Monday, 9 March 2015

Toule glacier and the Vallee Noire

View from the Torino hut from the Dent dy Geant on the left, to the Integral ridge on the right
Do you believe in fate? Or what about luck? Do things happen for a reason or do we determine our own path through life? I used to believe that 'It'll never happen to me' and that it always happens to other people, but this attitude in the mountains can prove fatal and is a stupid way of thinking. You're never truly in control in this environment. Ok, so you're confident in your abilities and that you're prepared for the conditions. You've checked the weather and the avalanche bulletin. You've picked your intended route or descent because of the current conditions as it's a safer option. But you're in the mountains now. You can't predict every avalanche, or a serac fall. How stable was that snow bridge you just skied over? Oh, you didn't realise you just skied over a crevasse? And what about those rocks above you, frozen in time to the mountain face, waiting for the 'true loves first kiss' of the rising sun to awaken them? In these circumstances, timing and 'luck' are the things keeping you from having a bad day. As we found, when skiing the Toule glacier.
We caught the bus from Cham train station at 0830 to Courmayer and headed up the Helbronner in glorious sunshine. This was my first time over this side and it gave a very different perspective of the Mont Blanc range. Skis on the pack, and we boot packed round to the steps leading down to the glacier. Me and Kev got down quicker than Mike so proceeded to put skis on after crossing the schrund and waited for hime to get down the ladder. We should have paid more attention and less time looking at the scenery as the snow around us was littered in small rocks. Mike called over as he got off the ladder that this area is prone to rock fall and that we should wait for him further down the slope. So off we went, skiing about 50m below, and waited. We chatted for a few minutes about the descent to follow, but our words were abruptly stolen by the sound of the mountain acknowledging our trespass. 
Looking back to the Midi and the Vallee Blanche normal route

Booting it to the stairs down to the Toule glacier
Part of the Toule glacier seen from the Torino

We glanced round and saw Mike in the firing line. Helpless, all we could do was sit and watch as our friend dropped to the snow and cover his head in a vain attempt to protect himself. Tons of rock came crashing down off the face above, splintering into thousands of shards, bombarding the slope where we stood less than 5 minutes ago. Snow was exploding all around Mike where the larger rocks impacted like meteors into a dusty martian landscape but some of the smaller shards ricochet and pepper him. For the first time in the mountains, I believed that I was about to witness the death of a friend and there was nothing I or Kev could do. What felt like an eternity, lasted less than 30seconds. Eyes still transfixed on Mike, a reassuring shuffle and he was standing. We hastily threw our packs onto our back, Mike joined us and we made tracks further down the mountain to a point of safety away from anymore falling rocks.

A few words were shared about the recent event, even now the image is etched into my mind. But now, we just wanted to get down and focus on the skiing ahead. We took a line to skiers right of the glacier, seeking steep ground then traversed back skiers left under the seracs. It was late morning and the sun was starting to bake the snow into a slushy mess littered with icy lumps which made for hard skiing. There was the odd sign of past avalanche activity but nothing to worry about today. Mike took a few tumbles and I had a few twitchy moments when the tails of my skis caught on some of the larger icy lumps in the slushy powder. All in all, it was a steep learning curve. The skiing was ok and the condition we found it in helped to improve my experience on different snow conditions and learning the technique to ski it well. And secondly, events like this help to hopefully prevent being in this situation occurring again in the future. We started too late in the morning on a southern aspect. We didn't pay attention to the warning signs that, now, were glaringly obvious. And that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Looking across to the start of the Vallee Noire accessed by skinning up the centre of the image. Instead, we headed left to the Combe de la Vierge

From the mid station, we headed back up to the top station, back up the steep concrete steps (we beat the trolly carrying our kit) and followed our steps from this morning along the path from the Torino hut. Our next objective, other than not repeating this mornings events, was the Vallee Noire. We didn't ski the true Vallee Noire as neither of us had bought skins, so instead, we skied about half way down the Combe de la Vierge and then made a long and tiring traverse under the seracs and crevasses, over rock hard sastrugi until we joined the Noire, annoyingly, below the main difficulties. The Vierge was a lovely ski. A big, wide open bowl that you could just let rip down with some great turns. Kev and I got too carried away with the quality of skiing and skied a bit too low but still managed to get back on track for the traverse across to the Noire. I'll defiantly head back there and ski it again. From the end of the traverse, we headed down on what was practically a piste with the wind blown hard snow, past some holes and down a steepish, 35 degree, section towards the geant seracs. Some amazing views from the opposite side of the Vallee Blanche looking across and seeing all the VB and it's variations in full. The skiing down the right hand side of the seracs was far more interesting and varied than the normal route. We eyed up the apporach to the Breche Puiseux and made mental notes for another day, then continued down to the Mer de Glace where we stopped for something to eat. But not without Mike following in my tracks and collapsing a snow bridge. Luckily he managed to throw his weight forward and avoid going into the abyss below his ski bases. That would have topped the day off...or not.

On the traverse out from the Combe de la Vierge looking back at the east face of the Tacul and the VB normal route

Traversing out of the Combe de la Vierge

Grand and Petit Envers variations of the VB which we skied earlier in the week

Kev eyeing the line before joining the Mer de Glace further below

With enough excitement for the day, we skied off back to Montenvers in a relaxed manner, swerving between the other skiers as if we were driving on a Cairo motorway. Skiers with boarders as their trailers, Guides with their ducklings playing follow my leader, and the group of friends who think they own the 'highway' and ski in an extended line making it difficult to pass. Back at Montenvers, we bumped into an American. We sat at the top, over looking the Mer de Glace and all had a beer and chatting about gear. This guy seems to know a lot and knows what he's talking about. Turns out he's Dane Burns who runs the blog Coldthistle, which anyone who's a gear geek would have used as a 'go to' for gear reviews and advice. Great guy and he offered to climb with me too :)

Panorama of the Geant basin. Our traverse tracks on the left.

The Geant seracs from the Vallee Noire or 'Italian Vallee Blanche'

Selfie anyone?

 Overall, we got some good quality skiing done. The conditions on either side of the mountain couldn't have been any more different from slushy, heavy snow on the south, to hard pack, chalky snow on the North. If we had the Toule in powder then I wouldn't hesitate to ski it again, however I think I'd opt for skinning from the Midi next time as I don't think it'd take any longer than the bus. Possibly quicker after all the waiting about we did. The whole Vallee Noire is definitely high on my list of descents to do next season as the top section look great. Combine this with skinning from the midi and Toule glacier and it sounds like a top quality day out in the mountains! Here's to next season...

...And learning from experience! Let's hope the 'luck' doesn't run out...

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