a steepish ridge. The snow was just perfect and everyone got down in style.



Six happy bunnies in a row - with our pointy summit, ridge line and col right of centre and uphill riverbed and downhill ridge below them.



Later, back at the refuge a huge bearded vulture/gypaète barbu/lammergeier flew low across the balcony and then landed on a nearby rock. Perhaps it was looking for the duck bones. I grabbed my camera but only managed to get a shot of it disappearing into the distance.

Rather easier to capture was a group of three out of a large party (15?) of French skiers. At a loose end before dinner they spent perhaps an hour skinning some way up the mountain opposite the hut. Then to great applause from the others on the balcony they skied back down in under a minute.



Once again the four course meal from Claire was excellent.

Baby Garmin was playing today.



Last edited by Poster: A snowHead on Tue 13-05-14 19:41; edited 5 times in total
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 Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Thursday, 17 April 2014
We needed to find something to fill up the extra day. One of the ski touring magazines lying about had a report of three day-trips from the Femma ticking off Méan Martin, La Sana and the Col du Géfret (3185m). There was our answer.

Fortunately, Ian had also been at a loose end the afternoon before and had sussed out how to get across the river. Note that, from the Femma, you need to head right and not left as indicated by the map. With a few minutes' work with his axe, Ian made the icy steps safe for everyone.



We were soon on our way up the south side with the Femma and the, delightfully named, Plan de l'Avalanche behind.



Route finding was fairly simple - just head up the valley and turn right. We skirted the crown of the glacier just in case there were any holes but that was about it. From a distance the last bit up to the col looked too steep even for crampons but when we got there it was almost skiable.



We skinned a little way up the last ramp and then switched to crampons. It wasn't as bad as it had appeared but I was glad we hadn't tried to ski it. Every few paces the surface changed completely and it would have been, what offpisteskiing describes as, 'interesting'.



On the way back we split the party. Most went back the way we had come but Mrs A and Ian were keen to follow one of my 'adventures'. I reckoned that if we kept traversing left we'd eventually pop out on one of the slopes visible opposite the hut. To begin with we were crossing some quite steep powder and it was hard work having to side-step up the odd rise. The last traverse around the bottom of the rib looked unfeasibly level but it went with surprising ease and we popped out right opposite the hut (vertically above the glasses of IMGP3654 above). We could see the others just approaching the bridge below. The first pitch was quite steep - perhaps 35° with a very firm but smooth finish. Mrs A was more worried by being on show! We took it a few turns at a time and then bore left above the rocks and into the depression that the French had used the night before. This was full of little wind-blown dusty flakes that had their arms bashed off. I'm not sure if this counts as chalky but it was certainly sublime - 30° of perfection. Big grins all round - but no applause from the balcony! Back in the hut be basked in the afternoon sunshine and more than a little glow from inside.

Dinner was again excellent - diots and polenta, if I remember correctly - and a free bottle of wine. But no trip to La Femma is complete without a photo of its famous cheese board. Simply stunning!



Baby Garmin performed again.



Friday, 18 April 2014
Some of us had ascended the Pointe de la Sana (3436m) before but that was a long time ago and we had barely glimpsed a view at the top. Claire was happy to give us breakfast at six so we were off early - but still behind some French squaddies who did a good job of picking a line through the patches of snow on the lower slopes.



Again we ignored the blue lines and picked an easier, more circuitous route. Unfortunately, this includes a short section down a steep ridge. It would be dodgy to ski this with skins on so we just booted it like everyone else.



As we got higher the weather closed in and it even started snowing. The lack of sunshine meant that the snow wasn't softening at all. In fact it was quite hard and lumpy where the action of the sun and other skiers had mashed it up. Our route came round the top of those m-shaped rocks above Mrs A's head.



By the time we made it to the summit the clag was really down. Every so often brief windows would appear. This is the ridge running west from La Sana. After the third bump it's possible to ski off to La Leisse. That could be an airy walk with skis on your pack!



Yes, we were all there!



Although the snow was incredibly hard there wasn't any point in hanging around waiting for it to soften. Little sunshine was getting through and the visibility was dropping all the time. The ride back was very bumpy. Some were more comfortable doing sit turns on the steeper terrain.



But as the viz improved and the snow got a little easier we started to enjoy ourselves. We followed our tracks back but, towards the bottom, headed to the skiers left where we knew there was better snow. Time for a photo shoot!



We returned to the hut at 2pm in falling snow which continued on an off all night - much to the displeasure of the Femma Familiar who had been put out for the night. Claire's cat is HUGE.



We met another British couple, Charlie and Kat, who were just out for the long Easter weekend and intent on finding some big lines. They'd skied in from the Borsat chair in Val d'Isere - the quickest way to La Femma, apparently.

Claire's meal was another masterpiece. Eaten with a little sadness but at least there were more bones for the gypaète.





Saturday, 19 April 2014
Sad goodbyes. Claire and I don't have much of each other's language but we seem to understand each other. She's always smiling, just a little 'kooky' but incredibly attentive and hard working. Far and away my favourite guardian.

In the end it was nearly eight by the time we set off over the bridge and down the south side of the river. As it's mostly downhill we chose not to use skins so, inevitably, there was some clomping involved.



