/ ski mountaineering France 2018
Domes de Miage traverse + Glacier Armancette descent
Got out today Saturday with Nico to do this famous tour in the southern section of the Mont Blanc massif. After yesterday making the long approach from Les Contamines up to the Refuge des Conscrits hut overlooking the Tre La Tete glacier.
Conditions on both the classic mountaineering Miage ridge traverse and (most of) the long varied Armancette descent pretty good / not technically difficult.
The Domes de Miage and the Armancette descent are very visible from several major roads around the W and SW valleys around Mont Blanc, so that added to its desirability for me.
Some extra work and organization needed, so likely want to be sure that the conditions and weather and style of route variation chosen are offering a reasonable chance of "payback" before committing to it.
* long approach to Conscrits hut (about +1500m vertical) because no mechanical lifts.
* long sideways distance (2.5 km) to reach the NE end of the Domes de Miage traverse - (though the mountaineering traverse is not that long - 1 km).
* need to carry wide range of equipment: for alpine climbing, for glacier, for skiing.
* ski descent includes several sections in the 30-35 degree steepness, highest section 35-40 degrees - (so party members ought to be capable of enjoying that steepness in a variety of snow surface conditions).
. . . (the steepest top descent section and much of the sideways traversing could be avoided by a variation, which also avoids the Miage ridge traverse).
* parking for start trailhead and parking for finish descent are about 2 km apart, so worth arranaging a bike or car shuttle.
Did this last year - one of the best days ski mountaineering we have ever had. I imagine the snow cover was better this year, however there was a big avalanche down the steepest part of the face only about 10 days ago - we had a 15m section of rock hard knife-edge blue water ice in the middle of the ridge. Two Frenchmen ahead of us turned back as they didn't have ice screws - of course we had to do it then. Added bonus is finishing up at the Rhodos bar!
in reply to Stephen Reid:
> Did this last year - one of the best days ski mountaineering we have ever had . . .
> we had a 15m section of rock hard knife-edge blue water ice in the middle of the ridge.
> Two Frenchmen ahead of us turned back as they didn't have ice screws.
Glad you made it through the Miage ridge traverse. We had deep powder snow on the ridge (but not most of the descent), so mostly we just had to make big steps with lifting our knees high. Hardest part for me was (unnecessarily) putting my crampons onto my ski boots in the howling wind at the NE end of ridge by Col des Domes.
Five years ago with we tried the traverse but turned back when we reached a difficult spot -- and so missed the Armancette (tho the descent down along the gully emptying the Tre La Tete had interesting fun sections (with some tight steep turns).
Some details which might help planning . . .
* Parking at trailhead for winter/spring ski approach to Refuge des Conscrits hut: GPS latitude longitude approx (45.8123, 6.7303) (elevation ~ 1180m).
Or if this parking is not available, the "official" parking is about 200m S down hill from it
* Hotel Tre La Tete hut (N45.7918 E6.7348) (1970m) in old times was a normal sleeping / acclimatization stop along the way, but nowadays most parties go directly all the way to Refuge Conscrits (N45.7870 E6.7660) (elev ~ 2600m).
* "le Mauvais Pas" - (lat long approx N45.7909 E6.7448) - a short ways E traverse from the Tre La Tete hut is a steep explosed slope to cross which can be difficult / dangerous in less-than-favorable conditions. The normal summer hiking approach trail nowadays avoids this. Might need ice axe and/or crampons. In a big snow year, this time we were able to cross it on skis even with our skins on. Some might prefer to remove skins to improve the grip of metal ski edges. Or remove skis altogether.
* Once down on the big Tre La Tete glacier we encountered one steep slope say around 30 degrees where ski-crampons / couteaux / harscheisen would have been useful. Then the final slope up the hut is mostly not quite as steep. _______________________________________________
* It is possible to ski down (most of) the Armancette glacier _without_ first doing the traverse of the Domes de Miage ridge, by instead climbing from the Refuge Conscrits to the Aiguille de Berangere (N45.8028 E6.7787) (elev ~ 3375m) or Col de Berangere (N45.8053 E6.7819) (~ 3315m). This also avoids the steepest descent section, but perhaps could "recover" that by booting up NE from Col B.
. . . (Arguably the Armancette ski descent is more "special" than the ridge descent, so likely a good idea to check status of ridge and consider this option if suspect might not have the equipment or expertise to complete the NE->SW ridge traverse).
