Ross Hewitt on the Saudan line, West Face of Mont Blanc
Photos by Ross Hewitt and Guilhem Leon Saint Martin
All it took was the text “Brenva is good” to motivate my Italian friend Enrico Mosetti to jump in his car and drive seven hours from the Italian-Slovenian border to Chamonix. It would be the first route of my Alpine Trilogy Project, taking advantage of the short window for skiing big steep mountain lines in late May.
The project was simple, a personal challenge to ski and photograph three of the biggest, baddest and hardest ski lines in the Alps: Switzerland’s iconic Matterhorn, the Himalayan-sized West Face of Mont Blanc, and the historic Brenva Spur on the East Face of Mont Blanc. These lines would be challenging enough for me to ski, but to ski with a 5lb SLR would add another level difficulty that had me second-guessing my likelihood of success from the start. Combining this with the fact that these ephemeral lines may only be skiable a couple of days every few years, and probably not at the same time, meant this was a very long-term project and perhaps not achievable in my lifetime.
2015 was the 150th anniversary of the Matterhorn’s first ascent and to celebrate this, the world’s most iconic peak could not be left out. The East Face of the Matterhorn was first skied by the legendary Jean Marc Boivin on June 6th 1980 after he soloed the Schmidt Route on the North Face in just over 4 hours. Mont Blanc also had to feature in this line up and its Himalayan-sized west face was the clear choice. Sylvain Saudan made the first descent of this face on June 25th, 1975. It has 2,200m of skiing between 40 and 50 degrees with another 1000m of skiing below that. Starting at 4,810m and with no easy way to check conditions, it can prove highly elusive and I’d been trying to ski this face most years since 2009. The Eiger might have been the obvious choice for the final route, but I’d already climbed the Eigerwand and skied the west face years ago so my attention shifted to something more remote, a line that was completely new to me – the east face of Mont Blanc, home to the elegant Brenva Spur. This face is remote, vast and with no easy access or exit this year due to the lack of snow below 2,500m. Several days of warm temperatures and heavy rain in early May had removed all the low-lying winter snow and caused a series of avalanches, mudslides and rockfalls. The exit would involve traversing the Brenva Glacier, climbing over Col de La Fourche and skinning 600m back up the Vallee Blanche to the Aiguille du Midi, all in the searing heat of the day.
THE BRENVA SPUR
We arrived at the Cosmiques refuge with the plan to climb over Tacul and Maudit and ski the Brenva Spur on-sight, but 40cm of new snow killed that idea. The big faces on these two mountains are not a good place to be in the dark when they are loaded. The Tour Ronde and the Brenva Face had been in the rain shadow behind Mont Blanc, we decided to go the long way round to the Brenva over Col de la Fourche and avoid the new storm snow.
At 3am our alarm rudely tore us from our dreams and cosy beds. After forcing down as much food and water as possible, Tom (Grant), Enrico and myself headed out into the night to ski down the Vallée Blanche en route to Col de la Fourche.
It was ink black and the usual summit reference points were cloaked in darkness. The light of my head torch seemed to be absorbed in the dark rather than lighting up what lay in front. Out of the dark a strange obstacle barred our way. The seracs on Col Diable had fallen in the night forcing us to detour a considerable distance down the Vallée Blanche. Finally after a kilometre we were able to pass below the chaotic jumble of car sized ice blocks and started skinning into Cirque Maudit, still in the pitch black.
At Col de la Fourche we met with dawn and bathed in the alpenglow as the sun crept over the Eastern skyline. That moment of first light is one of revelation for the ski mountaineer whose senses have been deprived in the dark, inducing fear, anxiety, and doubt. Now the way ahead becomes clear, calm is restored and you feel the low point in your soul disappear. In front of us the Brenva Face revealed all its magical hidden secrets to us in a scale that was difficult to judge due to the sheer size of the East Face. For a few moments we stood on the ridge and took it all in.
Crossing Col Moore at 7am we stashed all excess kit to reduce our pack weight before starting up the route. Skins, ski crampons, food and water for the return leg, one rope, shovel and probe. We would travel through survivable avalanche territory on the way back but on the route itself we just took a transceiver. We estimated the snow would be soft enough to ski by 08:30 which gave us a leisurely 1.5 hours to bootpack 700m.
The air was still and a blanket of cloud was drawn over the landscape below keeping Italy snug. Most people would still be curled up in bed enjoying a lazy Sunday morning, dreaming of cappuccinos and pain au chocolats to start their day. As the sun’s ray passed horizontal, every snow and ice crystal sparkled, and the temperature was so pleasant we climbed in thin mid-layers despite being above 4000m. We soon joined the iconic curling arête of the Brenva Spur and quickly climbed the final few hundred metres to the pyramid rock tower, gatekeeper to the serac exit onto Col de Brenva.Stamping ledges in the snow we clicked into our skis and soaked in the magnificent surroundings. The vast East Face of Mont Blanc lay to our right, a labyrinth of couloirs, buttresses and tumbling seracs that held historic alpine climbs such as Route Major, testament to a bygone era of adventurous times.
Boot-deep powder waited for us on the upper section, but you are never quite sure if the ski edges will glance off the underlying glacial ice. After the first turn revealed no surprises we skied some more cautious turns allowing our sluff to run in front until we had passed a section of shallow snow over the ice. From this point the angle eased and deeper snow allowed us to open it up and a dozen turns of sensual skiing took us to the iconic arête. From there you can ski left on cold snow or follow the sun to the right. Since the left was serac threatened, we dropped right. Wide open slopes holding perfect spring snow allowed us to drop a couple of hundred metres in five or six fantastic big turns and we arrived back on Col Moore with big smiles on our faces.
