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Fresh snow and sunshine in Chamonix

Excellent conditions away from the pistes and more snow on the way

Featured in:

Graham Pinkerton | Chamonix Reporter | Published: 14 Feb 2018


Fresh snow and sunshine in Chamonix

After a December and January skiing trees and powder, February is usually the transition time where the snowpack is deep and safe enough to spend more time heading into the more entertaining parts of the high mountains around Chamonix.

With 2018 seeing snowfalls and snow depths rarely heard of in the last 30 years, conditions this season are excellent. But it's not all about quantity, quality counts too! Fortunately, right now the quality of the snow is also pretty high and, with Tuesday's sunny weather, you couldn't ask for a better combination for a day in the mountains.

The weekend weather forecasts suggested some light snow through Sunday into Monday, but Monday morning dawned with far more fresh than expected. Folks out early around resort got treated to a sleeper pow day and the lifting of the cloud later in the day gave great visibility too.

Tuesday dawned bright with perfect blue skies, freezing cold temperatures and a nice 30-40cm of fresh depending on where you skied. With the Aiguille du Midi lift expected to be very busy and requiring you to queue for a telecabine number, we headed to Brevent to ride a variation near the famous ENSA couloir. Reports from skiers who had skinned up from the Brevent ski area the previous day (the top Brevent lift was only open to pedestrians on Monday) centered on "deep" and a smiley face emoticon, so it must be good....

Unfortunately, the top bin was late opening and, with work commitments pressing, we cut our losses and headed over to the Col Cornu chairlift and a quick skin up the Aiguille Pourrie. Watching the first riders open up the Hotel face whilst we were stood on the summit did trigger a little hint of FOMO but, then again, we the only people up on our summit and happy with the solitude despite the half term "crowds".

After some jumping about on the end of a rope to test the slope, we skied one of the south facing lines from the summit on a mix of 15cm powder, old sun crust, and amazing untouched deep fresh snow. To summarise, steeper faces that get the sun will have had enough solar radiation to already be a little cooked and best left to the next spring snow cycle or more snowfall, whilst shallower angled faces won't have suffered so much and should only have a slight crust. Anything sheltered from the sun should stay light and fresh, giving great skiing until the temperature rises again, with the usual avalanche risk caveats.

Keen to stay away from anywhere with too many people in the afternoon, we headed up the Aiguille du Midi lift which was still requiring you to queue for a telecabine number reservations until about 13:30. Instead of heading up to the top, though, an existing skin track meant it was relatively little effort to get over to below the Aiguille l'M and ski yet more great snow in solitude. Who said half term means crowds?

Looking around the other areas of the Chamonix valley, the Pas du Chevre is seeing the most skiers it's had in years with some amazing looking snow on the upper parts, although no word on how the exit through the moraine to the Mer de Glace is. Riders were getting onto lots of other lines off the Aiguille du Midi today too, with the exception of the Rond glacier which has been "closed" for a few days whilst work is done on electrical cables near there.

How are conditions generally in the mountains just now? Two hot and dry years have left the glaciers in a bit of a sorry state. This winter's exceptional snowfalls have helped considerably, but bergshrunds and crevasses are still out there lurking and the recent north and west winds transporting the fresh snow have created several new, but weak, snow bridges. This wind has also worked the snow a little in places but, fortunately, away from the more exposed ridges and cols the snow remains deep and light.

Below about 2500m, the wind hasn't been as strong so there's been less of an impact there. The snow is generally great to ski on. However, as you get below 2000m the crust below the fresh snow starts to make itself a little more apparent. This is particularly noticeable on sunny aspects where tree skiing might look enticing but the 15cm or so of fresh snow sluffs quickly off the crusty layer below.

As ever this winter, the weather conditions aren't going to stay as they are for long. Thursday will see warmer and wetter weather sweep through the valley, with rain in town and the snow line fluctuating between 1000 and 1800m altitude. The next few days will likely see showers and above average temperatures with the sun occasionally breaking through the cloud before temperatures start to fall again and the weather settles down through the start of next week. There's not much confidence in the weather forecasts just now though, so taking each day as it comes and being ready to adapt plans is, as always, the best course of action.

This weather will make high-altitude skiing and touring a little less palatable for the next few days but will make for great snow conditions once the weather settles. With such a deep snowpack this season, the avalanche risk from each snowfall improves quickly but the risk is none the less always present. The snowpack is on the whole well bonded. However, the most recent snow, though relatively shallow compared to the depth of the older snow, hasn't bonded quite so well, sitting on a mix of icy sun crusts and surface hoar. The next snowfall will sit on top of this before the now buried layers fully have time to bond and, when combined with the fluctuating temperatures, will mean the risk of avalanche will rise over the next few days before it starts to fall again. 

Ski safely off-piste

Exploring beyond the ski resort boundaries is an amazing experience for anyone who's physically fit and has mastered the pistes well enough. There are, however, risks associated with venturing outside the safety of the marked/patrolled ski area, including awareness of your actions on those below you on the slopes. Mountain guides are professionally qualified and have extensive knowledge of the local terrain to provide you with the safest and most enjoyable possible experience in the mountains; as a visitor here we highly recommend you hire one. Many ski schools, and also mountain guides, provide instruction in off-piste skiing, avalanche safety and mountaineering techniques. Make your time in the mountains unforgettable for the right reasons, ski safe!