Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Phoquing up the Ferret


Jerome appreciated the wordplay on phoque, the french for (seal) skin. However I don't think he quite understood the link with the name of the valley leading north-east up from Courmayeur. And I couldn't remember the french words for hamster, ferret or gerbil.
We left Chamonix in putrid weather, and once again were blinded by sunlight as we exited the tunnel in to Italy. We turned left and started driving up the Val Ferret, which has to be one of the more beautiful valleys on the planet. With Mt Blanc 4 km above and behind you, and the Grandes Jorasses 3 km up and ahead, it is stunning touring country - perhaps the ultimate, aesthetically. We parked the Volksy at the end of the road which is a nordic centre, and started skinning up the valley past Pra Sec and la Vachey. After about 4 km, we started climbing up through a beautiful old forest, not unlike Japan, eventually stumbling on a trail that took us up to the tree-line and then on up to the Refuge Bonatti. I could have spent a week here - the guardians hadn't arrived yet for the winter season, but it was very clean and comfortable, with incredible views out over the Jorasses.
We then headed up the Malatra Valley, the path of which is actually a part of the Grand Tour du Mont Blanc. The fresh snow was a little wind packed, very compressible, and thus extremely tough to cut tracks in. Leading was exhausting, and whilst comfortable to break trail for a while, eventually I let Jerome and his superior physiology take over for the majority of the 1300m climb.
At the upper reaches of the valley, we looped south and then up back west to climb up the back of our final destination, the Tete entre deux Sauts at 2730m.
The view was insane, and we felt like we had the entire Alps to ourselves.
But after a five hour climb, it was now late afternoon and we had to descend. Of about a half dozen steep couloirs, the most southern seemed to have the best entrance (most of the rest would have needed a rope). Jerome was good enough to let me go first, although it was disappointing to find that the snow had a pretty solid wind crust which made the upper turns challenging. There was some better snow on the apron, and the run out into the sun was sublime. Morry was next, and half way down he set off a fairly sizeable slab avalanche. He'd managed to stay above it though, and Jerome then skied down to keep things safe.
As we skied down to the tree-line, the snow became less wind-affected, and then utterly magic as we entered the trees. The last 600m of vertical was primo with well-pitched powder in golden afternoon sunlight, with awesome open lines through the trees - and all under the towering spires of the Grandes Jorasses. It does't get much better.
Then the long skate back to the car under the watchful Mt Blanc.   

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