Ski-mountaineer Ross Hewitt writes about completing the Alpine Trilogy Project in just 10 days, skiing the Triple Crown of alpine steep skiing routes.
All it took was a three-word text “Brenva is good” to motivate my Italian friend Enrico Mosetti to jump in his car and drive seven hours from the Italian-Slovenian border to Chamonix. It would be the first route of my Alpine Trilogy Project, taking advantage of the short window for skiing big steep mountain lines in late May.
The project was simple, a personal challenge to ski and photograph three of the biggest, baddest and hardest ski lines in the Alps: Switzerland's iconic Matterhorn, the Himalayan-sized West Face of Mont Blanc, and the historic Brenva Spur on the East Face of Mont Blanc This project would prove to be a challenge enough just to ski, but to carry the extra 2.5kgs of my SLR and take photos of my partners on these steep faces would add another level of difficulty that had me second guessing my likely hood of success from the start. I guessed it might take 5 years to ski these major lines.
THE BRENVA SPUR
A 3am alarm tore us from our dreams in the Cosmiques refuge. After forcing down as much food and water as possible, Tom (Grant), Enrico and myself headed out into the night to ski down the Vallée Blanche.
It was ink black and the usual summit reference points were cloaked in darkness. My powerful torch light seemed to be absorbed in the dark rather than lighting up my path. After a quick transition we started skinning into Cirque Maudit, still in the pitch black.
At Col de la Fourche we met with dawn and bathed in the alpenglow as the sun crept over the Eastern skyline. That moment of first light is one of revelation for the ski-mountaineer whose senses have been deprived in the dark, inducing fear, anxiety, doubt. Now the way ahead becomes clear, calm is restored and you feel the low point in your soul disappear. In front of us the Brenva Face revealed all its magical hidden secrets to us in a scale that was difficult to judge due to the sheer size of the east face.
The air was still and a blanket of cloud was drawn over the landscape below keeping Italy snug. Most people would still be curled up in bed enjoying a lazy Sunday morning, dreaming of cappuccinos and pain au chocolats to start their day. As the sun’s ray passed horizontal, every snow and ice crystal sparkled, and the temperature was so pleasant we climbed in thin mid-layers. We soon joined the iconic curling arête of the Brenva Spur and covered the final few hundred metres to the pyramid rock tower, gatekeeper to the serac exit onto Col de Brenva.
Stamping ledges in the snow we clicked into our skis and soaked in the magnificent surroundings. The vast east face of Mont Blanc lay to our right, a labyrinth of couloirs, buttresses and tumbling seracs that held historic Alpine climbs such as Route Major, testament to a bygone era of adventurous times.
Boot-deep sun-kissed powder over the glacial ice waited for us on the upper section but you are never quite sure if the ski edges will touch the ice. After the first turn revealed no surprises we skied some cautious turns allowing our sluff to run in front until we had passed a section of really shallow snow over the ice. From this point the angle eased allowing us to open it up more and a dozen turns of sensual skiing took us to the iconic arête. From there we dropped right onto wide open slopes holding perfect spring snow dropping a couple of hundred metres in five or six swooping turns back to Col Moore with big smiles on our faces.
THE WEST FACE
Three days later we were back at the Cosmiques refuge. Once again the alarm pulled me from my sleep at an ungodly hour, but my excitement levels rose as I looked out the window and was greeted by the rest of the galaxy twinkling in the night sky. I made my way out into the cold predawn air joined by a few of the strongest ‘under the radar’ skiers you could ever meet: Mikko Heimonen, Jesper Petterson and skier-journalist Guilhem Martin Saint Leon.
As we skinned up Tacul the temperature continued to drop and the cold wind increased in strength making it feel pretty uncivilised. On Col Maudit the wind was driving snow and we stopped to put on all our spare clothes.
Suffering in silence we plodded on feeling the altitude and trying to keep our extremities from freezing. On the summit it was a relief to drop down the Italian side a few metres and get out of the North wind. Below us the vast west face rolled over out of sight that filled us with nervous excitement. We had estimated 1 pm would be the idea start time, which gave us a few moments to get ready.