* the normal obvious start of the famous Domes de Miage ridge traverse is the Col des Domes (N45.8144 E6.7956) (~ 3560m), then SW across two high bumps to a third bump which is the top of the Armancette descent. But many ski parties save some horizontal sidehill distance (also avoid need to switch between skis+poles to crampons+axe by the sometimes very windy Col des Domes area) by instead going to the col (N45.8126 E6.7929) between the first two bumps. From there optionally could go NE up a little to the first bump to still "tag" all three high points of the Miage traverse.
* another way to avoid all that sidehilling from Refuge Conscrits might be to start the second day with a downward-trending traverse to the floor of the Tre La Tete glacier, then up on a less-tilted surface to reach Col des Dome.
* complete Armancette descent starts from the summit of the "third" dome (N45.8104 E6.7898) (3625m)
* bottom parking La Frasse is around (N45.8232 E6.7356) (~1285m).
* for us on Saturday, that worked out to about
. . . 1750m vertical of non-bad sometimes-rather-good skiable snow, then about
. . . 315m vertical of not-at-all-good-but-skiable snow,
. . . interrupted by a steep narrow section not then holding enough snow for us to ski (so we booted down that) toward the N edge of the valley around (N45.8167 E6.7532) (1730m),
. . . 270m vertical total booting down carrying skis including previous interruption - (some could have been avoided by skiing on low N-facing forest road)
thanks for the useful info - hoping to do this next few days
> Glad you made it through the Miage ridge traverse. We had deep powder snow on the ridge (but not most of the descent), so mostly we just had to make big steps with lifting our knees high. Hardest part for me was (unnecessarily) putting my crampons onto my ski boots in the howling wind at the NE end of ridge by Col des Domes.
> Five years ago with we tried the traverse but turned back when we reached a difficult spot -- and so missed the Armancette (tho the descent down along the gully emptying the Tre La Tete had interesting fun sections (with some tight steep turns).
Just shows how different these things can be. We got it on an exceptionally lovely day.
Yesterday Sharon and I skied down in bright sunshine from the top station of the Grands Montets to the Argentiere Glacier, then part-way up the Glacier du Milieu (not farther since it was her first ski tour in a month or so).
High traverse ENE to the Arg glacier was well-covered easy skiing with easy snow, so that enabled us to avoid some uphill labor on the glacier - (tho unfortunately Sharon's bad leg did not enjoy the stress of going sidehill in that same direction for such a long distance).
So we got to sample the ungroomed snow around altitude 2500-3200 meters, mainly S-facing, but also some N-facing. All seemed supportive (without getting into any underlying "rotten" stuff), like nice transformed spring corn snow. If we had started and finished a couple of hours earlier, surface would have been perfect mushiness, but having it slow but very skiable worked fine for us.
No avalanche activity that day. And all we saw from previous days was minor sluffs of debris off hot rocks.
Day before Tuesday we skied on-piste around altitude 2500-3200 meters at mega-complex south in Isere (chosen because Sharon wanted more altitude-acclimatization before trying a backcountry tour), and found rather fun corn skiiing with (better-timed) perfect depth of mushiness.
Got out Thursday from top station of the Aiguille du Midi with the idea of skiing on the Aiguille du Tacul.
Skiing down early in the morning the upper section of the classic "Vallee Blanche" run was terrible -- refrozen ice ruts everywhere.
Crossed the Salle a Manger to the Periades glacier -- nice skinning conditions up that (between the gully on left and wide avalanche debris on right) toward Breche Puisseux. I had decided that I did not want to ski the steeps near Aiguille du Tacul, but we did not want to climb the B P under several other parties who had started from earlier lift, so instead turned left toward Aig du Tacul (with nice uphill skinning conditions).
Waited an hour or so in the S slope (sheltered by a large snow boulder). When the sun had softened the snow sufficiently, made some fun turns down SW slope of Aig Tacul, then turned right and traversed N across its W slope and found various little sectors with better snow to ski down, linked by traverses, and got down to rejoin the finish of the normal Vallee Blanche run.
Fun day out on some terrain I had not visited before.
Probing into the snowpack revealed underlying rotten-ness, but by starting early enough after a good clear-night refreeze, our ski turns stayed on the supporting layer above that, so just had fun, and did not need to worry about leg-breaking punching down into the weakness below.
P.S. next day Friday (as also previous Sunday) used skiing from top of Grands Montets lifts to access _rock_ climbing route above Argentiere glacier.
with Alex climbed the classic route "Diedre Central" on the Plateau du Jardin (between bottom of Glacier du Milieu and Refuge d'Argentiere). Sustained interesting climbing, but much focused on laybacking to the right side - (not much stemming, despite the "dihedral" name). Straightforward abseil descent sequence (nice if need to get back to where you left your skis at the bottom). Faces somewhat SW or W, so did not get sun until we were about mid-way up thru the six pitches. Some tricky "engineering" thru snow at bottom to reach the rock. Then all the rock was dry on the route itself. But then on our return to the bottom the snow had turned to a meter deep of soft "rotten" mush. However once we had our skis on and glided off from bottom of climbing route, the downhill turning was just fine ...
and skiing down the Glacier and then to the piste back to Lognan proved to be a rather pleasant way to descend from a rock climb. Reaching climb was easy because the high traverse from the Grands Montets top station was in rather good condition.
