If people can get passionate about something, then so can we, and no one is more passionate about their angle on climbing than ski mountaineer Tom Grant. Going up Tom is pretty fast, and he's always carrying skis. Going down, well, he's something else.
"I first met Tom when he had just moved to Chamonix, and although he seemed pretty keen, I had no idea of what he would become. I remember going out with him in January of that first winter and being taken aback at the speed and confidence with which he skied in the tight trees on the Plan de L'Aiguille, but still didn't quite understand how good he was in the high mountains. Skiing trees fast is one thing, but when we started skiing together up the Midi that spring his all round competence was immediately obvious, and it wasn't long before he was working his way through some of the most sought after ticks in Cham - all in his first season in the Valley.
There are a few things that really set Tom apart. Firstly, he truly LOVES skiing. If we meet up for a beer after a misty, damp spring day, he almost inevitably shames me when I find out that, unlike everyone else around, he hasn't had a rest day but has instead been skiing some awful snow up at Flegere, and he invariably then says that I should have been there - "it was actually pretty good". Secondly, he is incredibly fit and determined when he is out on the mountain, and any talk of sharing the trail breaking usually evaporates quickly once Tom gets going, as does any talk of backing off, going home or waiting for better conditions. There used to be some popular stickers that skiers put everywhere referring to the notoriously psyched Canadian skier Trevor Peterson, which read "Trevor Would Do It". Well, so would Tom. The final thing that Tom has going for him is that he is a talented and experienced alpinist. Many of the better known skiers in Cham spend their summers drinking beer and earning money for the forthcoming winter, but the last few "off-seasons" have seen Tom tick off the north faces of the Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses (2 routes), Droites (3 routes) as well as the Peuterey Integral on Mont Blanc. His all round skill set means that he can get to where other people can't, or he can get to the same places but much more safely and quickly.
There's no nonsense, no posing in the bar, no blog, no sponsors, and no bull, just determination and skill. I'm regularly out with people who guide, instruct and patrol on their skis and some of them might be able to race down the piste faster or do backflips, but Tom is hands down the best all round ski mountaineer I know. In a world where everything can be googled in seconds, it's amazing that a guy is quietly getting on with skiing at this level, and no-one has heard of him. Tom is among a handful of British skiers operating at that level, and if there are better British skiers in the Alps, they're keeping pretty quiet."
Some classic hard ski lines that Tom has ticked recently:
Tom's take on ski grades:
"Like alpine climbing grades, the 'toponeige' grading system is very vague and dependent on conditions."
How ski grades work:
The first part of the grade - a number 1 to 5:
Ski 1. Initiation. Slopes do not exceed 30° with no narrow sections. Vertical descent is less than 800m.
The second part of the grade describes the consequences of a skier falling - a number 1 to 4.
Jack: So skiing and climbing, what are the main differences?
Tom: For the vast majority of the skiing public, skiing has absolutely nothing to do with climbing. Most people ski in and around the confines of a maintained ski area. In the Alps, this can still be very dangerous since a lot of off piste next to the lifts is not avalanched controlled, but no climbing skill or experience is needed.
Jack: How do they fit together?
Tom: From classic easy ski tours, to extreme slopes on remote faces, in order to access the vast majority of terrain in the Alps, a degree of mountaineering know how is required in order to be safe and self sufficient.
In and around the Mont Blanc Massif, so much of the skiable terrain is of a steep and serious nature, that I'd say 80% of the mountains are accessible to 5% of the skiers. Despite crowds, I don't think finding fresh tracks is that difficult.
For those interested in winter alpinism, knowing how to ski is essential! Although it seems that a younger generation of British alpinists is emerging who are also strong skiers and pursue skiing in the winter for its own sake.
Jack: What's so cool about climbing up and skiing down?
Tom: A cool way to ski a line which is stylish and bold, is via an up and over link up, skiing the line onsight. This is often also the only practical way to ski a line that is very long and has deep snow, or is perhaps too technical to quickly climb with skis (requiring rappelling on the descent). To be able to traverse a mountain via a nice climb, ideally to some extent technical, and then ski a steep committing descent in good snow, is what it's about. A traverse like this requires strong climbing and skiing skills.
Of course, some ski descents demand that you climb them first in order to ski them. On steeper ground this can easily involve AD or D climbing, and is the best way to be sure of the snow conditions!
Last February, I climbed the Freney face of Mont Blanc with Jon Griffith and Ben O'Connor. Climbing a big objective in winter somewhere so inaccessible, meant that taking skis was essential to getting to the start of the route and then off Mont Blanc.
Jack: What in your opinion is the ultimate climb and ski line of the Alps?
Tom: I couldn't really pick a single objective in the whole of the Alps, there is just so much potential. The traverse of the Chamonix Aiguilles by Vivian Bruchez and 'Douds' Charlet, was a pretty cool link up though. They descended the North Face of the Aiguille Plan, then climbed an approach couloir up the back of the Blatiere to ski the Contamine couloir and then down the Nanitllons glacier.