THE WEST FACE OF MONT BLANC
3 days later we were back at the Cosmiques refuge. Once again the alarm pulled me from my sleep at an ungodly hour, but my excitement levels rose as I looked out the window to be greeted by the rest of the galaxy twinkling in the night sky. I made my way out into the cold predawn air join to join the team of strong Chamonix steep skiers: Mikko Heimonen, Jesper Petterson and skier-journalist Guilhem Martin Saint Leon.
While we skinned up Tacul the temperature continued to drop and the cold north wind increased in strength making it feel pretty uncivilised. Drifting snow on Col Maudit forced us to stop to put all our spare clothes and cause me to regret the decision to save 200 grams by taking my lighter down jacket.
As the altitude started to make itself felt above 4000m the team spread out, each person going at their most economical pace to save their energy for the skiing while trying to stop their extremities from freezing. On the summit it was a relief to drop down the Italian side a few metres and get out of the frigid wind. We had estimated 1 pm would be the ideal start time, which gave us time to transition, eat and drink a little.
Below, the vast West Face rolled over and out of sight that filled us with nervous excitement. The top few turns were pretty scratchy and we could see the grey glacial ice underneath. Fear was showing its ugly face, the worry being that the snow would thin out as it steepened into the 50-degree range. There was this weird crust with sugar underneath on the ice. We kept making single turns with short traverses to link the on the whiter areas of snow then after 100m we got onto good snow alongside a buttress. Below we skied a fantastic enjoyable long pitch on what must be the highest spine in Europe.
We were all working hard at around 4500m, like race pace hard where you smell the blood in your nose, trying to keep to time knowing that would be the only way to negotiate safe passage through the glaciers 2000m below.
A short traverse over a snowed up rock rib took us into Sylvain Saudan’s south facing line, a 50° couloir that fell away below us for a 1000m. Now that we had passed the roll over point, the exposure eased and we could relax more and enjoy the good consistent snow that continued all the way down to the lower apron. As we crossed the bergschrund, we had been skiing hard for an hour and half we were still above the top of the 3424m Petit Mont Blanc.
Climate change has done its worst to the Mont Blanc Glacier that flows to the Miage Glacier making it chaotic and impassable. Our escape route from here was to skin to the shoulder above the old Quintino Sella hut and then ski the west-facing couloir down to the Dome Glacier. Our timing was perfect and the 600m couloir skied so well on creamy spring snow we skied the whole 45-degree shot together in under five minutes. The Dome Glacier lay in front of us and its crossing had been a big question in our minds but after roping up it only took a few minutes to cross and join the line of the summer path. All that remained was a couple more hours skiing down the Miage Glacier and walking down the moraine paths down to Val Veni.
The walk down allowed me to reflect on the day and think about some of the moments I hadn’t had time to digest properly in the heat of the action. Without doubt, it had been one of the most intense days I’d spent in the mountains – incredible situations and high quality skiing. After being in the world of snow, ice and rock all day long, the lush green alpage near Chalet Miage appeared particularly vivid and beautiful.
Now in early June only Mikko was still psyched and we headed in to ski the Matterhorn. With the refuge being closed for a major rebuild, we were doing it the hard way, carrying a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and a gallon of water each on top of the usual kit.
I went to bed early setting the alarm for 2am. Sleeping intermittently I kept thinking that streetlamp was really bright. When I finally poked my head out the tent, there was the Matterhorn, lit up like a stadium under the full moon. Inspired, the whole day was filled with sights of amazing natural beauty.
The tip of the Matterhorn was the first thing to be hit by the rising sun and it resembled a blade with blood red streaks on it. We continued climbing up the face aiming for the central couloir that ended at the rocky headwall. I was conscious that the temperature was rising fast which would eventually make the face an unsafe place, speed would be our only friend.
From the top of the skiable terrain the first turn would be on sustained, and unforgiving 55-degree spring snow. Simply standing stationary and holding an edge had every fibre in the body working overtime. Mikko went first and left the sanctuary of his ledge and, with axe and pole in one hand like Andreas Fransson, committed without hesitation into a series of bomber chop turns.
Now it was my turn. A heady mix of excitement and nerves. It felt really exposed looking down a plastered rock slab for 1000m. I had been focused on locking my body into a stable platform to shoot from and now I needed to loosen my muscles and think about the skiing. Going second, I had to avoid where Mikko had skimmed the softening snow and find my own edgable spots.
Side slipping a few metres let me get the feel of my skis and edge grip before I felt ready for that all-important first turn. Time to commit… no problem, this is going to be fine. As we dropped height and the angle eased to the 50-degree range, the snow softened further and the turns became softer and more rounded. Once we entered the central snowfield the angle was around 45 degrees and we had a lot of fun skiing fluidly and playing with our sluff. Once again the angle increased and it took some time to find our bootpack to lead us through the lower slabs. Below the lower crux traverse led through a peppery icy zone to take us to the ‘schrund and easy ground.
Somehow we had pulled of the Alpine Trilogy Project in just 10 days, skiing a Triple Crown of alpine steep skiing routes with an SLR and without any external assistance. It hadn’t really sunk in yet, but I had an enormous sense of satisfaction and happiness from the skiing, the wild situations and the performance we had put in. I knew they would be my last turns of the season and some of the best of my life.