This the photo diary of Dave Butcher for a ski mountaineering trip to the Vanoise Alps, starting and finishing in Val d’Isere in France.
The Guide: Jon de Montjoye
The No Polenta Club: Mark Rogerson, Phil Moorhouse, Graham Lovejoy, John Lovejoy, Dave Butcher. We were a group of friends who all met on previous ski mountaineering trips and had a mutual loathing for the type of nondescript polenta served in many mountain huts.
Before the tour we stayed in Bourg St Maurice, just a funicular railway ride away from the ski area of Les Arcs, which we used to find our ski legs with a day of piste skiing before we started our tour.
The trip we did is known as the Haute Route of the Tarentaise.
Photographs: click this link to see photos from this trip: I will add more as I find time to do the scans from the negatives. The link includes some images taken around the Val d’Isere and Tignes areas.
Day 1, Sunday 13th April 1997 – Val d’Isere to Fond des Fours Hut
Jon drove us to Val d’Isere where we caught two lifts from Val to reach Ouille de Cugnai at 11.15am. Here we ducked under the ropes, put skis on and traversed around into the corrie before going down to the southwest. We stopped to put skins on and then skied up to the Fond des Fours Hut., reached at 12pm. There were 2 huts, one for sleeping, one for eating and we were well looked after. We had a bite to eat, dropped off some gear and made our way to the Col de l’Arseille at 2pm. It was mixed ground from here so we dumped the skis, put on crampons, took poles and axe, and made our way up the snowy ridge, steep and soft near the top, to reach the top of Mont Pelaou Blanc at 3pm. We stayed on the top for 30 minutes takng photos before returning to the skis and descended to the hut at 4pm.
Peak: Mont Pelaou Blanc (3135m)
Hut: Fond des Fours (2537m)
Day 2, Monday 14th April 1997 – Fonds des Four Hut
We were up at 7am, had breakfast a few minutes later and were skiing away from the hut at 8.20am with Jon telling us how slow we were and had to get up and out within an hour in future. We headed south at a steady plod into the coire below the Glacier des Fours. Then across icy ski-rutted glacier to a steep section to reach the ridge. It was time for skis off and crampons on to do the final steeper climb to the rocky top of Pointe de Mean Martin which we reached at 11.30pm. Good views in every direction for photos then returned the same way back to the hut by 1pm.
Peak: Pointe de Mean Martin (3330m)
Hut: Fond des Fours (2537m)
Day 3, Tuesday 15th April 1997 – Fond des Fours Hut to Carro Hut
Up at 7am once again, breakfast then skiing away from the hut at 8.05am. It was quite a steep pull up to the icy and bitterly cold Col des Fours (3019m). We quickly took skins off and set off – too cold to hang around – traversed around a huge snow bowl followed by a great ski down to the road above the Pont de la Neige (2528m). Time to take skis off and carry on our shoulders as we crossed the snow covered road, then over a snow bridge over the river to avoid having to go down to the bridge, and up a short section beyond to reach snow again. From here it was steep snow up to Le Pays Desert and time to put skis on. It was a long steady skin to the col, bit steeper and icy just at the Col de l’Ouille Noire (3229m). Jon asked if we wanted to go the ordinary route from here or try a new route he hadn’t used before, we opted for the latter. We traversed around and down to a steep couloir. Mark then caught his skis on something and hurtled head first down the slope to where Jon was waiting – Jon stopped him and helped him up. We continued down to another plateau at around 2600m at 2.30pm then skinned up to the hut, reaching it at 4pm. Hilary Sharp, Jons’ wife, joined us late afternoon using the Val d’Isere lifts to get most of the way.
Hut: Carro (2759m)
Day 4, Wednesday 16th April 1997 – Carro Hut to Prariond Hut
It was the usual up at 7am, breakfast and away in record time at 7.45am. Outside it was snowing, cold and overcast. We retraced our tracks of yesterday across the steep slope before heading back in a long traverse to the Col du Montet. The slopes up to the col were deadful – covered in large windblown rime standing up maybe 1 to 2 feet high, especially difficult to do kick turns on it. It was very cold and my skis were sticking in the snow so Jon rewaxed them on the col before we moved off. It was a short ski down with a skin up to a small level area where we left our skis and climbed along an airy ridge to the rocky top. There was a large French group here having a mega picnic, so much for getting away from the crowds! We retraced our steps and had a good ski down to the Prariond Hut at 2pm, although the last slope was dreadful breakable crust. It was a comfortable hut but a bit cosy in our room with all 7 of us in together, including one on a mattress and the rest of us in 2 high-rise bunks.
