The Short Bus by Tim Fitzgeral
The trip started with the crew meeting up at our first stop, ChamonixFrance, on Sunday afternoon at the most excellent Hotel Gustavia. The Hotel is a great choice as it is right across from the train station and a short walk to the center of town in one direction, or to the teleferique for the Aiguille du Midi in the other. (It also has a great bar that gets lively on occassion...). So we met up with our guides, Martin Volken, owner of Pro Guiding Service out of Seattle and a Swiss certified, uber mtn guide; and Mike Hattrup, famous ski film star, ski mountaineering guide and manager of K2's backcountry and telemark programs. A discussion followed about the options for the next two days in the Chamonix valley, of which there are more than you can shake a stick at, and a gear check to ensure everyone had the reuired gear (one bozo in the group didn't have half the required gear
- good thing there were lots of shops around!).
Day1: After a full breakfast provided by the hotel, we set our sights on the first target of the trip: the area in-between the Grand Montets and the Aiguille D'Argentiere with a crossing of one of the cols so that we could decend down into the town of Le Tour. Old Man Winter had not yet let go of his grip on the Alps this year as he had dumped 8" in 2 of the previous 3 nights and it was snowing hard again. After riding the trams to the top, we stepped out into a full-blown winter storm. Getting down to the Argentiere glacier was a unique experience for me since, led by Martin and Mike, we had to ski down in very poor vis using a compass, altimeter and referencing notes indicating when a change of direction was required. All the while, ensuring that we didn't ski into any crevasses that could have appeared on the documented route. Pretty gnarly. After getting down the glacier, it was concluded that the wind-loaded slopes that we were hoping to scale in order to gain either the Col du Passon or Chardonnet, which would launch onto the other side of the ridge to Le Tour, were not good ideas due to avalanche risk. So, we switched gears and worked our way up along the glacier to the Argentiere Hut (think a buidling the size of a small hotel with bunkrooms, kitchen, dinning room etc - enough to fit 40 people - but out in the middle of the Alps with views you cannot imagine) and from there
up to the Col du Tour Noir. We had a solid powder run down to the Argentiere glacier and then down along side it to the ski run down all the way to the valley floor. Day 1 was in the bag - it was time for some chow. Martin suggested we drive through the Mt Blanc tunnel and eat in Italy. Mike knew a quaint restaurant in the first town near Courmayeur so we drove for less than 30 mins and posted up for, swear to God, a 10-course meal. Difference there is that each course had at least 5 different plates of different specialties being passed around. Needless to say, we rolled out of there - a great end to the first day.
Day 2: took us up the Aiguille du Midi in hopes we could grab some steep lines, and make our way to Courmayer in Italy and back all via skiing and skinning in the backcountry between the two. Ullr, God of snow, was still content to throw winter in our path for another day so we had to play it safe and stick to a decent down the majestic Vallee Blanche. First we had to peek into the Couloir Pubelle (sp?) which had me nervous just looking into the 50 degree shot that dissappears out of sight - maybe next time.
After navigating the knife edge ridge roped up to each other in groups of 3 or 4, we were set to ski. The decent is pretty tame all things considered, but great views (when we had the occassional opening) and a classic line so it was good to bag it nonetheless. Post skiing we packed up the van and headed over the pass to Switzerland. We were headed to our next stop - Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn. Before getting there, we needed to fill up, so we stopped at a little winery for some excellent Swiss wine and a meal of various melted cheeses from the surrounding area. It was really tasty to say the least. Once again, we rolled out of there.
Zermatt is totally cool and the drive between Chamonix Valley and there isso scenic. No gas powered cars allowed in town so you park and get pickedup by the hotel taxi. Picturesque surroundings in the heart of the Alps.
Day 3: dawned to bluebird conditions and one look out the window showed the stunning view of the Matterhorn in full sunlight. I said "Damn! look at that" as I scrambled to grab the camera for fear it would all somehow dissappear before my eyes. The plan for the day was to use the incredible lift infrastructure to get up top of the Klein Matterhorn and then ski and hike to the summit of the Breithorn before an epic decent down to the Grenzgletscher glacier in view of various peaks including Liskamm at (4527
m) and Monte Rosa (4634m - 2nd tallest peak in the Alps). Climbing the summit required first ski crampons, then boot crampons as the wind was scouring everything down to ice up high. It was pretty intense as the wind was blowing hard and it was cold - cold enough for several of the team to get frost nip. Sunny powder run of 12'+ of pow flanked by icefalls and fields of crevasses on either side at times. Once we gained the valley floor, we found ourselves in a bobsled run carved into the glacier by the
skiers over time. Damn was that fun, swooping around blind turns, at times into and out of the glacier all the way a ski run that took us to the bottom and into town. This was a killer day. Meal in town that night where we witnessed an annual race that starts at 10pm and has 3 heats of competitors embark on a course that takes them up to the top and over to the Italian town on the other side (~8k feet of skinning up in the middle of the freezing cold night with no support). These guys are aggro!
Day 4: wasanother clear day and the group opted for a day of taking advantage of the incredible lift systems of Zermatt and Cervina and getting in some serious vert. (Jackson Hole can stuff a sock in it as far as I am concerned - this
place has ten 80-person trams operating everyday - step up to the plate Jackson and quit your bellyaching about your one tram!).That evening we packed up and drove around to the next valley to Saas Fee - another epic ski town in the Alps. Similar to Zermatt but smaller and less commercial, the town has a cool vibe and we were stoked for another couple days of adventure.
Day 5 :took us to the top of the lifts where we skinned up and to the shoulder of the Allalinhorn. Looking down into the Valle
Anzasca and up to Monte Rosa and seeing some skin tracks around was just incredible. There is some BIG backcountry that people were getting after. Nice powder decent to about mid-way down for a lunch break and then, with some grumbling from Chip Dickenson (yes, we were skiing with "The" Chip Dickenson!), rallied for another skin up and big decent to town along an incredible line through and next to the glacier below the peaks of Dom and Nadelhorn.
Last day was a little stormy at first, but it cracked off enough so that they let us up the train so we could exit a tunnel that dropped us out in the middle of a vast glacier where we skinned up to a fabulous saddle below the Strahlhorn. Big fields of powder awaited us and we dove into boot top deep glory and worked our way down through various pitches and open faces, one after another. The sun was doing its thing so the conditions got heavier as we decended but it was still rippable, just let the skis run. This last run took us down to Saas Almagell, the next valley over from Saas Fee, where after a relatively short walk we were met by the short bus. A short ride down into Brig and to the train station where the group went their separate ways (either staying in Brig or heading to Geneva or Zurich for flights out).
All in all, an epic trip that we plan to do again in a few years. Just an outrageous mix of taking advantage of the lifts to get to the high alpine environment, skinning, peak-bagging, backcountry skiing with big decents all the while in incredible surroundings.
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