Category Archives: Ski Touring

Documenting a Descent of the Vallée Blanche

An April Vallée Blanche

April 2016 brought to Chamonix some beautiful late season snow and some brilliant sunshine as well. All resulting in a nice set of  photos which I posted over on Flickr of a recent Vallée Blanche descent with a group of friends.

Vallée Blanche 2016

Click on the photo to see the entire set.

Descent of the mythic Vallée Blanche

This famous off piste ski descent starts from the Aiguille du Midi high above the town of Chamonix and ends either at the Montenvers train station at the end of the season, or continues all the way down into Chamonix via climbing out of the glacier near the Montenvers train station, and then skiing down via the Mottets route to end at the bottom of the Planards ski area in town centre in mid season if there is good snow.

The Effects of Global Warming

Each year the climb out of the glacier gets longer and longer as thanks to global warming we are losing this fabulous glacier at an alarming rate. When you climb out of the glacier if you are taking the train down, several signs along the way show the level of the glacier in previous years. It’s absolutely appalling how much volume and height the glacier has lost since I arrived here in 2001. Be prepared for this climb – it is more taxing now for some people than the skiing !

Why to take a Guide

The route is normally best done with a mountain guide for the average person who visits Chamonix.  There are many variations of the route to take down, but all of them entail going down the narrow ridge from the Midi ice cave (best done in crampons) and onto an open glacier where you will then be faced with the objective dangers of crevasses, weak snow bridges, falling seracs and avalanches. Skiers should wear special safety gear whether or not you go with a guide.  Not only should you bring the typical avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, but also you need to wear a harness and crevasse rescue gear including a rope (and have the training to use it!) and have winter mountain and glacier navigational skills and plenty of avalanche safety training if you are going without a guide.

It is indeed the high mountains, and it is not patrolled in any way – your safety is your responsibility. Not for the faint of heart !

As you can see from the photos, we spotted several avalanches and negotiated quite a few crevasses on our way down. The avalanche risk was level 3 on the day we did the descent and we followed a route that was not overly steep to mitigate the danger.

Of course, we also had some amazing fresh tracks in the snow in the early part of the descent – and stunning views of the Alps. Another reason to take a guide – the guides will know where to find fresh powder if it can be had at all !

And why to take a Photographer !

And feel free to contact me if you’d like me to document your Valley Blanche descent or other ski adventure in or near Chamonix ! I will focus on taking the photos so that you can focus on your skiing and soaking in all the amazing views – and you will be actually skiing in your photos instead of showing friends pictures of your feet, only the views with no people – or the world on the end of a selfie stick !

Also posted in Event Coverage, Photography

Mission WOW Women of Winter Ski Touring Weekend

Scott Mission WOW

Women of Winter Ski Touring Weekend in Italy

I had a fun weekend as the photographer for the Scott Sports sponsored Mission WOW Women of Winter introduction to ski touring and the back country event in the Val Ferret Italy on March 23rd and 24th. I worked the still camera, and Rachel of Seven Twenty Productions did the videos … the result of which you can find here on You Tube.

25 women joined in for the event, which aims to introduce women to ski touring and develop back country safety skills in a fun safe environment, accompanied by 3 IFMGA/UIAGM female mountain guides (Ulrika Asp, Caroline George and Isabelle Santoire ) and one ISIA ski instructor (Pia Palm).

The ski touring weekend attracted a range of ages, with most women falling somewhere in their 20s. Jo Guest from Mission WOW organised the event, and Scott Sports was happy to offer extensive sponsorship. The purpose of Mission WOW is to introduce women to activities they may not otherwise do on their own, promote more women to participate in sports, and create a great women-friendly environment for networking, friend making and skill building. They also run summer Women on Wheels and Women in Water WOW events.

The weekend started  at Ravanel Sports in Les Praz with ski and boot-fitting for women who wanted to try out the latest Scott Sports ski touring set up. Some women who were boarders were given split boards to try out for touring. Other women brought their own personal ski touring gear.

The guides and instructors came along to give advice and meet everyone. Scott provided skis from their Mountain and Freeride ranges (Crus’Air, Powd’Air and Pure models for example) fitted with Dynafit touring bindings, and climbing skins from Colltex. Ravanel provided ski touring boots to match the Dynafit bindings for those who needed them. The Ravanel ski techs made sure to set up the ski bindings’ release setting properly for the technical ability of each skier. The women who signed up included English, Swedish and French speaking women and the guides were all either bi or tri-lingual to give instruction in English, Swedish or French.

The next morning, we met up at the Montenvers car park in Chamonix. A Scott Sports car brought along the skis and boots from Ravanel, and the guides and instructor made sure everyone had the correct equipment before setting out, including avalanche safety gear (transciever, shovel and probe),  lending transceivers where required.

We car-pooled to go under Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in western Europe via the Tunnel du Mont Blanc and into Italy. From the car park at Entreves, we hopped a bus which shuttled us boldly up some steep switch back turns to Planpincieux and into the beautiful Val Ferret which is part of the town of Courmayeur Italy.


This small village at 1400m altitude is the start of cross-country track in a long wide hanging valley, and was also the start of our ski tour. A good general description of the many routes, hikes, climbs, snow shoe trails and ski tours you can find in that area, as well as a topo map is on Camp to Camp website.

The ski tour follows near the cross country trail and goes gradually 200m uphill over around 10km of distance until it reaches the small town of Lavachey. From Lavachey the trail goes steeply through the woods for another 200m to reach the Walter Bonatti hut at 2025m altitude. We did take a break along the way for some thick hot chocolate and great Italian coffee

Everyone reached the hut at their own pace, some guides taking the faster tourers, and others staying back with the slower groups. No one felt rushed. After a short break at the hut for lunch, it was time for the kick turn clinic back on the hill behind the hut.

