On wednesday (15th April 2015) I had another “first” – guiding Mont Blanc, on skis, with a helicopter start.
Guiding for Mountain Tracks over three days, I had two level 4 (the top level) Basi ski instructors, Dave and Lara. They were keen to push themselves out of their normal comfort zones and were really looking forward to three days skiing “for themselves”.
It was all a bit of a last minute job, and Dave and Lara drove over from Meribel on the first morning after an early start. I arrived in the car park to find them waking up from a quick power nap! We then had a fair bit of faff time – gear checks, last minute gear purchases, lift tickets etc…..
So we weren’t up to the midi until mid morning for our two days of acclimatization. We had a good ski around on the Vallee Blanche, some skinning and even went to the summit of the Tour Ronde once I realised that they were both very capable, and steady on the crampons.
We’d done about 900m of vertical height gain by the time we got around to the Torino refuge at quarter to seven. Quite a long day! But we were straight into dinner, which was great – no hanging around hungry, the pasta was on the table in no time. Soon followed by coffee and genepi.
The next day was deliberately easier, we wanted to save energy for big wednesday. We had a quick ski down the Vallee Blanche on the Italian side, before skinning up the valley opposite the Requin hut which leads to a couple of good cols. We did around 600m of vertical before taking the skins off and heading back down. We were maybe an hour or two early for the spring snow but it was still a good smooth ski.
After that we spent a bit of time on the lower glacier practicing some crevasse rescue (hauling lara out of a handy crevasse).
Once back down in Chamonix I made a couple of phone calls and enjoyed passing on the news “I’ve booked you a heli for tomorrow!” which Dave made me repeat as he was so excited! The original plan had been to ski Mont Blanc over two days, staying at the Grand Mulet hut overnight and skinning up on Thursday, however the forecast for Thursday wasn’t looking too great and these were the only days both Dave and Lara could do. So the Heli drop was the ideal, if expensive, solution.
Wednesday morning dawned clear and cool as we drove through the tunnel to Italy and Courmayeur. You can’t heli-ski in France, but we could be dropped at the Piton des Italia, just inside the border at a height of 4000m leaving 800m or so to the summit. Flying in a helicopter is always surreal, and this trip especially so, we went from calm gear packing in the car park and trying to find a toilet to rushing into the heli and up into the hills.
The flight of course was spectacular, and we were all grinning and taking pictures and videos of each other and the scenery. There was a tiny bit of show boating by the pilot, who flew nice and close to the final snow slope and then suddenly we were on the snow and jumping out. A minute later the “bird” was off, and we were left in silence in the middle of nowhere. Time for crampons, and a loo stop!
From there it was business as usual – roped up for the glacier, skis on rucksack and walking up the firm snow to the Dome du Gouter and then across to the Vallot hut. We decided to leave the skis here, which meant we could also ditch a lot of other gear that we wouldn’t need for a while – snow shovels, probes, skins etc etc.
We were then super light up to the summit and back. It took about three and a half hours from the landing site to the summit, and it really was in good condition, no wind, great views, no one around and three happy skiers! On the descent back to the skis the altitude affected us all a little, with Lara suffering from a sore head. This often happens on the descent as your breathing rate slows down and you get less oxygen in your system. You have to force yourself to breathe deeply.
It was due to get very warm later in the day so I chivvied the guys along a little as we didn’t want to be skiing soggy snow or crossing weak snow bridges. It was time for skis on and some downhill time. We had a mix of snow conditions, some springs, soft, crust and chopped up snow. Everything!
The skiing is truly amazing, with some of the best scenery you could hope to find, crevasses, towering ice cliffs and perfectly angled slopes. We roped up for the junction below the Requin hut, and then donned skins for the traverse towards the mid station on the midi lift. Phew. We were at the lift at three o’clock, having been dropped by the heli at eight(ish) at that morning. Still quite a long day, and the guys were reasonably pooped.
Time for a beer…..