Polar Vortices and the North Atlantic Oscillation weren’t vocabulary in the forefront in my brain just a month ago, but having worked the last month in the Alps, with temperatures dipping to -28C, I feel overly well acquainted with the Beast from the East. We can but hope that Arthur Conan Doyle’s words in His Last Bow ring true; “There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less and a cleaner, better stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”
Well maybe Doyle was right all along, but we withered, we shivered, and we suffered, but now the Beast has retreated to the East, and we’ve some pretty exceptional conditions across the Alps. The ice climbing season has extended well into mid March even at valley floor level, and as the ski touring season grinds into a higher gear, many huts are struggling to open in time due to the quantity of snow. Last week I was guiding a group to the Refuge de Loriaz hut above Vallorcine, and the old buildings are completely buried, to the extent that you can walk straight across their roofs without knowing they are beneath you.
Ice climbers have seen the best conditions for several years, and for the week of colder weather, even routes far down the Chamonix valley, such as the huge Cascade d’Arpenaz near Sallanches froze completely. This amazing route was first climbed by Francois Damilano in 2001, and I’ve never seen it in such climbable condition ever since. Val de Cogne has been in superb condition too, and the Val d’Aosta ice climbing mecca has been full of teams. Classic routes such as Repentance, Patrie, Cold Couloir and Lillaz Gully have all seen frequent ascents. Some routes have been in condition so long, that ladders of ice steps have formed up them, due to the traffic of so many crampon and axes.
Skiers have not had it so easy. The East wind had a frequent interplay with the foehn wind in the Mont Blanc massif, which resulted in many days of closures or reduced openings. Apart from a few days, it hasn’t been busy on the Vallée Blanche, even over the holiday weeks. The cold has generated high avalanche risks for much of the past few weeks, much of which as been 4/5 for a sustained period. The cold weather has built up some very weak layers in the snowpack, so prudence is required. Unfortunately there have been several accidents, especially in the Le Tour and Vallorcine regions. Despite the risks, there have been some great conditions and days, where the wind blown snow and hoar frost crystals have not coalesced, and there have been some pockets of amazing powder, especially on the Italian side of the massif.
Mountaineers have certainly struggled for the past few weeks if they’ve wanted to climb at altitude, and the extreme cold has been enough to convince all but the most hardy to go ice climbing instead. In the gaps in the weather, there have been a few quick routes grasped, but the Aiguille du Midi remains plastered with snow, and alpinists might have to pack a periscope to see what they are wading up at the moment.
My highlights in the past few weeks have actually been in trainers, where the winter trail running up to altitude of around 2000m, has been excellent and the best for several years. The cold weather, strong winds, and foehn cycles have produced a strong solid base layer, which is able to support a runners weight, without needing snowshoes or skis. Routes I’ve been running on include the Petit Croisse Baulet above Megève, Chalets de Chailloux from Les Houches, and the Loriaz hut from Le Buet. It’s been a delight to run so high during the key winter season, and to focus on doing the activity that best suits the conditions on these days, rather than trying to fix certain activities to specific calendar months. It’s been great to see that other runners have been benefitting from these unique conditions, and there’s been good mutual respect between ski tourers and runners when they’ve passed each other on the mountain.
It was exceptionally cold for one week. So much so that fuel froze solid in a friends van. The low tech solution was to tow it into an underground garage to thaw out for a few days. Wearing two or three duvet jackets became the norm, even when exercising. Winter boots with altitude over boots came out of storage from a previous expedition. Lots of things broke with the cold. Rubber straps became brittle, plastic clips broke, and climbing ropes became a solid coil if not constantly flexed. Whilst the Beast from the East only lingered for a week or so, it made many of us realise how easy we generally have it in the Alps, without frequent extremes of weather. Sure we usually have cold weather in the winter, but this was COLD.
From a misanthropic point of view, the cold was great. Many flights were cancelled, people avoided driving to the Alps, and didn’t venture too far. The mountains were relatively quiet, even over the key holiday weeks. The ever elusive parking spaces around Chamonix were easy to find, the lift queues were almost non existent, and mountain hut spaces weren’t an issue. Best of all, it was possible to have the mountains to yourself on many occasions, and that produced some brilliant days out. A personal highlight was emerging above a sea of clouds in the Aiguilles Rouges one morning, with the whole Mont Blanc massif gleaming ahead of me. Sure I’d read the forecasts, and studied the webcams, but when a plan like that falls perfectly into place, it’s impossible not to grin like a fool at the stunning vista.
In some areas, the snowpack is very tricky, such as around the Grand Saint Bernard. Usually it’s a great ski tour or snowshoeing destination to ascend to the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard, often incorrectly referred to as the monastery, to visit the famous site on the Col de Mont Joux. Usually you can stay the night at the hospice, and even attend a service in the chapel in the crypt, but this year the snow conditions especially in the Combe des Morts are dangerous. The access to this amazing region from Chamonix, has been blocked until recently by the closure of the road to Col de Forclaz above Trient, but this has temporary re-opened during daylight hours, so when the snow conditions improve again, it will be great to visit the Grand Saint Bernard once again.
As predicted by Arthur Conan Doyle, “a cleaner, better stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared”, and it seems like he’s right. Now the avalanche forecast is reduced slightly to a 3/5, but the week ahead is looking better, with largely stable weather from Monday to Friday. The forecasts overnight temperatures tell the real tale, as towards the end of the week they dip once again to -11C, and the prevailing wind spins again to flow from the East. The Beast will be back.