And with the odd 'feature' to negotiate too. Those of us on Dynafits soon had dimples frozen solid with ice.



Bye bye Femma. I wanted to cry.



It was hard work at times but quite fun all the same. Which way next?



Ian was determined to do what he could on skis while the rest of us just accepted the inevitable.



But as we descended the bad weather from Italy chased after us.



It was snowing again by the time we got to Balme Froide where we stopped for a bite to eat and to don skins. Then we ascended the road towards Plan du Lac. With the refuge not quite in sight there was a shout from the back of the group. Alison had lost the heel piece of one of her Dynafit Radical STs. Fortunately, Andy was right behind her and spotted it lying in the snow but we had an anxious few minutes while we located the springs and adjuster. It seemed to have just unscrewed itself. So, while the others went on and got some hot water going, we set about putting it back together. On checking the other binding we found that the detent wasn't working and the adjuster was cross-threaded too. Most weird.

At the refuge we found that someone had been rummaging through our stash. Mrs A's uncooked meal had been removed and put in the common food and empty jars and cans were added to our rubbish. Barstewards! We tidied up and closed all the shutters (which they'd left open) and thought about setting off. It wasn't pretty outside - just on the snowy side of rain.



The snow just got wetter as we descended. First skins and then even bare skis started icing up. Andy broke out the silver wax which helped a bit. We mostly stuck to the road but when there was no snow tried the odd diversion - one of which went very wrong and we just had to clomp back again. There's a long section that catches the sun so we gave up and walked.



The snow kept coming and going but at least the last bit to the cars was skiable.





Then we threw everything in the back of the cars and drove to the apartment where we spread it all out to dry and headed for the hot showers. Unfortunately, all the restaurants in Termignon were now closed until the summer season. A mix up with the bookings meant we didn't have a place at the posh restaurant in Sollières l'Endroit so Nathalie drove us to Lanslebourg and La Vanoise Restaurant/Pizzeria. Not quite the Sabot de Venus but the food and service was fine enough and the taxi ride was free.

Sunday, 20 April 2014
Nathalie came round to say good bye and wish us a pleasant journey - and take a group photo. I don't think she needed to ask if we had a good time.



Off we set with a plan to meet up at the Aire d'Urvillers again for dinner. As it happened, both cars stopped at the same Aire for lunch and we shared a picnic - including some of Ian's food that had been up to the Femma and back.

Our car arrived a little late at Urvillars but there was no sign of the others so we had a play on the exercise machines that have been put there to wake up weary travellers. The restaurant was very quiet so that, sadly, the food was cold and indifferent.

At least we had an excellent sunset near Arras.



Then on to the F1 at Coquelles. All seven of us sat in one room while we finished off the wine boxes and remnants of food.

Monday, 21 April 2014
An 9:20 and we were off on our way to Lincoln. The whole journey went swimmingly until we were within 10 miles of John's house. An accident meant a blocked road and a detour through some narrow lanes with an artic coming the other way!

After a cup of tea and a sit down in the garden we set off back to Warrington making it home some time after five. Thom (our cat) seemed to say nonchalantly 'oh, your back are you'. He doesn't know what he missed.



So, where next?


Last edited by Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person on Tue 13-05-14 19:42; edited 5 times in total
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 Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
Thanks for the taking the time and trouble to report. Entertaining Very Happy
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Too much uphill work for me, but the cheese did look nice Very Happy
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 Anyway, snowHeads is much more fun if you do.
Anyway, snowHeads is much more fun if you do.
Excellent.
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Good to see the cheese-board is still up to scratch. Must swing in there and say hi at some point...
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 Then you can post your own questions or snow reports...
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Thanks for posting altis, I liked the addition of the maps. The refuge sounds great. All these touring TRs are making me really keen to do some hut to hut stuff. Very Happy
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 After all it is free Go on u know u want to!
After all it is free Go on u know u want to!
Great photos. Looks like a bit of a hiking holiday rather than a skiing holiday though!
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You'll get to see more forums and be part of the best ski club on the net.
Mmm..., looking back there does seem to be a high proportion of photos of us walking. It's possibly because they make for more interesting pictures than when we're skiing. It's easy to end up with just a disorganised selection of dots on a white background.

Starting and finishing in a resort can make things easier at the beginning and end but there aren't many places that suit. We really needed to stay in the same valley in case the weather closed in. We didn't want another expensive taxi ride like last year. We're all used to walking and have decent boots so it seemed to fit well with the capabilities and aspirations of the team.

We certainly got more use out of our crampons this year. That's no bad thing. Mrs A says she's no longer worried at the thought of taking them because we might meet ground where she needs to use them!

A proper hut to hut tour is certainly more satisfying. There is something about the 'journey' that very much appeals to our group. However, this adds enormously to the stress. It's like a chain where each link is dependant on the next. You can design in a 'spare' day near the end but, generally, it means that you have to move on regardless of the weather or the condition of any member of the party. The huts tend to be spread out so that simply getting from one to the next can be a major undertaking. The original plan was very cautious with 4 moving-on days and 2 day-trips but even that was compromised through lack of snow. Options. Always build in options.
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