Saturday, February 14, 2015

Racing the World and the Sun

The team relay was held Friday morning and was the concluding race at this year’s ski mountaineering world championships.  The format is very similar to the sprint, except rather than one climb, there are two.  Each racer has to tag the next before they are allowed to cross the start line.  I was leading off, followed by Colin Cares, Teague Holmes, and Billy Laird.  My hope was to try and keep us close during my leg and that I did, for about two minutes. 

I started well, felt strong, and passed a few of the better teams.  Rather suddenly, I no longer felt well or strong and was blowing up before the top of the first climb.  Whatever, I tried.  The other guys didn’t fare much better and we ended up in our seeded position of tenth out of twelve countries participating.  There is definitely room for improvement. 

Directly from racing the world, we decided to race the sun.  Jason had secured a rental car that morning and was waiting with skis packed for a quick trip to the Chamonix Valley.  We were hoping to ski something big but weren’t leaving the provincial town of Champsec, near Verbier, until noon. 

Arriving in Argentiere after one, we rushed to gear up in the parking lot.  Harnesses, an ice tool, a couple 30 meter ropes, and crampons of various quality were thrown together and we headed up on the tram.  By this point, on top of the Grand Montets resort, we looked out over the Argentiere Glacier and tried to decide what to do.  It was 2:30 and whatever it was, we had to hurry. 

We skied like mad down to the glacier, startling others out on a more leisurely paced day.  Skinning up under the big north faces, everyone’s heads were on a swivel taking it all in.  I’d done the same two days before but there wasn’t a lot of time to look around and play tourist. 

We made a decision and hoped to pass the hut, climb the Amethystes Glacier to the chute I wanted to ski a few days before, the Couloir en Y on the Aiguille d’Argentiere.  I wanted to stand on the top of something and this seemed like a reasonable plan, except that we were starting about four hours too late. 

The guys had tired legs from a week of racing but everyone worked hard to move efficiently.  It was now four in the afternoon and standing at the foot of the couloir, we were startled by what appeared to be spindrift coursing through a twenty meter choke of ice and rock guarding the couloir proper.  We poked our heads into the fire and Teague ended up with a bloody lip. 

Regrouping, it seemed the debris was likely from a skier making their way down but with the recent warm temps we couldn’t be certain it wasn’t spontaneous.  Not giving a damn, Scott Simmons went for it in flimsy aluminum crampons.  Jason joined and they spotted a skier up high sending down the icy debris. 

We waited a bit longer until he was at the rap station before joining JD and Scott.  From there, we pressed upward in a firm boot track hoping to beat the sun and the impending freeze.  We had discussed a soft turn around time of five PM.  I suggested 5:30 and told the guys that as long as we made it to the hut by dark I could get us out since the exit was very straightforward and I’d done it two days before.  They were understandably skeptical given the “look” of the terrain. 

The couloir wasn’t too steep but it was steep enough.  The conditions weren’t too firm but in the shade, the surface was rapidly locking up.  Around twelve thousand feet, Teague suggested we turn around before the conditions became unnecessarily dangerous.  Tom agreed.  I tried to play devil’s advocate but couldn’t.  They were right and it was time.  I’d lost my second race of the day but declared victory anyway.  

We skied increasingly firm snow down to the rap station, side slipping or down booting the final ten feet.  A thirty meter rappel later and we were joyously gang skiing thousands of feet in the waning light.  With ears popping from the rapid descent we clinked poles and high fived as we crammed five stinky guys back into a small car already full of gear.   

Earlier that afternoon as we skied fast onto the glacier, away from the tram, I felt amazement at the collective psych of our group.  We were in a hurry to get somewhere, not knowing where, but going anyway.  Really, that "somewhere" was never an actual place.  It was the excitement of adventure, chasing my friends and the sun through wild mountains.  Those final hours of daylight were the best of my trip.  

I can't thank the guys enough for waiting for me to race that morning and then joining for the fun.  

Teague, Tom, Jason, and Scott
Teague nearing the hut

Jason has been the photographer of the group but I got a new camera and he's sharing his skills

After some discussion on the fly, we decided to go for this nice chute on the Aiguille d'Argentiere.  With luck, we thought we might be able to top out.

Jason and Scott

The bottom of a fun little rock/ice step guarding the couloir
I think Tom is happiest in the mountains
With icy debris pouring over the rock step, we hunkered down under this overhang to see if it was produced by a skier rather than the sun.  About to call it a day, a solo French skier moved into view.  Game on. 

Getting higher

Teague has an easy style that makes everything look chill. 

Tom and his damn black outfit

At least he has a green backpack and red gloves

Scott is a cowboy


Getting to the rap station

Teague rigging the rappel

Heading home


  1. Looks like you didn't squander any of your 'euro time.' What a great experience to visit a place where people can pronounce your last name correctly.