The top few turns were pretty scratchy and we could feel the glacial ice underneath, but after 100m we got onto good snow alongside a buttress. Below we skied a fantastic enjoyable long pitch on what must be the highest spine in Europe.
We were all working hard at around 4500 m, like race pace hard where you smell the blood in your nose, trying to keep to time knowing that would be the only way to negotiate safe passage through the glaciers 2000m below.
A short traverse over a snowy rock rib took us into the South facing Saudan line, a 50° couloir that fell away below us for 1000m. Now that the exposure had eased we could relax more and enjoyed good consistent snow that continued all the way down to the lower apron. As we crossed the bergschrund we had been skiing hard for an hour and half we were still above the top of the 3424m Petit Mont Blanc.
Our route from here was to skin to the shoulder above the ancient Quintino Sella bivi hut and then ski the west-facing couloir down to the Dome Glacier. Our timing was perfect and the 600m couloir skied so well on creamy spring snow we skied the whole 45 degree shot together without stops in under five minutes. The Dome Glacier lay in front of us and its crossing had been a big question in our minds but after roping up it only took a few minutes and the weight of uncertainty was lifted. Now on moderate terrain, a couple more hours would get us to the road where a friend would pick us up.
Now in early June only Mikko was still psyched and we headed in to ski the Matterhorn the hard way. Because the refuge was closed due to renovations, we were carrying a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and a gallon of water each on top of the usual stuff. It was difficult to known what to expect on the face, as so few people had actually skied it. A local guide had told us it wasn’t very steep but it sure looked steep from below!
I went to bed early setting the alarm for 2am. Sleeping intermittently I kept thinking that streetlamp was really bright. When I finally poked my head out the tent, there was the Matterhorn, lit up like a stadium under the full moon. Inspired, the whole day was filled with sights of amazing natural beauty.
The tip of the Matterhorn was the first thing to be hit by the rising sun and it resembled a blade with blood red streaks on it. We continued climbing up the face aiming for the central couloir that ended at the rocky headwall. I was conscious that the temperature was rising fast which would eventually make the face an unsafe place, speed would be our friend.
Dawn Hits the Summit of the Cervin as Mikko races upwards. Photo©Ross Hewitt
From the top of the skiable terrain the first turn would be on sustained, unforgiving 55º spring snow. Simply standing stationary and holding an edge had every fibre in the body working overtime. Mikko left the sanctuary of his ledge and, with axe and pole in one hand, committed without hesitation into a series of beautifully-linked chop turns that you’d have been proud of on a lift accessed Midi North Face run with fresh legs.
Now it was my turn. A heady mix of excitement and nerves. The face was really exposed looking down a uniform rock slab covered in some snow for 1000m. I had been focussed on locking my body into a stable platform to shoot from and now I needed to loosen my muscles and refocus on skiing. Skiing second, I had to avoid where Mikko had skimmed the softening snow and find my own edgable spots.
Side slipping a few metres let me get the feel of my skis underfoot and edge grip and I felt ready for that all-important first turn. Time to commit… no problem, this is going to be fine. As we dropped height and the angle eased to the 50 degree range, the snow softened further and the turns became softer and more rounded. Once we entered the central snowfield the angle was around 45 degrees and we had a lot of fun skiing fluidly and playing with the sluff down to the lower rocks.
The angle increased here and it took some time to find our bootpack to lead us through the lower slabs. Below the lower crux traverse led through a peppered icy zone to take us to the schrund.
Amazingly we had pulled off the Alpine Trilogy Project in just 10 days, skiing the Triple Crown of alpine steep skiing routes with a SLR and without a heli or external assistance. It hadn’t really sunk in yet, but I had an enormous sense of satisfaction and happiness from the skiing, the wild situations and the performance we had put in. I knew they would be my last turns of the season and some of the best of my life.
- White Lines - Steep Skiing on Baffin Island 3 Nov, 2014