Thursday 7 November 2013

Un-pisted Alpine: 3 Days of Steep Skiing

 Tap, tap, tap. I nervously tap my ski pole on the pavement. It is 7.55am and Ally should have been here ten minutes ago.
I’m sitting on the bench outside a café in the centre of Chamonix watching precious time slip by.  A tentative text message brings an explosive response, he is clearly not happy that he has slept in.
Depression deepens as the cloudless sky opens above me and the day’s adventure drifts off on a lazy current. A planned ski descent of the north east face of Les Courtes, a magnificent 1,100m high face towering over the expanse of the Argentiere glacier, is something I have dreamed of for years. It would have been the highlight of a long and varied winter rapidly turning to summer.
Thoughts of what the day would have brought fill my brain…. The mind bending exposure, variable snow conditions, steepness of the face and the fall…. What if I fell? Would I go all the way? Would the gapping bergschrund catch my fall? Would I still be conscious to know? Only one way to find out. I smile as passers-by come and go from my consciousness.
Just one more adventure, just one more, the greedy fingers of ambition prod my jaded brain. Another one stop bed for the night, another night of waking to questions, each time taking longer to answer before broken sleep is regained. Why does it have to always be one more I wonder.  Couldn’t I just be content for a while?
Fifteen minutes later the green van comes to a shuddering halt outside the café. “Your driving” came the shout as Ally dashed past into the Patisserie. I looked down at my unbuckled ski boots, then up again at the van…. “Really?”

“No, not this time!” Ally turned the van key repeatedly over and over again. Its 8.25am. The cable car opens in five minutes and we both know how quickly the queue would be filling up. A perfect blue ski forecast and a common knowledge in the valley that our chosen object was in good condition increased the tension another notch. Silently I thought back to the previous day. A great day of climbing and skiing the Col d’ Cristaux  with friends had quenched my thirst for a steep ski this trip, today was only a bonus for me, or at least in those tense moments was what I tried to justify to myself. How seldom do those days of trying to fulfil a dream come round, the painful weight of having the chance taken away by something outwith your control being hard to bare.

‘rrruurrrggghhh’ the van spluttered into life and all was not lost. Onward and fast. The cable car queue almost out of the door, but we are not giving up.
Midday. Sweat runs unabated from my forehead and saturated hair onto my forearms as I prop myself up on the steep slope. My lungs burn again. Sweat stings my eyes. My boots feel like concrete shackles. I know the mystical key awaits at the top, freeing me of the doubly heavy psychological weight, if I can only get there. We have been climbing rapidly up the face for almost an hour and a much fitter and fresher Ally shouts encouragement from above. I think he has a camera in his hand but I can’t be sure, the sweat stained lens blurring my vision. Got to carry on before my sweat soaked t-shirt cools me to a shiver. I share a few words in passing with an un-acclimatised Spaniard, copying my exhaustion from minutes earlier.
Climbing Les Courtes

We are being tormented by the sun but at least we have overtaken a few parties and more importantly no one has started descending above us, our most acute fear, being avalanched on or being hit by falling ice from skiers above, or simply the skiers! 

A short time later I heave myself onto a small stance at the col at the top of the face beside Ally who is now getting cold waiting for me in the chilling breeze at 3,800m. As we organise ourselves for the impending thrill of skiing the longest and steepest face either of us has been on, we watch others nervously slide down the very steep and hard packed top of the face. Their nerves and fears palpable.

View down the 50deg top section of the NE face of Les Courtes
We are ready and our time has come. Ally makes a few turns then cuts past a snowboarder looking dangerously out of her depth on the fifty degree slope, across to a more easterly aspect in the sunshine, in the hope of finding the soft spring snow we crave. I follow Ally then continue down past him revelling in the exposure of the face and the delightfully soft uniform snow under ski. Our prayers have been answered, timing ideal…. Late enough in the day for the sun to soften the snow….. early enough before the snow turns to porridge…. game on! Our confidence builds and our turns change from short controlled jump turns to carving wide fast turns. A shared sense of ecstasy at the magic of the situation fills the air, a dream in progress.
Ally ripping it up on the descent of Les Courtes

Courtes rainbow descent
Hours later, miles from the face, but only a few neurological pathways away from the day’s high, we float into the bar on the crest of a once a season wave, hero beers in the Micro Brasserie Chamonix and a chance to re-live the experience, only better the second time round!
An hour later we exchange goodbye’s before I head for the Swiss border and a pre-arranged ski date for the next day with an old friend. I know this trip will be worth it even if I don’t pull on a pair of ski boots.
My legs, body and mind wearily manage to negotiate the twisting mountain roads to Martigny and onwards by motorway to Bern, to be met with a BBQ, wine and good company. Only what I expected from a man who gives Senegalese fertility masks as wedding gifts!

Click. My dynafit bindings are locked in place. My boots will not release from my ski bindings. Should I have a big fall, my leg bones are more likely to break than my boots release from the bindings. A sobering thought but at this moment in time I am happy with my decision. I look up and survey the scene.
We hear the mechanical beast coming well before it cruises past, breaking the still air and billowing powdery snow off down the north face. The tourist helicopter circles us for a few minutes. Smiles and waves exchanged, eye contact made through two pairs of sunglasses and we pose for a few pictures, as if we could hide.
I contemplate how this chance encounter has come about. Money, fuel and a trained pilot taking them from the grassy pastures to the snowy heights. A rapid and comfortable journey into a world of huge glaciers, sheer faces and history, so much history. In an instant the pilot wheels off down the south face towards the Konkordia hut and the air stills.

