On the morning of April 16 we drove from Switzerland via Martigny and le Col de la Forclaz to Argentière in France. Argentière is a small town located in the upper Chamonix valley, and it has a cable-way that goes up to almost 3300m, les Grands Montets. From the top you have stunning views of the Mont Blanc Massif, the Aiguille Verte and the Bassin d’Argentière..where the Aiguille d’Argentière stands out.
Our plan was to go up in the lift, ski down to the Glacier d’Argentière, and cross the icefield to the Refuge d’Argentière where we would stay for a few nights. But that morning our plans took a few knocks. Firstly it became clear that the weather was going to change in a couple of days..so it looked very unlikely that our ultimate objective could be achieved. And secondly that sunny morning in Argentière the wind continued to blow fiercely higher up, meaning that the cable-way to the top station was not operating. So we took the lift to the middle station at 1970m and began the hike towards the glacier..
Most people on skis don’t bother to rope up on straightforward glacier terrain..but since Marcos was basically walking (on snowshoes) we considered it more prudent to use the rope. Probably not really necessary but..prudence, prudence.
Having reached the upper glacial basin, it’s simply a matter of crossing the now almost completely flat glacier diagonally to the other side in search of the Refuge. There was no sign of wind by this time and it was quite warm, so we took it easy and reached the hut around 3 in the afternoon.
The Argentière hut is quite a large and relatively modern structure with extensive use of wood in both exterior and interior. Outfitted with dining room, dormitories and bathrooms, it sleeps ninety people. That evening it was pretty full, mainly due to the fact that several groups doing the Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route were passing the night there.
The next morning we crossed the slopes and moraines above the hut to reach the lower extreme of the Glacier du Milieu, the glacier that comes down from the peak of the Aiguille d’Argentière.
After the initial steep slopes the middle section of the Glacier du Milieu flattens out a bit..and then comes the final section with 400 vertical meters of steep. Halfway up this final part there’s a narrow passage where the slope angle reaches 45º for about 30-40m.
I’d been looking forward to skiing this for years, but now at 11 in the morning it was still in the shade, with quite hard snow, and i decided it just wasn’t going to be the day to ski it, particularly in the light of the experience of previous days..so i left my skis at the bergschrund (the crevasse visible in the foto above). Marcos however decided to continue with his board on his back. We shortened the rope and climbed to the top, really getting up a sweat as the sun hit in the final 200m.
I had stood on this same spot ten years ago, and although i’ve stood on the top of quite a few other peaks since then – some higher and much more difficult – the sensations were still very strong.
We spent about an hour on top..and in that time a good number of people arrived at the summit, including several skiers..some of whom immediately set about descending, others hung around waiting for the sun to work some more.
Marcos – con un par – decided to strap his board on and descend in slide mode from the top of the ramp. I started down ahead of him to take some shots of his descent..here they come:
Several skiers and a couple of boarders descended this line that afternoon, most in a fairly nervous style. One guy gave a masterclass, suavely sliding past others (i.e. overtaking) and fluidly pivoting his boards almost without stopping right thru the crux section.
I have to admit that the snow had indeed softened up somewhat more than i expected it would..and was more skiable than seemed possible two hours before. Too late though for me..my skis were a couple of hundred meters below. And the descent on foot turned into a calvary below the crux, sinking deep with each step. Anyway i finally reached my skis and got them on..
Then it was down the glacier and down, down, down to the flat of the Glacier d’Argentière. On generally soft and fairly good to ski snow.
Having got down to the flat ice-field at 2670m, we then had to trudge back up to the Refuge..and finally made it ‘home’ at around 4 in the afternoon.
The following day, Friday 18 April, the weather finally changed..and not just gradually with some cloud in the afternoon as forecast. We set out early in the morning up the glacier towards Col d’Argentière, but by 9 the cloud was closing in thick and shutting down visibility. By 10 it was beginning to snow.
We stopped at around 3250m, spent some time practising techniques on ice, and then began to ski back down before midday. The snow, not having received any sun all morning, was super-hard and heavily rutted from scores of skiers ripping the soft stuff in previous afternoons. With every turn increasing the sensation of sliding on roughly laid concrete, it was a truly bone-jarring descent as far as the flat of the glacier. From that point at least it was possible to see where we were going and it wasn’t necessary to make turns..so we schussed at speed long down the icefield, and, in the final section of the glacier where there is a small serac, got a few relatively fluid turns and even a little jump. We then left the glacier, skied some piste to Lognan, and got the cable-way down to Argentière..where we arrived mid-afternoon with the rain.
That evening it poured down and in the following days there was more of the same, rain and snow. The objective of climbing and skiing Le Mont Blanc was obviously out of the question..a pity given that we were now pretty well acclimatised. Maybe another year. In any case we had one more fun day of resort ski in Switzerland with half a meter of fresh snow to conclude the Ibero-Keltic expedition to the Alps..and then home to Hispania!