35 Years in the Making: The 2nd Descent of the Sentinelle Rouge Couloir, Mont Blancby Tom Grant Feb/2014
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In April 1978, Tony Valurez made the first ski descent of the Sentinelle Rouge on the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc, supported by helicopter. Apart from an ascent of the couloir the following year by a Japanese team, no-one went into the couloir for 34 years until Brits Tom Grant and Ben Briggs and Italian Luca Pandolfi made the coveted second descent.
In this article, Tom Grant gives his account of this bold and technical descent through the heart of one of the least visited faces in the Alps.
The south face of Mont Blanc is a 1500m high wall of granite, snow and some of the most monolithic and menacing seracs in the Alps. To the left of the classic Brenva Spur, most of the skiable lines had previously been descended but once. There was a time when this wall received some attention from alpinists, the ‘Route Major’ being one of the classic tougher routes to the summit of Europe’s highest peak. However, fashions and perceptions change and climbers and skiers ceased to visit the heart of the Brenva Face.
Amid improbably towering ice cliffs and bands of rock, one distinct couloir splits the middle of the face, cutting a dramatic line down from just below the summit, right through its guts and down onto the Brenva Glacier. To the discerning ski mountaineer, the couloir appears to be something of an obvious 'ski line'. Yet, after one descent by Toni Valeruz in 1978, and a year after that an ascent by a Japanese team, no one else has even been there.
When ski conditions are good on the north face of Mont Blanc, which is sometimes from late March through May, dozens of ski mountaineers may descend it each day down to the Bossons Glacier. Besides the north face, every other possible ski descent from this busy mountain rests firmly within the realms of what is considered 'extreme skiing', and very rarely does anyone ski one of the alternative routes.
Mont Blanc is by no means remote, and the mighty south face is in full view from the top of the Helbronner lift station. Yet the Brenva Face retains a slightly mystical aura of being untouchable, and the access in or out is by no means straightforward by the standards of the European Alps. While I'm no stranger to skiing scary lines in the Alps, I have never skied anywhere else with a more wild or serious feel to it. Until the history and mystique of the wall seduced me into considering skiing it, I certainly found it difficult to visualize being in the heart of it.
2013 was a truly exceptional year in terms of the quantity and quality of snow that fell on the Mont Blanc range. Epic conditions in late spring continued to provide a wealth of possible objectives into early summer. When the going is that good and motivation is high, it's impossible not to plot and scheme about the next big objective. Wanting to ski something a bit out of the ordinary to finish off an extraordinary season, I was all ears when my partners Ben Briggs and Luca Pandolfi suggested taking a look at the Sentinelle Rouge Couloir.
The parameters of what constitutes a justifiable risk are very personal. If the line could be skied quickly and ideally without any rappelling or down climbing, the time spent underneath the monstrous serac hanging above it would be brief and justifiable. While climbing the route to check the conditions was simply out of the question, we wanted to be diligent and our team made two separate excursions to check the snow cover on the line. The cover looked very promising, and this also reassured us about the current inactivity of the serac. However, there was no way to be certain and to ski it would require total commitment in getting to the bottom of the couloir and onto the Brenva Glacier.
After a night bivying at the top lift station, we set out at 1am for the summit of Mont Blanc. At 6am we skied off the summit and located the entrance to the couloir. The snow was rock hard so we sat and waited. At this point there was no commitment and we could have easily turned back. Was the risk justifiable and would we be able to ski it quickly? There was no way to tell until we slid into the heart of it.
Getting progressively colder while sitting on the edge of the wall, dropping in was starting to lose its already tenuous appeal. Bailing to the valley via the relative safety of the Trois Monts seemed like the wiser course. Ben got restless and clipped into his skis. A couple of turns down and it was clear the snow was less than ideal. At the top the snow was soft and grippy, but then quickly turned into icy neve. Ben slid out of view, but there was the audible scratching of his skis on a hard surface. I waited a bit longer, hoping that minute by minute the sun would soften the neve. After thirty minutes I realized I could wait no longer. The top slope is a different aspect from the couloir, and the snow lower down could be getting dangerously soft.
To traverse into the couloir, I crossed the neve, swinging the pick of my Nomic firmly into it and carefully stepping down and across. Fully accepting I was now going to ski down, my brain switched into survival mode. With hyper focus and adrenaline driven tunnel vision I entered a delicate crux between some rocks and ice. Straight-lining a tight choke, I was into the couloir and directly below the towering serac. The snow was amenably soft. Time to go. Skiing as fast as I could, the stress and tension caused my legs to fatigue quicker than usual. Two cruxes in the upper section went past in a blur, edging over a 55 degree section of water ice with a thin smearing of snow. The line soon widened and the angle lessened to 45 degrees. I started to rapidly lose elevation with big turns on near perfect corn.
Leaving the couloir, I followed Ben's tracks traversing out left onto broken mixed ground. Catching Ben near the bottom, we quickly scooted up Col Moore. When I dropped in, I thought Luca had turned around, not wanting to contend with the uncertainty of the top icy traverse, all the more difficult and dangerous on a board. Now it appeared he was halfway down. The sun was intensifying and the Brenva face was coming alive. I had a flight to catch and couldn't afford to wait. Ben stayed behind to guide Luca to the safety of the col. Dehydrated and sweltering in the July heat, the south facing Brenva basin was becoming an energy sapping furnace. I slogged back alone to the nearest lift, the Helbronner.
Back in Chamonix I checked that Luca had made it off the face, and then rushed to the airport. Contemplating what we had done I found immense satisfaction in taking in the aesthetics of our achievement. A huge and beautiful line skied in the purest style possible. The skiing itself was too stressful to be very enjoyable, and it wasn't one of my best experiences in the mountains. But it was an interesting psychological exercise and a journey through the most wild and deadly scenery imaginable.
You can read about the descent from Luca Pandolfi's point of view HERE
About the Author
Tom Grant is a British climber and skier living in Chamonix, France. Tom is always active in the mountains, be that skiing hard and steep lines, or climbing big alpine North Faces.