A Final fling
After a couple of weeks in the Oberland with some great days on the likes of the Wildstrubel and Wildhorn I thought my skiing had finished for the season. Then when visiting the Club Alpine Français (CAF) library in Paris I found there was a place in Jacques's group for a weekend in the Haute Maurrienne (Savoie) for the13 -14 May. Even better the objective was l'Albarron, a hill I'd wanted to ski since a trip to the same area some 9 years ago.
Maybe some words of explanation are needed here. Paris is a long way from the hills, and I've not been here very long so unlike back home in Scotland I can't just make a couple of phone calls and meet up with some friends a few minutes later for some skiing. One way of getting to the hills are the regular bus trips organised by CAF-Ile de France using "car couchettes" where (hopefully) you can sleep through the night and wake up in the Alps (Saturday) or Paris (Monday)and have 2 full days in the hills. However they tend to be very popular and getting a place isn't easy. After Scotland its all very organised with small groups and appointed leaders with a programme organised months ahead. Then comes the "problem" of having the "wrong" skis. Touring telemarkers are a rarity in the Alps and many of the group leaders assume I'll turn up on narrow edgeless track skis and be a liability. One such leader told me that telemark skis don't work on glaciers - maybe I should have argued but I decided that if that was her attitude I probably wouldn't enjoy a weekend in her company.
Anyway, Jacques doesn't have any such problems and has even been known to telemark on the piste from time to time.
Bus stops, I find my glasses and peer out the window and find we're in a small alpine village. No clouds and an azure sky, but I can't see any snow either. Remember Jacques said we were the 3rd group toget off the bus so try and go back to sleep.
Some time later we arrive in the small town of Lansleboug (Val de Cenis ski resort is here) and someone has arranged breakfast at a hotel - sometimes organisation has its benefits. Some snow now in sight and the road climbs quite a bit before we get to our stop.
Ten of us are dropped off after some debate about whether we're in the right place. Seems the driver is getting worried that there may not be another turning place on an already very narrow road. A glance at the map shows that we probably have an hour or two of walking before we get to the snow or the refuge but its still cool so we set off. All too soon the sun hits us and its difficult to believe we're here to ski but on we plod.
Then the Refuge d'Alverole comes into view, stuck on top of a prominent rocky knoll. Thirty minutes later we collapse onto the hut veranda and start to examine the snow cover. Looks like a good cover of spring snow starting 10 - 15 minutes walk from the hut (at about 2200m).
Some couple of hours later and I'm struggling uphill, feeling pretty shattered and not sure if its just tiredness or the altitude (by now we've climbed to 3000+ m). Along with most of the others I stop on a flattish area a little before the Col de la Bessancse (3238 m) for a bite to eat and a much needed drink. Others go on to the col, stop a few minutes and ski down to join us. They make the skiing look really easy but I remind myself that most of them have probably been skiing since childhood.
A bit later I make my first tentative turn, then wonder why I worried. Fantastic spring snow, soft on top and real fun. For once I can keep up, and even get complimented on my skiing "C'est genial le télémark, n'est pas" - only Jacques has seen anyone telemarking outside a ski resort before. Down we go, stopping every few hundred metres to regroup, admire the views and delight in our surroundings. Was it really only 24 hours since I was in one of the European Commission's offices in Brussels ? The contrast is difficult to comprehend.
Lower, the snow is softer, more like deep porridge and a narrow but easy angled gully slows us down a bit. Then there's just a rock strewn grassy slope leading to the hut a few minutes away. I guess its about two o'clock - plenty of time for a few beers and some sunbathing before dinner.
Sunday, very early
Someone's alarm goes off, I look at my watch - its 4.00 a.m. and decide I can stay horizontal a bit longer as we've ordered breakfast for 4.30. But once the other group we're sharing the room with start moving and packing sacs it's pretty obvious I won't sleep much more so start getting up. Wander outside and find its drizzling, no stars and the small patch of snow near the door hasn't frozen overnight. Other groups disappear into the damp night while we discuss options over a typical hut breakfast of milky coffee with bread and jam. We'd planned to climb l'Albarron and then ski down the Glacier du Grand Fond which is supposed to be a classic descent and before heliskiing was banned in France a regular heliskiing destination. But no one was too keen on a descent of a crevassed glacier in thick mist and a consensus emerged to go for the Ouille d'Arbéron (3560 m) instead. This has easy route finding and if it turned really bad we could just ski back down our tracks. At first light we shouldered sacs and quickly reached a ribbon of spring snow leading up into the mist. A couple of people are just ahead of us so we follow their tracks. All too soon we are enveloped by the mist, with only the occasional rocky outcrop, the other members of our group and the ski track to be seen. We carry on, sometimes zig-zagging up steeper sections, sometimes skinning straight up the fall line.
After a couple of hours we think we must be near a col where we need to change direction although with the obvious change in the weather we're a little doubtful of how accurate our altimeters are. A slight clearing to the west shows us that we are at the col so we head up a steepening slope, soon stopping to put on ski crampons as underneath a cm of fresh snow its hard névé.
A few hundred metres higher we reach a rock band with a 50° gully leading onto the summit ridge a few tens of metres above us. Visibility is a few metres and most of us decide this is our highpoint. Two guys change skis for crampons and head up towards the summit. Later they tell us they had to stop about 5m below the top as neither felt like climbing the delicate final mixed slope unroped.
Nervously, I was one of the first to set off downhill, expecting to be very slow with low visibility, flat lighting, a steep slope (25° +) and fresh snow over a hard base. However it wasn't bad and soon,to everyone's delight and amazement the sky cleared and the sun came out (the summit remained in the cloud though). The descent was even better than yesterdays. Somehow our group merged with 2 couples and we all skied down en masse. It was always easy to find untracked snow and steeps and gentle slopes followed in rapid succession until, all too soon, it was over.
All that remained was the walk out to our rendezvous with the bus and the trip back to Paris.
We later discovered from others who had traversed l'Albarron from the other side and then skied our proposed descent (they had fewer choices) that they remained in the cloud most of the day and had"difficult" snow on the descent. Seems we made the right choice.