Until last week i hadn’t been to the Alps for almost four years, either due to injury or other factors..so i set off eagerly with my snowboarder buddy Marcos the weekend before Easter. We travelled by car, Marcos driving stoically all the way, and we finally arrived very late on the night of Friday 11 April in the little town of Bourg-Saint-Pierre, not far from the Swiss border with Italy.
The next day we headed up the road towards the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, the historic mountain pass over which medieval pilgrims from the North of Europe travelled on their way to Rome..sometimes aided, or even rescued, by the monks who lived there and their famous St-Bernard dogs. Today there is a long tunnel thru the mountains which facilitates access to the other side..the old road that continues up to the pass is covered in snow after 1900m (..the monks are still there).
As we were not going to the pass we quickly left the road and took the direction of the Combe de Drône, a high valley below the peak known as Pointe de Drône which reaches 2950m..what you might call Pyrenean dimensions, and a good objective for the first day.
We reached the top, a narrow aesthetic snow arête, around midday after a fairly steep climb and hung out for a while enjoying the views and acclimatizing despite the cold wind and obviously changing weather. After about an hour there and with the clouds beginning to cover the sky, we prepared to ski/board..
..and down we went. The snow in the steep section was a little bit funky but surprisingly good to ski, in an energetic sort of way, and we quickly got down the first 500m and away from the cold.
That left the flat valley where the snow immediately became more humid and sluggish..and even here and there a touch of pink! ..yes, the same Saharan sand that spread over the west of Europe in early April had reached as far as the Swiss Alps. Anyway with a little huffing and puffing we got back down to the road and the mouth of the tunnel where we had left the car.
Next day we got up at 6 for a more serious outing. Our objective was Mont Vélan, a 3727m peak, and 1800m of vertical climbing starting from the same point as the previous day.
Feeling pretty fit and strong, we quickly moved up steep frozen snow to reach the small flat glacier – Glacier de Proz – below the West Face of the mountain. From here we climbed Le Couloir d’Hannibal to reach the top. Unlike the previous day when we were almost alone, there were at least thirty other ski-mountaineers on the route.
Unfortunately we were also accompanied by clouds which stuck to the flanks of the mountain all morning, occasionally lifting but quickly returning..and preventing the snow surface from softening. While this made for good conditions on the ascent, with crampons and ice-axe working optimally in the hard frozen snow, it didn’t bode so well for the descent..
..as skiing on such hard snow at around 45º is not so..ahm, attractive! We waited around for a while, went to the summit, skied back down to where the couloir begins..and finally decided to downclimb the first part of the couloir. Not too comfortable, but better than risking a serious fall.
After slowly downclimbing just over 100m we saw that the snow was indeed a little softer and, as soon as we found a suitable place to transition, we changed to boards..to complete the descent in sliding mode. Steep, jump turns, down, down, down..
Once out of the couloir it was good to ski fast and free..although on the lower mountain where the sun had been hitting all afternoon the snow became a real soup (even porridge!) and my legs began to tire fast, so i was glad to be finally down to the car-park after 4 in the evening.
The following day we moved to another village and towards the Italian side of the frontier and Mont Dolent..but that’ll be for another post.
Next up: The Alps II – Italy!