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Ski Touring in the Vanoise and Swiss Valais

The weather has been inclement for the last week or so giving some great snow and skiing; it has also meant the plans laid by mice and men (and guides) have had to be flexible at times! For the second time this season I've gone over to the Trois Vallees to start a ski tour from there into the Vanoise with David, Mark, Jona, Peter and Keith. The Vanoise was France's first national park (established in 1963) and has therefore been saved from ski development (it is surrounded by Val d'Isere, Tignes, La Plagne, Les Arcs and the Three Valleys). It's home to an ice cap some 12km long and numerous 3000m peaks and lower cols which make it a ski tourers paradise. It was this ice cap that was originally on our itinerary but the weather had other plans for us.

We awoke to a mantle of powder which in some ways is a skiers dream but immediately had us shifting our original itinerary of skiing from Val Thorens and instead we drove around to Pralognan de la Vanoise and on to the Roc de la Peche Hut. At the summer hamlet of Le Prioux we ascended towards the Roc de Blanchon (after stashing some of our kit) in searing heat (and deep powder) before a great ski back down through open slopes and then thin scrub trees. The Roc de la Peche itself is a great place as an introduction to huts as it has a jacuzzi, pool table and table football. The food is also restaurant standard which set the bar high.

The next day was mostly uphill and travelled through some impressive scenery. We reascended towards the Roc de Blanchon but carried on traversing along a shelf beneath the glacier des Nants and towards our destination of the col de Thurges. The visibility came and went and we travelled under some huge slopes so spent much of the ascent seperated. Finally we reached the col and below us was the three huts of the Refuge de la Valette - our home for that night. Or at least it would be if we could work out how to get in - or even which one was the winter hut! Firstly I dug out the main hut door, then Tania (British Mountain Guide Aspirant) succeeded in opening another which had beds but no stove/cooker. Finally I went to what looked like the oldest part of the hut and managed to unearth a sign 'refuge d'hiver' and what looked like the top part of a door beneath it. We all set to with various digging implements (and with varying efficiency!) but finally cleared the entrance after a hard half an hour or so in increasingly bad weather. I always believe that what happens in a winter hut 'stays in the hut' so won't say much other than next time, I'll do the shopping for the food and 2kg of spaghetti is too much. We did have a nice time though, chopping logs and playing cards etc.

During the night the weather again took a turn for the worse, this time with wind (at times it sounded like the chimney might get blown off) and it wasn't really a surprise to see a fresh slab avalanche outside in the morning. We set off upwards in the direction of the Dome des Sonnailles but it became increasingly obvious that a) the entire mountain above 2700m was covered in varying thicknesses of windslab, b) there was a rotten or faceted layer in many places (we spent the last day hearing 'whoompfing') and c) it was about to get steep. we put this evidence to the team and got the only sensible decision so skied back to the col de Thurges where we lowered the team off a cornice and into the best powder in the range. This was a great bonus after turning back and actually for most was the highlight of the tour. It is true that to get 1000m of untracked pristine powder is rare though Tania disagreed with David about how much sex she would give up for it (I think this says something about how much powder Tania skis)!

After such a great descent we trundled back into Pralognan for beers and a rethink. We came up with two options (Col de la Grand Casse or the original idea of the Gebroulaz descent) and the team decided to go back to Mark's chalet and hit the lifts in the morning to gain the col de Gebroulaz. From La Tania it actually takes a couple of hours to gain the col de Thorens from where we put a rope on and skined up the glacier to gain the col de Gebroulaz 3417m. For some this was the first time in crampons and was their own personal 'Nordwand' but from my perspective I was just happy I could see where I was going after I was here last time. The Glacier de Gebroulaz is a classic descent (think Vallee Blanche but empty) and highly recommended but we didn't get the snow from the day before (much of it was wind affected or sun crust). It was a great finale to the tour though amongst wild, glacial scenery.

Lastly, I've been over the border into Switzerland with Ed, Ben, John, Neil and Dave. We firstly headed in to the tiny resort of Vicheres (there are only 3 lifts here) where you can access a few great ski touring peaks. The classic tour here is the Tour de Bavon but we carried on along the ridge to the Bec Rond against an incredible backdrop of almost the entire Mont Blanc Massif in the distance. After a night in the sleepy hollow of Bourg Saint Pierre we climbed through the forests to the Cabane Brunet where we spent a while digging buried rucksacks and honing our transceiver skills.

The nest day dawned just 'OK' so we set off for the classic peak here, Mont Rogneux. After a few hours we donned couteaux then depoted skis and mountaineered our way into the gloom in a Whymperesque' fashion (all roped together). Finally though time, weather, a rotten snowpack (bottomless facets on the ridge) conspired to curtail us 15 minutes from the top. Probably just as well however as the weather really did turn and visibility dropped to next to nowt and we spent the next hour or so in various snow plow poses trying to locate the hut. We did though and actually enjoyed a stress free ride down the tracks back down to Barmasse where we jumped back in the cars and back to Chamonix in time for the boys flight.

Comments

Ski Touring in the Vanoise

Guys, what a great week!! Virgin powder was certainly the highlight for me, but the whole experience was outstanding so many thanks to all for putting up with my plodding efforts.

Peter

ski touring in the Vanoise

Tim

Safely back at home in the safety of family... and you're probably back out on your next mission. What a life!

You provided a really splendid few days touring for us; thank you for your patience, humour, flexibility and leadership. The team enormously enjoyed the journey and the experience and you correctly gauged the level of fitness and ambition of the group, in the face of over-optimistic cajoling from me! Certainly that unexpected 1,000m powder bonanza from Col des Thurges to Les Prioux provided a unique skiing experience; whilst we may disagree on how many days of one of life's other pleasures we might forsake for such an opportunity few of us will encounter virgin snow on such a scale again.

Your final day on the Gebroulaz sounded a great finale to the week and was well worthwhile. Of course I'm sorry to have chickened (salmoned?!) out but let's hope we can grab you for a day tour (or more) from the chalet during a future holiday.

Have a continued happy and safe season and I look forward to our paths crossing again.

Regards

David

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