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Searching for mythical beasts in Chamonix

Spring should mean spring snow, we go searching the Chamonix valley to try find it.

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Graham Pinkerton | Chamonix Reporter | Published: 12 Apr 2018


Searching for mythical beasts in Chamonix

In the dusty corners of Chamonix's old hotels,bars and cafes you can sometimes find a stuffed goat like animal. Closer inspection reveals the legs on one side of the beast are much shorter than the other.This is the fabled Dahu, a rarest of creatures, hunted by folk of yore in the Haute Savoie, and perfectly adapted for walking round the steep hillsides whilst keeping its upper body level.

We've been on a similarly challenging hunt this week, searching for that rarest of mythical snow-types. Corn. Also known as spring snow, April is usually prime hunting season. Your prey is most commonly found after a couple days of freeze/thaw cycle, with the best hunting grounds being early on east facing slopes, mid to late morning on the sunniest slopes and then in the afternoon on west facing aspects. This April's been anything but normal however, and instead we keep getting fresh snow, the start of a freeze/thaw cycle, then back to more fresh snow before the old snow's had the chance to fully transform.

Our search was over before it even began on Sunday. Our plan to ski a fine south facing line near the Midi telepherique was abandoned as the clouds rolled in from Italy and blocked much of the sun's softening warmth. Instead we skied the sheltered north east facing Couloir Capucin on the Aiguille du Tacul. The snow inside the couloir was still in pretty good condition, despite the freezing level having been quite high over the previous few days, and the bergshrund at the base of the couloir is well filled in, only requires a very small jump. The entrance to the couloir however does require some precarious down climbing to the abseil anchor. Exiting on the Vallee Blanche the snow cover is still good all the way to the Montenvers stairs, although there's many lumps of granite starting to poke through.

On Monday we had more luck. Heading to Brevent and Flegere, we started with a lap of Hotel Face. The slope is mostly east facing and gets direct sun early in the morning, but aspect is immaterial if the clouds roll back in and hide the sun. Again. Still, even if a bit firm in places, where the snow was smooth and unskied it was good until near the base of the face where the snow hadn't re-frozen overnight and we started to find heavy snow.

These conditions make for grand pistes, and we had a good cruise over to the Floria draglift on a mix of the Brevent and Flegere runs, all of which were virtually empty. It turned out the top of Floria was a little too high and the snow was still bone shakingly firm, but after rattling down a few hundred meters we were treated to some great skiing on actual spring snow until about 100m above the Trappe chairlift where the snow abruptly turned to porridge. There's lots of snow cover up there so the skiing at Flegere should be good right up to the closing on the 22nd

As has been the story for most of the winter, it then snowed again. It wasn't the biggest dump of the season by any means, but it was enough to give the few folk who headed to the top of Grands Montets on Tuesday some fun turns high up. We got especially lucky on one lap where the clouds parted, illuminating a line of untouched fresh snow all the way down the front face to the top of the Herse chairlift. Far too good a moment to waste taking photos of.

A sunny start to Wednesday will have helped with the transforming of this fresh snow to corn snow in the high mountains, but with the Midi not opening due to high winds no one got to enjoy it in its pre-transformed state. Instead we headed down to Les Houches to have a cruise about the pistes before it closes on the 15th April. The pistes there are starting to suffer a bit in the spring warmth, and the lower runs have several bare patches fenced off, but there's still plenty of snow to see out the season. Higher up the hill you can enjoy the empty runs and put your late season legs to the test with fast laps thanks to the complete lack of queues for the lifts.

Is the corn hunting season going to continue, or is the weather going to shut us down with a famine of spring snow fun?

Well, "cloudy with sunny spells" is the key phrase to describe the next 5 days weather, and likely beyond too. There'll possibly be the occasional shower, but nothing particularly substantial is currently showing on the weather charts. The temperatures will likely be a little above seasonal average, raised by intermittent foehn wind too. These warmer temperatures will help with the crucial freeze/thaw cycle the snow needs to go through to get the touring conditions so many people are searching for, however the freeze part of the cycle is just as important and the freezing level is unlikely to drop much below 2000m overnight. Above that however we should start to see the snow transform. 

The season might be starting to wind down, but there's plenty of skiing to be done yet, see you on the slopes.