Late Spring in Chamonix means the ski areas are closed. But skiing goes on ! If the conditions are right, a lot of big steep lines will get skied off of the lift that (almost) never closes – the Aiguille du Midi. Couloirs which are normally ice climbs, like the Gervasutti or the Mallory route on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi become fair game to the extreme skiing crowd. Actually this year, they are not in great condition thanks to a foehn wind storm blowing much of the snow away. Recently some friends went up to ski the Mallory, but ended up rappelling and down-climbing. In any case, this was not what I had in mind for my late spring ski tour up the Midi; I am not quite so hard core. There is easier adventure skiing possible for those not quite ready to put away their planks for the season.
My friend Tom called and suggested getting a coffee. He also had been given a new pair of ski touring boots to try out. And it was forecast to be a beautiful day. Why not combine all this by going up the Midi and tour to the Punta Helbronner before heading back down to Cham ? Well, I am always up for some exercise at altitude with a friend.
Tom and I had actually been talking about going for a tour together all season and had not yet managed to do so – he has been working hard on building his business in eco-friendly wooden hand-made Idris Skis, and things just did not work out between our schedules until last week.
It had been a great snow season this past winter, and so enough crevasses are still bridged (or at least were a few days ago; as I write this it is raining) to allow us to ski 95% of the way back down the Valley Blanche to the Montenvers. We went up on first benne (local slang for “telecabine” – cable car) and arrived at the Midi station where we exited the lift at 3842m altitude.
Though this was to be a relatively easy day as we were doing nothing steep or very long, we always take the mountains and glaciated terrain seriously. People can and do die on the glaciers around Chamonix each year. So we were equipped with our avalanche beacons, wore our harnesses (to make it easier to pull ourselves out of a crevasse) and carried a lightweight glacier travel rope and our crevasse rescue kits (ice screws, carabiners, pulleys, prusiks). We also wore crampons on our touring boots to descend the Midi ridge. One side of the ridge leads straight down the north face to Chamonix, and the other side slides into a large crevasse. The safety ropes which local mountain guides had put up for the crowds doing the Vallée Blanche in the winter had already been removed for the summer season.
Of course when skiing, all of this glacier kit is in carried your pack or on your harness (along with a camera in my case). This year I have been really happy with my Dynastar Altitrail Powder skis – they are much lighter than my old touring set up but very stiff and so I find them really easy to ski with a fully loaded pack and in difficult snow conditions like breakable crust or crud – they also hold an edge really well on hard pack.
We skied down and across past the Gros Rognon on firm but still grippy snow, and then stopped to put on our touring skins and climbed up the glacier du Géant to the Punta Helbronner top station. The way up was very firm but not icey – so we left barely a track in the snow.
The Helbronner has a lot of construction going on at the moment – huge diggers and cranes are out everywhere. The upper station was not open for anyone but the workers. Mmm, we could smell the coffee but were not allowed entry. A cat track had been laid with a groomer to suggest where you could now walk down for access to the open lower station with access to the Torino.
Until very recently, there was a lift between Punta Helbronner and the Torino hut that was affectionately known in the local English speaking crowd as the “flying telephone box” or the “James Bond” lift, as it held only a few people at a time. It was often used to do laps on the Toula glacier in between coffees at the lower Pavillion lift station and taking two lifts back to the Punta Helbronner. As of this Spring, the lift between the Torino hut and the Punta Helbronner is shut forever. It is being replaced by a state of the art new system which won’t be fully in service until 2015. The Nuove Funivie Monte Bianco website has details of this ambitious infrastructure project.
So for the moment, you can descend a long and at times very steep and icey (but covered) staircase that is built directly into the side of the mountain to get to the lower Torino hut from Punta Helbronner. And of course you must walk up these stairs later if you want to ski back to Chamonix. I can attest that it is a great quad work out at altitude.
We enjoyed our coffee and the great views of a very green Courmayeur Italy and the Val Ferret. We chatted a bit with the hut keeper and another tourist from Italy (who were both surprised to see ski tourers this late in the ski season) and then we walked back up the stairs to our waiting skis. With a combination of English, our poor Italian and good French we managed to have a fairly long and interesting conversation about snow conditions, construction plans for the lifts and attempt to answer the question – ‘how crazy were we to be coming on ski from Chamonix just to have a coffee at the refugio Torino during the construction?’.
The time spent chatting paid off, as the snow had softened in the strong sun and we got in some very nice spring “frosting on a cake” turns – the upper layer of snow had softened enough to make things smooth as butter, but had not yet turned into summer’s bottomless soupy porridge. Perfect.
We did not go down the traditional “Italian Vallée Blanche” as the we already knew the conditons there were less than ideal. We passed through the normal Vallée Blanche route and quickly passed through the heavily crevassed Salle à Manger section, where there is also danger of serac fall.
Skiing on the flat part of the glacier towards the Montenvers station (our exit point) the snow eventually ran out but we could ski over the ice. Most rocks were still below the surface and it was much faster than walking. As we descended, the skiing alternated between skittering along dirty ice, carefully avoiding rocks, occasional small crevasses and the ever-softer yellowed snow/slush patches. Eventually we had to take off our skis a hundred or so metres before access staircase when the glacial ice gave way to rocky moraine and boulders. We found and ascended the long tourist staircase back to the little lift pods to the Montenvers train station for our descent home.
A nice half day out in the mountains and sun. All for a coffee in Italy (and some photos).