There are very few alpinist skiers out there looking to do big, technical climbing/skiing link ups, so not many have been done really. Even something reasonably accessible and amenable like climbing the north face of Les Droites and skiing the SW face has to my knowledge, never been done.
Last year my friends Ben Briggs, Luca Pandolfi and Cedric Bernardini made a very rare complete descent of the stunning Coolidge Couloir on Mont Viso, a 1200m D+ as a climb. There are numerous other incredible lines in the Alps that are seldom skied nor talked about outside the insular Chamonix bubble.
Tom: Style is important to me, I want to be able to ski big objectives in a fast and fluid style, in good powder snow. Making big turns without any sidestepping or rappeling down the Coutrier, the North Face of the Aiguille Blanche, the Peuteurey Arete or the Grand Couloir on the south side of Mont Blanc would be incredible.
Besides big, serious and scary lines, I want to ski beautiful 'freeride' lines in good snow in more remote and adventurous places. Freeriding involves skiing with aggression and speed, and ideally taking airs, in a way that you can't do on an extreme descent.
I would also like to experiment more with light and fast, up and over link ups.
I love a variety of climbing, from UK trad and Scottish winter to classic north faces and multi-day grandes courses. I'm really psyched to improve myself in all disciplines, especially on harder alpine routes.
I would like to go on future expeditions around the world, for both climbing and skiing. I plan to go through the British Guide's Scheme and get my IFMGA badge over the next few years.
Jack: Any tips for climbers wanting to get in to big mountain skiing?
Tom: If you have any experience already climbing in the mountains, this is a great place to be starting from. For most British climbers, a lot of off piste skiing mileage will need to be gained to get to a good technical level and to gain a solid understanding of snow and avalanches. Ski on some proper fat freeride skis, and get as much vertical mileage in as you can off lifts. Ski as often as you possibly can, even if there is no good snow and you have no one to go with, don't be afraid to ski alone. Think outside the box and don't just follow the crowds.
Gain as much of an understanding about avalanches as you can. My first winter in Cham, I was taken by two avalanches to the point where I was under the moving snow and powerless to do anything. One of them was whilst skiing the West Couloir of the Aiguille du Midi. Both times they could have easily been avoided, and I realized being in avalanches is not sustainable in the long run. Think long term.
Jack: Any stories about any of the above lines?
Tom: The Jaeger Couloir on the east face of the Tacul was one of the first 5.4s I skied. It is a classic extreme skiing test piece. I ended up going with some guys I didn't know, one of whom is a well known Chamonix character of very dubious ski ability. The weather was warm and sunny in the morning, and I packed very light in anticipation of a quick ascent and descent. Some cloud came in while we were climbing the couloir, and it never lifted. We were relying on the snow to soften under the sun. It never did. Then we got to the top and it started to snow heavily. We topped out and were going to descend the north face of the Tacul, but the visibility was too bad so we retraced our steps. We could have downclimbed the couloir and gone back up to the Midi, but one of the guys was very weak and slow. I also decided I really wanted to ski the Jaeger, and the forecast was for sun the next day. We began to dig a snow cave at 4000m. I had just a base layer, a very light weight shell and had already drunk my litre of water and eaten my one sandwich and chocolate bar. None of us had dug a snowhole before, and I don't think we did a very good job of it, because it was only very marginally warmer than outside. We were in it spooning for a total of 14 hours. It was an excellent exercise in suffering and patience. I was as cold as it's possible to be without getting frostbite or hypothermia, but I knew we would be ok. The next day, the older skier called himself a heli taxi. My French ski companion Guilhemn and I prepared to drop into the couloir, although the PGHM helicopter guys were insistent that we come with them. I had never skied such an extreme descent, and from where we started skiing, it is 55 degrees to then a sustained 50, leaving absolutely no doubt as to what the outcome of a fall would be. The snow was marginal, and very technical to ski. At first, it was just about survival. I didn't want to turn, but I forced myself, because otherwise what's the point of being there? As the angle eased off slightly, we began to relax and take some photos. Every 3 or 4 turns and I was exhausted, the previous night having sapped my energy.
Tom: Deciding to live in Chamonix was the best decision I made! I try not to have too many scary moments since I'm in it for the long haul. Fear is always present in the big mountains, but the times I have found myself in life threatening situations haven't been the scariest, you just deal with it.
At the end of my first winter season in Chamonix in April and May 2010, the steeps were in prime condition. I skied my first 5.4 alone and onsight, via climbing the NNE face of Les Courtes to ski the Aiguille Chenavier couloir. That May, almost everyday I was up the Midi, skiing lots of steep powder and waiting for the north face of the Midi to finally come good.
Jack: Thanks Tom, great to talk to you, and good luck with the skiing, and the guide scheme.
Winter Alpinism is cold and serious, and can seem inaccessible. However do not fear!
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