Peak: Grande Aiguille Rouge (3482m)
Hut: Prariond (2324m)
Day 5, Thursday 17th April 1997 – Prariond Hut to Benevolo Hut
Up at 7am, then breakfast and away at 7.50am. It was snowing, cold and overcast, just like yesterday. We walked up a steep track behind the hut heading northeast and were soon able to put on skis as the patches of snow joined together. We headed up to the Glacier de Bassagne then east to Pointe de la Galise. Steep in places but we seemed to be traversing for ages with my left leg higher than my right, my left knee became very painful. We were in the clouds all the time and reached the top of the Pointe de la Galise at 11.15am. Tricky route down with no view, we went too low then climbed up a bit to get down the steepest bit. We were below the clouds after this but the lower plateau was covered in wind-blown rime which kept knocking my ski tips off direction as the last section was schussed. From here we headed down a snowed-up river gorge to a steep ice cliff that we side slipped down, then a narrow rock section just wide enough to ski through, up another ice slope where we had to jump our skis sideways before we lost all momentum, finally side stepping to the top. I asked Jon how often he had done this as I had never skied anything like it before and he said he had never done it before either but thought it would be interesting! Interesting wasn’t the word I had in my mind at the time. We carried on down the river gorge, arriving at the Benevolo Hut at 1pm. We were now in the Gran Paradiso area of Italy, just north of the National Park.
Peak: Pointe de la Galise (3343m)
Hut: Benevolo (2285m)
Day 6, Friday 18th April 1997 – Benevolo Hut to Val d’Isere
Another day getting up at 7am, having breakfast and leaving within an hour. I foolishly left my vintage water bottle in the outside wash facilities at the hut (yes, no mod cons!). This was an old red Sigg bottle that had accompanied me on every trip for over 15 years so although very battered it had a lot of sentimental value. Amazingly, Jon contacted the hut and collected it the following week and posted it on to me, complete with wrapping it up with a ribbon! There was a cold wind and clear skies as we skied south to go around the Truc Santa Elena then around under the enormous cliffs of the Granta Parei. From here we headed to the Col di Rhemes with an easy and steady slog. It was a bit tiring because I kept skiing ahead to take pictures and then dropping back to take different angles and so on through the morning. From the col at 12.50pm the slopes up the Roc des Fonds looked incredibly steep. Jon said it was too steep to take skis off once we start up so decide at bottom if using skis or crampons. I chose skis. However, I did 2 bad kick turns on the steep ice about a third of the way up and scared myself as the drop behind me was very steep with a few rocks showing through. I spotted a small ledge and went over to it to swap over to crampons and carry my skis, ignoring the instruction from Jon. Crampons felt much better and I was able to crampon straight up the slope and met the first 4 on skis just as they reached the top of the steep bit too. The other 2 on crampons were still quite a bit lower. All skis were left below the final steep slope to the top and we cramponed the rest of the way. It was a bit of a scramble to the top with snow and then rocks. Good views from the top of the Roc des Fonds. We came down a slightly different way as Jon threw a rope down a steeper bit and we used it to steady ourselves in a sort of abseil it was so steep, but quite easy. We returned to our skis and made our way down the slope to the col below. I put skis on part way down this final slope. We all regrouped at the bottom, skis on, and then made our way down past the cliffs of Calabre on good snow. As we skied lower the snow thinned out and then disappered so we carried our skis for a bit before putting them on again to ski down to the road below the Pont St Charles. This was used as a piste down to Val d’Isere and we used it to ski down to the Le Fornet ski lift (1900m) to finish the tour at 2.30pm. We took a bus back to the hotel and had a few beers in the afternoon sunshine. A fitting end to a very enjoyable tour.
Peak: Roc des Fonds (3350m)
Camera: Mamiya 6, 50mm lens, Ilford FP4 Plus 220 film
Rucsac: 30lbs, including camera
Total ascent for the week: 5540m in 6 days, excluding lifts!