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TR: 2015 Chamonix Shenanigans

 Poster: A snowHead
Poster: A snowHead
TR: 2015 Chamonix Shenanigans

This is more of an aide-mémoire than a story so don't worry about speed-reading some (or most) of it.

Our Easter touring group has been organising self-guided trips for a number of years: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011. Potential venues are limited by our lack of glacier travel skills so we felt it was time to up our game. Gilly has much experience of summer walking on glaciers (including a rather too intimate encounter with a crevasse) but none of us had skied over holes - well, not knowingly anyway!

We consulted offpisteskiing and he pointed us to IFMGA guide, Jonathan Baird who works out of Passy, near Chamonix. Originally, we planned to do a tour - probably around Gran Paradiso - while picking up new skills on the way. However, after batting many ideas back and forth, we settled on day tours out of Chamonix instead so that we could focus on acquiring the skills we wanted.

Suitable accommodation for six took some sleuthing but eventually, with the aid of HomeAway, we came up with this self-catered chalet. Although it's well down the valley tucked away behind Le Fayet, we reasoned that, since we'd be using cars anyway, the extra 15-20 minutes driving was no big hassle. It turned out to be a good trade. The facilities were great; there was loads of space to spread our gear; Le Fayet was just a short walk away and the big Intermarché at Domancy was only a little further. And all for a very good price too.

And this is the view:

We expended even more energy choosing amongst the many lift pass options. The MBU pass covers everything and, if you buy enough days, gives you a free day in Evasion Mont Blanc or Courmayeur but it's expensive. We knew that for some days with Jonny we'd only need a one-way ticket. Eventually, we settled on the new Chamonix RapidCard which is pay-as-you-go and much more flexible.

Friday, 3 Apr 2015 (Good Friday)
We split the party into two cars travelling out on different days. The advance party (Team Skoda) left Lincoln on Good Friday.

Saturday, 4 Apr 2015
Team Skoda arrived at the chalet in Le Fayet and reported all to be good.

In the evening, Gilly travelled to Warrington and, following her lead, Team Peugeot booked their RapidCards online for collection at the Montenvers railway office.

Sunday, 5 Apr 2015 (Easter Day)
Team Peugeot left Warrington around 9am to get the 4pm DFDS sailing out of Dover. There we found that, although they had my booking, they had no record of my payment. Before we left I had checked my credit card statement so I knew it had gone but they were not to be convinced. After a good half hour of very heated conversation I realised that there was nothing for it but to pay again. They said they would log it as disputed but, as of 21 April, they still hadn't repaid me so I've raised a dispute with Visa - who were much more sympathetic.

From Dunkirk we headed east to Lille and the F1 hotel tucked away in Mons en Baroeul. The motorway round Lille was very busy and with many junctions. We took at least one wrong turn but, eventually, nice Mama Garmin guided us to the door. Then it was a quick dash on foot into Lille centre to grab some food and have a look round.

Meanwhile, Team Skoda got in the first lot of shopping and then went to the lift pass office to buy their RapidCards - only to find out that they're only available online! It was a good job Alison had her smartphone with her. Quick hunt for free WiFi followed by taking photos of each other and fumbling around on the phone. They were informed that the tickets would take perhaps 24 hours so they went to Le Tour and paid for four hours' of skiing in the clag.

Monday, 6 Apr 2015
Team Skoda, unsure if their RapidCards would be ready, drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel and spent a day exploring the slopes of Courmayeur.

Team Skoda followed the usual Reims, Dijon, Bourg-en-Bresse route to arrive at the chalet just as the others had returned and put the kettle on - great timing.

Tuesday, 7 Apr 2015
There was a heavy frost on the cars which took some scraping. First stop the Montenvers lift pass office to collect our RapidCards. All okay - they even have a blue and white mugshot printed on each card so we can't mix them up.

Then up to Flégère and the queue out the door for the cable car. Then straight on to the Index chair which was still chilly:

We noted that this is the only fast, demountable chair in the area. After a quick bit of batting about we took the Liason link to the Brévent side for more scooting about and pausing to look at the view. Yes, that big lump is Mont Blanc:

Eateries seemed to be thin on the ground and we ended up at Altitude 2000. The Pela (looking remarkably like tartiflette) at €18 seemed much better value than a plate of frites at €9.

We hopped back on the Liason and then explored the darker reaches of the Flégère side before riding back down in the cable car to the heat of the valley below.

