A trip two years in the making.
A story doesn’t quite do justice to the scale and magnitude of the mountains here. A place well suited for alpinists, but rewarding to the patient skier, Chamonix has been like nothing I’ve experienced. And, something every skier needs to see for themselves to fully comprehend. Nowhere else is the consequence of a mistake so blatantly obvious. So potentially tragic. Nowhere else can a skier find limitless opportunities for progression, or a greater and more accessible place to test their skill set.
I had formulated one central goal for my time in Chamonix: to not leave a day in the mountains here feeling like I’d gotten away with something. That I’d gotten lucky. I wanted to push myself by testing my skill set just outside my boundaries and through challenging myself intelligently, safely and responsibly. Restraint and respect for this very special place would be paramount.
One thing I like to do on trips like these is leave something that’s within my grasp undone. Motivation for the next go around. A little practice in patience, but even more so an exercise in restraint. The mountains here have an incredible ability to draw you into their unforgiving grasp. They consume you, totally. The possibility of progressing every day keeps the goal oriented skier pushing harder and harder. Going further and further and constantly finding objectives where they can test their expanding ski set. Leaving things undone, halting the progression, showing the self-awareness and willingness to say enough when the objectives start to fall a bit out of your reach are no easy task. The allure to push forward constantly surrounds you. But, in this case, we’ve done just that many times over.
I am proud of a few routes from this trip. Not for their steepness, or necessarily their exposure or difficulty, but because each one of these challenged me to push myself in important ways. They represent small benchmarks in the progression of my skiing that were achieved thoughtfully, cautiously and with respect for the seriousness of this place. They have allowed me to not only return home a better skier but a better mountain person. They’ve built the foundation for all future trips here. And, just as all of these successful skis represent the culmination of all of the days I’ve spent in the mountains since that night in the van in Patagonia, each day thereafter represents the possibility of returning to take on some of those goals left undone during our time here. Their significance can never be understated. The progression continues.
Col du Tacul, Capucin, variation (ski 5.1/E2)
The Col du Tacul is an instant classic. A combination of an early ride to the top of the Aiguille du Midi with the surreal downclimb of the icy ârete. Quick preparations for the long descent into the Vallée Blanche are made with anxious anticipation for a long climb beneath giant seracs and a steep boot pack to the narrow Col du Tacul. An airy rappel into 50-degree ski terrain only accentuates the necessity of having mastered a variety of skills to complete this route. Steep skiing in Chamonix is not something given, it’s earned through years of practice. And, like Capucin, which requires the combination of your entire mountain skill set, we’re reminded here to not take any of our previous training and experiences for granted.
Les Courtes, Northeast Face (Ski 5.2/E2)
They say to ski the northeast face of Les Courtes is to enter into the realm of steep skiing. Certainly a benchmark ski, the northeast face of Les Courtes is the 5.2 rated line in the Argentière basin in which all other 5.2’s are compared to and rated. Perhaps the “crown jewel” of our entire trip, this line, boasting 700 meters of 48-degree fall line skiing is absolutely the longest, most sustained, steep skiing line I’ve ever completed. A test of both my physical and mental endurance, as well as my coolness under pressure, this line will always stand out for me. To any ski mountaineer whose background into the sport encompasses a strength in the skiing part of ski mountaineering, this is a line that simply can not be passed up.
Col du Diable, East Couloir (ski 5.2/E3)
The Col du Diable is one of the lines I’ll always look back on happy I completed, but one that I’m not anxious to repeat. Truly a push just beyond the limits of my climbing skill set, this one tested me from the top of the 50-degree access couloir, across the hanging glacier and up through its maze of rock, shallow snow and ice to its ridge line col. The test piece of our trip. A combination of coolness under pressure, intense climbing, and an epic descent of an interesting alpine route. This route taught me the necessity of mastering the art of breaking down objectives into pieces, taking each part one at a time in order to not get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the entire objective. It also reminded me that for me, skiing is the easy part, and the only way to truly excel beyond this level is to become a better mountaineer. A better climber.
Aiguille d’Argentière, East Face, Barbey, left alternate route (ski 5.3/E3)
The Barbey was my one and only true summit ski of the entire trip. Fighting through my first bout with fatigue since I arrived in France, I topped out just behind the rest of the team on tired legs. The summit of the Aiguille d’Argentière (12,799ft) offered incredible 360-degree views and strong northerly winds. We had a variety of different ski options, with more southerly lines like the classic Y-Couloir, and different options off the east face and back down our boot pack. The Y looked too runnelled and wet for a safe descent. The east face, directly off the col below the summit, was nothing but blue ice and its rolling horizon left us wondering about snow conditions lower on the face. Another option, skiing back down our boot pack, seemed a bit anti-climactic after such a long approach. As we searched further, it became increasingly clear that a careful decision would be necessary to securing a successful descent of the peak. After evaluating our choices, it was the Barbey variation off the top that looked to hold the best snow. A slight Northeast face. However, this had the steepest, most consequential entrance. A mistake was not an option. Keeping our composure and axes in hand we slipped into the east face, slowly and deliberately. Mike led the way and I brought up the rear, taking photos. We had hoped the protected northern aspects of the line would give way to deep powder and our gamble soon paid off. A lesson in the importance of good conditions for the success of a ski descent in Chamonix. Another perfect day. Perhaps my favorite?
No previous trip I’ve ever taken has had such a profound impact on the way I view skiing. No other trip has taught me about the absolute importance of having the right progression into terrain, about not overstepping. No other trip has made the consequences of my choices so evident or placed the potential outcome of a mistake so sharply into the forefront of my mind. However, and above all else, the above descents represent more than just progression, or restraint, or good conditions, but what was of chief importance on this trip. That something greater lies beyond refining your technique and becoming a better and stronger mountain person. That that one thing that allows you to be successful here, or anywhere else in the mountains, is a deep self-awareness. An intimate, honest assessment of the self and of your abilities that can only come through time, experience and inward looking. Nothing is more important. Without it, the ambitious skier is all too likely to fall into the trap set by the objective driven ego, thus making a meeting between the overstepping of the skier’s boundaries with the severe consequences of a mistake imminent.
I’d like to say that we hardly scratched the surface of what’s possible in this special place. And yet Chamonix still forced me to utilize every experience I’ve ever had in the mountains. The outcome of all of those experiences were these incredible descents, which I will never forget. Had I known, back in that van in Patagonia, that every day after would directly affect my time in Chamonix, I may have done a few things differently. Refined a few more skills. However, I take solace knowing that this trip has provided just the right amount of motivation to return with an even stronger skill set, and a deeper understand of what I’m capable of. Until then I remain forever Chamonized.