My second challenge of 2017, a multiday ski tour across the Beaufortain Massive, was not meant to be an epic endurance test, either physically or mentally but a challenge to face my fears. I have lived in a ski resort now for 6 years, which is incredibly ironic as I suffer from an irrational fear of slipping on snow and ice, called Chonophobia. I can still picture myself 6 years ago, crying uncontrollably every time I went skiing, terrified on the beginner green runs. Slowly but surely over the winters I was able to control my fear enough to ski fairly contently in around the resort on piste. I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it anymore either. As for Off-piste, well that continued to truly terrify me. It’s really hard to describe my fear (hence irrational) but in short its the not knowing what response / reaction / movement I will get when I move, and the potential to slip or slide. For that brief moment it’s being out of control I suppose. So this winter I have been working hard with lots of lessons with the aim that my skiing would eventually be good enough technically to go ski touring, even if there was still going to be a chance of the odd panic attack mentally on route. Most people who go ski touring do the ‘uphill skiing’ element (skinning) as a means of accessing amazing downhill skiing where no-one else has been. I however love the uphill bit. In the past couple of years skinning has become my main winter activity, I love the satisfaction of powering yourself up a mountain, the views always seems more spectacular and your dinner always tastes a bit yummier when you have put a bit of effort in. I often don’t even ski back down, I take a lift! In principle ski touring is a combination of all the things I love, magical mountain scenery, being miles away from other people, adventure, and uphill skiing, so the time has finally come to ‘man-up’ and learn to love the down bit too!!
My little micro adventure begun on Friday afternoon after work, with a short 5km skin up to the Refuge du Nant du Beure (2075m) from Grand Naves. With threatening stormy skies and strong winds, but it stayed dry and within an hour and half we were warm and cosy in the refuge, drinking tea and playing board games. As the evening went on the wind continued to increase, rattling the refuge windows hard, making for a very sleepless night. The alarm went off at 6.30 and by 7am we were outside on the skis ready to set off. The wind had not eased at all, the weather forecast said 80km/hr winds with even stronger gusts, but that they were due to ease as the day went on, so off we set up towards the first Col. The wind was hitting us side on but we hoped that the basin the other side of the col would provide some natural shelter. As we neared the top of the Col des Tufs Blanc (2304m) we were having to stop and brace as each gust hit in order to stay on our feet, and with our heads down to protect our faces from the spin drift being whipped up. There was sadly no shelter the other side, so we battled on through much of the same in the next basin and over the Col des Génisses.
It was along the next uphill traverse that things became a little scarier. To traverse this next North facing solid polished steep slope we had to put crampons on the skis to have any hope of getting any grip. The wind was coming over the ridge line and down the mountain side at such speed it was almost impossible to get anywhere. We could only move a couple of steps between gusts before we would need to brace and anchor ourselves down as best we could with our crampons and poles. Then one gust took me clean off my feet, I fortunately managed to anchor myself almost instantly but was pinned to the mountain side like a squashed fly. I looked up to see that my team mate had also been taken off his feet, but was now hurtling down the icy mountain, unable to self arrest due the the solid compact snow. Some way down the mountain he stopped him self and then he too lay pinned against the slope. After ascertaining that he was not hurt and then watching him get up and start to move a couple of steps at a time between gusts towards the col, I realised I needed to start moving. I couldn’t, my Chonophobia had taken hold and I was frozen to the spot, terrified of sliding off down the mountain as I had just seen happen to him. After several minutes shaking like a leaf I managed to talk myself into moving, just a couple of steps at a time between gusts. I kept my body so low to the slope I was effectively in a permanent squat for the whole traverse. With the final few steps we emerged up to the ridge line to the Col de La Grande Combe, only for it to get worse! With winds guesting over 100km/hr across the col, we were now both pretty much laying on the floor clinging to the col wooden sign post. It was unbelievable, I hadn’t experienced wind like that since the Southern Patagonian Icecap. We were completely disabled by it. Our route was supposed to follow the ridge line but that was not an option, we had to head down to find some restspite from the wind. To go down we had to get the crampons off the skis! There was no way skins were coming off as they would have been whipped away in a second but the crampons had to come off. the skis would also be blow away if not attached to us, so we took it in turns to lay across each others skis while the other unclipped and took of a crampon one ski at a time, oh while still holding onto the post!! Once ready we counted down from three and set off hanging onto each other crouched as low as we could skiing downhill but straight into the wind. 20 or so meters off the ridge the frightening speed of the wind died a little and despite still very windy became a little more manageable. We skied down the valley with the skins on until we reached the restspite of the Refuge de la Coire (2059m).
Sheltering here from the wind we had a bite to eat, got the map out and took stock of the situation. From this point there was an easy, quick and sheltered way out back down to a town if we were going to call time on the trip, or we could continue up to the fourth col, knowing that we could come straight back or down the valley within an hour if the wind was just as bad. I was a little apprehensive about setting off, I think I had already resigned myself to the fact the wind had put pay to this adventure and we would head home, but the aspect of this col was much better and we had a way back out that we could take at any point, so nervously I started climbing once more. South facing, our climb crossed a lot of old avalanche debris, but the softer spring snow made gripping easier and the winds were considerably better. The last section of the climb was steep, and as I am worse than useless at kick turns, I boot packed up the steep with my skis on my shoulder. At the top of the col it wasn’t actually too windy in the scheme of what we had already endured, so we decided to carry on and ski down the long massive open valley ahead, as from the bottom of there we only had one more col to climb before the next refuge would be in sight.
The 5th and final col of the day under the Pierre Menta, the Col de Bresson, was by far the steepest and being NNW facing was hard and polished again, so on with the crampons once more. Once to the top we were quickly into ski mode to enjoy an amazing 500m vertical descent of the most idyllic soft ‘spring’ snow skiing in a valley that was completely sheltered from the wind, down to our home for the night Refuge La Balme (1984m). Phew we had survived, and with no harm done other than just a little exhausted. Once in the refuge we started chopping up logs for fire wood to get the log burner roaring, melting snow for water and tucking into tea and biscuits, before another night of torch lit supper and card games. The refuge was full with 18 of us calling it home for the night. As I went outside to find the loo last thing before bed, I found the wind had completely stopped, the sky was now thick with cloud and light snow was falling. We were up and out again by 7.30am, and were treated by the most perfect bluebird sky, 20cm of fresh snow and not a breath of wind, wow! It was 700m up to the Col du Grand Fond past the Refuge de Presset. The snow was so amazing on the way up to the col that my team mate skinned on quickly ahead so as he could ski back down before skinning up once again with me. Once on the top the views were just utterly magical in every direction. A few others had skinned up to the col, but only with the intention of skiing back down to the refuge before heading home. It was only us that were going onwards, which meant we had hours and kilometres of completely fresh powder all to our selves as we skied with constant views of Mount Blanc. Even for me, ‘the girl who doesn’t like skiing very much’ it was AMAZING!
Next stop was a picnic lunch at the Cormet de Roselend sign. A spot I have had my photograph taken at many many times, but only ever with my bicycle. From here to Beaufort it was predominantly skiing where the road normally is, just cutting off some of the corners because we could. Eventually on the road down to Beaufort the snow finally ran out and we continued walking until we met our lift waiting to take us home. It was a long final day covering 24km, but was so epic that the violet dangerous winds from the day before vanished as distant memories.
In two and a bit days I am still far from overcoming my fears completely, there was still a handful of nervous sweaty and shaky scared moments on the trip, but I’m working on it and overall I loved it.