In the evening the chalet owner, Jean-Marie, popped round to introduce himself and make sure everything was okay. No sooner had he left than Jonny turned up to brief us on the next four days and check we all had the right gear. He was very thorough and even insisted on seeing all our transceivers.

Wednesday, 8 Apr 2015
The plan was to meet at the Midi lift ready to roll at 8:15. We arrived in good time to marvel at the huge queue of folks piled high with mountains of gear:

Mrs A realised that she had, by swapping jackets, left her RapidCard behind and had to fork out another €58.50 for a day's MBU. - ouch! Jonny arrived together with aspirant guide Neil Mackay who was tagging along to make notes.

At the top, in the tunnel, we stowed our skis on our sacks, donned crampons and then roped up for the infamous arête. It was a piece of cake but many without crampons were obviously struggling especially those carrying skis and poles in their hands.

We unburdened ourselves and then Jonny instilled the importance of staying in his tracks. He pointed to a crevasse just to our left saying that if we ventured too close we wouldn't stop until we reached Chamonix!

We skied to the middle of the Vallée Blanche then, keeping at least one ski on at all times, roped up and put skins on - all except Alison who went behind an invisible bush for a wee - causing great alarm to Jonny! Also unnerving was all the helicopter activity by the Tacul. Later we found out that someone had had a heart attack and died. All roped up, we headed uphill towards Col Freshfield (3625m) and the border with Italy. Our bodies were not used to the thin air and we were glad of the lunch stop and rest when we got there - even if we had to stay roped up and sit apart.

Then back down again to the trade route to the west of the Séracs du Géant.

And then along the, mostly level, Mer de Glace to the ladders below the station at Montenvers. Gosh, they were hard work. I had to keep stopping to get my breath back. They've put signs up to indicate the level of the glacier over recent years. It's frightening to see how fast it's receding.

We managed to get right at the front for our first ride down in the cute but noisy train.

Thursday, 9 Apr 2015
The intended objective was the Col du Tour Noir so we were ready and waiting by 8 o'clock at the Grands Montets station, rando passes in hand. Although we had our RapidCards, we each saved €20 by buying a single rando ticket instead. This proved to be a bad move. When we got there, the top lift was not working and there was little sign of it starting soon. We'd need all the time available to reach the Col so Jonny decided to swap the days around and teach crevasse rescue instead.

Trouble was, we only had rando cards and couldn't use any more lifts. Jonny enquired at the desk and the woman thought that we could get our money back so we skied to the bottom and went back to the counter. After some grimacing we exchanged passes for Euros and we dashed back to the cars for our RapidCards.

Up we went again then over to the old pluviometer above the Refuge de Lognan. Here we spent a good while baking in the sun while we went through the motions of extracting someone from a crevasse. Here's a solid belay with a pair of top-to-tail skis bound by a sling in a clove hitch with the crossover at the back:

A Petzl Micro Traction is attached to the belay (as is, for good measure, the dead end) while Jonny prepares to prusik himself to the live rope using a sling:

Then he walks to the edge, sliding the prusik on the way, and makes contact with the victim. He throws the live rope and krab down to them and instructs them to attach it to their belay loop and then, one at a time, remove their skis and tie them on too. I didn't have a go at this bit but imagine that it could be quite awkward while stuck in a crevasse!

Jonny then put another sling onto the dead rope and secured himself to that then unclipped the first sling and attached it to rope. Then he walks back towards the belay hauling the victim with him:

After he'd made sure we understood, he had a go at being the victim and left us to work it out for ourselves. After much clipping and unclipping we got him out. Then he demonstrated another recovery using a French prusik instead of the Micro Traction. And then we had a go at that too:

Then we reviewed taking coils. We should have been able to remember this from the day before but older synapses take longer to form. First put your hood up and take coils round your neck (Jonny likes short coils):

Put your one arm through the coils and then, with the other hand, reach underneath everything and pick up a bight from the loose rope:

And tie a single overhand knot round two ropes - the one from the harness and the loose rope:

Lock the remaining bight to the belay loop with a screwgate krab and then put on a clove hitch:

The top lift was now running so we headed up the Aiguille des Grands Montets, down the steep and icy black, Point de Vue, then ducked under the rope and onto the Glacier des Rognons. Again we had to follow exactly the route taken by Jonny. Holes were lurking everywhere and they were not always easy to spot. Lower down, on safer ground, we dropped onto the Glacier d'Argentier under the watchful eye of the Aiguille du Chardonnet - that Alison summitted on foot years ago.