Kick turns are the way that ski tourers get up steep hillsides, turning the skis quickly and efficiently around sharp corners when the hill is too steep to allow a “5 point” style gradual turn around a corner as one can do in flatter terrain. The first step of a kick turn involves nearly a ballet move, as your upper foot is brought quickly around in the opposite direction to your lower foot to rest above your current track. Then you move your poles uphill and shift the weight onto the upper foot, potentially kick the back foot out to release the toe (the heel of your foot is not attached to the ski when in touring mode) and turn the lower ski around your upper leg’s boot cuff to bring it into a parallel track. And off you go. These turns are known as “conversions” in French. Once the technique is firmly mastered, you do not need to even break stride to complete a conversion turn.

The day was completed with a lovely four course hot meal at the Bonatti hut (the salad included fresh pomegranate and apple !), as well as hot showers ! Climbing skins were hung up to dry and boot liners were pulled out to allow for drying overnight. The Bonatti hut is a rather cush example of a mountain hut compared to many – the beds and pillows are nice, with a decent amount of personal space (despite sleeping dormitory style) and most of us got a good sleep.

The weather forecast was not ideal to do a long ski tour on Sunday so the guides proposed doing many technical workshops or a smaller tour as a choice. So everyone was spared a super early alpine start as would have been required for a longer tour, meeting at 9am after a leisurely breakfast and many cups of tea and coffee. After a pep talk from Jo on positive thinking and learning something from every day you have, even challenging days, everyone split into groups.

Some chose to stay with one guide and learn more mountain skills such as crevasse rescue and other mountain safety techniques and others went on a short ski tour with the other three guides, up to the Tête Entre Deux Sauts above the Bonatti hut. The ski back down to the hut was challenging for most everyone, as the day was an entire white out with little way to tell how the hill was falling away from you. The snow was fresh, deep and heavy rather than light and powdery. But everyone had fun and the guides were sure everyone stayed in a sight line due to the fog. Once back at the hut, everyone did a transceiver search  workshop. The women learned to use their transceivers to find buried avalanche victims, and the proper technique to probe for someone buried under the snow and then dig them out.

At the hut we ate sack lunches (the hut packed lunches for those who did not carry their own) and put skis and packs back on to head through the woods and down the hill.  The snow became heavier still in the woods, and after a break for some play and group shots at Lavachey we headed in “skate ski” mode down the trail back the 10km towards Planpincieux. Some women had developed blisters during the ski tour, but more importantly everyone developed their back country mountain skills and their friendships.

Once back in Chamonix, we all headed to the MBC to enjoy a round of beers, nachos and the raffle that gave away some grab bag goodies from Swatch, Colltex and Scott. As a grand prize, Scott gave away a pair of freeride skis. Rather than simply picking a number out of the pot, the winner was decided via several rounds of very animated “rock, paper, scissors” ! A fun weekend for all.
Scott Mission WOW Women of Winter

Also posted in Event Coverage, Photography

Idris Skis Promotional Photos

Tom ready to go at the Aiguille du MidiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiIdris SkiTom on his way to a ski testTom on his way to a ski testIdris ski testTom near La Tour Ronde Tour Ronde

This is a series of photos I have done to promote a local business – Idris Ski, a Chamonix valley based hand-built eco-friendly ski manufacturer.

From start to finish, Tom has sourced and built his skis in the most eco-friendly way possible, while retaining high performance. He makes a line of free ride as well as piste skis. His wife Kiyoko helps with fine details and finishing, and gives input to the ski design and oversight to the marketing process. They are a great team and make a great product.

Tom Greenall is someone I have known practically since moving to Chamonix many years back and is a wonderful example of someone who has taken his natural passion and turned it into his livelihood. He built some of his first prototype eco-friendly skis while staying as a room mate with us in Chalet Kobi many years back, so I have been able to observe the development of the product first-hand.

I have always admired Tom’s keen knowledge of all things related to mechanical engineering (his school degree), and his absolute passion for all things ski.Tom makes a point of skiing somewhere at least one day on every month of the year, writes blogs on skiing and is a regular on the Aiguille du Midi lift in Chamonix all year-round.

Combine all this with natural tenacity and an absolute commitment to build the most eco-friendly product possible, and you have an Idris Ski.

Tom has come a long way since those initial days past with prototypes built in the garage, and his Idris skis are really now things of beauty in addition to being a well-performing ski.

I was very happy to photograph and video parts of his hand-built ski manufacturing and ski testing process. And of course, to test his product myself !

Is this a good time to mention that my site is hosted on Fat Cow, a green100% wind-powered web host ?? 😉  It is.


Also posted in Photography Tagged , , , , , , , |

Late season ski touring up the Aiguille du Midi

Tom near La Tour Ronde

Tom near La Tour Ronde on his Idris eco-friendly hand made skis

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.

Track upLes Houches and Servoz from the Plan du MidiAiguille du MidiThe Italian Alps and HelbronnerTaculTomAscent on FrostingDent du GMy shadowCrevasses on Tour RondeConstruction at HelbronnerPath to refugeCrevasses on Tour RondeConstruction at HelbronnerPlaqueCourmayeur valleyDescent to TorinoTorino construction zoneSerac fall on the Valley BlancheDent du GAbove the Salle Looking back at the Glacier GLooking backTrain ride home

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).