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Fantastic conditions in the Argentiere Basin's Barbey Couloir

Steep, powdery north-facing ski touring in perfect weather

Temperatures have remained fairly high for the past two weeks in the Chamonix Valley, dipping slightly on Saturday/Sunday when a storm brought rain to the valley and a top up of snow up high. 

With blue skies forecast for Monday and my friend Alex heading home on Tuesday, we wanted to get a nice big ski tour to somewhere high and north-facing to hopefully find good snow, deciding on the Barbey Couloir on the NE side of the Aiguille d'Argentiere.

Sunday morning's clock change effectively gave us an extra hour of cool morning temperatures to play with but we still wanted to be pretty quick to avoid some potentially dangerous slopes catching a lot of sun in the afternoon.  

So from early lifts at Grands Montets we were up to the top of the mountain and down onto the glacier, taking the high traverse track that was in place much higher than I've ever seen it before, to save a little work getting to the bottom of our ascent route.

Skins on, we started the 1200m ascent up the Aiguille d'Argentiere's Milieu Glacier with just one group of four ahead of us and fairly cool temperatures.  

Having been up this route for a different descent about a month ago I knew that it should take us about three hours at our pace, which made it easy to track our progress and keep motivated - Graham especially, who was in the grips of a bug that's going around at the moment but battling through it. The track was a little firm and slippy in places but I didn't feel the need to attach couteaux, although Alex had his on for most of the ascent. Halfway up we passed the group ahead while stopped for a break - some nice Montana residents out enjoying the best weeks of this winter in Chamonix - and continued ahead ourselves on the faint skintrack visible from the previous day's traffic.

Two-thirds of the way up we reached the bergschrund, after which the slope steepens significantly and a switching to boot crampons is required ... if I had remembered to pack mine. Thankfully this wasn't much of a problem as the snow was soft enough to keep good footing in with my touring boot soles, following my two partners who were setting a new track on the previous afternoon's avalanche slide path.  

Still, I was glad to have my backup shovel/axe attachment for a little extra security with both hands. The American group caught up just halfway up the bootpack and kindly took over the lead for us right when the altitude started hitting us, all the way to the col for a little break before the descent while taking in the classic big mountain views at 3900m.

The Barbey Couloir leads off the back of the Argentiere on a NE aspect towards Switzerland and is fairly steep and committing at a little over 45 degrees at the top, mellowing slightly halfway down.  

The entrance is often corniced, but we found a safe step-in entrance to take cautiously on some quite firm snow with some nasty ice lurking. Thankfully this didn't last long and the snow felt grippy enough to jump-turn confidently though a narrow rock choke leading down the main descent.

The Barbey isn't a classic narrow, high-walled couloir, more of a face similar to the classic Cosmiques Couloir, and looked to be holding prefect boot-top powder the rest of the way down. Being the first group on the route since the recent snowfall, I took a few cautious turns as the snow got deeper but once we felt confident of the snow's stability we could open it up a little and make some longer, faster turns.  

From halfway down we could really get into a nice rhythm on the steep face to enjoy the weightless feeling from turn to turn; that feeling that we live for as skiers and definitely one of the highlights of the winter for me.

To exit the route we needed to swing around the base of the Chardonnet to the left, but on this aspect and elevation the snow rapidly got very soft and heavy. So from a safe spot we decided to have a good rest before skiing a very long pitch one-by-one so as not to stop in any dangerous spots. I was skiing first and did trigger a few small, slow-moving, slushy slides - something to keep us on our toes, but never anything we felt would take us for a ride. Around the corner the Col de Chardonnet came into sight and it was time for another ascent of around 450m.

By the time we reached the base of the final steep bootpack, my legs were a little tired and I was generally very fatigued from the long day, but stomped up the bootpack quickly anyway; one axe and no crampons for all of us, although at the final firm, steep section I would have liked crampons and/or two axes after all.

We had another short break at the col and started skiing back towards the Argentiere Glacier at 4.30pm, in nice soft spring corn, surprisingly not feeling too soft and slushy even with the very warm temperatures (I didn't even put my jacket & gloves on for the descent). Back around at Grands Montets resort's midstation the Pierre a Ric home run piste was a different story altogether: the biggest, slushiest moguls I've skied in a long time!  Luckily the lifts were now closed so there weren't many skiers on the piste.  

With fresh legs and heavy alpine skis this would have been a really fun run to smash through at high speed, but with 1650m in our legs, lightweight gear and heavy packs it was a sensibly slow descent, with me trying to ski the bumps with good form even if I did need to take a couple of breaks along the way!

Celebratory beers in the sunny car park bar finished off probably my most memorable day of the winter, and definitely one of the best ski tours I've ever done. Big thanks to my partners Graham & Alex for sharing the day with me.


Follow more from Lorne in his ski blog.  


NB: Off piste skiing and mountaineering are dangerous. The opinions expressed in these articles are very much time and condition specific and the content is not intended in any way to be a substitute for hiring a mountain guide, undergoing professional mountaineering training and/or the individual's own back country decision making.


Location: Chamonix - Argentiere


Services

Activities: Ski Touring



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