Later on we had fun belaying ourselves to ice screws

Then we traversed our way back onto the Point de Vue piste - passing, on our way, a guy lugging a sled piled high with skis from some others who'd been choppered out or something. We tried skiing roped up but soon stopped when the piste got busy. Then out down the slushy red, Piere à Ric.

Friday, 10 Apr 2015
The day's objective was the Col des Flambeaux (3407m) that divides two sections of the Vallée Blanche over towards Italy. We knew the procedure, straight into the tunnel to rope up:

And then out on to the arête:

Although Gilly expressed comfort at walking without a rope, Jonny explained that, as a guide, he was obliged to tie us together. Then we followed a different route down the Glacier du Géant before we roped up, donned skins and headed up under the bubbles that run across to the Helbronner:

At the col we huddled out of the wind on the rocks of the Petit Flambeau, away from any holes, while we ate some lunch. Then we skied down the other side, finding something akin to powder hiding behind the Petit Flambeau. We traversed as best we could across the bowl of the Vallée Blanche but had to put skins on again to get back up to the trade route out:

Interestingly, a snow bridge we (and almost everyone else) had used last time below the Séracs du Géant had opened up in the heat. Important lesson there! Then Jonny found us somewhere safe to sit another bit to eat where we could look back at the séracs and (vertically above his head) see the much steeper route down the east side.

Then it was on down the Mer de Glace to the ladders (easier going this time) and once more onto the toy train back to Chamonix:

For homework, Jonny asked us to look for objective dangers and plan a route to the Col Tour Noir. When we got home we spent a while pouring over the map discussing this and that. Later, at the local Intermarché, I noticed more maps for sale. They had a slightly different cover so I looked inside. Wow! The area we were going to had been completely re-surveyed and there was much more detail. Another item in the trolley.

Later we went to Au Vieux Campeur just down the road in Sallanches where they were slightly more expensive. But I did buy another Olizane touring book and drooled over all the gear.

Last edited by Poster: A snowHead on Wed 29-04-15 19:06; edited 5 times in total
ski holidays
 Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Saturday, 11 Apr 2015
Our last day with Jonny and his plan was to head for the Col du Tour Noir while he let us do the decision making.

At the top of the Grands Montets the weather was, as forecast, looking moody and the steep icy pitch wasn't getting any easier:

We crossed the Glacier des Rognons again keeping a wary eye for holes. Jonny said that this was where, a few years back, a guide had fallen through while demonstrating how to cut a snow bollard. You can just see the line of our route up and across the Glacier d'Argentière below as it makes its way round the curved moraine on the other side.

Crossing the Argentière was easy work but, although the sun shone, it felt unsettled.

We eschewed the blue line on the map and worked round between two moraines up on to the Glacier des Améthystes. It was steep going in parts with some very hard snow and our couteaux/harscheisen were needed.

Despite these difficulties, it's obviously a very popular route and there were coach loads of tourers about:

Higher up the glacier we veered off the blue line again and headed more towards the middle. However, as we ascended we were enveloped in cloud and after some time we decided there was no point in going on. We'd not quite reached 3400m and with at least another ¾ hour to go we weren't looking forward to skiing down on the hard lumpy snow with no viz.

So back down we went, doing our best to keep our fillings in our teeth while avoiding others still headed uphill:

At the bottom we found another bit of moraine to sit. Alpine choughs are always looking for a free lunch. We were surprised to see that this bold one was ringed:

Then we descended (more like 'alonged' really) the Glacier d'Argentière and out onto the Point de Vue piste again. Back at the chalet it was so hot that the lizards were out playing:

Sunday, 12 Apr 2015
We reached the conclusion that we were all tired and needed a day off. We thought we'd catch the tram that starts in Le Fayet and heads up the mountain towards the Aiguille du Goûter. What we hadn't realised is that it had already stopped until the summer season.

So we walked up the hill to St Gervais. Hardened mountaineers, this lot - really!

After butties we found some exuberant ice creams in the town and then wandered round taking in the sights and sounds. Many screams were coming from the bungee-jumpers under the new bridge:

Briefly, we split into two parties and had to phone each other up to find out where we were. Jonny would not have been impressed. We wandered past the bottom station of Le Bettex baking in the sun and with hardly a patch of snow in sight. We went under the new bridge to look at the bungee-jumpers again from one of the piers and then crossed back over it. We retraced our steps down the gorge but then took a left turn and found ourselves crossing another bridge:

Then out, down the gorge past the thermal baths (which don't look half as smart from behind) and home.

