La Grave 2010 climbing and skiing report

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As usual an exciting week was had by the team, magnificently organised by that well known chef, Martin Bennett. Thrilling times were guaranteed by the presence of Alan “stormbringer, harbinger of doom” Blackburn. Nick Hepburn arrived safely without any detours involving transcontinental train detours but Frank got to within 30 miles and then had a three hour detour due to a blocked high pass which he had been taken to via his sat nav.

A respectable, cultured and civilised air was given to the proceedings by the presence of Becky who bravely battled with steep ice led by Phil , and she fitted in some skiing too. Numerous ice routes were climbed by all (except me), and no days were lost due to bad weather. Ali took quite a hit on his helmet and left arm from an ice block while leading but managed to hang on despite tinnitus caused by this and a soon to be very bruised arm. Martin was very pleased that his hands no longer felt like blocks of ice during his ice climbs due to some smart pills and electrically heated gloves. Alan was suffering while climbing though as he had bruised his ribs while soloing some ice the week before the trip. Happily though he was skiing up to his usual high standard after a bit of  disappointing skiing last year.

On day one everyone set out to climb ice and found plenty. I had been reading up on the off piste potential at La Grave which was said to be world famous. As route finding on the two big runs down was said to be tricky I joined a very friendly French group of four group lead by a mountain guide for my first day. When he handed out climbing harnesses and avalanche transceivers we wondered what we might be getting into! Twenty five or so skiers have been killed here in the last 13 years or so and though we were not going into the steep couloirs avalanches, serac and glacier falls were recognised potential hazards. The first route was the classic route of the Vallons de La Meije sector, 1800m down to the town. The temperature at the top station was minus 23 however with added wind chill, but as there had been heavy snow 24 hrs previously there was terrific powder snow with not many tracks in it and the route looked fantastic. The north face of the Meije loomed over us as did the serac fields, though these were only a hazard for the descent lines further to the right. Easy couloirs, open powder slopes, narrow tree lined sections and some tricky moguls lead down to the valley and a short walk to the nearest restaurant overlooking the mountain and lunch.

The last time I had dined with a French group mid way through a day out in the Alps I made the mistake of matching their wine and cheese intake and ended up having to land my paraglider early and vomit into the bushes.So only one glass of beer this time! In the afternoon the plan was to go down The Col du lac via the Rognon de la Girose then join the Vallons de Chancel (1800 metres).Our guide told us we were going over a glacier section and had to follow him very precisely in that area. On the way up we met an American group with a guide who was going to do one of the steep couloirs on this side of the mountain. They said you couldn’t afford to fall in it and that someone who did died on it last year. Apparently icy sections can form overnight and if so it would be like skiing down an easier ice climb. Inspection thus would be needed apparently. Something for next year perhaps as this was our groups first venture onto proper off piste.

We had been very lucky in that 36 hrs earlier it had snowed very heavily and we were in a world of powder and making the first tracks a lot of the time. We started off by catching a rope trailing behind a snow plow to be towed up to the top pomma. I thought the French locals were messing about when they first grabbed the rope but soon realised that this was the fun way up. The last section up the pomma to near the summit and the glacier was quite exciting as we were not sure what we were facing. Terrific powder and some tricky route finding led to a huge powder slope leading down to a frozen Lake and a glacier. Our guide Manus insisted that we follow exactly in his ski tracks during this section , the only problem being that he bombed off at speed. A French guy ploughed into some small boulders and lost a ski, this resulting in a bollocking from Manus as he should have gone off the track into some deep snow where I had had to go. We finished up skiing across the ground above the ice climbs in the La Pylone area then skied to La Grave.

Overall we had skied down 3800 metres and I had the best days skiing in 30 years by quite a margin. Having an idea of where to go I was very keen to venture out again the following day without a guide rather than go ice climbing as I planned to do this during a six night stay at the CIC hut on the Ben in February. When the day dawned Stuart Gascoyne mentioned that he liked the idea of some off piste so he hired some powder skis and we set off under a blue sky. Having a been down the Vallons de La Meije already this seemed to be a safe option though the avalanche risk was still at 3. Stuart decided not to rent an avalanche transceiver though I did as well as a shovel and probes as our guide of yesterday said we should and as it did seem to be the done thing. It was a few degrees less cold on the top and the wind had dropped somewehat. Stuart  forgot his goggles and was at risk of getting sore eyes though fortunately as I had my sunglasses with me I gave him my goggles. The skiing was terrific again though with more tracks than previously.Stuart fell quite a lot but didn’t hurt himself. I had a few tumbles myself of no consequence and we finished off with a great descent all the way back down to La Grave.