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Col du Cristaux

Col du Cristaux is in the far left cornerI came to Chamonix 3 weeks ago with a calm mind and no firm objectives. Over the years I’ve learned that the quickest way to a humbling beatdown is to show up at a new area with all guns blazing. Sure, the truly gifted and unfathomably talented (think Alex Honnold climbing anywhere in the world) can get away with it but most of us need to wade in from the shallow end.

I’ve looked at plenty of ski porn from Chamonix over the preceding months prior to my arrival so I had some ideas of what I wanted to get on. But I also knew that those desires would be tempered by conditions and my nerve. Intimidation factor is high here. So is the body count. I don't want to be one of those statistics.

So, with all this in mind, I’ve kept things pretty low key since I’ve been here. Many of the classic lines that I was thinking about simply don’t have enough snow on them to be seriously considered by the average ski mountaineer like me. But on a recent tour up the Col du Argentiere, I spied what looked like a mellower, well-covered line on the north face near Les Courtes. I mentioned this to my friends Steve and Eva and they were keen to have a look.

Steve and Eva leading the way up the Argentiere GlacierWe had a casual start and made it to the top of the Grand Montet tram by 11am. We took the high traverse down to the glacier, passing under some very creepy seracs and hanging glaciers. Bad timing there and you’re dead. We were only under them for a minute or so and soon found ourselves at least 2km further up the glacier than the traditional descent. Nice work, Steve.

We switched to skinning and were at the bergshrund within an hour. It was warm. We could see three sets of pole prints on the skinner to the base and spied two skiers still climbing high on the face. It was be nice to have the booter in.

Steve sorting out the rope after getting me across the shrundSteve climbed across the small gap above the crevasse/shrund. It dropped about 15 feet to a snow bridge inside. Eva was next and the steps just held her but collapsed as she got across. I was not so lucky. My attempt ended with me plunging through up to my waste. Steve tossed me the rope to protect my next effort. I tried a different spot which was more consolidated and I easily got across. Whew.

Let the booting beginI was giddy with anticipation of getting on what I considered my first Chamonix steep line. It wasn’t super gnarly but it was in Anselme Baud’s book so I figured it rated.

We transitioned and up I went. Steve and Eva were slower to get going and Eva wasn’t sure she was up for this. The face is big and intimidating. I was scared, for sure. I could tell that they were having some discussions on the way up but they continued to make progress. I yelled down to make sure all was good and Steve indicated that all was fine and they were discussing options.

One of the skiers, a French guide, came skiing down making it look easy. I said hi and he said it was pretty good. About ¾ height I came to the crux section, about 50 degrees, through some rocks. My crampons found the firm ice and snow under the seasonal cover and my attention was rapt. This was going to take all my nerve coming down.

After climbing through that and back into the sun the pitch eased to under 50 degrees and my mind relaxed. The other two skiers started down and I gave my encouragement. They were clearly gripped and being very careful. The snow up high gets sun and there was a decent crust that was only occasionally supportable. It was fully one turn at a time.

Although tentative, they executed each turn effectively and were soon through the crux and across onto softer snow in the shade. I was looking forward to being there. I finished ascending, arriving at a nice platform those guys kicked out. I spied as far down the run as I dared trying to get a feel if my partners had continued. I couldn’t see and my nerves finally got the better of me. It was time to rodeo.

I clicked in and double checked everything. The first bit was bony with lots of rocks so I carefully side stepped/slipped the first 30 feet. Then is was time to make a damn turn. My heart was in my throat. Being alone up there, above rock on steep funky snow felt serious to me. But I sacked up and went for it with no issues. I got into a rhythm and was soon shooting the gap through the rocks at the crux.

Once across I couldn't see Steve and Eva. I figured they had skied down but after several more turns I came upon them almost as a surprise behind some rocks. I felt relief to see them and to know that I was through the most serious skiing.

Eva wasn't feeling it this day (who hasn't had that experience?) and they were going to down climb for a ways until the snow and pitch felt better. I continued down, methodically making single or double turn links. I stopped frequently to keep fatigue from eating into my technique. My confidence grew. The sun was gone from the face so the light was flat. This didn’t help any of us.

Soon I was at the shrund and jumped easily across and down the apron. I stomped out a little spot, sat down and enjoyed the waning tension from my mind and body. Steve and Eva made there way down and transitioned to skiing for the last bit. We regrouped and made our way down glacier and back to the resort.

Unknown Chamoniard on something firmer and steeperAlthough I've skied my share of steep runs in the mountains elsewhere, the sheer size and length of the runs in Chamonix give me pause. This hesitation reaffirms my belief that this kind of skiing must be a progression of sorts. The Col du Cristaux was perfect for me. The snow was pretty soft, if not variable, and the pitch 50 degrees or less. I certainly don't need to be jumping onto frozen 55 degrees or some other madness the legends often entertained. I feel no compulsion to push it too hard. Let's face it. On some of this stuff, one blown turn or mistep and you're likely to get really hurt or worse. With profound respect is the only way to move forward. 

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Reader Comments (5)

Hi Brian. Great post. There is definitely a huge intimidation factor in Chamonix, and I think that's a good thing. People will brag about this or that route they did on their first visit, and good for them! My experience is much closer to yours. First time there, it was so overwhelming, I just had to focus on one or two small things, without taking it all in. I think a kind of reverse effect sometimes happens as you get used to the place. You get relaxed hanging out in town, checking out the scene, up and down on the lifts, one moment in the cafe, next moment in high-consequences places...that it all seems normal. But I think it's good if the back-of-your-mind this place is serious and scary voice never really goes away. Keep shredding dude! (never thought I'd write those words) I've really enjoyed reading about your experiences. Bruno

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

Thanks, Bruno. It's a unique space to be in when I come here alone and try to feel my way along. I go out with guys with more experience or exposure to the place and it has the potential of putting me on the back foot a bit. I don't want to get sucked into a position where I'm at the top of something I shouldn't be. Eyes wide open, man. Thanks for your thoughts.

April 5, 2014 | Registered CommenterBrian

Hi Brian,

Eyes wide open. Yes. I'll put this in a comment, cause I don't think I have an email for you, but feel free to respond to brunoschull@gmail.com.

Now that you're a Cham insider I can ask you questions: you mentioned that you're staying in an apartment by the Midi lift. My partner will be in Cham for at least one month, Mid-June to Mid July. I will be there for part of the time. We are looking for ideas for apartments. Any good (or at least tolerable) recommendations? Finding apartments in summer in Cham is at least as intimidating as climbing alpine routes!

OK, all the best,


April 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

Hi Brian,

Really enjoyed the post. I was actually one of the two skiers who came down after the French guide. Gripped sounds like a pretty accurate description! Hope you're enjoying your stay in Cham.


April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTim

That's pretty cool, Tim. Small damn world. Glad my impression was accurate. It was certainly how I felt through that weird snow where you passed me. I never like a crust when it's that steep. You guys nailed it though, gripped or not. Nice work. Chapeau!

April 8, 2014 | Registered CommenterBrian

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