Saturday, February 16, 2013

High Alps Ski Mountaineering Finale

After the vertical race and some minimal recovery at the hotel consisting of milk, cookies, and some bread, we rallied a strong contingent of like minded racers who wanted to get out into the mountains.  Tom Goth, Scott Simmons, 17 year old Micah Thatcher (son of former GT record holder), and Mark Smiley joined me to head up the valley toward the winter ghost town of Ailefroide and beyond to do some exploring.  

Piecing together our kits from standard race gear and adding in an ice axe or some aluminum crampons, we were off shortly before one in the afternoon.  I was on race skis and Alien 1.0 boots as was Tom with the rest of the crew mostly on similar equipment (except Mark cause he stronger than us).  Our first day in town, we found some great little couloirs, but this day, we were looking for something bigger.  Earlier in the week, Scott, Mark, and I had spied a line from La Blanche that looked to be a wide continuous chute that we estimated was probably 5000 feet long.  We supposed that would be big enough.

After around 3000 vertical gain, I found myself feeling peppy and continued to press forward, breaking trail.  Perhaps I was punishing myself for feeling like I underperformed earlier in the day?  Perhaps, I was now highly motivated by the scenery and adventure at hand?  Or maybe, I can kind of chug along all day a little better than I can race a Ferrari up hill.  

Anyway, by this time, Scott and Micah decided they should turn back as they had to race the next day.  They were replaced however, by Luke Nelson and Chad Brackelsburg, who had hustled to catch up and were able to make use of the nice skin track we had put down.  

Thirty minutes later, Tom and I looked down and saw the three dots (Mark, Luke, and Chad) growing closer.  By this time we were trading the lead, taking breaks just to pull out the camera as we were both awe struck by the lighting and in particular the heavily glaciated terrain.  

Another thirty minutes passed.  We did not appear to be much higher but had made dozens of kick turns across the broad slope.  This was definitely bigger than anything in the Wasatch and greatly foreshortened from the bottom.  

After climbing 5000 feet from the hotel, the slope was steepening and with a party of five, we figured it was prudent to stop and communicate a little about our options and everyone's comfort level.  Numerous hand pits were reassuring and in spite of some slight wind slabs, the vote for moving onward and upward was unanimous.  

Transitioning to booting, the snow was a little punchy, but we continued to make good time.  The numbers kept rising.  Now we had gained 6000 vertical but the rocky summit that had become my goal continued to stretch away on the horizon.  We negotiated some chokes and a patch of firm snow and had another 200 feet to go to the base of what appeared to be a Teewinot-like unskiable summit block.  

Mark had stayed a hundred feet below to shoot some photos and Luke and Chad were developing an increasing sense of unease given the time of day and the somewhat slabby snow.  Tom and I were easy and transitioned right then.  When sufficient doubt arises, I hope to heed others concerns and place their and my safety first.  Luke and I mentioned on the descent that it's never worth it to press on when the physical signs or even a premonition demands otherwise.  

Besides, by that point, it was around 6 PM and the sun was already tucking behind the high peaks to the west.  What ensued was a fabulous 7000 foot descent full of powder, wind board, breakable crust, poor lighting, and great company.  I couldn't have imagined a better way to end the trip.  Staggering back into the hotel around six and a half hours later, we had certainly earned our dinner.  Fortunately, it was the tastiest of the trip, consisting of some delicious cheese filled pastry, salad, spaghetti, bread, and a custard filled cake. 

Since that last supper, I've packed three huge bags, woke up at 3 AM French time, drove to Turino, flew to Paris, suffered through the junk show that is the Charles de Gaulle airport, nearly missed our flight to SLC, and am finally relaxing on my couch at home.  Looking through these pictures, I can't believe that was just yesterday.  

The Alps are truly inspiring...

Enjoy the photo dump. 

Luke, Chad, and Mark climbing into the sunlight

Mount Pelvoux

Tom Goth representing Wasatch Skimo
Transitioning to booting

Luke taking a pull towards the sky

Tom forgot food, water, and clothes but rallied anyway!

Nearing our high point

Back to skinning

About to turn around as the sun was low and the snow becoming less predictable

Tom making turns after nearly 7000 feet of climbing (look closely, he's near the bottom center of the photo). 

Pelvoux and it's cascade of glaciers


Is there a better way to end a trip?


Mark Smiley

More Mark

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