Monday, 13 Apr 2015
The temperature was still rising we decided that any more glacier travel was out of the question. We had a little (non-glacial) tour planned so, for variety, we sandwiched that between two days at the Grands Montets.

The snow was very hard and crusty to begin with so we lingered on the viewing platform above the top station:

Then we spent the day working out which runs had the most sun. Bochard late in the afternoon was good.

Tuesday, 14 Apr 2015
Jonny had suggested to us a number of 'day hits' that we could do during the remainder of the holiday. The Col de Belvardère (2780m) above Flégère was one of the easier tours. A sign at the bottom told us that all the upper lifts were closing at 1pm - from avalanche risk we thought, so better stay aware.

We started up the cable car then the Index chair and the Floria drag. Jonny had put us off the big long and dangerous traverse so, part way down the Crochues piste we bore left round some rocks and were soon going uphill:

Before long we found ourselves dropping over a cornice - not easy with skins and unclipped heels. The steep slope above us, out of the picture on the right, was also a concern in the fast rising temperatures. Gilly baulked for some time and was almost in tears but we all got down safely although the AFD on Alison's Radical STs fell out again.

Then it was just onwards and upwards with about as many kick turns as we'd done in the whole of the holiday so far. Finally, we made it to the top. Although we had seen some other folks about, we were the only ones on the Belvardère that day:

No time to linger though as the snow was softening all the time. The top section was a little crunchy but we soon had some glorious spring snow to ski on for quite a long way down. Sadly there were some short uphill sections too - sometimes quite dodgy:

We were so worried about the snow that we didn't stop for lunch until we'd made it all the way down to the bottom:

Our route:

At least we can now claim to have ticked number 146 in Anselme Baud's 'Book of Death'!

Wednesday, 15 Apr 2015
We wanted to leave time for the snow to soften so we spent nearly an hour wandering round the new Quechua store near the chalet. This huge building is also their international design centre and I had great fun peering through windows at well-kitted workshops.

Then back to Grands Montets where we had a slightly easier time looking for unfrozen snow. Just off the top Gilly found out that two poles at the side of the piste where she'd turned previously were now marking a gaping crevasse! As the day wore on we moved round the mountain and, soon after lunch, found a great gun barrel to play in near the Tabé chair.

But the highlight of the day was the last run on and around Pylones which was now in perfect condition:

Most of the party went down in the cable car but Mrs A and I had fun playing in the slush on the red run home:

Our route:

Thursday, 16 Apr 2015
We were all up early to finish packing and make the place spick and span. Jean-Marie came round to give us back our €400 bond and we were on our way soon after nine.

Gilly is an art teacher so our first port of call, just over the valley from the chalet, was the Église Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d'Assy. It contains some original works of art from the likes of Matisse, Chagall etc:

Although the government website prix-carburants is good for looking up fuel prices there are some errors. For example, the location of the Carrefour in Bonneville is incorrect and we had to ask Mama Garmin to guide us there. Also note that exiting and re-entering the autoroute there incurs an extra €1.40 péage.

Heavy traffic around Lille made her redirect us down some tiny roads and towns. It's difficult to tell if this actually saved us any time but looking on the map afterwards, at least it was a reasonable route.

We made it to the F1 hotel in Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk by 8pm and were soon finishing off the last bits of food and drink.

Friday, 17 Apr 2015
Off early for the 8am ferry and then home the quickest route arriving back about 4pm. Driving round the M25 was far more dangerous than anything we'd done on skis - at one point 38 tonnes of lorry very nearly tried to get in through the driver's door. We had some entertainment number plate spotting. There was a Range Rover with GLA553S and, best of all, FR05TEY, a truck with 40 foot of fridge on the back.

We'd thoroughly recommend Jonny Baird. He took on board everything we wanted to achieve and provided exactly that. His instruction was very clear and he was good fun.

The RapidCards turned out to be a bargain. Not only are they flexible but, we've since found out, there was a special offer and they were only charging half the day rate - result! But you have to order them online and upload a photo and, if we read the conditions correctly, remember to cancel them before they are automatically renewed next year.

Once again Baby Garmin (Foretrex 401) only recorded two and a bit days' worth of track. This is much less than my old 201. Garmin's support department are looking into it.

Travelling costs were about £150 per person, the chalet was slightly less and Jonny slightly more. With the heavy discounts, the lift passes were about £225 each. This is probably good value for 8 days' skiing - even if the lifts are old and cronky and fail occasionally. At full price I'm not so sure but then, this is Chamonix.

Chamonix webcams (How fast things change!)

Bird's eye view of the Mer de Glace
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