Skiing deep powder on the Plan d'Aiguille in Chamonix
My South African pal Alex arrived in town last night, and as always he has timed his visit perfectly for the Plan de l'Aiguille to come into excellent condition.
We had originally planned to take the train to Vallorcine to lap the Tete de Balme lift, but the train wasn't running that far (in addition to the road being closed), so the 'Plan' was a fine backup plan. We arrived at 9.30am to find there was a fair crowd and the numbered ticketing system was in effect (collect numbered cards for your group at the desk then wait for your number before joining the queue). With some lift issues we had a bit more of a wait until our number was called for our first lap, but on the next laps there was no queue and no tickets required.
Plan de l'Aiguille is the mid station of Chamonix famous Aiguille du Midi lift. Although the slopes aren't glaciated like those accessed from the top of the mountain, it's still serious terrain; un-pisted, unmarked, un-patrolled and mostly not avalanche-controlled. Experience, avalanche safety equipment & skills and/or the services of a high mountain guide are essential to ski here.
A surprising amount of skiers were going all the way to the top of the mountain on our first lap; definitely not what I would be interested in today with the current high avalanche risk and overcast weather, but it could be said that one of the nice things in Chamonix, is that you can pretty much do what you want once the lifts are open.
I know the skier's-right side of the Plan descent much better than the left, but my favourite stuff requires a long traverse on dangerous slopes, so we didn't fancy that today and stuck left for three laps instead. Although the left side doesn't have quite the same number of interesting rolls and pillows as the right, the access is easier and you get a bit more vertical descent.
Without too many tracks to be seen we went just a little left on the first lap and cruised down through the mellow gullies in a lovely 30-40cm of creamy powder with a few natural takeoffs to hit flat-out for some very long airs and excellent consistency of snow to land in.
To exit you need to join the summer walking track before making your way back to the 4x4 exit road. This is where the help of a guide or experienced friend really helps. And remember: following tracks is often not a safe plan, as we saw a few people going too low to make the easy exit! There was still a little walking required on the track to save our skis' bases, but once joining the 4x4 we kept our skis on all the way back to Grepon. We had just a little snow ploughing & sidestepping to do around rocks on the left split in the road (better cover than the right) and there was a fallen tree to hop over near the end.
For the next two laps we explored further left than we had in the past and were rewarded with more perfect powder in un-tracked gullies. The hard part was deciding whether to make long, fast turns all the way down or to hunt down some features for a bit of air, but it put a smile on our faces regardless.
Returning to the exit track required a bit of bushwhacking and sidestepping, but well worth the effort for the runs above. After all, we'd sometimes ski tour for hours uphill to ski that much un-tracked snow.
The snow lower down was getting a little warm on the last lap; still skiing well where it was untouched but hard work when some tight turns were required. Over the next two days things will really be warming up so pay attention to sunny & shaded aspects throughout the day to find the best snow and pay particular attention to any upcoming avalanche danger warnings.
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 / Mont Blanc Valley