Filed under:Activities, Blogs, Ice & Mixed Climbing, Kingsley Jones, Ski Touring, Chere Couloir, Contamines Grisole, Montenvers
Bleary-eyed I get out of bed, and open my laptop. As I struggle to focus, I refresh the Chamonix webcams, and weather reports tabs that are pinned open all the time. My eyes open wide as I see clouds like ragged golden banners rippling from the summit of the Drus, revealed by a layer of cloud inversion that is starting to break, revealing the summit of the Grandes Jorasses and Charmoz north faces.
The mountains are covered by a mantle of fresh snow. It’s untracked, unspoilt, and even the wind hasn’t had time to work it into crusts, sastrugi, and slabs. The panoramic webcam at Montenvers gently sweeps left to right, and as the glow of my laptop screen lights my face, I stare in awe at the staggering beauty of the Alpine dawn over the Mer de Glace glacier basin.
It’s a habit that I hope I never grow out of; to start each day with a minute immersing myself in the raw beauty of a place, and how it changes imperceptibly from season to season. On a screen I find it easy to over-romanticise the Chamonix landscape, and to find peace in its vistas. Once the screen is closed, the coffee drunk, the Gore-Tex on, and the chalet door creaks shut behind you, there’s no soft dreamy aspect any more. The piercing cold of an early winter dawn envelopes your face. Each breath draws frigid air into your lungs, fingers rapidly numbing, nose and cheek bones feeling the harsh nip of the cold air. During the alpine nights, the katabatic winds flow down the glacier basins, and the hyperborean airmass drags you out of the dawn languor, and snaps you into the harsh reality of the mountains.
The past few weeks in Chamonix and the Northern Alps have seen the opening of many ski areas. Verbier has opened its upper slopes over the weekends for the last couple of weeks, as has Cervinia, though both areas stress that skiers should stick to the pistes, as the all-important base layer hasn’t formed yet. Despite this, Cervinia had to close all its lifts one day due to too much snowfall. Whilst it’s still true that winter isn’t properly here in the Alps yet, it’s a very encouraging start. The uplift in Chamonix for the next couple of weeks is all pretty much in lockdown, as the engineers frantically make the last adjustments, tests, and repairs ready for the main opening on 9th December.
Until then, there’s still two weeks of calm. In the Chamonix valley at this time of year, for those working in the skiing or mountain guiding industries, there’s been the lure of the London Ski Show at the end of October, and the Kendal Mountain Festival in mid November. When I said lure, it’s very much a case of each to their own. Some people thrive at these events, rubbing shoulders with the great and the good, others shun them preferring to stay in the mountains. At either UK event, you are sure to witness a sea of impossibly clean and unused duvet jackets, branded bobble hats, countless hipster beards and un-muddied footwear. There will be many mentions of “gnarly lines”, “sick descents”, “epic routes”, and the “level of stoke will be high”. It’s not for me, but it’s even worse to admit that you are waiting for a ‘big dump’, I suppose!
Instagram is the modern ski bum wire, and it’s starting to ramp up with posts of sorties and recce’s to find powder stashes and to blow out the inter-season cobwebs. Classic examples around Chamonix are groups on Mont Buet last week, some ski touring, others still on foot. That sums the conditions up really. Yes, there are plenty of posts of people skiing already, but the glaciers are still open and dangerous lower down. If people are still hiking up to 3000m, on foot, that’s pretty much the boundary we need to respect at present. Ski above that level, and be very wary below, unless you are very rich, or love P-Tex patches in your ski bases. No one wants to tear a chunk out of their shiny new skis at this stage of the season. Maybe a scrape will be justified at the far end of winter, in a May ski tour, but definitely not now.
The summer season was hot this year, and it’s stripped back many of the classic altitude ice climbing routes, such as the Chere Couloir, to the thinnest condition in many peoples living memory. Climbers will be hoping for a lot of good freeze and thaw cycles, with intermittent snowfalls, to repair these routes. Many north face routes are still covered in back ice, but some classics such as the 1938 route on the Eiger have been climbed recently. All reports confirm that the conditions aren’t great, but they sufficed. Over the week ahead, the weather is looking unsettled in the Alps, with more snow on its way, so conditions will evolve yet again.
One thing that keeps being mentioned in the early season sorties, are the mistakes that are being made; helmets being dropped and sliding down glaciers, touring without checking the new low-tech bindings fit the boots, and forgetting the avalanche transceiver. The tragic recent events on Imp Peak in Montana in early October, saw Inge Perkins die in an avalanche with her transceiver off and in her pack, and her partner Hayden Kennedy take his own life. Surely these events are too raw, still horrifically etched on our minds, not to honour their memories by checking our packs and kit for those extra few seconds. The early season safety drills are the most important, as they seep back from your subconscious, and become the foundation to a safe winter season ahead.
Now is the time to check through all your winter kit. If you’d stored it away, check for any sign of corrosion on items such as crampons or the on the battery connections in your head torches or avalanche beacon. Ensure that items are correctly fitted, especially if you’ve treated yourself to a new pair of boots, where crampon or ski bindings may need adjustment. Go through your first aid kit, and make sure you’ve re-stocked any items that you forgot to in the summer. Replenish your field fixing kit with new cable ties, duct tape, and wire. Pack your multi-tool after oiling it’s hinges. Wash and re-proof your jackets. Get out the sewing kit and seam-seal to repair the small tears and nicks in your kit. Check the ropes millimetre by millimetre for any crampon or rock damage.
The list goes on. It’s all time-consuming work, and seemingly without reward at the time. When the snow arrives, and when your ski skin clip fails at 3500m, that’s when you smugly open your non-rusted multi-tool and effect a field repair, which enables you to enjoy an amazing day ski touring, not a sad slog back down to the valley floor. Either it’s a day of Instagram gold, or a long lonely retreat with your tail between your legs. Reap the rewards by taking your time with preparation. The wait is nearly over. Winter is just around the corner, and it just feels that much closer every day now, when I awake and stare at those webcam images each morning.
Kingsley Jones is an International Mountain Leader and co-owner of Icicle Mountaineering. He’s also an author of mountain running books including ‘Lake District Trail & Fell Running’ and ‘Chamonix Trail Running’. More info at www.kingsleyjones.com