The Monch and Jungfrau fill my view along with the vast Bernese Oberland vista, but all I can do is try and find the missing step in my pre-ski routine. Boots in ski mode – check. All buckles done up tight – check. Are they properly tight – check. I have eaten what food my churning stomach will allow, water bottle near emptied after 5 hours of climbing 1,800m to this spot  – check. Rucksack on and clips done up, ice axe available at the side of the pack – check. Helmet and sunglasses on – check. There is nothing left and I have been through my list twice. Am I trying to delay the inevitable? I savour the incredible view, the feeling of nervous energy, and lungs sucking in enough oxygen, for now. I realise there is nothing more, all that is left is to start the descent.
A few more photos to preserve the moment a little longer. We exchange a few words and mirrored grins which transcend simple words, culture, history and body language. Simply we are skiers, about to indulge in a shared dream.
Dreams bring comfort and safety to the experiences we crave, bursting to escape the confines of the cranium, except without the consequences of reality. Consequences, consequences…… without consequences, the experiences we crave end hollow and empty, unfulfilling. Consequences.  I am standing on top of the Eiger.
Climbing the West face of the Eiger
Top of the Eiger

The Eiger. This is a ‘climbers’ mountain not a ‘skiers’ mountain surely. What am I doing here? Trying to fulfil a dream? Have I been sucked into this on a wave of massive enthusiasm of my Swiss friend Christian, who being Swiss is by default a far better skier than I, a mere Scot!
Thoughts of childhood games of dodging and jumping rocks at Glenshee, skidding down icy moguls on the fearsome Tiger slope and grit-blasting’s in the teeth of a Glas Maol banshee. I know all these experiences have come in useful. I wonder at the old adage of ‘if you can ski in Scotland, you can ski anywhere’.
One major difference between climbing and skiing, that had become abundantly clear to me in the preceding few days is that often, while climbing, you have a number of metres or pitches to get the blood flowing, to warm up, prior to attempting a crux section. Skiing on the other hand, the crux is often the first turn, often attacking the steepest most exposed slope, theoretically the most serious and difficult section, where you only have one chance to get it right. No second chance. No rope to catch the fall.
The final concave summit slope we had cramponed up earlier shows us the way. Forty five degrees steep, icy, not much more than a ski length wide, with the appalling drop down the massive north face to the right and a rock face to the left, the way is crystal clear, the focus unerring, the implications of failure open and honest.
Start of the Eiger descent
The edges of my skis bite into the firm snow and ice as I control a sideslip between jump turns. Another turn and we can aim down the west face and away from the lour of the drop to our right. Aggressive but controlled turns down the steep couloir bring familiarity and rhythm, while sharks prowl the edge of the couloir waiting to ambush any naïve turns.
The face fans out below us, the snow no longer the hard compact surface we climbed in the morning shadows, but transform to soft spring snow glistening in the warm afternoon sun. Freed of the rocky confides of the snaking couloir, we open up and relax more and more into each turn, revelling in the acres of space and multitude of potential lines. Speed increases, blood courses’ through the veins, and we carve long turns down the face. Ecstasy reigns.
Best un-pisted run in the Alps?
A few careful turns and controlled slide slips take’s us over blue ice and hidden danger, allowing us to negotiate the slope around and below the huge serac halfway down the face. Climbing up directly under the towering unstable face hours earlier had us on edge, but at least then it had been in the shade. A few nervous glances back up behind us as we hurriedly descended and traversed out of the crosshairs. The gods had spared us.
They may have spared us a crushing end, but they were not finished with us just yet. A final obstacle lay ahead the like of which I had never seen, nor would wish on anyone. A veritable ploughed field of snow melt trenches and natural moguls, interspersed with microwave sized blocks of ice, evidence of the unstable wall hundreds of metres behind us.
Below the Eiger serac
The field eventually succumbed to a variety of ungainly techniques, embarrassing stuck tips and flailing poles, a far cry from earlier feelings of invincibility and limitless energy.
Cruising down to Eigerglescher
One very happy swiss dude below the West Face
 Forty five minutes of picking our way down the face ended where it started, at a train station, Eigergletscher. Onwards and downwards we cruise to Kleine Scheidegg, our numbers swell as we join up with a Grindelwald guide and his client for the day who have been for a relaxed morning walk up the Monch. A day at the office for the guide, a great day for the client, and the culmination of his long term dream, for now.
The Kleine Scheidegg beer slips down my throat in the warm sunshine. The noise and hussle an unwelcome destraction from the perfect relaxation. We share hero beers with our new Swiss friends and chat about steep ice lines and fearsome ski descents, all visible from our platform view.
My gaze drifts across from the west face to the expanse of north face, another day, another dream. My eyes link the features and history up the face….. The Rote Flue, the Ice Fields, the Ice Hose, the White Spider, Hinterstoisser, Corti, Heckmair, legends. My childhood fear and fascination of mountaineering literature stares me in the face, and I can’t look away. Friend’s stories and anecdotes of their Eigerwand experiences punctuate the features. The quintessential alpine experience, but I know that today is not that day.

I contemplate the days ahead and the deteriorating weather forecast. Three days of special skiing, mountaineering and shared experiences with good friends, this feels like the right way to end the winter, on a high, a mountain of my dreams. 
“You learned to ski in Scotland? But there are no ski resorts in Scotland!” The client’s teased remark drags me away. I grin, and encourage him to try it out sometime.

Climbing to the Col d'Cristaux

Another view of the Col d Cristaux climbing and ski line

More Eiger ski.....

Ally pre-ski..... maybe even pre-espresso!

Ally above the Courtes bergshraund