Sunday did similar strategy to climb the classic rock route
"Bettembourg de Droite" on Aiguille du Refuge (along W side of lower Amethyst glacier above Refuge d'Argentiere hut). Better variety of climbing, tho not as sustained in difficulty as "Diedre Central". More SE exposure for earlier sun.
Yesterday went up the Three Mont Blancs and descended the Grands Mulets. Started high from Refuge des Cosmiques hut with Nico around 5:45. Pretty nice description here: https://www.camptocamp.org/routes/46096/en/mont-blanc-by-the-3-monts-descent-face-n-or-corridor
Weather was great: full sunshine and no wind.
But more of a mountaineering than a skiing day. Because previous wind had blown the snow around, so we had to use crampons for several hardpack / icy / bare sections. But there were longer sections of 15-30 cm of powder snow between the hardpack sections, so we booted those - hard work, but didn't want to lost time switching to skis.
Actually I sort of think we could have done the first leg up onto NW shoulder of MB du Tacul with skis on the whole way had we known in advance that one hardpack section near the top would be short.
Surprising the usual crux of the rimaye/bergshrund below Col du Mt Maudit went easily (with two fixed ropes exposed above snow surface). But then traverse under W side of Mt Maudit to Col Brenva was icy. And then Mure de la Cote had much blue ice. Finally the Mont Blanc summit dome was all wind-blasted, so hauled skis booting up that in crampons.
My acclimatization tricks worked well -- I was fastest of 9 skiers up the summit dome. Unfortunately the observed possibility of large icy bare sections deterred me (tho not others) from skiing N face of MB.
So instead walked down Bosses ridge before starting skiing from Col du Dome. Upper section of Grands Mulets glacier was nice soft snow, but soon turned into the hardpack-with-ski-track-ruts seen on most N-facing slopes around Chamonix lately.
Crossing La Jonction seemed fairly tricky -- and with more melting might require taking skis off. At least two other little spots between Refuge Grands Mulets hut and Plan d'Aiguille lift mid-station that required taking skis off to cross rocks.
Next time wait for advance evidence of better _skiing_ conditions.
Further thoughts about the English-language description on c2c:
Not sure what the "45 degrees" slope angle means.
The ascent crux of bergshrund + slope above to Col du Mt Maudit is often said to by 45-50 degrees. But with a good snowpack "filling in" like this year, likely it's not more than 45 degrees.
Mont Blanc N face descent: The two print guidebooks I own say not more than 40 degrees. Popular website skitour.fr says, never more than 40 degrees. But I will suggest that it's more _exposed_ to consequences of a missed turn or fall than some sources suggest.
. . . (Anyway that c2c page wisely says that conditions vary year-to-year).
Corridor descent: Historically its steepness was said to be _less_ than 40 degrees - (? but perhaps with changes in the permanent snow, it now requires a steeper section?). Not skied very often, tho I heard it was used as an _ascent_ route in recent years by a team trying to set a new record for climbing Mont Blanc.
suggestion from c2c page about use of Corridor route:
"If the N face is impractical (or in retreat before the summit), it is sometimes possible to ski down the Corridor route."
Seems to me this is trickier than it sounds:
(a) How do we interpret "sometimes possible" for a route infrequently used which is not visible from either of the mechanical lift stations.
(b) How would we know after arriving on the summit that N face is _not_ practical to ski? (and also know that the Corridor _is_ skiable). Anyway in order to reach the Corridor from the MB summit, would need to down-climb Mure de la Cote (since it's not often skiable). But under most circumstances would it not be easier and safer to down-climb the Bosses ridge to Bivouac Vallot and Col du Dome?
Or after retreating as far as Col Brenva would it not be safer to make (known) abseils down N side from Col du Mt Maudit? Then ski down from NW shoulder of MB du Tacul (perhaps with a couple of sections down-climb on crampons)?
(c) How many parties really are going to attempt climbing the first _two_ "Mont Blancs" knowing in advance that they are going to stop at Col de la Brenva and descend the Corridor route?
Margo Hayes has redpointed her third 9a+ with an ascent of Papichulo 9a+ at Oliana, Spain. The line was first climbed by Chris Sharma and is a 50 metre endurance-based route.