Snow in the Western Alps
It has been an unusual autumn in terms of early season 'side-country' freeride skiing in the western Alps and Chamonix in particular. Chamonix local, Whitedot skier and Mountain Equipment photographer Mark gives us the lowdown on a mixed start to the season and an insight to the current snow conditions throughout some the biggest alpine resorts.
We had a couple of impressive storms that came through in early October which - although the temperatures were still in the high teens in the valley floor - came down as good snow on the high glaciers.
My first turns this winter were direct from the viewing gallery on Chamonix’s Aiguille du Midi arête. This pitch was exposed above a north-facing hanging glacier with an ominous 1000m drop below. Three very cautious turns later and then I switched southwards to relative safety of the upper bowl of the Glacier du Geant.
Early season snow clearing on the Aiguille.
High altitude ski touring at this time of year is great for packed powder and crevasse navigation (they are still fairly obvious at this time of year!) and it gave the team and a real buzz for the season ahead. In November we waited for patiently for the temperatures to drop and for the Atlantic depressions to bring the snowline down to valley floor. We had a while to wait, but in late November over a metre of snow fell in 24hrs, and the snow even reached the shores of Lake Geneva. Thereafter the temperatures fell further and skies cleared. Although we have had some great skiing since, this has been the last snowfall of any significance.
My ski touring this winter so far (apart from high altitude exploits in October) has been concentrated on the Grand Montets in Chamonix. Repeatedly 'schleping' up the front side the Grand Montets and then descending into the Argentiere Glacier in order to get some miles in the legs.
Ski Touring on the Glacier du Geant
The touring itself has been quite technical with hard windswept conditions meaning a track is not easily cut and ice slabs need balance and strength to maintain direction. The descents have really good (relatively speaking) and the compacted snow means that hazards are easily identified and avoided, while the ‘whoosh’ of short turns on 'icing sugar' hardpack brings huge satisfaction.
The cold, wind and altitude bring other factors into play which are not immediately obvious – hydration and fuelling being foremost. Secondly, making sure that appropriate layers are taken – a lightweight windproof and insulation layer are key.
Here is my personal take of conditions at the moment of places I have skied over the last few weeks, .noting that at last we have a change of weather coming in before Christmas.
Cervinia – always snow assured and well bashed. The mountain is open daily and cover is down to Plan Maison (2200m).
Tignes – Really good coverage and most of the mountain is open daily. The access across to Val D’Isere is in operation.
Courmayeur – Limited snow, but the artificial snow-making is excellent and they really pride themselves on maintaining an excellent track. Again open daily.
Les Contamines – The snow coverage (less for village access), is surprisingly good. It currently is closed during the week but open at weekends. Presumably saving the snow for Christmas week next week.
Chamonix – Most of the areas are open daily….just! It is very patchy in all bar Grand Montets and the valley population is doing snow dances hourly to help bring the weather on!
"The forecast over Christmas is looking very promising for a good dump of snow – fingers, toes and skis crossed!"